Chichen Itza

Puerto Morelos, part Dos

We still had more to do with a Tuesday in Mexico with a rental car! After returning the family to the resort, we took our friends from Portland and set off to find a cenote for swimming. Most of the cenotes are on private land, you follow a road sign, you bump down a barely passable jungle trail, and you find a hole in the ground. You pay a nice family some pesos, and you swim. We went to Cenote Kin Ha, got there late in the afternoon. Only one other couple was at the swimming hole, the owners were drinking and celebrating a birthday so they let us in, told us to be careful, and then disappeared to their own party. This cenote is underground – there are two ways to enter – a wooden ladder down to a platform, or a hole in the roof. The cenote is incredibly deep and stunningly clear. It’s in a limestone cave, full of stalactites, two have a hammock strung between them. There are surfboards, some other floaties, and a zip line from the platform. All the while, bats and tropical birds circle the cave. Our friends were brave enough to jump in from the hole – I skipped that particular route.

just chilling on a hammock in a cenote, no biggie

The water is incredibly clear – like looking through glass. I made my way down the ladder into the cave, and found a wooden platform with a zip line. I would be the only one to NOT use the zipline into the water, as I was wearing contact lenses and didn’t want to lose one in the pool. I scrambled down another ladder to a lower platform, sitting at the water line. Bats circled the cave, as did quetzal birds with their brilliant colors.

this is as good as you get with an iphone in a cave

For the next hour or so we laughed and played, on surfboards, the zip line, our friends jumped into the cave from the hole above. Let me be honest here for a minute – it, like other things I’ve done, was a pretty special and unique experience. It was also, like other things I’ve done, totally terrifying in the same breath. You can see stalactites reaching far below the surface, but you can’t see the bottom, which is so deep you can’t touch it without scuba diving. I’m not a great or confident swimmer, but I love the water and can swim well enough to keep my head up. I sink like a stone though, and with no effort can even lay on the bottom of a pool, and I’m aware that if I stop moving I start sinking. With that knowledge I was incredibly frightened the whole time I was in the water! I only swam from the platform to a stalactite, or from the platform to the hammock, or to a surfboard to cling to. It was incredibly unnerving to be in a hole that deep and know if I didn’t pay attention there would be no way to save my ass. I also had an irrational fear the whole time that something was going to grab me from beneath. Let’s just say I spent more time sitting on the platform with my feet in the water than actually swimming – but I’m still glad I went.

By the time we climbed topside the site was deserted, but for the family who lives there. Their children had a small spider monkey tied to a tree, and were playing with it. Now, I know in my heart of hearts, that this monkey was likely kidnapped from the jungle surrounding us, and that it was probably an unhappy monkey, tied to a tree, and that it really shouldn’t be a pet, but I also knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to have a lot of chances in my life to meet a tiny creature who could tear off my eyelids or bite through my hands without warning. I was enthralled. I approached the monkey, named Titi, and he jumped onto me and hung out. He was curious, smelled vaguely of jungle and urine, but was quite calm and happy to chill on my shoulder. I was in smitten. He next jumped to my friend Paige’s shoulder, gave her a once over, got some affection, and then he returned to his tree.

terrible posture, but an awesome moment

My other half realized he may never have an opportunity to play with a monkey again, so he reluctantly stepped to the tree to meet Titi. Titi was thrilled to have such a big, tall guy to climb on, and was totally excited, running from his hands and arms to his shoulders, scurrying from one shoulder to the other, back into his arms. Titi seemed quite taken with my boyfriend. He climbed back onto his shoulder and I went to take video of the cuteness- and The Boy said, “Titi smells bad,” and I assumed he meant like urine. Until Titi deposited a pile of soft poo on my boyfriend’s shoulder (monkeys eat a lot of fruit). I started filming, screaming with laughter, and Titi dropped another poo for the camera. The Boy was not amused, but I couldn’t stop laughing to help him. (Video is here.) The universe smiled upon me that afternoon in the jungle and gave me the finest gift a woman could ask for on her last day of being 34.

We bumped back down the road toward Puerto Morelos, knowing cold cervezas, local dinner, and showers awaited us all, and that we were going to have a long and adventurous Wednesday, my 35th birthday.

Wednesday morning I woke up a year older, and we got up early and drove the toll road across the peninsula. The toll roads are expensive – but when you pay the toll and keep your receipt in Mexico you are buying insurance to drive on that road. The toll roads are also beautifully maintained, and nearly empty, thanks to the exorbitant cost of traveling them. They’re also “safe” in comparison to some of the other roads in the country, so we were happy to hand over 600+ pesos for the privilege of driving. I don’t know much about butterflies, but there were tens of thousands of them during our two hour drive across the jungle. All pastels, yellow mostly, with blues and whites sometimes. Just thousands of them fluttering around. It was like driving through a pale yellow blizzard – incredibly beautiful and a bit sad, seeing the dead ones strewn about the highway.

We arrived at our first destination – Chichen Itza. I should have known by the hawkers tapping our windows with coupons for local restaurants. I should have seen the tour buses as a warning. The Disney-esque queue to get in, the locals dressed in Mayan war paint and head dresses, yelling to have their photo taken with you. The lack of guidebooks and maps, meaning you had to pay a guide, should have been the last red flag, but still we paid our admission fee to see one of the most famous sites in Mexico.

our first view of the pyramid at Chichen Itza Flea Market

And I will always wish I hadn’t bothered. A great archaeological site, a feat of an ancient civilization, a place I’ve always wanted to see, a place my other half studied in college textbooks, has been turned into a flea market. Truly. Thousands of people are standing around, clapping (there’s a cool echo from the top of the main temple when you clap), and the temple is behind ropes – you can’t get anywhere near or any of the ruins on site (which is a blessing as it helps preserve the site but also sad that you can’t really experience the site, either).

But all around you are hundreds upon hundreds of flea market tables, covered in tchotchkes, miniature temples, pipes carved from rock, masks, clay whistles that roar like Jaguars – and the sellers are muy aggressive. You are yelled at constantly from the moment you walk in – “cheaper in the shade!” and “ONE DOLLAR!” and “Do you speak English?” or how about, “Buy this as a present for Obama!” (that really happened) and “best prices here!” Every person is desperate to sell you a decoration, or strike a bargain with you. I was miserable.

a brief moment when there weren’t a thousand other tourists in front – they must have been shopping

I find it pretty appalling that a UNESCO World Heritage Site could be turned into a cheap carnival midway (okay, okay, the Statue of Liberty is on the list too, but still). It totally destroys the experience – it cheapens it. You aren’t there to see the ruins, you’re there to shop and buy souvenirs for your friends. I really, really hated my time there.

“I went to Chichen Itza once. It was awful.” – Grumpy Tree, at Chichen Itza

By the time we left Chichen Itza, we were all overheated, cranky, hungry, miserable, and ready for something that wasn’t so busy. Not too far away was another cenote I’d wanted to visit, Ik Kil. It would prove to be another tourist trap. You shower at the top of a flight of stone steps. There are lifeguards. There are viewing platforms carved into the walls of the cave. They’ve put in a stone floor, and a stone staircase you can jump off of into the pool. It was full of screaming children, tourists right off their buses from the resorts, and even managed to smell of chlorine. But I was determined, on my birthday, to have a moment for myself.

Ik Kil means “tourist who swims with urine” I believe

I sat on the edge of the cenote, with my feet in the greenish water. Water trickles from overhead, vines and roots hang down from the trees above. The sound of running water and the damp were calming, just like being at a waterfall in the Pacific Northwest, or Jeju-do, or Utah, or anywhere else I’ve had the pleasure of taking a moment to enjoy the water. Tiny black carp swam in circles, and the water from above created a wonderful mist in the cave. Birds were flitting about. I sat for a good five minutes, cooling off, tuning out the whoops of tourists, and just smelling the green. It would prove to be the highlight of my 35th birthday, that five minutes of sitting poolside, ignoring the world.

I snapped back to reality and the need for food and cool beverages, much to the relief of my companions. We made our way into the colonial city of Valladolid for lunch.

this is pretty much the only photo I snapped in Valladolid – el caballo con el sombrero pequeno

I wish I had cared more to photograph Valladolid – it’s incredibly beautiful and charming, with wonderful colors, great architecture, a vibrant town square. But I was so spent from our time at Chichen Itza I couldn’t be bothered to do much more than drink a cold soda in the market we picked for lunch. I picked at some fried plantains (which I typically love) but the heat had just ruined the day for me. There were no cooling ocean breezes there in the hot jungle and open spaces of the city. I vow to return some day, and actually explore the beautiful town. Just probably not in July.

After my restless and equally cranky, overheated travel companions had filled their tummies, and after we’d purchased more drinks and snacks for the road, we made our way to the last stop of the day. We had read all about Ek’Balam, another Mayan ruin, and were excited to go see it, as it was supposedly a little more subdued and less touristy than Chichen Itza. We couldn’t believe our luck as we pulled in, that it was so empty.

We walked into the gate area, and were told they’d just closed. The guidebooks that said it was open until 6 didn’t take into account the usefulness of a piece of duct tape on the sign in the entryway – with a handwritten "4:15" closing time. We used the bathrooms, debated paying someone to let us in anyway, and vowed to return early on Thursday morning, when they opened, before we had to return the rental car.

I spent the night of my 35th birthday in the air conditioned condo, I refused to even venture back into the heat and mosquitoes to get dinner with my boyfriend and our friends, instead opting to drink a beer and eat some crackers by myself while I read my birthday wishes on facebook. It wasn’t the best or the worst birthday I’ve ever had, just another day in my life I suppose. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t any less lucky to have spent it in another country with good friends and the love of my life.

I’ve decided to blog about my last days in Mexico as a third entry – as it really deserves its own post. So sometime in the next week I’ll tell you all about the time I climbed the largest Mayan temple on the peninsula.