Mayan Temples - The Yucatan Peninsula



Dusti, Judy and I left for Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula in the Spring of 1982 after very little planning but a lot of book knowledge.  Lyle, Dusti’s son had lived in Mexico for several years and had a great collection of Pre-Colombian artifacts that were always on display in both of their homes.  Both Dusti and Lyle loved Mexico and the Mesoamericas as did I.  Bud and I had made a great trip to Mexico City in the mid 1970’s so I had already visited the wonderful Aztec ruins there as well as the Archeological Museum, which I think is the best in the world.  While in Mexico we had enjoy Chultepec  Park and had explored the ruins that they were just beginning to uncover in the Central City.


Back to the Mayans – We left New Orleans on a clear, wonderful morning and landed at the airstrip outside of Cozumel.  We checked into our hotel, with the three of us sharing a room, and relaxed from the trip.  It must be remembered that Dusti was 79 at the time and still extremely active.  She had made this trip before but really wanted for Judy and me to visit the Mayan ruins as we were both so interested in the sites.


This was an extraordinary trip in every way. There were many surprises but none out of the realm of what we believed might be possible. I hope you enjoy my account of it. I would be happy if you could perceive even a small amount of our enjoyment of the actual trip.


I was 42 at the time and had always been fascinated with non-US cultures, especially the Mayan peoples. Even so, all my understandings are filtered through my "white," educated, upper-middle class concepts of life. Life is lived very differently in places outside of my personal world.


It is clear to me that life lived differently from my experience is not wrong or less desirable. In fact, simplicity seems to me the only answer to the unhappiness most North Americans are living with today. Life in Mexico is simpler than our lives, in some ways, and more difficult in others. It is certainly less frenzied. There is no way for those of us who don't live in Mexico to truly understand the culture. We can, however, celebrate and appreciate the parts we are able to experience ourselves.


Another thing that necessarily limited our understanding of some experiences was our lack of fluency in Spanish.  While I had studied Spanish in undergraduate school at DePauw University, I never imagined I would ever use it. I did review Spanish for a few weeks before the trip. However, Dusti was the best of the three with Judy speaking about as much as I did.


I had chosen to take a dictionary rather than a traveler's phrase book. (On my last trip I found that phrase books don't translate answers back into English.) I felt it best to have a book that translated in both directions. I was horribly clumsy, but I did all right (better than I expected to do), and most Mexican folks we met were happy that I was trying my best.


Mexico is a land with a personality. The colors, the music, the land, the people, the weather, the food… all have distinct and proud roots. There is no gray here, but color in every meaning of the word.


The weather was actually quite cool for this time of year in the Yucatán. I didn't see any weather forecasts while we were there, but it felt about 85º F on our last day, and had been cooler on previous days. One evening it felt about 65º F and the people there were chattering about the cold the way Michiganians discuss a blizzard! We had mostly taken clothing based on the previous week's horribly hot and muggy days (closer to 100º F). We were not prepared to need long sleeves. Fortunately, a blanket I bought early in the trip came in handy to keep off the cool evening breezes.


It seems that the only thing that many Americans know about Mexico is "don't drink the water!" We received this advice before the trip so often it was almost comical. It is true; most Mexicans do not drink regular tap water. We watched carefully and drank only bottled water. We also took care to brush our teeth with the bottled water, something many folks neglect as a possible source of illness.


Although most travelers will get sick during their visits to Mexico this didn’t happen to us, mostly because Dusti is very knowledgeable in this area.  Once we were in a third class bus and I bought an open taco from a lady serving down the isle.  Dusti had a fit and would not let me eat it as she said it had not been fixed with clean water.  This was true as I had already taken a bite and had to stop at a gas stop for the bus and visit the Ladies Room.  In fact, the entire bus had to wait on me.  I really was embarrassed and never made that mistake again.


Driving on highways in Mexico is a different experience. Iguanas and road runners cross the road as squirrels do here. And the rule for anyone in Mexico is "Don't drive at night!" One little guidebook we got from an information booth warned that vehicles are not regulated well if at all. Therefore, cars without lights can be found on the road any time, day or night. Livestock can also wander onto roads. In the dark, it is too easy to hit something.


Also, we read that when some folks have car trouble on the narrow roads, they will put a rock in the road a bit back to warn oncoming travelers of the hazard. Never mind that the rock is hazard enough!  Judy suggested that any country that has to post highway signs that translate "Don't Leave Rocks in the Road" is not a smart place to drive at night! We saw plenty of these signs, too. Everyone in Mexico takes busses so we did too.  We started out with the 3rd class buses, which in 1982 had chickens, goat, piglets and all types of other oddities.  We then began taking 2nd class buses which had everything the 3rd class buses had minus the critters.  At the end of our trip we were actually taking 1st class buses, even if they did cost more, as we could not begin to communicate with those on the other types.  At least on the 1st class buses the drivers spoke a smidgen of English.


Playa del Carmen

We spent our first night in Playa del Carmen (PLAHyah del CARmen), across the Caribbean from the island of Cozumel (ko-zoo-MEL), about 40 minutes south of Cancún. Dusti had stayed there years ago and loved it although she said that it had grown immeasurably since then, though the friendliness remains. The beach at Playa is fabulous; the water is pure turquoise, the sand pure white. Also there are no city lights (unlike Cancún) so the sky is clear and the stars are like flashlights in a nearly black sky. It is breathtakingly romantic.


Now traveling with Dusti is a dining experience.  She is probably one of the best cooks I have ever met, as is Judy, and dining with her is a two to three hour experience.  The dinner table is where it all happens so our entire trip was coordinated around food.  Where we should eat, what we should eat, etc.  We would plan our next meal while traveling around and always had a unique experience.

We enjoyed several pleasant meals in Playa. For our first lunch we found a small restaurant on a side street in Playa. The building was like most, with three walls and an open front (it had something like a garage door for locking up at night, which we saw all over Mexico). It was about the size of a small two-car garage. There were two tables of local people eating something that looked like chicken with a dark sauce on it. It seemed like a good bet, as we all like chicken.


It turned out that the meal of the night at this restaurant was chicken with mole (mohLAY) sauce, made from ground pumpkin seeds and chocolate, among other goodies. The meal also included a broth-based soup and corn tortillas. We were given a few drink choices and decided that Margaritas were just what we needed.  I think we drank three each that evening, even Dusti.  


The mole was wonderful and very filling. I was thrilled throughout the trip because of the abundance of corn tortillas. I am unable to eat yeast breads and so I sometimes go a bit hungry in a restaurant. I had no trouble filling up with tortillas during this trip, however. It was a small luxury but one I appreciated.

The meal came to about $6 US for the three of us, and we were stuffed. The owner told us of the feast he planned to serve the next day. We returned and had a sumptuous feast – the likes of which I knew I would remember even years later.


Returning to our hotel room, the sun started to set and we decided to walk down the beach to the main street of Playa. It is blocked off to motor vehicles, and people hang out there all night. Merchants call to you from every corner, something we experienced throughout the trip.


Judy had an entertaining interaction with a sandal-peddler. She thought perhaps the merchant might have something more comfortable than her current shoes for hiking the ruins in the next few days. This poor guy had her try on every single pair, though none fit quite comfortably enough for Judy’s purposes. I tried to be an interpreter, but I was more entertaining than helpful. This guy was quite the salesman, however. He didn't miss a trick; he even had Judy’s shoes in a bag so that she could wear her "purchase" home instead of her old shoes! In the end, no purchase was made and the bag was returned to the merchant, but we did enjoy interacting with him just the same!


Later I found a merchant with several qualities of blanket for sale. After much discussion in my very shaky Spanish and the merchant's decent basic English, I settled upon a blanket of half wool, half cotton. It was very well woven and much better than the tourist-quality acrylic blankets one usually purchases. We enjoyed talking with this blanket merchant and his friend. Judy was carrying her banjo ukulele (a ukulele that looks like a tiny banjo) with her, and it attracted the usual comments and questions. Finally, the request came to play a tune.


Well, she got out the ukulele and Dusti got out a kazoo.  I picked up some curacaos from a side table and we played "Sweet Georgia Brown" to the merchant and his friend. It attracted a small, curious and appreciative crowd. We had a blast, and did a pretty decent job of it for that matter. It was one of the most fun and memorable moments of our early trip.


We decided to ask these gentlemen for advice on a restaurant for dinner. They asked what type of food we would prefer: chicken, beef, or…? I responded that I actually preferred frijoles (beans, my favorite food and a staple in Mexico). They lit up and said that we needed to try a specific restaurant which had a special bean dish they liked. So off we went in search of the place with good beans.

It turned out to be a rather large and somewhat fancy tourist-oriented restaurant. At first we were seated in the outdoor courtyard, but when it started to rain a bit (nothing really came of the threat) they moved us inside where all the action was taking place. It was good that we were moved -- we got quite an entertaining show.


The restaurant specialized in flaming food items. At one time, they delivered something that was in a pineapple decorated with a face if I recall properly. In the top of the pineapple, there was a flame to cook whatever came with the dish. We couldn't see everything but it was impressive.

So what had started out as a search for some good beans (which turned out to be decent but unexciting pinto bean soup) turned into an evening of entertainment. Boy, did those servers work hard for their money! It was a joy to watch the efficiency with which they worked. And when the waiters slowed down, we could listen to the romantic quartet of singers and guitar players (and one snare drum) serenade from table to table out on the front courtyard.


We were tired from our flight and so we walked back to the room via the romantic beach and crashed early. The next morning we allowed the sunshine to awaken us. It was delightful.


It had rained during the night (though I slept so hard I didn't hear it) and so as we went to check out, we watched hotel workers squeegee the sand off the tile walks. We had hot local coffee, with much milk as it is so strong, and made our plans to visit Tulum for the day.  Tulum is in a fairly isolated area and that we had best find some breakfast in Playa while we had choices. On the way out of town, we saw another typical three-walled restaurant with some local folks eating breakfast. We stopped.


This was the first place we had gone on this trip where they were unprepared for English-speaking tourists. It was quite a struggle for me to order breakfast with my broken Spanish and no menu to read. They finally told me that they had a "huevos rancheros" breakfast that they recommended. We were game to try anything, and agreed.


It turned out fabulous. It was something I suppose we could have ordered at home, but it tasted better somehow in the morning air. It turned out to be scrambled eggs with ham in them, and black beans (frijoles negros; freeHOLEace NEHgross) on the side. In addition, there were all the fresh corn tortillas we could devour.


In Mexico, you don't immediately get the check after being served your meal. They seem to expect you to sit back and enjoy the company of your friends and digest the meal slowly instead of rushing off as we are used to doing. In order to get a check in Mexico, we really had to work on it. So I finally put together what I thought would be a proper sentence, if clumsy, to ask if we could pay. The waitress had all she could do to keep from laughing out loud at my attempt. She re-stated what she thought I wanted, and indeed she had translated properly. We paid the check and continued on our trip.


Finally, Tulum. This is the temple that I have always wanted to visit as it is the only Mayan ruin on the water and we all know how much |I love the water.  For some reason I knew that it would be a spiritual home for me. I felt instantly at home there and sat for a long time on one of the temple steps just looking out of the beach.  As I always carry a notebook, I jotted down my feelings, which I will not express here, and totally enjoyed being in another century with a different civilization.  I have always believed in reincarnation so it is very likely that memories from another life were returning.  


Tulum (tooLOOM) is mystical, magical, and is one of the the most beautiful places I have ever been. It is an ancient Maya ceremonial and religious center, on the coast of the Caribbean. The limestone coast forms a cliff overlooking much of the white sand beach and the view is breathtaking. The views of it on the Internet do not do it justice.  In person, the view surrounds you as the feel of the wind and heat of the sun touch your skin, and the sound of the waves on the shore soothe your ears. It is clear why the Mayan people considered this holy land.


The ruins at Tulum are well preserved though not very important architecturally. It is a late Maya city put together with much mortar, and the carvings on the exteriors of the buildings are barely readable. One of the buildings has some paintings inside with color still evident, but the public is barred from access in the interest of preservation. Judy did spot a huge iguana peeking its head out of a small "window" in one temple wall. That was a highlight.


The lack of architectural splendor doesn't matter, just being there is enough. We spent a good portion of our time silent, just drinking in the view and the spirit of the place. I enjoyed standing in the surf, being splashed, for a long while. I took many photos. We were fortunate as the weather was mild. The sun was certainly hot enough, but the wind was present and there were clouds to shade us occasionally. Also if you could find a piece of more permanent shade, the temperature was perfect.


So after Tulum, we decided to see Coba (KOHbah) as well. Coba is on the way to the city of Valladolid (bahyahdohLEED) where we were to spend the night.



Once we found Coba, we discovered that it was indeed more rustic than most ruins that are open for tourists. It is certainly a huge place, but most of it is not excavated. You walk past "hills" that are certainly small buildings under soil and trees. The paths were covered with small sharp limestone rocks that made the going really rough in my lightweight shoes. Nevertheless, it was a delight to be at a Maya site with nearly total solitude. We ventured far into the jungle area to investigate and it was quite beautiful. There were many plants unfamiliar to us, including huge banyan trees.


I had heard that there were numerous birds and butterflies at Coba, but just like most birds, they make themselves known early in the morning. We saw many little lizards (some type of brown and black anole) and a few butterflies. However, we heard birds but didn't see any. We had spent the morning hours at Tulum, which I don't regret.


Coba has the tallest Maya pyramid in the area. This pyramid was the only place we found any number of other people at Coba. I decided to climb the pyramid, and Judy got a photo or two of me up there.


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