Monthly Archives: May 2013

UNESCO Sites And Roaming In Mexico

The bus climbed mountains with narrow, two-lane, winding S and U-turn roads and the weather changed from lovely sunny and warm to chill, gray, drizzly rain. The landscape changed from low scrub jungle to thick jungle to high mountain pine forest. There were deep ravines out our windows filled with fog and clouds.San Cristobal de Las Casas After a sixteen hour journey we reached San Cristobal de las Casas, located 7,000 feet up in the rugged mountains of the state of Chiapas.

Stairway to Heaven-La Iglesia de Guadalupe

Stairway to Heaven-La Iglesia de Guadalupe

San Cristobal has been designated a Pueblo Magico (Magical Village) by Mexico’s Tourism Bureau.  It is a city of stunning picturesque beauty, colonial architecture and both ancient and recent history as well as the cultural center of the region.

Templo Santa Domingo at Parque Central

Templo Santa Domingo at Parque Central

The city is near the epicenter of the Zapatista uprising in 1994 and the Palacio, in the center of the city, still bears the scars of the insurrection. Churches are in abundance as are men and women in traditional dress.

El Hospital de Maya

El Hospital de Maya

Chamula, a mountain village above San Cristobal, is the political center of the Zapatista movement. The Mayan hospital in Chamula, housed in the now defunct Catholic church San Juan de Batista, provides traditional Mayan healing. A deep carpet of fresh pine needles covers the floor where thousands of candles and censors of incense burn, filling the air with scents and sights foreign to our ears. The healers lend their own blend of sounds with softly breathed rituals, chants, songs and sacrifices. Many of the shaman use a sugar cane based form of white lighting and it is consumed openly in the hospital. The healing occurs 24 x 7 here in Chamula.

After a few days in San Cristobal, we carefully wound our way back down the mountains to the Mayan ruins of Palenque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, further north in the state of Chiapas.Overlook The ruins are set on a high plateau in the jungle, expansive and impressive.Temple of the Inscriptions

The Tower - a rare four-story structure

The Tower – a rare four-story structure

Running through this exquisite site is the Otulum River, quite unique in Mayan sites.Waterfall at Palenque The Rio Otulum was channeled in a stone-lined aqueduct for flood control and was the source of the city’s water.The path from the ruins to the museum leads through the jungle following the Rio Otulum past a series of waterfalls.  On the trail appear smaller ruins which were the residences for the queen and her court. It was here we had our first memorable encounter with howler monkeys.

We would not recommend Villahermosa, Tabasco to the casual traveler but we spent three days in the area to visit La Venta and nearby Comalcalco.

The Old Warrier

The Old Warrier

La Venta is a park dedicated to the Olmec statuary saved from oil development elsewhere in Tabasco and transferred to the site.

Triumphal Altar

Triumphal Altar

Monkey looking at the sky

Monkey looking at the sky

The pieces there are examples of the colossal heads, free-standing sculptures and altars dating from 700-400 BC with some older pieces from 1200-900 BC. The Olmec society predated the Mayan and Aztecan civilizations. They practiced ritualized blood-letting although there is no evidence of human sacrifice. They also introduced the Meso-American ball game which was adopted by both the Mayan and Aztecan peoples.

A short, hour collectivo ride brought us to Comalcalco, the most western of the Mayan sites. Comalcalco is also the only site built of red brick as there is no limestone in the Tabasco coastal area.

Temple I

Temple I

Comalcalco is not as visually stunning as the massive limestone ruins of Palenque, Chichen-Itza’ and Uxmal but considering the time and effort involved in the making of each individual brick- the site is mind-boggling.North Group The mortar was made of clam shell and these also had to be harvested and brought to the area from the coast and then processed into mortar. The scale of the human labor is staggering. These obscure ruins are worth the visit.

Campeche, the walled city, sits on the western edge of the Yucatan Peninsula.Walls and gates The city was a favorite target of pirates and buccaneers for years until the crown assented to the building of the bastions, gates and walls to protect the port and it residents. wallsThe city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site reflecting the fact that most the bastions and gates and parts of the original walls remain. The original city was surrounded by barrios San Francisco, Guadalupe and San Ramon, for the indigenous peoples, and the original churches of these barrios remain incorporated into new neighborhoods.

La Cathedral de la Concepcion

La Cathedral de la Concepcion

We finished our Mexico travels back in the Yucatan at the sleepy beach village of Puerto Morelos, midway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, an easy hop by collectivo, up and down the coast. It is one of those places where low tide can be the high point of the day, but a good place to rest and relax. One morning, after a couple of bus transfers, we were on our way to Guatemala.

By Anita and Richard, May, 2013

By Bus to Merida, Chichen-Itza, Uxmal and “The Yellow City”

Here in Antigua, Guatemala, the buses have names; Esmeralda, Carolina, Johanna, Camelia, Dulce.  They are the old, reliable Blue Bird school buses given a second, and this time glamorous, life. Painted by fanciful artists, arrayed with chrome, pampered and shined these queens are… the Chicken Buses: the crowded but cheap system for local travel. There are other ways to get around (rental cars, taxis and private shuttles) but, for our money, the chicken buses win hands down as some of the most entertaining transportation.

A tricked-out chicken bus

A tricked-out chicken bus

In Mexico, the bus system, while not as colorful, is reliable, convenient and very affordable and ranges from luxury and 1st class buses to the more local 2nd class buses and collectivos or combi-vans. The 1st class buses have assigned seats, restrooms at the back and televisions which tend to play movies at full volume. The 2nd class buses lack restrooms and seats aren’t assigned but they are clean and very orderly. However, if the people are there, the drivers just keep filling the bus long after all the seats are gone so that to get on or off a rider kind of “surfs” their way through the crowd, fitting themselves (very politely) around the various bodies. We’ve been using a combination of combi-vans, (12-15 person vans), buses (1st and 2nd class) and a few times taxis. Everywhere else we walk.Paseo de Montejo intersection

We arrived in Merida, in the state of Yucatan, Mexico, on December 30th, after a 4 hour bus trip from Playa del Carmen.  This was our first time staying at a B & B and it was such a great experience that we’ll continue to use other B & B’s and hostels as we travel.

El Ave Blanca B and B

El Ave Blanca B and B

Originally we had thought that we’d be sacrificing some of our treasured privacy but instead we met many new people, made several friends, and exchanged stories and travel information. Far from feeling isolated and disconnected from home, we’ve felt our world expand as we meet and make new friends.

East side of the Grand PlazaMerida, Mexico is a beautiful colonial city that was founded in the 1540’s and has an historic central area filled with museums, art exhibits and markets.

Casa Montejo and a graphic illustration of the Spaniards conquering the Maya

Casa Montejo and a graphic illustration of the Spaniards conquering the Maya

There are numerous plazas for people-watching and an enormous mercado that assaults you with smells, noise, the frantic hustle and pushing of crowds of people plus restaurants with awesome, traditional Yucatecan food.Street Scene One of our favorite things about Merida was the glimpse behind plain, unassuming facades into the colonial homes. Some interiors are original but many houses have been bought and renovated by expats into one of-a-kind gems. After a tour of several of these homes we were even entertaining the idea of making one of these our own (this after a year of getting rid of all our stuff!).

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

We could have kept ourselves entertained for months in Merida but the area around Merida is also filled with fascinating ruins  including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Uxmal and Chichen-Itza.

The iconic El Castillo at Chichen-Itza

The iconic El Castillo at Chichen-Itza

Temple of the Pillars - Chichen-Itza

Temple of the Pillars – Chichen-Itza

The "Nunnery" at Chichen-itza

The “Nunnery” at Chichen-itza

Also near Merida is the colonial city of Izamal, called “the Yellow City”. Izamal, which dates from the mid-1500’s, has the distinction of having its main plazas surrounded by buildings painted a cheerful, bright yellow and was designated by Mexico in 2002, a “Pueblo Magico” because of its great charm.

Izamel - The Convent of St Antonio de Pauda

Izamel – The Convent of St Antonio de Pauda

??????????????? And last, but not least, there is the fast-growing “Progresso coast”, an ex-pat haven radiating from the port city of Progresso thirty miles north of Merida on the Gulf of Mexico.

By Richard and Anita, May, 2013

A New Life: Playing Tourists in the Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan

We spent the last of September and the month of October settling into Playa del Carmen.  This time was also a come-to-Jesus moment as we both adjusted to the reality that we really had started a new life!  Although we had looked forward to and eagerly anticipated this radical change we needed some time to fully absorb it.  We took some Spanish lessons, learned our way around the town, became acquainted with the several grocery stores nearby, walked the beaches and played tourists.  Tulum

December 21st, 2012 was the much hyped end of the Mayan long count calendar and we spent some time learning about this fascinating culture.  We’d first visited the stunning Mayan ruins of Tulum located next to the Caribbean Sea in 2000 and were just as awed on our second visit. There had been quite a few changes in the intervening years mostly aimed at preservation.Tulum

TulumWe were no longer able to climb the ruins and walking pathways were distinctly marked and edged by rocks.  The little town of Tulum that we remembered had grown into a full-fledged tourist mecca with time-shares, beach resorts and high-rise hotels lining the once quiet and pristine beaches, competing with its neighbors Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

We took the opportunity to visit another lesser known Mayan ruin named Coba a couple of hours away from Playa del Carmen heading towards the interior.Coba

Only a small portion of the Mayan site has been cleared from the jungle but the temple pyramids that have been restored are enormous and impressive including the Ancient Pyramid, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan peninsula at 131 feet. Coba

Unlike Tulum, the public is still allowed to climb the ruins and ascending the Ancient Pyramid resulted in a panoramic view of the temples breaking through the jungle canopy.Coba

However, descending was a frightening experience and was done very slowly…

We were frantically busy with a  four-week  CELTA  (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) class in Playa del Carmen during November and it wasn’t until the beginning of December that we had time once again to put on our traveling shoes and visit the colonial city of Valladolid inland in the state of Yucatan.Valladolid

Designated a Pueblo Magico (Magic City) by the Mexican tourism department  because of its charm and historical relevance, it was founded in 1545 by the Spanish and built on top of the Mayan town Zaci with recycled stones from the demolished Mayan structures.Valladolid

The city lived up to its reputation and we fell in love with both the colonial architecture of the buildings, the Parque Central where we could sit and people watch as well as the many impressive churches scattered around its environs.Valladolid

Near the center of the town was the Cenote Zaci, a sinkhole filled with fresh water which was tranquil, stunningly beautiful and refreshingly cool in the heat of the day.

The Mayan site of Ek’ Balam (Black Jaguar) was fairly close to Valladolid so we joined a tour group to see these Mayan ruins that were partially excavated in 1997 from the dense jungle and, because the much more famous ruins of Chichen-Itza are nearby, don’t attract the hordes of tourists.Ek' Balam

Ek' BalamHere again, we were allowed to climb and clamber over the ruins and peer into the doorways which made us feel like explorers ourselves. Ek' Balam

One of our favorite structures was the temple called The Throne whose doorway is in the shape of a mouth (possibly depicting a jaguar) with great enormous teeth.

We also visited some of the natural beauties of the Yucatan during this time.Rio Lagartos

While in the area of Valladolid we toured Rio Lagartos, a fresh water estuary that entered into the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the plethora of large birds such as white and brown pelicans, herons, egrets and osprey we saw an enormous flock of the brilliantly pink flamingos feeding in the early morning sunlight.Rio Lagartos

Up river we saw numerous crocodiles sunning on deadwood before slipping into the water at our approach and we finished off our excursion with a visit to the Mayan Mud baths where we engaged in a bit of dirty fun by smearing clay all over ourselves.Clay at Rio Lagartos

Returning to Tulum again we visited part of the massive Sian Ka’an Bio-reserve, itself an UNESCO Natural Heritage site with a small sanctuary for manatees.Mangroves

Touring though the mangrove swamps was interrupted by time on a deserted beach on the Caribbean Sea, a visit to the small Mayan settlement of Muyil located within the confines of the park and accessible only by boat, and a lunch huddled under a large mango tree during a warm cloud burst. Muyil

And with all that behind us, we lightened our load, jettisoned one small suitcase each and prepared to take to the roads to begin our adventure.

By Anita and Richard, May, 2013

 

Transitioning from Tourist to Traveler

Palm trees and the CaribeanWe arrived in Cancun on September 19th and found a bus to take us to Playa del Carmen. We started out our travels in the Yucatan Peninsula because we’d been in the area before and thought that it would be a gentle way to reintroduce ourselves to Mexico, easing into the life of travel slowly, and avoiding full-out culture shock.Picturesque church Playa is small enough that it’s easy to get around on foot and the main industry is tourism so we figured we could get by in English while trying to improve our rudimentary Spanish. We also planned on attending a month-long program beginning in November that would provide us with international certification to teach English as a second language.Successful fishing trip Playa del Carmen, like so much of the “Mayan Riviera”, had undergone a radical change. When we first visited the area in ‘94 the pier for the ferry to Cozumel was the big draw with a small fishing village surrounding it.Downtown In 2001, it had grown and was worth a day trip for shopping and drinking when we vacationed in nearby Akumal. Now, it’s approximately 120,000 people and, in a few more years, it will be another Cancun.colorful building The beaches are populated with high rise hotels and pricey condo/timeshares. Tulum and Akumal, small, quiet towns a few years ago, are also growing rapidly with luxury hotels, private homes, boutique stores and more developments on the drawing board. La Casa VerdeWe found a third floor walkup, furnished studio apartment, La Casa Verde: safe and secure, inexpensive and clean. The apartment was in a mixed neighborhood of apartments, condos and small businesses. With a four block walk to the Caribbean, the rent was a great deal at $400/month. There were several markets nearby with a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, our “at home” diet, along with bread, cheese, and yogurt. However, within a few weeks of sampling the local restaurants we found that we would need to adjust some of our eating habits and remember that this was a new lifestyle rather than a vacation; our clothes were getting a bit tight…2012-09-29 12.20.22 (800x600) A few differences that we took note of between Mexico and the US cultures: milk comes in cartons and is not refrigerated until open; neither are eggs. Pictures can be deceiving. We bought what we thought was blackberry yogurt and discovered, once it hit our mouths, that it was prune. Ciruela Pasa sounds melodious but the taste…glgh! A typical Mexican kitchen does not have hot water at the sink. Toilet paper goes in the waste basket not the toilet bowl (small sewer pipes). A computer keyboard has a few different keys and lacks the @ sign. A lot of people keep roosters in their backyard which crow early in the morning but also at other intervals around the clock. The church bells ring at all hours.

Car with loudspeaker for blaring advertisements

Car with loudspeaker

There are a lot of cars with loudspeakers mounted on top advertising miscellaneous deals which cruise slowly up and down the streets blaring out various deals and music.Playa del Carmen The Caribbean is much more beautiful when compared to the Gulf of Mexico. I think we’re going to like discovering more differences…!

IN THE BEGINNING…

We lived in a water front home on the canals of north Padre Island. The island is located over the causeway from Corpus Christi, TX. It’s a beautiful place to live and retire. The house was on the Laguna Madre, the west side, and the Gulf of Mexico, the east side, was about a mile distant. The National Seashore – a massive national park dominated the north –central part of the island and provided excellent recreational opportunities. We planned on retiring there.

P1000020

The economy, politics and business decisions beyond my pay grade had led me to early retirement. That did not pose too great a problem. I was busy with volunteer activities, beach combing and my island fellowship gang. Anita was a hospital pharmacist working with people she enjoyed. We had family and friends, the beach, water toys; things were good.

Somewhere along the line, in between Anita’s job becoming less satisfying and more frustrating and my growing restlessness, we agreed upon a new option for the future. We decided that we would travel. There was more to it than that, but that was the essence of it. We would travel with no clear end game, no ultimate destination, no place to which we must ultimately return.

This idea did not arrive fully developed. Anita researched it for several months – in stealth mode – before she broached the subject with me. I wrestled with the notion of possessions and how we could keep the “the really good stuff”. We both considered the option of being teachers of English as a Second Language while we travelled. But in our minds, we began to envision an alternative to our previously anticipated retirement years.

We began in August 2011 and started making up lists of what needed to be done.  We went through two garage sales, endless Craig’s list postings, shipping treasured items across country to new homes, etc. We finally got our stuff down to what we would need to travel.  We put our finances in order, leased the house long-term (still waiting for the real estate market to recover), arranged  for worldwide health insurance, addressed issues of taxes, voting, medical records, and especially, how to stay in touch with all those who are important to us.

P1000047

We left our island home on September 11, 2012. The cars were loaded to the gills with “stuff”, but all of that was destined for our son in Colorado. We drove to Longmont, Colorado, left the vehicles with all that remained of our worldly goods and said our goodbyes to family.  On September 19th we took off from the Denver International Airport for Mexico. We took with us two laptops loaded with all our photos, scanned copies of documents and other important information , two kindle e-readers with extensive libraries,  two cameras, and two suitcases each.

We have no set itinerary or schedule.  We plan to not plan and follow opportunities and interests at our own pace.  In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose”.