Friday, September 15, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #6 - Exploring Pueblo Tulum

At the end of the Riviera Maya, about 80 south of Cancún, ancient ruins, boutique hotels and an art colony comprise the eclectic pueblo of Tulum.

In the city's archeological zone, Mayan palaces, temples and other civic buildings from 1300 A.D. overlook the sea from a breathtaking cliffside location. The 45-peso entry fee ($5) is a cheap price to pay for the privilege of swimming in the ocean directly below the pyramid El Castillo.

South along the coastline, small solar-powered hotels provide electricity to guests each night from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Using candles for illuminations, nearby restaurants serve fresh seafood and other local cuisine right on the beach. Air conditioning is provided by the perpetual ocean breeze.

A wide variety of outstanding Mexican folk art, clothing and beadwork is available in an intimate marketplace located near the Hotel Piedra Escondida.

Along the main street of Tulum, souvenir stands are interspersed with cantinas, convenience stores, mercados and pharmacias. This is where the people of Tulum work and live.

Take a walk off the main drag and explore the iglesias (churches), escuelas, (schools) and other community centers. Cancún is a great tourist experience, but the real Mexico is found in places like Tulum.
-Larry Widen

Monday, September 11, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #5 - Chichen Itza

"Very soon we saw rising high above the plain the Castillo of Chichen. In half an hour we were among the ruins of this ancient city, with all the great buildings in full view, casting prodigious shadows over the plain and presenting a spectacle which, even after all that we had seen, once more excited in us emotions of wonder."
The above description appears in the diaries of John L. Stephens, a writer who visited Chichen Itza in 1841. Stephens and his companions must have been intrepid explorers, for to reach Chichen in those days was difficult indeed. The heat, insects, jungle and scarcity of fresh water are just a few factors that modern-day visitors don't often consider.

Various other expeditions traveled to the ruins after Stephens' diaries were published, and in 1895 the amateur achaeologist Edward H. Thompson began what would become a 30-year examination of the site. As part of his explorations, Thompson dredged the first artifacts out of the Sacred Cenote. From 1924 to 1944, the Mexico government excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and a number of other buildings at Chichen. In the 1960's the Sacred Cenote was dredged again, this time under the supervision of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

Today, Chichen Itza is the most visited of the major Maya archaelogical sites. Because it's only a short trip from Cancun by car, many visitors make the trip here. Unfortunately, deterioration has led to the famous pyramid, El Castillo, becoming unsafe for climbing. Still, a few hours on the grounds are well worth the trip. Chichen's excavated ruins include temples, palaces, markets, baths, and ballcourts. And the Sacred Cenote is easily accessible for viewing.
-Larry Widen

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #4 - A Visit to Valladolid

Just 40 miles west of Cobá is Valladolid, a charming city with architecture and customs that recall Colonial Spain. Instead of the traditional open-air Mexican plaza, downtown Valladolid is clustered around a park with filled with majestic banyan and ceiba trees. This lovely public square is enclosed by elegant wrought iron railings. Across the street, the Hotel Maria de la Luz serves the local lunch favorite, a tender, flavorful pork dish called cochinita pibil. Marinated in in habanero peppers, cumin, paprika, chili powder, coriander, salt and pepper, the pork loin simmers for hours before making its way to the table. A few forkfuls of cochinita are placed inside homemade Merida bread and dipped in the spicy achiote broth before eating. If you’re waiting for the bill, know that Mexican waiters are far too polite to bring it until you actually ask them to do so. A simple ‘la cuenta, por favor’ whenever you’re ready will do the trick.

The hotel rests in the shadow of San Gervasio, a 600-year-old cathedral that was around when the Mayans were holding off the Spanish soldiers who wanted control of the region. Three blocks away is the historic Cenote Zací, a huge freshwater spring in which Mayan insurgents hid before ambushing the Spaniards in Valladolid’s bloodiest battle. On a happier note, there are several fine arts and crafts stores along Calle 42 with unbelievably low prices. Plates, cups, wall art and many other ceramic items are a real bargain here.

Valladolid is a wonderful place to experience Old World Spanish art and culture at your own pace. Spend a whole day or just a few hours. Daytrippers who venture off the public square will find open-air mercados that sell fresh fruits and meats. Very few people in Valladolid speak English, but they’re extremely gracious to visitors who dredge up some long-forgotten high school Spanish.
-Larry Widen