Merida

Click for Merida photos.

From : Palenque
To : Merida

Bus : ADO
Distance : 340 miles/ 545kms
Time : 7 hours
Price : Mex$ 306



Monument at Merida
Merida is the capital of the state of Yucatan. It is a prosperous city of large colonial buildings, shady parks and narrow streets. It has been the center of Mayan culture in the Yucatan region since before the conquistadors arrived. Residents of Merida like to think that they are a breed apart and the city once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in Mexico. They built fabulous homes in Merida but spent much of their time in Paris or New York.

As a very important city during the colonial period, it had fine cathedrals and civic buildings. The Spaniards lived in the center of town while the indians and mestizos lived in the segregated areas outside. Today Merida's downtown is compact, its narrow streets and closely packed buildings fill the limited space available within ancient fortifications.

At the center of the city is a laurel-shaded zocolo or Plaza de la Independencia. Around it are the massive and rather stark Catedral de San Ildfonso, the Casa de Montego and the Palacio de Gobierno (the Governor's Palace).


Merida Streets Configuration



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Merida presented an interesting contrast to Puebla when it came to street numbering. Puebla is much more complicated, but the Merida grid is much larger. Streets are numbered odd going north-south and even going east-west. The centre of the city (where the Zocalo is) is at the junction of Calle 59 and Calle 60. Here, you'll most likely see a calesa (horse-drawn carriage) which you can take for a ride down the Paseo de Montejo, the tree-lined avenue (Calle 56A). One would think that this pattern would be easy to figure out, but it is still quite confusing to a newcomer, albeit a lot less so than Puebla.

Merida is also a much rougher looking town than Puebla which had a much more laid back ambience. In contrast, Merida was a busy town with a more purposeful look. More people were seen grinding out their daily existence. There were long queues at bus stops at various intersections. Buses sped along furiously through the narrow streets and one had to be cautious not to be hit by them as they turned those narrow corners.

Celestun

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From : Merida
To : Celestun

Bus : Oriente
Distance : 60 miles /96 kms
Time : 2 hours
Price : Mex$ 42



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If you unzoom the map (clicking the minus (-) button), you can see where Celestun is relative to the rest of the coastal towns that lie on the Gulf of Mexico - Campeche, Veracruz, Tampico, Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Galveston, New Orleans, Panama City, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Everglades, the Florida Keys and then completing the circle with Havana, Cancun (which would bring us to the Caribbean Sea).

Celestun is reached via a 2 hour bus ride on a pleasant highway (Mex-281) with very little traffic.


Celestun Beach
Celestun, on the Yucatan coast, is located in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. It abounds in resident and migratory waterfowl, with flamingoes as the star attraction. It is about a 2 hour bus ride away from Merida and makes an excellent day trip. Boats can be rented on the beach to visit a large flamingo colony and the handful of boatmen on site drive a hard bargain for the three hour tour. We joined in with some other tourists to make it more economical.

Among the species we saw on this trip were Cormorants, White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Skimmer, Gulls, Great Blue Heron, White Ibis, Tricolored Heron, Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern, multitudes of Plovers and of course Flamingoes.

We came pretty close to a fairly large flamingo colony. As the boat approached closer, the motor was cut-off so as to not frighten the birds and we were able to watch these birds feeding while we floated quietly.



On the way back, we took a side trip and turned into the mouth of the estuary and pass through a 'petrified forest' where we saw tall coastal trees once belonging to a freshwater ecosystem now stand desolate, killed by saltwater intrusion.

Another detour took us through a dense mangrove thicket. the water was ruddy as the tanin from the mangrove continuously leach into the water. We continued on through the mangrove tunnel till it reached a freshwater cenote/spring welling into the saltwater of the estuary. The boatman urged us to take a dip in the cenote, but none of us were tempted. Perhaps the color of the water was a deterrent.

Interestingly enough, the map above does not have the estuary detail. But in the satellite view, one can see the estuary which was covered by the boat trip. All the way down the beach (and as per the map below, crossing into Campeche province), then around the bend and all the way up till the highway (Mex-281) before turning back and exploring the water inlets that led to mangroves.


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A mangrove tunnel


Back on the beach, it was time to get some lunch accompanied by bottles of Montejo. Later we walked back to the zocalo to catch the return bus back to Merida.

Uxmal and Ruta Puuc

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Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-mal) ranks amount the top Mayan archeological sites in Mexico. It lies 80kms from Merida on the inland route between Merida and Campeche. It was an important city in the region that encompassed the satellite towns of Sayil, Kabah and Labná. It is a large site with some fascinating structures located in the hilly Puuc (meaning hills) region, which has lent its name to the architectural patterns in this area.

Buses depart from Merida every morning on a whirlwind excursion to all of the Ruta Puuc sites. The 'tour' is transportation only and one has a fixed amount of time at each site. Visiting to each individual site would have been too complicated to organize, so we decided to take this option though it meant we had to adhere to the strict schedule. The round trip is priced like a regular inter-city service. The bus leaves from the same terminal as some other long distance buses. There is no guide on board. At each of the stops, the driver announces how long he will stay there. The less important sites (Sayil, Kabah and Labna) only get about 30-45 minutes. Uxmal got close to 3 hours (including time for a quick lunch from a packet) in the afternoon before returning back to Merida.


Although the name "Uxmal" means thrice built in the Mayan language, archeologies have in fact found as many as five different construction periods represented at Uxmal. Building began in the Classic period, in the 6th and 7th centuries, and the city reached its zenith between AD 600 and AD 900.


Soothsayer's House at Uxmal

The first building encountered at the entrance to the site is the magnificent oval-based Pirámide del Adivino (Soothsayer's House). According to legend it was built in a single night by a sorceress's son, a dwarf who had hatched from an egg. In fact, the structure consists of five superimposed pyramids built over a period of centuries. The smoothly sloping sides have been restored; they date from the temple's fifth incarnation. A high doorway on the west side is decorated elaborately and forms the mouth of a giant Chac. Very steep and narrow steps lead to the top of this 35m pyramid.

Adjacent to this is the Cuadrángulo de las Monjas (Nunnery Quadrangle). It is a sprawling plaza formed by four buildings and was so named by its Spanish discoverer in the 17th century because it reminded him of the cloister of a convent. Archeologis believe that the 74 chambers may have been used as a residence or royal school of some sort.

The entire complex is built on an elevated, man-made platform and is typical of Puuc style of architecture which is based on the Mayan hut with its smooth walls and high-peaked thatched roof. At the Nunnery quadrangle, the complex stonework was created piece by piece following a master plan, and then interlocked like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

The northern temple, grandest of the four, was built first. Several decorative elements show influence from the north - the feathered-serpent (Quetzalcóatl) motif along the top of the west temple's facade is one of these. Scores of masks of Chaac, the rain god, adorn the facades.

It is no accident that Chaac has been given such a prominent place, since this part of the peninsula has no rivers or even cenotes (sinkholes). In Uxmal, rain water was collected reservoirs and stored in chaltunes, bottle shaped cisterns carved out of stone and lined with thick, heavy coats of plaster. That a sizeable population flourished in this area is yet more testimony to the engineering skills of the Maya. There is much speculation why Uxmal was abandoned in about AD 900; drought conditions may have reached such proportions that the inhabitants had to relocate.

Passing through an arch in the middle of the south building takes on to the remains of an unrestored Juego de Pelota (Ball Court) with a stone ring still embedded in one wall.

Further away is the Palacio del Gobernador (Governor's Palace). It is built on a high platform which provides a panoramic view of the area around. It is considered one of the masterpieces of all Mayan architecture, with its corbelled arches, perfect proportions and sculpted decoration. The 100m long facade has some 20,000 hand-carved stones fitted together in geometric friezes.

Adjacent to this is the Casa de las Tortugas (House of Turtles), so named because of the carved turtles that adorn the cornice of the building. The Mayas associated turtles with the rain god Chaac. The frieze of short columns or rolled mats that run around the temple below the turtles is characteristic of the Puuc style.

Behind the Palace stands the 32m high partially restored Gran Pirámide (Grand Pyramid). At the top are some stucco carvings of Chaac, birds and flowers.

West of the Great Pyramid sits El Palomar (The Dovecote), a structure whose roofcomb is latticed with pattern reminiscent of Moorish pigeon houses built into walls in Spain and northern Africa. There are nine honeycombed triangular 'belfries' that sit on top of a building that once once part of a quadrangle.

We also briefly explored the other Ruta Puuc sites - Sayil, Kabah, and Labná - earlier in the day - but in rapid succession owing to the strict schedule imposed by the bus service.


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The Ruta Puuc sites are directly south of Merida

Uxmal medley - echo at Soothsayer's house - Nunnery quadrangle - Governor's Palace - View from top of Grand Pyramid


Kabah

The ruins of Kabah are about 23kms southeast of Uxmal. One of the first structures you encounter is the Palacio del las Máscaras (Palace of the Masks) with its facade literally covered with inlaid stonework representing masks of the rain god Chaac or the sky serpent. While most of the huge curling noses are broken off, the building's south end has a section which is intact.



Palacio de las Mascarones at Kabah



At the back of this structure are two restored Atlantes (male figures supporting a column), especially interesting because they are amount the very few three-dimensional human figures at a Mayan site. One is headless and the other wears a jaguar mask atop his head.

The site also has a large monumental arch Arco de Kabah, that once marked the start of a processional route leading to the ceremonial center of Uxmal.

Sayil

Sayil is known for El Palacio, the huge three-tiered building with a facade some 85m long. The distinctive columns of the Puuc architecture are used here over and over, as support for the lintels as decoration between doorways and as a frieze above them, alternating with huge Chaac masks and 'descending gods'.




El Palacio at Sayil

A path south from the palace for about 400m leads to the temple named El Mirador. Its rooster like roof comb was once painted a bright red. About 100m beyond El Mirador, beneath a protective shelter, is a stela bearing the relief of a fertility god.

Labna

Labna is set on a flat, open area that is unique in this region. The first buildings as you enter is El Palacio, one of the longest in the Puuc region. On the west corner of the main structure's facade is a serpent's head with a human face peering out from between its jaws, a symbol of the planet Venus. The lower level has several well preserved Chac masks and the upper level contains a large chultune that still holds water.




El Palacio at Labna

From the Palace, a limestone-paved sacbé lead to El Arco, a magnificent arch. It was once part of a building that separated two quadrangular courtyards. The reliefs decorating its upper facade are in typical Puuc style and it is well preserved. Flanking the west side of the arch are carved thatched structures with multi-tiered roofs.

Chichén Itzá

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From : Merida
To : Piste

Bus : Oriente
Distance : 74 miles/120 kms
Time : 2 hour
Price : Mex$ 52


El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulcán at Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá, the most famous and most visited of all the Mayan sites in Mexico, is built on a grand scale. The original architects were mostly Toltecs who arrived in the Yucatan in the late 10th century and introduced the worship of Quetzalcóatl, so many of the important buildings are a fusion of Mayan and Toltec art. Throughout the city are images of Chac, the Mayan raingod, and Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent of the central highlands (called Kukulcán in Maya)

Between 600 and 1250 AD, this ancient city whose name means 'at the mouth of the Itza well', was the center of political, economic, religious and military power in the Yucatan and beyond. It is calculated that during the age of grandeur, approximately 50,000 inhabitant were spread out over an area of 25sq kms. All of them were connected to the ceremonial center by means of roads known as sacbeob.


Dominating the site is the Temple to Kukulcán, which the Spaniards called El Castillo. The 25m high pyramid has the plumed serpent sculpted along the stairways and is actually the Mayan calendar formed in stone. It incorporates key measurements of time in its structure; its four staircases have 91 steps each which, including the platform at the top total 365, the number of days in a year; each side has 52 panels, representing the 52 year cosmic cycle.

Every year, at the spring equinox, thousands of people come to Chichén Itzá to witness the play of sunlight on the balustrade of the northern staircase. The effect created is that of a serpent creeping down to the foot of the pyramid, where it slithers to the ground. The Mayan priests claimed this phenomenon was Kukulcán signal that it was time for the citizens to sow the crops. In contrast, at the fall equinox, the 'snake' appears to ascend the pyramid, indicating the time for the crops to be harvested.

The older pyramid inside El Castillo boasts of a re jaguar throne with inlaid eyes and sopts of jade, and it also holds a chac-mool figure. There is a passage up to the throne at the base of the pyramid. But this is now closed to the public to prevent further damage to the structure.

Next to the pyramid is the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) and the adjoining Patio de las Mil Columnas (Court of a Thousand Columns). The columns originally held up the now missing roof. On top of the temple, between two massive stone snames, reclines what is arguably the most photographed statue in the Americas. This Chacmool statue's lap once held a receptacle for receiving the hearts of sacrificial victims.


Templo de los Guerreros and Patio de las Mil Columnas

Chichén Itzá's Gran Juego de Pelota (Ball Court), one of eight contained within this city, is one of the largest and best preserved anywhere. The court is flanked by temples at either end and bounded by towering parallel walls with stone rings cemented up high.

There are many legends about the ritual game played here. It is believed that players propelled a heavy rubber ball without using their hands or feet, bouncing it off their hips or shoulders and through one of the rings on either side of the court. A relief panel along the wall of the court shows a headless kneeling figure with blood coming out of his neck and this has led experts to believe that losers were decapitated.

At the northern end of the Ball Court is the Templo del Barbado (Temple of the Bearded Man) named for a carving inside it. It has some finely sculpted pillars and reliefs of flowers, birds and treel. The Templo de loas Jaguares y Escudos, built atop the south east corner of the ball court's wall, has some columns with carved rattlesnakes, and tablets with etched jaguars. Inside are faded mural fragments depicting a battle.

Close by is the Plataforma de los Cárneos (Platform of the Skulls) , or Tzompantli in Náhuatl, is a platform festooned with carved skulls and eagles tearing open the chests of men to eat their hearts. In ancient days it held the heads of sacrificial victims.

Adjacent to it is the Plataforma de las Aguilas y los Jaguares (Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars) that depicts these animals gruesomely grabbing human hearts intheir claws.

A short walk away is a natural sinkhole called Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Well). A number of such natural sinkholes occur in northern Yucatan and are an important source of water. Some, like this one, were used for ritual purposes.

Southwest of the El Castillo is El Osario (The Ossuary), also known as the Bonehouse or Tumba del Gran Sacerdote (High Priest's Grave). It is a ruined pyramid notable for the serpent heads at the base of its staircase. Nearby, is the El Caracol (The Snail) which served as the Observatory. It is one of the most important and fascinating buildings at Chichen Itza. Being a circular building, it resembles modern observatories. The four external doors bear masks of the Mayan rain-god Chac. The windows in the observatory's dome are aligned with the appearance of certain stars at specific dates. From the dome the priests decreed the times for rituals, celebrations, corn-planting and harvests.

Thought by archeologists to have been a palace for Mayan royalty, the Edificio del las Monejas, (Nunnery) with its myriad rooms, resembled a European convent to the conquistadors, hence the name of the building. A sacrificial stone stands in front of this imposing building.


Recreating the illusion of the descending serpent during the Light and Sound show.

We stayed beyond closing time for the a Light and Sound show. Despite a steady drizzle and though the the narration was in Spanish, we enjoyed it. The annual drama of the slithering serpent at equinox was simulated with colorful lights and overall effect was wonderful. The Chac-mool figure, which looks creepy enough in daylight, looked positively diabolical with the special effect lighting.

By the time the show ended, the drizzle had strengthened into a downpour, forcing us to hail a taxi back to Piste despite the short, walking distance. We managed to walk a few blocks to a pizza place for dinner. When it was time to return, it was pouring sheets of water, forcing us to stay back at the restaurant even after closing time. The power had gone out in the small town and the only light was the passing of trucks and cars on the single road (highway?) that passed through the linear town. Eventually, we gave up on the wait and stumbled through the thick sheets of water back to our hotel in total darkness.

There wasn't much hope of our clothes drying before our morning departure to Tulum by the 8 o' clock bus. We only planned to spend the afternoon at Tulum (leaving our packs at the bus station locker) before moving on to Playa del Carmen. For now, be thankful for this dry bed to sleep on.

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The tiny town of Piste (1 km. west of Chichén Itzá) which is due east of Merida