travelog 127

Travels with Kyra and Kaspar II: Round Trip through the Yucatán Pensinsula

There are many stories about how Yucatán came to its name. To list all of them would fill this entire travelog, that's why I just mention the best ones. If you really want to know more, you can check out this page. One theory says that the word derives from the Nahuatl "Yokatlán", meaning place of richness, but since the Spaniards only encountered Mayans when they landed, it is highly improbable that they would use a Nahuatl word to describe their homeland. Even better yet, there's no such word as "Yokatlán" in Nahuatl. Another version, supposedly told by Hernán Cortez himself, states that the Spaniards had asked the Mayans what they called this place, and that they had answered with a word that sounded like Yucatán but in their language meant "I don't understand". And so go the stories and theories. Wherever the name Yucatán comes from, the Spanish named the Peninsula Santa María de los Remedios and the Mayans continued calling their homeland “u luumil cutz yetel ceh”, land of turkeys and deer. We saw turkeys at almost every house. Deer, however, never showed their faces. These, you see, end up on a plate as typical Yucatecan specialties, a delicacy, as we later found out.

Of course, Yucatán is neither famous for turkeys nor deers, but for tourist strongholds such as Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Tulum along the Riviera Maya. Then there's Chichén Itzá, perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramids, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New7Wonders of the world, but I will tell you about the ruins in another travelog. It is difficult to visit the peninsula out of the tourists way, but we did our best to evade the hordes as much as possible.

After our Holbox adventure and snorkeling with whale sharks, we picked up our car in Chiquilá and drove overland on small roads. There was not much to see. More or less dense jungle grew left and right of the road; the land was flat, the highest elevation around here was probably 10 meters (33 ft), accordingly, we did not have a view onto the landscape. The jungle was interrupted by small, admittedly very interesting villages. We stopped in one of these settlements because we had seen a turkey mama with her chicks and Kyra desperately needed some diversion. The family lived in a traditional, semicircled and elongated house with white walls and a steep palm-frond thatched roof. On the front there was a door in the center and an exit door on the back. A couple of colorful hammocks hung from the ceiling. By the way, in every hotel, be it a humble accommodation or a luxury establishment, there were fixings in the wall to hang your own hammock. The matriarch gave me some cactus fruits (Pitahayas, the fruit of Hylocereus undatus) and fetched some prickly cactus plants from a huge tree. After this welcome diversion, we were all ready for a couple more hours of driving and the quizzes like "I see something that you can't see" that go with it. Then we got to Tizimín, a small town with a beautiful old church that was unfortuntaley closed as in many other cases. A little further south we visited the ruins of Ek'Balam, but I will write a special travelog about all these ruins, disrespectfully also called piles of rocks. On the same premises we explored the Xcanche cenote. A pedicab took us from the entrance gate all the way to the changing rooms. This was very comfortable in the current stifling heat - more for us, of course, than for the poor pedalling bicyclist. A huge hole suddenly gaped in the middle of the jungle and lianas, orchids, even some agaves, hung from the rocks into the abyss. Roots of trees dangled all the way down to the waters surface. Colorful birds with long blue tail feathers flew over the cenote and, preferrably, swung back and forth clinging to the aerial roots which made their plumage sparkle in the sunlight. The bird, a Momoto (Eumomota superciliosa) or pájaro reloj, clock bird, is aptly named so because it moves its tail from left to right like a clock pendulum. We had the entire cenote to ourselves. A cenote, btw, is a sinkhole in a karst area where caves and underground rivers were formed by dissolution of the limestone rock. When the cave ceilings collapsed, the sinkholes filled with rain water and a cenote was born. The Mayans called these sinkholes "ts'o'noot" from which the Spanish word cenote derives. They regarded the cenotes as entrances to the underworld and often used them as religious sacrificial sites. There are more than 1000 such cenotes on the Yucatán peninsula. They are on average about 15 m (50 ft) deep. We got down over a slippery ladder and stood on a wooden boardwalk that ran all the way around the cenote. From here, another ladder lead into the crystal clear, dark green water where small catfish, Rhamdia guatemalensis, swam. We even got a life jacket for Kyra to keep her cast dry.

On backcountry roads we then drove through Espita, Cenotillo and on to Tunkás and Izamal, the yellow city. In Izamal (almost) all the buildings are painted sunflower-yellow. The small town is also a pueblo magico, a magic town. First we looked for a hotel. Our travel guide book and the GPS system had some ideas. We checked out various establishments, but either the rooms were too small or the pool was absent. Finally, we decided on one with a magically overgrown garden with many orchids and a small swimming pool. Kyra absolutely wanted to have the expensive room with the bath tub although she had no plans on using it. She'd rather jump three times into the pool. That's how we finally convinced her that a room with a tub is overkill if you're not even using it. In return, we spent the money we had saved on the tub at the Restaurant Kinich. Kyra got her favorite food, white rice. My brother and I feasted on Yucatecan specialties. Papadzules and panuchos as appetizers, followed by relleno negro and cochinita pibil. The rice was served with fried plantains, and of course there was a selection of spicy salsas to choose from. After an afternoon downpour with lightning and thunder, we enjoyed the swimming pool. Then we walked downtown and hopped onto a pink carriage to get a one-hour horse carriage tour through Izamal. We also explored many workshops where you could watch the artists make colorful jaguars and other animals out of wood, papier maché butterflies and dragon-flies, miniature Maya huts, or embroidered long skirts. Our favorite one was Esteban Abán Montejo's atelier who did magic to the long terminal spines of Agave sisalana, transforming them into jewelry and miniature figurines. He quickly made a horse hoof for Kyra and tried an armadillo for me.

Next we moved on to Tixkokob, the so-called and self-styled hammock capital of the world. First we strolled around the main square where various people offered to take us to their hammock shops. In a store at the main plaza we had a look at a few models, but the owner only wanted to hang them for us if she was sure that we would really buy one. So we said goodbye and visited the next shop where the entire expanded family was busy making hammocks in the back. The reception was the complete opposite to the previous place. As soon as we had only looked at a hammock, the people unfolded and strung it up and we were encouraged to try it out. We hadn't tried out many yet when one of the mobile scouts, who had already approached us on the plaza, arrived on the scene to assure us once again that we really needed to come see his shop because his product was a lot better. After swinging and rocking in the hammocks we really liked, the scout guided us into the outskirts of town to an inconspicuous house where a relative of his opened the shop for us. The word shop, of course, is a little bit exaggerated for the small room that was just big enough to hang a hammock. Kyra was instantly enthusiastic about a model in rainbow colors. This hammock was made for two people; and father and daughter tried it out swinging back and forth. Now it was time for the negotiations, but for this we first had to wait for the big chief to arrive. When he showed up, he even spoke a few words of German because he had once been in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. The family discussed in Maya while we were talking in Swiss German. Kyra had already learned the best strategy on Holbox: if you really, absolutely want to buy something, you should show interest in something else and only casually ask about the object of your desire. It is also helpful and effective to just turn around and walk away if you're not happy with the price. The latter strategy was soon applied, and suddenly vendor and buyer came closer concerning the asking price. Finally, we left the place with a huge package in the trunk and returned to the previous shop. Here, Kyra now helped me to bargain the owner down to a reasonable price for my beautiful, ecru-colored hammock.

From Tixkokob it was not far to Mérida, the capital of Yucatán. We had already informed ourselves on the internet and studied the guide book for conveniently located hotels, and quickly ended up at the Hotel Dolores Alba. Kyra was very pleased with our selection because there was a swimming pool hidden under palm trees in the large patio. We got a room at ground level with view onto the pool. At once, we parked the car in the garage because we didn't want to have to bother with the crazy traffic in Mérida at all. From the hotel we walked around a few corners to reach the huge mercado municipal. Meanwhile, it was noon and the temperature had climbed to 40°C (104°F). At the same time the humidity was very high, making you sweat profusely in no time. In the narrow alleys of the market, at least the sun was not burning down onto our heads, but it was still almost unbearably hot. Men worked in undershirts and shorts, women either dressed in the traditional, colorfully embroidered skirts, or with as short a skirt or pair of shorts as possible and shoulder free tops. Kyra was not very impressed by the range of products, but then, everything except horses was boring after about 10 minutes or so. Anyway, my brother and I enjoyed the colorful fruits, the assortment of different chiles, men folding banana leaves, the shoemakers and the guys peeling fresh coconuts. Eventually, we found the section with the small food stalls. Huge plates with meat piled high, avocado slices, radishes, and cilantro leaves seemed to be the favorite dish here. Every food stall had its own glowing and smoking BBQ, called al pastor (something similar to a Turkish doner kebab). Natuarlly, these BBQ's brought the temperature up a few more degrees. We ordered a plate of nachos for Kyra, while we adults dug into a plate of carne al pastor which was of course served with various spicy salsas. After our lunch we were definitely ready for a cooling-off in the hotel swimming pool. Towards evening we strolled to the main square where half of Mérida was gathered for a chat in the shade of palm trees. On recommendation of our German guide book, we walked along Calle 60 to get to the pedestrian area on Paseo de Montejo where the Noche Mexicana was supposed to happen on Saturday nights. It was a long walk, at least on foot, and the "amusement at zero cost", announced as such in the book, with Mariachi, singing, and people dancing in the streets, turned out to be a lukewarm event. Instead, we feasted on local specialties at one of the many food stalls, and even found quesadillas for Kyra, her second favorite food. To get back to the hotel, Kyra now absolutely wanted to ride in a horse carriage what would have cost half a fortune. The carriage driver quickly offered a tour along the prolongation of Paseo de Montejo where cars raced along in four lanes. This made the ride look little tempting. In the end, we decided for the cheapest version, a taxi.

On Sunday morning we strolled again over the main square. Sunday, supposedly, was market day. Another very special experience, according to the guide book, was drinking coffee under the arcades on a Sunday morning. We might have been up and walking too early because most of the coffee shops were still closed and the market stalls were just then being put up. From Mérida we drove on to the Hacienda Yaxcopoil. The Moorish yellow entrance gate could not have been missed. At its peak, the hacienda comprised more than 11'000 hectares. It was used for henequen production. Henequen is the fibre of Agave sisalana which was made into rope and twine in the 19th and early 20th century and exported worldwide. In 1984, the production wasn't profitable anymore and Yaxcopoil closed its doors. Now, the hacienda is a tourist attraction where you can admire the original rooms with furniture from the late 19th century. In the engine room, there's a huge 100 hp diesel engine made by Koerting in Hannover in 1913 which was used until 1984. The gardens are an overgrown tropical paradise, and the huge Dioon spinulosum that looked more like palm trees were especially impressive. After the hacienda visit it was again time to cool off. The man in the Yaxcopoil souvenir shop had recommended the Cenote Sambula near Pebá. We had no problem finding the entrance, and for a small fee of $10 pesos per person we were let in. There were no changing rooms and we had to change into the bathing suits wrapped into our beach towels. Obviously, we were the only fair-skinned, foreign visitors and were stared at accordingly. Over a stone staircase we climbed down into the cool depths and enjoyed the refreshing crystal clear, light blue water. Then we drove along another small road to the Hacienda Temozon, the extreme opposite of Yaxcopoil. At the magnificent entrance gate we were received by a concierge who sent us off to a small visitor's parking lot from where he guided us to the reception desk. Beautiful dark red painted hacienda walls, dragonhead gargoyles, perfectly trimmed lawn, a bar on a veranda overlooking the gardens, an endlessly long swimming pool, and elegant restaurant, all this and much more you'll receive from $300 US per night. The 17th century hacienda was converted into a luxury hotel that belongs to the Luxury Collection Hotels & Resorts chain. Our budget limit was a little bit lower, though, that's why we only paid for a tour of the grounds. The former structures for the sisal production were very impressive. Kyra was especially enthusiastic about the vintage horse carriages, even more so because she was allowed to get into one. A Mexican extended family was splashing in the swimming pool, ordering drinks and snacks, although most of the guests are European. After our tour we were able to have a look at one of the guest rooms which was equipped with every luxury imaginable, and also thoroughly and stylishly furnished. As a nice gesture we received a fresh grapefruit juice on the terrace from where we enjoyed the beautiful views.

Back on the main road, we drove south. South of Muna we came over a pass which was sensational 100 meters (330 ft) high! In general, it was often pretty boring to drive through endless green jungle without ever really getting any views onto the countryside. We stopped on top of the pass where you could enter a fenced area for a small fee to catch a view of the Uxmal pyramids in the distance. Just next to our car we got the same view for free with our own binoculars. The Uxmal ruins and the Ruta Puuc will be part of the next travelog. Other sights in this area were the Franciscan churches and Oxkutzcab's 24-hour colorful market. Above all, we were hungry. Inside the market people sent us from one food stall to the next to find cooked rice. Finally we found an establishment offering Mexican cooked rice and Kyra was happy. Behind the cook I noticed a plate with shredded meat, beautifully decorated with radishes, cilantro, onions, and chiles. It was deer meat and a special treat for the sonny boy. Spoiled brat, I told the cook, and she nodded approvingly. Quickly she agreed to prepare the same dish for us. After lunch we found out that her son had gotten something else to eat. The shredded deer meat with its garnish tasted excellent. Strengthened, we were ready to find the road to a nearby cenote the cook and her son had warmly recommended. On small country roads we drove from Mani to Teabo and on to Mama, Tekit and Ochil to finally reach Cuzamá after a mere 60 kms (37 miles). In the meantime it was late in the afternoon. We were instantly surrounded by men offering to take us on a tour of the three cenotes in the area. $300 pesos was the cost of this adventure. For this money, we were chauffeured around in a handmade cart that was pulled by a mule. Originally, the carts were used to transport the harvested agave leaves to the hacienda. To reach the three cenotes, the former rail network of the Hacienda Cuzamá was used. We were about the last visitors starting the tour, that's why we had a lot of oncoming traffic. Our poor mule suffered from some kind of skin disease and certainly could have used a few days of rest, but its owner needed to bring home money every day for his family. First we rattled comfortably through the dry forest and Kyra was excited about the adventurous ride. Soon we found out what oncoming traffic meant; either our cart or the oncoming one had to be heaved off the rails. The mules were accostumed to this ritual and the drivers were quick in getting their improvised carts off the rails. Chelentun, the first cenote, was easily accessible but not very big. The next one was Bolonchojol where the driver said that Kyra might not be able to get down with her cast. Indeed, we had to climb about 15 m (50 ft) into the depth of the cenote via several slippery and vertical ladders. The ceiling was almost entire and only a few rays of sun reached all the way down, giving the water colors from dark turquoise to emerald green. If we hadn't known that other people had been swimming in this cenote, we certainly would not have jumped in. It was not a round, wide hole, but more like a narrow tunnel disappearing somewhere in the dark. You were also unable to see the bottom, making the whole atmosphere even more creepy. The last cenote was called Chacsinicche. Here, too, the ceiling dome was almost complete and we climbed down about 20 m (65 ft) via a wooden ladder. Unfortunately, we were not the only visitors enjoying the crystal clear, indigo blue water as in the other two cenotes. As in other places before, Kyra received a rubber ring for a small fee. Once again, it was amazing how many Mexicans didn't know to swim. Nonetheless, some non-swimmers bravely jumped into the deep water from a bluff with a rubber ring and screaming with joy.

On small country roads we now drove to Chichen Itzá. Some of these roads were pretty good, others full of potholes. In the original limestone formations along the road we occasionally saw cacti or even a Cyrtopodium macrobulbon, a terrestrial orchid. West of Chichen Itzá we met the main highway again and drove directly into a huge thunderstorm and torrential rain. Chichen Itzá will be another story for the next travelog. Valladolid was not far away. Our German travel guide book in a completely revised edition from 2014 described Valladolid as a small Mexican town "where the clocks tick slower" (Dumont Yucatán & Chiapas, Hans-Joachim Aubert). The tranquil, small plaza without hectic rush and the general peaceful atmosphere were mentioned in particular. We got there in the morning and first of all had trouble finding a parking space. Then we trampeled through the colorful heart of town with hordes of tourists that were let out of countless tour buses. Apparently, every tour company offering trips to Chichen Itzá, made a first stop in Valladolid. The peaceful atmosphere on the tranquil plaza was definitely a thing of the past, except perhaps if you arrived late in the afternoon when the tourist masses were already on the way back to Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. We got directions to the mercado municipal from a police man. All the places around the main square were too touristy and overpriced. The market was somehow hidden behind a few street corners and fascinated with its selection of stuff. We found miniature beans in gray-black-brown colors, chile habanero powder, dried gourds decorated with carved hummingbirds, and much more. On the other side of the street we found a lonchería that market women had recommended. The owner and his wife were completely uninterested and even seemed to be bothered in their privacy by our visit, but we received delicious food with spicy salsas and Kyra got her red Mexican rice. If you're visiting Valladolid it is worth to make a detour to Yalcobá. Along the road you'll see many signs for Cenote Maya Park, supposedly another amusement park á la Xcaret, overpriced and touristy. A little past Yalcobá we reached the cenotes Palomitas and Agua Dulce. It was not cheap, but they had changing rooms and the cenotes were truly beautiful. Via a ladder we climbed steeply into the depths and landed on a floating platform. The roof covered the cenote completely and the operators had opened a hole to let some sunlight in. This same hole was also used to pump water into the cenote to make an artificial waterfall. With a guide and a French man, my brother climbed perilously over the slippery walls to a bluff between stalactites from where the three jumped into the water. The water was pretty cool; and since only a little sunlight entered the cenote, we were soon getting cold. Our guide had told us about another cenote with an island. He showed us the way to Dzalbay and the Cenote Sak-awa on his bicycle. Obviously, he was from Dzalbay and earned some extra money taking tourists to this small cenote. We hiked through the dry jungle to the cenote which turned out to be a huge sinkhole. The original ceiling had fallen down and was now the famous island. We swam in the crystal clear water with small catfish, enjoying the warmth of the sun.

Next, we drove on to Cobá, another Mayan ruin. From here we drove to Tulum where my brother had been 10 years earlier. A little north of Tulum we took a small dirt road leading to the Casa Cenote. First, we sat down in the restaurant at the beach and enjoyed the view onto the ocean. When we saw the menu we knew instantly that we had to get used to other prices - here, everything was double the price as in the interior of the state. We wanted to order a jarra de agua de limón, a jug of lime water, but the liter would have cost us $120 pesos although a 20 liter water canister cost only $20 pesos. It was cheaper to order two sparkling waters. Kyra's quesadillas cost measly $90 pesos, in addition, Kyra later picked all the disgusting orange "cheese" out of the tortillas and only ate these. Our shrimp cocktails were neither cheap nor especially tasty. The only fabulous thing was the view. Between the car doors we changed into our bathing suits and squeezed into the Casa Cenote with other day trippers. Here, you swam between mangroves in a very atypical cenote. It was above-ground and had a passageway to the ocean and a pretty strong current. As soon as we had arrived, there was hue and cry because some Spanish tourists were robbed of their possessions. The women had left money, passports, and cellphones with the guard at the entrance who had promised to have a good look after their stuff. After a very long while, the police arrived but said guard had long disappeared; presumably to split up the harvest with his associate. We quickly parked out car just in front of the entrance to the cenote and took our valuables with us in a waterproof bag and never let it out of sight. Not only the prices reminded us that we were back in touristy areas, but also the opportunistic thieves.

My brother wanted to spend the last two days of his vacation on a nice beach. In the guide book he had read about Paa-Mul, a small beach south of Playa del Carmen where sea turtles lay their eggs (direct link here). By phone we had booked a bungalow with ocean view that was sold as 'ecological cabaña'. Nowadays, ecological is a huge bestseller in Mexico too, especially when foreign tourists are involved. Our eco-bungalow was simply an old beach house, cobbled together with wood, with a thatched roof, furnished with two large beds and mosquito netting, an antique fridge and microwave, and a simple bathroom. Admittedly, the location was perfect, under coconut palms with ocean view and a small veranda with a table and chairs, perfect for our afternoon games with Kyra. The stairs of the bungalow led into the sand and down to the beach. Rickety, almost antique deck chair models stood in the shade of the palm trees. Unfortunately, the corals were already pretty damaged but we could still see some very colorful fish while snorkeling. The bungalows were only a small part of the grounds. There was a huge camping area where mainly Americans and Canadians had parked their monster mobile homes. Most of these had added terraces and verandas and were perfect overwintering places. There was also a hotel, a restaurant and bar with ocean view. The night was $1800 pesos in our eco-bungalow, a fantastic breakfast included. This was a little over my humble budget, but my generous brother pulled his credit card out and invited me to this fabulous stay. At night we drove to the Puerto Aventuras Hotel complex with various hotels, but also private villas, time share appartments, restaurants, shopping, a yacht harbour, etc. pp. Of course, they had pizza but you can eat pizza in Switzerland too, probably even better ones. Starbucks was also there. A completely empty restaurant asked over the top prices, so we finally turned around and drove into the little village just behind Puerto Aventuras where we found a corner restaurant with cold beer and good food for reasonable prices. After dinner we sat in the sand in front of our bungalow and waited for the sea turtles to arrive. Of the seven species of sea turtles, six lay their eggs on beaches across Mexico. The females arrive at Paa Mul between July and August to lay eggs. By the way, a female returns to the exact same spot to lay her eggs where she herself was born. A nest can contain up to 200 eggs that the female buries in the sand. After about 50 days the eggs hatch and the baby turtles scurry down the beach to the ocean. On this short trip iguanas and birds wait for the small tidbits; but not only animals endanger the baby turtles, people contribute considerably to their extinction too because turtle eggs and meat fetch high prices on the black market. Shortly after 9PM we saw movement and the first turtle crawled up the beach. Laboriously she worked her way up the beach and finally started to dig a hole with her two dorsal fins. Soon, other turtles followed but it took them forever to dig a deep enough hole. Eventually, we set the alarm to 2AM and went to bed. On our small stretch of beach we later saw 13 turtles in the moonlight. They had laid their eggs and were now busy burying them again with sand to disappear back into the dark ocean. The next morning, the only signs of their visit were the crawling tracks in the sand. Iguanas had discovered and slurped a few eggs that were not thoroughly enough buried in the sand. On this last day, Kyra and I went kayaking in our bay. The one-hour kayak rental was included in the hotel price. We had to fight our way through a brown seaweed carpet. The algae, or sargassum, covered many beaches in Yucatán and Quintana Roo. The seaweed originally comes from the Sargasso Sea in the mid-Atlantic Ocean and in 2015 covered large areas of Mexican beaches. We were lucky at our beach; volunteers were removing the algaes so they didn't smell bad as in other places. The rest of the day was spent snorkeling, searching for sea shells and dead corals, sunbathing, and, of course, playing various family games.

After a last bath in the ocean, we packed our stuff and drove towards Cancún. The jungle on both sides of the road along the Riviera Maya is a true blessing. Because of the forest, you only see the pompous and mostly tasteless huge entrance gates to the all-inclusive resorts lining the coast. The closer you get to Playa del Carmen and Cancún, the uglier the buildings, the denser the residential areas and hotels. My flight back to Guadalajara left around noon, and so it was soon time to say goodbye after a wonderful vacation. Of course, we already made plans for a repetition where we want to explore the jungle and ruins in Chiapas. This trip was over too soon! Outright, I could have got used to the sandy beaches, cenotes, green jungle, carriage rides, and fine hotels; but at home there was a husband waiting, the band of cats, the chickens, and the garden.

August 2015

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen