Chapter 7. Yucatán
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2001 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Today, a beautiful smooth drive takes us between flat, almost treeless, savannahs on our right and a sandy beach on our left. For 125 miles we are in sight of the blue-gray Gulf of Mexico, with nary a person on its beaches, on its roads or living along our route. Augmenting the blue sea and the white sand are strings of purple Morning Glories webbed over green leaves and spindly short leafless trees in splendid blooms of yellow flowers, aptly named Buttercup Trees. The abundant bird life along the way is hard to miss and I count two dozen species from my window, including Bat Falcon, Red-lored Parrot, Magnificent Frigatebird, Wood Stork, and Squirrel Cuckoo. We turn from the coast and head inland through tall cane fields. The rolling land is edged in low hills, which we later climb. The scenery becomes denser with more undergrowth and forest patches, but short, dry trees, unlike the jungles we visited in the Catemaco area. In fact, the scene here reminds Shari of the Texas in fall. Rounding one curve, we surprise a fox that trots across the narrow road. We encounter small villages with big topes. Clearly, the Yucatán culture is different from what we've seen earlier. Small thatch-roofed houses are walled with roughly hewn sticks gathered from the forest. Women wear bright white simple dresses, much like the moo-moos of Hawaii. Sandy says, "One dress size fits for a lifetime." Now we cross fields and roadsides thick in yellow asters and shortly thereafter we come upon the first of what will be many Mayan ruins and we reach our stop for tonight at Uxmal (pronounced "oosh mal"), one of the famous excavations.
(Shari) On the move again we drive another 200 miles around the Yucatán Peninsula encountering very little traffic. We make good time, with only a few small villages and topes to hinder our progress. Most of the people do not own cars, but travel from one place to another by bicycle. The women have an easier time of it as they sit on a seat fastened to the front of a large tricycle and let the men do the pedaling. As we move toward Uxmal, the Mayan influence becomes apparent. Towns seem to take on a neater appearance and white-washed stone fences delineate individual properties. The houses are constructed of 2-in. diameter sticks, about 6 feet high, closely packed together with a high thatched roof on top. It reminds me of the story of the three little pigs and the wolf huffed and puffed and blew the house down. The sticks are packed as tightly as possible but I can still see light through them. Therefore, wind, rain, bugs, and dust can find their way inside too. It makes for interesting looking towns though. We arrive at the Uxmal parking lot and find they do not have our reservations. Gregorio, an English-speaking guide, meets us and after a few words with a number of people, they decide to place us in the paved bus parking lot at the side of the Visitor Center. Club Med is right next-door and the ruins have a lodge, a wonderful open-air restaurant, and most important two big swimming pools that we can use. At 7 o'clock, we buy our tickets for the sound and light show. Sitting on plastic patio chairs, high on top of one of the temple walls, we watch and listen to the Mayan story unfold. Listening through headsets, we hear the story in English. Through the use of music, narration and colored lights highlighting the ancient walls we hear the story of rain, love and war. Our appetite has been whetted for a tour of the ruins tomorrow.
(Bert) Our Mayan guide is five minutes into his explanation of the ruins of Uxmal when a Turquoise-browed Motmot appears in the trees behind his right shoulder. Eyes are diverted, binoculars pop up and the speaker has lost his audience. He stops and turns to see the blue, green and rust-colored bird. He says the locals call it the Pendulum Bird. Appropriately, the motmot swings his tail in tic-toc motion. The long racket-tipped tail - equally as long as the body - is missing barbs near the end, but not at the tip, further enhancing the pendulum designation. Our tour takes us through the many partially restored ruins of the archeological site. Uxmal, probably founded in the fifth or sixth century, A.D., is a marvel of architectural and artistic skill. The city of 30,000+ inhabitants lived on the outskirts of the pyramids, which were reserved for the upper class and for religious ceremonies. From the symbols of snakes, birds, jaguars and gods, we see a people dependent on their environment and calling to their gods for the most precious gift: rain. Without lakes, rivers and natural wells, the Mayan inhabitants of the Yucatán peninsula evolved a religion around praying for rain. Clearly, the city is designed for collecting rain, with plastered buildings and streets, and tapered troughs into numerous collecting wells, the whole design optimizes saving the precious water. In the short walks between lectures, we are repeatedly drawn to the current inhabitants of the ruins: Cave Swallows, numbering in the thousands, nest in the cool, damp, darkened rooms. Iguanas pose motionlessly on the ancient rubble. In the trees we find Canivet's Emerald, Yucatan Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Peppershrike and five species of orioles - a total of 68 species during our short stay here at these magnificent ruins.
(Shari) All the birders are gone and I decide to eat in the open-air restaurant. Fresh squeezed orange juice, wonderful Mexican coffee, two Mexican sweet rolls, toast, eggs, beans, potatoes and something like fake SPAM, they call bacon, completes my meal. The breakfast would have been tastier had it been served hot. In fact we all say that about this part of the world. The food is served at room temperature. Maybe to keep your body heat lower. At 9 AM we meet Gregorio for our tour. For the next two hours he tells us about the different sites of Uxmal as we walk with him through the grounds. Built while Europe was experiencing its Dark Ages, the structures are impressive, showing a well-developed civilization. Over 35,000 people lived here and worshipped many gods. Most prominent of the gods, was the rain god. Without rain, the people would perish. Ornate carvings of birds and snakes adorn the walls. Intricate stonework, 70% of which is original, shows an advanced society of masons. A few of us climb the steps and wonder how in the world we are going to get down. We go up like a cat with our hands touching the step in front of us. When reaching the top and sitting on a platform, we cannot see the steps going down. It is like you just fall off the edge. The view from the top is spectacular and we can see a panorama of the complex and how it sets on the land. Gwen, Beryl, Dusty and I each use a different method of going down. I think Bob took a video of us, but I have a feeling it is not flattering. Dusty uses a stick and goes down frontward on the diagonal, Beryl goes down backwards and I go down sideways using my hand on the step above me as I step down. The pitch of the steps is at a 60 degree angle and that is no bunny hill on the ski slopes, I tell you. We have the complex mostly to ourselves, which is wonderful. The tour buses start to come, just as we finish and I wonder how they are going to survive the heat. Bert and I head for the pool to spend a wonderful refreshing afternoon there.
(Shari) The trip is short, but takes long. We reach camp in good time, but it takes us forever to park. If we are not blocking traffic, we let everyone park themselves, where they want. It takes forever and I swelter in the hot sun, since we cannot park until last. Some birders take off for some afternoon birding, while Sid, Beryl, Alice, Sandy and I find a Sam's Club. Just enjoying the air conditioning in the store is worth the trip alone. However, Sam's does not have all the things we need so we have to find another store for water, eggs, and bakery. The water store will not take my 5-gallon jug in return and I have to buy another one. Seems, mine does not have the words "Crystal" written on it. When we return, the birders are back and Bert and I take off to find a restaurant for a group dinner. It is 4 PM when we return and Ed and Carlyn are wondering if we intend to go to town. I would just as soon stay home since I am hungry, tired and hot, but we promised to go. I am glad we go since we find some really neat things. Sundays in Mérida are a time for relaxation and festivities on the square. The streets are blocked to traffic; free live entertainment is given throughout the day in front of chairs and bleachers full of an appreciative audience. Local artisans set up shop and hundreds of booths contain clothes, jewelry, food, toys, purses, shoes, paintings and sculptures, lining the streets and square. We watch award-winning dance troupes in native costumes move gracefully to traditional music. One of the groups does dance after dance to polka style music. Later the public dances to a live brass band having at least eight trumpets. I buy a vest and two blouses while Bert patiently waits. We tour the Governor's Palace and meet an English teacher who tells us the great history of the Yucatán, explaining the pictures on the wall on the second floor. I never knew the troubled past of this area, nor was I aware of the different cultures of Mexico. I guess I naively thought all Mexicans were homogeneous. That is far from the truth and the Mayas alone have a varied family history. The Spanish were cruel to the natives and many of the paintings show the people in agony as they watch a person tortured or the killed in war. The Yucatán, as recently as the mid 1800s, was one country. When they joined Mexico, they were split into three states and no longer had their own flag or anthem. I think a little resentment still pervades the culture.
(Bert) Despite an early start and a short drive, a parking problem at the Mérida RV park delays our birding trip to Progreso. By the time we arrive the coastal winds are strong (Gene looses his hat) and the sun is piercingly hot, even for the locals today. The trip could be judged a failure were it not for a chance find. Driving along the coastal canal, a waterway edged by a wide mudflat and a few clumps of remnant mangrove stumps, Lee and I see a bird that looks distinctly unlike the egrets and sandpipers that populate the area. We get only a quick glance at it in flight before it disappears into a short shrub. I stop the car and we jump out for a closer look. Even hidden in the thick leaves, I'm sure I've got a bird that has eluded me many times before. With my spotting scope, I get an even closer look at the Mangrove Cuckoo and soon our whole group gets a look at this gem, all but invisible in its darkly veiled setting. On the trip back we travel along inland bays and marshland, when suddenly we see a flock of pink flamingos standing knee-deep in water. Heavy traffic prevents us from stopping, so we cross a bridge and double back. When we pull into the parking lot adjacent to the flock, we quickly recognize that we have been had. The flock is motionless, not a neck bends, not a wing extends, not a head turns: plastic props for a flamingo sculpting factory.
In the evening, we join Ed and Carlyn on a trip to center square to experience "Sunday in Mérida," a festive occasion complete with costumed Mexican dancers, a dance band and a hundred vendors selling local clothes, hot foods and crafts. The old church facing the square fascinates me and I learn that it is the oldest cathedral in continental America, begun shortly after the Spanish established Mérida in 1542 and finished in 1598. When we enter the Governor's Palace we meet a Mexican teacher of English who tells us much more about the cathedral. Using the dramatic paintings decorating the walls of the palace, he relates Yucatán history. In 300 B.C. the Mayan first established the area where we stand. When the Spanish arrived, they destroyed the five Mayan buildings and used its stones to build the cathedral. Later, in a crazed attempt to win the political prize of Bishop of the Yucatán, a Spaniard destroyed the written history of the Mayans. It seems every mural depicts yet another sad story in the history of the indigenous people, including hundreds being sold into slavery and shipped to Cuba. By 1847, economic times were hard and the Yucatán, then an independent country, petitioned to be part of the U.S. or England. Involved in the Mexican war, the U.S. declined, as did England. Reluctantly, the Yucatán became part of Mexico, but immediately was divided into three states to break the political strength of the peninsula. The English teacher entertains us for nearly an hour and although he says he is not a guide, he easily could be one of the best.
(Shari) The owner comes out waving her hands, clenched fists, hollering at Sid as her husband, dressed in his pajamas and robe, closes the gate blocking Sid's car and another caravan from leaving. The rest of us are outside waiting for him as he tells us he is blocked. He says it is something about not paying and he is being held hostage. I couldn't find one of our couples last night to collect payment, so I had not paid yet, but gee whiz, our motorhomes are still parked in the lot. When I reach the office, my ears are assaulted with Spanish words, none of which I recognize but I know the tone is angry. She points to her receipt book saying something. She is so angry that her English has escaped her. Her husband, wet from the rain, comes in and says, "The caravan is leaving and it has not paid." I realize he is talking about the other caravan and not us. I explain whom we are with and she wants me to find my name in her receipt book. I page through it, finding my name. They then realize I have not paid yet either, and demand payment right now even though we are not departing for another two days. I go back to R-TENT to get the money. The owner is still so upset (with the other caravan and not me) that he miscounts the money and returns 50 pesos to me. After he has written me a receipt, I ask him to recount it and he realizes I was right. He still has to deal with the other caravan, and I make my exit as quickly as I can. I am joining the birders again today, which turn out to be one of Mona's "Hot Spit" days. We drive about two hours to the small town of Celestún. There we rent boats with guides that take us up to thousands of flamingos. What a sight! Big, bright pink birds standing in shallow water by the thousands, honking like ducks to attract a mate. This is their mating ground and the birds stand together so thick the horizon is pink. If we approach too fast, they start to run, appearing to walk on water until finally lifting airborne, with their long legs and feet dragging behind them, the black on their wings flapping in the air. It is a marvelous sight and I am glad I came. On the way back, we spot a Gray-necked Wood-Rail, and we joke that probably Bert has not seen this bird yet and I am one up on him. Arriving back at camp, we see the company sign of the other caravan ripped off. I guess the owner is still a bit peeved with them. Our sign is still there, thank goodness. AND, Bert has not seen the wood rail, and thinks he may not on this trip. Ah, ha!
(Bert) Myriad pink spots dot the sky, long thin necks stretch forward, and equally long legs trail behind. High over Ría de Celestún a thousand flamingos spread across the horizon. While they fly upriver, we are propelled downriver in ample flat-bottomed fiberglass boats pushed by 75 hp Johnson outboard motors. We pass partially submerged mud flats populated mostly by gulls and terns and then follow the edge of the mangrove swamp, spotting a Bat Falcon perched on the highest bare branch available. Stopping at an open area in the swamp, we disembark to step through the first line of trees and into an opening in the swamp. Seeming out of location, an iguana balances high above a dead trunk while a raccoon prowls for food below it. Returning back upstream into the chilling wind, we pass the boat dock and head further to where the flamingos feed in six inches of water near the center of the estuary. Everyone has seen flamingos in a zoo, but seeing so many in the wild is a special thrill. Our boatman turns off his engine and slowly we drift toward the flock, giving us close-up views as they feed. When we reach their safety limit, a few lift their wings to take flight. Getting airborne is not easy for these 4-ft. tall birds. We are amused by the way they dance across the water's surface, using their webbed feet as paddles to accelerate their liftoff. In flight, they look like arrows on wings. We boat further upstream and enter a narrow waterway through a tunnel of mangrove trees. There a Common Black Hawk sits on a perch just a few feet above us. Unperturbed, it watches disinterestedly as we pass directly beneath the perch. Likewise, an American Pygmy Kingfisher poises for close-up photos, its green and orange colors resplendent even in the dark shadows of the overhanging mangroves. Having missed the Gray-necked Wood-Rail during the boat ride, we try another location near the bridge. I think I've spotted one, but it flies away to quickly to identify. We find another and the whole group gets a good look at this one, but it turns out to be the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, not a lifer for most of us.
(Bert) From the Maya Bible, Popul Vuh: Thou, bird, will live in the trees, And soar though the air, Reach into the region of the clouds, Touch the transparency of the sky, And know no fear of falling. The Popul Vuh was written in the 16th and 17th centuries to preserve the history and knowledge of the Mayas. I learn this at the museum and exhibits at ruins of Dzibilchaltún (pronounced "dzee beel chal TOON"), a short drive from Mérida. The area was inhabited from around 300 B.C. until the conquest, with the major growth period 600-900 A.D. (Late Classic) and a population of 40,000 at its peak. This morning, few others visit these ruins. In the high heat, we walk slowly. Birds are sparse, but rewarding. We get repeated views of Yucatan Woodpecker, called Ch'ujut by the Mayas, a bird that "symbolizes the wise and prudent merchants as well as the blood-letting medicine men." We again see Turquoise-browed Motmot and I learn the Mayas consider the Toh a symbol of nobility. A most patient bird, I use up a roll of film photographing a Lesser Roadrunner at close range. We also get a good enough view of a Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow to see the differentiating white spot on its forehead.
(Shari) Dorothy pulls up with Gail and Mona in the car and says, "Bus is leaving for Liverpool." I do not need a second invitation. I am out of R-TENT in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Liverpool is right next door to the campground and is an upscale Mexican department store. We are going for the air conditioning. For the next two hours in cool, cool comfort we peruse the aisles of goods, ranging from appliances and furniture to women's clothing. The clothing is a little on the cheap side, we decide. The housewares department is wonderful. Of course we would say that. Most brands are from the U.S. at prices three times what we'd pay. Some people in Mérida have money, for sure. We all buy something however and I guess we paid for our air-conditioned comfort. When we depart from the store, the sun is behind clouds and the day has turned cooler. At 6:10 we gather to car pool to the restaurant where we are fed an enormous meal. We start with a drink and some chips with various kinds of dips. Next we have Mayan lime soup with lots of chicken in it. Our main course is two kinds of beefsteak, a pork chop, a chicken breast and a hunk of chorizo served next to a bowl of bean soup with tortillas on the side. Plus, we all get a second drink. Dessert is flan and flaming Mayan coffee. Kahlua and the Mayan liqueur Xtabentun (pronounced "sha ta ben tun") are used. The waiters make a big production of filling the 18 mugs of coffee. With metal pitchers in each hand, three waiters stand in a pyramid so the flaming liqueurs are mixed and poured from seven levels. In the darkened room it makes a pretty lighted waterfall effect. Plus the coffee, served with a scoop of ice cream, is delicious.
(Bert) Smooth, wide roads - partially via cuota road - lead from Mérida to Piste. We traverse a dry, flat, forested land with 20 to 30-ft. trees and snarled scrubby undergrowth of monotonous shades of dusty greens, grays and browns. Except for a few villages, bypassed by the cuota road, the area is sparsely populated and unfarmed. In Piste (pronounced "pee stay") we park our RV's in a ballpark and have welcome access to a clean swimming pool at the resort across the street. In late afternoon we bird around the pool area and see mostly U.S. species wintering in Mexico. We puzzle long over a species we did not expect to see and that gives us only teasing glimpses through the trees, finally marking the undertail coverts and naming it Tennessee Warbler. After a quick swim and a poolside margarita party, we head off to the Light and Sound Show at Chichén Itzá. Seeing the famous ruins highlighted with spotlights and hearing the ancient stories of its origins, I am anxious for tomorrow's tour.
(Shari) The ballpark lot in Piste is much nicer than I anticipated and I need not have worried so much. We are parked around the perimeter of the grassy field and we sit in the shade made by our rigs. No facilities here, but the pool in the hotel across the street. Some use it, while others bird. I arrange a dinner for tomorrow and get the information on the sound and light show tonight. After a margarita party by the pool palapa, we head over to the ruins of Chichén Itzá. Here we rent headphones to hear the program in English and sit on green plastic lawn chairs in the cool evening as more history of the Mayas unfolds. We hear of settlement, building, war and human sacrifice. The program is set to music and colored lights variously beam on different buildings within the ruins. These ruins are just as impressive as the ones at Uxmal, but different. We all are anxious to tour them in the daylight tomorrow.
(Shari) Larry and I drive to the ruins and meet the rest of the group for our tour. Ray is our guide who spends the next 2 hours and 15 minutes telling us the story of Chichén Itzá. Architecturally, every angle, every level, every symbol has significance. Ninety-one steps to the top, signifies the 91 days of each season. The four corners depict east, west, north and south. Carvings of animals, snakes and humans denote the gods of worship. The complex is huge and by no means fully restored, but those buildings that have been restored are magnificent. Ray points out a hill covered with vines, trees and dirt and mentions there exists yet another building not yet restored. He tells us of a people that believe in a better spiritual life after death and view it an honor to be sacrificed to the gods. The whole group gathers around the pool this afternoon. After getting wet, the breeze feels cold. Heavenly! By 6 PM we all gather back at the restaurant for our Mayan buffet and dancers. The table is laden with tons of food. Just tasting everything would take three layers of items on a plate. Again, the food is served at room temperature. I cannot get used to that. As we taste our way through the meal, we are entertained by four of the cutest 6 to 8-year-old kids and four adults. Dressed in traditional white clothing, they dance their way into our hearts. Big red flowers adorn the side of the heads of the girls and the boys wear Panama style hats. Later they balance a bottle of beer on their heads while their feet step to the time of the music.
(Bert) Chichén Itzá is a name I remember from high school days and pictures of its famous pyramid is permanently etched in my memory banks. It is a place I always wanted to see, but did not think I would. Chichén Itzá lives up to my expectations and more. Instead of leading us directly to the tall pyramid, our guide directs us through the jungle to a newly restored (1992) ruin, an ossuary or tomb of the High Priest. Previously, this was only known as a pile of rubble, but they found that the outer layer of stones were from a collapsed temple and when removed, revealed a pyramid that still was intact. Like many other structures, four sets of stairs lead up the square-based pyramid, which is carefully aligned with the compass. A nearby ruin is the observatory from which the Mayas made their celestial observations. The Mayan astronomers were aware of the earth's rotation around the sun before Europeans knew it. Our tour leads from one building to another, great varieties of architecture and design. Carved in the stone are figures of animals, warriors and gods, and in some places we can still see the colorful paints that adorned them. We comment on what it would be like to come back 1200 years in a time machine and see the splendor of this city, completely paved in plastered streets, buildings sparkling in color and artistry, standing tall above the flat jungle, cool in the drafts whisking through the doorways and arches. We walk through the complex of 1000 columns, restored in 1987, and then the temple of the warriors and finally are in view of the grand pyramid, the centerpiece of the city. Our tour ends with the famous ballpark with the stone hoops still intact. Then we climb the 91 steps to the top of the 100-ft. pyramid, literally a breath-taking experience, and look out at the panorama of Chichén Itzá.
(Bert) I'd call it the Long-billed Curlew of the hummingbird world. Just as I'm opening up my tailgate door to retrieve my packed lunch, I notice a hummingbird hovering near a fluff of light, cottony fibers on a leafless bush nearby. The sickle-shaped bill is so long it seems to arch from head to tail on the small bird. I quickly recognize the hummingbird is building her nest and this should give us an opportunity for the whole group to see her. The bird disappears into the dry brush, but we set up two spotting scopes and my long-lens camera with tripod, all focused on the fluff. We start eating our lunch while awaiting her return. What a sight we are! Passing residents, including a policeman, must wonder what these Gringos are doing: parked in the middle of nowhere, cameras and scopes focused on a dead bush, binoculars at the ready, standing in the hot sun eating lunches, but all attention focused on the same ball of fluff. We are almost done with lunch, when the Mexican Sheartail returns to her nest building, adding new material and rearranging the fiber alignment. I snap three or four photos, amazed that I'd have the opportunity of photographing this little 3.8-in. hummingbird.
Looking like a glacier in a desert, we drive past a huge mountain of salt looming above a village. A long conveyor leads to a dock where a ship is being loaded with salt. The village, Las Coloradas, is aptly named for the red color of the swallow salt ponds adjacent to the open sea. Colored intensely reddish pink - more than I've ever noticed in a zoo - hundreds of flamingos are attracted to the crustaceans in the ultra salty water. We travel for miles along the dikes surrounding the salt ponds, finding thousands of shorebirds and finally circling back to the town. Our list totals 70+ species today, headlined by Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Great Black-Hawk and, of course, the Mexican Sheartail.
(Shari) I have the day all to myself. The birders are gone on an all day trip, leaving at 5:30 AM. I vaguely hear them leave and luxuriate under the sheets until 7:45AM. Writing journals, updating road logs and entering accounting fills my morning. I talk awhile with Sid, Bob and Alice who also stayed behind. At two I walk to the swimming pool and spend the rest of the afternoon there. Tonight we have grilled salmon for supper. I do not want anything that tastes like corn, cumin, beans or tortillas. Just plain old salmon, baked potato and salad sounds wonderful.
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