Saturday, November 02, 2019

Campeche and Uxmal

As a quick stopover between other destinations in the Yucatan, Campeche feels like a quiet, safe provincial city but as a unesco site destination, Campeche is relatively uninspiring, especially compared to what we had been seeing recently. Campeche`s claim to fame and reason for being was as a major port stop for the Spanish treasure fleet on the northern route that brought back treasure from the mines past Mexico City, down to Veracruz where it was loaded onto ships that stopped in Campeche on route to Havana and then Spain. It's just another piece of the colonial history that we had been following for most of our trip away.
A half a day is enough though we made it a stopover for the night and a nice little airbnb a short walk away from the centre. The historic centre is cute but very small and unfortunately has too much car traffic to be as pleasant as I'd prefer. For a small tip to a gate keeper you can walk on a section of the walls. They have been haphazardly preserved and restored along with much of the rest of the colonial core inside the walls. Looking down you realize that many of the painted buildings are still hollow facades with nothing but ruins behind them and a tree poking out the top. There were 2 defensive forts built along with the fortified town but unfortunately Fort San Miguel (the main one) was closed for renovations so we didn't even get to see the part I had been most looking forward to.

The land gate to old town Campeche

All prettied up and colourful

Is that a lighthouse for belltower?

The central plaza is very relaxing

A repurposed bastion from the old walls

The following day we moved on to Merida, another provincial capital a few hours farther north. It is much bigger and busier both in general and as a tourist hub. It was also built by the Spanish and boasts a nice colonial heritage with a fairly typical central plaza, though this one was quite busy and at night there was even a demonstration of the ancient Mayan ball game in front of the cathedral. Yes, it is that kind of town. The Mayan ball game was central to Mayan ceremonial culture and the ball courts are usually one of the most identifiable and prominent ruins at any given site. Now I know what was going on at least.
We enjoyed Merida though, especially when we found a restaurant packed with locals serving what was probably our favourite meal of the entire trip, nachos al pastor. I`m not the type to go on and on about food but this was heaven on a plate and became our only meal for the last few days of our trip.

Merida cathedral

The central plaza of Merida

Old colonial building now a bank

Another colonial building, now part of a university

Best food ever.

But Merida wasn`t our real destination, it was simply used as our base for taking a day trip to our final site, the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. Having come from the southern Mayan sites of Palenque and Calakmul it is hard to believe this is still the same culture because the style and decor are so different. It is much more similar to Chichen Itza and attracts many of the same visitors as they really aren't too far apart. Uxmal is well restored and there was a good photo display in the tiny museum showing before and after pictures of a lot of the site. Very interesting. They continue to work on it, especially around the Governor's Palace, judging by the most recent photos taken in 2012. It's not really as large a site as it looks but we spent a couple hours to see it all. Unfortunately the overpowering stench of guano prevented us from getting too close or inside many of the structures and at 413 pesos foreigner entry fee now (compared to 197 and 111 pesos for Calakmul and Palenque respectively) it is overpriced and feels like a money grab.
We also ran into a German guy at Uxmal that we had met in Xpujil and had taken the bus to Campeche together with as well. We ended up visiting the site together, the first time in ages we'd actually done anything with another random traveler. We had been traveling opposite to so many people for so long I'd stopped expecting such things to happen anymore.

Faces of the rain god Chaac
A courtyard in Uxmal

The so-called Magician's Pyramid

Grim decor

The "Governor's Palace"

With Uxmal done it was time to finally head home. Our flight was out of Cancun and luckily enough we were able to catch a very early morning bus directly to the airport from Merida in time to catch our flight. Mexico is still very much on my radar for a return someday. Let's just hope they can get their troubles under control between now and then...

Monday, October 28, 2019

Palenque and Calakmul

Maybe it was the perfect weather or the howler monkeys or the thousands of butterflies, but Palenque ended up unexpectedly being our favourite Mayan site on this trip and second overall (after Tikal). It has probably found the best balance between restoration and jungle setting, protection and letting you climb/explore, while being large enough to explore for a couple hours without having to get lost or walk long distances through areas of no interest. It is touristy but not too crowded also. Unfortunately we visited on a Monday and the site museum was closed.
Palenque was at it's peak about 1400 years ago and was built in the southern Mayan style (ie. more similar to Calakmul that we would see later, but also Tikal and Copan) and is situated in an elevated location above a plain to take advantage of natural water sources. There are even remnants of an underground water channel that passes beside the central palace and under the plaza. There are quite a few large temples with faded inscriptions inside but nice views over the complex. There were lots of bats in the tunnels under the central palace too but I didn't venture in far.
It was hot though so we roasted our way through the site, thankful for the sections still hidden in the jungle and taking long breaks to enjoy our surroundings.

The grand palace

Palenque town is a few km away from the ruins and is nothing special. There was little of interest after a very brief walk around and we'd been told by multiple travelers that Palenque was a bit known as a hotbed of food poisoning so we played it conservatively and weren't too disappointed to be moving along quickly.
From Palenque we went to Xpujil. Ya, I wasn't sure how to pronounce that one either but we made it after another long day, first on a minibus to the main highway junction and then catching a passing bus. Calakmul might be considered way off the beaten path but it isn't unheard of and Xpujil has become a mini tourist hub for the couple dozen tourists that visit the site. It felt like most foreigners were eating at the pizzeria (with budget accommodation in the back where we were staying) at the corner of the main roundabout and this place should probably be considered ground zero for getting local info for the region. We might've even been able to find someone with a rental car already but as it turned out the pizzeria knew a guy with a car that could take us to the ruins the next day at a very reasonable rate. In the end we were a group of 6 in 2 cars.
It is a long but not unpleasant 2 hour ride to Calakmul from Xpujil. Once off the main road the scenery is pristine wilderness and you can't help but strain your eyes searching and hoping to see some wildlife cross the road. Aside from the checkpoints there really isn't much along the way but our driver pulled off to the side around 27km in (it was unmarked and had room for maybe 3 cars) where we walked along an unmarked trail for ~45 minutes and saw howler and spider monkeys, deer, toucans, etc.Finally a good look at a toucan.

We were given 4 hours at the ruins and chose the long trail, climbed the 3 climbable temples, loved the views of emptiness and reminders of our experience in Tikal, had to rush the last part and finished just under 4 hours as the last of our group to return. The only downside of the day and maybe it was just the time of year, but the mosquitoes were so bad we used an entire big bottle of repellent trying to keep them off and still couldn't stop long enough to read through a whole info sign (of which there were many). There are some very large stele but they are quite worn and impossible to make out. In general (especially for Mexico) this is still a largely unrestored site, which is part of the appeal of course. We saw maybe 2 dozen other tourists there and the site is huge so you end up spread out well which can actually make following the furthest sections of the long route more confusing with a lack of coherent direction markers and nobody else to follow. There is literally nothing else out there in the jungle and views from the top of the temples show nothing but a sea of trees in every direction. Apparently on a good day it is possible to see the tops of some ruins in Guatemala in the distance but it was too hazy for us to make anything out.

The same view in all directions.

Wandering the jungle in a humid 30-something degrees for hours is hungry work and we ate an entire family pizza for dinner that night before collapsing in bed. There are a handful of lesser ruins around Xpujil for the very dedicated, including ones right on the edge of town but we didn't have time and left early the next morning for another slow bus ride directly to Campeche.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Antigua and San Cristobal de las Casas

Even though the tourist shuttle between Copan Ruinas, Honduras and Antigua, Guatemala is one of the most popular in Central America, that doesn't mean it is comfortable. It was an 8 hour ride made unnecessarily long by the fact that the shuttles leave at noon and are perfectly timed to get stuck in Guatemala City's evening rush hour. I had wanted to do it another way and stop off in other parts of Guatemala but alas, we were still very short on time and unfortunately a certain level of ruthlessness was required to balance the itinerary. 
Antigua is a must-visit in Guatemala. Everyone already knows that though and it is easily the most visited town in the country with many visitors lingering much longer than planned. It is one of the more famous spots to stop and study Spanish before or during a trip through Latin America as well so it draws all sorts. Antigua was the original Spanish capital of this region until successive destructive earthquakes forced the Spanish to relocate elsewhere. We arrived at night and the first impression was of how wide the streets are. Totally unlike other old towns which usually feel so cramped. It is beautifully preserved and maintained and the historic area is much larger than I expected. Although other places try to make a claim, compared to other colonial towns in Central America and even much of South America, Antigua has no equal. Make no mistake, this is a well-oiled tourism machine used to lots of visitors passing through but rather than going the overly tacky route, they cater to foreigners with nice hotels, pretty cafes, good food and clean streets. There always seemed to be something pleasant around the next corner to find and even with only a single rainy day to visit (we couldn't even see the volcanoes which so famously surround the town) it was easy to see why so many people end up spending longer here than initially planned. We would have stayed an extra day or two as well I'm sure. 
As far as things to do, in town the main attractions are the plethora of ruined convents and churches which seemed to pop up around every corner. Most are quite ruined but still standing and because of limited time and the high fees associated with each, we contented ourselves with simply strolling the streets and seeing what we could see through or over the fences as we came to them. 
Many ruins are still in use

The classic Antigua shot. There is supposed to be a volcano behind this.

Iglesia de la Merced

It has seen better days, and a few earthquakes too!

Templo de San Jose Cathedral

Colourful buildings and wide cobbled streets

Relaxing in the central plaza

That night we said goodbye to mom as she was finally flying out of Guatemala the next morning (9 days late) and we would be leaving before dawn on yet another tourist shuttle, this time to take us all the way to San Cristobal de las Casas, over the border in Mexico. I hadn't really heard of this town before but it obviously had to be popular since it is definitely on the shuttle route. I was simply looking to get into Mexico quickly and easily and if we could find somewhere nice to stop over along the way, so much the better. It was a 13 hour ride with a couple stops for dropping off/picking up people coming/going to other places along the way. It was not the most pleasant journey. I still think buses are more comfortable than shuttles, especially when the shuttles contain loud and drunk/high backpackers. We had an embarrassingly intoxicated pair of guys with us and I really don't know how they got across the border in the state they were in. The whole group of us had a bit of a hold-up as the Guatemalan border was temporarily closed when we arrived because of a protest. Something about refugee rights and anti-Trumpness. I'm sure he cares...
Mexico in general was a shock we were not expecting. Mexico might still have a reputation for being chaotic and dirty but it is downright first-world developed when you are coming from the rest of Central America. Crime has taken a turn for the much worse in the last few years but we were to see little of that in the regions we would be in and overall we felt much more comfortable than we had in a while. It was also nice to be in a travel system that was developed and organized. Bus stations, tourist information, schedules, etc. And wow was it busy. The level of tourism jumped dramatically, now including all sorts of visitors, from families to backpackers. The part we were most excited about though was the food. Contrary to popular misconceptions, other Spanish-speaking countries do not eat Mexican food. It is very different. We were in Mexico a little over a week total, and I'm pretty sure we just lived on nachos al pastor. 
Arriving with no expectations, San Cristobal was nicer than we thought. We only had a full day and two nights to visit which was enough if you aren't planning on any excursions outside of town. It is another well-preserved and prettied-up colonial town in the mountains so the weather was cool and wet but not unpleasant. We wandered about taking in the plazas and churches, always looking out for the next meal. San Cristobal is a little out of the way unless you are traveling to/from Guatemala but somehow there were quite a few tourists around anyway, certainly more than we'd seen in a while. 

Delicious Mexican food!

San Cristobal felt much busier

The central plaza

San Cristobal Cathedral

The ornate Santo Domingo church facade

The next closest major attractions to San Cristobal seem to be Oaxaca to the west, or Palenque to the northeast both of which are a few hundred km away. We were heading to Palenque next. Rather than take a 9 hour bus the long way we opted to take a quicker but more "risky" minibus route via Ocosingo. This took a little over 5 hours and the risk came from the potential for roadblocks by unhappy locals which have caused enough disruptions in recent years (with an associated uprising) that the scheduled buses avoid the route altogether now. Seeing as things were considered quiet at the moment, we went for it and had no issue. It is a pretty but windy drive down and out of the hills as well.