I took a local bus from Chichen Itza to the town of Merida, the cultural capital of the provience. Most of the places I have stayed at have been not been worth mentioning but the hostel I chose this time is worthy of a mention, mainly because of the owner. He was a local and proud of his town. The house was typically Mexican, but had been ornately decorated with local paintings, statutes and earthware. It was beautifully done. Before I had had chance to unpack, Edwin the owner, had sat me down, showed me a map and started telling me all the things I needed to do there. Had I taken his advice I would have been there for weeks! However, I picked up on the main things like local restaurants and sights of interest. It was quite a reception.
My first outting was to the local art museum, where there was a Dali exhibit on. Dali is my favourite painter so it was with great joy I was able to explore the exhibition. It was full of pieces I have not seen before, and I was able to spend time looking in detail at his work. Bliss.
After gorging myself on art, I decided to continue the cultural theme and visit the nearby ruins of Uxmal, including a light and sound show there. Uxmal means ´thrice built´, even though it was actually built 5 times! It was also one of the most important sites in the area and was first settled in about AD600. The population there developed clever ways to channel and collect water which was in scarce supply. As a result it meant that Chac, the rain god or sky serpent, was supreme in importance.
I joined a small tour and we were firsted greeted by a massive back of a temple which interestingly had curved walls. Following the wall along and going through a narrow entrance it opened into a massive forecourt and a very impressive temple front. Our guide was good and took us down paths that big tour groups did not go down. He also showed us excellent photo opportunities!
Behind this main temple was another forecourt, the palace. Here the images of Chac (pronounced Chuck) dominated including those of serpents though these were hard to pick out and it was only later at the light show that I was able to spot some of them. The beauty of this site was our ability to go in the ruins and explore the rooms. Completely empty it was interesting to see how small, dark and damp they were. However, we were reminded that the outside of the temples etc would have been covered with a facade that was coloured red and blue. Very colourful.
As we wandered around the site odd things were pointed out including red hand prints on the walls left by the builders and other oddities like a swallow nest. Further in there was a temple which we could climb to the top of which enabled us once again to look out over a jungle and see hidden ruins, yet to be excavated.
The temples here had elaborate carvings and stone work making it a joy to explore. They were also acoustically designed enabling a clap to resonate loudly and even come back as the call of a bird. As night drew in we took our seats to watch a sound and light show. The lights lit up the temples and buildings beautifully, and highlighted some unexpected things like the snakes. Unfortunately the sound was not so good. The show told a tale of why the city was deserted. Apparently the princess there was engaged to be married to a prince from another state. However, the lord of Chichen Itza had fallen in love with her and on her wedding day stole her from Uxmal. In anger, the people of Uxmal left to go seek revenge on Chichen Itza. No one tended to the crops and in the time that followed, a severe drought affected the town forcing the inhabitants to leave. Interesting enough, but it took a long time to tell and I kept expecting people to pop out of the doorways and enact the singing.
After a day of culture and history, I spent the next day exploring nature and ended up seeing one of the most incredible natural sights I had seen in a while. Along with Leigh, my hostel room mate, we went to see the cenotes of Cuzama. So to recap cenotes are surface connections to subterranean water bodies i.e. cave entrances to large underground pools or fresh, clear water.
In order to get there we had to take a collectivo (a minibus that picks up people a long the way, dropping wherever along the specified route) to Cuzama. It was great to escape the town and explore the local areas. But it was in Cuzama where the adventure started. A guy on a pushbike with a seat attached to the front collected us and took us into the jungle. Half way in we were greeted by a pony pulling a cart along a rail track. It was quite a sight and it would be this form of transportation that would take us deeper into the jungle and to the cenotes.
After about 15 minutes of bouncing along we finally stopped at the first cenote. Rickety steps took us down to the water. The sight was incredible. There were tons of swallows flying round in a large circle eating insects whilst still in the air. They flew at incredible speed and made much noise. The cave opened out to stalacmites and tites. At the far back it was pitch black but closer to the entrance the water turned a beautiful shade of blue. The water was extremely well filtered and so pure and clear, we could see far down into its depths and the fish lazying around. Apparently in some parts of the cenotes it was so deep that the fish had developed without eyes due to the darkness but this was not the case here. Plucking up our courage we stripped and plunged into the water. It was quite warm but very deep. It was so still it felt a bit eerie and the swallows who were making a lot of noise would occasionally go quiet and then you would expect a water monster to appear!
We had only about half an hour here and were soon on to the next cenote. And this turned out to the best. To get to it we had to go down a rickety ladder which plunged down into darkness. At the bottom the sight was breathtaking. More underground than the last one the cave was dark except for a few ground openings. This cast beautiful light into the water making stunning colours. When the sun really shone the reflection from the water played onto the cave walls in a shimmery gold. From the openings huge tree roots hung down growing ever closer to the water. There were no birds here and the silence was absolute.
The water was an intense colour and again exceptionally clear. You could see, near the main roof opening, rocks had fallen in creating a little mound under water. It was harder to get in the water but worth it. We swam out under the opening and looked up. Beautiful and a sight that will go with me to the end of my days, though I still kept getting a feeling that there were monsters lurking in the dark!!
Unfortunately we could not stay long and we were soon on to our final cenote. We had had the other cenotes to ourselves but on the way to the third we encountered another cart coming along the track in the opposite way. When this happened one of the carts had to stop and be taken off the track to let the other through! Maybe it was because there were other people there, but I did not find the third cenote as impressive. It was still quite amazing with roots hanging from above and it was deep enough to jump from high into the water where you could see caves under water, clearly leading to more systems.
Finally we found ourselves back in the cart returning to Cuzama. It had been an amazing outing and one that had not really publicised. I hope it stays that way. The wonder of it was the silence and pure beauty, not a gaggle of tourists spoiling it all.
Back in Merida, I decided to explore the town some more and walked up the Paseo de Montejo, famed for its likeness of the Charles de Elysee. Here beautiful large houses dominated one side of the street, showing off the wealth of the city. Half way up was the Monumento a la Bandera, an impressive roundabout with Mayan architecture. Returning back to town, I stopped at the Palacio de Gobinero to view their wall murals depicting the history of Mexico. Bloody and waresque, I looked for a brief while but not wanting to lose the joy of the cenotes I left to find some wine.
Merida was a lovely town full of hidden jewels. The only downside waswhen eating lunch, I got accousted by a man wanting to practise his English. Minding my own business, he stopped by my table and started off friendly enough but then went on to lecture me on how he had studied different cultures and nations. Apparently the British were too polite and so were not trustworthy as we say what is polite and not what is true. He lectured me a long time about how we were pretentious, that I was posh and generally was from a bad race! Being truly British, I smiled politely, turned away and finished my lunch!