Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
Taking a page from Anthony Bourdain: “Travel is not reward for working, it’s education for living.” For me, who had never visited the Yucatán, my notions of luxury beach resorts or dense jungles filled with vine-encrusted Mayan pyramids and relics of lost civilizations needed some travel-education. As I found out, neither notion was completely correct and there is a lot more than just archeology and beaches in the Yucatán. My wife and I opted for a wide-ranging Yucatán immersion cruise-safari offered by Victory cruise line. Our Yucatán outreach safari took us from the Caribbean in the east across the full width of the Yucatán peninsula to the Gulf of Mexico in the west.
Our highlights included: Tulum; lunch in a limestone cavern; an amazing “Mexico Espectacular” dinner show at Xcaret; a nighttime sound and light show in Chichen Itze (“Noche de Kukulkan”); historic Valladolid with Mexican folk and contemporary art at Casa de los Venados; Nolo, the Vatican yellow city; Cenote Saamal sink hole; Merida; historic henequen (sisal) hemp rope production from yucca at Hacienda Sotuta de Peón; and an introduction to the little-visited UNESCO world heritage colonial city of Campeche.
Our knowledgeable Mayan guide Jesus (phonetic Hey-sus) had encyclopedic knowledge of Yucatán archeology, history and culture. Despite his Mayan heritage, his family had French and Spanish surnames which, as he said, confirmed that “All of Yucatán today is a blend of Mayan, Spanish and other. We have retained our Mayan language and customs but, fortunately for you, no human sacrifice and no slaves.” He prepared us for our whirlwind immersion into Yucatán culture, history, archeology and cuisine. The Maya constituted one of the six great civilizations in the ancient world. Spread across Mesoamerica from the Yucatán peninsula south into Belize and Guatemala, and west into Honduras and El Salvador, by 300BC archeologists say the Maya had a very accurate calendar and skills in art, mathematics, building, astronomy and hieroglyphic writing; by 250AD extensive trade routes existed between the Mayan city-states over great distances and up into the northwest, as well as, central Mexico. Then, inexplicably, at the height of their civilization in the 9th century AD, everything fell apart with widespread political collapse, warfare and populations abandoning southern Maya cities and moving north. Climate change, violence, widespread poverty and hunger may have all contributed to the downfall.
Jesus said we would visit Tulum and Chichen Itza as examples of city-states that came to preeminence late in the 9th century and survived until the 14th century when they too were abandoned. “And, yes, the Maya are not dead. There are over 6 million of us still living. The Mayan language is still spoken in Yucatán and some villages don’t even speak Spanish.”
Cancun, Riviera maya and Playa del Carmen:
Development of the Caribbean Yucatán coast as a tourist destination was only started by the Mexican government in the 1970s. The transformation is amazing and a site to behold. Where once there were swamps, dense vegetation, mosquitoes and small fishing villages, now the shores are dotted with high-end luxury resorts, pristine beaches, nature reserves, condos and town homes. The transformed coast is an economic powerhouse for the Yucatán, drawing hospitality workers from local Mayan villages as well as all of Mexico.
Highlights of our Playa del Carmen exploration included lunch in a limestone cavern at Alux restaurant & lounge and the amazing “Mexico Espectacular” heritage dinner show at Xcaret.
Tulum: Just a 90-minute drive down the coast from Playa del Carmen, Tulum was our first introduction to Mayan archeological sites. My research told me it was one of the last settlements built by the Maya (1250-1450AD) and probably served as a major trading port for the large city-state of Coba which lay 27 miles to the northwest. The main temple pyramid (Castillo) at Tulum may have served as a navigation aid since from the sea the pyramid doors align perfectly with the entrance through the reef into a cove below the Castillo cliff. Trading by canoe was extensive in Maya times. The log of Columbus’ fourth voyage recorded a 30 ft. long, 8 ft. wide, Mayan trading canoe manned by 25 paddlers. Evidence suggests trading canoes were paddled around the entire Yucatan peninsula.
Valladolid and Casa de los Venados: Our journey from the Caribbean coast west toward Chichen Itza took us through the historic town of Valladolid. Building was started by Spanish conquistadors in 1545 on the ruins of the Mayan Cupules’ capital city of Saci, but the local Maya proved difficult to subdue and successful uprisings against the Spanish resulted in their expulsion in 1546, as well as, in 1838 and 1847. The colonial city was eventually established, but again in 1910, one of the first sparks of the Mexican revolution against Spain was ignited by Mayans in Valladolid. We learned that the Maya, and their descendants, are a stubborn, proud and independent people.
A short walk from the colonial center at Parque Principal, Casa de los Venados is a private home that displays the largest private museum-quality collection of Mexican folk and contemporary art in all of Mexico. The collection comprises more than 3000 pieces and commissioned murals and paintings from noted artists. (Victory cruise line arranged viewing of the private collection.)
Valladolid is also home to the National Museum of Mexican Sculpture and other museums, making it both geographically and culturally, a center of the Yucatán.
Cenote Saamal at Hacienda Selva Maya: As we drove west toward Chichen Itza we saw dense brush and stunted trees reaching only 20-30 feet in height. (Not the jungle I thought I would see in the Yucatán.) The Yucatán soil here in the northern regions is less than 20 inches thick on top of a thick limestone base. There are few rivers and lakes. Without surface water, the land and people are sustained by a vast subterranean network of rivers flowing through eroded limestone caverns. When the roof of a cavern collapses, a cenote (sinkhole) is created giving lifesaving access to water. We stopped for lunch and a swim at Cenote Saamal.
The Maya believed that Chaac, the god of rain, resided in the underworld waters accessed by cenotes. To insure that life giving rains returned each year Chaac was given a new bride as a sacrificial offering. Today, only tourists are ‘sacrificed’, but by immersion only and with easy entrance to, (and egress from), the cool clear waters in the cenote.
Chichen Itza: While only about an hour and a half drive from Playa del Carmen, with all of our explorations we didn’t arrive until late in the afternoon. After checking into the Mayaland resort, we just had time to see the sun setting over El Caracol (The Observatory.) The Maya astronomers plotted the movements of sun, moon, Venus and Mars which allowed them to successfully predict solar and lunar eclipses. (Most useful for Mayan kings who wanted to confirm their connection to the Gods.)
Chichen Itza is one of the most visited world heritage sites in Mexico with more than 2 million tourists per year so a little planning is key to a good experience. Until 2010, the archeological site was part of a privately owned family hacienda built in 1923. That family still owns and operates what is now the Mayaland resort. Because of the ownership history, the hotel is both the closest to Chichen Itza and the only one able to offer early entrance to the archeological site through a private portal. The resort portal provides an exclusive sunrise experience. Staying on-site also enables viewing of the nighttime “Noche de Kukulkan (feathered serpent god)” sound and light show at Chichen Itza.
Marked by a large ceremonial cenote and good access to water, the prosperous agricultural city-state known as Uucyabnal (seven great rulers) was conquered in the 9th century AD by Toltec and Itza warriors. They changed its name to Chichen Itza, meaning “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”. The Toltec brought their feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl (Kukulkan) and initiated construction of the grand pyramid that today marks the site as a UNESCO world heritage site. The massive construction was very carefully aligned so that at particular times of the year the early dawn light would snake its way down the ceremonial staircase. The important central location within the Yucatán made Chichen Itza an important trade center for Itza merchants who traveled great distances to and from western city-states of Izamal, Mayapan; southern cities of Yaxuná and Coba, as well as, western cities in Campeche (Ah Kim Pech), Mérida (T’Hó) and Isla Cerritos on the Gulf of Mexico. At the height of its power (800-1100AD) Chichen Itze covered more than 15 miles. Noteworthy features of the site include the ball court complex, the largest in Mesoamerica; the temple of the Jaguars; Pyramid of Kukulkan, reaching a height of 30 meters/98 feet.
When Francisco de Montejo the younger, (son of a veteran from Cortes’ Aztec expeditions), arrived in 1533 the Chichen Itza temple site had been abandoned, but a large Mayan population remained. The Spanish established a capital they named Ciudad Real but, besieged by the Maya, all Spanish were soon driven out. Armed with sling-throwing darts, thick cotton body armor and spears, by 1535 the Maya had driven conquistadors out of the entire Yucatan peninsula. It was not recaptured until late in the 15th century.
Mérida: Since the Spanish conquest in the 15th century, Merida has been the cultural and administrative capital of the Yucatan. Originally the entire Yucatan peninsula, the states of Quintanaroo, Campeche and Yucatan now constitute separate administrative domains. The central colonial zocalo (plaza) has several noteworthy historic buildings including Casa de Montejo, completed in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo el Sobrino it was the 15th century governor’s palace for the Yucatán. Also in the zocalo, Mérida Cathedral, completed in 1598 by Franciscan monks using stone from the Mayan ruins of Ichcansiho. The cathedral was the first one to be finished on the mainland of the Americas.
The Grand Museum of the Maya World is also located in Merida.
Hacienda Sotuta de Peón: Formerly a wealthy 19th century hacienda with 3000 workers, Hacienda Sotuta de Peón processed 800,000 pounds of agave per month into henequen fiber for hemp (sisal) rope. (The common name “sisal” for the rope was derived from the Spanish colonial Yucatán port of Sisal from which the henequen products were shipped worldwide.) Plastics rendered sisal rope obsolete and the hacienda ended production in the 1960s. The buildings, equipment and grounds lay abandoned for more than twenty years before a 12-year loving restoration by Don Adolfo Lubke. Today the site has museums, cultural tours, sisal rope making demonstrations, a restaurant and hotel. To make the sisal rope, agave leaves were mechanically stripped to yield their strong fibers. Next, individual sun-dried fibers were twisted together to form thin rope. Thin ropes were then twisted together to form bigger and bigger rope. All of the early 1900s equipment is restored and completely functional, as are the elderly experienced hacienda workers. However, today the hacienda processes, on average, 8 pounds of agave per month, mostly for use by local artisans.
Campeche: Campeche, a world heritage site, was known to the Maya as Ah Kim Pech. It was an important trade center linking the Yucatan Maya with products from the highlands of Guatemala, Tabasco (Chontal Maya ), Oaxaca (Mixtec and Zapotec ), the valley of Mexico (Teotihuacan ) and the Mexican highlands. Campeche was the first Yucatan city occupied by Francisco de Montoyo (the elder) in 1540 who renamed it San Francisco de Campeche. The location on the Gulf of Mexico made the city an important collection point for products destined for Spain on “treasure” galleons. Because of this, the city was the site of many brutal attacks by pirates in the 16th century including those by Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Laurens de Graaf and Henry Morgan. Defensive walls and fortifications established in the 17th and 18th centuries still surround the colorful colonial city today. Shallow port facilities have, fortunately, kept this port largely off the cruise ship circuit and we encountered very few tourists. Points of interest include the old city walls with turrets and several museums, e.g. Museo de la Pirateria (Pirate Museum); Museo de Cultura Maya (Mayan culture), Museo Arqueologico de Campeche (archeology museum) and Fuerte San Miguel.
Cuisine: The local cuisine provides a highly flavorful blend of Mayan, Spanish and Mediterranean influences for the flavorings of shrimp and fish, (from the Caribbean to the east and Gulf of Mexico to the west); along with local chicken and pork dishes. Mayan ancestral agricultural crops included beans, maize, squash, chili peppers, manioc, sunflowers, tomatoes, cotton, cacao and vanilla. Ducks, turkeys and deer were also possibly domesticated and/or penned and fattened.
IF YOU GO:
Victory Cruise Line: Since this article was posted Victory Cruise Line has been acquired by the American Queen Steamboat Company – for information on the altered cruise schedule see the Victory Cruise Lines website.
Mayaland Hotel, Lodge and Bungalows: The Mayaland bungalow we stayed in was crafted from local materials with high poles supporting a thatched roof using traditional methods. (We didn’t see many of these type of dwellings in the Mayan villages we visited, so it was nice to see that the traditional methods hadn’t completely died out.) Hand carved mahogany furniture, doors and molding accents add to the experience with stained-glass windows and local handmade terracotta tiles. The three swimming pools, restaurant and lobby bar offered a welcome respite after a day’s exploration at the large Chichen Itza site. Transport can be arranged by the hotel for the nighttime Noche de Kukulkan (feathered serpent god)” sound and light show. (Victory cruise line arranged our dawn private entrance to the archeological site.)
Hacienda Sotuta de Peón offers opportunities for weddings, retreats, tours and spa experiences with horseback riding and hiking.
Campeche: There is a UNESCO video online that highlights the beauty of Campeche.