william lawson's

Magical Mystery Tour 5 - There and Back Again. Valladolid that is.

Valladolid and back.

There was a tourism fair announced for Valladolid and at the last minute, I decided to go. Too late for company and I always enjoy some stress-free exploring, being able to turn down any road I find appealing without worrying that there will be nothing to entertain my guests at the end of it.

Taking the regular highway, I stopped where a sign advertised a cenote, but the person in charge said they only open it later that afternoon (Saturday) and on Sundays. Could stop by later, I thought and continued on.

Then I saw a sign for Chankom, which sounded vaguely familiar from a book I am translating and so decided to visit this obviously sleep little town a few kilometers before Valladolid. There, I found a lady selling tortas and tacos and so that's where I had breakfast. Also, the town has a gorgeous little cenote, that is not of the swimming variety, but potentially could be. No access to be had, though.

After Chankom, I headed directly into Valladolid and found that what was going on was a food expo in the main square which was right up my photographic alley and so I took some shots. I also chatted with the author Rafael Chay Arzápalo who has published a great dictionary that features photos of almost everything you can imagine, with their names in Maya, Spanish and English.

After not seeing a whole heck of a lot else, it was time to go back.

I stopped at the town of Cuncunul, driving the back road from Chichimilá. I was looking for an elusive home restaurant serving what is purported to be the best poc chuc ever, but alas, I never found it. What I did find was a tidy little town with plenty of photo ops. Here are a few of the photos of downtown Cuncunul.

After Cuncunul, I zipped through a few more towns or maybe not, can't remember and pulled into a vivero to check out plants. The name alone is worth stopping for: Mr. Collis Mystical Nursery. I bought a cacao tree, a coffee bush and a Yucatan tobacco plant to add to my garden. I also took some photos (of course).

Finally, just before Merida, I stopped at Holca to check out the church which in all these years I had never done, and have some roadside chicken, one of my favourite meals.

At the end of the day, I was rewarded - for what I don't know - with a beautiful fall sunset.  

Playa del Carmen Destination Hotel - La Semilla

Normally I would not be writing about hotels and such but this little 7 month old gem deserves a recommendation. La Semilla is an oasis among the hustle and bustle (especially the hustle) of Playa del Carmen. A couple of blocks from the ocean, under a tree with a backyard that reminds me of a typical Yucatecan home "patio" and an interior courtyard complete with fully grown trees, a waterfall and a creek throughout and even a home for the resident "alux". 

Extremely friendly and professional service, all kinds of commodities included at no extra charge, like the excellent WiFi, bicycles, towels for the beach, parking at the front door (ltierally), breakfast with real, strong coffee and amazing all-natural "jugo de la casa". If you are going to the beach, they will loan you a cooler so you can keep your beers cool. Amazing. 

It's a respite from what's going on outside and your senses are pampered with lemony scents in hallways and rooms, crispy cool air conditioning in the rooms and relaxing music throughout. Soft lighting at night and plenty of shade during the day.

Alexis and Angie have created a paradise and on your next trip to Playa del Carmen, definitely spend a night or three here!


The Convent Route - Day Two

The day started with a stop at Uman, which is nowhere near the so-called convent route, but since we were going to Ticul and Mani and had been the other way before, I thought the Uman-Muna route would provide some interesting views along the way. The large small town, our first stop, is where there is a giant church as well as all those insect-like mototaxis buzzing about.

Done with Uman and ready for more driving, we continued on to Muna. No church pictures there, but a huge procession/demonstration to do with Earth Day perhaps judging from the signs blocked traffic in Muna's main square while every citizen from the surrounding 17 mile radius marched in the parade. Mostly kids of school age, and in uniform.

There wasn't much to do in the traffic, limited though it was and while waiting I snapped a shot of this beautiful old home, probably once owned by some rich fat cat and now a school.

Finally, we made it to Ticul. There, after checking to see which was the best way to Mani we snapped a few shots of that church (and the surrounding street area) as well.

And then, at long last, we made it to Maní, site of the infamous auto da fé, where the charming Friar Diego de Landa, burned as much of an entire culture as one man with a mission can, effectively wiping out the great majority of the Mayans legends, stories and cultural and religious icons. Later, and in his defense when put on trial for overstepping his mandate, he wrote a book about what he had seen and how the Mayans had lived which is now the only record historians have of that time. And to put the proverbial cherry on the sundae, he was absolved of any wrongdoing by the courts in Spain and sent back to the Yucatan and was named "Protector of the Indians". Nice job, Diego.

After Maní, what else is there in the world of churches, right?  Well, how about the church at Oxcutzcab? This town is famous for it's fruit market and the mural over it, but the church also has it's particular charm.

Uxmal, again. It never disappoints!

Uxmal is probably the most popular destination for day trips from Merida, for cruisers and non-cruisers alike. The great thing about Uxmal is that besides being the best Mayan ruins site on the peninsula in my opinion, the road to and from Uxmal offers so many interesting places to stop for a photograph, a banana or some exploration. 

First stop is usually the town of Uman, and on this day, that is exactly what we did. There was a small mass happening in the enormous church so we didn't go in, and later a large Mercedes hearse pulled up with Jalisco license plates for some kind of funeral.

After stolling around Uman, having that banana in the market (you haven't tried a banana until you have tried a platanito dominicano) and taking a ride on the tricycle taxi, the next stop this day was Muna, where we visited Pedro (aka the Gourd Man) on his hilltop vantage point with the great view of the surrounding area.

A little shopping, a sip of fresh squeezed orange juice and we are on our way to Uxmal.

After Uxmal it was off-roading time and we rushed to get to the cenote in the middle of the jungle where thankfully no one else was around and no oncoming traffic on the tiny one way dirt path into the underbrush. You see, when you are in the middle of this tiny road and you see an oncoming vehicle, someone has to back up the entire distance traveled so it can be a bit hair raising.

Feeling refreshed and just a little peckish, we crossed the highway and made a quick stop at the Hacienda Ochil for a bite and found them ready to close for the day, but a little cajoling (and the fact that I have been here numerous times and the waiters took pity on us) enabled us to wrangle a couple of cervezas and some delicious sopa de lima which really hit the spot. Also, we were able to see that they really do make the cochinita pibil in a fire pit and don't cheat by sticking the pig in an oven. 

Chunkanan Cenote Update

While I love the 3 cenotes of Chunkanan (aka the Cuzama cenotes) and they are indeed magical, potential visitors should know that this attraction is in the midst of some serious problems that will come as a rather unpleasant surprise unless you read this update.

Initially started as an attraction based in the village of Chunkanan, the folks from nearby and larger Cuzama realized that many tourists passed their town without stopping and decided they wanted a piece of the pie as they alleged that one of the cenotes was on their land. They therefore created their own access to the cenotes, building a rail track that intersected with the original tracks from Chunkanan. This caused some conflict, but after a few fisticuffs and much negotiation, an uneasy truce was arrived at.

At the Cuzama entry point, red-flag waving men attempt to make tourists stop, telling them that the other entry point is "closed". Just beyond them are green-flag waving people from Chunkanan waving to continue on to their village and take the tour from there.

Now it seems that the even larger village of Acanceh, the one before Cuzama (are you still with me here?) has gotten into the act, alleging that one of the cenotes is actually on their land and, since Cuzama was collecting a "fee" from the Chunkanan folks, has asked the Cuzama people to hand over a portion of that "fee". Cuzama has so far claimed that this is not correct and they will hand over no funds to Acanceh. Acanceh has retaliated by not allowing access to "their" cenote.

Therefore, there is no access at the time of this writing to the last - and most spectacular - cenote, the one with the vertical ladder down a small tunnel-like hole. According to the folks from Cuzama, when asked, the cenote is having some "maintenance" done. Not true, according to a Chunkanan rail cart driver I talked to who then went on to explain the whole thing.

A last report from a tour guide in the field one week ago, states that the Chunkanan folks are now offering only ONE cenote - the first one, Chelentun - while the Cuzama folks are taking their tourists to "their cenote" which is the middle one for those who have been before.

So if you are planning to visit Cuzama/Chunkanan for the "three" cenotes, be aware that you may not visit all three, or even two, of those magnificent cenotes until someone steps in and mediates a solution that will bring the tour back in a manner fair to all parties involved.

A Taste of the Rey Pakal Sculptures on the Paseo de Montejo

Along the Paseo de Montejo, the powers that be often install art exhibitions for all to enjoy (or hate, in some cases) and at the time of this writing, the magnificent avenue is lined with decorated busts of the Mayan king K'inich Janaab' Pakal aka Rey Pakal, whose tomb was discovered in Palenque by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. The discovery of this tomb is not only unique but must have been an exciting moment when he discovered a hollow space under what he determined was a throne for royalty. Upon removing the covering stone, he discovered a stairway leading down into the pyramid and, after much removal of debris and collapsed stone, came upon the chamber which contained the tomb. The year was 1952. Can you imagine what that must have been like?  (June, 2014 update: these sculptures are now on the grounds at the Museo Maya in northern Merida)

Mayan ruins, flamingos AND cenotes in one day!

Often I am asked if I can arrange a tour to the three cenotes of Chunkanan/Cuzama, and while the cenotes are still there, the fantastic little tour is not. You can read about that original tour by clicking here

Short-sighted squabbling by villagers with no long-term vision of the benefits that this attraction was bringing to their communities, combined with a complete lack of any intervention by any competent authority has led to the demise of the tour, although it is still being advertised and promoted in many magazines, websites and brochures. At no point was the final user - the visitor - taken into account. He or she has to find out about this through websites like TripAdvisor or by actually arriving at the site only to find that some of the cenotes are having "maintenance" done and the tour is completely different from what is advertised. I could go on about this for hours, but don't want to bore you completely to death.

Luckily, there are hundred if not thousands of cenotes in the Yucatan, of every imaginable shape and size; open to the sky, hidden in caves with just a tree root to scamper down from the jungle surface into the refreshing water below.

Homun is in the heart of cenote country and right next to the the aforementioned villages of Chunkanan and Cuzama, and have their own cenote attractions - and this past weekend I took some visitors out to see a few of them.

Picking them up at the beach where they were staying, they mentioned they wanted to see flamingos so we took the Xcambo - Baca - Merida road and were able to see quite a few, in small clusters,  just beside the highway. Their coloring was pink with white still visible, indicating these were juvenile flamingos as their feathers don't turn completely pink until they become adults.

After stopping at the Xcambo ruins for photos and a quick walk through (free admission) and some flamingo photos, we continued on through Baca and visited its large church in the middle of town. Baca was an important city back in the day and while it is somewhat deteriorated since the henequen industry crashed, you can still see evidence of it's relative wealth in the colonial era and turn of the century buildings along the main street.

After Baca, a straight shot out to Homun, where we hired a local guide - a 12 year old who swore she was 16 named Barbie - who rode with us to all the cenotes and made the introductions at each one. It is not necessary to hire someone local to visit the cenotes if you know where they are, but why not spread the wealth and help folks in Homun out a little? For $200 pesos you have a chatty local guide who knows everything about everyone in the town (just ask) and you are helping an entire family. Barbie has been doing this since she was 8 years old, and while for us North Americans it is a bit disconcerting to think that you are sending your 8 year old daughter to ride around with strangers to caves, it seems to not raise an eyebrow here. I think if an evil-doer ever tried anything, the villagers would see to it that he had a particularly nasty end.

A little bit of Merida, a little bit of Yaxcopoil

Susan and her husband were back in town with their parents and they wanted to see one of the Yucatan's many haciendas. The original idea was to go to Sotuta de Peon but since the House and Garden tour they were on finished too late to make that happen, I thought it better that we visit the Yaxcopoil hacienda. 

I caught up with them at the last house of the House and Garden tour, run by the pioneer Yucatan magazine, Yucatan Today.  It was a beautiful old home, and unlike many of the older homes in Merida, is still lived in by its' owner. Have a look:

With the tour behind us, we drove to the nearby hacienda Yaxcopoil, but of course, as always happens on one of our tours, there was a diversion. A detour, a small stop, a side road; these are the things that make the trip memorable and today was no exception. Everyone was hungry and wanted to eat before visiting the hacienda where Doña Nica most likely was no longer making panuchos under the tree on her makeshift griddle over a fire, and so a quick ride around the block in Uman yielded the La Margarita restaurant, on the main square, serving home cooked meals. The menu? Bistek con papas and espelon con puerco, a version of frijol con puerco (pork and beans) that is very special as the espelon is the tender, new version of the black bean and gives the dish a particularly delicious consistency.

Energy restored, we continued on to Yaxcopoil and enjoyed this immensely photogenic hacienda in the warm glow of afternoon light, before returning to Merida for a well deserved nap.