Friday, July 11, 2008

My Day in Ruins

Hit the road early this morning, because we had a lot to cover. First stop, the archaeological site at Tulum, which is just back up to the main road, so 32 km from Xamach Dos. So after a quick breakfast and a good-bye to Margo, we embarked.

The Tulum park opens at 8:00 am, and we got there just after that. Before, it turns out, any English-speaking guides had shown up. But shortly after we started walking on our own, they sent Santiago after us, and he was worth waiting for. Tulum was an important Mayan trading center, right on the coast. It was one of the first Mayan cities spotted by the Spanish, in fact, because the walled city was clearly visible from the water.

Many of the ruins within the wall have been restored or at least uncovered, and you can kind of get a feel for what the layout of the city was like and why it mattered. Santiago told us a lot about Mayan culture and social structure that would reverberate later in the day. Highlights of the tour included great views of the big ruins, the view out over the Caribbean Sea, and several tie-ins with things we'd learned from the Mayan guides from Community Tours earlier in the week.

Then back on the bus for a couple of quick errands in the town of Tulum before heading out to Coba.

Coba wasn't on our original itinerary, but after a friend strongly urged that we should go there, even over some of the other, more famous sites, we added it in today. Great decision (and thanks, Steve!). Coba is a neat site, and unlike some of the others, they haven't cleared the jungle out, so among other things, there is some shade that keeps things cooler. Also, they let you climb to the top of the second-highest Mayan pyramid (the highest being at Tikal in Guatemala) anywhere, and you get a spectacular view over the jungle canopy. Very cool, and well worth the climb.

We also got to rent bikes to ride around between some of the more far-flung ruins, which is definitely more fun than walking in the midday heat. We got a pretty good look at a couple of ball fields, where they used to play the ritual Mayan ballgames. We had seen the demonstration at Xcaret earlier, but this gave a better sense of the context of the games within Mayan society.

After a quick bite of lunch, we climbed back aboard the van and headed for Chichen Itza, by far the most famous Mayan site, at least in Mexico.

First stop was our hotel, where we immediately hopped into the pool for a dip and then luxuriated in the showers for a bit. (For all its beauty, Xamach Dos was very rustic, and the showers were a bit weak.) After a week, it felt good to have a strong shower again! Then a very quick bite of dinner, then off to Chichen Itza park, where they do a light and sound show. It was spectacular, of course. The ruins are very beautiful and well restored, and the grounds are lovely and well kept, so the bright colored lights make for quite a show. I didn't really learn anything that I hadn't already read in the guidebook, but I now have a good feel for what to see tomorrow when we go back in the daylight.

We went for the “simultaneous translation” option, which was OK when it worked, but very direction-sensitive and a bit fussy. Add to this that some of the family stopped to watch at a spot that turned out to be an ant hill, and you have some hilarity. My wife moved from the ant hill to stand on a log, and found herself being surrounded by flying bats (very cool!).

After the show, my daughter found a trail of leafcutter ants, and we tracked them for a ways with a little penlight. Those are some hard-working little dudes!

So it was a very busy day, with three major sites and a lot of transit, but it was fun and worthwhile. We got some insights into Mayan class structure (hint: it's good to be the king!) and history.

More on Chichen Itza after tomorrow's visit.

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