Archive for February, 2009

Uxmal & Mexico’s Yucatán


After waking up early to the sounds of what might possibly be the loudest hostel in Mérida, or all of Mexico for that matter, we headed about an hour south of the city to the ruins of Uxmal.  Once the capital of an ancient Maya civilization located in the Yucatán’s Puuc region, Uxmal flourished from 600-900 A.D.  It’s puuc-style architecture features many intricate carvings and geometric mosaics.  Stucco masks depicting the rain god Chac adorn many of the buildings, not surprising given the scarcity of water in this region.  It is speculated that these severe drought conditions led to the abandonment of the site around 900 A.D.  Today, Uxmal is home to a population of enormous iguanas, some nearly the size of a small dog.  They’re everywhere, sunning themselves on the ancient structures and it’s possible to get within a few feet of the giant creatures before they retreat back into hiding.

Unlike many of the ruins we have visited, Uxmal has some very modern facilities, several gift shops, fancy hotels, restaurants and even a gormet coffee stand on site.  I almost fell over when the can of soda I asked for cost twenty pesos.  Not to mention the high cost of admission and the fact that bus travel in the region can be as much as two or three times the cost of a similar ride in Oaxaca or Chiapas.  Tourism is big business in the Yucatán and this region of Mexico is much different from the Mexico to which I had become accustomed.  Absent are the packs of homeless dogs, there aren’t children working in the streets or begging for money, buildings are free of grafitti, no one is protesting anything and I can hardly remember what it’s like to be awoken by the sound of firecrackers at 4 a.m.  Instead fancy tour buses make brief stops at all of the attractions, officers are on hand to assure everyone makes it across the streets safely and everyone speaks a little bit of English (or at least they claim that they do).

Travel is expensive in the Yucatán and apparently many Mexicans cannot afford the higher costs.  Unfortunately, in our experience so far, it’s primarily foreigners marveling at Mexico’s most impressive sights.  Besides the site employees, Carlos was the only Mexican national at Uxmal and he’s been the only Mexican on several of the buses we’ve taken.  Back in Mérida our hostel bed is costing us nearly 50% more than what we’re used to paying for a hotel room with a private bath and cable TV.  Most of the other backpackers that have come through our hostel seem to do as we are doing and pass through this region of the country relatively quickly.  In fact, the majority of people packed up and took the first bus out of the city as soon as Carnaval ended.



Mexico’s largest celebrations of Carnaval take place in the cities of Mazatlán, Mérida and Veracruz.  Our arrival in Mérida at the start of the festivities was purely accidental.  The fact that Mérida is host to the largest celebration in the Yucatán Peninsula complete with parades, street festivals, open-air concerts and lots of parties caught us completely by surprise.  It turned out to be such a fun week and we couldn’t have hoped for a better introduction to the city!



After a whirlwind couple of days in Palenque we headed north on our way to Mérida, making a brief stop in the colonial-era city of Campeche for a little rest and relaxation.  Situated right on the waterfront, Campeche is a pretty place and a perfect example of a typical colonial-era Spanish harbor town.   Its historic center remains surrounded by a 2.5km hexagon of bulwarks.  Every building is painted a bright shade of pastel and trimmed in white.  Campeche’s beautiful central plaza and palm-lined pedestrian pathway, or malecón, stretching along the coast are sources of pride for Campechanos and the city was designated a unesco world heritage site in 1999.



One of the great Maya cities of the Classic period, Palenque flourished from around 500 to 700 A.D. before being abandoned around 900 A.D.  Located in one of the rainiest areas of Mexico the ruins were quickly overgrown and hid from the outside world for centuries.  With the exception of the central plaza, much of the 15 square kilometer site has yet to be completely uncovered.  Palenque’s dense jungle setting, waterfalls, streams and surrounding hills form an impressive backdrop to the exquisite architecture.  Declared a unesco world heritage site in 1987, Palenque is one of the marvels of Mexico and attracts thousands of visitors each day.



In a dense jungle setting, far from roads on the bank of the Usumacinta River is the ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilán.  To reach the ruins from Palenque requires 173 km of overland travel and an additional 22 km by boat. 

lanchasWe boarded one of the lanchas pictured here at the Frontera Corozal embarcadero and began our 40 minute ride up the Usumacinta, which also serves as the border between Mexico and Guatemala and has afforded us our first views of Mexico’s neighbor to the south. 

One of the most important Classic Mayan cities in the Usumacinta region, Yaxchilán was settled prior to 250 A.D., peaked in power and importance between 681 and 800 A.D. and was abandoned shrortly thereafter.

monkeysThe highlight of the day was arriving to find a jungle full of howler monkeys and spider monkeys swinging from branch to branch in the trees above.  There were even a few mama monkeys carrying babies on their backs.



Set deep in the Lacandón jungle, 148 km southeast of Palenque, Bonampak was never a major city and spent most of the Classic Period under Yaxchilán’s influence. 


Hid from the outside world until the 1940’s, Bonampak has since gained fame for its astonishing and brightly colored murals found inside the Temple de las Pinturas.  These murals have also helped to give Bonampak its name which translates to ‘Painted Walls’ in Yucatecan Maya.

Agua Azul

agua azul

This spectacular water attraction is located at the halfway point between Ocosingo and Palenque.  Surrounded by jungle, it’s made up of a series of waterfalls that cascade into pools of brilliant blue and turquoise waters.  A cleared walkway enables visitors to follow the falls up the hillside and through the jungle for more than a kilometer.  Despite the fact that swimming in the falls is not encouraged, it remains a popular activity and there are some beautiful swimming spots with amazing views of the falls below, especially toward the top of the hillside.  Agua Azul is located in Zapatista territory, made apparent by the fact that we were required to pay two entrance fees, one at a makeshift roadblock a kilometer or so before the site entrance and the other as we entered the site itself.  We visited on a day tour from Palenque stopping at Misol-Ha as well, and fortunately our driver handled all of the fees and logistics for the group leaving us with little to do but take in the sights and enjoy the ride.