Phase 2-A of our eleven month adventure was a trip to Merida, Mexico, to visit my brother Fernando and sister-in-law (“cuñada” in Spanish), Tori, who retired two years ago from running their San Francisco Tae Kwon Do school.
Although Joy and I had visited Mexico a few times over the years (Tijuana & Rosarito, Oaxaca, and Mexico City), we hadn’t been back to Merida since our honeymoon, 36+ years ago. We were excited to see Fernando and Tori after so long, and we were also excited that we were going to visit Mayan archaeological sites we’d had on our list for a long time.
Unfortunately, the night before we flew to Mexico, Joy’s mom had a health scare than landed her in the hospital for a few days. Joy stayed in Texas while I headed for the airport. It was a disappointing echo of the text I got the eve of a two-week Greek sailing adventure telling me to come home from Athens to say goodbye to my father. Fortunately, Fran is back on her feet and as perky as she’s been, though Joy ended up missing out on Mexico.
Fernando & Tori have a fabulous house not too far from Merida’s historic center, and I would be totally envious of their house if it weren’t for the Merida weather, which is unpleasantly hot in January. But then the hot and rainy seasons arrive and and the weather’s even worse for the next 10 months. My brother, Ed, visited in October and he was afraid the sidewalk was going to melt his tennis shoes. Even though Fernando & Tori’s house has great air conditioning, I slept in an hamaca (hammock) about half the time.
My first morning we walked to a nearby produce market where we ate breakfast at the restaurant which Chef Samin Nosrat visited in the “acid” episode of her cookbook-based show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. As is always the case with every meal in the Yucatan, the waiter brought us a small bowl of habanero sauce to kick-up our dishes. Given how much habanero sauce I added to my breakfast, I think Samin is a wimp when it comes to spiciness. I love that Yucatecan restaurants always put down complimentary black refried beans and fresh-made tortilla chips. And, of course, there’s always a mixture of childhood favorites like hot chocolate or challenging stuff to eat, like caterpillars and crocodile (which tastes way better than alligator).
I fell in love with Fernando & Tori’s dog, Alux (Pronounced “aloosh”, because in Mayan, the “x” sounds like “sh”.) Alux is a Xoloitzcuintle (or, if your tongue can’t perform Cirque de Soleil maneuvers, a “Xolo”). The Aztec raised Xolos as a meat source as well as bed warmers. They are a hairless dog and I can testify that they generate a ton of body heat. Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera often included Xolos in their paintings. Although Alux is an Aztec dog, his name is Mayan for a knee-high sprite dressed in traditional Mayan clothing, usually invisible, and with the same trickster tendencies as leprechauns. I felt like Alux and I bonded. Maybe because he is so very much like Brighton in both size and temperament. I can usually give or take other people’s dogs, but I’d definitely take Alux!
Visiting Mayan archaeological sites is particularly exciting to me because it’s a strong part of my culture. My maternal grandfather was primarily Mayan, and he spoke Mayan as well as Spanish. The Spanish my brothers and I speak is littered with Mayan words, phrases, and intonations. (If you wonder what Maya sounds like, go watch the latest Black Panther movie, Wakanda Forever.)
We had arranged trips to visit Palenque, Yaxchilán, and Bonampak in the nearby state of Chiapas, and Calakmul in Yucatan’s neighboring state of Campeche. I enjoyed these sites so much, we’re talking about making a repeat trip in the next couple of years so Joy can see them before it’s all destroyed by the freaking 950 mile “Tren Maya”. A recent Time magazine article titled “A New Tourist Train in Mexico Will Destroy Indigenous Land and Livelihoods” pretty accurately sums it up. Everyone except the Mexican President and other folks who stand to get rich from it are against the train.
Palenque was a medium-sized Classic Period Mayan powerhouse from about 200BC to 800AD. Palenque is home to some of the finest architecture, sculpture, and carvings in the Mayan world. The Temple of Inscriptions still houses the enormous sarcophagus lid created to celebrate the ruler K’inich Pakal, and it’s one of the most famous Mayan images we know. Pre-Columbian Apollo astronauts, anyone? Only about 5% of the city is open to tourists, so it makes for a short visit. Our guide extended it by leading us on a short hike through the jungle. Sadly, the jungle ate my sun glasses somewhere along the trek.
Yaxchilán is an amazing site, and although it’s a total pain in the butt to get to, it’s worth it. The only way to get to the site is via a 40 minute boat ride along the crocodile-infested Usumacinta River. (Okay, it’s not really infested. We never saw one, but there were plenty of signs telling you to stay out of the water.) The Usumacinta acts as the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Because of river currents, obstructions, and sand bars, we periodically motored close to the eastern banks of the river and my cell phone kept welcoming me to Guatemala. How ironic that an American was illegally crossing a river to enter Guatemala!
Yaxchilán is huge. Even though only a small portion of it is available to tourists, you could easily spend all day visiting the site. Yaxchilán was a rival to other Classic Period Mayan empires like Palenque and Tikal (if you’ve never visited Tikal in Guatemala you HAVE to go!). The site has a ton of stelea (tall free-standing stones in front of buildings — imagine over-sized tombstones — that celebrate significant city events), as well as amazingly well-preserved lintels (the horizontal stone that serves as the top of the doorway). I am proud of myself for figuring out a great way to use my phone to photograph lintels: use your phone’s “selfie” mode and hold the phone about waist-high in the doorway so the phone is shooting “up.” Several other tourists were impressed with the idea and started doing the same thing.
Bonampak, not too far from Yaxchilán, is famous for its well-preserved murals. Surprisingly, we were required to wear Covid masks to visit the murals (which our freakin’ shitty guide didn’t tell us about beforehand so we had to buy masks at the site. Bastard.) because each of the three murals is in its own separate room at the top of a temple. The murals were unbelievable. I would have spent a lot of time looking at them, but INAH (Instituto de Anthropologia e Historia) agents let only one person into a room at a time (for Covid prevention reasons) and they don’t let you dawdle. Given how enclosed each room is, the mask requirement makes sense. And shooing people through makes sense, too, but it still made me grumpy.
Our Yaxchilán/Bonampak guide was awful. He wasn’t that communicative and I knew he was making shit up. He was so bad that we split off from the rest of the group and toured those sites ourselves. Even so, he was a pale comparison to the “class by herself” guide Joy and I had in Tulum on our honeymoon. During the course of our private tour that guide told us several things that had us snickering behind her back or giving each other eye rolls.
“Archaeologists have never found any Mayan human remains. How could a civilization so large disappear? Many people,” she told us, “believe that Jesus took all the Mayans up to heaven. Another possible explanation is that they were taken away by the aliens who taught the Mayans all the advanced math and astronomy their calendar and buildings demonstrate.”
She periodically pointed out glyphs or carvings that provided “evidence” for these explanations, including a carved head-down figure over a doorway, which was, in her explanation, Jesus coming to earth. She also told us that the Maya got their name because when the Spaniards asked the Maya questions, the Maya shrugged their shoulders and responded, “Maya.” Thirty-six years later and I still want my money back. This is exactly the reason why Joy and I do archaeology travel with an outfit like Far Horizons! (I don’t get any kickbacks on that, though if it happened…)
Calakmul is another awesome site and guaranteed to give you a butt-kicking aerobic workout. Well, actually, almost every Mayan site does that, if you’re not afraid of heights and willing to risk your life to get to the top of temples. I forgot to check at the end of the day, but at one point during our Calakmul tour, my Apple Watch told me I’d climbed 49 staircases! Structure #2 is 148 feet high (among the highest of Mayan structures) and about 400 feet square. Climbing to the top of Structure #2 is a challenge. As is often the case with Mayan structures, not only is it tall and steep, the building stairs aren’t your tidy US stairs. They’re either 1.5 or 2x the height of normal stairs, or they’re very narrow, intentionally designed to make you walk up/down at an angle. And sometimes, the steps are tall AND narrow. And, of course, they’re old, so they’re weathered and slippery. Even so, I usually zipped up and down the buildings. Tori complained that my spirit animal must be a mountain goat. Once you get to the top, though, you have a 360 panorama above the jungle and you can see the rival Mayan city of El Mirador 40 KM away.
[Click on the arrow at the bottom of the image to the left to start this video.]
That ain’t Tori huffing and puffing on her way up to the landing 2/3 of the way to the top. My brother, Fernando, being the smarter one, stayed down on ground level. … and this isn’t even Structure #2, which is even higher!
Calakmul was one of the largest and most powerful Mayan cities. Calakmul is estimated to be 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles), had approximately 6,700 buildings, and housed 50,000 people. Unfortunately, the stone used to build Calakmul and its stelae was a soft stone so much of the artistry and history are lost to weathering.
Calakmul is freakin’ in the *middle* of the jungle. It was a two hour drive to the site through a dense biosphere reserve to get to the site. You know how in the US we have signs warning you about deer? Here, the signs had pictures of jaguars and ocelots. Do Not Leave The Road. Even if you really need to pee.
We had a great private guide for Calakmul. He bribed the INAH guard to allow us to enter a whole section of the site closed to tourists a few years ago. We visited those sites first and ended the day at the main temples that tourists are restricted to. By the time we got there, the bulk of tourists had come and gone, so the temples were almost empty of other tourists. The other benefit of visiting areas where tourists haven’t been for years is that we saw a lot of wildlife that even got our guide excited, including a collared peccary, an agouti (big rodent), spider monkeys and howler monkeys, ocellated turkeys, a toucan, and a collared aracari (kinda like a toucan), plus tons of other different bird types he was happy to point out. We didn’t see a jaguar (which is actually a good thing) but we did find very fresh ocelot poop that had us all excited. Whaddya gonna do? Some people get excited about birds. Navarretes get excited about poop.
Phase 2—B: Cuba
We’ll be writing a post about Cuba soon, but I figured I really needed to publish the Mexico post before we flew home from Havana!