The trip from Campeche wasn’t supposed to be long but it was hot in the bus and although we had booked and paid for a direct bus this one decided to stop in all the small towns along the way. The bus station in Merida is relatively central so we set off with our packs to locate a hotel or hostel. As we were in the Yucatan we now had proper hostels to choose from along with the usual budget hotel options. Along route to the zocalo we stopped in to see a hostel who’s rooms looked average to say the least (but certainly not the worst we have seen now). The next hotel we stopped at was cheap and after checking the room out we decided to stay. This hotel was 250 peso per night and was a half block from the zocalo. We aren’t sure why it was so cheap, but hey no complaints. Upstairs in the hotel was a restaurant and we ate there a LOT. It was a great price for tasty food, which had a lot of vegetables for Mexican food, and cheap beers (Tom will always check the beer price on a menu to ‘judge’ the price of a restaurant).
Overall we ended up staying in Merida for 12 days, the reason for this you will discover assuming you read on. We spent three days wandering town and just exploring. The market here was intense and busy, definitely a local part of town. Comparatively the zocalo and the two main streets north of that were more of a tourist zone with restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels. Being a little disorganised here also left us with the ‘everything is closed on Mondays’ issue as we have come across in the past a few times. One afternoon we walked up Paseo de Montejo which is the old ‘posh’ street of the city where all the henequen farm owners lived. Henequen is a variety of maguey which was used in the past as a textile. Lining the street are the old mansions of the hacienda owners, many of which have been turned into offices, and they are quite impressive houses. In the zocalo is another example of a beautiful house, the Casa Montejo. This was open as a museum and one of the best examples of an 18th-19th century house we have seen in our travels, full of beautiful old furniture and furnishings.
Our first archaeological site that we visited in the area was Dzibilchaltun, a short distance to the north of the city. The actual ruins at this site were definitely secondary to the museum with the highlight of the ruins being a small temple where they had in the past unearthed some interesting statues. On the site there was also a small cenote. A cenote is a sinkhole full of fresh water creating a deep pool. There are thousands of these spread all over the Yucatan Peninsula and we would visit quite a few more of these over the next month. The Mayans utilised these cenotes for fresh water as well as ceremonial purposes, so a lot of the sites are located with cenotes very close by. After exploring the small site we headed to the cenote hoping for a dip in the fresh water to cool down. There were a few other people swimming or splashing around in the water even though it was half covered with lilly pads. Tom wanted to swim and dipped his feet into the water. He soon discovered that if we went swimming we would be sharing the water with heaps of tiny fish. These fish enjoyed nibbling feet a LOT and although Tom jumped into the water briefly I could barely leave my feet submerged for any more than a few minutes at a time. Much squealing from me ensued.
Another day another archaeological site, this one was Mayapan. A little further away it took a little longer to reach so we were in a bus for about an hour but the site was definitely worth while. It wasn’t a big site but the signs were informative, the structures interesting and plentiful and we could climb all over the site which is something we haven’t be able to do much of recently. Making our way to the top of the main pyramid and we were in awe of the view, it was amazing. Because the area is so flat the pyramid gave a fantastic 360 degree view for kilometres looking over a sea of jungle. After we finished looking around we headed out to the road to wait for a bus. The sky was looking slightly ominous and when Tom commented on it I replied with “Nah the clouds look too high up for rain…”. Five minutes later we were hiding under the trees at the side of the road as a massive storm came over. I have never heard thunder that loud in my life and underneath a tree probably wasn’t the most intelligent place to stand with lightning flashing around us. We were out there for about an hour until the bus arrived to save us and climbing aboard we got a few sniggers at our drowned and dripping appearance.
Over the previous few days we had been tossing up the idea of hiring a car. This was so we could explore the Ruta Puuc south of Merida in our own time. This would allow us to avoid taking a tour as they have a tendency of whisking through sites far to quickly for our liking. So we looked around for a deal on a car and I was cheeky enough to ask for a discount which we were given as we booked the car for two days. Hooray for being cheeky! So we left the car hire place in possession of a tiny little white Chevrolet Matiz.
The next morning we were out of the hotel bright and early in our little car on our way to Ruta Puuc and our first destination. We had decided to visit the biggest and most popular site first so we could get in early hopefully before the place started swarming in tour bus groups. Before entering Uxmal we hung out at the car where I prepared a ham, cheese, tomato, avocado and bean torta for our breakfast, it was quite tasty. Inside Uxmal the first area you get to is the huge and unique Pyramid of the Magician. Unfortunately there is no climbing this but a lot of the remainder of the site still allows access onto the structures. Overall the site was enjoyable and sitting on top of the La Gran Piramide (The Grand Pyramid) and looking out over the whole site and the surrounding jungle was quite special.
Onwards we headed in the car a little further where we stopped at a carpark which was just a dirt area at the side of the road. This site and the following three were all small but each had something special about them. Our ability to find interesting parts and that little something special is the key to why we have continued to visit many archaeological sites and still enjoy them. So Kabah was no exception. This one had a really interesting palace covered in carved friezes or masks of Chaac who is the god of rain in the Mayan world.
After Kabah next on the route was Sayil where we walked about 4km through the jungle to see the different small ruins. It was a nice place for a walk with a surprising lack of nasty buggies.
Next stop five minutes down the road was Xlapak. A note on the use of the letter X in Mayan, it is pronounced with a Sh sound. This site was very small and mostly in ruins but it’s interesting to see what happens without human intervention and reconstruction. The jungle starts to dissolve the ruins turning them into a pile of rubble.
Site number five and last for the day was Labna and upon arriving another storm decided to appear. Luckily we hadn’t set out into the site yet so we sheltered in the booth at the entrance where we watched another couple bolt down the path for their car. She had made the mistake of wearing a white dress which wasn’t coping so well with being wet. Our patience paid off and we were able to explore with only a passing light rain and the murmur of thunder in the distance.
With the afternoon almost over our final stop was Choco-Story a museum all about chocolate. Spread throughout a number of small cabanas the museum takes you on a journey telling you the story of chocolate in Mesoamerica and up until modern times. We were able to watch a Mayan ritual to the rain god Chaac which actually worked and called in a storm. The group of us who were watching the ceremony all ran for the closest cabana where we waited while another impressive storm raged outside which was so loud we couldn’t hold a conversation. Once the storm had passed we were able to continue through the huts learning more about chocolate. In one of the areas we were able to sample a traditional Mayan hot chocolate. Although in some rituals they used to add blood to the drink as an offering to the gods, ours of course didn’t have this in it. The hot chocolate was only cacao, vanilla and water but we had the options of cinnamon, sugar, pepper, chilli or to add. The addition of milk to hot chocolates was something the Spanish started upon arrival in Mexico.
The drive back to Merida unfortunately wasn’t uneventful. While driving through a police checkpoint we were asked to pull the car over. We handed over our licences and were asked for our passports which we always leave in the hotel. The car was searched and we were questioned by the police who were angling for a bribe as we didn’t have our passports with us. Without discussion we both dumbed down our Spanish and as the police couldn’t speak English and didn’t want to ask for money outright. We were eventually able to get back in the car and leave. It was a slightly nervy situation and we now know that if we want to hire a car we should at least take copies of our passports.
As we had the car for two days we set out again the following morning to go on a caving adventure. And what an adventure it was. After driving down a road which was more gravel than paved due to the potholes we arrived at the entrance to the Grutas de Calcetok. We decided on a three hour tour but you could pick anything from one hour to a full day. Our guide told us that he had even taken a group of Belgians down there for 36 hours! With headtorches on we ventured down into the cave. The first hour wasn’t too difficult with a lot of sliding around through large caverns, bum shuffling down slippery slopes and army crawling along low passageways. Around the halfway mark and it started getting a little more challenging. The passageways got smaller and less uniform so we had to contort our bodies to get through some. These weren’t always on the flat either; sometimes we would be climbing and wriggling uphill or lowering ourselves down a slope. I had two moments in the cave when I was worried I wouldn’t cope. The first was when I had to climb up onto a ledge (which was slippery) using a rope (which was also slippery) before carefully climbing up a slope (also slippery). Are you seeing a trend? The clay base of the cave was incredible slick, we were both in our walking shoes and still struggling but our guide breezed through in jandals. The slippery-ness got the better of me at one point when the guide was helping me down a ledge. I lost grip with him and uncontrollably slid down a five metre slope. In the dark with only the light from my head torch I couldn’t see where I would end up; falling off an edge or safe. Luckily the gradient of the slope flattened out and I came to a stop. Whew, it was a slightly terrifying experience but quickly became funny after I realised I was OK and uninjured. Another interesting aspect of the caves was that it had been used by the Mayan people from Pre Hispanic times up until the Caste War as a sacred place and as a hideout. So we saw a lot of broken pottery, some bone fragments, walls and barricades as well as a church inside a larger cavern in which there was offerings people still left there.
The three hour tour flew by and we finally emerged sweaty and absolutely covered in mud. Thanking our guide we cleaned off as best we could before heading on our way to a cenote where we hoped we would be able to clean and freshen up in the water. This unfortunately didn’t happen as after a 45 minute drive to the cenote Tom realised that he didn’t have his wallet. I didn’t have the wallet either and after hunting through the car we couldn’t find it anywhere. Much bad language was used and we decided the only thing we could do was retrace our drive back to the cave as we thought the wallet may have been left on the roof of the car. Unfortunately we failed to find it which completely ruined what had so far been an amazing day.
We had no alternative but to head back to Merida to start the procedures of reporting the bank card lost and try get a new one sent out. Luckily we discovered that Mastercard is awesome and we were able to get money sent to a Western Union for pick-up the following day and an emergency card sent out immediately (it arrived within 36 hours of calling Mastercard, which we were very impressed by).
The next day we also went to report the loss to the police which allowed us to get a police report but we weren’t at all hopeful that it would be handed in. We had to wait until the following Sunday until the lawyer could cite our copies of the police report so we ended up with a few extra days in Merida, luckily our accommodation was cheap.
As I mentioned before the restaurant in the hotel was awesome, they had five beers for 100 peso as well as tasty food. Over the course of or time here we ate burritos (which were amazing!), fish, nachos, BBQ ribs and chicken. None of the food disappointed and we felt a little bad for not spreading our peso around, like we usually try to do. The other options were much more touristy and therefore expensive. We didn’t eat here every night though, we also had hamburgers, tortas, empanadas, panuches and (naughty) pizza. We also saved money on our breakfasts as well by buying oats and granola, mixing them together to make our own muesli and eating this with sliced banana and yoghurt. After purchasing two small, cheap, plastic bowls we were able to do this easily.
We used this time to see a few more things such as the Museo de Mundo Maya and the Museo de Arte Popular. Both were quite interesting and worthwhile. The museum of the Mayan world had a great exhibit on the Chicxulub Crater which was found on the Yucatan Peninsula which Tom particularly loved. The rest of the museum consisted of Mayan history which we already had a good idea and understanding of as well as artefacts that we had seen similar of many times. There are only so many pieces of pottery and ceramics one can look at before they all start to look the same.
The Museo de Arte Popular was a lovely museum in an old house a short walk from centro. It housed textiles, ceramics, instruments and toys and these were all displayed in a really nice way with heaps of information in both Spanish and English. The whole place was incredibly well air-conditioned so it was a nice way to spend an afternoon, I actually started feeling a little chilly after a while in here.
Overall our stay in Merida was eventful with moments where we wanted to give up and go home (after the wallet was lost) and moments we will remember forever (caving and Ruta Puuc). But we didn’t give up and eventually made plans to move onto our next destination which would be Valladolid. Hopefully we have no more disastrous moments like this over the next few months.