Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mexico: Merida (Yucatan)

Mexico City
San Cristobal de Las Casas (Chiapas)


The last 3 days of our trip, we spent in Merida, the capital of Yucatan, where we visited the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, Chichenitza and the beach town of Progreso. From San Cristobal to Merida, we had not really planned how to travel as there were no direct flights available. So we had left it to the last minute, hoping that we would figure out a way to get there. What we had read online was that bus services are available, but they are not safe or convenient. We however, decided to take the local bus anyways and were pleasantly surprised.

The bus stations were pretty well organised, you could buy tickets at any bus station/shop throughout Mexico, the inter-city buses were pretty frequent and ran on time, they were of good quality and comfortable and the whole 8 hour overnight journey turned out to be hassle-free and comfortable. We had bought premium tickets, so we had reclining seats and slept all the way. The only problem though was that for the first 3 hours, the driver showed a spanish movie which did not help in falling asleep!

Merida cathedral
We reached Merida at 5 am in the morning and while going to the hotel, were again surprised by the town. It felt like a toota-foota (run-down) town by its first look, full of only lack-lustre one floor houses, brightly coloured but very old and dirty-looking. (But by this time, we had realised, that in Mexico, you never judge a town by its first impressions, so this did not bother us much). We also met the first honest cab driver in Mexico - he said he will take us to our hotel by taxi-meter, and he did not take us for a ride!! So we felt proud of ourselves that we can now go around ourselves in Mexico:).


Merida is the capital of the state of Yucatan, known for its warm weather, beaches (Cancun being the most popular one) and the Mayan ruins of Chichenitza, Uxmal, Mayapan, Tulum and some other smaller ones. Merida is a Spanish city, built on the site of an older Mayan town. It is laid out in the form of straight streets numbered odd and perpendicular streets numbered even.

New years eve
Again, like all Spanish cities, it has brightly coloured houses, only one floor high. Also, the whole town has a very relaxed feel to it, is warm, beachy and pretty touristy. It was actually very different from the other places we had stayed in. And it almost felt European too, but in a relaxed sort of way. Plus the people were nice and seemed very simple. All in all, we got a very positive and safe feeling when being in Merida.

Spanish dance in Zocala
The city center of Merida is around 61 and 60 streets. It has many squares, restaurants, churches, shops, live music: basically everything needed by tourists to have a good time. And the shops are open till very late, which is good if you want to shop after a day out. Also, there is a restaurant in the Zocalo, which has traditional Spanish dancing - men and women in white, dancing with glasses on their heads. We saw one of the dances, but everyone around us was more busy in recording it, rather than watching it!

Coloured handicrafts
We also did a bit of handicraft shopping in Merida, and went into this one shop which was full of handicrafts everywhere - brightly coloured bags, bedsheets and Mexican colours. It was a riot of colour everywhere you could see. I was very tempted of shopping excessively, but then stopped myself thinking we can get similar stuff in India too:).

New Years Eve
There is not much that happens on new years though. There were no public fireworks or crowds of people in the squares. Just the restaurants were holding new years dinners where they decorated the restaurants. We ushered in the new year at a square, where there was an open restaurant playing loud music, and distributing balloons. It was low key but fun nonetheless!

Accomodation: At Merida, we stayed in the Casa Continental, a good boutique hotel, 10 mins from the Zocalo, and with very helpful staff.

Travel: We went around outside Merida mostly through tours, and one day by local bus. I would actually suggest hiring a car when in Merida; its the best option, though the cars can finish early sometimes (As they did when we were there), so would suggest booking as early as possible.

Food: We were suggested to try panuchos, cochinita pibil and sopa de lima, all local savouries. I tried sopa de lima, which was a spicy lemon soup and definitely worth a try. The rest of the stuff was non-veg and so I did not get a chance to test them out for myself.

We ate Mexican food at El Trepiche one evening - which was average, and had new years dinner at Peon Contreras, which had live music, tasty food and a nice relaxed open air ambience.

Uxmal Mayan ruins

One of the days, we took a tour to the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. This tour was not as great, because for one - the tour group consisted of a bus full of people, rather than the smaller groups we had in San Cristobal. The second was that even though we had an 'English' guide, he barely told us the essentials, where to go and what to see, while the Spanish guides gave detailed history and tit-bits to the tourists. It made us feel very short-changed, and spoilt the experience for us.

View of Uxmal ruins
Uxmal is part of the Puuc architecture style of the Mayans. We spent about one and a half hour at these ruins, which though similar were still unlike the Palenque ruins in some aspects. For one, these ruins were on flat ground with some vegetation around but no real forests, unlike Palenque. Second, there was no abundance of water, like Palenque in and hence the people of Uxmal used cisterns to store water.

As with the other ruins, these were also saved because they had been abandoned by the Mayans long before the Spanish conquered Mexico. The whole area had been covered by mud and trees for hundreds of years, with the pyramids looking like small hills. So Spaniards did not discover them. Cos whatever they discovered, they destroyed completely.

Uxmal was re-discovered in the 19th century, and even now, of the hundreds of buildings in the area, only about 10 or so have been excavated. The rest still lie in the ground, waiting to tell their story.

Pyramid of the dwarf magician
The main buildings of every Mayan ruin we saw were different, each with a slightly different setup of the city. Uxmal consisted of the Pyramid of the Dwarf Magician, the 'University' or the 'Nunnery', the Governor's Palace, the House of the Turtles, the House of the Birds, the Ball Game court and the South Temple.

The Pyramid is a huge pyramid like building, apparently built by a dwarf magician, overnight. The 'University' or the 'Nunnery' is very impressive - a huge quadrangle surrounded by beautifully decorated walls on each side. The Governors Palace is on raised ground, and a simple long building.

The university

Unlike Palenque, Uxmal does not have signs of any hieroglyphics anywhere. Moreover, there are very few images of people in the buildings here, especially of the flat head. Here all the buildings were decorated with images of the sky, the god Chaak, the holy serpent and of course, the birds, jaguars and the turtles. All dedicated to gods and animals and natural powers, rather than people.

Governors Palace
Most of the buildings here were raised on top of a platform, giving them a great height. Also, the people of Uxmal used to build on top of all the buildings every few year. So the Pyramid had some 7-8 constructions, one of top of the other, leading to the building becoming bigger every few years. And the same if true of the Governors Palace.

The snake was considered very holy by the Mayans, and supposed to give fertility to the earth. Images of the serpent interlinked with humans is shown at multiple places. The image of the snake also lights up during the solstices, supporting the theory that the Mayans had a very well developed scientific and astronomical knowledge.

The buildings here were quite well preserved, with beautiful geometrical designs everywhere you see. A lot of restoration work is still going on, but you can see a lot of what used to be there!

Light and sound show
There is also a beautiful light and sound program which is conducted in the evenings. It gives a lot of information about how these buildings would have been when inhabited. But its in Spanish. So unless you know any, sadly you would have to give it a miss!

Light and sound show
We however ended up watching the whole program since we were misinformed. And I noticed something made me sad. Almost half the people in the show were recording the whole show on their cameras or ipads. They were not really enjoying or listening or experiencing the show for themselves, but rather spending their time handling their electronics. I felt sad to see this, especially since so many cameras spoilt the whole experience for me too. I wonder if the cameras really help us remember the experience, or just make sure we never really experience things when they happen?

There are guides available at the site, even English ones. But their English is average at best, so that's a dampener. Also, I noticed that a lot of guides have a standard story they tell, and are not really knowledgeable about the overall history. So they are not open to asking any questions, other than what they have already learnt!

Food/Accomodation: We had a nice lunch at a buffet restaurant just next to the site, which was good. Also, there is a resort located right next to the ruins, which I think would be fun. Imagine living right next to a place centuries old, and being able to walk around at night?

Chichenitza Mayan ruins

Astronomy tower
The next day, we visited the most famous (and terribly crowded) Mayan site at Chichenitza. It is located close to the very popular (almost American) resort of Cancun, and hence was full of tourists, which made the experience less than perfect for us. Also, the tour was a bit mis-managed, and we ended up spending barely an hour and a half at the site, and the rest just in the organisation of the tour.

Anyways the ruins were definitely worth it. The whole area was very green and looked pretty; also the entire compound was built on a raised platform, so the green that you see in this photo is actually a raised platform! The buildings here were many - the Castle, the Market Place, the Astronomy Tower, the Ball Game court, Temple of the Warriors and countless other smaller buildings. And these buildings were apparently all painted red, in those days. Can't imagine the view...

To be honest, I think this was a better site than Uxmal, but we were put off by the crowds. Plus it was hot and sunny and also rained the same day, so we were not as impressed by these ruins as much as the other sites. So, I don't remember as much about the place, but will still try to recall what I can.

In March and September, based on the movements of the sun, you can see the snake silhouette coming down the Castle, from the top, to the grass. The Ball Game court of Chichenitza is one of the biggest of all the Mayan sites. Also, the carving around the court shows sacrifice of the captain of the winning or losing team (its not clear yet which team members were sacrificed!).

Ball game court

There are no rivers in the Yucantan peninsula, so the Mayans used the Cenotes or underground rivers with flowing water, as water sources. There were two such cenotes near the Chichenitza site. Also human bones were found at a lot of the cenotes around this region - signifying that human sacrifice was prevalent, especially of children (60% of the skeletons were of children!) and slaves.

Chichenitza was also full of street sellers, selling all kinds of handicrafts, especially the Jaguar whistle. We did not buy it here either, since we were in a hurry, but I think it would definitely have been a good buy! Also, the trip to Chichenitza ruins again made me feel that we should have hired our own car, and spent as much time as we wanted - exploring the history, rather than do the very quick one hour tour and finish soon.

Ikil Cenote

Ikil Cenote
There are many Cenotes in this region - underground holy rivers of the Mayans. We went to one of them, and looks like the most popular one - Cenote Ikil. The cenote looked heavenly: surrounded by dense green plants and the water was crystal blue. It was so beautiful, I did not have words to describe it, and could have spent hours there except for the hundreds of people there! I really felt very happy that I was not spending time at Cancun - after seeing the other side of Mexico, I just wanted to be away from crowds.

Ikil Cenote
But the cenote inspite of the crowds was just amazingly beautiful. I would actually suggest if you can, to visit some of the not so crowded cenotes, they would certainly be amazing and fun to swim in.


The last day of our trip we decided that we would just relax and not do anything, but then it was 31st Dec and everything in town was closed. So rather then get bored, we just decided to take a local bus (called autoprogesso) which leaves from the 62nd, between 65 and 67th streets to the local beach town of Progreso.

Progreso beach road
We did not have much expectations as it was not really a touristic place, and were we surprised! First, the bus ride was very comfortable and it gave us the comfort that when we travel, its ok to take the local transport too! The buses were clean, AC and very comfortable.

Progreso beach
Second, the beach was awesome. Long white sand beach, with umbrellas and sea gulls and clear water, and rows of shops and restaurants on the side. The atmosphere was completely relaxed, there were lot of massage places on the beach and a cool breeze blowing. What better way is there to usher in the new year?

Progreso breach road
We has lunch there at Los Henequenes, walked around and admired the beach and then came back in the evening. It was an awesome trip outside town for about a couple of hours and we came back all fresh, relaxed and ready to ring in 2014!!!

There was a lot of local rain too when we were there, the weather changing every few hours and every couple of kms, typical of a beach place I guess.

Other things to do

There are a couple of more places nearby to visit, which we did not get time to. One are the other Mayan ruins in Tulum (which are on the beach) and Mayapan. Second of course is Cancun. And third would be some cenotes nearby, other than the very commercialised one that we visited. And a fourth option would be to visit the haciendas, which are grand Spanish houses worth a visit to get an idea of the colonial times. And the last is Playa de Carmen, apparently another beautiful but less touristy resort town. Also there is an island called Cozunel near Playa de Carmen which is supposed to be pretty.

Other articles on Mexico

Impressions of Mexico
Mexico: Trips for travel

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