A Travellerspoint blog

The Mayan Ruins Trail and the Deadly 60 (1 Good)

Coba, Chichen Itza and Palenque, Mexico: WEEK 7 - 8 OCTOBER, SUNNY 28 - 32 degrees

sunny 32 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

It may seem surprising, but our favourite Mayan ruins so far were Palenque, followed by Coba and then the famous, most restored and visited Chichen Itza. Travelling to Mexico and not visiting Chichen Itza is akin to going to Egypt and not stopping off at Giza to see the Pyramids, however this means we had high expectations of the site.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Yucatan

El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Yucatan

We arrived just after 8am, desperate to beat the hoardes of tourists on organised day trips and the intense heat. El Castillo was our first stop and is the pyramid that sits alone in the centre of a grassy plaza - it is the Mayan calendar rendered in stone. Intriguingly, each staircase has 91 steps, which added to the single step at the main entrance, equals 365. On the spring and autumn equinoxes near sunset, the serpents' heads at the foot of the main entrance are joined to their tails at the top of the pyramid by an undulating shadow.

Columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors

Columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors

While all of this is fascinating including the Temple of Warriors lined by the Thousand Columns and the massive ball court with walls 90m long with grisly panels displaying decapitated players and ritual knives, the whole setting is rather sterile. All the temples and pyramids are roped off, so there is no opportunity to explore or scale the temples, which is one of Thomas's favourite past times when visiting ruins. I understand that the site needs to be preserved from millions of tourists that visit every year, but this is detrimental to its appeal for me, as are the paths densely packed with souvenir stalls.

Skull Platform, Chichen Itza

Skull Platform, Chichen Itza

The Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza

The Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza

In contrast, Palenque and Coba ruins have very different settings. The ancient city of Coba was easily accessed from Valladolild and was a pleasant interlude compared to Chichen Itza. To beat the tourist coaches and the hot sun, we hopped onto a 7am bus to Coba to be at the entrance for 8am. Part of Coba's charm is hiring bikes, pedalling leisurely through the jungle on well laid out shady cycle trails, wandering peacefully from Mayan pyramid to steles without the crowds. The ruins are slowly being reclaimed by the jungle vegetation giving the site a 'Lost World' feel.

Cycling through the jungle, Coba

Cycling through the jungle, Coba

The tallest pyramid, Nohoch Mul, is 24m high and is a precarious climb up uneven steps to the summit from which there is a breathtaking view of the endless surrounding jungle for 360 degrees.
View from Ixmoja pyramid 24 metres up, Coba

View from Ixmoja pyramid 24 metres up, Coba

Climbing Ixmoja pyramid 24 metres high, Coba

Climbing Ixmoja pyramid 24 metres high, Coba

Ring in Ball Court, Coba

Ring in Ball Court, Coba

From Thomas's point of view, the bike ride was the Coba highlight as was the climb and the leaf cutter ants he discovered with his eagle eyes.

Palenque ruins are set in lush jungle and by arriving at 8am, there are hardly any tourists, just the mist clinging to the treetops and shafts of sunlight breaking through. It has a distinctly Indiana Jones feel. Templo de las Inscripciones is an eight step pyramid 26m high, built against an overgrown hillside.

Early Morning, Templo de las Inscripciones, Palenque

Early Morning, Templo de las Inscripciones, Palenque

Templo de las Inscripciones, Palenque Ruins

Templo de las Inscripciones, Palenque Ruins

View from El Palacio, Palenque Ruins

View from El Palacio, Palenque Ruins

Palenque Ruins 3

Palenque Ruins 3

Iguana at Palenque Ruins

Iguana at Palenque Ruins

El Palacio is where the fun starts as you can clamber up and physically connect with the ruins, providing a sense of scale and stunning overview of the site, peering through small 'T' shaped windows, imagining what life was like back in 900AD. The ruins accessed behind Grupo del Norte were down perilous steps that followed a stream to cascading pools. Eventually a suspension bridge crosses a river and this is where we had our first 'Deadly 60' moment. Thomas discovered a two metre long green and yellow snake handing across a jungle vine by a set of ruins. Thomas wisely told me to back away when the snake started taking an unhealthy interest in me.

Close Up: Green Snake found in Palenque Ruins

Close Up: Green Snake found in Palenque Ruins

Green Snake found in Palenque Ruins

Green Snake found in Palenque Ruins

The Palenque museum contains giant creamic incense burners in the form of gods, explanation of glyphs and a huge sarcophagus lide engraved with the World Tree. There were theories as to why the city was abandonned, the most likely being over population, as there is evidence that the Mayans were battling against each other for resources and labour. It was fascinating to discover that when Palenque rulers died, after their journey through the underworld, they are reborn as fruit trees such as cocoa, avocado, lime etc. This is depicted as part of their head dress on various engravings. Better a fruit tree than a root vegetable!

The next morning, back in our room in our Palenque hostel, Thomas warned me about entering the bathroom as he'd had to dodge a hairy, black tarantula in the night. Edward dismissed this saying there was no sign of any creepy crawlies and had he been imagining it? When I cautiously opened the bathroom door, I noticed charcoal unfurling legs in the corner and recommended that everyone put their shoes on. Edward was horrified to discover a gigantic spider. I couldn't believe how brave Thomas had been to visit the toilet in the middle of the night! Eat your heart out Steve Backshaw.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Tagged palenque chichen itza cobá Comments (0)

Isla Mujeres and Competitive Golf Carting (1 Good?)

Off coast of Cancun, Mexico: WEEK 6 OCTOBER Sunny, tropical downpours and windy, 23 to 30 degrees

storm 23 °C
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On paper, Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast of Cancun reached by a 20 minute ferry ride across the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, would appear to be a tropical paradise; it has a distinctly laid back vibe and the main beach, Playa Norte, is a short stroll from the many hotels in town. The island is some 4.3 miles long and 650 metres wide and the skyline of Cancún can be seen across the clear waters. If you are looking for a get-away-from-it-all, relaxing holiday, planning to lounge on a beach and sip cocktails all day, then this could be the perfect destination. However, in peak times, I imagine everyone would be stacked like sardines on the small stretch of sand. We had only booked two nights as accommodation is expensive on the island and there is very little to do away from the beach.

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

Our second day gave us a chance to hire a golf cart to explore the limited places of interest. "I think this is the cart's top speed", commented Edward disappointedly, as a string of taxis, motorbikes, mopeds and other tourists' golf carts overtook us. This was just as well as the steering was dodgy and the brakes didn't work. Much to Edward's annonyance we were continually overtaken, so his Formula 1 tendencies were well and truly kerbed.

Tell me why I can't drive again?

Tell me why I can't drive again?

The turtle farm and research centre proved a big hit with Thomas where he could feed the turtles. This is a centre, where endangered sea turtles are bred for release back into the wild. The turtles are native to Quintana Roo, all of which can be found here: loggerhead, hawksbill, green and leatherback. The centre also rescues threatened nests and keeps the eggs buried in the sand within the farm.
Baby Sea Turtles, Turtle Rehab Centre

Baby Sea Turtles, Turtle Rehab Centre

Feeding Sea Turtles, Turtle Rehab Centre

Feeding Sea Turtles, Turtle Rehab Centre

Edward's verdict: "We should have stayed in Cancun and saved the ferry ticket and overpriced hotel."
Thomas's verdict: "Can we stay another day and hire a faster golf cart that I can drive?"
My verdict: "I would hate to be here in high season when the roads are choked with tourists in golf carts."

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Tagged mujeres isla Comments (0)

Parque de las Palapas, Cancun Centro (1 Good)

Cancun, Mexico: WEEK 6 OCTOBER, SUNNY 30 DEGREES IN THE SHADE

sunny 30 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

My favourite place in Cancun was 'Parque de las Palapas' in the evening, when it was crowded with Mexican families. The park is surrounded by food stalls and has a central stage which was always hosting some kind of free event: dance group competition, fund raising zumba marathon, traditional dance or just a guy singing 'My Way' in tortured Spanish accompanied by an electronic keyboard (reminiscent of contestants on past series of 'Britain's Got Talent').

While the beach with its powder soft, white sand and clear, emerald turquoise water lapping gently over your toes would be the biggest draw of Cancun, my vote still went to the infectious, social, inclusive feel of the parque. As always, Thomas was the eating machine, shocking Mexican cooks at the food stalls by polishing off a 'menu del dia' in record time which consists of a drink, salad, soup, chicken with rice and refried beans, soft tacos and the fiery salsa verde or milder salsa roja.

Menu Del Dia, Cancun Centro

Menu Del Dia, Cancun Centro

Thomas sampling local desserts - Chamoyadas Lokas

Thomas sampling local desserts - Chamoyadas Lokas

His favourite drink was the Mexican classic known as 'Jamacia' which is made from petals of the Hibiscus flower to create a purple drink of cold herbal tea mixed with water and sugar. Edward preferred 'Horchata', a white, milky like drink made from rice and cinnamon.

Food Stall, Parque de las Palapas, Cancun Centro

Food Stall, Parque de las Palapas, Cancun Centro

Mexico was certainly a breath of fresh air (literally) after Cuba as I was trying to recover from a cough that I was told sounded like I smoked twenty a day which seemed to be a reaction to the car pollution. I was definitely in love with the food.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico cancun Comments (0)

Cuban Life Revealed (1 Good and 1 Bad)

Weeks 4 - 5 October, sunny and 31 degrees in the shade No es facil en Cuba - it ain't easy in Cuba and my unsophisticated motto for Cuba is "if you see it, get it"

sunny 31 °C
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Imagine waking up one morning to find you are living in the 1950s where food rationing is still the norm, you have to boil the tap water if you want to drink it, it will take all of your lunch hour to queue for the bank which closes at 3pm, it could take up to 3 hours to source and purchase food for the next few days, you'll earn around $25 US dollars a month from your government job and you can't buy a bar of chocolate for love nor money - welcome to Cuba. Luckily, Cubans are happy go lucky, resilient, enterprising and constantly finding ways to improve their lot after enduring over 50 years of austerity.

Moneda Nacional Pandaneria - queuing to buy biscuits

Moneda Nacional Pandaneria - queuing to buy biscuits

For me, Cienfuegos was a turning point, as Cuba started to creep up on me and almost grew on me, but then another maddening, frustrating situation would occur - it is definitely a love/hate relationship.

Cuba is revealed through numerous anonymous open and closed doorways, whether off the main avenidas and plazas or down the residential calles. There is often no way to tell what a door will lead to; signage is distinctly lacking in most cases or confusing and shop windows can display a random selection bearing no resemblence to what the shop sells.

Selling Tropical Fish from your Living Room, Cienfuegos

Selling Tropical Fish from your Living Room, Cienfuegos

My favourite and most unusual enterprise that I discovered was in Cienfuegos; an aquarium tienda run two blocks down from our casa from a living room where the shuttered window had become the shop display of various tanks of tropical fish. The tanks were arranged between a sofa and armchairs adorned with family ornaments. I was invited in to look around.

Behind an anonymous heavy dark wood door off the colonaded main street, a gloomy tardis like shop was revealed. There were no shop windows or signs but it was stocked with a multitude of goods for Cuba from tins and pasta packets to children's toys. Men with photo albums of sofas and armchairs roamed the central shopping street while ladies perused the albums, asking for prices - the Cuban equivalent of the Argos catalogue.

We have finally perfected the Cuban stroll in Cienfuegos and the number one national Cuban past time of finding a shady place to sit and watch the world go by. There's always something entertaining whether it is the guy skillfully fishing with his line off Punta Gorda, neighbours assisting with repairing a 1950s classic while the kids play barefoot football in the fading sunlight at the end of the day, a shopping bag being lowered with a rope from a balcony two floors up so that it can be filled with bananas, or listening to your neighbour's music from across the road.

Twenty first century technology hasn't really arrived yet in Cuba which is part blessing and part curse. It is a cash economy due to the US blocade with limited debit cards and ATMs and a dual currency. Moneda Nacional known as Cuban pesos (MN$) and Cuban Convertibles (CUC$) which are used by tourists and by Cubans (if they can get hold of them) to buy modest luxuries such as deodorant, shampoo, house fittings and limited white goods. Our casa in Trinidad did not have a washing machine.

The dual currency creates an inequality within the communist society which is a paradox, as does the relaxed rules on private enterprises such as casa particulares, hairdressers, taxi drivers, restaurants etc. Any private business generating revenue from tourists is lucrative as services are paid for in the much sought after CUC$, whereas any government job such as teacher, doctor, nurse, government run hotel or restaurant will be paid in MN$. This results in many government workers taking on two or three jobs to survive or sell goods/services from their front room!

Cuba really is full of contraditions. To get an idea of how restrictive the Cuban communist regime has been, here are some restrictions that have been lifted since Raul Fidel took power from his brother:

  • mobile phones and electronic goods were legalised in 2008
  • Cubans were allowed to buy a car in 2011, only 38 of 1000 Cubans have a car compared to 800 of 1000 Americans
  • Cubans were allowed to buy their own houses in 2011
  • Cubans were allowed to travel outside of the country in 2013

Beautifully Restored Cienfuegos

Beautifully Restored Cienfuegos

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Cuba Tagged habana trinidad cienfuegos Comments (0)

Coppelia: A National Obsession (1 Good)

CUBA: WEEK 5 OCTOBER, SUNNY 32 DEGREES IN THE SHADE

sunny 31 °C
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Coppelia is one of the most popular family treats in Cuba. It is essentially an outdoor ice cream parlour serving various flavoured scoops of ice cream in moneda nacional (1 peso = 1 scoop which is roughly 4 or 5 pence), although tourists are always directed to the ice cream stand that sells exactly the same product for 15 times the price. At weekends, there are two hour queues in Habana just to secure a table and order.

To understand what all the fuss was about, we decided to slip past the security guards and enter the world of Coppelia as experienced by the locals. There were many challenges ahead and the first was to find an empty table. We secured one on the balcony but after waiting for over fifiten minutes and being resolutely ignored along with Cubans on surrounding tables, we gave up and headed downstairs to the three ice cream bars, set out in a semi circle with stools. Surely we would have more luck as we joined a small queue to wait for a stool?

A sturdily built, grumpy, grim faced middle aged woman actually acknowledged our presence but would not take anyone's order. The ice cream bar seats about 15 customers and all the stools were full. We were now beginning to understand how the queue outside is over two hours long - was the ice cream just a myth? Bizarrely, we were served glasses of water, which no one touched, and we patiently waited.

Over the next fifteen minutes, our disenchanted server proceeded to wash bowls, pour water into jugs, wipe down the counter, remove our glasses and empty them of water, move condiments up and down the counter, fill more jugs with water much to our bemusement, but still no one was served. We tried a couple of times to ask for ice cream but were given a stern look and not dignified with a response. The locals were getting restless as well but no one had lost their resolve yet although I could tell that Thomas was ready to give up.

Finally the mystery was solved when a rotund lady appeared in a white coat and rearranged vast tubs of ice cream in the freezer, and hallelujah an ice cream scoop materialised. She had a chat with our stoic server and I now understood; one person scoops the ice cream and one person serves the ice cream; the natural order of things here must never be changed.

The ice cream flavours were barked at us at rapid speed and we ordered orange, pineapple and coconut ice cream. Why do all the Cubans order 10 scoops at a time? Because it takes an eternity to be served again and everyone is so thankful that the ordeal is over that the ice cream tastes all the better for it!

We revisted the ice cream bar section the next day with a new strategy - make mine 10 scoops please!

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Cuba Tagged ice cream coppelia Comments (0)

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