The next part of our journey had something of a theme running through it, or rather two themes – cute colonial cities of old and restored buildings, and Mayan ruins of, yes, old and restored buildings. A lot of the ruins round here have had parts of them reconstructed and while they’re undoubtedly impressive there’s something more atmospheric about proper ruins covered in jungle. If the ancient Mayan rulers who built them time-travelled through the ages and cycles of the Mayan calendar you wonder if they’d be more upset by the ruin of their temples or their reconstruction.
First up though was the colonial city of Valladolid, a pleasant city built on a grid system with pretty coloured one- and two-storey buildings. The old cobbled streets may have been replaced by a concrete approximation but otherwise it was fairly unspoilt, and was a nice place to wander around. We found a playground and the girls got playing with a local girl, and tried a bit of Spanish with the help of the phrasebook. This led to them making their own little phrasebooks that they could carry around to help them in their efforts to communicate. The girls were really missing some contact with kids their own age and travel makes this a difficult issue to solve, moving from place to place and having a language barrier to contend with, but they had fun trying out some new phrases.
Our hotel in Valladolid was a lovely looking place, with the rooms set around a courtyard with a pool – as you can see we weren’t really roughing it so far…
We’d also found that travelling around Mexico need not be too uncomfortable, if you stick to the first class buses. These are modern air-conditioned coaches that transport you around in relative luxury, though even they struggle with the number and severity of Mexico’s speed humps; in England speed humps used to be known as ‘sleeping policemen’ – in Mexico they’re more like ‘wide awake, crouching policemen just waiting to surprise you and make you jump in the air’.
The only problem with our hotel though was the night porter’s love of high-octane, high-volume action movies – we complained to the formidable looking woman who ran the hotel the next day and on our second night got peace and quiet, and the odd sullen look.
We visited the ruins at Ek-Balam, which means ‘black jaguar’ – when a ruin has such an evocative name it’s got to be worth a bumpy taxi journey, and we really enjoyed it. These fell more into the proper ruins covered in jungle category, and as well as another hot climb up a pyramid had some great carvings.
Back in Valladolid there was some kind of festival on (actually, there pretty much always seems to be some kind of festival on in Mexico!) and there was some traditional dancing involving beer bottles balanced on heads – not for the last time were we reminded of Morris Men dancing back home. The girls also did some painting at a stall run in aid of the Red Cross and drew a picture of Tinkerbell, which in turn drew a small crowd!
Leaving Valladolid’s understated charm we took the bus to Chichen Itza, where understatement is not on the agenda. Touted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it’s probably Mexico’s most famous and popular sight/site. If you’re there at lunchtime one glance at the car park leaves you under no illusions – this is not the place to go to for serenity and spirituality. In addition to the hoards of tourists there are almost as many hawkers and peddlers selling all manner of tat, trinkets and trash, and some decent clothes and crafts. Every bit of shade has a stall set up and there are also people walking around selling stuff – just in case you hadn’t found the exact item of tosh you were after there’s also an artisan’s market at the exit. Walking round you get assailed by shouts of ‘Very cheap, almost free’ and ‘One Dollar, One Dollar’ – throw in the ever-present jaguar calls from the people selling jaguar-call-whistle-things and it’s an assault on the senses. You can’t even climb the pyramids to get away from it. If this puts you off though, we should point out that Tilly loved the stalls and took some great photos…
It is also pretty impressive, particularly if you go first thing in the morning as we did – as you walk round you can see all the stall-holders emerging from the woods with their wares, and you can see most of the sights before the tour groups swamp the place. The ball court is certainly worth a look, a vast pitch between huge walls with stone hoops set high up as goals, like an ancient version of Quidditch, but where the losing captain got decapitated (as graphically illustrated on stone friezes round the court). It’s also got amazing echo acoustics (echo acoustics, echo acoustics…)
You’ve also got to get at least one shot of the main pyramid…
However we’ll probably remember this part of the trip more for our stay at the Hotel Chichen Itza in the nearby town of Piste. On arrival we knew we’d made the right choice when Luis, the manager, upgraded us to a three-bed room and suggested the kids would probably like to jump from bed to bed. He then looked after us throughout our stay, introducing us to his family, lending us books in English, feeding us, driving us to the ruins so we could be there early, and even thrashing Pete at table tennis! The girls loved playing with Santi, his son, and still talk about being pulled round the car park in a Luis-drawn carriage (there being no horse to pull it!)
He and Santi then dropped us off for our bus and it was quite sad waving them off as we headed to Merida, but this city would prove to be another highlight. There’s not a great deal to see or do but it’s one of those places where people go for a couple of days and end up staying a week. We loved it, and partly this was down to our stay at Nomadas Hostel – this was more or less everything a hostel should be: friendly, helpful info on arrival, reasonable kitchen, decent rooms, beautiful pool in the garden and a great place to meet people. We met an eclectic bunch including a lovely 71 year old lady from Hawaii, an Australian couple (Kylie and Jez) doing a similar trip to us and an English couple (Isabel and Byron) who were motorbiking from North America all the way down through South America – whatever you do there’s always someone going further, faster or more far-flung than you! (Have a look at their blog on http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Adventures-on-the-flying-Aga/ if you get bored of ours!)
We did a touristy horse-drawn carriage ride (the girls had obviously developed a taste for carriages at Piste!), went to the park and played on the fantastic playground (including a small plane converted into slides!) and visited the free zoo. We also went to the new/under construction Mayan Museum which was good, or will be when it’s finished. We spent a lot of time chatting in the hostel and lazing by the pool and several days passed very enjoyably. I’ll put some photos of Merida (and a few more that go with this section) in a separate post after this one.
We then thought it was about time we saw another ruin – or rather the grown-ups did, the kids were already perfecting their refrain of “Oh, no, not another ruin”. This one wasn’t as easy to get to and involved a stay at a posh place in the nearest town, some 10km away. I say posh, but perhaps mean posh/boutique/rustic – we stayed in a hut with a palapa-leaf thatched roof which looked lovely but was perhaps a bit too much like being in the jungle for the girls. Pete also got stung by a wasp and we were serenaded by the noise of various crickets and cicadas as we went to sleep under our mossie nets.
It was all worth it though for our visit to Uxmal the next day. Uxmal is as impressive as Chichen Itza but without the crowds, and I always like a place with more iguanas than people. If you stopped to look there was one on virtually every temple, pyramid or pile of stones…
These were close to being my favourite ruins so far on this trip, but from the highs of the pyramids here we sank to a bit of a low with our stay in Campeche. It’s another picture-postcard colonial city, with some impressive walls still standing, sculpture on the streets and a nice main square. In short it sounds like a fine place to stop for a couple of days but somehow we just didn’t warm to the place, which was strange since it was absolutely sweltering. Perhaps that was part of the problem – it was too hot to do much and there was a pervasive odour to the city. We had two days there; two days, too hot, too tetchy and two tantrums too many. A storm was obviously brewing and on our second night the heavens opened and the streets were flooded, and strangely our moods lifted a little. We’d wondered why the kerbs were nearly a foot high and now we knew. We had to shelter in Burger King and they had to shut the door and batten down the hatches to stop it being inundated. Shops everywhere produced sheets of cardboard to act as makeshift doormats as people ran for cover. If we’d been feeling homesick this was a timely reminder of weather back home, albeit on a bigger, wetter scale.
We were glad to leave Campeche, and the most memorable thing was the downpour…
Next installment soon!