Travels in the Yucatan

Christmas done, we left for the Yucatan peninsula. Our first stop, and subsequent base, was Merida. A small squarish city, with a maze of grids, alternating numbered one-way streets, so designed that even the taxi drivers were confused except when you told them the exact location of where you wanted to go, in co-ordinates, like the corner of Calle 69 and Calle 73. Everybody had abandoned using landmarks, everything was in numbers. The Mayan city of T’ho, now completely erased, and replaced with the inevitable central park and surrounding important buildings. The Government palace was open till late at night, the government itself a tourist attraction, with walls boasting incredible murals, and giant paintings depicting the history of the region.

One cannot avoid Henequen, the agave like plant that propped up the economy of the region for so many years. They used to make a sort of jute-like fibre from the leaves. Vast acres of farmland dedicated to the growing of Henequen, haciendas the size of small city states, a thorny landscape of green. And then along came plastic, and nylon, and that was the end, and even now as you peer through the shrubby underbrush that line all the highways of the Yucatan, you can see the old giant Henequen plants still standing, and the Haciendas now re-inventing themselves as Heritage Hotels.
Central Merida enthralls with its subdued charm, and one can feel the drop in tourist numbers palpably in the air. We managed to secure a hotel right in the centre at an astonishing price. At night, fending off the many hawkers with their trinkets, we walked in the centre, a weekend market ringed by street food sellers, most notable, little carts with gas powered stoves, all making ‘Marquesitas’, a crepe like food. Wildly popular, we had to wait several minutes patiently in line before we could even order. Since the city was made for walking, we ambled along, stopping at an outdoor sculpture exhibition (a bird like creature made from scrap, painted jaguars, transgenic maize), an exhibition of a pinhole photographer, whose dreamy fuzzy landscapes of the Yucatan dealt a solid if not mortal blow in the war against digital and then the Museum of contemporary art, which failed to move me in any way whatsoever, but for the surreal works of a bosch like painter.
But Merida was just a base. We went to three cenotes near Cozuma, all linked on the surface by a horse drawn cart called trucos that ran on rails through an old Henequen hacienda.

The truco rattled along the rails, and since there was only one set of rails, if we encountered another coming our way, one had to give way to the other, by physically pulling the cart off the rails. There were rules, I observed. The larger batch of carts had priority. If the number of carts were equal, the ones going to the cenotes had priority. And so we went to the Cenotes, those legendary sinkholes filled with clear water, half hidden underground, with only a shaft of light and a shaft of ladders to signal a connection to the surface. Inside the grotto, everything reeked of sacredness and secrecy. Hidden worlds, darkness, mysterious water, rivers that connected under the surface, and the deep water so clear that floating in this was like floating in space. Occasionally, a trees roots would have burst through the roof of the cave and head straight for the water, adding to the otherworldliness of the place. The last one was the most impressive, for it was almost dark by then and a single shaft of sunlight penetrated the large grotto, bouncing off the water and casting dancing light patterns on the cave wall.

In Celestun, where the mangroves are aplenty, we eschewed the regular fast boats that take you to see the huge flamingo flocks in favour of a more eco-touristy outfit in Dzinitun that allowed to go among the mangrove canals in a canoe, powered by the more traditional man with a pole. This boatman, also a eco-guide, pointed out the birds in and around the mangroves, and I felt the memories of my bird watching days stir in me, memories of spending hours stuck behind binoculars, looking up instead of looking down.When we went past the dark mangrove tunnels into the estuary proper, we saw a small group of flamingos feeding there. Another memory, of trudging miles in the swampy wetland of Kaliveli just because a fellow birder glimpsed pink in the distance and was sure, so sure it was a flamingo. And here, all these years later, the second time I was seeing flamingos in the wild.

Chichen Itza was the first Mayan pyramid I’ve ever seen. It’s a super famous site, its fame on par with the Taj, a wonder of the world, and it seemed every surviving tourist in Mexico had landed here on the same day. The mexicans in our group were more impressed with the absolute numbers of tourists than the site itself. But the site was so big, that no crowd could dwarf its magnificence. Another huge cenote, one of the largest ones ever I think, but this one didn’t have a roof. Among the walkways connecting the various sites of interest, amidst the rubble of still to be reconstructed structures, everywhere we walked, there were lines and lines of trinket sellers. It was like being in a vast outdoor souvenir mall, with all manner of trinkets, including funnily enough a mayan style Last Supper carving. On the way back from Chichen Itza, we stopped at Ixamal, an officially designated Magic Town, with yellow walls and faux gas lamps, and a gigantic 16th century convent that rose in the centre of the town like a relic from the days when giants walked. This was a common trend, we’d drive through small villages and suddenly in the centre come across an enormous church looking all the world as incongruous as a beached whale or a shipwreck in a desert.

And then on to Cancun, for New year’s on an island off the coast, and from there a visit to Tulum, one of the few Mayan sites that overlooked the sea. A very well maintained site, with the blue of the sea agreeing with the green of the grass along side the pyramids and watchtowers, amiable iguanas ambling about, and the weather just perfect, the sea breeze lulling us into Tulum’s spell. It didn’t match the sheer scale of the other sites, but the structures were human sized, and approachable, and these things made me feel more in tune with the landscape. Ahead, out at sea, the waves broke against the reefs that fenced the coast.


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