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Roaming the Yucatan: Chichen Itza to Isla Blanca

From our little house in Tulum, we moved at a faster pace the next couple of weeks, covering lots of ground. First, we headed for the ruins of Chichen Itza. Another very old pile of rocks but this one has been named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, so we had to go. This time though, we hired a guide. The conversation of how many ruins to visit on this trip seems to fall into two camps. The, “I don’t want to miss any” and “I’m done after half an hour”. Most of the overlanding couples we know have a partner in each camp. John is in the first camp and I’m in the second. So the guide definitely helped me get through more than just a half hour.

We arrived at Chichen Itza early in the morning to avoid the throngs of people in tourist buses (an estimated 1.2 million people visit each year). We did this in Palenque too, and what struck me both times was the large number of venders who arrive at the same time - the venders outnumber the visitors for the first few hours. There is every imaginable chotchsky associated with the ruins. All I can think of is how many of these little masks, blankets, bowls, plates, t-shirts, figurines, skulls, etc., do they need to sell to put food on the table for their children. It must take hours to unwrap every item in the morning and pack every one back up again at the end of the day. They stand all day in the hot sun and I just wonder what other offerings could be developed for the tourists to increase their income (goin’ back to my work days again….) and generate a better experience for everyone involved.

On the way to Chichen Itza we camped at one of the 6,000 cenotes in the area. Cenotes are natural sinkholes resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. In the Yucatan the ancient Maya frequently used cenotes for sacrificial offerings. They are really beautiful places - some with only a hole in the ground as entry. Most have beautiful clear water and are totally enclosed while others have an open circular ceiling that lets light in. We visited three while we were in the Yucatan and they were all different. In Tulum we went to Dos Ojos (two eyes) where we snorkeled in clear blue water with the cave divers’ lights illuminating the water under the stalagmites. We camped at the Suytun Cenote just outside of the city of Valladolid where we had it all to ourselves in the evening. Our last cenote was at the ruins of Ek Balam. We walked the mile long limestone path to the entrance of the cenote, where we were instructed to shower off before entering. Stairs lead down to the water with a boardwalk around the edge, and tree vines extend from the rim all the way into the water. Very Indiana Jones. It was a refreshing swim on a hot day, floating around and watching the catfish that live in the water.

Suytun Cenote

View from the top of cenote at Ek Balam

Me in the vines at Ek Balam cenote

According to our guide at Chichen Itza, when the Spanish came to the Yucatan they came looking for gold and silver and finding none, moved on. The Mayan population wasn’t conquered or killed by disease in as many numbers as in the more resource rich areas of Mexico, so their culture and language is more intact here. As we navigated the region, we saw hundreds of little towns on the map with Mayan names. Most people typically only experience the Eastern part of the state, in the touristy bits of Cancun or Playa del Carmen. We ventured up to the very northern tip of the Yucatan, to the little Mexican fishing town of Holkobén (its Mayan name). We came to see the colonies of flamingos that make their home in the Rio Largartos Bioshere Reserve. I’m on a mission to see all the wildlife I can on this trip, including wild flamingos.

On the one road to into town, we had to pass through a military checkpoint where they search for drug runners (coming from the ocean). Once we told them we were camping and here to see the flamigos, soldiers with big guns came up on both sides of the truck...and proceeded to tell us all about the area and other towns we should visit. Not your typical tourist information kiosk.

We arranged to go out in the morning with Diego Nunez, who owns a couple tour boats for a 3-hour trip into the mangroves to see the flamingos. There was some camping at the city park outside of town which looked fine, but Diego said we could park our rig in his driveway and walk to his restaurant in the morning to get the boat. So that’s what we did. After a dinner of fresh caught fish, we strolled back through the village to our rig. Every person we met said hello and waved. I don’t know what it was, but the vibe in this little fishing village was really nice and we enjoyed our time here.

View from Diego's restaurant

Pescado Mayan style. Yes, there is a fish under there...

Sunset in Rio Largartos

Our camp spot for the night at Diego's house

But first he and his wife had to roll this VW onto the street to make room for us.

Town cemetary at dusk

The Flamingos gather by the thousands to mate and nest in this biosphere reserve. These are Caribbean flamingos that do not migrate to and from the Yucatan; they are residents here. They feed on the brine shrimp found in the area which is what makes a pink flamingo pink. The young ones aren’t as pink as the older ones, who’ve been eating the shrimp longer. They are beautiful in flight, with black wings and long skinny stick legs trailing behind. They were noisy too, squawking overhead like ducks as they flew by. We spent the whole morning touring the mangroves of this reserve, watching all kinds of bird species start their day. It was really beautiful.

Sunrise on the water and our first flamingo sightings.

Art deco birds

After our boat trip, we took a drive up to the little salt mining town of Los Colorados on the estuary of El Cuyo. The salt ponds turn pink due to an algae that is also found in the brine shrimp the flamingos eat - turning both pink. It was a strange sight against the blue sky. The coast was wild and empty and we thought about camping there that night, but it didn't really speak to us so we pressed on to the colonial city of Mérida.

Since the Spanish conquest, Mérida has been the cultural capital of the Yucatan peninsula. It is a city steeped in colonial history, with narrow streets, broad central plazas and good museums. During its sisal boom, when the agave plant was turned into rope for the world, Yucatán’s aristocratic landowners built magnificent houses, many of them are now luxury hotels. Mérida's main square, which is bordered by 16th-century Spanish colonial buildings and has the oldest cathedral in the Americas, is built with stones from a Mayan temple. This main area was very busy with tourists and locals alike. We spent two days there wandering the old colonial center and riding bikes around the neighborhoods. It surpised us that the neighborhoods surrounding the historic district had very few people around during the day or night. Over the past few years, an influx of expats have been buying up these beautiful old hacienda homes on the cheap and renovating them. Not many locals live in this area so it was a weird mix of dilapidated and renovated houses…and quiet.

Merida's cathedral with a full moon

Inside one of the Hacienda Hotels.

Exploring the Paseo de Montejo, lined with Beaux Arts-style mansions, most of them built with sisal money.

Biking the surrounding neighborhoods looking at renovated houses.

Local lime green in the square

With a whole week to go before we headed back to the States, John wanted to try his hand at kite boarding again. Since we are flying in and out of Cancun, we decided to spend the time at a kite boarding school in Isla Blanca called Ikarus Kiteboarding Center. Isla Blanca is only 20 km north of Cancun, but a world away. No Internet, cell service or power.

Our camp site at Ikarus Kiteboarding Center

Coconuts work just as good as tennis balls.

We camped there for 7 nights right on the water and really enjoyed it. John took lessons almost every day and after the week, he really got the hang of it. The days were a hot 98 degrees with high humidity. I paddled boarded and rode my bike while John kite boarded. We met some great people, including our new Dutch friend Dennis, who is from Amsterdam by way of Colombia and Mexico City. It was perfect learning conditions - very warm shallow water, no waves and excellent instructors. He loved it. I have a feeling there will be more kite boarding stops on this trip going forward.

Here he is in action...I didn't get the face plants on film unfortunately.

Sidenote: I am catching up our blog with this post at our friends' beautiful house in Marin County, California. We are back here for our nephew's wedding. It has been an interesting transition after being gone for exactly 6 months. Comfortable, familar...yet strange at the same time. I was still putting toilet paper in the garbage can after 3 days. Whole Foods leaves me in a state of awe and wonder.

More on our trip home (home?) in our next blog post.

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