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Cities and Monuments of Yucatán

Published
May 10, 2024
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FROM EL SALVADOR, I flew to the modern tourist resort city of Cancún, near the northeast tip of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, with the plan of visiting the Mayan temple sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal.

Yucatán. Map data ©2024 Google. North at top.

I caught a local bus from the airport to downtown Cancún, westward of the more fashionable waterfront area known as the Zona Hoteleria or Hotel Zone.

Cancún. Map data ©2024 Google.

I stayed at the Hostel Selina Cancún, a huge resort with pink buildings and balconies, and nice artwork on some of the walls.

Hostel Selina Cancún

There were signs in English saying that it was pet-friendly, tlacuache-friendly. and iguana-friendly.

Tlacuache is the local word for opossum. I suppose these signs are there in case tourists get freaked out by  the local wildlife, which exists in profusion. And not just iguanas and opossums either, but crocodiles and pelicans.

They served a great breakfast, and staying there only cost US $30 a night. By the way, the Mexican currency, the peso, is also written as $, but the Mexican peso is only worth about one-seventeenth of a US dollar. To save confusion, all the prices that I quote with a dollar sign in this post and the next ones on Mexico will be in US dollars, and I will refer to the peso in words.

There was a great swimming pool right next to the city’s fabulous beach, not far from a terminal where you could get the ferry to Isla Mujeres, an equally touristy barrier island offshore.

I got my toenails done for the first time in five weeks, my hair, and a massage, all for about $120. It was a nice rest stop, with  good supermarkets, and a place where I could get a Mexican SIM for my phone.

Cancún Street Scenes

I had the famous Latin American fish dish, ceviche. Some more local food specialties include guacamole, which was developed in southern Mexico generally, and salsa yucateca, ‘Yucatán sauce’, also known as xnipec, which combines chili peppers, onions, and orange juice.

Ceviche

Isla Mujeres was nice, but it was packed and had a lot of tourists driving golf buggies that you had to more or less jump aside for.

On the waterfront

Looking toward Cancún from Isla Mujeres

Here is a video that I made of my stay in Cancún.

If I had had time, I would have taken a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to a reserve with flamingoes, the so-called Mexican paradise of Rio Lagartos.

But getting a day tour costs a minimum of $180 online, though having said that you could secure the same day tours on a last-minute basis, outside the supermarket, for as little as $35.

The Caribbean shores of Cancún were beautiful. But there is a less busy place further south called Bacalar, on the clear Bacalar lagoon, with dark blue depths and turquoise shallows just like the waters of Cancún, which people also recommend. And Tulum, an old Mayan city right on the coast, said to be most impressive when seen from a boat out on the sea.

I arrived just at the start of the down season in Mexico, a country few tourists wish to visit in summer. In Yucatán, the temperature can often get over 40 degrees Celsius in the summer, with a heat index of more than 50 degrees.

My next stop was Chichén Itzá. There, I stayed in a village called Pisté, about a half-hour walk from Chichén Itzá.

The Pisté Civil Registry

I stayed with a local family in Piste for $50 a night on booking dot com. But I had trouble sleeping. It was unbearably hot at this time of year, already. I tried taking naps in the daytime, but was disturbed by their household activities. I think it is better to spring for an air-conditioned hotel, under these circumstances.

I got a ticket to do the 8 am tour of Chichén Itzá, when the temperature was coolest.

There is a great pyramid at Chichén Itzá, known as El Castillo (‘the castle’), which is a Spanish nickname of course, or perhaps more correctly the Temple of Kuculkán, a Mayan snake-god.

The author in front of ‘El Castillo’

A head of Kuculkán, at the base of El Castillo. Photo by Frank Kovalchek, 28 March 2009, CC BY 2.0 Deed via Wikimedia Commons.

There is a very unusual phenomenon at El Castillo, which scientists only began to look into quite recently. This is that, when you clap your hands in front of the tall staircase, the returning echo sounds like the chirps of the resplendent quetzal. It is thought that this was deliberate and that the designers of the pyramids were, therefore, even cleverer than we realised already.

People used to be able to climb El Castillo and go into the chambers inside: but in 2006 an American woman fell to her death from the top, and the chambers and murals inside were starting to get graffitied, so it is all locked up now.

Another thing Chichén Itzá is famous for is the fact that it was from here that the conquistador Pizarro brought tomato seeds to Europe, an important part of the so-called Columbian exchange whereby several American species of edible plants such as tomatoes, avocadoes, and potatoes, plus tobacco, became known in Europe, while European plants (and animals) were taken to the Americas.

Potatoes caught on quite quickly in Europe, in part because, in the war-torn 1600s, they allowed peasants to grow a crop that no invading army could set fire to or trample into uselessness in the fields.

Yet as strange as it now seems, given the ubiquitous nature of tomato sauce and tomatoes with just about everything in Italian cooking, for instance— to the point where we might think tomatoes come from Italy — the regular consumption of tomatoes did not catch on straight away among the Europeans: indeed, not for about another three hundred years.

That was because the tomato is a member of the nightshade family, known in Europe as a family of mostly poisonous weeds.

The scientific name of the tomato is Solanum lycopersicum. Its closest European relative is Solonum nigrum, the black nightshade. Resembling small black tomatoes on a tomato-like vine, the berries of the black nightshade can be poisonous depending on the exact variety and whether they are ripe or not.

Another European relative, more seriously and consistently poisonous, is the deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna.

Indeed, most parts of the tomato plant itself are poisonous — just, luckily, not the tomatoes.

But given this family resemblance, the average European who wasn’t an expert botanist was inclined to give the tomato a swerve, just in case. For generations after Pizarro, Europeans would continue to consume tomatoless pizza and would have no tomatoes in their spaghetti bolognese either. And of course, there was no tomato sauce to be had as yet.

Getting back to the Chichén Itzá site, there is also a structure that looks a lot like a modern astronomical observatory. It is known as El Caracol, meaning ‘the snail’ in Spanish because it has a spiral staircase inside.

Modern thinking holds that El Caracol was, indeed, an observatory, raised up so that Mayan astronomers could get above the flat and bushy terrain of Yucutan, which would otherwise have obscured their view. Amazing!

El Caracol at Chichén Itzá. Photo by Daniel Schwen, 18 August 2009, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It cost 614 pesos to get in as a foreigner (Mexican citizens and local residents get reduced rates and free days), and 1,200 pesos on top to hire a guide (which was optional).

Apparently, the numbers visiting Chichén Itzá are declining because of the cost of entry; though it seems a pity to come this far and not visit a remarkable piece of World Heritage for about the equivalent of $40 to $45, or a bit over $100 with a guide included.

They have a night show, from Tuesday to Sunday: but I arrived on a Monday! Having said that, I think that my decision to stay in Pisté and to visit at 8 am was a good one, as I avoided 35-degree daytime heat and throngs of later visitors, the downturn notwithstanding. And it was good to be shown around by a guide for two hours.

I made a video of my guided tour around Chichén Itzá, with a guide named Emilio. There were lots of other cultures who built stone monuments in Mexico and Central America as well, with the earliest known one being the Olmecs, who originated around 1,200 BCE, and then others after them such as the Toltecs. The Mayans were but one of these groups, though one of the most prominent.

There were lots of hieroglyphics and other carvings on the buildings. They included references to snake-gods, like the one honoured at El Castillo (Kuculkán).

Snakes were common in Mayan lore as symbols of fertility, because they shed their skin and appeared to regenerate themselves: though to the Spanish the snake-gods that the Mayans worshipped appeared more like demons: not snakes, but serpents.

There was also a very interesting symbol of a priest with crossed legs and arms resembling a Buddha, though I am sure it is a coincidence.

And there were many references to the rain-god Chaak. The inhabitants of Yucatán do not have much in the way of rivers, lakes, or other permanent sources of water. This was the greatest vulnerability of Mayan culture on the Yucatan peninsula, which is mostly made of limestone, and where the water just drains away as a result.

The rulers of Mayan cities stored rainwater in cisterns, but even so they were in trouble if several droughts followed in quick succession, and so Chaak was a very important god.

Experts believe that a dry spell lasting a generation or more led to the shrinkage of the ‘classical’ Mayan culture and the shift to the postclassical period, namely, the last few centuries before the Spanish conquest. Perhaps if the Mayans had still been at full strength, the Spanish might have found their conquest more difficult.

Even so, the local Yucatán Maya culture still exists, and they speak its language in the schools.

On the other hand, Emilo also told me that there are many problems in contemporary Mayan society including alcoholism and the continuing sale of land to foreigners.

After Chichén Itzá, I got a ticket to Mérida by bus. The tickets are cheaper from the bus stations rather than online, and the buses are fairly regular, though you can also look up their timetables online. One of the biggest companies is called ADO, whose buses offer both first and second class, and another one, with a bus closer to the camera, is called Oriente, which I think might actually be a branch of ADO.

In Mérida, I stayed in this beautiful hotel with a swimming pool called El Anita. I needed it, for the temperature was up to 42 degrees Celsius by 10 am.

I took a local bus to Uxmal, 62 km south of Mérida, which cost 100 pesos. It cost a similar amount to get into Uxmal as it did to get into Chichén Itzá, a price that once again seemed to deter the backpackers.

Once again, there were great monuments, carvings, and hieroglyphics. I took some pictures of information panels this time.

Here is the Palace of the Governor.

In front of the Palace of the Governor, there was the throne of the ruler which is mentioned on the information panel above: a throne called the Jaguar Throne because it is made up of the carved foreparts of two jaguars back-to-back. It is sometimes inaccurately referred to as the Cougar Throne.

The Jaguar Throne

There is a cultural museum and theme park next door called Mayaland, which included a planetarium.

The planetarium

There is also an impressive quadrangle with the name of the Quadrangle of the Nuns, or Nunnery Quadrangle, which is again a Spanish nickname because the Spanish thought it resembled a convent. As the following information panel makes clear, it was actually a palace courtyard.

The Quadrangle of the Nuns

The structure includes what the Spanish called the Grupo El Palomar, meaning the pigeon-loft complex or the dovecotes, though again I think they were only guessing.

The Grupo El Palomar

If El Castillo was the largest structure at Chichén Itzá., the largest at Uxmal is the Pyramid of the Fortune-Teller, or of the Magician. It is unusual, because it is more rounded than many other pyramids.

The Pyramid of the Magician, overlooking the Building of the Columns. Photo by Rob Young, 25 November 2012, CC BY 2.0 Deed via Wikimedia Commons.

As with the pyramids of ancient Egypt, the un-decorated stone blocks that make up the bulk of the Mayan pyramids and the other structures alongside would have been covered in plaster. The plaster has, of course, long since been rained off. But you could imagine what the scene above would have been like back in the day.

Uxmal also has a court where the Mayan ball game was played. The losers would often be sacrificed.

Mayan Ball Court, with the Quadrangle of the Nuns in the background

Uxmal is famous for being one of the greatest examples of the Puuc style, which appeared at the end of the classical period and is distinguished by the use of concrete. We tend to think of concrete as something modern. But the Romans also knew how to make concrete. And so too did the Puuc-culture Mayans.

Despite the stunning magnificence of the achievements of these indigenous civilisations, with their advanced acoustics and discovery of concrete to be added to mathematics, astronomy, and hieroglyphics, the one thing that is difficult for us to get our heads around these days is the human sacrifice bit. Umm, yes, that bit.

They say that those who were sacrificed often gave themselves up willingly in the belief that they were going to some sort of heaven.

In any case, the Mayans weren’t as drastically into human sacrifice as the Aztecs, who I will be covering a bit later on.

I have a third video of mine here, covering Uxmal.

I came back to Mérida by means of a motorbike that was towing a trailer with passengers inside, and really enjoyed the journey. I went out and found a wonderful place to eat, with lots of character, called La Habana, where I had a very good seafood cocktail.

I was absolutely suffering from the heat, though!

Inner city Mérida was being pedestrianised, to make it more welcoming for tourists and the local people. It was really great.

Close to La Habana there was the Parque San Juan, named after the church of St John the Baptist.

St John the Baptist, in Mérida

The other side of St John the Baptist

The Parque San Juan included a statue of Benito Juárez, one of the most famous of Mexico’s early leaders in the mid-nineteenth century. A native American of the Zapotec culture, from Oaxaca, Juárez was the first and as yet only indigenous president of Mexico, as well as the first indigenous leader to be elected to such a high office anywhere in the postcolonial Americas.

Juárez helped to make Mexico permanently and firmly into a republic, overthrowing the Emperor Maximilian, younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, who had been installed by Emperor Napoleon III of France.

Notoriously, Juárez had Maximilian, and a couple of Maximilian’s generals, shot by a firing squad; but this only happened after Maximilian had had thousands of Juárez’s supporters executed first.

The statue of Juárez, in Mérida’s Parque San Juan

Benito Mussolini was named after Juárez by his parents, who naturally supposed that he would grow up to be a good boy and make his country proud, just like Juarez.

Coloured frontages in Mérida, including the ‘Instituto Municipal para el Fortalecimiento de la Cultura Maya’

I could have stayed there, but it would have been very touristy and I would not have seen too many local people.

There were heaps of places for sale, and a lot of places were being done up.

Mexico is gradually becoming more prosperous. The minimum wage is 30 pesos an hour, which is nearly $2 an hour. The current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO for short, is quite left-leaning and has put a lot of money into social projects. That has helped quite a bit.

Another point of interest is that that a lot of people in Mexico own old-style VW Beetles, which used to be manufactured locally.

From Mérida, I travelled by bus, for two hours, to the city of Campeche. Technically, the city is called San Francisco de Campeche, perhaps in order to distinguish it from the wider state of Campeche of which it is the capital, and on maps it is sometimes referred to as S. F. Campeche or S. F. de Campeche. But most people just call the city Campeche, and so will I.

Campeche was one of four Spanish administrative centres in colonial Mexico and was built as a walled city. About half of the walls surrounding what is now the central part of the modern city remain, as do the triangular bastions sticking out from the walls, or from where the walls used to be, at regular intervals.

There was a street of restaurants and cafes called Calle 59. Here is a photograph looking down Calle 59, across Calle 8, from the top of a gate in the city walls called the Puerta de Mar, because it is on the waterfront. At the other end of Calle 59 there is another gate in the city walls called the Puerta de Tierra, because it is on the inland side.

Street of Restaurants and Cafes in Campeche

They are doing a waterfront development by the sea. This is part of a long-term scheme called Campeche Nuevo.

Campeche would be a nice town to hang around in for a week. I met a French woman, and we went to a cultural museum which was an old house. Then I went to a Mayan museum which had some pretty good pieces. It was an extremely windy day when I was there, and I saw pelicans braving the wind at the waterfront.

I think Yucatán is becoming a really classy destination. It will be even more welcoming to travellers once the Mexican government completes the Tren Maya, a 1,554-km railway that is being built with Chinese assistance, and as the towns are made more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

‘A vector graphics map of the route and train stations of Tren Maya’. by Trainspotting34 and Rajix4, 6 May 2024, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I was planning to visit another set of Mayan ruins, at Calakmul, but as it turned out it would have been a fifteen-hour tour from Campeche, and I decided that by this stage, I needed to space out my energy.

Next: The hills of Chiapas and Oaxaca.

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