Part 3 The Yucatan Peninsula

blockade of Taxixtas
Cascadas Aqua Azul

The trip further south from Palenque was the real adventure.  First it is winding 2 lane road, second it was amazing to be driving in forest again.  I miss the forests of Washington State and the color green…South of Palenque is the Cascadas de Agua Azul.  Because of the minerals in the rocks the river runs over the water is brilliant turquoise. We spent the night in the “hotel” there on the grounds and Lee braved a swim in the cold morning waters.  The tribe which owns and runs the park are doing a great job updating the area with new cabins being built and others being updated, Lots of picnic benches for riverside fun and a large area of bars, restaurants and souvenir shop.  The area is not free to enter and as we learned leaving sometimes it is not free to exit.  This is our first scary turn.  It was early but the local young men were starting to stop cars leaving. With wood strips with long nails sticking up, stopping was an easy decision.  The men with machetes were starting to argue amongst themselves and Lee decided we needed to leave quickly and negotiated a bribe for safe passage.  I think it was  $10.  Down the road a bit we started getting stopped by women and kids holding strings across the road.  They wanted to sell their goods and the strings slowed cars enough to show the wares, or the kids came to the windows begging for money.  It was dangerous for them and for us.  Some resorted to strips of nailed wood across the lane of traffic. The highway blockades by the teachers union had supposedly ended just days before we started our trip. The news of the open roads was not quite accurate, but we were moving. Gas stations are nonexistent except for a couple of the larger towns. Card board signs outside of a house or hut saying gasolina were scattered throughout the drive to San Christobal de Las Casas. At these the owner would come out carrying everything from Milk jugs to 5 gallon cans filled with fuel.  (People the world over see a need and fill it.) While we did not need the services of these household gas stops, I was relieved to see them.  I do have the habit of running out of gas in the furthest point from a station.  Our sights were set on reaching San Christobal before dark and we barely made it.

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The Ciudad of San Christobal de las Casas has been declared a Pueblos Magicos, or magical city by UNESCO. And it was.  We treated ourselves to a higher end hotel with really nice comfortable beds. No air mattress needed there. We parked the car and walked or rode the trolley.  IMG_1979.jpgThere are 15 temples/churches scattered throughout the city. Beautiful old architecture dating back I believe to the 1500 and 1600’s. The large cathedral is surrounded by vendors selling handmade clothes, leather goods clothing and tons of other stuff. Inside the courtyards or squares are people from many nations resting after crossing into Mexico from Guatemala. Central and South Americans, Cubans and Africans all took refuge at the churches and cathedral. So the crowds were intense for me. We toured the main centro area over many days. Discovering that San Christobal has two french pastry shops.  The one a block away became our late night stroll to place. restaurants from all over the world, serving up heaping plates of wonderful food. The evenings were magical. Street musicians playing everything from american rock classics to marimba and steel drums.  Throw in some mariachi for fun. Many playing guitars and marimba’s that were homemade, we enjoyed talking with them learning about how they chose the specific design or woods to make the distinct sounds.

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There are dozens of museums to wander through if a quick rainstorm or the heat gets to you, (though it is definitely cooler here than in most of Mexico).  We enjoyed the artesian co-ops, again spending time talking to the artists about their crafts.  Tennis shoes that have been hand sewn with needle point butterfly’s and flowers.  I would never have considered doing this to my shoes but this woman did and was very successful, selling worldwide. Silver copper and goldsmiths and jade jewelry designs, woodwind musical instruments made from exotic woods and silver, cloth that has been woven by hand in the boldest brightest colors, and toys, handmade toys of the most intricate design.  The large art museum was closed for renovation as was the school of music, so we missed out there.  Chocolate is huge here. And I really enjoyed the chocolate shops, my waistline says I enjoyed them too much.

One day we took a tour bus to Canon del Sumidero, or Mexico’s southern grand canyon.  The sides are as high or  higher in places and about 4 times longer than the grand canyon in the United States.  The difference being; these walls are covered in green trees and bushes. Home to pelicans, herons ,monkeys and crocodiles.  We took a boat down the river exploring the wildlife and well just seeing the sights.  It would have been wonderful to jump in for a cooling swim but I don’t think I could out swim the gators. IMG_9635 The country has done a wonderful job cleaning up the river and preserving the pristine feel to the canyon. Yes there are tour boats and a couple of small fishing canoes on the water, what you don’t see are tons of houses lining the shores or canyon ledges or speed boats pulling skiers and rafts.

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The boat ride over, we toured the town of Chiapa de Corzo. It a very small town geared to the tour boat crowds.  They did have a quaint church where inside the chapel is a statue of Christ on a donkey.

corzo christ on a donkey
Christ on a donkey

I know there is a great story about this statue, just no one was around to ask about it. The shops were full of mostly clothes made by the indigenous people.  Their ceremonial costumes were a big hit. And out on the side-walk was this older man playing his marimba that was made with no nails,about 100 years ago.  The sounds he was able to bring out of those wooden keys was so clear and clean.  I never heard anything quite so perfect before.  A fun fact the favored music of this region is the marimba music of the Caribbean islands.  The locals consider this their native music.  Even though the shop keepers hear this man play every day, I noticed when they thought no one was paying attention, they couldn’t help but dance a bit.  It was hard not to put a rhythm to my steps.  The town has built a large brick gazebos in the central square. A nice bit of shade in the heat of the day. And at night I can see it being a gathering place to talk and laugh.  I was amused to see a cadre of police officers doing their run around the square.  Reminded me of the unit runs in the army. In step with a call/response type cadence song, smiles and looks at the tourist making sure we were impressed.  I guess some things are the world over.

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On the way out to the canyon and on the way back were large protest blockades.  Protests about the teacher’s strike. They nicely allowed passage by the tour buses because apparently the head office donates to the cause. Many large buses touring the Yucatan were held hostage.  Every rider expected to pay as well as the bus company. Many a bus sat for hours while negotiations were held. Some protestors emptied the buses and then took off in them to some secret location until the company bought them back, or they were used to transport teachers to different sites and not returned.  BTW the teachers in order to keep their jobs had to man the protest sites, if they did not show every day, the union would fire them selling their position to someone new; trained and educated or not.  Teaching was a job that the position was bought and sold or handed down. The blockades were done by an offshoot teachers union, fighting the new reforms. We also stopped in at Misol-Ha falls on the way north.  If one is mobile you can enjoy a swim.  Or stand behind the falls cooling off from the drive and roadblocks. This roadblock pictured we were probably a mile back. They were letting no one through for hours at a time, bribe or no.  We lucked out and only sat for an hour.

We spent quite a bit of time exploring this region.  Mainly it was because of the cooler weather and the trees. It’s a different world from what we experience in Guadalajara.  For one there are more indigenous people,many living is abject poverty. Second is the feeling that for so many it is a friendly rest stop, on their way to Estadas Unidos . It is a deeply religious area, where mass is a daily occurence (sometimes twice a day).  There are a two ex-convents in the city.  Apparently it was once a city for the clergy to spend their retreats at and then to retire.  One convent is now a museum and we never knowingly found the second.  It very well could have been pointed out on our tram tours, but being I don’t understand much more than Buenos dias, I can’t say we saw it.  Pluses for this city are its accessible by foot, its diverse, there are hotels and hostels at all price ranges. Restaurants cover the globe for cuisine. Many shops and stores have maps in english to help you find your way.  And according to Lee…Two top-tiered French Bakeries.  Bon appetite and I hope we inspired your own trip through the Yucatan.

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The Yucatan Peninsula part 1

 

cathedra;crest.jpgOne of the advantages of moving to a new country that is connected to the U.S. for us, is that we have a car. And with this car we are free to explore our new country and beyond. In the spring of 2016 we started what we thought was going to be a three week trip, only to return home three months later.(cue Gilligan’s island music) The trip essentially covered all of the Yucatan peninsula. The truck was packed, Lee, Bear and I set out in mid march.  We had been hearing reports of roads blocked by protesters for numerous issues.  (The teachers were protesting a new law requiring them to take a national test and become certified.  Mexico’s educators in the past could profit on their position by either giving it to a relative (trained and certified or not) or by selling it to someone wanting to teach. To retire one only needs to put in 20 yrs. They leave the current post and collect the retirement stipend, many to just go out and find another position doing the same thing, thus collecting both a paycheck and a retirement check.)  These blockades led to the protests by the taxi drivers complaining of lost wages due to the teachers strike…and then the tourist area’s and guide companies protesting the lost trade because tourist could not get to the archaeological sites.  And then parents and students struck to protest the schools being closed because teachers were striking. It added fun and adventure to our  trip.  Many of the blockades could be shortened by paying a bribe (donation) to the cause.  Being that we are not native to Mexico and that we were driving an American plated car, we chose not to pay for a quick passage and to wait in line like everyone else. We also did not want to make a political statement either for or against any cause.

Bear after accidently running into bay
Bear found the gulf waters and was not impressed

We stopped in Ciudad del Carmen.  A town that is geared towards the support of the oil fields. Large barges and ships are “parked” for the time being as many of the oil rigs have stopped drilling.  Among the 30 to 50 ships play dolphins.  Traffic on the bridge leading into town is slowed by laughing and smiling drivers trying to watch the dolphins play.  I admit to being the major slow down.  Unfortunately we could not stop and take pictures.  Just this past year Mexico has begun selling off the fields to outside interests.  The workers are being laid off daily and no new jobs are being created for them to step into.  So keeping this in mind, our views of Carmen were filled with empty ships, street performers and windshield washers on most street corners, families on the roadside selling everything that had any perceived value. People just trying to earn money for food and shelter. We had been warned to be in doors before full dark, for our own safety. The area between Puebla and Ciudad del Carmen being one of the most dangerous in all of Mexico. The town of Ciudad del Carmen does seem to be more working class than tourist destination. So we continued on towards the Caribbean.

Our first touristy stop was in Merida.

Cathedral Tower in Merida

This was just a quick stop, Checking out some restaurants and the centro.  Sort of a rest stop before exploring Chichen Itza.

The ruins of Chichen Itza are impressive, awe-inspiring and frightening as all get out during a lightning storm. There are no areas of protection out among the ruins, many people gathered under the shade trees.  I thought I had better odds out in the open near say a big tall pyramid than a lone tree.  Sort of a scaredy cat where lightening is concerned.

IMG_9146
Chichen Itzu

“Chichen Itza was a major focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands from the Late Classic (c. AD 600–900) through the Terminal Classic (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Post classic period (c. AD 900–1200). The site exhibits a multitude of architectural styles, reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico and of the Puuc and Chenes styles of the Northern Maya lowlands. The presence of central Mexican styles was once thought to have been representative of direct migration or even conquest from central Mexico, but most contemporary interpretations view the presence of these non-Maya styles more as the result of cultural diffusion. Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, or Tollans, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site.”
(Thank you  Wikileaks for the quotes about the locations I am writing about)

Chichen Itza

Hint here people… be prepared with your own individual means to keep dry. Just about every afternoon in March and April we seemed to get rained on.  I would suggest an umbrella with UV protection that collapses so it can go in a bag or pack.  Also throw in a couple of large trash bags with neck and arm holes cut out.  When it does rain, vendors will try to sell them at $5 to $7 dollars each.  (Being that we are two larger than life women there are very few places that sell anything that fits us.) I believed the hype of advertisers who said a long plastic sleeve geared towards protecting your digital camera and lens would keep the my camera system dry, nope I shorted the board under the on/off button and shutter. We did the coast part of the trip sharing Lee’s camera and my cell phone’s camera ability.  So not so many Pictures of the coast for me. Lee had looked online and discovered a camera repair store back in Merida, on our return trip I would get the camera into a shop Lee found online. For less than $50 this shop would replace the board and clean the internal workings and get it back to me the next day.
After drying off by stopping at several small shops along the route, There is a wonderful small museum just south of the ruins on the road to Cancun.  In it were paintings and craft items for sale by the indigenous tribes throughout the region. Once fed and dry, we were off to explore Cancun and the southwestern peninsula.  Lee had found a very cheap apartment for rent and made friends with the woman who owned it.  Again having our own car was a real help as we could be further away from the tourist areas and the beaches, yet have a nice geared towards Americans/Canadians bed to sleep in.  (For those who have never visited Mexico….the beds tend to be hard as the floor,  We travel with a queen sized air mattress) We used this apartment as our base and hospital ward.  Lee knew of a public beach along the hotel zone, and daily we would head there to float in and out of the pier. (Many individual or “attached to a hotel” beach’s have tables with umbrella’s and chairs for rent cheaply by the day. And/or chaise lounges) Lee loves to float with her snorkel gear on,watching the many brightly colored fish swim by. While, I was out in the surf watching the locals locate and chase off the sting rays.  The biggest I saw was maybe  12″ across.  When the night seas start cooling off, the rays love to head up to shallow water and rest. Bad for us tourist because there are no warnings posted.  WARNING: If you see 3 or 4 men in a half circle walking slowly into deeper water, do not get between them and the open water.  Those rays are an angry lot when chased and you really don’t want to get in their path.  I never could figure out how to spot them on the bottom, they blended so well with the sand.  We had bought UV protected bathing shorts and tee shirts and slathered loads of 70+ UV sunscreen on(many areas and diving boats require a sunscreen that is biodegradable to protect the bio parks off the coast more easily found at home and brought with you), but we still burned like most of the meals I cook.  Lee learned all about the fire coral up close and personal.  They are this microscopic lifeforms that love to attach onto wooden pier supports.  If a person touches the support they get this systemic rash that takes a trip to the doctor and about a months worth of steroid treatments to get rid of.  If by chance you come south and while in the water your body turns into a deep red rash with a burning sensation, do not stop anywhere or try any home remedies,  head straight to a doctor (located at most farmacias in Mexico) and get a steroid cream and a special antibiotic.  While the antibiotic is spendy in the United States is was quite reasonable here.  (Trust us vinegar and hand creams do not work.)  We also got very sick with a deep respiratory infections.  Spent several days in bed wishing the other was well and could cook or run to the store.  The landlady friend graciously extended our stay with no extra money owned.   Once recovered we checked out the big market in town explored off map areas such as Tortuga beach, on a previous trip we took the ferry over to Isla Mujere. Quaint island off colorful and kooky houses and tons of stores with everything from high end jewelry to low brow t-shirts.

We next headed towards Playa del Carmen to explore the ruins along the Caribbean.  We went into Xe Ha (Shel Ha) but not to the new amusement park.  The water parks are really for the abled-bodied.  Xe Ha Park had only one “ride” which I could actually be on.  These private adventure parks do not offer discounts for the disabled.  You will be required to pay the full cost.  The walk in Xe Ha is nice with the breeze from the ocean. Many use this site to access beaches.  There were areas for a bicycle riding and many areas to sit and enjoy the day in the shade near the water.  I think its the perfect area to lounge with a good book and a bottle of your favorite beverage.  No place on the peninsula should be visited without at least one cold bottle of water per person.   A short stop as we wanted to explore Tulum. Both the town and fort.  The town is very small with an extraordinary number of restaurants and small boutique hotels.  Lately, it has become a haven for ex-pats looking for a winter home. If you enjoy coffee and pastry there are plenty of shops to choose from.

Entry to Fort Tulum
Original Gate to Tulum

“Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya; it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. Old World diseases brought by the Spanish settlers appear to have resulted in very high fatalities, disrupting the society and eventually causing the city to be abandoned.”  The walled city was a trading post for the Caribbean islands and a fort protecting the Mayans from attack from the sea and the country of Belize.  It is surrounded by either water or jungle.  Fort Tulum was so beautiful.  The water in shades of green to blue were crystal clear.  A nice breeze was blowing just enough to help me forget about the humidity and heat. Tulum has a long tree shade walk (1/2 mile or so) for those wanting to stretch their legs or a trolley for those who aren’t so inclined to walk in the heat. On the walk we saw monkeys and other small animals along with lots of flowering bushes and trees.  Take your mosquito repellent.

The lawns within Tulum would have been an ideal place for a nice relaxing picnic on the spacious green lawns.  There is a very nice concourse of vendors selling everything from t-shirts to carved totems from the Mayan calendar as you enter the park. Grab some water and maybe an ice cream bar before entering into the fort. We arrived late in the day and were kicked out long before we were ready to leave.  I can only imagine how wonderful sundown would have looked.  The reds and pink of the sky in contrast to the turquoise water of the sea.Fort Tulum

The area surrounding Tulum and in fact all of the peninsula are hidden treasures called cenote’s.  Underground fresh water lakes.  If you are able-bodied take a half day to float under ground.  If you are like I am and not able to climb ladders do not attempt.  While many owners hate to lose a customer, they will tell you no problem and will help get you down and back up the 2o to 30 foot ladders, trust me it is more harrowing than it is relaxing.  Some of the cenote’s we are told are true wonders of the world,  water so clear,blue and very deep while above you might be stalactites, embedded crystal’s or just plain tree roots in one huge giant knot. With the sun coming through one or more holes, some not much larger than a mans body, adding a diffused surrealism to your swim.  I would so love the experience and should anyone know of a cenote with an elevator, I would love the heads up. There are of course cenotes that are closer to the surface that appear more like a pond, or that have been encased by stone sides and steps.  Deep crystal clear waters continually fed from underground.
Tulum has a long tree shade walk (1/2 mile or so) for those wanting to stretch their legs or a trolley for those who aren’t so inclined.  There we saw monkeys and other small animals along with lots of flowering bushes and trees.  Take your mosquito repellent. The most unusual item seen that day was a sign,much like the typical cow or bear crossing signs, was one with a black panther on it.  We had taken a diversion into a small jungle Eco-tourist area, pretty much a one lane dirt road.   Mexico has done a remarkable job preserving and cleaning the mangroves surrounding the country.  The mangroves offer protection to a huge diverse animal kingdom. Beautiful birds, monkey’s, alligators (or maybe they are crocodiles…not animals I want to be up close and personal with) turtles and what I really would love to see from a safe distance black panthers.  Some mangroves have listed and advertised boat trips, others you just might catch a friendly fisherman willing to take you out for an inspiring ride surrounded by nature.  I would suggest if you really want to get memorable pictures of the wild life you have a really good zoom lense.  And again a strong mosquito repellent containing deet which is not available in Mexico and should brought from home.  Zika, Chikungunya and dengue are prevalent through most of southern Mexico.

One place we did not make it to this trip was Bacalar. A beautiful lake of 7 distinct shades of blue., about a 3-4 hour drive from Playa del Carmen. And at the lake is Fort Felipe and with its attached museum.  A must for lovers of all things pirate.  Be warned there are no gas stations between Tulum and Bacalar. You might also want to swing inland and visit the ruins of Chetumal.

The other heads up to future visitors to the Yucatan; hotels, parks and beaches are not dog friendly.  And while in other parts of the world dogs can be certified as a medical assistant for either sight or comfort and allowed  where ever you go, not so in Mexico.  Some of the higher end American hotels will welcome your dog but the majority will not and no where are they welcome on the beaches or in restaurants.  With a lot of pleading, fast talk and a non refundable deposit some City Hotel juniors might let you in. 2 out of 5 tried throughout Mexico have let us stay. And if you expect they will do so again on the return trip….don’t count on it. Here in Mexico there are probably thousands of hotels which cater to the short time stay (4 hours or less)  These are adult hotels geared towards accommodating couples who are living in crowded homes.  (They for the most part look more like a condo with a garage.)  These hotels have been easy to sneak in with a dog but absolutely no children.  And you might get a laugh at the decor. They tend to be cheaper by the night than large chain hotels and will let you stay all night just tell them when you check in.

This was it for the “water” fun time of the trip.  Next up we go to the southern interior of the Peninsula.  Enjoy some random pictures taken.

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