Tag Archives: Mayan Ruins

Buried Under Volcanic Ash: El Salvador’s Pompeii

The shaman's abode

The shaman’s abode

Sometime during the day around 590 AD there was a cloud of noxious gas which accompanied an eruption of the Loma Caldera Volcano in what is now western El Salvador. The warning gave the people time to flee, leaving behind the possessions that marked the lives of the common Mayan people of that time. The eruptions covered the village with up to 16 feet of volcanic ash.

A home of wattle and  daub construction (background of volcanic ash layers)

A home of wattle and daub construction (background of volcanic ash layers)

Often referred to as the “Mesoamerican Pompeii”, Joya de Cere’n was first discovered in 1976 during a construction project. Because it showed the daily life of the laboring, non-noble Mayan population in starkly preserved details, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 – the only designated site in El Salvador.

A storage building - layers of ash in the door entrance

A storage building – layers of ash in the door entrance

Currently, there are 14 wattle and daub buildings that are displayed at the ruins, with up to 70 more awaiting funding for excavation.

Family site - garden areas are in the foreground center and right of the habitation with the kitchen in the background.

Family site – garden areas are in the foreground center and right of the habitation with the kitchen in the background.

Found at the group of structures, and shown at the museum, were pottery vessels for storing and preparing foods, tools for daily use, sleeping mats and worked and bulk obsidian objects.  It is an insight into the ancient Mayan people that none of the magnificent temples, towering pyramids or awe-inspiring glyphs can portray.

We had come to El Salvador for a few days because, in Anita’s words, “we were jonesing for a beach” – and that was a fact. The coast of El Salvador is renowned for its world-class surfing venues and, El Tunco, in the La Libertad department (similar to a province or state) where we stayed was peopled with young, bronzed, buffed males wearing flip-flops and surfing shorts and a small number of beach beauties in as little as possible. (As an aside, picture us, two retired expats fighting both time and gravity and modestly clad… definitely the odd-beings out!)El Tunco black sand beaches

The black sands and rocky beaches, the crashing waves and foaming surf, the swaying palms and the heavy, humid air were a startling contrast to Antigua and the highlands of Guatemala.

We fell into the habit of visiting the beach early in the morning with our blended fruit drink breakfasts in hand. At that time, the beach was nearly deserted, save for a handful surfers sitting astride their boards two breakers out and a few early morning joggers trying to run the cleared area of the beach before the rocks defeated them.Early morning at El Tunco

Watching the huge waves was hypnotic as was listening to the rocks tumble along the shore as the surf washed in and receded. We’d bob about in the waves until we’d been up-ended a sufficient number of times then resume our wave watching. Eventually we’d head back to the hostel for a cold water shower (no hot water again but that wasn’t an issue with the heat) followed by a late brunch or lunch over-looking the beach and an afternoon of lounging comfortably reading a good book. Life is demanding at times…

Large rock formation (greatly reduced in size since it was used  for bombing practice during the civil war in El Salvador)

Large rock formation (greatly reduced in size since it was used for bombing practice during the civil war in El Salvador)

By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

The Mayan Ruins in Copan, Honduras

Scarlet MacawsStanding on the edge of the green expanse which is the Gran Plaza it was impossible not to witness the scarlet macaws as they flew overhead. If their colors, the brilliant reds with patches of vibrant blue, were not enough, the raucous calls forced them to the fore-front of our attention. The scarlet macaw, recently reintroduced to the area, was a sacred bird for the ancient Maya and images of the macaw are found throughout the Copan ruins.

Birds NestsIn the background we could hear the howler monkeys roar occasionally and, as we walked about the plaza, we saw the unusual and very bizarre nests of the Montezuma Oropendola (thanks Google for helping us identify this Dr. Seuss-like bird!).

A Stelae in the Gran Plaza

A Stelae in the Gran Plaza

The ruins of Copan, in far western Honduras near the Guatemalan border, have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. The expansive ruins offer an impressive number of stelae (tall columns carved on all four sides), altars, relief statuary and hieroglyphic writings. While the ruins are compact in size we spent several hours walking and climbing the groupings at the Gran Plaza and the East and West Courts of the Acropolis, with the ball court and hieroglyphic staircase in between.

Mayan Ballcourt at CopanThe ball court was unique in that the hoops we had seen displayed at other Mayan ruins (such as Chichen-Itza) were replaced by macaw heads.  It is believed that the stone heads were the targets to be struck by the rubber ball. Site archeologists have discovered several iterations of the macaw heads from the successive ball courts at the Copan site.Macaw head

Copan also has the most impressive on site museum that we’ve seen with numerous artifacts from the site preserved for site visitors rather than being housed in the national museums. The center piece was a full-scale reproduction of a sixth century temple, La Rosalila, which had been buried intact  within the Acropolis. Because we had spent so long wandering the actual ruins we were forced to move post-haste through the final portion of the museum as the guards began locking the outside doors and giving us polite hints that the museum was about to close.Parque Central

The city of Copan Ruinas is a very small colonial city, roughly a four block square surrounding a pretty little cathedral and a very picturesque parque central, perfect for sitting and people watching.Street Scene The streets extend out on all sides and are inclined or declined sharply on the steep hillsides that surround the city. It was the first colonial city we had visited where there was no visible evidence of the traditional Mayan native dress that we had become accustomed to seeing in both Mexico and Guatemala:  the rural setting made this distinction even more noticeable.Uphill or downhill in Copan

Tourism is the primary business in this charming little city and the people were smiling and friendly. We found a basic but clean, budget hotel at $25 per night with a fan instead of air conditioning and a little mosquito eating gecko at no extra charge on the bathroom wall.  However, we weren’t prepared for the cold water only shower that had us dancing the hokey-pokey! Next time we’ll remember that that might be an important question to ask!

By Anita and Richard, June, 2013

To Tikal And Into The Peten

We set off from Chetumal, Mexico, for Guatemala via Belize on a bus that was a typical turistico affair: cramped seating for twenty-two (thin) passengers with the luggage roped on top and valuables in your lap. Belize river by roadsideWe started with twenty-one, lost four at the Mexican border due to an exit fee dispute, and thirteen departed in Belize City. The last leg of the journey was completed with a Dutch couple. The bus had flow through ventilation, sagging, tired seats and a top speed of about 50 mph. Drifting through the countryside we saw small towns and isolated homes, countless chickens, goats, pigs, a few cattle and fewer horses. It was enjoyable simply watching the world go by. After about four hours of watching the foothills draw closer and then climbing into them we came to El Remate – a small village at the east end of Lago Petén Itza’. It is a quiet place with a few hotels/hostels and some excellent artisans working with the native woods creating items for the tourist and export markets. This niche market provides a viable alternative to the destructive and uneconomical slash and burn agriculture.

Temples in the midst above the forest canopy

Temples in the midst above the forest canopy

The following morning we were waiting in the dark at 5:30 AM for the collectivo; we would be in Tikal for sunrise. But the dawn did not break that morning; the clouds were low and there was mist in the air; the light simply slipped in upon us.The Grand Plaza

After a lengthy walk from the entrance we approached the Gran Plaza from the back side and glimpsed the King’s Pyramid though the trees.Pyramid The mists gave the ruins a surreal quality which fitted well with the thick, damp, verdant surroundings. By mid-morning the sun had burned through and the day turned hot and humid.Residences at the Gran PlazaTikal is one of the largest Mayan sites; it was the military, religious and artistic center of a vast region of the Mayan world with extensive alliances and commercial interests.

Complex Q

Complex Q

It is located in the foothills of northern Guatemala in what is now a national park replete with native wildlife. There are an estimated 3,000 structures in the Tikal complex, although only a fraction of them have been excavated. Not surprisingly, Tikal is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Queen's pyramid

The Queen’s pyramid

While in the Petén we visited the island city of Flores, a flourishing town given over to the delight of the tourist. It’s as quaint as quaint gets; a small colonial town connected by a short causeway to the surrounding mainland around Lagos Petén–Itza’.Flores It was well worth an afternoon’s outing to wander about the narrow streets and the embarcadero checking the shops and restaurants.Flores By Anita and Richard, June, 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!).







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