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Branching Out in Yucutan


With only four days to travel through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, we needed a plan. Four days, four directions. It was just simple enough to work. And so began our whirlwind tour.

We flew into Mérida to rest up for the feverish pace ahead but I soon realized Mexico was not a place to rest. During our first dinner, the contagious rhythms of mariachi bands lured me to the street below. Aztec and flamenco dancers decked out in rainbows of colour were mesmerizing swarms of spectators. It was all I could do to tear myself away.

I awoke the first morning with only a few hour’s sleep, but too excited to feel the effects. The 120 km drive southwest to Campeche flew by and, as we pulled into the Mayan ruin of Edzna, my anticipation ran high.

Although Edzná had flourished during 900-300 BC, excavation did not begin until 1943. Edzna means “house of gestures” which speaks volumes. Carved in the facade are distorted stucco masks of the sun god with bulging crossed eyes and a protruding tongue. Apparently, the Mayans believed crossed eyes were beautiful, and so they would place a piece of hair or string between their baby’s eyes in hopes they would become crossed. Listening to horrifying stories of human sacrifice intensified these grotesque faces sending chills up my spine.

Rambling around its sparsely vegetated grounds, I tried to shake off the creeps of the previous episode. Since this my first introduction to a Mayan ruin, I marvelled at everything, including its amazing acoustics. We had to hear it for ourselves. One member of our group ran to the centre of a field quite a distance away as the rest of us stood on the steps of the ceremonial square. We were amazed to hear him even though he spoke in a normal tone.

Continuing west, it became quickly obvious that the Yucatán is unlike the Mexico I’ve been accustomed to. Roadside villages replaced built-up resorts, thatch-roofed huts swapped high-rise hotels and children selling food on the roadside substituted them selling souvenirs on the beach. The infinite differences were enough to peak my curiosity of what was to come.

Evening followed us into Campeche. Dark quickly descended lending itself to the perfect eerie setting for a lantern-led walk through the “Puerta de Tierra”, a suitable initiation to Mexico’s only walled city. A helmet-wearing guard lured us through its ominous dungeon-like alleyways whisking us back to the mid-1500s when pirates began ravaging this tiny, gulf town.

Four centuries later, Campeche has maintained its ethnic flavour. It was refreshing to discover a quiet, laid-back spot not over-run by tourists. Whether it was strolling along its unassuming streets, enjoying a three-hour seafood lunch at La Pigua or hopping on a trolley tour through the downtown core.

The trolley dropped us off at the zócola (main square) and we found ourselves in the midst of Sabadito Alegrae or Happy Saturday, a lively festival of music and dance where chatting families gather around red and white Coca-Cola tables, smiling couples walk hand in hand through the square and persuasive vendors sell corn tortillas and nance, a topical fruit with liqueur. What a wonderful way to celebrate every Saturday.

Sunday came too soon and I dragged my weary body onto the bus. We plodded northward to Dzibilchatún (Temple of the Seven Dolls), named for the seven small figurines found at the foot of the building. When the ruin was cleared in the 1950s, all that was found was a pile of rubble hidden under trees. It was only when archaeologists dug deeper that they discovered the temple.

Day three was a deliberately relaxing one. The journey southwest to Celestún Ecological Reserve was a blur of women in white traditional dress swept their walks, colourful triangular flags hung on telephone wires and children pushed carts down dirt roads.

At Celestún, my shoulders drooped in mutual sigh as I slunk into my seat of our small boat as maneuvered through lush mangroves. The sun on my face was warm and comforting and I relished in this welcomed break from visiting ruins and in this opportunity to be close to nature.

This tropical wetland is a birder’s paradise, home to herons, ducks, cormorants and an unimaginable number of flamingos, the largest colonies in North America. It was mind-boggling to be surrounded by so many of these wonderful, pink birds. I laughed every time they walked because their skinny, stick legs bent awkwardly as they lifted it completely out of the water.

Rolling into Uxmal near sunset gave this beautiful ruin a romantic feel and I immediately knew that Uxmal was my favourite because of its sheer beauty. It stood apart from earlier ruins because of its wonderful, elaborate carvings: geometric patterns, masks and stone mosaics and row upon row of round columns. Fascinated by Uxmal’s smooth, round shapes, I could have spent hours mulling over its intricate carvings.

The Mexican sun burned my tired eyes on our final morning. Heading east 160 km to Valladolid, it was by far our most ambitious excursion. Its cute main street had an almost “toy village” feel as charming homes painted in creamy shades of salmon and coral resembled a facade from a movie set. What it was like to live in a town like this?

Less than a ten-minute drive from Valladolid is Cenote Dztinup, a natural freshwater pool in a cave. Its tiny steps guided me through the dark cavern until the pool’s edge was right at my feet. Sunlight poured in a hole in the cave ceiling making the clear water more inviting. Sweat rolled down my face and it took all my willpower to keep from jumping in, clothes and all.

It was late when we arrived at the much-lauded Chichén Itzá, leaving just enough time to hit the ruin’s highlights. Considered the most important city in the Yucatán from the 10th to the 12th century, choosing only a few buildings to visit proved to be a difficult task. Darting across this massive site which covers six square kilometres, I managed to tour some of the larger structures including the majestic El Castillo (the castle) pyramid located in the centre of the site. Descending its 91 steep steps proved to be more daunting than ascending had been.

Izamal was our last stop before returning to Mérida. There was no better place to spend our last evening in Mexico than in this Spanish colonial town known for its earth-tone yellow buildings. A full moon shone through a tiny window on the top of St. Anthony de Padua creating a magical night. Sitting in the huge atrium of the 16th century convent, we enjoyed a spectacular show of mariachi music and exotic dancers flashing fiery outfits. What a perfect ending to our whirlwind tour.

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