Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Yucatan - There and Back Again. "Chichen Itza and Ria Lagartos"

With the first 48 hours behind us - along with those early bumps in the road - we were off  to the Chichen Itza ruins, located inland on the northern part of the Yucatan. After two hours in a bus that left at 8am from Merida, we arrived in Piste, a small town on the highway just west of Chichen Itza, were we had reserved a hotel. Well, we had reserved a place to pitch a tent at a hotel.

The hotel was large, and stretched a hundred meters along the side of the highway. Although we were adjacent to one of the world's most famous archaeological ruins, and were there during its peak tourism season, the hotel was practically deserted. The yellow paint on the walls was pealing and the lawn in front was un-mowed. The owner greeted us and showed us to the large garden area behind the hotel where we could place the tent. We walked by a swimming pool, a selling point of the hotel, but it was empty. We saw another tent set up nearby, which made us feel a little more comfortable knowing we weren't the only ones around.

It was at this time in that other tent that we saw our first European dreadlocked kids, a mainstay of modern traveling. They avoided eye-contact with us as we walked by to our corner of the garden. Although I didn't see it, I'm sure that after this quick interruption they went immediately back to making hemp necklaces to sell to other European dreadlocked kids.

We had arrived and set up the tent before 11am, and headed to Chichecn Itza. This is where we found all of the tourists. Thousands of people crowded the sprawling ruins. The ruins included large complexes of ball courts, ceremonial buildings, a celestial observatory, and a large central pyramid. As cliché as it sounds, it was a bit too touristy though. Although the massive Grand Cenote - a sink hole in the limestone bedrock that was once used for human sacrifice - was extraordinary, and we saw a Bat Falcon circle up and out as we approached it, the ruins themselves were too orderly; the grass fields surrounding the buildings were too well-kept, there were no jungle trees growing out of the structures, and there were too many vendors selling wooden masks, jaguar whistles, and magic crystals. It felt more like a tourist trap on a highway in the Midwest than one of the world's seven ancient wonders. We decided to skip the laser-light and sound show that night.

The large pyramid in Chichen Itza.

We left Chichen Itza at around the same time the other tourists began filling back into their tour buses parked in front. We walked along the highway back to our hotel, and then took a taxi to the Il-Kil cenote. We discovered that the thousands of tourists at Chichen Itza had all got onto their buses and raced us to Il-Kil. As crowded as it was, it was still spectacular. A wide hole in the ground, 50 meters deep, with tree roots hanging from its ceiling and small cascades of water pouring from the top down into an aqua blue pool of water at the bottom. We changed into our bathing suits, walked down through a cave to the bottom of the pool and dove into the cold water.

The Il-Kil cenote.

An hour later, as we left Il-Kil towards Piste in a taxi, all of the tour buses left with us. But this time they went in a different direction on the highway, towards the coast. It became clear that the town was empty because most tourists arrive by bus in the morning and leave in the afternoon, never straying from the all-inclusive resorts on the Riviera Maya. The large, empty hotels in Piste are remnants of a past era when people stayed the night to see the pyramids.

We left early the next day on our journey to Ria Lagartos, a biosphere reserve on the northern coast of the Yucatan, also famous for its flamingo colonies. The first bus took us to Valladolid. The second bus took us to Tizimin. And the third bus landed us in a small fishing village in Ria Lagartos at 2 PM, five hours after we left Piste. We quickly put our stuff in our hotel and then went to find a tour boat.

Fishing boats in Ria Lagartos.

A small motor boat left the docks and took us through a broad, mangrove lined river. The river was shallow and we passed large groups of wading egrets, cormorants, and shorebirds. Flocks of gulls and terns swarmed above nearby fishing boats. Brown and White Pelicans floated lazily on the calm water. We were buzzed by several groups of Black Skimmers, called "rayadores" in Spanish, gull-like birds that use their over-sized beak to skim along the surface of the water until they find a fish to eat. We even saw a few crocodiles.

We went slowly all the way down to where the river meets the sea.  Aside from fishing, the local economy is based on harvesting the salt from the sea and then selling it further inland. At the mouth of the river, salt flats stretched for miles into the distance, so saline that they glow red. A large salt mountain could be seen over the horizon.

Salt flats.

Hundreds of flamingos waded through salt flats, filtering small creatures out of the water with their oddly shaped beak.

Flamingos in Ria Lagartos.

After several hours we headed back upriver towards the town, just as the sun was starting to set. We arrived back at the dock after dark, the slowly spinning lighthouse signaling us in. We walked first around the docks watching  people line-fish at night with their families, then through the center of town where every home was decorated with Christmas lights. The air was still, with no breeze coming off the river. The sky was dark and we couldn't see the stars.  Ria Lagartos was silent.

Sun setting over the mangroves.

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