travelog 128

Travels with Kyra and Kaspar III: Rock Piles

Rock mounds, rock heaps, stone hills, mountains of rocks, and still more piled up rocks. I'm talking about the archaeological sites of the Maya, of course, of which there are at least twenty on the Yucatán Peninsula. The ruins are spread over the states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche, although many of them are still not completely mapped and excavated. Chichen Itzá and Tulúm are probably the most visited sites, but there are definitely ruins where you can wander around the rock piles undisturbed by other tourists. A trip to Yucatán would be only half a vacation without visiting at least some of these archaeological sites, that's why some of them were on our to-do list.


The ruins of Ek'Balám were located (almost) along our way. Our German travel guide book even had a special suggestion for an exceptional accommodation, the Genesis Eco-Retreat. As I mentioned in the earlier travelogs, everything labelled "eco" is a great success and can be sold for a good money. That was also true for the Genesis Eco-Retreat. The owner, a Canadian lady, built a small hotel with various bungalows in the small village of Ek'Balám. On the premises, there's a swimming pool and a restaurant serving food with vegetables from their own garden and eggs from their own chickens. The Maya village of Ek'Balám consists of a few typical houses with palm-thatched roofs. Along the main plaza, which is partly shaded by huge trees and is also used as a football field, you can buy locally woven colorful hammocks. On the other side you'll see the abandoned-looking Hotel Dolce Mente. Along one street you'll find the Centro Ecoturistico "Unajil Ek Balám" where we will get accommodation on our next visit. The place is locally owned and managed; the bungalows are huge with mosquito netting over the beds, and if you make a reservation in advance, they even cook food for you. The bungalows in our Eco-Retreat looked nice, but, for my taste, were overpriced. We stayed in the hobbit room with three bunk beds, though the mosquito nets were not large enough to cover the beds, and you had to share the bathroom/shower/toilet with other guests. The swimming pool was nestled into tropical plants, and we really enjoyed the refreshing bath. Too bad that the tables and chairs and the china used in the restaurant, which at the same time also served as a sitting room with a rocking chair and couch, didn't fit at all with the style of this small Maya village, but rather seemed to have been purchased randomly in a big warehouse.

The next morning we visited the ruins of Ek'Balám, meaning black jaguar. It is believed that the site, founded in the 3rd century and at its peak between 600-700AD, had been inhabited for more than 1000 years. Thorough cartographic recording only started in the 1980s, the still ongoing excavations even later in the '90s. At 8AM we were the first visitors enjoying the still fairly cool morning air. Kyra was soon distracted by a bunch of cute puppies which were way more interesting than the piled high rocks. The ruins are scattered through the jungle and trees and bushes grow between the rocks. We were still allowed to climb on top of the 500m (1650 ft) long, 60m (200 ft) wide and 30m (100 ft) high tower over pretty steep steps. Statues and other decorated rocks stood under palm-thatched roofs. Soon it was getting too warm and tropically humid and a swim in the nearby cenote more enticing than climbing around more ancient rocks.


One highlight of our trip was the visit of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 500AD, the city reached its peak as the capital of a regional Maya state between 850-950AD when it had about 20'000 inhabitants. No new buildings were constructed after 1000AD, but when the Spaniards arrived in 1550 the city still seemed to have a few people living in it. Uxmal's outline is not geometrical as usual in other prehispanic cities, but rather it is ajusted to 1) astronomic events such as the rising and setting of Venus for example, and 2) the topography of its surrounding hills. Another specialty at Uxmal is the Adivino pyramid, the Soothsayer's pyramid. It is not based on a rectangular layout as regular pyramids, but was erected on an oval outline. All the buildings are richly decorated with symbolic motifs and there are countless sculptures that show the rain god Chaac. An elevated causeway connects Uxmal with Kabah, another city about 18kms (11 miles) to the south.

We arrived at Uxmal in the late afternoon. There's nothing here except for three hotels. No village, no abarrote store, mom-and-pop shop, where we could have bought water. Shortly before you get to the first hotel, there are a few restaurants along the road. At this time of day they are either just closing or still serving food to a busload of tourists. We checked out the first hotel. The room was on the second floor with a view to the pyramids and the swimming pool which instantly got Kyra's approval. She had already learned from experience, though, and first wanted to see the other hotels in case she would be missing something better. And on we drove to the Hotel Hacienda Uxmal, a beautiful complex of buildings with a palm-lined swimming pool. When we heard the price, $2000 pesos, we were just a little bit shocked, though. Even Kyra had already understood that you can spend the money you save on a hotel on horse carriages, white grapes, colorful hammocks, gummy bears and the likes, so she quickly took over and started negotiating for a better offer. When asked by the concierge about the price we would be willing to pay, sassily she said $900 pesos. For this price the guy offered a room at the Casa del Mago, the Wizard's House. First I thought that he was joking, but he really showed us back down to the main road and into a fairly old building where he opened the door to a small room on the second floor. Indeed a joke, because the size and decoration of this room were never in a lifetime worth $900 pesos, much less in Uxmal. Back at the reception, the concierge insisted on showing us one of the real hacienda rooms just so that we could see what we were missing. The room was really quite beautiful: huge with two king size beds, mini bar, pool towels, view of the gardens, the bathroom furnished with a bath tub and every imaginable soap and shampoo, and best of all, the swimming pool was just a few steps away. Meanwhile, of course, Kyra had decided that the pool at the previous, much cheaper hotel was completely unacceptable and the beautiful view to the pyramids was long forgotten too. Finally, the concierge understood our problems and reduced the price to $1100 pesos, still very pricely; but after all, we also got a beautiful room for it. Guests who arrived later really paid the incredible price of $2000 pesos without batting an eyelid; but as European tourists, they were of course used to other prices.

First we enjoyed a swim in the pool. German, Italian, and French were the languages overheard. At dusk we walked over to the entrance gate of the Uxmal ruins to buy tickets for the nightly light show. When we got there, the line was already pretty long. An expensive Holanda ice cream (everything here was double the price than everywhere else) sweetened the waiting a little bit. Then the unthinkable happened: with only four people in front of us, all the tickets were sold out! Confusion took over until we found out that we could get more tickets in about 15 minutes for a second show the same evening. This meant sitting and waiting some more, but the second show was probably the better, with less people to fight for the few available chairs. I liked the sound and light show, but Kyra and my brother were quite bored because they didn't understand anything that was said about the legends and sagas of the Mayan princesses or the gods and rulers of Uxmal. These legends were accompanied by the light show which painted the various buildings in bright colors. The best of all was that the lights highlighted the many snake figures on the walls which we would otherwise not have identified as snakes the next day.

Shortly before 8AM the next morning we stood at the entrance gate. A young French couple hopped from the first bus from Merida and waited to get in too. Quickly we walked by the first ruins to see the huge square with palaces and pyramids without people. We were alone with the cleaning guys and the security guards who walked to their shady posts with water bottles. Fortunately, Uxmal is too far away from the Riviera Maya to be visited in a day trip, so you have the entire site (almost) to yourself. The quiet all around us was only broken by bird song from every tree and insects humming; on rock walls, fat iguanas took a bath in the warming sun; Agave sisalana grew on the sides of still unexcavated hills; wherever you turned your head, you only saw richly decorated facades and half collapsed ruins seemlessly merging into the jungle; at the very end the Casa de las Palomas, the Dovecote, its walls crumbling too - through a wide door you walked directly in the jungle; over 72 steep and tall steps you were still allowed to climb to the top of the big pyramid from where you enjoy a fantastic view over the entire site; and last but not least the ball court, looking more like a well kept garden with its green lawn and trees than like a field to play ball. The huge site, the surroundings, the jungle reconquering the city, the quiet and solitude, the carved stone figures, the whole atmosphere made our visit very special. If you have enough time, you should absolutely visit Uxmal; and if you're already in the area, I strongly recommend visiting some of the archaeological sites along the Puuc route.

During the few hours we had strolled through Uxmal, we had already started to sweat. One last time we enjoyed jumping into the refreshing pool at the hotel, before we took off for the Ruta Puuc.

Ruta Puuc: Kabáh, Sayil, Labná and the Loltún Caves

Puuc architecture is easily recognized. The building's facades are divided into two horizontal elements. The lower portions are simple and unadorned blocks, punctuated only by doors. The upper facades, however, are richly decorated with complicated stone mosaics, symbolical motifs, and often alternating repeated geometric elements. Sayil, Labná and Kabáh were something like suburbs of Uxmal, built between the 8th-10th century. On the narrow country road we encountered only a couple of cars. In Kabáh, though, there was already a tour bus parked and a horde of German tourists in short shorts and sombrero, cameras bobbing on bulging bellies, trampeled through the ruins. From top to bottom and from left to right, the Palace of the Masks is completely covered in masks of Chaac, the rain god. More stone masks and fragments are scattered on the ground, and archaeologists are still busy trying to fit them into the palace walls. Kyra didn't know what to do with all those masks, besides, we had already done a lot of sightseeing in Uxmal and a girl can only look at so many rock piles per day, therefore she sat down in the shade of an ancient wall and started reading her book about girls and horses. Next, we visited Sayil where we were the only visitors. From the entrance gate, a path led through the jungle to a huge clearing with a three-story palace about 80m (260 ft) long. Its stones, illuminated by the sun, shone through the forest in a bright orange color. The building was huge and it quite unexpectedly appeared out of nowhere. At once, Kyra found a huge tree with thick air roots that served as a chair. While my brother and I were exploring the site, she was absorbed again in her book. South of the big palace was the Mirador temple, built like a viewpoint on top of a lonely hill. Hidden deeper in the jungle were overgrown hills of rocks and a huge flagstone with a fertility god, embellished with an oversized phallus. Our next stop along the little country road was Labná. A French family with small children were the only other visitors. Many of the buildings here were still completely overgrown. You could admire a few "sac bes", elevated causeways, and there was even a triumphal arch, something like an ancient Arc de Triomphe in the middle of the jungle. Orchids and huge bromeliads thrived in the trees. Once more the quiet was fascinating - apart from the birdsong and the insects humming - and the remoteness of this place.

Finally we visited the Loltún caves. We arrived just in time to be part of a guided tour (the caves can only be visited with a guide!). The entrance fee was not cheap. Then there was the guide who foremost explained lengthily that he did not get anything from the fee we had just paid, and therefore was counting on our generous contributions. Just for you to know, there are also guides available for a private tour, speaking English, French, or Italian, but this luxury of course has its price. In addition we were warned that we had to walk about one kilometer (0.6 miles) over sometimes uneven and slippery terrain. After we had listened for an eternity to the guide's gratuity sermon, the tour finally started. We climbed down into the cave system, immersing into a world of almost 100% humidity and warmth. Following lit paths and depending in what part of the cave we were, the stalactites and stalagmites were lit in different colors with spotlights. The two-hour tour took us only through a small part of the cave which is one of the largest cave systems on the peninsula and still not completely explored. Bones of mammuth, bison, big cats, and deer have been found inside the cave; also paintings, sculptures, tools, and more, suggesting a very early human occupation. One special feature are grown together stalactites and stalagmites, forming something like musical columns that produce different sounds when touched. The Mayas, our guide told us, painted negative hands - i.e. the outlines of the hand were painted black, looking like the hand was painted with a spray can - always close to an exit, so that they, in case of getting lost in the labyrinth, could always find a way back to the surface. At the end of our tour we came into a beautiful room. Parts of its ceiling had collapsed at the far end. Curtains of sunbeams illuminated parts of the room and air roots dangled from the ceiling.

Chichen Itzá

I don't think I have to write a lot about Chichen Itzá. It's already all there on the internet. With an estimated 1.4 million visitors per year, it is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. Chichen Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2007, the Temple of Kukulkan, god of the Feathered Serpent (also called Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs and the Toltecs), was nominated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. This 30m (100 ft) high pyramid, called El Castillo by the Spaniards, is the largest and most important building of Chichen Itzá. It was built on top of fundaments of earlier temples between the 11th and the 13th century.

We made it to Chichen Itzá late in the afternoon. Right off we found the Hotel Dolores Alba where we had already booked a room from Merida to get a discount. It was really not difficult at all finding the hotel since it was situated right along the main through-road that leads from Cancun to Merida. The pictures on the internet are insofar a bit deceptive as you get the impression that the two swimming pools are located beautifully in the jungle, when, in fact, they are just next to the main through-road which was being widened right then, and you heard every single car and truck that was passing by. It was reasonably priced, though, and we only wanted to stay one night. The other hotels are all de luxe and nestled into the jungle. There were various restaurants in the small village of Chichen Itzá where we found good food. Kyra and Kaspar really wanted to see the sound and light show of which they had already seen parts on the internet. So we drove straight to the entrance gate to buy tickets. Surprise! We were told that during high season tickets were only sold online, and had to be reserved well in advance because most of the tickets were bought by hotels and travel agencies.

At 7AM sharp the next morning we sat with other early risers at the breakfast tables, waiting more or less patiently for something to happen. The employees arrived in time, but, of course, they first needed to brew coffee and distribute white napkins; then they had to toast bread and hand out jam, while we were starting to look at our watch slightly nervous. Finally, I organized a quick coffee and a plate of fruit to be able to make it to the entrance at 8AM. A few other cars were already waiting in line but at least no huge tour bus. The hustle and bustle in Chichen Itzá starts around noon when the day trippers arrive from Cancun and Tulúm. We were let in with a few other early birds and the many souvenir vendors. The jungle was shrouded in fog and it was pretty cool. The top of the Kukulkan pyramid disappeared in the fog. We explored the building of a Thousand Columns; the Skull Platform and the Platform of the Eagles and the Jaguars, each decorated with either innumerable skulls, jaguars or eagles. Slowly the fog lifted and gave way to a beautiful, bright blue sky. Slowly the first groups of tourists arrived too. The souvenir vendors had set up their tables and offered their mostly kitschy goods. When we strolled over the huge ball court, the hurly-burly had started and we heard different languages all around us. High time to buy a kitschy souvenir and head for the exit.


We arrived in Cobá again late in the afternoon. First we looked for a hotel. Our travel books recommended two small hotels that charged extortionate prices and offered nothing. Finally we returned to the highway junction and had a look at the new and nice looking Hotel Hacienda Cobá. Built like a small hacienda, the owners need to do something with their garden design and plantings. The hotel is set back into the jungle, but the pretty narrow property is surrounded left and right by high walls that really don't fit the style. Our room was very nicely furnished, but expensive. Finally we agreed on a compromise: We got a small discount and breakfast was included. Cobá is situated next to two lagoons and in the village, at one of the lagoons, we found a small restaurant with Quesadillas for Kyra and typical Yucatecan fare for the adults. Across from the restaurant, a landing stage was built into the lagoon. A boy came running to throw pieces of meat hooked onto a wire into the water. Soon two crocodiles appeared and started fighting for the food. Of course, the whole show was not for free, but my brother was happy to shoot a few pictures of the crocodile jumping out of the water.

Kyra was the first outside our room the next morning and informed us very excitedly that a table was set with a white table cloth and real china. Our breakfast was delicious and in retrospect it was certainly worth the money, especially because the other hotels offered nothing for too much money.

Again, we were (almost) the only early risers in Cobá. Before we even got to the entrance gate we were already offered a special tour in Italian or English. Behind the gate we let ourselves be convinced that the tour of the site would be easier with a tricycle and a driver. First, the hard-working pedaller who even spoke Italian, drove us to the Nohoch Mul pyramid, with 42m (138 ft) the highest on the peninsula. Visitors are still allowed to climb to the top and even Kyra scrambled up the 120 steep steps. Cobá had a population of between 50'000-60'000 people at its peak from the 6th to the 9th century. The built up area extended over more than 80km˛ (30 square miles). A network of elevated causeways, so-called sacbés, led to smaller surrounding sites. The longest of these pathways leads to Yaxuna, 100km (62 miles) away from Cobá. Cobá must have been an important trading center, although the high population concentration was only possible because of the location next to lakes fed from subterranean water. Renting the tricycle was a very good idea. The site was huge and the different points of interest far apart. In addition, our guide knew the best ways to get around and talked away in Italian with Kyra while my brother and I admired stelae, piles of rocks, and remnants of original paintings. The kids of a French family were not at all thrilled about Cobá - their parents had saved a few pesos and the family was exploring the site on foot. When we came back to the exit the tricycle and bicycle parking was full with guides waiting for tourists, and the car parking in front started to fill up with tour busses.


After we had visited the sights of Cobá, we drove straight on to Tulúm. My brother had visited Tulúm more than ten years ago and Kyra had seen enough piled up rocks for the day. Kaspar parked the car outside of the official parking in the shade. Determined, I walked over the parking area which was overflowing with cars and huge busses. The question was "Where's the entrance to the archaeological site?". Souvenir shops and restaurants like Starbucks and Subway Sandwiches were lined up along sidewalks, but there was nothing to be seen of the famous temples next to the turquoise Caribbean far and wide. Exasperated, I asked a young guy who immediately wanted to sell me a ride on his small, tractor-pulled train, because the entrance supposedly was still far away. I walked a few steps further, but, aside from half-naked tourists and hideous souvenirs, the entrance was nowhere to be seen. So I turned around and postponed the visit to another time when I could be there early in the morning before the day tourists from Cancun and the Riviera Maya stood on each other's feet.

With this travelog my trilogy "Travels with Kyra and Kaspar" comes to an end. I admit, the stories are nowhere near as gripping as the "Lord of the Rings" or the "Hobbit" trilogies, though I sure hope that they have inspired some people to snorkel with whale sharks, visit old sisal plantations, stroll around Izamal, the yellow city, swim in a cenote, or even visit a few of these ancient rock piles. As far as I'm concerned, I'm looking forward to the continuation of this trip into unknown areas of the Yucatan peninsula, together with the best niece and the best brother in the world, of course.

September 2015

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen