Dec 27, 2008 The Yucatan

Blog 2:  The Yucatán                      December 27, 2008


I           Less than an hour out of Cancún and already we realize that there’s been a mistake. According to the map the road from Puerto Cardenas through the cenote country to Cobá is paved. At the turn off of the Tulum road it was paved: two wide lanes with broad shoulders and the jungle cut back on either side another five meters beyond that. Five kilometers down the road and the jungle sprung right up from the edge of the shoulders. The trees not as tall as in some jungles of which we’ve had the pleasure, but with underbrush as thick as felt; but spiny. Then a sign: “se acaba el pavimiento” (Pavement Ends). Earth moving machines parked or abandoned every few hundred yards on the now rough-hacked shoulder, an uninviting fringe of pits and gullies, jagged upended chunks of limestone, tangles of brush. Then, as predicted, pavement stops. We don’t. It’s only another forty kilometers or so to the crossroad that is bound to be paved. Besides, the unpaved dirt is packed solid, smooth as Astroturf. Slick, too, because now it is raining. A few more kilometers and the shoulders disappear altogether, and now we’re on a rolled two-lane track, for another kilometer or so, until we see the rolling machines parked in a pulloff. I guess that’s where they’ll start up work again after Christmas.


We don’t see any reason to turn around: we’ve been on the road a long time now, and two vehicles have passed us from the other direction, so the road must be open. The first was a pickup truck with six people squeezed into the cab and another eight or nine holding onto the rails in back. We ignore their white knuckles. They stop, we stop, exchange pleasantries (“I have a brother in Los Angeles; do you live near there?”) and he chugs on. The second was a three-wheeled cross between a moto-trike and a John Deere buckboard: father driving, wife behind with her arms stretched around 40% of his girth, daughter behind her, her fingers tightly laced into her mother’s huipil. We wave, father waves, mother and daughter nod, clinging tight. We push on, wondering aloud when was the last time we shifted out of second gear. We go up a rise, down a dip, and then the road reverts to the state in which the ancient Mayans left it. It is car-width plus eight inches on either side; surface intermittent; puddles plentiful, with no way to tell how deep they are from the top. What the hell: we are in the world’s best off road vehicle (i.e., a rental car), and the truck and trike did make it through. So will we.


And so we did, of course. And despite the mistake (the map maker’s; not ours for not turning around) we found it a completely delightful experience. Slow, jouncy, but a good time. Multicolored butterflies the size of handkerchiefs. A couple of white fronted mangos — those are hummingbirds, not fruit. Two squirrel cuckoos, a glowing chestnut ochre, with horizontal bars on their long tails. And just when we were really getting into it, we rounded a bend, crossed under the trans-Yucatán expressway, and came to a solidly paved secondary crossroad. Stopped for lunch: cheese crackers, a fresh mandarin orange, and a banana.


II         Cobá, a fully paved hour or so later . . . and we collapsed into our Hotel Villa Arqueología. Not quite as upscale but much nicer than the Hilton. A pool in the central patio. Palm trees. A lagoon out front with signs warning against swimming. It bothers the ten-foot-long alligators floating in the shallows, and the hotel insurance evidently doesn’t cover saurian munch.


The hotel is recommendable; its food famously isn’t. We hiked up the road, to Cobá’s other restaurante, a second-floor, open-air, mom and pop (and cousins and nephews and a ever-changing swarm of kids) affair with superb food, reasonable prices, and pleasant conversation with the cook, a sweet woman who handles customers from a dozen linguistic groups by speaking to them her eleven words of English. Her biggest confessed embarrassment? In spite of having the physiognomy of a tourist-poster Mayan Indian, she doesn’t speak the language, unlike almost everyone else in town.


III        Cobá is known for its Mayan ruins. It was a BIG city, maybe the size of . . . Cleveland? Many dozens of thousands of people. Its ruins are spread out over 70 square kilometers of jungle, and except for four or five small groups that have been partially excavated and reconstructed, the rest are completely overrun with vegetation. Architecturally these were very sophisticated people. They built complex, multi-layered temples, elaborate, palaces, and ball courts. One temple is pre-Columbian America’s biggest skyscraper: 39 meters tall! No elevator. Four-inch wide steps. We contemplated it from the bottom. The inhabitants also built superhighways called Sacbes. About a dozen of them cut through Cobá and extend to other Mayan urban centers. We’re talking highways the Romans would be proud of, or maybe even in awe of: 8-10 meters wide, and raised above the jungle floor (did we mention, the Yucatán is flat: like North Dakota with trees) 3 or 4 meters. They tend to run in absolutely straight lines. Given the fact that the Yucatán also has numerous water-filled sink holes called cenotes (like the sacred well at Chichén Itzá), this means that they had to have been surveyed and meticulously laid out prior to begin piling up stones. The amount of labor that must have been required to build them is horrifying to contemplate. I do remember reading, though, that in these tropics it only takes 50 or 60 days of labor to raise enough food to support a family for a year, which leaves a lot of time to be occupied in public works. The Mayan (like the Incan) version of the IRS was a labor levy. Still a tradition in some places.


IV        Our first day I hiked for two hours in the early AM while Linda caught up on several nights of not much sleep. By the time we’d breakfasted we judged it was too hot to trudge umpteen kilometers through the Cobá ruins. So we drove over to the far side of our lagoon and looked for a trail off into the jungle, planning to hike until we got tired and then find a spot to sit down and picnic. We only got a few hundred meters down a narrow winding trail when Linda found a clearing (well, a place where the understory was much less dense) with an enormous fruiting tree at one side that was calling out, in some sort of perfume that we couldn’t sense, to every bird in that part of the Yucatán. There were some remnants of house mounds in the clearing (like almost everywhere) so we sat down with our binoculars and bird book and went nuts for the next two plus hours. We saw every warbler that ever migrates through Rhode Island, as well as a couple of dozen tropical species that don’t. And I’ve already seen three turquoise-browed mot mots, which, unless you’ve ever seen one, doesn’t seem like a big deal, but is. The mot mot is the best argument I know for a creator deity’s sense of humor. Or else it was designed by Dr. Seuss. It ranks with the giraffe and the platypus. Check one out on the web:


David & Linda