Sunday, July 06, 2008

Yucatan summer redux: Journey's end (part 4)

From the islands, to Merida and Celestun, then the Ruta Puuc, Dan and I were nearing the end of our two-week Yucatan summer adventure...but with great reluctance! On our way to Vallodolid, we stopped for a tour of the cenotes of Cuzuma...a horse-and-buggy took us along the tracks on a former henequen plantation to three picturesque underwater sinkholes, perfect for swimming.

Pony who took us to the cenotes
Hard-working pony stops for a rest

If another buggy approached from the opposite direction, we stopped and the drivers lifted the buggy off the tracks to allow the other to pass...cute the first time, but not-so-fun after it started raining. The cenotes were lovely. Lots of ceiba tree roots hang down into the cool, clear waters.

Looking down into Cenote Chansinic'che
Looking down into Cenote Chansinic'che

Also lots of stalactites...beautiful limestone formations hanging down...

Stalactites in Cenote Chansinic'che
Big stalactites above us

In Valladolid we visted the market and a few churches. A small anteroom next to the main sanctuary of San Gervasio Cathedral was filled with tombstones.

Gravestones in San Gervasio Cathedral
Tombstones inside the church

I enjoyed exploring the city, but it was very hot and humid.

Dan and Carol in Valladolid town square
Sweaty in the town square

We cooled off with a swim at Cenote Dzitnup, the biggest one I have seen so far. Its huge stalactite formations were spectacular, but unfortunately my camera could not capture the underground beauty in the darkness. Valladolid is home to many zapaterias, where you can see leather sandals being made. I had to get new shoes, of course.

Leather shoe shop
Shoemakers at work

We also had the yummiest agua frescas in a food court by our hotel in Valladolid. We had been drinking agua frescas nearly everyday during our trip, most places offered jamaica (hibiscus) and limonada (lime); I also had a tasty melon agua fresca on Holbox. But these were the best. Dan had pitaya, or dragonfruit. It is not my favorite fruit, but it was so delicious and refreshing!

Dan drinking pitaya agua fresca
Chunks of pitaya and seeds

I had pina, or pineapple. Yum!

Carol enjoying pina agua fresca
Big pina agua fresca

After lunch I managed to lose my prescription glasses at one of the shops we stopped in...we were literally about to drive out of town when I realized this. We then discovered the shops close after lunch and do not re-open until 5 pm...siesta we waited...and I got to practice my Spanish as we went from shop to shop..."Estoy buscando mis lentes. Estan aqui?" But in the end we found them, hooray! Then we were off to Coba, to climb the Nohoch Mul pyramid. We went early in the morning, but the ruins were very crowded...and not so well preserved...probably my least favorite ruins in all of Yucatan. But we did see crocodiles in Laguna Coba and other wildlife.

Long parade of caterpillars
Caterpillar parade on a trail

After Coba we drove up the coast and stopped for a swim in Akumal Bay to look for sea turtles. We saw three! First a medium one, then a wee little one eating turtle grass, which lead us to a big sea turtle. The big one swam fast. The next day we snorkeled in the coral reef off the shore of Puerto Morelos, so beautiful. We saw so many pretty fish and corals, including a huge brain coral....also, queen conches, an eagle ray, sea cucumber, and more...but no sea turtles. So Dan and I went back to Akumal Bay, where we saw two more turtles! I love sea turtles...swimming with them and just watching them swim makes me so happy. We also saw a family of reef squid, very cute with their big eyes peering intently...and a huge long barracuda! As I remember all that we saw, I wish we had an underwater camera to capture the beauty of the sea.

Pelican preening
Pelican preening in Puerto Morelos

The Yucatan Peninsula is a wonderful and beautiful place. We enjoyed our journey...and I hope to return again someday.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Yucatan summer redux: Mostly Mayan (part 3)

After the islands and going west across the peninsula, Dan and I made our way back east along the Ruta Puuc, the hilly region of the Yucatan. I saw several roadrunners scurry across the road! We stayed at a delightful B&B in Santa Elena, a small village with a big church.

Fountain in Santa Elena town square
Fountain in the village square

From there we visited Uxmal, probably my favorite of all the Mayan ruins we have seen. The first structure upon entering the site is the Pyramid of the Magician. It is massive, and one of the few known Mayan pyramids with a rounded base.

Dan and the Magician's Pyramid
Can you see Dan?

Uxmal features impressive feats of architecture. The Governor's Palace is big and long, considered one of the greatest of Mayan buildings.

The Governor's Palace at Uxmal
The Governor's Palace

The Dovecote is another interesting structure...perhaps used as a lookout?

View of the Dovecote from the Grand Pyramid at Uxmal
View of the Dovecote from the Grand Pyramid

There are many intricate carvings on all the structures throughout the site...

Sideways bird carvings at Uxmal
Parrot carvings atop the Grand Pyramid

Turtle carvings
The House of the Turtles

Serpent carving at Uxmal
Serpent carving at the Nunnery

We also saw lots of iguanas and birds, including mot-mots! Their turquoise color and long tail are quite spectacular, and we spotted the pretty birds at all of the Ruta Puuc sites. At Kabah we saw the Codz Poop, a structure composed of hundreds upon hundreds of masks of Chac, the rain god.

So many Chac masks
Obsessed with Chac

It was amazing and also a bit frightening. The ancient Maya definitely must have been very concerned about water in this region.

Big Chac close-up on Codz Poop
A Chac close-up, with broken nose

Next stop was Sayil, where the Palace features carvings of the inverted diving god, which we also saw at Tulum and Coba.

Carol and Dan at el Palacio
Carol and Dan at el Palacio

Diving God carving at Sayil
The diving god, flanked by serpents

We also spotted pretty big-leafed plants at Sayil. They look like they've been painted pink and white.

Big painted leaves
Dan's hand for size comparison

The Arch of Labna is very beautiful, with intricate carvings on both sides.

The Arch of Labna
Traditional palapa hut carvings on one side

At Labna we also walked along the sacbe, raised white road believed to connect all the way to Uxmal at one time. And we saw the impressive el Mirador, believed to be a lookout structure. It rises out above a high hill of stones.

El Mirador at Labna
High lookout

Hundreds of butterflies fluttered on the road from Sayil to Labna, so beautiful! We also visited the Loltun caves, believed to be the largest cave system in the Yucatan. It was amazing, but alas I did not bring the camera underground.

Along the way we stopped in many small villages, visiting the church of each village square. Probably the most famous is el Convento de San Miguel Arcangel in Mani, believed to be the site where Fray Diego de Landa burned the Mayan codices, their important written works. The church has an attached capilla abierta, open chapel where the Mayan worshipped, similar to the one we saw at Dzibichaltun.

Convento de San Miguel Arcangel
The church at Mani

There was so much to see and do in the Ruta Puuc region; Dan and I really enjoyed visiting the area. Next time, the conclusion of our summer Yucatan adventure!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Yucatan summer redux: Westward ho (part 2)

After a week of island relaxation, Dan and I headed inland via bus to Merida, the capital of Yucatan state. We stayed at Luz en Yucatan, which turned out to be one of our favorite spots the entire trip. Lounging in the hammock was a top priority.

Carol relaxing in hammock at Luz en Yucatan
Note the second hammock in the room

Since my hat flew off during a ferry ride, we hit the market in search of a jipijapa, Panama hat. Jipis are made in Becal, in Campeche caves, I was told, where the temperature and humidity are just right for weaving and shaping the palm fronds. Above ground, the hats hold their shape. To demonstrate, the shopkeeper rolled up the hat, which bounced back when unfolded...I was sold.

Carol and jipijapa
Posing with jaunty new hat

Merida is a bustling city, and great for walking...though the heat, humidity and afternoon rain showers of summer did slow us down a bit. We walked along Paseo de Montejo, admiring the grand old mansions and interesting art sculptures that line the parkway. We also visited MACAY, the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Yucatan, and the Anthropology Museum, which houses a large collection of Mayan artifacts. And we went to see the Mayan ruins at Dzibitalchun, north of Merida. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun lines up perfectly in the window of the Temple of the Seven Dolls, incredible! But we were there during the summer equinox...ah well...we did go swimming in Cenote Xlacah, very refreshing!

Temple of the Seven Dolls
Path to Temple of the Seven Dolls

We were lucky to be in the city on a Saturday night, when there are outdoor performances, food vendors, lots of people out strolling...very fun and lively atmosphere. On Sunday morning there were more festivities, and a bicycle ride through the city too. Dan and I enjoyed Merida very much.

Cathedral in Merida at night
Cathedral lit up at night

From Merida we continued further west, to the coastal fishing village of Celestun. Getting the rental car was a bit of nightmare, but finally we were on our way. I did not like the hotel we checked into though, and my crabbiness was increasing. We found a spot for dinner on the beach just as soon as it began to rain...there would be no pretty sunsets for us! Then, thunder and lightning too...lots of it...and we saw a dog sitting in a boat, looking quite nervous.

Dog in boat during thunderstorm
Poor pooch

The storm went on all night, and the electricity flashed on and off was rather scary. Finally the electricity was out for good, so no air-conditioning in the room. Phooey. So why did we come to Celestun anyway?

Flamingos in the distance
Pink in the distance

Flamingos, of course! At first, they were like a pink mirage in the distance, but as the boat got closer, I realized we had finally found them. Our boat caption was very good and did not get too close to the flamingos, so as not to disturb them. (Apparently many tour boats get very close to scare the flamingos into flight, for photographs, but it is very detrimental to the flamingos well-being.) But we did get to see one flamingo flap and fly just a bit, from a distance!

Flamingo in flight
Black striped wings

The not-so-hot photos do not show the full degree of their pinkness. And they have such long, long necks and odd curved bills. The waters of the estuary are shallow, and the flamingos feed for most of the day. It was quite wonderful to see them....there were hundreds...Dan thinks maybe even a thousand flamingos.

Long necked flamingo
Super-long neck

We also saw egrets, herons, so many other birds, and fishermen working on the day's catch. We went through a mangrove forest and stopped at an ojo de agua, where the freshwater spring bubbles up and mixes with the salt water of the estuary. Dan and I went for a swim in the cool water.

Ojo de agua in Celestun mangrove forest
Bubbling ojo de agua

The petrified forest was the last stop of the tour. Eerie trunk remains of trees killed by the salty waters of the estuary.

Petrified forest
Tree graveyard

So Celestun wasn't too bad in the end, but I would recommend taking a day trip from Merida. That is what we should have done! Dan and I left town, taking the old hacienda route that passes through villages and hacienda ruins, the remains of old henequen plantations.

Hacienda Santa Rosa
Hacienda Santa Rosa

Next stop, Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc...more adventures in Yucatan to come!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Yucatan summer redux: The islands (part 1)

Dan and I returned to the Yucatan Peninsula in June, since we loved it so much back in February. I wanted to swim with the whale sharks, and this time we decided to stay for two weeks to explore more of the region. Our trip begin on Isla Mujeres, where we spotted a beagle during dinner on our first night!

Capuchino the beagle at La Lomita
Beagle wants to eat din-din too

I thought it was a good omen. We later met his people, and learned his name is Capuchino. A beagle in Yucatan!

Our three days on Isla Mujeres were lovely. We went snorkeling in a couple spots along El Farolito, biked the length of the island to Punta Sur, and visited the tortugranja, turtle hatchery. We also looked for conch shells on the beach and swam in Piscina del Rey, a coral-formed pool on the Carribean sea.

Piscina del Rey (King's Pool)
Piscina del Rey, or King's Pool

There was so much wildlife to see, even in this little spot. Fish in the water, chitins along the rocks, sea urchins, baby octupi, and a spiny lobster too.

We also ate lots of delicious food each day. But there was not enough time to try all the restaurants! We were reluctant to leave Isla Mujeres, but it was time for the next island, Isla Holbox. The turquoise sea and blue sky on the ferry ride back to Cancun were so beautiful.

Clouds over the Carribean
Clouds over the Carribean

From Cancun we took a bus to Chiquila, and from there another ferry to Isla Holbox. And that evening we saw another beagle! Two beagles in Yucatan!

Tux the beagle sleeping
Tux sleeping at Moguel store

I couldn't believe my luck. The next morning was the whale shark tour. We saw flying fish skipping along the surface of the water, dolphins jumping, a sea turtle coming up for air, and finally, the whale sharks.

Spots on the whale shark
Spots approach the boat

The not-so-hot photos do not convey their massive size...the largest species of fish on earth! But they are filter feeders, and very gentle. We saw a smaller juvenile and a larger adult...maybe 15 feet long?

Whale shark mouth
Filter feeding mouth

Dan and I swam with the whale shark twice, and it really was an incredible experience observing such an immense animal up-close. Afterwards, on the way back to Holbox we saw a huge manta ray.

Manta ray
Super-wide fin-span

We also did a tour of a couple of the small islands around Holbox, in hopes of seeing the flamingos on Isla Pajaros. But it turns out they have not been seen since spring, and probably moved to a new spot, which was was disappointing. But the trip included a stop on Punta Mosquito, where we collected shells and saw tern egg nests on the beach.

Carol and tern nest
Three wee little eggs

Mama tern tried to lead us away from the nest. Lots of pelicans too. Back on the boat, the sky filled with clouds, and the water was a wonderful shade of green...different from the Carribean, but still beautiful.

View from the boat
Cumulonimbus clouds signal rain

On Holbox we also biked along the beach, first going east, then west. It is very quiet and serene on the island...not many people, lots of sea birds, and so many shells along the shore.

Looking east on Holbox
Looking east

The waves are gentle, and the waters so shallow. The ridges of sand just seem to go on and on. I swam in the water every day...several times each day...

Sand ridges on Holbox
Sand ripples

Oh, but the bugs on the island! The mosquitos, especially after the rains. And sand flies and no-see-ums too...and all of them got me. I used five different kinds of insect repellent: Avon Skin-So-Soft, Cactus Juice, citronella, picaradin, and finally DEET. But I still got over 100 bites during our stay. No exaggeration. So I was not too disappointed when we left Holbox. The sunsets though, are incredible. The best one was on our last night on the island.

Sunset, last night in Holbox
Sunset, last night on Holbox

But we were ready for our next destination. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Yucatan adventures

After a week of relaxing on the beach, visiting Mayan ruins and looking for tropical wildlife in the Yucatan Peninsula, Dan and I reluctantly returned to the rainy Bay Area. Dan had a work meeting in Cancun, so I joined him afterwards for a little vacation...wished we could have stayed longer!

I met up with Dan in Isla Mujeres, a small island north of Cancun. We stayed at an oceanside apartment, listening to the ocean waves and relaxing in a hammock on the patio.

Pretty pool of water
Pretty pool of water by the ocean

From Isla Mujeres we took a day trip to Isla Contoy, a national park and bird sanctuary. We snorkeled in the warm waters, looking at different corals, tropical fish and a giant manta ray. Also saw many, many magnificent frigate birds and spotted a few sunning reptiles along the paths. We enjoyed delicious grilled fish under a palapa with a huge community of hermit crabs nipping at our toes.

Dock at Isla Contoy
The slow boat we took is on the right

After a couple of days of island relaxation, we rented a car from Cancun and drove inland to the town of Valladolid. Each morning we enjoyed breakfast in the pretty courtyard of El Meson del Marques, which is right on the town plaza, where we strolled while listening to a band perform on Sunday evening, and sampled delectable treats from various street vendors. From Valladolid, we visited the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza.

El Castillo
El Castillo, the main pyramid

Shadows forming a serpent appear along the steps during the equinox! But people are not allowed to climb the pyramid anymore. The ruins were very impressive, and Dan loved examining the many intricate limestone carvings.

Platforma de los Craneos
The Platform of Skulls

But by midday it was very crowded and hot, and not so fun. We drove to the colonial town of Izamal, where the Spanish built one of the first monasteries in the New World...slowing down as we passed through small villages by the topes, speed bumps along the roads throughout Mexico.

Another view of the church
Santuario de la Virgen de Izamal

Stones from Mayan pyramids were used to build the monastery in 1533, which is like a fortress. The next day we visited Ek Balam, recently discovered ruins that are still being excavated.

View from halfway up the Acropolis
View from halfway up the Acropolis

Acropolis, the main pyramid, can be climbed, and is higher than El Castillo at Chichen Itza.

Carol on the steps of the Acropolis
Resting on the steps

Dan was enthralled by the many stucco carvings halfway up the Acropolis, amazingly preserved. (Or restored?) Jaguar teeth surround the carvings...Ek Balam means black jaguar in Mayan...

Stucco figures
Intricate carvings topped by human figures

We also noticed many of the doorways had the same trapezoidal arch shape at all the ruins we visited.

Carol in doorway at Ek Balam
Trapezoidal doorway

To cool off from the midday heat we went for a dip at Cenote Samula. The Yucatan Peninsula has few surface lakes or rivers, but many cenotes, underground freshwater sinkholes exposed when the limestone surface falls through. Dan was slightly apprehensive as we descended the dark, slippery steps...but the freshwater pool was lovely and refreshing.

Cenote Samula
Tree roots extend down from the opening

The tree roots hanging down from the surface above were so long! We also saw stalactite formations and fish swimming in the water.

From Valladolid we drove back to the coast, and stayed in a bungalow on the beach in Tulum.

Sunset color on Tulum beach
Sunset from the porch

We walked on the beach, snorkeled in Bahia de San Francisco, swam in Gran Cenote, relaxed in the hammock, and visited the ruins at Tulum...the only Mayan ruins built on the coastline....a spectacular setting...

Tulum ruins
Surrounded by three walls and the ocean

From Tulum we also visited Sian Ka'an, a biosphere reserve encompassing 1.3 million acres of tropical forests, mangroves, lagoons, and coastline. We went swimming, walked through the mangroves, saw beautiful beetles, a couple of small crocodiles, reddish egrets and many other birds flying to San Miguel Island as the sun set.

Sunset Boca Paila
Sunset over Boca Paila Lagoon

On our last day on the way to the airport we stopped in Puerto Morelos to buy hammocks...and have one last look at the beautiful beach. It was a wonderful vacation...I was so sad to leave, and hope to return someday soon!

Beach at Sian Ka'an
Beautiful blue-green waters