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.
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.
We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here again, we were allowed to climb and clamber over the ruins and peer into the doorways which made us feel like explorers ourselves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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