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December 21, 2012

Well... it was the day the Mayans predicted the world would end, or so we thought!!

It was this same day we left SFO to travel to the Yucatan peninsula, our holiday this year was an expedition to see the less visited but very impressive Mayan ruins including Chichen Itza, made popular by all tour groups.

We arrived at Merida, and like everyone else were very pleased to note that the world in fact had not ended. Our guide Dan Griffin, an archeologist specializing in Mayan ruins picked us up at the airport and dropped us off at our lodge the Luz En Yucatan (great place to stay). We were excited to start our adventure visiting and hunting for lost cities! Many of which are not open to the general public.

Day One: Local around Merida

Fresh from a good night's sleep and after an authentic Mexican breakfast we set off to our first ruin, Dzibilchaltun, just outside of Merida. Unlike the famed Chichen Itza, Dzibilchaltun still remains largely buried, restoration at this site encompasses around 85 square km. Dzibilchaltun was occupied from 300 BC to the time of the Spanish conquest, making it the longest continually occupied Mayan city.

The best part about Dzibilchaltun is the Temple of the Dolls. It was discovered beneath a larger much older pyramid. The Mayans tended to build on top of older buildings to continue to use the available space.

After Dzibilchaltun we went to Progreso a small fishing town on the north coast of the Gulf. We returned to Merida, which is a pretty city and used to be the capital of Mexico. You can see the Spanish influence in the architectures of the buildings. These Spanish colonial buildings have 18 foot ceilings with open court yards to keep you cool. That evening we walked to Centro to see the main square, which was busy with open markets, local bands and people dancing in the street, very festive!

Day Two: Head east to some well know sites

We did what most tourists do headed to Chichen Itza ("at the mouth of the well"), a must see as it is so grand. It is one of the most complete and most modern Mayan cities and was occupied from about 600-1200AD. There is a lot to see but since it is the site that is most visited one can’t get close to the ruins or climb the steps as it is roped off. Chichen also has one of the largest open markets where one can buy all sorts of souvenirs.

On our way back to Merida we stopped at Yaxunah. This was the first of many sites that we got to see that are not opened to the general public. Dan being an archeologist had dug this site a few years ago, the site was hidden due to overgrown trees anyways we were still able to climb up the steps leading up to the pyramid to the top. These steps are narrow and steep and at times very rugged.

Day Three: Cenotes

We got to do something pretty fun this day, swimming in a Cenote. We left Merida again pretty early in the morning and headed for Cuzama Cenotes, there are 3 in all. We started at the last one, going down a rickety ladder, through a tiny hole into a dark open expanse. The water was much warmer than expected, very pleasant for a swim. An interesting part of getting to the Centoes is after parking your car; you take a horse buggy ride. The horse pulls a carriage along a rail track for nearly 2 miles, it is dusty and bumpy. The funniest part is you have to stop every time when a carriage arrives from the opposite side. The horse "man" lifts the carriage off the tracks to let the other carriage pass (the rule being the one going towards the Cenotes gets to stay on the track).

The Yucatán Peninsula was impacted by a massive asteroid that hit near the Chicxulub village; this ancient impact crater is simply huge at 105 miles in diameter. The impact happened roughly 65 million years ago and is widely believed to have led to the extinction of dinosaurs. As a byproduct it also created the ring of Cenotes that cross the Yucatan peninsula. After having a nice dip at all 3 Cenetoes we feel the first is still the best.

Getting back to ruins we visited Mayapan, now THIS is an impressive site, about 40 miles from Merida. It is another huge site, equal to Chichen but not as busy with tourists. There are over 4,000 buildings here, and the best part for us was that we were allowed to climb some of them, where unlike Chichen. Took us hours to see the entire site. Spectacular!

Day Four: Of haciendas and henequen

The following day we stopped at our first Hacienda Yaxcopoil from 1902-1930s on our way to Uxmal, here they grew henequen to manufacture ropes which was used up to the mid-30s-40s till nylon was invented, which soon replaced henequen. The old machinery is still there, was fun exploring our way around the place.

Uxmal, "The Thrice Built City", is one of the most relevant and outstanding archeological sites in the Yucatan. Uxaml has Puuc style architecture with several predominant features, most notably constructions with a plain lower section and a richly decorated upper section. Carvings most commonly found include serpents, lattice work and masks of the god Chaac. Chaac was the god of rain, greatly revered by the Maya here as the Uxmal area lacks of natural water supplies so it was necessary to collect water in chultunes, built in the ground. The Maya architecture here is considered matched only by that of Palenque in elegance and beauty. It was here that we learned how the locals and archaeologists named the buildings. With names like Pyramid of the Magician, Nunnery Quadrangle and the Grande pyramid, it sets your imagination running. I was seeing an ancient sorcerer standing at the top of his pyramid with staff in hand and lightning bolts coming from the sky!! Wait, no that was a book I read!

Leaving Uxmal, we headed for Saint Elena for a few days. This area has a large collection of Mayan ruins, a great base for exploration. We stayed at the Flycatcher Inn, a quaint and friendly place to stay. Santiago and Christine are excellent hosts, and they make your stay very pleasant. There are only two reputable restaurants where one can go for lunch and dinner, one of which is the Pickled Onion and the other being El Chac-Mool. We ate at both these places since we spent five nights in St Elena. We also got some special treatment with Santiago making us some “Mayan” food couple of nights.

Day Five: Saint Elena

Out first stop in the Saint Elena area was Chunhuhub, this site's buildings are characterized for the harmony between light and dark on its facades. The masonry has lasted at least ten centuries; its constructions are covered in carved stones, perfectly cut and assembled. Chunhuhub means "Next to the Snail"; it was inhabited between 600 and 800 AD.

After finishing Chunhuhub we headed to Santa Rosa Xtampak, (pronounced "sh-tam-pak" ). On the way to Xtampak we found a very old hacienda with a strangler fig growing all over it. It was very unique to discover this in the bushes off the road and of course we did stop and walked about taking some photos.

Santa Rosa Xtampak was fun, we needed to trek through the bushes to reach it. Santa Rosa Xtampak, also called "Regional Capital", was identified as the most important pre-Hispanic city in the Chenes region. Xtampak means "Old Walls" and there are records of human life from 300 to 250 BC. During the 200-year period from AD 600 to 800, in the Late Classic period, Santa Rosa Xtampak was the regional capital in the Mayan area. It has a long history.

Day Six: White Road

Off we go again, so far we had driven, rode and hiked to get off the beaten track to explore some of the Yucatan's lost cities. Now we had to go deeper into the jungle and to do that we needed the use of machetes, yay!!. Some of the sites we explored were only visited a few months prior, but the trails were already overgrown and nearly impassible.

We started at Sacbe, means "white ways" or "white road" and is a much smaller site. We started hiking down a nice warm track, very pleasant hiking along under the trees, then we turn right and the only thing we see is a wall of brush and trees, woohoo the fun begins. Two hours later after chopping our way through the brush, we arrive, luckily the site was not too overgrown, but it was pretty strenuous to chop and hike. Although small, Sacbe has astonishing ornate buildings. There are many carvings of Chaac, and the area above the doors were covered with elaborate structures still in very good tact. I must admit, coming back to the car was much easier.

Sayil was our next stop. This ancient Maya city is located in a narrow valley that runs north and south within a thick cluster of ancient settlements in the Puuc hill region of the northern Yucatan lowlands. The neighboring site of Kabah is located north of Sayil, which we visited later. This area has a long history of human settlement extending back to the last Ice Age. Ceramic research at the site shows that it was occupied 900-800 B.C. Sayil was a residential settlement covering 3 square miles. The two best features are the Grande Palace and the El Mirador temple with its large comb. This site has a ball court, the Mayan ballgame has a deep history in their culture, and has been known be a proxy for war, human sacrifice and all round other fun. An interesting sport when you think bout it, a hoop is set on either side of the court about 10 feet high and the players had to throw the ball thru the hoop not by using their hands or kicking it with their feet but by using only their hips, not an easy task by any standards. A large number of the larger ruins and some of the smaller ones have ballgame courts, one of the more complete courts is in Chichen Itza.

Next stop Xkanelcruz, another small residential community. It’s interesting that for every building tends to overlook a plaza. Most of the plazas in the hill areas are designed not just for people to gather but also to collect water, they are shaped to collect water runoff (chultunes), they need this as there are not any cenotes. The chultunes were ingenious, the Mayan created a large hole in the lowest point of the plaza and lined it with stucco as a sealer, the wells were painted inside just like the inside of the buildings. The water collected usually lasted them for the dry season.

On our way to Kabah, we stopped at really small ruin called Sabbaccag, it is a really small site, only a couple of buildings in total. It is mainly overgrown but looking at the last standing building you can see inside that INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) has erected support beams to ensure that some of the older buildings do not fall over. INAH is proactive at most sites in the Yucatan.

So here comes Kabah, wow! This is one of the best sites in the area and the last site we visited around Saint Elena. It is just big, big, big; it’s on par with Chichen, Mayapan and Uxmal. We spent a lot of time here just exploring the many buildings waiting for the sun to go down, as that is the best time to see it. The most famous structure at Kabah is the "Palace of the Masks", the façade is decorated with hundreds of stone masks of the long-nosed rain god Chaac; it is also known as the Codz Poop, meaning "Rolled Matting", from the pattern of the stone mosaics. There are many building here over a large area. After seeing the main site, you can cross the highway and make your way to the Kabah Sacbe to Uxmal, the beginning of the highway, or the end. All through the Yucatan are many ruins, after a while you will be able to recognize the intentional hill, which is a hidden pyramid... On the way out of Kabah we noticed a large jungle covered hill, we climbed it to see what was at the top, it was a pyramid. Climbing pyramids in this condition can be a little difficult as you tend to be climbing over small boulders all the time, which tend to be a little loose. But it was worth it, at the top of the pyramid was two rooms, all destroyed of course but you could still make out the doorways. And it was the highest point on the valley, so you can see everything around you.

Day Seven: A lighter day!!

We headed for the last site for the Saint Elena area, Chacmultun. There are major groups of building on this site, Chacmultun group, Cabalpak and Xetpol. We renamed them: King’s Palace, Grandparent’s Palace and Brother’s Palace. Chacmultun, means "mounds of red stone" in the Maya language, the site got this name from the distinct red color of the buildings there. It is caused by bacteria that are in the stone and it turns red when exposed to air and water. This site is unusual, if you have the right guide you can find out why. In the main group of buildings is a locked room. We were able to get into the room and found that the walls still had original stucco from 2000 years ago, still with the painting visible. Some of the art was hard to make out but most were clear and easy to see unbelievable considering these were painted 1000s of years ago. You can see parades, ballgames, beheadings, warriors and kings. Priceless! Although this site is pretty well explored there is still much to find. After covering the main group we went to the Grandparent’s Palace, which looks pretty ordinary on first view, but each time you climb to the top of a building there is another building behind it, you can’t see these from the ground, the only way to see them is to explore! We covered five tiers/terraces of buildings that were constructed into the hills each with their own plazas and accommodation. The Brother’s Palace was my favorite, again you have to explore to find anything but we found a room which was thought to be some form of servant’s quarters, but when we entered we found more paintings covering the roof. This was pretty fresh discovery for us, and we don't think others know about it as it would be roped off too.

For the rest of the day we visited Tukil and Muna. At Muna we met Patricia Martin Morales, she creates museum quality archaeological reproductions of Ancient Mayan Vase arts in clay garnered from Palenque, Tabasco and the Yucatan. Patricia is recognized by the Mexican government to recreate Mayan artifacts, her refined elaborately detailed vase art pieces can be found at De Young Arts Museum in San Francisco, New York Metropolitan museum, Museum of Arts and Museum d’Orsay in France and others museums around the world.

Day Eight: Machete time

Today was different, our guide, Dan brought along his friend Manuel an elderly Mayan gentleman who was going to take us to some sites that were deep in the jungle. They gave us our machetes and off we went through the jungle following Manuel.

Los Pitch was our first stop a tough site to get to, walking uphill, making our way through the thick of the jungle. A small ruin very remote compared to the others we saw, but definitely worth the hike. It is well decorated even being small and remote.

Not that far away from Los Pitch is Balche, it is a series of buildings spread over a few miles. It’s hidden deep in the jungle and very high on a hill. Coordinate for these as they are not on any map Los Pitch is located N20°7'28"' by W89°42'50" and Balche N20°6'56" by W89°41'30" or so say my old GPS! We returned to the Flycatcher for a nice cold shower after a hot sticky day and a well-deserved dinner of rice beans and fried plantains!

Day Nine: Campeche

Campeche was about another couple of hours drive from Saint Elena. The roads are small, so it can take some time.

On our way, we stopped at a small town of Hecelchakan, it has a very nice local market and a small Archaeology museum. Both are really nice to visit if you have time. There are a number of artifacts at the museum from the area, and takes just about 45 minutes to see it all.

At Campeche we spent the rest of the day visiting two museums, Campeche Fortress and the Museo Campeche Aecological (The Archaeological Museum of Campeche?). We spent a good few hours wandering about reviewing many artifacts, a must see it if you ever go to Campeche.

We had dinner with Dan and discussed our last day of seeing ruins. The big ruin in the area was Edzna, but we wanted to see if there were any others, and yes, we found a site called Acunmul. It took a fair bit of research (google), but in the end we found out it was some 13 miles NE from Campeche. So we decided to venture out to see if we could find the site.

Day Ten: Lost Cities

We set off to find this lost site that we learnt about on the internet. Most folks we asked did not know a site by this name even existed. We decided to take our chances and headed the only direction we thought it would be. We drove about 12 miles and started asking the locals if they knew of the site. We kept on getting very vague directions, but each time allowed us to triangulate a little closer to the location. As we were edging closer to the site out driving on a small dirt road and got a great surprise. As we peered into the bush, we could make out a very large ruin of a Spanish factory where they made rope from henequen in some far forgotten era. It was a great find, the boiler and steam engine were still in place but heavily overgrown with trees and bush. We explored the area and deeper into the jungle we found the overgrown hacienda with its chapel attached. It was a great find. This Hacienda is located just outside the town of Hampolo.

After exploring, we were off again to find the hidden Acunmul. We drove around for about another 5 miles (yes, it was further than the original 13 miles), asking each person we saw, which was few and far between.! At last we found a small trail leading into the forest, which we of course followed! Another 20 minutes later we stumbled onto Acunmul. Once again a great site, heavily overgrown, but was easy to see the structures, stairs and rooms. It looked like INAH had been there recently to do some clearing. The site is about 3 square miles. It showed the architecture of the day and how the Mayan would build new upon old to keep developing the city. It’s not really any different to how modern cities knock down old buildings to make way for the new. We spent 2 hours there and I mapped on our GPS (N19°54'14" by W90°19'31") what exploring looks like. See the image below!

We were on a high by now since finding this site, and so headed to our last site, Edzna. On our way we stopped at the partially restored Hacienda Nachehal, which is privately owned, it’s surprising how large these haciendas were; main house, chapels, stables, housing for the workers, etc. You can see its beauty even in its crumbled appearance.

We arrived at Edzna, it was very quiet there, unlike more high-profile Maya ruins like Chichen Itza and Uxmal, Edzna is way under the tourist radar, which makes for an incredibly serene tour. It was occupied very early, from around 600 BC, but didn't develop into a major city until 200 AD. The word Edzna comes from 'House of the Itza' suggesting that the city was influenced by the family Itza long before they founded Chichen Itza. There are many large buildings here. The main structures of interest are the Plataforma de los Cuchillos (Platform of the Knives), the massive Nonochna (Big House) and Plaza Principal, with its large open quadrangle and rows of bleachers, and the Grand Acropolis, which comprises a magnificent five story structure called Edificio de los Cincos Pisos. A palapa to the southeast of the Plaza Principal shelters several intricate, impressively intact carvings of the sun god Kinich Ahau in two modes; on the right hand side he is an old man and on the left, a young man.

I think our favorite part was Casa de la Luna (House of the Moon), which is on the south side of the plaza flanked either side by six terraces; the wide external stairway ascends to the temple remains on the top. Each of the steps is made up of material from previous buildings. Each step has its own carving and every carving is different.

After spending much time here we found there was little to distract us from the scenery, it is quiet, majestic and just a tad eerie. Standing here you suddenly realize that time has slowed, the ruins seem to tell their own story about what was in this lost city. The monumental stone ruins, over 2000 years old, have stood the test of time and are a testament to the ingenuity of the Mayan people, whose understanding of math, astronomy and architecture were highly advanced. It's magical here although just a touch spooky, in a good way.

Day Twelve: Orange Flamingos

We left Campeche and headed back towards Merida for our last stop, at Celestun, not to see ruins but to see the Pink Flamingos, which looked more like bright orange.

But before we got there we stopped by quickly to have a quick look at our last hacienda that we found on the back roads near Chuchucmil .

At Celestun, we took a boat ride thru mangroves to see the flamingos. Some rare birds and few crocodiles!

We spent a night in Merida, and then flew to Cancun before heading back to San Francisco.

A good trip that was great because we had a good guide who made this trip interesting with his knowledge of the area and the Mayan ruins. Was great fun being adventures!!

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