Coba, Chichen Itza and Palenque, Mexico: WEEK 7 - 8 OCTOBER, SUNNY 28 - 32 degrees
28.10.2016 - 03.11.2016 32 °C
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.