Saturday, March 29, 2014

Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá is perhaps the best know Mayan site in Mexico and certainly said to be the most impressive one. It boasts to be the biggest and the best in every respect. Apparently it's one of the 7 man made wonders of the world. But it's also known by visitors for being expensive, while the locals simply know it for being the best spot to sell their souvenirs. Was it going to be able to live up to it's hype? Or was it going to be a tourist trap and a big disappointment?

Getting there from Merida was easy, you can see it in the movie below when you virtually ride along with us. The GPS didn't have any issues with getting us out of Merida and onto the country roads we wanted to see. Why the GPS had so much problems with Ticul remains a mystery, it's not that big a town or complex. We stopped in Kantunil for a drink and watched the town go by. Taxis came and went to drop passengers off at the square. From there they went into a local motorcycle driven taxi, one of the many uses of the countless little motorcycles here. I wondered why the taxis didn't simply drop their passengers off at their homes. It wasn't until we left and looked into the side roads while riding through town that we worked out why. The roads are simple sandy tracks, too narrow and bumpy for a standard car! The taxi drivers looked at us and our bikes in disbelief, asked us a dozen questions that we tried to answer as good as we could. We must have stuffed up most of them as our answers usually resulted in surprised faces and rolling laughter :-)

Up the road a bit is Chichén Itzá. Our first priority was a campground though. The GPS found the exact spot but that showed us a campground that was no longer there… The Hotel/Motel Pyramid Inn next door offered camping too. RVs may park outside and tents can find a spot near the pool… That's all very good of course, but what do we do with the motorcycles? We weren't going to park them in front of the Pyramid Inn along the main road. Drive them in the lobby… they said. The lobby? It was a bit tricky to get them in the lobby and I wasn't real happy with it either. 

Looking at where we could put the tents, I found a spot a little bit away from the pool but under a huge palapa. Big enough to fit two tents and our bikes! So we rode them out of the lobby, past the swimming pool and the toilet building… under the palapa. The palapa has light and electrics, so we could charge our batteries and computers as well. Great! Internet is available in the lobby and that evening we managed to get two new pages on the blog, the first since San Miguel de Allende.

The lady that owns the Inn likes cats. She feeds around 20 of them and frequently looks after injured animals too. Good people! One of her cats, red Gary, took a liking to us and decided not only to have breakfast and dinner with us, but spend the night in the vestibule of the tent too. Guess we didn't had have any problems with mice or rats :-) She also advised us to go to Chichén Itzá early before the, as she called the, cattle trucks arrive… (the tour coaches). 'Be there at 8.30 and you have the place to yourself until about 11. After that it becomes a madhouse…' She was right. When we left at 1pm there were no less than 26 coaches in the parking lot! The problem was that the sun didn't manage to get through the clouds until 10.30… so we had to do most of our photos again, as the pyramids were now in glorious sunlight…!

Chichén Itzá was the most ceremonial centre of southeast Mexico. It was a place of power, home to the Itzas and dedicated to the worship of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent. Chichén Itzá means 'at the well of the Itzás' as it's located next to the sacred cenote.

So, what was it like? Does it live up to the hype and is it the best of the best? Well… we were slightly disappointed when we entered. Having walked around for a good hour and a half, we all liked Palenque more than Chichén Itzá, but couldn't quite put our finger on why that was. Part of it was that Palenque is not roped off… so you can walk everywhere and see everything, but the biggest difference was that Palenque is so much prettier to look at. Chichén Itzá's entry fee, which is 3 times as high as Palenque, didn't help either. But then the clouds disappeared… and the sun came out… and everything changed! The grey and dull pyramid, palaces and ruins were suddenly warm yellow coloured beauties against a stark blue sky. The carvings, which had been hardly noticeable before, now showed brilliantly with clear sharp lines and lots of contrast. 

In between the pyramid, the palaces and the ruins are the what we call 'one dollar avenues'. 'Amigo, amigo, come here, come here… best price for you, tell me what you like, all for one dollar, two for one dollar… amigo, amigo!' It may be funny for about 5 minutes, but 4.000 times later it becomes somewhat irritating… Jeanette wondered if we were at the archaeological site Chichén Itzá or at the Chichén Itzá markets. We had already seen them on the road that morning; dozens of cars and tricycles loaded up with souvenirs raced past to ensure they had the best spot. Something fell out of one of the old pickups that flew past and broke in half when it hit the road. We wondered how that would be fixed… well, they simply glued it together with superglue and wrapped it up again!

Once inside the compound they set up tables and started unpacking thousands of souvenirs… After 5 minutes I had enough. How many times can you say 'No gracias' before your voice box wears out? Here's a tip for future visitors: have a T-shirt made that says 'No gracias!' and wear earplugs when visiting touristy places. I can understand that they have to make a living too, but there are thousands of them and they all sell exactly the same stuff! Most of it is cheap Chinese rubbish, some of it downright ugly and perhaps a small part handmade art. We had a discussion about that… Jeanette thinks some of it might be original hand made art, I think it's all Chinese and some of them are smart enough to pretend they make them on the spot by working on a mask with old battered tools. Quite frankly I don't really care, I do not like being harassed by salesmen and women and there is no way that I can take all that stuff with me anyway.

I made one exception. A sweet little old lady was trying to sell the handkerchiefs she had made. In a very soft voice she tried to get the attention of the thousands of bus-tourists that walked by without giving her as much as a glance. Karina told us older people in Mexico don't get a pension and thus do need support, we simply adopted the tradition. I made a photo of her and gave her 10 pesos, the price of a handkerchief and politely said 'no gracias' when she offered me one. She looked surprised and then thanked me in a soft voice. 

We still had a long way to walk as Chichén Itzá is a big site. The ruins are beautiful to see, in sunlight that is, and well worth a visit. The other thing to look for are the big lizards. I learned today that the big ones can actually jump from branch to branch! We photographed a few of them and also spotted some kind of huge millipede, a weird looking thing with a body that resembles a spring of at least 12 cm (4 inches) long.

While I made photos of the ruins in beautiful sunlight, Mike and Jeanette were talking to one of the few people that actually make the Mayan masks. A strange man too as unlike the others he wasn't pushy or loud… he just quietly explained about the masks he had made. He was clearly proud of what he had made too and showed Mike his tools and how to use them. Apart from masks he made wooden Mayan calendars too. He explained that the thickness of these calendars varies, depending on how many mistakes he had made… honestly! If he made a mistake he had to grind the carvings away, and thereby grinding a layer of the timber away and start over. The things you learn in 'one dollar avenue'! March 21st is a special day to the Mayans, to me too but for a totally different reason. On March 21st the Mayan snake, Kukulkan comes down from the ski's above to help with peaceful trade between different social and ethic backgrounds. Exactly six months later he leaves again. 

When you enter Chichén Itzá, guides approach you with their services. One of the things we've seen them do is clap their hands in front of the big pyramid. When done right, the echo bouncing off the pyramid sounds just like the Quetzal bird. The Mayan interpretation is that the Gods replied by making the sound of the Quetzal bird… 
Guess what happens… hordes of tourists re clapping in their hands at the wrong speed and can't hear the Gods replying… so they clap harder… faster… and make a spectacle of themselves. I honestly wonder what Mexican opinion of Gringos is sometimes…!

The madness was starting to get to me in the end. Thousands of bus tourists from all over the globe, trampling over everything and not caring about anyone or anything but themselves. They wear the most obscene coloured clothing and show body parts that no-one wants to see. I'm sorry, but if you weigh 500 pounds then don't wear short shorts… If your stomach has the size of a zeppelin then please wear a T-shirt that at least covers your enormous belly button… and when someone tries to make a photo, do not swarm around him like bees around a honeypot! Man I hate bus-tourist…! Walking to one of the last ruins, a couple of German women followed me. That in itself is already bad enough to contemplate serious action, but these were yelling to each other in German! Achtung Bitte! I bit my lip and said nothing, it wouldn't have been pretty if I hadn't.

Trying to work out where millions of years of evolution of the human race had gone wrong to be able to produce the level of ignorance and total lack of intelligence as demonstrated today by the busload, I noticed a lady that was wasting her time trying to play a children's game on her iPad… Why, for heavens sake, would you come to an archaeological site, pay a small fortune to get in and then play a SesameStreet game…? Why would you even bother to put it on your iPad? The human race is doomed…

While all this was getting to me, the salesmen were stepping up a gear in selling their wares. We were heading towards the exit so it was their last chance… They were wrong, but so were we! Even outside they tried to sell us everything. The biggest joke was an obese man with a substantial beer belly, dressed in tacky warrior clothing… He pretended to be an original Mayan Warrior and tried to get us to take a picture of him for pesos… You have to be kidding me…! He is a Mayan Warrior… yeah right! Behind him was bird man pretending to be a Mayan Chief I suppose… how low can you go? Anyway, having just learned that the Mayans weren't all that friendly and chop your head off and offer you to their Gods… why would you want to be on a photo with one?

Mike counted 26 coaches on the car park… and we saw another 7 arrive within 10 minutes! We had left in time. Walking back to the campsite we passed a Coca Cola stand. We don't mind Coca Cola… so we bought a cold one and sat under the old lady's palapa in the shade. A small tour bus arrived, two men jumped out and interrogated the old lady… Wondering what was going on, they walked back to the tour bus and started some kind of argument with the passengers. Jeanette thought he was quite angry with them and we all wondered why. They suddenly summoned the old lady to bring them 6 bottles of water and quick! You have to be kidding me! Two middle-aged men are too lazy to walk the 30 metres to her stand and summoned her to leave her stand/shop to deliver the bottles to them. How rude can you be? If it had been me I would have opened the bottles and dumped them in his pants! But she did as she was told… weird!

Back at the hotel/campground we counted ourselves lucky to be under a palapa and were greeted by Gary, the tent-cat! I guess he was hungry… Jeanette and Mike jumped straight in the swimming pool!
We also had the visitor you see on the right. No idea what it was, but it looked and moved funny enough to take a photo. It's a kind of centipede, about 15cm long and 1.5 cm round. The yellow bands around him made it almost move like a spring. As you can see, there is some sort of 'damage' in the middle… maybe he/she crashed into something and the spring got stuck? Who knows.