From Playa del Carmen we wanted to travel inland to Valladolid to see something that looked a bit more like Mexico, and to visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. We’d heard there were other ruins and attractions around so we decided to hire a car for a few days to give us a chance to explore. We took the scenic route there, eventually finding the right road with the help of some patient locals, and successfully dodged all the children, bicycles, stray dogs, iguanas and one tarantula which wandered across the road in front of us.
Valladolid is an attractive city, although lots of old cars on its narrow streets make the atmosphere a bit choking. The church and garden square in the centre are its focus, and there are some nice surprises tucked away in the side streets. We found a great ‘tequileria’ where we tasted some local tequilas and bought a bottle, and a small Mayan chocolate ‘factory’ (two women making the milk-free chocolate by hand) which we were guided around and of course bought some treats – the chilli-infused variety even impressed Jim! We also visited a convent (pics below).
Our hostel here (Hostel La Candelaria) was fantastic – tucked away from the bustle of the streets, with a nice shady garden, lots of art on the walls, a good breakfast included and a friendly atmosphere.
From Valladolid we took the car to visit the small set of Mayan ruins at Ek Balam. They were very pleasant, but without a guide we didn’t really know what we were looking at! We learned a lot more at Chichen Itza the next day.
The whole Yucutan peninsula is made of limestone and dotted with hollows containing cool freshwater pools which you can visit (called cenotes). Some are in covered caves, while others have a sky opening. They’re full of wildlife, and our favourite was a short bike ride from Ek Balam, where you can swim with catfish, like being in a big tropical fishtank, and there were also frogs, bats and electric blue dragonflies.
After our trip to Ek Balam we decided we should pay for a guide at Chichen Itza. We struck a deal with an experienced guide called Santiago and weren’t disappointed. We were extremely glad to have arranged our own transport and guide as we saw coachloads of people all crowded round their guides. The tour was a good deal longer than the advertised one hour as he seemed to genuinely love showing people the ruins. As an added bonus the sellers which crowd the paths don’t hassle anyone accompanied by a guide.
The focal point of Chichen Itza is of course the main temple which acts as a ceremonial calendar with the four staircases oriented north, east south and west. The most famous of the properties of this temple is the serpent which is projected onto the side of the staircase during the spring and autumn equinoxes*. The serpent motif, repeated all over the site, symbolised fertility. Possibly more amazing is the incorporation of acoustics into the architecture. Clapping towards the main temple causes a bird call, in the mornings with no people around the high priest’s temple produces the sound of a rattlesnake and the main ball court is designed to produce seven echoes (a sacred number). Everything around the site seems to have a fantastic combination of functionality, ceremonial meaning and aesthetics.
The observatory at Chichen Itza.
A platform decorated with a skull motif. The heads of the defeated enemies would be displayed here to celebrate a military victory.
About that blog title then... (Warning: Sinister content) And it was. Many, many lizards.
Chichen Itza is definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far. We would highly recommend a guide to get the most out of a visit.
* The hotel owner here in Guatemala who’s main trade is archaeology stresses that no Mayan sites measure the equinoxes but instead measure the ‘quarter days’ (half way between the solstices). P.S. Can you tell that Jim wrote this bit about Chichen Itza?!
So that was Mexico. Next we'll be writing about going slow in Belize.