Oaxaca to Merida, The Archaeological Route April 20th to May 14th

Filed under: Mexico — Aaron and Amy at 3:19 pm on Wednesday, May 10, 2006

We would like to acknowledge the passing of a very special man, Robert G Young. There are two pictures (50-51 of the new album), which were taken while in Atlanta in the past two years. All will miss Bob and both of us send our love to Martha and her family.

Upon leaving the city of Oaxaca we headed north on the windy, mountainous highway 175. We left at 10:30 am, and about an hour later our front brakes were on fire! After extinguishing the flames, we let the RV sit for several hours. After deciding we could drive again, we limped along very slowly while taking many rests to let the brakes cool down. We were headed for Tuxtepec, but hoped to find a mechanic before then since we were only about a quarter of the way there. We came upon the small village of Ixtlan de Juarez that had a shop on the hill with “Mecanico” painted on a large wall. After asking at the gas station, they confirmed that was the place to go for brakes as well. Once the RV was inspected, the head Mechanic David said he would get us in right away but it would take several hours. They told us we could stay there for the night and began work immediately. Eight hours and US$180.00 later the RV was in tiptop shape. David rebuilt the entire front brake system since it had been farely well destroyed by the flames. He had all of the necessary parts to rebuild the calipers and all other associated systems. The front brake pads were replaced with heavy-duty brake pads. Aaron proceeded to hang out with the guys at the shop after they closed while Amy worked on the travel log and pictures for the next update. After many beers and songs later, Aaron called it a night after having made new friends!
We drove for several hours through the same beautiful mountains as the day before with our refurbished brakes. The mountain drive was so lush with vegetation it was beautiful! There were so many ferns clinging to the hillside spilling over onto the road in front of us! It was about 2:00 when Aaron asked if we could stop if we found a cute little village near a river. It seems not 10 minutes later we came upon the small community of San Mateo de Yeatla right on the river with a small cemetery right by the road. We pulled in and spoke to a storeowner, asking if we could park there for the night. He allowed us to pull in under the shade of some trees in between his small store and the cemetery. We were parked right on the path to the river, which was only about 100 feet away. We settled the RV, gooped on some sunblock and ran to the river. By then it was very hot so the river was a nice reprieve. We were the only ones down at the river for a while, but the villagers slowly started coming out to cool off. We played with some of the local boys a bit, sharing Aaron’s snorkel mask. After a couple hours we got cleaned up to find dinner. There weren’t any restaurants in San Mateo, so we got a ride on a little camioneta (a small truck with a covered bed that acts as a taxi) to the next town a few miles away. After dinner we had a few drinks with our host and his family outside his little store.
After a grueling road outside Tuxtepec that was on again-off again pavement with gigantic potholes, we hopped on the cuota (toll road) headed for Villahermosa on our way to the Yucatan Peninsula. We bypassed the archaeological site of La Venta because not much is at the site anymore. The artifacts have been moved to an outdoor museum in Villahermosa because the original site is on a very rich oil field. We heard you could camp in the parking lot of the museum, which was perfect since we arrived just before the museum was closing. After a parking lot “helper” got us into a really tight spot, he told us to wait until everybody left so we could move to a better place for the night. We winced at the information that a vegetable market would open just outside our window at 4:00 a.m., but were willing to stick it out. (Well, Amy was. Aaron was along for the ride!) After a while Amy asked the attendant if there was a better place to camp for the night and he told us about a larger public lot, so we decided to try it. On our way out Aaron told Amy that the guy was jerking him around, first asking for more money to camp, then told him we couldn’t park there at all. Having noticed earlier how close we were to the grand archaeological site of Palenque, we decided to forget Villahermosa and try to get to Palenque that night before sunset.
Our plan was to return to the state of Chiapas in about two months after visiting the Yucatan. Allowing us to spend a month there in the ruins, waterfalls, canyons and jungle. Since we were so close to Palenque at the time, we decided to go ahead and see it then, just in case we weren’t able to return to Chiapas as planned. It is one of the archaeological sites we were not supposed to leave Mexico without seeing, so Aaron concurred and we headed south into the jungles of Chiapas. It was just about sunset as we pulled into Pakalna, the village just before Palenque. We decided to look for a spot to boondock instead of paying the $15 or $20 US per night at the RV park. We spotted a restaurant with a tiny body of water up against the jungle and were allowed to camp for the night. They said we could park further away from the restaurant in the middle of a field so the lights wouldn’t bother us. After we had a wonderful meal and several beers to wash the day away, we settled into bed to the sound of howler monkeys! (That day we drove through four states: Oaxaca, Veracruz, Tabasco and Chiapas!) After asking the owner about all the construction going on, he said they were building several cabanas, a pool and extending the restaurant. Right now the only sign they have up advertises the type of food they offer, but the name of the establishment is Las Tortugas. We told him we were very impressed with the site, restaurant and hospitality and would like to put their information on our website.
The next morning we had breakfast and headed to Palenque. Several people we know had already been to the Mayabell RV Park and raved about it. Turns out they had every right to! It is actually located inside the National park that encompasses Palenque, and only a mile and a half from the Palenque site entrance. There are several RV parks and cabanas with hammocks along the road to the ruins, but Mayabell is the closest. Mike and Terri Church’s Mexican Camping book (2000 edition) says the facilities aren’t great, but we beg to differ. There is a pool that is formed from a dammed jungle stream with several very cute cabanas right by the pool for only $45 US per night. They had several other cabanas and palapas with hammocks for rent, two “rooms” in a tree, tent camping and of course RV hook-ups ($15US per night). The restaurant is beautiful with fabulous food and the nightly entertainment is to die for. We purchased a CD from one of the artists (Big Red, a large Mexican fellow that looks like he could be from the southern US!) and asked another of the artists to please make a CD! She has a voice as exotic as the birds that serenade you from the jungle. When the two of them played together with their guitars or eukalaylee they had the whole place rockin’! Most of the folks at Mayabell were pretty funky, and some have actually lived there for several years! It was so hot in Palenque that Aaron wanted to use the air conditioning at night, which meant closing the windows. Mayabell is famous for its howler monkeys which come and serenade campers at night, but having the air on and windows closed meant we didn’t hear any howler monkeys our first night.
Even getting up early, after completing our sunblock routine and preparing the dogs, we didn’t get to the ruins until 8:30 in the morning. Palenque is a gigantic site that is only partially excavated and open to the public. There is a main group of ruins in the “center” of the site as well as outlying ruins in the jungle that can be visited. The site was occupied by the Maya from at least 100 BC, was at its height from 600-800 AD and was abandoned and consequently swallowed by the jungle early in the 10th century. If you have ever seen a sculpture, bas-relief or painting of a Mayan, it is very likely that it came from the site of Palenque. The artifacts unearthed at Palenque are well known for their realistic representation of what the Maya looked liked. Extremely sloped foreheads (from skull-deformation), large noses, and high round cheekbones are some of their characteristic traits. In fact, the guy who collects money at Mayabell looks exactly like the beautiful sculptures in the museum (other than the sloped forehead). We meandered through the ruins in awe of the beautiful buildings that rose before us. The Temple of Inscriptions and its famous tomb of Pakal were closed, but it is understandable for the sake of preservation. There were several amazing bas-reliefs of figures held captive in the main palace and most of the pyramids had beautiful bas-reliefs and paintings visible in their temples. One section of the main site is off to the side, on a hill with jungle encroaching upon the temple’s backs. Here lies one of Amy’s favorite temples, the Temple of the Foliated Cross. The jungle still crawls on the base of the pyramid, which is not reconstructed. There is simply a stepped path to the top of this very scenic and peaceful little temple. It is set off to one side, and it wouldn’t take much for the threatening jungle to overtake it again. It seems as if it hasn’t changed much since the ruins were rediscovered in the 18th century. We explored the ruins until about 12:30, and then the heat helped us decide to call it quits for the day. Amy decided she would come back by herself the next morning and explore the outlying ruins in the jungle by herself. We headed back to the RV Park for lunch and a much needed dip in the pool. The next morning Amy was at the site at 8:00 a.m. She ran to her favorite temples while there was no one else there so that she could have some quiet time without the hoards of tourists. Then she followed some marked trails into the jungle with great anticipation of what she would find. To her surprise, there were very few people walking around in the outlying ruins, even later on in the day. While walking upon one group, first just a small staircase revealed itself, then a larger wall, then a small building and a larger pyramid – all peeking out of the jungle. She walked through dark doorways to find stairs leading to roofs. Very large trees were actually growing right on top of the ruins, literally covering them up again. She walked around all by herself, with only the noises of the jungle sometimes sounding a bit eerie. She had that particular section to herself for about 30 minutes before two young girls walked down the path. She was almost excited for them, knowing what they were about to discover. They walked through and were gone in 2 minutes. She finished walking around the other sites and exploring the ruins that other people were just walking right by, but she didn’t mind. It just meant she had them to herself. Palenque was very special to Amy. Our trip to Latin America was postponed for a year for several reasons. During that year, there were several times we weren’t sure we would still be able to take the trip. To keep our spirits up we would ask each other what we were looking forward to most. Aaron’s answer was fishing. Amy’s was exploring ruins shrouded in jungle. This was it! She was there doing it! Just like the Acropolis in Athens and the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Amy realized another one of her life dreams! How fortunate she is! After a dip in the pool she went to the museum to look at all the artifacts.
We had not heard much from the famous howler monkeys since we had been in Chiapas. A bit disappointed, we wondered if we would hear them before we left. Then one day down by the pool at Mayabell, we heard rustling in the jungle and suddenly they started doing their thing! If you have not heard a howler monkey before, it’s hard to imagine the sound that bellows from their body. One would expect . . . well . . . a howl. Now I know whey my sister Heidi that lived in Brasil told me, “Just wait until you hear the howler monkeys!” And that’s all she said about it! The sound that you hear seems like it should be coming from a gigantic fictitious monster lurking in the jungle! It is so loud and ferocious, it sounds like a lion, gorilla and a big scary monster all at once! There were several people at the pool, and we all just watched the monkeys climb through the trees, mesmerized by their call. Amy also heard them at the Palenque ruins the second day she went back. They were very active in the morning, calling across the huge ruins to one another, as if they were teasing the tourists!

While in Palenque we went into town to buy mosquito nets for our hammocks. On the way back we had a minor accident on the motorcycle. Fortunately we were going very slowly and the only ones in a glorietta (roundabout) when the pavement became extremely smooth, causing the bike to slide right out from underneath of us. We both slid a couple of feet, but were able to get the bike and ourselves out of the way before any other traffic entered the glorietta. We got home and cleaned Amy’s wounds, as she had a bit of road rash. We decided to stay another night, since Amy wasn’t able to help pack the RV.
After four nights at Mayabell, we finally headed in the direction of the Yucatan on April 27th. It didn’t take us long to get to the coast, just north of Ciudad del Carmen in the small village of Sabancuy. We ended up parking in the town center right in front of the square and church. We tried the internet café but it was full, so we had dinner at a restaurant along the promenade. The following day we drove along the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, headed for the archaeological site of Edzna. After having seen some grand archaeological sites such as Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba (on a previous trip to the Yucatan) Monte Alban and Palenque, Amy wanted to see some of the smaller less visited sites in the Yucatan. This was even truer after she read a Mexican archaeology book where she learned how most of the sites were connected with one another. Edzna was the first visited with its grand Edificio de Cinco Pisos (Building of Five Stories) and some really well preserved masks of Mayan gods. The Yucatan Peninsula is created by a limestone shelf, which contains many caves and sinkholes. Along the same road as Edzna were some caves (Grutas de Xtacumbilxunan). Before taking the tour, we asked if we could camp there. Having permission to stay, we were able to leisurely take the tour without worrying about needing to find a place to sleep. Caves are an excellent way to end a hot day in the Yucatan. While exploring their depths it is very cool inside, so you get natural air conditioning! These particular caves had a light show highlighting formations in the stalactites and stalagmites that corresponded with a narrated story of Mayan myths, legends and history.
When our tour guide was closing up the site and getting ready to leave, he told us there was a party and a bullfight in a town just a few kilometers away. Aaron had not seen a bullfight before, and was interested to see what they were all about. In case we had an opportunity to stay in the village, we decided to pack up the RV and drive it instead of the motorcycle. Pulling into the village of Bolonchen de Rejon, we asked several kids if there was a bullfight, and if so where the ring was located. After being told it was straight ahead and we would see it on the right, we continued into town. Very soon we came upon a makeshift bullring that consisted of a two-story structure made of tree branches and a few 2×4’s all thatched together! There were palm fronds attached to the “walls” to provide shade. After having parked the RV at the police station, we purchased our tickets and climbed up the ladders to the second story! We were then invited to sit on chairs on the rickety, wobbly “floors”. Everyone else was sitting on 2×4’s hanging their feet over the ring! So that’s where we sat! There was even a section of the bullring across from us that was three stories high! The bottom part of the bullring, where the bulls ran around with the matadors, was simply a seven-foot high lattice wood structure with the retaining strength similar to that of a baby gate . . . and there were people sitting behind it! Fortunately the bulls didn’t know all they had to do was lean against it and they would be free! With every young person running around the floors making the structure wobble, we sat in awe of what we were witnessing and what we were sitting on! We said that these are the kinds of experiences we would like our visitors to see. Then Aaron said he’s not sure anyone we know would climb onto this structure! The bullfight was not really a bullfight. It was usually quite comical. There were several matadors dressed in the traditional costume, with one very small bull being extremely persistent about having nothing to do with them. The matadors tried to antagonize him into participating, but only got a few charges out of him. By the time we got there, there was a single man in the ring not in costume (but well dressed) that was very clearly drunk; dancing around entertaining the crowd trying to make the bull active. At one point the bull got the best of the drunk, rolling him on the ground with his horns as he lay there like a rag doll, which the crowd seemed to like. (Reminds us of gladiator days in Rome). After a while of the bull not participating another drunk jumped from the stands and joined his comrade in enticing the bull. After they got more of a response out of the bull than the matadors, we wondered how many more intoxicated locals would join them! We were informed that this was the first day of a four-day event, and these were the smallest bulls. While the bullfight wasn’t exactly what we were expecting, it was such an unusual experience we came away with! We had dinner, listened to music and strolled through the small village for a while before deciding to drive the RV back to our campsite at the caves. We headed back to the caves and got a very restful night of sleep, preparing for another day of archaeological sites!
After Edzna was a group of sites called the Puuc Route. We visited three of the four sites that are all within fifteen miles of one another. They are designated Puuc style because they share similar architectural characteristics. Each site had a particular building or feature that was most important and there were less than a handful of tourists at each one. Kabah was the first site whose well known building is the Codz Poop, with its hundreds of masks of Chac, the Maya god of rain and lightning. The masks are a kind of mosaic created from many pieces of cut stone forming the three dimensional representation of Chac. Next was the large site of Sayil with its grand palace. Labna was the last site of the day with its exquisitely decorated Mayan arch. Fortunately for us since it was so hot at the end of the day, there were more caves to be explored! Some of the remains discovered in the Loltun Caves were mammoth and bison bones, indicating it was inhabited soon after the last ice age. There were also many fascinating cave paintings, some of which were even pre-Mayan! After the caves we wound our way to the famous site of Uxmal, which we would see the following day.
We were at the site of Uxmal at 7:45 the next morning, ready to start the day before it got too hot and had too many tourists! There are many beautiful buildings at Uxmal, but Amy’s favorite is not one of the grandest. It is the Palace with the dovecote roof comb that makes it appear more delicate than the others. It’s off to the side of the site, giving it a secluded and peaceful ambiance. Amy got two great books from the bookstore at Uxmal. They are reproductions of Frederick Catherwood’s artwork when he explored the ruins in the Yucatan and Central America about mid-19th century. Amy’s love of archaeology started when she was a young child, and several of Catherwood’s drawings are familiar to her.
After completing the site of Uxmal we headed in the direction of a beach near the city of Merida. On the way out Aaron slammed on the brakes and turned around in the wide street. He shouted “It’s Jim and Sherrol!” After Amy’s heart stopped racing, Aaron was able to explain that we had just driven passed our friend’s RV that we hadn’t seen since Huatulco in March! Turns out they were also traveling with some of our other friends, Rob, Jane and their son Taylor. We chatted for a while, and then decided to stay another night allowing us all to visit and go to the sound and light show together at Uxmal! It was great seeing our friends again as they were on their way out of the Yucatan, heading home to the states! We arrived in the small beach village of Sisal on the May 1 holiday. It was very congested and after asking a local if there was a restaurant on the beach where we could boondock, he drove us all the way there! We stayed at a little run down hotel and restaurant for two nights, wanting to see the beach again before we head inland for a while. As our friends had warned us, it was VERY windy, but we were still able to walk along the beach and let the dogs play for a bit. After two nights we headed into the city of Merida, which is the capitol of the state of Yucatan. Back in the early 1900’s Merida enjoyed a huge economic boom from the sale of sisal and henequen, which was used to make rope and a plethora of other objects. There is a street in Merida called the Paseo de Montejo, named after the conquistador that founded the city in 1542. The street is lined with such grandiose mansions you would think you were walking a street in Europe. In fact, most of the mansions were built by Italian architects in the neoclassical style. While this is not the Mexico that we have come to know and love by traveling through small villages along the beach or countryside, it still has a great deal of history. Unfortunately it has a lot to do with the demise of the Maya, since the city of Merida was actually founded (in 1542) on the site of Mayan ruins. The Governmental Palace on the town square has its courtyard, staircase and an entire hall dedicated to paintings by a local artist. They show his vision of Mexican history from the time of the first Maya. The informational plaques describe a violent struggle for their freedom and lives. (Refer to photo #49 on the Casa de Montejo, the Conquistador that founded Merida. Two conquistadors can be seen standing on Maya’s heads).
Our RV Park is the only one in town, the Rainbow RV park. It is just inside the periferico ring road, making it extremely easy to get to. The 100+ space park was completely empty as we pulled in at 11:00 a.m. In fact, the owner who isn’t here much didn’t even know we were here until Aaron went to pay late in the evening. We have the place to ourselves, which is great for the dogs! It’s like having a huge park for a back yard! They LOVE chasing the iguanas and smaller lizards up the trees and into the rocks!
Our first night in Merida we found an Internet café near the RV Park. At that point, we received the sad news that Aaron’s great Uncle Bob, (Aaron’s grandfather’s brother) had passed away the day before. We immediately got online to buy Aaron a ticket to Atlanta, so that he could be there to attend the funeral on Friday. He caught a 7:30 a.m. flight the next morning, arriving to spend time with his family. We want to express how thankful we are that we were able to spend so much time with Bob and Martha last Thanksgiving. We had an extremely memorable time at the new aquarium, listening to family stories and looking at pictures from their extensive travels. Thank you Martha, and know that our thoughts are with you.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.