As a special treat we decided to spend Christmas 2007 in Yucatán, Mexico.
We first priced resorts near Cancun, but found all-inclusive plans to be expensive and inappropriate for our family: we are not big drinkers or eaters, and we knew that we would spend a lot of time away from any resort. So we "rolled our own." We had four goals: relaxation, beaches, ruins, and birds in roughly that order of importance. Chichen Itza as one of the "wonders of the world" was an obvious choice, and staying at the ruins was appealing both for relaxation and birding. Isla Mujeres offered relaxation and beaches. Both promised to provide quiet and relaxing atmospheres.
We flew from a fresh ten inches of snow to warm Cancun where we met Carina and rented a car. As novice Mexican travelers we approached driving with apprehension. A "CanDo" map from mexicomaps.com as well as information from the helpful mexperience.com gave us confidence that we could pull it off. Time was going to be a bit tight because our 2:45 PM arrival and two-hour drive gave us little leeway to get to the hotel before dark. However, driving from the Cancun airport to Chichen Itza couldn't be easier -- it is well-marked tollway the whole way. The tollway is quite expensive (over $25 USD each way), but it is very easy. It is also very empty, since it is especially expensive with respect to local average incomes. The hotel provided detailed directions for getting from the tollway to the hotel.
Since we range in height from six feet to six-foot-four, we rented a "large" car which turned out to be a VW Jetta. We folded ourselves into it an headed out. The roads were wide-open and empty: empty of cars and empty of anything on the side of the roads. The whole way was wooded with almost no changes in scenery. Occasionally, in the middle of nowhere, you would see a bicycle riding along the side of the road or see one cross the road. Those that crossed, came from and went into tiny trails which were nearly impossible to spot as we sped by. Where they were coming from or going to was a mystery because there was nothing but trees to see. The occasional car or bicycle were all the broke up the monotony of the two-hour drive. You really felt like you were driving into the wilderness.
We stayed at the Chichen Itza Hotel (aka Hacienda Chichen). The hacienda is where the archeologists stayed, and it is right next to the ruins (maybe 100 meters). There is a main lodge with restaurant and a number of smaller outbuildings each with a few rooms. The buildings are scattered through lush gardens and each has a porch with rockers and/or hammocks. It is a peaceful, bucolic setting -- very relaxing. Our first night we had dinner at the Hacienda which offers wonderful food and service. The main lodge is open to the elements and only had ten or twelve tables. You eat on a covered porch overlooking lush gardens. The only sounds you hear are from the woods with an occasional, distant passing vehicle.
Our first morning began with a guided bird tour of the grounds with a local guide arranged by the hotel. In addition to helping us find and identify birds, he explained his Mayan heritage and local natural lore. He explained how the hacienda had been a large sisal plantation growing "green gold" for use in textile products. Modern material made the crop obsolete. He showed us a leaf which felt like sandpaper that was used as sandpaper to shape gourds into bowls. We recognized the bowls from dinner. We saw some beautiful orioles, the social flycatcher (see picture) and, of course, the spectacular Toh: the turquoise-crowned Motmot (see picture).
Carina joined us for breakfast in the hacienda restaurant. The juice was fresh and the Mexican-style scrambled eggs were wonderful. After breakfast, we met Juan our Chichen Itza guide (arranged by the hotel). After a short walk to the ruins we started our tour. It was very impressive and certainly worth the trip. The way the pyramid structure relates to the calendar was fascinating. The accuracy of their calendars was impressive -- well beyond what Europeans were doing at the same time. They built some of that into the pyramid itself, e.g. 365 steps. On the solstice a shadow is formed which represents a serpent slithering down the side. Finally, standing in the right place and clapping results in the sound of the Mayan sacred bird, the Quetzal
for the sound of the actual bird followed by the hand-clap echo, and
for the explanation).
It was amazing to stand in the huge, near-empty plaza, clap one's hands, and then hear the loud and clear Quetzal call.
On the way we came across a Lineated Woodpecker which may be a relative of the now famous Ivroy-Billed Woodpecker of the North America. See the two pictures above -- click for larger image.
The large, empty plaza was an advantage to staying near the ruins and visiting before the crowds and heat. We also saw a chess match being set up to show-case the world champion (a Russian). After learning about the pyramid we moved to the famous ball court. One thing I liked about our guide is that he spent time talking about what was known and what was guessed about the Mayans. The ball court was a nice example. Were winners or loser sacrificed? He laid out a thoughtful argument around the image carved in the ball court for the seemingly illogical winner-is-sacrificed theory. I found his reasoning to be compelling. The carving also showed the equipment worn by the players: padding all over the body, with a paddle-shaped shoe, and a hand-held paddle. The object was to get a ball through the ring high up on the wall. Presumably the players used all parts of their body to hit and control the ball. Getting a ball through the hoop looked nearly impossible, given its height and size.
The ball court had another hand-clapping demonstration. This time the result was seven echos to a single hand clap -- very cool! We then headed across to the "nunnery" and the "observatory" -- nicknames like the "castle" which were given to buildings by the archeologists and have stuck. Along the way vender stalls were being set up for the coming crowds. Along with stories about his Mayan heritage he explained some of the items being sold. He said that most everything we saw was locally and hand made. He also gave us helpful advice on bargaining -- a new concept to us. We loved some of the "come-ons" such as "Almost free!" or "Cheaper when you come back!".
After our guide left us we wandered the stalls and made our way to the cenote. A cenote is a cave in down to the underground water. They were important for the Mayan religion and the Chichen Itza cenote is the biggest in the Yucatan peninsula which is likely a reason for why the pyramid was there. After leaving the ruins we rested for a bit and then drove to a nearby cenote Ik Kil which is a swimming hole. Ik Kil is just a mile or two from Chichen Itza. Called the "Sacred Blue Cenote," it is a perfectly round well-type cenote with roots dipping to the water and waterfalls. It was an ideal place for swimming in the surprisingly clear water about 85 feet from the surface. A stairway leads you down steps into the water.
After our swim we went into the nearby town of Pista for dinner. Our guide has recommended a restaurant. The food was excellent and the restaurant was nice. However, our outside table was on the road which was too busy for a pleasant meal. Remember the expensive toll road. Well, all the traffic, including trucks, travel the other roads so this pleasant little town had big trucks making their way through. The noise and traffic detracted from an otherwise very pleasant meal. After dinner we returned to the ruins to see the light show (see picture).
We began our next day with a lazy start. Erik woke at dawn to bird the surrounding grounds while the ladies had a "lie in". After breakfast we loaded up the car and headed back to the Cancun airport to return the car and catch a cab to the ferry. On the way we stopped about half way at Valladooid which has a beautiful square with an impressive Cathedral of San Gervasio originally built in 1570 and rebuilt in 1702. It was Sunday and two days before Christmas so the town was hopping! We couldn't see any other tourists among the crowds.
We returned the car at the airport and grabbed a cab to the ferry at Puerto Juarez. The ferries leave every 30 minutes, takes about 30 minutes to the island, and only costs about $3.50 each way. At the island end someone collected our bags and led us to the taxi stand where we grabbed a cab to the hotel. Without our bags it would have been a easy walk.
Our hotel was the Playa la Media Luna, a small hotel on the east (Caribbean) side of the island. On that side there is always a breeze and surf. The currents and rocks prevent swimming, but the other beaches are a five minute walk. We had adjacent rooms on the third floor, each with a balcony and a gorgeous view. There are only fifteen or twenty rooms and they are arranged so that the balconies are quite private. You slip into the hammock and can spend hours looking at the blue Caribbean waters. There was a deck and pool with comfortable chairs, but we tended to use the balconies more.
Everything is close on Isla Mujeres. The main drag with all the restaurants is a street named Hidalgo -- not that you will see any street signs. It is a few minutes walk from any of the hotels around town. The street is lined with shops and restaurants. It has only foot traffic with the stalls and restaurants nearly filling the street. It is a lively place full of people all the time. It is easy to forget that there are other places than this street for shops and restaurants. One thing to note is that the island is a cash economy as essentially no one accepts credit cards -- we found only one restaurant which took a credit card.
Our hotel had a bare-boned continental breakfast with fruit, toast, coffee, and juice. We found it adequate, but did venture out for a couple of more substantial breakfasts. We had no choice but to eat out for other meals, but that was a pleasure. The seafood was wonderful.
Friends of Carina's were in Cancun and took a ferry to visit and spend a day on the beach. We had a wonderful time followed by a great meal on Hidalgo which included roaming troubadours.
One of the popular ways to get around the island is with a golf cart which can be rented hourly, for the day, or for 24 hours. We wanted a 24-hour rental because Erik wanted to explore the island at dawn for birds. However, it turns out that locals like to use the carts on Christmas eve so 24-hour rentals were nonexistent that night. Recognizing our plight a local offered to help and took off on his scooter. About twenty minutes later he returned and I hopped on to be driven across town to someone who would rent one. It was a hole-in-the-wall wreck of a place with a plywood table for a desk and no carts in sight. The cart wasn┐t going to be returned for an hour or two, but he wanted my $60 and drivers license right now. With a leap of faith I handed over the $60 and my "fixer" and I headed off again on his scooter to my hotel to get my drivers license. He took my license (another leap of faith) and dropped me off at the beach. So now I've handed over $60 to an empty hole of an establishment, and then my drivers license to some random guy on a scooter. What was I thinking! I show up at the appointed time and the cart wasn't back yet. "Come back in an hour." OK, so I took a walk and came back. Sure enough, there was a cart. Also, my "fixer" was there so I gave him a tip and took off.
Erik and I putzed down the road to the far end of the island. A golf cart is a pretty slow vehicle and we appeared to have a slow one. However, it was glorious touring the island with grand views of the seas. We drove to Point Sur, the southernmost point, where we got out and looked around. It was closed so we didn't get to see much.
After a wonderful dinner with Sonja's family we called it a day. The next morning was Christmas and Erik and I woke early to go birding. Unfortunately, the cart wouldn't start -- a combination of a weak battery and a manual choke hidden under the driver's seat. Since it was Christmas we knew that nothing would be open so we grabbed a passing cab and headed out. Birding was slow, but it was a beautiful morning. We birded a road along an inlet which eventually took us to an undeveloped patch of woods. We saw Mangrove Cuckoo (see picture). After a while we decided to try another part of the island we had spotted the day before in the cart so we hailed another cab. The driver helped us find an undeveloped road into the middle of the island so we explored that road, as well as another road that headed to the coast. After poking around for a bit longer we hailed yet another cab to return to town. By now things were open and we got a new cart.
After breakfast we headed out for the south end to Garrafon for snorkeling. First we went to Point Sur where we looked around and then ate lunch. Then we went to the Garrafon del Castillo which is immediately next door to the larger Garrafon National Park. The park has a lot of features we were not interested in like the zip lines. The Castillo is simply snorkling for $4 plus equipment, and you swim in the same place. The coral on the reef is not worth the trip, but the fish were impressive. We even saw a large ray (manta?) swim under us.
Isla Contoy was our next adventure. We booked through the hotel which promised an early start, continental breakfast on the boat, an on-board bar opening after snorkeling, rrival on Isla Contoy by 10:00 AM, and a quick 30 minute return. Instead we found ourselves on a slow, rust bucket which departed at around 9:30 AM. The bar opened when one of the crew opened a liter bottle of beer and passed plastic cups. We didn┐t care about the fancy stuff, but marveled at the difference between the advertisement and what we got. An advantage to the tub we traveled on was that it was rock steady in the water so no one got seasick (it was quite calm).
We stopped at a reef in the middle of nowhere and the snorkeling was spectacular. The coral was impressive in its variety and color. The fish were different than we saw at Garrafon which made it more interesting. The reef was quite shallow in places -- I was afraid I might touch when swimming over some parts.
After our snorkeling the bar opened, that is, the liter of beer was passed with the plastic cups, and we puttered on toward the island. We arrived around 1:30PM and headed out to explore. Isla Contoy is an undeveloped wildlife sanctuary. There is a dock and some park buildings with a few short trails. The highlight is a frigate bird rookery with thousands (?) of birds. Some males had their red breasts puffed out to attract females which made for quite a show.
While we explored our crew of two barbecued fish for lunch. It was served on paper plates, but was a superb meal. They cooked barracuda and snapper with spices. Lunch included condiments, corn, and rice. It was simple, but tasteful. After lunch, one of the crew walked into the shallow water of the bay and fed a large ray. The ray came right up to him and ate from his hand.
The Isla Contoy trip filled our day -- our last full day on the island. After yet another great meal, Erik and Carina hit the town to try out a bar and then we packed.