Mexican States of Quintana Roo and Yucatan: Mayan Cenotes and Ancient Sacred Cities
Planning your winter getaway? BCD's Travel Insiders Yucatan Itinerary maps out the cultural lay of the land of the two Mexican states that occupy the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, Quintana Roo and Yucatan. The two states border each other, with Quinatna Roo occupying the southeastern side and the state of Yucatan running alongside it to the north. Quintana Roo is home to Playa del Carmen, a touristic hot spot, and the Mayan site of Tulum. Must-sees of the state of Yucatan include the small Colonial city of Valladolid, the spectacular ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, the capital city of Merida, and Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, a wetlands sanctuary on the Gulf of Mexico that is home to more than 40,000 flamingos.
Yucatan Itinerary - Table of Contents (Quick Links)
Playa del Carmen 5th Avenue
Where to stay in Playa del Carmen
Where to stay in Tulum
Ancient Maya City of Coba
The Chans and Cenote Yaax Ek
Where to stay in Coba
Valladolid Cenotes Zaci and Ik Kil
Where to stay in Valladolid
Chichen Itza Tour and Mayan Cenote Sagrada
Rio Lagartos Tour
Where to stay in Mérida
Izamal and San Antonio de Padua Monastery
Yucatan Itinerary Map
How To Use This Map
Above you’ll find a map of the destinations, Cenotes and Mayan Sites mentioned in our Yucatan Itinerary. Click on the top left of the map to find a list of all points of interest. Click on any of the icons (stars) to see more information about that point of interest. Hope you enjoy it!
In addition to white-sand beaches and a host of historical sites from both Mayan and Spanish Colonial periods, Quintana Roo and Yucatan offer visitors a unique and distinctive cultural landscape to explore that is like no other. There are more than 3,000 Mayan cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, a thumb of land in southeastern Mexico that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico and borders Belize and Guatemala to its south. The Yucatan Peninsula is a flat plain of limestone with thousands of miles of below-ground water-filled caves interconnected by subterranean rivers. When the roof of one of these underground caverns collapses, the result is a deep, water-filled sinkhole known as a cenote. Cenote is a Spanish word derived from the Mayan word dzonot, meaning "well."
I had disembarked at Cancun International Airport on the Yucatan’s east coast feeling very much like a dry well. Like everyone else arriving here in mid-January, I had the winter pallor that marked me as a snowbird fleeing the frigid north. You would have thought the plane was destined for a Siberian gulag given the grim countenances of the passengers. The husband and wife across the aisle from me exchanged icy stares and made brittle conversation. The pair in the seats in front of me had matching frowns and furrowed brows. Despite having upgraded to business class, I couldn’t get comfortable and restlessly shifted in my seat throughout the flight, chafing at the confined space.
Playa del Carmen is a small city on the Caribbean coast in the northeast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Originally a tiny fishing town, “Playa” as it is casually called by locals, is the center of the Riviera Maya, which runs from south of Cancún to the Maya ruin of Tulum. Playa is growing rapidly and is now the third largest city in Quintana Roo, after Cancún and Chetumal. The village was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patron saint of Cancún. The first recorded visitors to what was then called Xaman-Ha, or “waters of the north,” came during the Early Classic Period of the Mayan civilization, which extended from 300 to 600 A.D.
I stayed in an all-inclusive resort in the Playacar area, which is a private development on the southeastern end of Playa del Carmen that is centered around tourists. Playacar is safe, new, tidy and what I would call a Disneyfied version of a typical Mexican neighborhood. While the beaches are beautiful and amenities are plentiful, it is not the type of environment I typically prefer.
Waiting in line at my hotel's reception, I couldn't help but notice two loud groups of people in their twenties lounging in the cavernous lobby, laughing raucously while sloshing around pink drinks. I had begun to question the wisdom of my impulsive decision to make the trip and solo at that, to an all-inclusive resort that was likely to be Party Central. I had plans for a couple of excursions to Mayan temples, but that still left a lot of free time to spend in my own company -- which could often resemble a bad neighborhood. I had been feeling frustrated, thwarted and short-tempered, aggravated that various aspects of my life were not proceeding in accordance with my Master Plan.
Yucatan Itinerary: Explore Playa del Carmen 5th Avenue
A stroll down Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue that afternoon was a refreshing antidote to my angst. The street is highly commercial, with salespeople hawking wares or beseeching you to visit their shop, but the vibe is friendly, and there is a lot of eye candy to enjoy: ceramics, hammocks, Mexican hats, religious folk art, fruit vendors, to name but a few of the myriad goods for sale. A vibrant, splashy mural of colorful characters and many moods unfolded before me and my own mood lifted in response. To shouts of “Hey, Paparazzi” I pirouetted, snapped and shutter-bugged my way along Quinta Avenida, becoming happily absorbed in the rich tableau.
A mountain of a man precisely cut a cigar and lit it for a well-heeled customer, clouds of smoke billowing around their lowered heads. A trio of white-garbed musicians, complete with white cowboy hats, strummed a forlorn ballad and looked like they understood sadness. A tuxedoed-waiter stood between two man-size placards that advertised his restaurant, rhythmically folding napkins while he rocked on his heels, his eyes scanning the street for potential customers. A young woman sat outside a dress shop, holding her embroidery hoop up close to her face as she plied her needle. On opposing benches, an angry couple snarled at each other and the legs of a happy pair were intertwined -- I knew what it was like to be part of each equation.
Leaving the main drag to go down a block to the beach, I passed a banana-yellow building with a string of gleaming black wet suits draped across the balcony. In the golden light of the photographer’s “magic hour,” hand-woven hammocks in bold hues hung in front of small shops, seemingly glowing. In a serendipitous still life scene, a bag of oranges was propped up against an orange chair. The turquoise tide gently rolled in between rocks bright with lime-green algae.
Known in English as "Dance of the Flyers", this ancient Mesoamerican tradition is still performed today. According to one myth, the ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. Danza de los Voladores was named an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009. Papantla in the state of Veracruz is considered the epicenter of this ancient art form; given that is a 20-hour drive away from Playa del Carmen, I hadn't actually harbored any hopes of actually seeing this high-flying acrobatic performance.
In fact, the troupe performing the ritual were indeed from Veracruz and members of the Totonac indigenous community there. The six men who shared this exhilarating tradition ranged in age from roughly mid-forties to the early twenties, and perform hourly at Parque Los Fundadores, serving as both cultural ambassadors and fundraisers for their community. In distinctive costumes of white shirts and red pants colorfully adorned with vibrantly-hued apron, chaps and headdresses, the men begin by circling a 98-foot tall pole, with one playing a rhythmic melody on a reed pipe and the others banging out a steady beat on small hand-held drums. Then, while one member continued to beat a drum, one after another, five of the six men nimbly climbed the pole--in shiny black boots no less! I later learned that the four voladores, or flyers, symbolize the cardinal directions and elements.
The climbers each took their place on a square frame at its top, with the group's caporal perched above them at the very tip of the pole, continuing the mesmerising score with his flute. The performers tied heavy ropes around their waists and then, propelled with the caporal's boots, the wooden platform began to turn and, as it rotated, the four men sitting of each side of the square rigging simply fell backwards. Hanging upside down, the men spun around the pole in wide circles, descending ever earthward as the rope line unwound. As someone terrified of heights and not able to easily "let go" this sight was both electrifying and giddy.
Where to stay in Playa del Carmen
Hotel 52 is located right beside to the famous 5th Avenue bang in the centre of Playa del Carmen. It has a roof top pool where you can enjoy sea views. All rooms have air conditioning and fan.
Yucatan Itinerary: Experience Majestic Tulum and Grand Cenote
Playa is a fun entry point to the Yucatan but one day of honky-tonk is enough for me. The next day, I headed south to the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. How ancient, you ask? A stelae found on the site is dated 564 A.D., although it's speculated that the area was a fishing village as early as 300 B.C.
Playa del Carmen to Tulum is a very manageable day trip--it's about 40 miles and depending on the mode of transportation you use, will take about an hour. Options include taxi (about 650 pesos); the ADO bus (70 pesos each way) or via a colectivo (a shared van that costs about 40 pesos each way). I took the bus down and a colective back. The bus is big, comfortable, air-conditioned and the trip is direct; the colectivo was cramped, had no AC and made numerous stops. Note that the little town of Tulum about 2.5 miles inland from the archaeological park-- you might enjoy poking around a bit here but there are restaurants at the mini mall outside the archaeological park.
The settlement's location is unique in the Mayan civilization; Tulum was the only Mayan city built on the coast. The site is built atop 39-foot ocean cliffs and is surrounded on three sides by limestone walls seven yards thick. The name Tulúm translates as the Mayan word for "fence". The extent of the defensive measures befitted the only port for the extensive Mayan trading
empire, believed to have stretched as far away as Costa Rica. It's said that the goods traded included turquoise, jade and obsidian, as well as honey, animal skins, salt and wax.
From the site’s entrance, where a hodgepodge of vendors sold trinkets and tired tourists sipped soft drinks at a cluster of casual cafes, I walked along a dusty path to a small triangular archway within a stone wall. Once through it, I felt as though I had wandered into another, timeless world.
Although a popular destination for visitors, the site was largely empty during my visit. With the silhouettes of gray stone temples back-lit by a lavender sky, amid palm trees rustling in the breeze, the other-worldly atmosphere was so vivid it was easy to imagine being one among its earliest settlers, part of another civilization.
Crossing the compact grounds, which are much smaller than many of the other sprawling Mayan metropolis, I saw what looked like bloody handprints emblazoned on the façade of one of the ancient structures. I learned that it was customary to paint over the exteriors of the buildings with bright colors that the Maya associated with the cardinal directions. Other themes reflected in the murals that adorned the buildings were everyday rituals and the natural surroundings. Some believe that the murals were repainted to mark the beginning of each new Katun, which is a Mayan measurement unit of time, equal to 7,200 days, and part of the civilization’s intricate Long Count calendar.
I reached the complex’s outer edges, perched on the sea above brilliant turquoise waters. It is the only such-located Maya ruin, with all the others built further inland. Looking down, I realized where all the tourists were -- playing on the sandy beach and in the foaming waves. The sight actually enhanced the effect of being amidst an inhabited community, creating a sense of the site being enjoyed and alive.
Where to stay in Tulum
Itour México Túlum Hotel offers free parking & free Wi-Fi and right next to Tulum National Park. It's just 500 meters to the town's centre. It features a café, garden and individually decorated rooms. The décor is inspired by Mexican culture and each room features bright colours. All air-conditioned rooms have satellite TV and private bathroom.
Yucatan Itinerary: Grand Cenote
From the outskirts of Tulum, I headed inland and after a short drive north on Route 180, I soon saw the sign for Grand Cenote. After paying for my ticket, I followed a boardwalk to the edge of a precipice, eager to get my first glimpse of this curious feature of the Yucatan landscape. About twenty feet below, I saw a ring of rippling teal water encircling a small island, from which sprouted mounds of prehistoric-looking plant life. Chalky limestone walls rose from and encircled this vivid scene, resembling white waves of soft stone. The curling lip of the cliff face extended out several yards, through which the long roots of above-ground trees dangled all the way down to the water far below. I later learned that the waters of cenotes closer to the sea tend to be at land level, like a lake or pond, while the pools of the craters further inland are generally at the bottom of deep open-air shafts in the ground.
Descending stairs to the floor of the abyss, I walked to the right side of the little islet, where a handful of middle-aged friends were donning snorkeling gear. Goggles and flippers in place, they swam off down a low-ceilinged passage that extended from the lagoon. I watched them paddle toward a luminous glow created by sunlight filtering through another opening in the earth. Their exclamations echoed back to me after they were out of sight, squeals that sounded alternately anxious and delighted.
On the other side of the cenote, it was all business as a commercial television crew readied to tape an ad for Mexican beer. Pony-tailed technicians tinkered with a giant camera lens and an aggravated-looking man with a goatee and a clip board paced around and snarled into his cell phone, apparently waiting for the “talent.”
Two stories below ground, I peered through man-size ferns at a pool of translucent cobalt water and wondered what the Mayan high priests would have thought of a Corona commercial being filmed in their portal to the afterlife.
Their jaded nonchalance about the extraordinary surroundings gave me pause, prompting me to consider how often I can take for granted the beauty that is in my own backyard.
Yet I am certainly not alone in finding the cenote experience, celluloid and otherwise, awe-inspiring.
“I remember watching films of people cenote diving and wondering why on earth people submerged themselves into these dark holes through choice--not knowing what gruesome monster was going to be waiting for them around the corner!” exclaimed Corrie Watkins, a dive instructor with Abyss Dive Center in Tulum. “I have since executed a number of cenote dives within the Mayan Riviera. The only way to describe it to someone who has never been is that it is like you are diving on the set of a Star Wars film. They are decorated with stalagmites and stalactites with the most amazingly perfect visibility.”
“There are a few cenotes where you can comfortably surface halfway through the dive, such as Dos Ojos,” she explained. “There, you are surrounded by an overhead cavern, where bats hug the ceiling and spiders balance within their crystal webs. If you look carefully you may see ancient fossils on the floor, walls and ceiling. Also, lookout for the haloclines in some of the deeper areas--this is where the freshwater meets the salt water and there is a mirror-like effect.”
Yucatan Itinerary: Ancient Maya City of Coba
From Grand Cenote, my next stop was the ancient Mayan city of Coba. My guide suggested this historic site, which I had not even heard of, despite the fact that in its heyday from 200 - 600 A.D., it was home to more than 50,000 people. Once more, I had the occasion to appreciate that local knowledge always trumped my research, which is why I always prefer to use the services of local guides. As we parked and headed toward a group of temples known as Nohoch Mul, my companion explained that the name Coba means "waters stirred by wind"; the site is situated around two lakes, Coba and Macanxoc.
After a brief trek accompanied by the songs of various darting and swooping birds and the chatter of unseen monkeys, the path opened up into a clearing dominated by a towering gray stone structure, surrounded by a halo of verdant trees. Now I immediately understood why all those fellow tourists required an ambulatory exit from Coba.
The Nohoch Mul temple is Coba's tallest and immense monument stands a majestic 138 feet in height--that's ten stories high. Carved into its facade are steep shallow steps and climbing up the vertical incline were scores of visitors who from a distance resembled swarming ants, their bodies tiny compared to the scale of the temple.
I was overwhelmed by a mixture of sensations: awe at the grandeur of the edifice: instinctive distaste at seeing a sacred site being infested by people who seemed to consider it an amusement park diversion; self-disgust that my own competitive nature and desire for experience meant I would climb it too; and, lastly, dread. I am afraid of heights. Watching much younger, more able-bodied people than me make the climb in such a tentative crawl told me it wasn't going to be easy.
Giving myself a silent running pep talk, I approached the monolith and as I got closer to it, I felt a palpable sense of relief. I realized that at least half of the people mounting Nohoch Mul were doing so in a way that was not terribly dignified but certainly made scaling its heights less scary for me. They were ascending one step at a time on their butts, scooching ever upward on the temple's 120 steps.
Casting any sense of decorum to Coba's winds, I joined the backwards-facing fray and began my pain-staking scale. My self-conscious mortification at the clumsy climb was dissolved by a general mood of good-natured self-deprecation among my fellow scoochers. Yet even with most of my body firmly planted on a solid surface, and staying in the middle of the pack, well away from the temple's sides, I still had moments of vertigo in which I had to close my eyes to stave off feeling light-headed. The little I knew about the use of these epic monuments by the Maya was that they were largely ceremonial, and ritual is a solemn affair. The higher I went, the more admiration I had for the people who created and could gracefully navigate Nohoch Mul.
Once at the top, I dared to look down and was flabbergasted at how far and high I could go on a very awkward basis. While I still cringe at the sense that my inelegant approach was somehow offending the Mayan creators of this sacred site, in an odd way, the laborious, time-consuming schelp afforded me an elevated perspective: any undertaking done slowly and with humility makes its successful conclusion rather-awe-inspiring.
Even more inspiring was the look outward, where across a green expanse of treetops, I saw the tip of another temple peeking above the canopy. This view reminded me of the power of time; no matter how much effort, energy and intention, the significance of our human plans and toil is always eclipsed by the grander design of the Universe. Rather than be bummed out by that notion, it was a comfort. It was another kind of reminder about humility: I can seek to achieve my aspirations but I don't need to regard my goals as life or death; my accomplishments--or failures, for that matter--are far from eternal.
I visited Coba in 2010. In the ensuing decade, my perspective has evolved considerably. Today, while it's still permissible. I would probably not climb Nohoch Mul. I no longer have the drive or inner drillmaster commanding me to always rise to every challenge simply because it presents itself. I also have had my consciousness raised about the appropriateness of summiting a historic site of spiritual significance to a culture not my own.
Yucatan Itinerary: The Chans and Cenote Yaax Ek
Farther north, in the jungle near the Mayan ruin of Coba, is the village of Kuau, where my guide introduced me to Alberto and Victoria Uc Chan, a Mayan couple in their sixties. They invited me into their two-room home, where a festively-decorated altar held a place of prominence. Victoria pressed cornmeal dough into flat pancakes and then cooked them on a skillet over an open fire in her hearth. I was humbled by the Uc Chan’s circumstances and generosity and felt privileged to have a glimpse into their daily existence and share a simple meal with them.
Before leaving, Victoria and Alberto took me across the street to Cenote Yaax Ek, a circle of shimmering aquamarine water far below a white-washed cement pavilion with a thatched roof. It was explained to me that community celebrations, including weddings, are held here.
Where to stay in Coba
Hotel Maya has a restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, a bar and shared lounge. It's only a short walk from the hotel to the Coba Ruins. The accommodation features a shared kitchen, room service and currency exchange for guests.
Hotel Sac Be is another very good option to consider when booking for your stay in Coba. It also gets very good reviews.
Yucatan Itinerary: Valladolid Cenotes Zaci and Ik Kil
Motoring west, I headed toward the picturesque provincial city of Vallodolid. Getting outside the main tourist areas and into the countryside always fascinates me--I feel like I learn something about the cultural landscape and traditions by simply making the time and space to observe everyday life. Across the Yucatan, and elsewhere in Mexico, there are four elements of community consistently evident on the main road through small towns that speak to the universal cycle of life--as well as a robust faith not necessarily found elsewhere : energetic and smiling kids playing in schoolyards; colorful roadside shrines; beautifully decaying old churches with haunting patinas; and humble cemeteries with headstones hand-painted in the colors of the natural world: sky blue, golden yellow, rosy pink.
In Valladolid, the pastel shades of the colonial buildings seemed to glow in the late afternoon light. Like many Mexican towns, Valladolid is laid out as a grid, and at its nexus is a park. Parque Francisco Canton Rosado is at the heart of the centro historico, flanked by Cathedral of San Gervasio on the south side, and colonnaded buildings lining the other sides, home to restaurants and shops, with neighborhoods radiating outward. The green space not only affords welcome relief from the rather oppressive heat of inland Yucatan, it offers a window into a pace of life very different than my own world. While I know a lack of economic opportunity makes life is hard for many in the Yucatan, there is a timelessness, a relaxed rhythm, a gentle congeniality that certainly isn't part of Boston's vibe. From my bench, I watched two elderly women who looked like sisters greet each other, put down their shopping bags and settle in for a chat. A father with two young boys and an adolescent daughter sat on the base of the elaborate fence that encloses the park, occasionally looking expectantly down the street; in due course, mom appeared and the family trundled off.
In the midst of a busy city block at the intersection of Calles 39 and 36, I found Cenote Zaci, which means “white hawk” in Mayan. With a diameter of 150 feet, Zaci was hard to miss. Descending a series of steep steps carved in the rock, I reached water level at the bottom of the deep underground chamber, 260 feet down. I looked up just as a gang of teenagers leaped from a two-story ledge above, drenching me with spray from the terrific splash they made as they hit the water. Their exuberance as they surfaced from the crystal clear water was contagious, and I laughed out loud from my perch on the cenote’s perimeter.
Deeper inland, not far from the town of Piste’ and the Mayan ruin of Chichén Itzá, is Cenote Ik Kil. Lush greenery wreaths its 196-foot wide circular opening and then spills down the interior of its 130-foot sides. From beneath the canopy of plants, waterfalls gush, jungle vines hang and beams of sunlight fall, creating a verdant and vibrant underground world. The eco-park is also known as the “Sacred Blue Cenote” -- my visit was indeed mystical in an unexpected way. Watching the excited teenagers lined up on the precipitous stairs, chattering and fidgeting while waiting their turn to take the plunge, I was reminded of my own poolside antics as a youngster and felt anew that ability to experience the utter joy of the moment.
Ik Kil’s facilities include a restaurant and palapas--oval Mayan bungalows--for overnight stays. I was told that the owner had continually made improvements to the property and judging by the crowds streaming in, he was making good on his investment.
A short drive away, eighteen Mayan women have improved the fortunes of their families and village by turning their local watering hole into the Yokdzonot Ecological Cenote Park. The women spent a year clearing the surrounding land, and then designed, and now operate, the community enterprise, which also includes a small restaurant.
Where to stay in Vallodolid
Hotel Fundadores offers air-conditioned rooms in Valladolid. Among the various facilities are a garden and a terrace. There is an outdoor pool and guests can make use of free private parking. At the hotel, all rooms are equipped with a patio with a pool view.
Yucatan Itinerary: Chichen Itza Tour and Mayan Cenote Sagrada
The scores of cenotes speckling the Yucatan landscape are among the only perennial sources of quality potable water. Early settlements in the area sprung up around these natural wells, including the famous Mayan site Chichén Itzá, built around 600 A.D. The Mayan name "Chich'en Itza" translates as "at the mouth of the well of the Itza," with itz meaning “magic.”
My guide at the site, Julian, told me he was from the neighboring town of Piste, where two of the seven cenotes are used for drinking water -- but are only safe for locals, who have built up immunization to its impurities.
Julian and I toured the architectural wonders of El Castillo and the Temple of Warriors, and stood on the Great Ball Court, the largest in ancient Mesoamerica. We then headed toward Cenote Sagrado on Sacbe Number One. The term sacbe is Mayan for "white road" -- these routes were originally coated with limestone stucco, making them visible at night.
It was easy to see why the cenote here was sacred to the ancient Maya, inspiring pilgrimages -- and human offerings. Two hundred feet in diameter, the “Well of Sacrifice,” as it is also known, is a perfectly round circle of jade waters from which flaky cream-colored walls rise, their crest enclosed with a ring of luxuriant plants in emerald hues.
Julian told me that virgins--both boys and girls--were sacrificed here as offerings to the rain gods, or chaacs, during times of drought. These youngsters were chosen for this honor from birth, based on the day of the year they were born. Parents actually tried to bring their children into the world on the five specific days of the year important in this regard in the Mayan calendar -- August 6 - 10. Julian said the sacrifice needed to occur before the children reached the age of 13, when they became adults in the eyes of the community. When a sacrifice was required, priests would test the children to see which ones were “ready,” with successful memorization of a certain song or lesson indicating their time had come.
While it seems certain cenotes played an important role in Mayan rites; exactly what that role was seems less clear. I was later told by another Mayan guide that only the civilization’s elite could be laid to rest in a cenote, and were bound in a fetal position. He said the belief was that the cenote represented a “womb” to reincarnation.
Then again, I knew the azure waters of the Cenotes in Yucatan, Mexico had been a battleground for the sacred and the profane before. In fact, a controversy over rights to one of these otherworldly holes in the ground had roots reaching to Boston.
What is known for sure is that Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado yielded a veritable goldmine of artifacts for Massachusetts native Edward H. Thompson at the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1879, Thompson wrote an article for Popular Science Monthly on ancient Mayan monuments that attracted the attention of a wealthy patron of the American Antiquarian Society, who persuaded Thompson to move to Yucatán to explore the ruins on his behalf. A Massachusetts senator helped subsidize Thompson's efforts by recommending him for the post of United States consul to Yucatan.
Thompson arrived in the Yucatán in 1885 and nine years later, he purchased a plantation that included the site of Chichen Itza. Over a six-year period beginning in 1904, he dredged Cenote Sagrado, finding the skeletons of men and children -- as well as gold, copper, carved jade and the first examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Mayan cloth and wooden weapons.
Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. In 1926, the Mexican government seized Thompson's plantation, charging he had removed the artifacts illegally. The Mexican Supreme Court in 1944 ruled in Thompson's favor.
New wonders -- and sources of debate -- continue to bubble to the surface along the Yucatan’s cenote circuit. Adding to an already long list of possible reasons the Mayan cities were abandoned is a fresh theory now making the rounds. This conjecture centers on the cenotes being responsible for the civilization’s 9th century decline -- with the cumulative effect of eons of human sacrifice having contaminated the water supply.
From the Cenote Sagrado, Julian and I headed to a complex on the other side of the site, nicknamed Las Monjas, or "The Nunnery,” by the Spanish, although in fact the structure was actually a governmental palace. In the heat of the afternoon, we paused to sit under the shade of one of the few trees. The conversation faltered, with an awkward pause between two strangers whose lives had randomly intersected briefly for the span of a couple of hours.
In one of those small acts of courage required to stretch beyond polite chit-chat, Julian shared something personal about himself. I ventured to do the same and in an extraordinary coincidence, as the conversation gently unfolded, we discovered that we shared a similar stretch of painful personal history. The striking similarities of what had ultimately been a powerfully transforming experience for each of us produced a profound connection. Despite the thick, humid air, I felt goosebumps and tears sprang to my eyes and his too. It was hard to know which was more incredible, the likelihood of he and I having had such a common past, or that we came to speak of it.
As we parted company on a stretch of sacbe, Julian and I exchanged a heartfelt hug, and he said to me "Now it is time for joy."
Rio Lagartos Tour
The Yucatan Peninsula is a draw for many because of its warmth and beaches. Yet there's more to the Yucatan's cultural landscape than the Riveria Maya's Caribbean coastline. The wetlands area of Ria Lagartos is on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, and along the Gulf of Mexico; Cuba is about 90 miles offshore. Rio Lagartos is a straight shot north from Valladolid on the two-lane route 295 and takes about 90 minutes. Designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2004, this 233-square mile ecosphere is a bird-watchers paradise and also offers an up-close view of creatures such as the Caribbean pink flamingo and the endangered Hawksbill sea turtle.
If you take a boat for a Rio Lagartos tour, you'll also spot crocodiles, happily from a safe distance! Ria Lagartos means "estuary of the lizard"; the name was given to the area in 1517 by a soldier in the service of Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. Cordoba's expedition marked the European discovery of the Yucatan and, in fact, Mexico. According to an amusing story, when the Spanish asked the indigenous people the name of the area, the response they got, was Yucatán, meaning "I don't understand you"; the rest is history.
The town of Rio Lagartos has a population of about 2,000 and occupies about four by eight blocks of concrete buildings painted in cheerful colors. The main street runs along the waterfront, on one side are a few restaurants and on the other, a fleet of small fishing and tour boats tied up. My first glimpse of the indigenous wildlife was the brown pelicans perched on the bows of the boats; while they seemed as common as seagulls, these comical-looking birds with massive bills and throat poaches were actually listed as endangered in North America in 1970.
Local fishermen supplement their income by offering tours through the saltwater wetlands lined with mangroves and home to 333 species of birds--about half of which are migratory. I spent two hours out on the water, where the skipper's familiarity with the habitat enabled me to see numerous species I would never have noticed: snowy egrets; frigates; stork; kingfishers; and peregrine falcon.
The undisputed star attraction is the Caribbean pink flamingo. Normally merely tinged with hints of rose, the flamingos here take on a much deeper pink hue because of algae that thrive in the high saline level of the brackish water. The flamingos feed on these organisms and the pigment means that coloring really pops!
Merida, State Capital of Yucatan, Offers Rich Cultural Heritage
Make no mistake about it--Merida is a sprawling and crowded center of commerce. Anyone expecting a quaint Colonial outpost will be disappointed--the population is almost one million and the area is an industrial powerhouse, home to manufacturing, construction, and the generation and distribution of water, gas and electricity.
That said, Merida has one of the largest centro histórico districts in the Americas. Large scale production of the fibrous agave plant at the turn of the 20th century fueled economic prosperity that created a legacy of stunning architecture. Many of these sublime structures today are home to an array of world-class museums that display the distinctive history and culture of the Yucatan.
An excellent starting point to visiting Merida is the Palacio de Gobierno, the Yucatan's government's administrative seat. This gorgeous arcaded building features a series of murals painted by Merida-born master painter Fernando Castro Pacheco in the late 1970s. Pacheco was a member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a print-making collective founded in 1937 that supported the Mexican Revolution and used art to advance social causes.
Mérida has the highest percentage of indigenous population within any large city in Mexico; 60% of the population are Mayan. Pacheco's series in the State Capital building chronicles the traumatic history of the Maya in the Yucatan, from early days hunting and worshipping, to the realization of the apocalyptic vision of the high priest Chilam Balam of the white man, a new religion and destruction.
The highly stylized murals depict the battles with the Conquistadors, the Mexican War of Independence from 1810- 1821, and the Caste War of 1847 - 1901. The paintings also tell the stories of figures like Gonzalo Guerrero, a 16th century Spanish sailor considered the father of the Mestizo, or mixed Spanish-indigenous race, in the Yucatan, and Carrillo Puerto, who fought for the rights of the Mayan people and served as governor of the Yucatan for two years before being assassinated by political rivals.
Where to stay in Merida
While in Merida, I stayed at the Casa Del Maya Bed & Breakfast. I highly recommend it. This is a very charming hotel and the staff are very friendly and helpful. The B & B is located in central Merida, a 15-minute walk from the Plaza de la Independencia and Cathedral and offers complimentary breakfast and has an outdoor pool. Owners Steve & Jordy are super knowledgeable and helpful and really go out of their way to make your stay comfortable and facilitate accessing all that Merida has to offer. The rooms feature colorful beddings and tiled hand-painted sinks in the bathrooms. The rooms are air-conditioned.
Yellow City of Izamal and San Antonio de Padua Monastery.
From Merida, I visited the Yellow City of Izamal, a drive of 40 miles east, which takes about an hour. The city gets it’s given name from the Mayan Zamná, which means “Heaven’s dew”; he was the priest of the god Itzamná. Constructed between 600 – 800 A.D., Izamal was actually founded in 550 A.D. by people known as the Itz. Izamal is believed to have been the largest of Mayan communities in Northern Yucatan—over a ten-year period, archaeologists mapped 80 pre-Hispanic structures. Today there are five pyramids that can be experienced, located amidst the yellow Colonial buildings for which the city gets its moniker. The largest is Kinich Kak Moo, dedicated to a solar deity, where worship is offered with flowers, fruits, animals and aromatic substances.
Izamal was the seat of worship to the god Itzamatul for the Mayan, and the 16th century Spanish conquistadors, true to form, built atop the Mayan sacred sites as part of their conversion campaign. The Franciscans opened the San Antonio de Padua monastery, erected where the Mayan acropolis had been, in 1561. A statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception was installed and there began to be reports of miraculous healings. Soon, a cult of "Our Lady of Izamal" developed; today, this incarnation is the Yucatan state's patron saint and an annual celebratory procession and fiesta are held each December 8. Izamal remains a place where the expression of faith is a cornerstone of daily life. Its heritage as both a Mayan ceremonial center and a Catholic mission have merged into a religious syncretism to which people were clearly devoted. San Antonio de Padua monastery is a place of pilgrimage today for the Mayan community. As I arrived, I passed a young mother departing with her two daughters, outfitted alike in Sunday best dresses, and several elderly couples who took the stairs gingerly.
The monastery’s interior has numerous rooms and open spaces where people were comfortably at home for an extended visit. In a chapel, family members sat together in pews as if in their living room, happily engaged in conversation. A young couple huddled in a corner of an open-air courtyard engaged in an intense exchange. Along a collonaded corridor, an assortment of people lounged and chatted. The overall impression was of a community center where people spent time together with each other and their God.
The religious imagery left me with an ambivalence likely rooted in my own Catholic upbringing. Prominently displayed in a niche was a sickly white half-naked Franciscan in a pose of self-flagellation, his face gaunt with deep circles under his eyes. A black Jesus on the cross was festooned with cheerful faux flowers of red, orange, purple and blue, his waist draped with a linen loin clothe embroidered with dainty blooms in the same colors. I could buy into the duality represented by the image of a dying Christ adorned in lively happy symbols but the self-loathing priest creeped me out.
Exiting out the monastery’s side I came upon Itzamna Park, which struck a lighter note. Lined up along street were a series of horse-drawn carriages, where friendly mustached men and their hatted equines wait for tourists who want a tour around town and to the Mayan temples. I decided to walk instead and after taking a peek at the rear of the monastery, interestingly devoid of any paint, I enjoyed taking in the egg-yolk colored buildings lining the almost-empty streets and admiring the whimsical work of an artisan selling his wares outside the bus station.
Museum of the Yucatecan Song
Called "a gateway to the world of romantic music," Merida’s Museum of the Yucatecan Song includes over 50 oil portraits of composers, performers, poets and promoters of Yucatecan music, which evolved from strong influences from Cuba and Spain. This is one of the most important museums in the country for its invaluable collection of musical memorabilia received as donations from descendents and relatives of famous Yucatecan performers and composers. It is a wonderful place to see how local music was influenced by other cultures and, in turn, was able to influence music on other parts of the world. We were lucky enough to catch a rehearsal by a youth group preparing for a concert, conducted by José Luis Chan Sabido, Director General y Artístico de la Vienna Music and Art Academy-Yucatán.
Prefer music that you can dance to? Merida has several options for you! Four nights a week from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., a stretch of Calle 60 is closed to automobiles to make way for a fiesta! Along with vendors and street food, bands perform and locals and tourists alike show off their moves. Never one to miss an opportunity to shake it up, I was delighted to be asked by a gentleman to join him on the cobblestones. He skillfully subverted my tendency to try to lead and we twirled and swirled until I was damp with perspiration and happily tuckered out.
If you'd rather be an observer than a participant and enjoy experiencing a local tradition of another sort, every Sunday at 1 p.m. and Monday at 9 p.m., the city holds a free performance of Vaquerias on Plaza Grande, the main square. This traditional celebration is unique to the Yucatan and has its roots in a three-four day celebration held annually by a hacienda or village to pay homage to its patron saint. Pairs of dancers are elegantly attired, the men all in white, sporting a pale blue apron, red bandanas around their necks and jaunty straw hats; the women's costumes display colorful embroidery on a field of white, complemented by a brightly-ribboned hairpiece. The performers dance to a Jarana orchestra, which includes two trumpets, two clarinets, one trombone, saxophone, kettle drums, and a guiro, a flute-like instrument made from a gourd. Jarana has a sly and distinctive feature that might catch you off guard--in the midst of this precisely choreographed, high-stepping performance, one of the male dancers shouts out "Bomba!" The music stops, and another man recites a silly rhyme. The music recommences, and the dance resumes.
The mysteries associated with the Mayan society endure. And, whether motivated by a purpose that is spiritual, commercial, or recreational, the Yucatan’s cenotes and ancient Mayan ruins continue to draw devotees and inspire connections. I was grateful for a glimpse of a Master Plan other than my own.
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Recommended Excursions in Yucatan
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Recommended Excursions in Yucatan
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