BAH Visits the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Cancun, Chichen Itza



We spent our first two nights in Mexico on the island of Cozumel, in the town of San Miguel, at the Hotel Lopez, shown here.  It was fairly clean, and the staff was pleasant enough, though they spoke little or no English.  We had a window unit air conditioner, which kept the room nice and comfortable (and kept the wife happy).  Not bad at all for 300 pesos a night (roughly $30 U.S.).  We had a bit of  a panic the first night we were there, as we stayed out rather late at a bar called Senor Frog's (where children were drinking and cavorting on the dance floor in a manner to have turned their parent's blood cold, had they been there to see them) and, upon returning to the hotel, found it completely dark and locked up tight.  A quick knock on the door, however, brought someone to let us in.  For a moment there, we thought we were going to have to sleep on the street. If you're not afraid to be adventurous, this is the sort of place you can stay for next to nothing.  If you ask me, it beats the hell out of staying in one of the $100-150 per night tourist hotels.

A typical street shot of San Miguel.  This one just happens to be right outside the Hotel Lopez.  Merchants up and down the street would pester the crap out of you as you walked by.  "Hey, Meester!  Come see my shop!"  You haggled for everything.  Because Betty and I have a habit of holding hands, they called us honeymooners.  They called Betty "Barbie" and "Blondie."  They called me "Senor Whiskers," "Dude," and "Hippy."  Maybe it was my tattoos or the hair, or maybe it happens to all white guys, but 3 out of 5 merchants would pull me aside and whisper, "Hey, Senor Whiskers, you wanna buy some weed?  I got the good shit.  Sell to you mucho cheap.  Or how about some nose candy, senor?"  Got to where I wanted to slam a few heads against the wall.  Everyone wanted to braid Betty's hair (in typical Bo Derek style), but more on that later.  You can see the sign for Happy Hour and two for one drinks.  It was always Happy Hour and drinks were pretty much always two for one.  Don't bother ordering cocktail type drinks, though.  Every place in Mexico that we ordered daiquiris or pina coladas or whatever, they tasted like crap -- even at our expensive, 5-star hotel in Cancun.  Not only did they taste awful, but as far as I could tell, the drink might have been shown a bottle of rum, but that bottle was surely never tipped over said drink.  Sodas were always flat, even when we ordered them in a bottle (I think they reused the bottles, simply refilling them at their fountain machine).  So, drink beer or drink bottled water (or drink straight tequila if that's your calling).  As everyone says, don't drink the local tap water.  This wasn't a problem, as we were able to find bottled water everywhere.  You also have to be careful about what the local tap water might have been used for: washing the lettuce in a salad, the flour mix in a tortilla, etc.  We didn't have any trouble until our last night in Cancun, though (where the hotel water was actually guaranteed safe).

The water was no more than 100 yards from the front of our hotel, but this is the "bay" side of Cozumel -- fit for partying and shopping, but not really nice for swimming, sunning, beachcombing, and what have you.  This incredible sailboat was anchored just off shore, and I couldn't resist shooting a picture of it.  This is the way I wish we had gotten to Cozumel (we flew into Cancun, took a bus to Playa del Carmen, then took the ferry over to the island).

And this is how Betty wishes we had arrived at Cozumel.  There were always four or five of these huge cruise ships anchored at Cozumel.  You definitely noticed when they dumped their 4 or 5 thousand touristas onto the docks and into the little town of San Miguel.  I'm told that prices used to be a lot cheaper, that the town was once a lot more picturesque and authentic.  Another decade of cruise ships and I imagine San Miguel will be like Cancun (which I didn't care for at all), just another Americanized town with McDonald's and Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken establishments sprinkled in among the high rise hotels.

Naturally, we had to visit the Caribbean side of the island.  It was simply gorgeous: miles and miles of barren beach, broken only by little Mexican bars every five miles or so.  The surf is peppered with limestone boulders (99% of the Yucatan Peninsula is limestone).  Cliffs of limestone overlook much of the shoreline, riddled with surf-scoured holes that lend everything an "igneous" look, as if Cozumel had once been a volcano.  These rocks help form the foundation for the reef that Cozumel is known for, of course: one of the top dive spots in the world.

Naturally, here, away from civilization, I had to do my share of exploration ... in the rocks ...

...on the beach ...

... and in the jungle.

Here's the couple we traveled with, Bryan and Donna (and didn't that make it interesting when we had to tell all those Mexicans that we were Bryan and Brian!).  Bryan has been to this part of Mexico 40 or 50 times (he's actually traveled all over the world, one of the side benefits to being a bachelor) and made an excellent travel guide.  Without him, we'd have done the tourist thing and stayed in expensive hotels.  This shot is at one of those little bars on the beach on the Caribbean side of Cozumel.  I'm not entirely sure now which bar this was, as we hit quite a few of them.  There are the ever present bottles of Dos Equis; it's necessary to keep your fluids up, ya know.  There's a bottle of water there, too.  And here's a tip for you.  Buy the Mexican brands of bottled water.  We accidentally bought a bottle of imported French water (Evian).  It was a small bottle, easily half the size of the one shown above.  I drank from the bottle before the clerk rang it up, so there was no putting it back.  40 pesos (roughly $4 U.S.).  That big bottle of Cristal Water (a Mexican brand) was 8 pesos (80 cents).  Most places you could get a can of coke for 10 pesos (a dollar) and a Dos Equis (two for one, of course) for about 30 pesos ($3 U.S.).

Me and the missus.  Same bar.  Just a shot across the table from the other direction.  I look wet, so this must have been after a nice frolic in the surf.  I loved the barren side of Cozumel, as it remains relatively unspoiled, but getting there from San Miguel meant that we had to rent a car (400 pesos) and drive across the island (30 minutes or so).


Playa del Carmen

After Cozumel, we took the ferry back across to the mainland and spent a couple days in Playa del Carmen.  This is our hotel there, the Barrio Latino at 5th Ave and 4th St, about 200 yards from an absolutely gorgeous beach sprinkled with topless women.  Even if there hadn't been topless women on the beach, I think my favorite town was Playa del Carmen.  The hotel was nice, too.  They wanted 410 pesos per night for a room with air conditioning, but we bartered them down to 300 pesos.  I gotta tell you, you just cannot beat living in paradise for 30 bucks a night.  It ought to be against the law.  Again, the staff was nice, even if they didn't speak much English.  The owner was actually a displaced Italian, but he was rarely around, which left Pedro at the front desk from about 7 a.m. to sometime after midnight.  Our maid was Olga (How a Mexican girl got that name is beyond me).  She and I had an interesting conversation one afternoon while Betty was shopping -- interesting because she didn't speak a single word of English and my Spanish is wretched.  Betty was interested in getting her hair braided, and I was trying to see if Olga could do it and what she would charge.  Olga did a lot of talking, from which all I could recognize was the word caballo, from which I gathered that she wanted to charge me some ridiculous amount just to put Betty's hair in a pony tail (either that or she was telling me how she used to braid her horse's hair when she was a little girl).  Olga kept the room nice and clean, though, for which I personally slipped her 50 pesos when we checked out.  I told Betty that we should take her back with us to the States.  For 50 pesos a day, she'd probably live in our guest room and keep the house immaculately clean.  Like Pedro, she seemed to put in very long hours, which I attribute to a good Mexican work ethic.  Our guide in Chichen Itza, for example, when I asked him if he had an email address, told me that he didn't have time for email because he left his house at seven each morning and didn't get home until midnight -- seven days a week.

There was a hammock slung across the front of our room, and we probably spent as much time relaxing there as in the room itself.  Betty couldn't get enough of that shopping stuff in town, so here's me one afternoon when I told her to just go without me.  We really liked the hammocks, so we set out to buy our own to bring home.  The one pictured above is actually the cheaper model made by the locals, which most of the merchants were selling for 300 pesos.  I bartered one down to 200 pesos, but the day I took this picture (yeah, the camera was set on timer and I'm faking being asleep) Betty went out and got the better hammock (heavier cord) for 180 pesos.  I don't know how she managed it.  The same hammock in the States would cost $60-100 or more.  She really should have bought two for that price, but keep in mind that we were carrying everything on our backs and the hammocks are actually bulky and heavy.

Betty loved the hammock so much that one night when we got back real late and showered, she threw on my tank top and refused to come into the room.  I told her she needed to at least come in and put some underwear on, but she wouldn't listen.  I finally had to pick her up and take her in and put her to bed.  Another night we were sitting out there together in the hammock listening to the young couple next door (who hadn't paid for air conditioning and therefore had their windows open) making love.  There's something rather special about the sound of a beautiful young woman gasping in orgasm -- not a sound I've heard before when I wasn't actually involved in the activity -- and I think I'll remember it for a long time.  Afterward, Betty and I went inside and made a lot of noise of our own, but of course our windows were closed.  (A side note: Betty's gonna kill me for using this picture.  At least I used one where nothing was exposed, though, hon.)

Our last night in Playa del Carmen, Betty got her hair braided.  Isn't she beautiful?  This was done by an 18-year-old named Leonardo.  I started out liking Leonardo, but the little peckerhead ripped us off.  He originally wanted 300 pesos to do this, but we bartered him down to 180.  Knowing how all these Mexicans operate, I asked him up front, "Now for 180 pesos, Senora will get beads, si?" thinking that he'd do all the braiding and then explain that beads cost extra.   He assured me that she would indeed get beads.  "Quantos beads?"  "She can get as many beads as she wants," Leonard assured me.  "Tres beads?"  "Si."  "Tres beads on each braid?"  "Si, Senor."  What he never said was that she could sure get as many as she wanted, but only one was included with the cost of the braiding.  For extra beads, he explained when the braiding was done, it was another 100 pesos.  Betty thought it would look stupid with only one bead per braid, so the hairdo wound up costing us 280 pesos (about $28 U.S.).  Still, Betty assures me that something like this would cost about $60 in the States.  After all, it took the guy about an hour and fifteen minutes to do it.  I don't want to say the guy intentionally cheated us, any more than any of the people down there will intentionally steal from you or behave dishonestly, but they do have a different business ethic than I do.  And it's always amazing how well they understand or speak English before some conflict arises.  Leonardo had no trouble understanding me before he went after that additional 100 pesos, but once the disagreement arose, he just couldn't understand enough English to grasp why I felt it was unfair to charge us 100 pesos for 25 cents worth of cheap plastic beads.  In a place where their entire livelihood comes from tourists (the Yucatan exports absolutely nothing except for the sap/rubber from which bubble gum is made) who are generally a whole lot cheaper than I am, though, perhaps you can't blame them.  And if their business ethics are now cultural, it's the tourists who are to blame for it.  You go down there expecting bargains.  I don't know anyone down there who pulls their money out of their pocket when a merchant states his initial price for anything.  Regardless, Leonardo did a nice job.  And it was worth the $28 to finally realize my Bo Derek fantasy that night back at the hotel!



While staying in Playa del Carmen, we took a day trip down to Tulum.  First thing when we got there, I heard a flute being played, looked up, and holy mackeral, there were the voladores, Mexico's legendary flying men.  I wouldn't have known what they were, except years ago I started a story in which they appear.  How amazing to actually get to see the voladores!  Had we arrived five minutes later, we would have missed their ceremony.  Life is full of such coincidences, I suppose.  I don't know how often they perform each day, but if they hadn't been on the pole, we would have missed them, as we passed through the area, toured the ruins, and then spent the rest of our time on the beach or snorkeling the reefs that day.

Here they are milling around what I presumed was their dressing room.  And if you think the bamboo and palm frond hut was for show, you're be wrong.  Everywhere we went, people lived in these sorts of hovels.  I was amazed when our guide in Chichen Itza told me that the roofs of these structures will actually last up to 25 years -- and this is in a climate where it rains 300 days out of the year!

Everyone knows I'm a critter lover, so I need to throw in a critter picture or two.  There were iguanas everywhere we looked in Tulum.  This one was sneaking up behind Betty when I shot his picture.

Now for the Mayan ruins at Tulum.  I don't know a lot about Tulum's history and we didn't pay for a guide here, so there's not a lot I can tell you about the structures in these shots.  It was an absolutely beautiful location, though.  I would love to have seen what it originally looked like, perched there on the cliffs over that beautiful Caribbean sea.

Betty and me.  This was the hottest damn day of the whole trip.  Bryan and Donna collapsed under some palm trees and told us to have fun.  Betty would have tuckered out, too, but I just dragged her along behind me.  I'd come thousands of miles, and  I wasn't about to sit in the shade.  That's how I am anyway; I'll go until I pass out, with little concern for health or safety.  Fortunately, I had Betty to slop sun block on me and make me drink plenty of water.

Ruins at Tulum.


The primary temple.  Amazing that some 5 or 6 hundred years later that arch is still standing over the doorway to the courtyard.

The palm frond roof is a reconstruction to show you what the finished buildings might have looked like.

Tulum.  That's the main temple in the background.

Beautiful structure.  Typical of the Mayan.

Just south down the beach from the ruins, there are a couple bars, restaurants, and dive shops (lots of nice snorkeling and diving here!).  These are beach huts that you can rent for about $5 a night.  You have to bring your own hammock, 'cause there's nothing inside.  I would have really liked to have spent a few days here, soaking up the sun and exploring the reefs.  There's a near-in reef just offshore, there where the water gets darker, but the nice reef is out about a half a mile, there were you see the white of the breakers.  I actually tried to swim out that far, but the current was running too strong.



I really didn't take many pictures while in Cancun, because, frankly, I just wasn't impressed with the place.  We'd left behind the quaint markets of the Mexicans and stepped into ... Hell, I dunno, Fort Lauderdale or San Diego.  The beaches were gorgeous and the hotels were nice, but it was no longer an adventure ...  UNTIL ... we were sitting out by the pool on a veranda overlooking the beach on our last night there.  I saw something crawling across the sand below and thought it looked like a drunk.  Then I realized what it was.  It was a sea tortoise.  Los Tortugas!  She had obviously crawled up from the sea to lay her eggs (I'm pretty sure that's the only time they leave the ocean) and was on her way back out to the surf.  I went down to the beach and sent Betty back up to the room for the camera (hey, she can run faster than I can).

The turtle was absolutely gorgeous.  She was huge, easily measuring four feet across.  What a struggle it was for her, hauling all that weight across the sand on flippers that were meant for the sea.  She would crawl about five feet and then stop to rest for several minutes.  I wanted to help her, but knew it would terrify her to be dragged across the sand by "Senor Whiskers."  (Not to mention that they're a protected species, and if caught I might get locked away in some Mexican prison!)  It took her about 30 minutes to make her way back down the beach.  During this time, lots of other people walked down the beach, but they were totally oblivious to her.  (I've noted that no matter where I go, most people are oblivious to the beauty of nature around them.)  Betty and I stayed with her the whole time, lighting up the beach with the flash of the camera.

Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience ...

...that I'll never forget.  This alone was worth the price of the trip.

From Cancun, we venture inland to Chichen Itza. On the way, we saw how most of the people of the Yucatan live -- generally in squalor.  The house above is typical.  Note the dog.  Everyone had a dog.  They generally looked like they were starving.

We stopped off and saw one of the local cenotes.  These are natural limestone sinkholes that link to underground rivers.  They are generally hundreds of feet below the surface, with water that's 70 to 130 feet deep.  There are no surface rivers in the Yucatan.  Every drop of water (and remember that it rains in the central peninsula 300 days out of the year) sinks into the limestone and collects underground in these cenotes.  The Mayans built their cities (such as Chichen Itza, which means "Mouth of the Well of the Itza") around these natural wells.  There was also a small cenote in Tulum.  You can see people swimming in this one (I would have jumped in to cool off if I'd had my bathing suit with me).  Jumping from the walls looked like great fun.

A shot from the bottom.  The plants growing around these things are amazing.  There's no soil.  Every plant growing on the rim either drops its roots a hundred feet down to the water or siphons from its neighbor.  There's a tree on the rim in the center of the photo.  You can see its roots stretched all the way down the wall to the water below.  The tree is supporting a palm/banana-leaf plant of some sort and, if you saw it up close, a hundred smaller succulent-like plants -- all living like parasites from the tree.

Betty and me at the cenote.  There's that little bottle of $4 water.


Chichen Itza

The Rain God's temple at Chichen Itza.  (No, I don't know who the folks standing in the way of my shot are...)

Some details from the temple, just to show you the intricacy of everything at Chichen Itza.  That's the Rain God on the corner, but to his immediate right is a symbol indicating a female (her legs are a column, her ... uh, privates ... are indicted by the square box, and her head is above that), which ...

...when viewed with the male representation on the opposite corner (you can see his dangling member) represents life, which comes from the Rain God (long as we keep him happy with sacrifices).

Another detail of the Rain God.  You can see his eyes, nose, and a rather vicious mouth.  Cheery fellow.

More of the intricate details that decorate all the buildings at Chichen Itza.  Try to imagine this when the building was new.  It would have been intricately painted.

Here we are in front of the observatory, a rather famous structure because of its intricate and precise positioning of doorways and windows, all set to predict the movement of the planets and stars.  The Mayans had a precise calendar with which they predicted -- down to the second -- eclipses and whatnot.  The purpose for these predications was to allow the priests to control the population (but that's what religion's always been used for, yes?).  If you had someone misbehaving -- say he was speaking out against the priests -- they would tell him to repent his evil ways or the gods would put out the sun in 3 days, 4 hours, and 32 seconds.  Low and behold, the sun would go out, exactly when they had said it would.  "See?" they would say.  "We told you so.  Now pray and the gods say they will restore the sun in ... oh ... 23 minutes and 5 seconds from now.  But you, since you 'caused all this grief, you must look upon the face of the sun god when he returns and if he is angry with you still, you will be blind for life."  For the rest of that person's life, as he walked around with a stick feeling out his way, everyone would know that the gods had taken his sight as punishment.  Perfect advertising for the priests!

Rattlesnakes were important to the Mayans.  They're everywhere in Chichen Itza.

A typical upper-class Mayan home in Chichen Itza.  The columns would have supported a grass roof.

The famous El Castillo de Kukulcan.  The entire structure is a very precise calendar.

Me, waiting for Betty to catch up.  (It's a LONG climb.  The trick is not to walk straight up -- the stairs are too narrow and the grade is too steep.  You walk in a zig zag pattern, the same way the Mayan priests did all those years ago.)  Going down is the dangerous part.  Stumble and fall, and you won't stop until you hit the bottom -- it's that steep.

The famous ballfield as viewed from the top of El Castillo.

Betty with the Temple of a Thousand Columns in the background (shot from the top of El Castillo).

Yours truly at the top of El Castillo.  If I look like a drowned rat, it's because it was raining on us most of the time we were there.  This was actually a blessing, as it kept us cooled off.  The temperature that day was supposed to be 105.  Our guide told us to be grateful that we weren't there in August, when temperature reaches 130.

The intricate carving on the columns at the Temple of a Thousand Columns (also called, I think, the Temple of the Warriors -- which I think is the name I used in my book El Dia de los Muertos; I'm too lazy to go check for you).

Another shot of the same or a different column (all four sides feature warriors, priests, merchants, etc).  Incredible workmanship for a culture that knew about metals but preferred to work with tooks made from obsidian.

More rattlesnakes.  These are actually on the small temple around the cenote at Chichen Itza where every year a 15-year-old girl was thrown in to appease the Rain God.  She would have lived her 15 years in splendor.  On the night she was to be sacrificed, she would have been given the sacred elixir (a liquor fermented from honey) to drink (the priests wanted her so drunk that she could be easily handled).  Because she was about to meet the gods, she would have been dressed in wonderful jewelry of jade and obsidian and precious stones (the priests wanted to make sure she sank straight to the bottom when thrown in).

The ballfield.  It's here that the boys decided who had the honor of being sacrificed to the gods.  See the rings on each wall?  The trick was to get a very dense, 3" diameter rubber ball through one of those rings.  The game was played much like soccer.  Players could use elbows, knees, heads, and whatnot, but they could not use their hands.  Because the ball was so hard, helmets and armor were worn.  Clubs were used to bat the ball about.  Getting the ball through the hoop was so difficult that it only took one point to win the game.  Games lasted minutes, hours, days.  The acoustics of the field are incredible.  You can stand at the far end and drop a coin and hear it from the opposite end.  This was so that relief players could be called into the game.  Fans lined the top of the walls to watch (in the picture taken from the top of El Castillo, you can see the stairs that lead up there).

A closer shot of a ring.  Note the black sections of wall.  That is original stucco placed there by the Mayans.

The game had a deadly purpose.  The winner or loser (opinions vary: I wrote in my book that the losers were sacrificed, but our Mayan guide is convinced that gods only take winners and it was considered such an honor to be sacrificed that players strove to win the honor of dying) lost his head at the end.  This is depicted above.  You can see the winning (to go with our guide's explanation) team captain kneeling on the right in the photo above.  He's been decapitated by the other team captain.  Spurting from his neck are six snakes (snakes always represent blood) and one flowering plant (representing the continuous renewal of life, even in death).  The other team captain is on the left -- you can see him better in the photo below.

In this team captain's left hand, you can see the decapitated head with snakes streaming from the neck.  In his other hand, you can see the obsidian knife with which he decapitated his opponent.  Between the head and the corpse, there's a round dish which features a skull and a penis (life and death).  The skull is talking to the corpse.  The penis is talking to the head.  In death shall you yet live (supposedly with the gods).

This platform represents the thousands of heads that were taken in the game.  The heads were mounted on poles atop the platform, while the bodies were cremated.


Copyright 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-07-31 11:17,