Merida Weekend

On the weekends in Merida there is quite a bit to do. First, though, we had to walk for a few kilometers in the heat to see a doctor about my swollen hand, received when some malicious insect stung me at the Labna ruin site; it had hurt like hell on that day, and, when we got home and I put on my glasses, I realised that a stinger had been left behind in my palm. Then my palm started to swell and, as the next day progressed, the swelling started to extend down my arm – time to get a remedy! The doctor, a kindly pediatrician who drove down to the clinic to see me, gave me a prescription for some topical and oral steroids and assured me that nothing in the Yucatan is poisonous … good to know. Today, three days later, my hand is back to normal.

Since we were near the Centennial Park, and its zoo, we decided to visit the animals. Although neither Ty nor I like zoos, this one had received some good reviews on the net.

Unfortunately, these reviews weren’t really justified, since most of the animals are in small pens or tiny metal cages that are, in the case of the large cats and hippos certainly, way too small for them.

I was surprised to see so many big cats here; the zoo has lions (with two new small cubs), leopards, tigers, panthers, and some other small cat species, as well as a couple of hippos, and lots of varieties of deer.

Two of the younger cats, a black panther and a leopard, were playing with one another, while many of the other big cats were pacing neurotically up and down in their tiny spaces, or lying listlessly on the ground in the heat.

The zoo also has a snake display, a couple of crocodiles, quite a lot of turtles, monkeys, baboons, two chimps, and a fairly large aviary, with several peacocks.

All the food stands are designed in the shape of architectural structures from around the world – tee-pees, igloos, a castle, a Greek temple, and a mosque, among them.

We were the only tourists there; the place was busy with local families and their kids, all out enjoying the park.

From Thursday to Sunday downtown Merida is closed to cars,

and hosts music and dancing in the squares and on the streets.

At night, the colonial buildings gracing the downtown main square are lit up beautifully.

This past weekend we saw three descendants of the ancient Maya protesting Mayan treatment by the Catholic church in front of the Cathedral of San Idelfonso. While I was busy photographing the buildings, a hard looking working girl sidled up to Ty and tried to get his attention without any success.

On Sunday, from some local antique dealers whose wares were set up in the Santa Lucia Park, I purchased a tin ex-voto painting from 1951 illustrating a promise to St. Teresa to quit smoking from a selection of several such works on sale. Although there are lots of souvenirs and “mayan” handicrafts for sale here, it’s not that easy to get something authentic. My painting is the middle one in the picture below.

We’ve got two more days in Merida and then we’re off on the big bus to Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya; both of us are looking forward to being back on the beach!

See more pics here and here.

Yucatan Day Trip: Loltun Caves and the Puuc Route

Wanting to see some of the less well-known Mayan ruins in the area, but not wanting to drive ourselves, Ty and I decided to do a day trip with a driver from Yucatan Connect to the Lol Tun Caves and the sites along the Puuc Route, south and south east of Merida. The word “Puuc” means small hill or mound and this is the only area in the Yucatan where the landscape is other than perfectly flat. Ruben picked us up in the van about 8 am and we were off south east to the caves, the farthest point away from Merida.

We understood that there were six tours a day in the caves, beginning at 9:30, and knew that we couldn’t enter without a guide. Luckily, we arrived at the cave site right on time and were escorted into the caves by Pablo, a guide with whom we negotiated a tour price. [The entrance fees and guide prices here are quite high, especially compared with Guanajuato and other places we’ve visited – apparently, the usual guide price is 500 – 600 pesos (about $40 – 50); because there were ony two of us, we paid half this amount, and 204 pesos to enter].

Like the Karain Cave north of Antalya which Tracey and I had visited together, this cave is also lit with many lurid coloured lights, casting wonderful shadows on the walls. Here, too, is evidence of 15,000 years of human habitation, along with the remains of mammoth, bison, felines and deer. The only wildlife in the caves today are bats and cave swallows. Some of the cavern areas are huge and cathedral-like; others are small and quite claustrophobic. In one of the rooms are two hollow columns which, when struck, ring out deep musical notes.

On the walls are carvings, one of a warrior figure, and one of two flowers, the latter giving the cave its name (Lol=flower; tun=stone). From Yucatan Today: “The tour starts at the entrance of Nahkab, or beehive, where the famous bas-relief known as El Guerrero de Loltún (the Loltún warrior) is located, who seems to be emerging from the caves and is believed to be the God of the underworld. Another attraction of great interest is the cave paintings: on one wall one can see negatives of hands, on another there are more elaborate paintings representing faces, animals and staggered fret patterns.

In the diverse halls, galleries and chambers – almost 60 m deep and extending over more than 700 m – diverse archaeological pieces, ceramics, stone artifacts, marine shells and petroglyphs have been found, corresponding to the Mayan culture in its different stages of development.”

Our guide complained that the caves are not well-visited; they are too far away from Merida and Cancun for most people – that’s too bad because they are really quite cool.

Our next stop was Labná, once a city of some 1,500 to 2,500 people, inhabited between 750 and 1000 AD. Presently, four buildings have been  restored. The large palace houses 70 chultunes (water cisterns), used for collecting rainwater, a supply that allowed the Maya to survive the hot dry season; at least six months of the year here there is no water.

Passing the palace we also saw a large private home, and the el Mirador, a watch tower, as well as the arch that is thought to have been the center of the city and the entrance to the sacbé (white road or Mayan highway) that went to Uxmal.

While I was walking around, I slipped on the red mud and, putting my hand down on a rock wall to steady myself, was stung by something that raised a welt and really hurt (still hurts now!).

Interestingly, as in Cambodia’s ruins, here, too, you can see that the architects did not have the hang of the rounded arch; all the arches here are pointed with flat stones at the apex.

Leaving Labna and continuing down the winding road we came to X-Lapak, a name which means “unglued walls”, a site of some 14 mounds and three somewhat restored pyramids. This site and neighbouring Sayil have not been restored and manicured, so we were able to see what the sites looked like when they were discovered.

While Labna’s buildings exist in a park-like setting, reminding both of us of Cambodia’s Angkor Thom, X-Lapak is situated in a beautiful forest of deciduous trees, including one tree that looks very much like a eucalyptus and another that looks like a giant banyan.

Five km from X-Lapak is Sayil, whose name means “The Place of the Ants.”

At the entrance is a small outdoor museum under a thatched roof. This site is home to a beautiful palace that included 90 bedrooms for some 350 people; unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed to climb the staircase here. Workmen are putting parts of it back together so perhaps in the future …

From there we travelled to Kabah, famous for its incredibly ornate “Palace of Chaac Masks” (Chaac is the Mayan rain god). “Kabah” means strong hand, and it was the second most important city after Uxmal and the largest site in the Puuc Region.

As in the other sites, here, too, rain water collection cisterns were built.

A turkey vulture was happily sitting atop one of the palaces here; I wondered whether it was waiting for one of us to expire from the heat. Although it had been overcast and somewhat cloudy earlier in the morning, here it was hot as the sun broke through the clouds. Ty and I were starting to wilt so our next stop was the Pickled Onion Restaurant for some very tasty chicken fajitas.

These four ancient cities were all built between 500 and 1000 ad. At all of them, we were the only visitors and we shared the landscape with enormous clouds of yellow, blue, and black butterflies and hundreds of iguanas, large and small. However, when we rolled up to the Mayan piece-de-resistance of Uxmal (meaning “three times built”), all this changed. Uxmal is big business, with a large parking lot for buses, a restaurant, and a gift shop complex. Unlike the smaller sites, whose entrance fees are either 42 pesos or free, Uxmal costs 177 pesos to enter. However, luckily, the city is big enough that it still seemed relatively uncrowded during our visit.

Uxmal’s architecture, some of the most majestic of the Yucatán archaeological sites, is characterized by low horizontal palaces set around courtyards, decorated with rich sculptural elements and details. Uxmal was the greatest metropolitan and religious center in the Puuc hills in the late classical period and thrived between the 7th and 10th centuries ad. Its numerous architectural styles reflect a number of building phases.

The most impressive structure and the tallest at 100 feet is the House of the Magician which we found just beyond the entrance. According to ancient legend, this pyramid was built by Itzamna in one night. It actually appears to have been built in five phases, and it was situated so that its western stairway faces the setting sun at summer solstice. Unfortunately, visitors can no longer climb the great staircase leading to the temple’s peak. The Nunnery, another large building on the site, was so named by the Spaniards because it reminded them of a European nunnery. It was probably used as a school for training healers, astrologers, shamans, and priests.

The Governor’s Palace is an excellent example of stone mosaic work probably created by hundreds of masons and sculptors. It occupies five acres and contains many beautiful sculptures of the rain god Chaac, serpents, and astrological symbols. Uxmal also has a large ball court, enclosing a playing field that is 110 feet long and 32 feet wide.

(Information from the Yucatan Today website). We were able to climb the Great Pyramid and from its top, we had a fantastic view out over the entire site, as well as the Yucatan beyond.

“The UNESCO World Heritage citation for Uxmal recognizes also “its three related towns of Kabáh, Labná, and Sayil”. Their histories have been closely intertwined. At the collapse of Uxmal in the early 10th century A.D., Kabah, Sayil, and Labná seem to have been part of a confederation or regional state under the authority of Uxmal. However, a century before, Kabah may have been as large as Uxmal and its political equal.

Only about 30 kilometers (19 miles) separate the 2 farthest of the 4 cities. A causeway (sacbe) runs 18 kilometers (11 miles) from Uxmal to Kabah, and the general lack of fortifications indicates some form of evolving alliance. Although the 4 cities may originally have been settled at different times, most of their monumental architecture was constructed between the end of the 8th and the middle of the 10th centuries and share similarities in urban design, architectural style, and modes of construction.

To understand the Puuc region, we must recognize not only the ways in which it shares the remarkably widespread Maya culture, but also the aspects of Puuc society that differ from those of other areas. At its peak the Puuc region achieved the highest density of cities of any Maya area, with more than two hundred cities and smaller settlements. In some areas the residential areas seem to have been almost continuous from one city to another. This, along with the lack of fortifications at the major centers, suggests more sharing of power, a more federated society than in other Maya areas. It seems reasonable to suggest that this might be connected with the most esthetically refined, most carefully crafted, least militaristic architecture created by the Maya.” (

For more information on the Maya culture, click here.

See more pics here.

Dzibilchaltun Mayan Ruin Site

Monday dawned cloudy but very warm so Ty and I decided to visit the nearby Mayan ruin site of Dzibilchaltun, about 15 kilometers north of Merida. On our last visit to Merida seven years ago, we had ridden bikes to this place; unfortunately, on that occasion Ty’s bike had crapped out, leaving him with only one working pedal to get back home, not a very happy scene. So, this time we decided to take public transport. One website we read recommended taking a hired combi (minibus taxi) from San Juan park south of the main plaza, so we jumped aboard a city bus, walked a few blocks to the park, and negotiated a (ridicuously large) fare with a sleepy driver to take us out to the site. We knew that we’d agreed to pay way too much when the driver jumped up from his prone position on one of the back seats and made the sign of the cross while gazing heavenward in thanks before hopping into the driver’s seat and heading down the road.

We were amazed at how much farther north the city had expanded in seven years; what before had been large tracts of undeveloped land was now miles and miles of new shopping malls, big box stores, and auto malls along a ten lane highway. After turning off the main Merida-Progreso highway, our driver pulled over to pick up a couple of local people who were also heading towards Dzibilchaltun. I watched steaming in the back seat as the driver took money from them (and in Spanish told them how much we were paying as they all laughed) for what was supposed to be the private ride for which we’d negotiated a huge sum of money. If he’d asked us, we would have let them ride with us for free; but when he took money from them, that was too much. When we reached the site, I mustered my Spanish to tell the driver off; demanding to know how much the others had paid him for our ride, I deducted that amount from what we paid him.

The last time that we’d visited this place, we had been the only ones on the site. Today, though, there were several tour groups, likely from one of the cruise ships that comes into nearby Progreso on Mondays and Wednesdays. Once again, I was surprised to hear so many American accents all in one place (the last time this happened was in St Lucia on cruise ship day). It is still possible to climb the structures here and from the top of one small pyramid, we caught a beautiful breeze and could see far in all directions.

Down at ground level it was very hot and humid. After walking around the open chapel and through the main plaza, we headed towards the large cenote (fresh water sinkhole) in which many of the visitors were swimming, watching them from a nearby structure.

Although these waters seem clean, since there are fresh water organisms in Mexico which can give serious disease, neither of us swam.

As we climbed the stones, Ty’s flip-flop broke – damn! However, ingeniously, he was able to repair it using one of my string bracelets and a small piece of wood – huzzah! – enabling him to continue our walking tour.

Many small, almost invisible, lizards zoomed out of our way as we walked. Larger ones, almost the same colour as the ground, sunned themselves on the warm rocks.

We climbed the most important structure on the site, the Temple of the Seven Dolls, whose four entrances face east and west, and from there we had a great view across the most important structures of the area.

Since the site’s Museum wasn’t open on Mondays, we headed back out to the parking lot, trying to figure out how to get back to the city. After having paid a fair bit of coin to get there, and a fair bit to get into the site, we were not inclined to pay for a taxi back. One of the drivers told us that a local bus would be coming from the village in fifteen minutes so we made our way out to the main road and, amazingly, only waited for a couple of minutes before the big old bus approached, for which we paid a twentieth of what it had cost to get there.

From Yucatan Today: “Dzibilchaltún” means the “place where there is writing on the stones,” referring to the many memorial stones found at the site. There were settlements here from 500 BC until the Spanish conquest, around 1540 AD. It covers an area of about 19 square kilometers, with somewhere around 8400 structures in the round enclave. It is believed there may have been a population of as many as 40,000 inhabitants, making it one of the largest cities of Mesoamerica. […]

The Temple of the Seven Dolls is also known as the Temple of the Sun, a square structure which was the focal point of the city. This second name may come from the phenomenon which takes place twice yearly, at the spring and fall equinoxes, when the rising sun is visible through one window and out the other, a tribute to the incredible mathematical knowledge of the Mayas. The temple is connected to the rest of the site by a sacbé, or “white road,” so called because they were originally coated with white limestone, built over stone and rubble fill.

The more well known name, Temple of the Seven Dolls, comes from the seven small coarsely made effigy dolls found in the interior of the temple. The one-story square building has a central chamber surrounded by a corridor. There are four entrances with windows alongside each one, facing east and west. It may have been used as an astronomical observatory. The roof was like a tower, which projected upwards from a vaulted ceiling. There are steps on all four sides of the building, which was built on a pyramid-shaped pedestal. There are eight stucco masks on the frieze of the temple, as well as serpents and glyphs, and beads, sea animals, and feathers, all made in carved stucco. It wasn’t until the 1950s that archaeologists discovered the temple buried under another building: for some reason around 800 AD, the temple was filled with rocks and then covered by another larger building. The remains of this second structure still partially cover it.”

Once back in Merida, we stopped for lunch at a newly-opened German restaurant downtown, a nice change from tacos …

Ty’s improvised shoe repair lasted until a couple of blocks from home, whereupon he had to replace the disintegrating stick with a fresh one he’d had the presence of mind to put in his pocket.

Such are the small joys of life on the road …

The large cactus near our casita is blooming; huge white flowers open in the night and, as soon as the sun hits them in the morning, close and die. While the blooms are still open, clouds of large and small bees enjoy them.

See more pics here.

Colonial jewel Merida, Yucatan, Mexico

After having found out, one day before we were due to leave, that our flight from Mexico City to Merida had been cancelled, we decided to reroute ourselves through the Puerto Escondido airport rather than drive all the way back down to Huatulco. Twelve hours and two flights later, we rolled up to the Casa de Cielo Grande in the Merida Centro neighbourhood of Santiago. Here we have a one bedroom casita (small house) at the back of a compound owned by two Canadians originally from Kelowna who enjoy their cervesas and make a mean bean dip.

The compound has a very nice kidney shaped pool and a lovely garden area, as well as five Chihuahua dogs, all of whom came racing and barking out to greet us (and do so every morning when we sit outside for our coffee). The little guy in the picture below next to my feet is very cute and very friendly; he loves his pats.

Who knew that May was the hottest month of the very hot year in Merida? May is just before the rainy season begins, when the temperature can soar upwards to 45 most days.

Afternoons here are blazing hot; about the only sensible thing to do is swim in the pool and lie inside under the air conditioner.

Since arriving Thursday night, we’ve walked down to the Main Plaza a couple of times, visited the Governor’s Palace there to see the wonderful Pacheco murals depicting the results of the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the Main Cathedral, and today, the Lucas de Galvez market, the so-called “old market”.

Lo Zocalo, the main plaza, is surrounded on all four sides by beautifully painted colonial buildings and arched arcades. Inside the square locals and the few tourists still about compete for shaded iron benches beneath the Indian Laurel trees, the ones in full sun being way too hot to serve as seats. Shoe shine guys ply their trade and tourist touts driven from Cancun by the lack of tourists try to get people to visit the many shops selling Mayan crafts and souvenirs.

One guy took us to the Mundo Maya, one of the more elaborate set-ups, where upstairs the gallery was illuminated especially for us so that we could see all the jewellery, carvings, and sculptures at their best.

One of the saleswomen showed us “live brooches”, small wood bugs with fake jewels attached to their backs; these are collected as pets.

We managed to escape without buying any of their pricey stock, beautiful though it was. Walking back to the ranch, we stopped in at the small gallery/studio of Juan Pablo Bavio and purchased a signed reproduction of one of his Mayan-motif paintings. I felt a bit bad for him sitting in a screaming hot space with the sound of busy traffic constantly rumbling past his door. Unfortunately, his location is just a bit too far off the square to attract more than a few visitors a day.

The old market is enormous, with many acres of stalls and a dizzying array of stuff for sale,

from thousands of cheap shoes, to baby animals in tiny cages, to fresh fruits and vegetables, to fish, to meat, to you-name-it … We wandered around there for a couple of hours while I looked for some plastic flowers and paper products.

Compared with Puerto Escondido, Merida is an enormous city with the crowded busyness to match. The plaza has changed in feel since we were last here seven years ago; it’s been cleaned up and the buses and combis are no longer allowed in its vicinity, with the result that fewer people are patronising its businesses. But a few blocks away from the zocalo, Mexican life hustles and bustles. Pounding music emanates from every second shop, competing with the jack hammers of construction projects, the traffic, and the shouting of merchants. After a few hours the noise was just too much for me, and, having decided to take the bus back, Ty and I made the mistake of jumping on one heading in the wrong direction, ending up paying our fare to go just three blocks before running to catch one headed the right way.

See more pics here.