Yucatan means “place of riches” in Aztec and our sojourn there in late May certainly bore that out. My wife and I had been invited to a Mexican wedding in Cancun and decided to make a week of it. On previous visits to Mexico, we’d met some people affiliated with our spiritual community who lived on the Yucatan peninsula. We were hoping to have some personal guides to the land most associated with the ancient Mayan civilization. We were also looking forward to the wedding, and to spending a few days on the beach at a popular offshore island, Isla Mujeres.
We arrived from our early morning flight at the large international airport south of Cancun city. The mid-day heat and humidity quickly reminded us that we were in the tropics. Andrea’s proficiency in Spanish had helped us to clear Mexican customs, exchange some dollars for pesos, and find the place to purchase bus tickets. Our initial destination was the old colonial town Valladolid, about 75 miles inland, and near the major Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. But we’d first have to bus from the airport to the main bus terminal in downtown Cancun.
Cancun is a bustling, mid-sized Mexican city of over 600,000 permanent residents. The city’s population has quadrupled since 1990 when the tourist industry really began to take off. Almost all the resort hotels occupy a stretch of ocean-front beach on a long, narrow peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean. That area is known as the “Zona Hotelera” and we never set foot there. The bus ride in and out of Cancun Centro helped give us a sense of the layout and major landmarks of the city proper.
Mexican intercity buses are generally clean, well-maintained, air-conditioned, and on time. That was certainly the case with our trip to Valladolid and back, three days later. After a slow drive through some urban sprawl, the main highway west then runs straight as an arrow with very little traffic. The landscape consisted mostly of scrub forest and the occasional farm and small settlement. After about two hours, we pulled off the highway and onto the roads leading into the main plaza of Valladolid. A concert was in progress there and we regretted we couldn’t stay for it. A taxi driver greeted us as we exited the bus station and drove us and our luggage the mile or so to the Casa Quetzal where we’d spend the next three nights.
Casa Quetzal, Valladolid
The Casa Quetzal is a charming 5-room, single-story guest house with the rooms surrounding a central courtyard. The courtyard contains a shapely pool of light-green water over which large tropical trees, bushes and other flowering plants extend and hang. Our large room was on the street side with a door that opened to the courtyard and its little walking paths. We were immediately taken with it, and grateful for the efficient AC against the 90+ temperatures.
After a brief rest and shower, our appetite led us out in search of an evening meal. The kind Mayan-looking woman at the desk who’d registered us gave suggestions for some restaurants we could easily reach on foot. Directly across the street from our Casa was the convent of San Bernardino of Siena, dating back to the era of the town’s founding in 1540. The soft evening light reflecting off the masonry walls of the convent bathed us in its soft pink hues. We found a charming little outdoor restaurant, “The Garden of the Friars”, not far from the convent. It would be the first of many memorable Mexican meals.
After a good night’s sleep, we arose for the breakfast included with our room. There was a small dining room on the other side of the courtyard, as well as some small tables brought outside. The Casa’s proprietor, Judith Fernandez, greeted us warmly. We had met “Abuela (Grandmother) Judith” some years earlier near Mexico City and were happy to resume a budding friendship. She inquired after our trip so far and urged us to consider visiting a well-known native art collection in a private home near the main plaza. She also recommended that we take our bathing suits and walk over to swim in a cenote when we had completed our art tour. We affirmed our interest and she immediately instructed one of her staff to drive us to the plaza for the daily 10am tour of the art collection.
The House of the Deer
La Casa de los Venados is an unassuming structure from the outside. But stepping inside is to enter room after room of nouveau-colonial architectural splendor holding a treasure of mostly contemporary Mexican art. This private home is owned by an American couple who invested considerable time and resources to make it a first-rate gallery, as well as their home There’s a suggested donation of 100 pesos (about $6) for the daily tour, with all proceeds going to local charities.
The guide for our group of about 20 was a young local man with good English, and a deep knowledge of the history of the house (centuries old) and the art in it. Abuela Judith had told us about the four small colleges in Valladolid, one of them specifically training Mayan students in their language, history, English, and the art of offering tours.
The tour lasts about an hour, which is not enough time to take in the wealth of the collection, which includes large murals, wood and metal sculpture, artistic furniture, and numerous paintings and folk-art artifacts. Many of us take photographs of the art as we pass through.
When we exit the house, the fierce heat is full upon us and we cross the large central plaza to find a corner café. Over our second café con leche of the morning, we plot our walking path to the nearby Cenote Zaci.
Cenotes (pronounced say-no-tays) are underground pools of deep, fresh water that are contained within large, cave-like depressions, like sinkholes. They are lighted from above via holes of varying sizes creating interesting and often mysterious plays of light on the rocks and the water.
The Yucatan is dotted with hundreds of these cenotes which are part of the larger aquifer on which the whole peninsula sits. Andrea and I have read about them and are anxious to see one. We’ve toted bathing suits and towels with us to fully submerge in the experience.
It takes some asking for us to find Cenote Zaci but we’re soon upon it. We pay our 30-peso ($2.50) entrance fee and find the changing rooms. As we take the stone stairway down into the gorge, the breadth and beauty of the place engulf us. Three or four people are swimming below and we’re eager to cool down ourselves.
Descending into the cold, clear water is amazingly refreshing. Andrea and I are finding ourselves compromised by our age with a diminishing ability to withstand high temperatures and humidity such as we’ve experienced the past two days. Swimming in the cenote revives us, the natural beauty of the place as well as the cooler air temperature and downright cold water. We emerge feeling alive, awake and very happy to be with one another in this special place.
Our cenote story continues the following day on our return from Chichen Itza. We’re both sweaty and fatigued when we arrive at another public cenote in the town of Dzitnup. This one is a little more commercialized, with vendors and food offerings lining the footpath to the cave. But when we finally start descending into the dark, another grand, natural cave mansion opens before us. I put on my swimming goggles this time to better view the many fish that inhabit the waters of this and most other cenotes. The cenote magic works again and within half an hour we are both transformed into happy, vigorous old folks.
The last cenote we visited was on the morning of our departure from Valladolid. A young woman friend of Abuela Judith had offered to take us to her favorite cenote about fifteen miles out of town. After we packed our bags and secured our bus tickets back to Cancun for later that day, our new friend Chio drove us over back roads where the only people we saw looked decidedly Mayan. She told us that she visited this cenote a few times per week to relax, meditate and pray. She also said it was used by the local Mayan people for special rituals and ceremonies.
The Mayan cenote was not overtly commercialized like the other two. We descended via a spiral staircase deeper and deeper into the dark. A Mayan girl 6 or 7 years old led us down with a flashlight. This was the deepest cave of the three, and the most beautiful and mysterious. After swimming around the pool, Chio led us to a sand bar where we could stand out of the water. The silence was awesome. At one point, we watched a pail being dropped down into the pool by a rope, the pail submerged and then lifted to the surface hole at least 100 feet above. I felt myself in a zen-like state of simple but profound awareness.
Our friend Judith generously offered to lend us her car for the 30-mile drive to the legendary ruins of one of the largest Mayan cities. She urged us to go immediately after breakfast to avoid the crowds and the full heat of the day. I had spent the previous afternoon relaxing in the courtyard, reading up on this archeological marvel via Wikipedia. Judith had also lent us two pictorial guides to the ruins which helped me get oriented.
The Mayan name Chichen Itza translates as “at the mouth of the well of the Itza people”. The city was built over a large aquifer with a deep cenote now known as the “Sacred Cenote”. Like the town of Valladolid, this ancient city was built at a place where the inhabitants were guaranteed a dependable source of fresh water.
Chichen Itza is now an active center of the Mexican tourist industry. Even at 10am the parking lot was filing up with buses, vans, taxis and private cars like ours. Vendors of all stripes lined the road in, actively hawking their wares. We found a parking spot, lathered up with sunscreen, and set out to the large, modern entrance building to buy tickets and enter the site.
The centerpiece of the ancient city is an intact pyramid rising almost 120 feet. The Mayans called it the Temple of Kukulkan, one of their principal gods, represented as a feathered serpent, similar to the Aztec’s Quetzal Coatl. The pyramid/temple dates from AD 800-900, known as the Terminal Classic period of Mayan civilization.
The stone edifices surrounding the pyramid are in varying states of disrepair. Archeologists have been examining the site for over a century and a great deal of information about Mayan government, science, culture and religion has been derived from the study of artifacts uncovered in this major center of pre-Columbian civilization.
A Mexican Wedding
The initial impetus for our journey was a wedding invitation from a Mexican friend of Andrea’s who lives in Cancun. We’d reserved a hotel room there for the weekend and were really looking forward to the event, having experienced an unforgettable wedding in Guanauato some years previous.
This one did not disappoint. The reception was to be held outdoors and I was a bit concerned about wearing formal attire in the tropical heat. Our Mexican friends had the perfect solution – purchase a guayabera, a traditional white linen Mexican-made shirt. While in Valladolid, we found a small shop that had just what I needed – a formal (long sleeve) “presidential” guayabera. Andrea had shopped for her lovely dress back in the DC area and Abuela Judith had given her an approving thumbs-up.
The wedding ritual was performed in a modern Catholic church in the wealthy suburbs of Cancun. Our friends in Valladolid were attending, since both bride and groom were members of our spiritual community. We all sat together in church as I strained a bit to follow the proceedings in Spanish. It was a traditional Catholic wedding with Mass, a sermon, and communion. After their vows were exchanged, the happy couple knelt in prayer before a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe that graced one side of the altar.
The reception took place in a well-appointed suburban country club nearby. Three hundred guests attended this classy affair, with delicious seafood canapes and wine proffered as we entered the grounds. It was a magical evening filled with camaraderie, delicious food, and vigorous dancing on a glass dance floor lit with colored lights from below.
Our hotel in Cancun proper was not near a beach, but offered a wonderful rooftop swimming pool that we made good use of on both days of our stay. Once again, clean, cold water was our savior from the heat and humidity. After a final dip on Sunday morning, we re-packed and caught a cab to nearby Puerto Juarez where we would get our ferry to Isla Mujeres.
Isla Mujeres (“Women Island”) was so named by the Spanish invaders who found a plethora of sculptures representing Mayan goddesses, especially of Ixchel, goddess of fertility and childbirth. The Island is a thin patch of land about 4 miles long that lies about 8 miles off the coast of Cancun. Puerto Juarez had an efficient ferry service with modern, passenger-only boats carrying up to about 150 people every half hour throughout the day.
We enjoyed the half-hour boat ride, sitting out on the top deck, serenaded by a talented Mexican folk singer. It was our first real contact this trip with the warm, aqua-green waters of the Caribbean.
We had reservations for three nights at a small beach hotel on the Caribbean side of the island. On checking in, I was surprised when the hotel clerk presented me with a handwritten note from an old friend who was staying with his wife in another nearby hotel. We’d known they’d been planning a trip here but didn’t know the dates. After we got settled in our room, I walked over to my friends’ place and caught them just as they were heading out on a food shopping trip. We celebrated our good fortune at connecting and arranged to have supper together that evening.
Our three-day stay at Playa Media Luna (“Half Moon Beach”) was a perfect ending to our trip. We had time to rest, read, swim in the seaside pool or a nearby tidal lagoon, have meals with our friends, and shop for gifts. A highlight was our visit to the southern end of the island with our friends one clear, sunny morning. The remains of a temple to Ixchel are still there, memorialized now by a modern sculpture park as well.
We had an uneventful leave-taking and arrived back home tired but happy. Yucatan had lived up to its Aztec name.
John Bayerl, Derwood, MD