Sunday 12 June 2011

Mexican Road Trip: Cenotes, Ruins and Bribes

My travelling pace during the last week has been the complete opposite of the week before; a whirlwind of activity and constant momentum after 9 days sitting on a beach. My travelling amigos and I have seen some of the most beautiful sights in Mexico - ancient Mayan ruins, pristine secluded cenotes, and grand colonial cities. We have also experienced some of the more well-known negative aspects of this country - namely, police corruption - but the positives have far outweighed these blips along the way.

Merida cathedral at dusk
I left the last blog, drugged up to the eyeballs, still recovering from a bout of typical traveller tummy problems. I am happy to report that I have fully recovered and am once again stuffing my face at dodgy-looking, roadside food stands without further ill effect. After 9 wonderfully relaxing days on the island, I finally managed to drag myself off Isla Mujeres. It was quite sad to leave, but a group of us all departed together and offered emotional support on the way back to Cancun. Once on the mainland we all carried on to various locations - some flying home, some to the US, some to another nearby beach town to gradually wean themselves off island life, while I headed inland to Merida. I was glad to not be completely alone, though - the lovely Kaisa (who I have promised to mention in this blog and include in at least one photo) also made tracks to Merida.

Locals street dancing in Merida
Merida is the state capital of Yucatan and the undisputed 'cultural capital' of the entire Yucatan peninsula (which actually encompasses three states - it's namesake, Quintana Roo and Campeche). There's something for everyone here - heaps of history, grand colonial architecture, bustling street markets, vast green plazas, restaurants, museums, great food and plenty of bars. Everything fans out from the 'Plaza Grande' in the centre of town. I only had one full day in the city itself, but managed to sample a bit of everything listed above and we were lucky enough to be in town on a Sunday; when the central square is closed to traffic and locals fill the streets with music and dancing from early in the evening to late a night - a heart-warming spectacle to behold.

Arty shot at Uxmal
Another reason to visit Merida is the wide array of things to do around the city - more Mayan ruins, countless cenotes, deserted haciendas (old plantations) and numerous traditional Yucatec villages. One of the biggest attractions is the ruins at Uxmal (pronounced ¨oosh-mal¨). You may think it would get boring visiting another set of stone structures every few days, and some people do get ´ruined-out´, but not me! Each of the sites is unique in some way and offers something different to all the others; whether it be the size of the structures (or the site itself), the location and the surrounding environment, the state of restoration (or disrepair), or the era it was built and therefore the style of the architectural design.

Uxmal ruins
Uxmal is one of the most visited sites on the peninsula. Spread over a large, hilly area with numerous well-restored structures bearing exquisite ornamentation. One of the highlights is the sprawling 'Cuadrangulo de las Monjas' (Nuns Quadrangle) with 74 rooms and 4 temples encircling a large, open courtyard. You can wander in and around most of the rooms - many of them unilluminated and in various states of disrepair, creating a slightly eerie ambiance. After thoroughly exploring the site, we left the best 'til last and finished taking in the view, 32m up, from the top of the 'Gran Piramide'.

I was back to solo travelling again the next day, as Kaisa left for Mexico City. I was finding it hard to decide on the best plan of action and struggling to work out my next move when I randomly bumped into an Aussie guy (Lee) and girl (Anna) who I had already met separately before, at different stages of my trip. Lee had a hire car from Cancun and the two of them (along with a third passenger: Austrian, Georg) were about to head out to some nearby cenotes. I was offered the last spot in the car and jumped at the chance.

The Gang
Our destination was a famous set of three cenotes, accessible only by horse and cart from a little village 60km south east of Merida. We had all heard great things about these particular swimmable sinkholes but, as would become the norm during our adventures together, we were soon very lost. Following one of many confused U-turns, we backtracked across a police checkpoint that we had passed minutes before without a second glance. This time, however, we weren't so lucky and our car was pulled over. Our luck continued to dissipate when the police requested to see Lee's license - he had recently had his wallet stolen (with driving license inside) and the car rental company had insisted on keeping the only photocopy at their office. As a result, he had no physical proof of being licensed to drive. This would cause 'issues' in any country, but it can be especially nerve-wracking when you're dealing with five heavily-armed fellas from the notoriously 'dodgy' Mexican police force. After lengthy explanations and translations, we were informed that the only possible outcome would be a month in jail and the confiscation of the vehicle.... unless we could "work something out". This 'something' turned out to be a 500 peso bribe (approx $50 - we initially offered 100 pesos, to which the rather clever response came: ¨Yes, but there are 5 of us¨). In the end, we actually got off quite lightly - especially with the cost shared between 4 of us. With hindsight, the corrupt system actually worked to our benefit; if a similar situation had occurred at home, there is no way we would have been allowed to continue our journey.

Lee at the entrance to Cenote no.1
Once we were on the move again, we still had the same initial problem of actually trying to find these cenotes. It quickly became apparent that asking the locals for directions presented two new issues: 1) Many of them were unwilling to admit that they didn't know the way - they'd rather give any response (even if it's wrong) than appear unhelpful. Quite sweet really, but incredibly frustrating at the time. 2) As mentioned in one of my previous posts, there are over 3000 of these underground, limestone sinkholes on the Yucatan peninsula, almost every village has one. Therefore, when you are asking for directions to the 'cenotes' you're not necessarily directed to the ones you are looking for, especially if another one is actually closer. As a result, we didn't manage to find 'Los tres cenotes' that we intended to visit, but instead stumbled across two others - way off the beaten track and not mentioned in any guidebooks or tourist maps. We felt like proper, intrepid explorers; entering the pitch-black caves through tiny holes in the rock face and descending down with only headtorches to light the way, until we reached the beautifully cool freshwater at the bottom. An incredible, memorable experience, that was brilliant to share just between the four of us.

Hidden entrance to Cenote no.2
To improve matters further, we finally succeeded in finding the cenotes we were actually looking for on our second day of exploration. The only access route to these sinkholes is via a 45 minute horse and cart ride along an old railway through overgrown, deserted wilderness. The journey itself is great fun, but the real payoff comes when you reach the cenotes. All three are entered via increasingly steep, wooden stairways and illuminated only by the natural sunlight that bursts through holes in the surface (much like the cenotes I´ve mentioned previously at Vallodolid, but without the tacky addition of fluorescent lighting). All three are different in terms of cave formation, size of the swimmable area and depth of the water, but all are equally awesome and filled with wonderfully cool, clear freshwater. Photos rather than words are required to really do them justice.

The Gang again (on the roof of our hostel in Campeche)
Dragging ourselves away from this refreshing oasis, we still had a 4 hour interstate journey to complete in order to reach our next destination, Campeche. Our earlier experience with the cops had left us a little wary of police checkpoints, so we all breathed a sigh of relief when we cruised through the first one unimpeded. This feeling of relief didn't last long, however, and we were pulled over at the next set. Straight away, we were pretty much resigned to losing another $50 and ready to take the financial hit between the four of us again. This time, though, events took a more unsavoury turn. It was late evening by this point and only two cops were manning the checkpoint. One of them spoke to Lee at the back of the car, but the other (younger one) took more of an interest in Anna. He began by explaining that the only way we could get out of this was with a 3000 peso ($300 bribe) and then proceeded to shepherd her away from our car and behind the police van, out of view from the traffic on the highway. The other official stood next to our car and wouldn't allow any of us guys to get out. Fortunately, with the side-view mirror at the right angle I could just see behind the police van and was able to monitor proceedings. After extended, animated conversation, Anna returned to our car, collected a pen and paper, plus 160 pesos ($16) and took them back to the policeman. We were then allowed to proceed. The eventual outcome turned out to be a lot less expensive than our first checkpoint encounter, but it could have easily been a lot worse - the cops first request was for 3000 pesos, then no money but sex (the most economical option, but wisely declined by Anna), then 150 pesos and a kiss, until finally settling on 160 pesos, a phone number and a promise to meet up in Merida at a later date. He ended up with little money, a fake number and an empty promise, but the whole situation was very unsettling for all - us guys, powerless to intervene in the car and especially Anna, having to deal with the lewd requests. Again, we were lucky that the policeman involved was young and gullible - not every cop would have settled for what he got.
Late night roadside Taco stop

These encounters reveal to some extent the level of police corruption in Mexico and the power the officers are able to exert over foreign travellers and locals alike. Anna volunteered to do all the driving after this second encounter (she has her license with her) but we weren't stop-checked again, and the hire car has been returned now. I think maybe a return to buses from now on....

Campeche is a a very pretty town: the seaside capital of Campeche state and an old pirate haunt that is still partially surrounded by thick stone walls. Also a UNESCO world heritage site, the spotless cobbled streets sweep past beautifully-restored colonial mansions, tree-filled plazas, huge cathedrals and a frenetic local market. Not many foreign tourists stop here so it's a great place to chill out and spend a few days mingling amongst the friendly locals. The main reason for our visit, though, was to use the town as a jump-off point for an epic 800km round trip into the vast jungle biosphere nature reserve that covers the southern part of the state and is home to some of the most secluded and untouched Mayan ruins in the country.

Driving to Calakmul
We left for this next adventure early in the afternoon and, thanks to reasonably well-signposted highways, arrived by 6pm at our lodgings for the night - a single, shared tent, deep in the jungle. After a strange night's sleep, accompanied by the constant jungle cacaphony and interrupted on one occasion by a series of monstrous roars (I definitely wasn't frightened...) we woke up early to complete the final 60km drive even deeper into the biosphere, and finally reached the Mayan ruins of Calakmul.

Georg and Anna descending
Calakmul was only 'discovered' in 1931 and it's easy to see how this site remained undetected for so long - hidden at the heart of the huge Calakmul rainforest biosphere, many of the 7200 Mayan remnants here are still completely covered in vegetation. Those that have been excavated and restored are surrounded on all sides by thick jungle. The main area of interest is the 'Gran Plaza', where it is possible to climb two of the tallest known Mayan structures. The imaginatively-named Estructura I and Estructura II both soar up over 50m, way above the forest canopy. From the summits you can see for miles over a neverending expanse of vivid green treetops. Calakmul was by far the hardest and most tiring set of ruins to visit, but it was also the most authentic and untouched by modern civilisation - it was easy to imagine life in this great city, thousands of years ago. Other-worldy, awe-inspiring, brilliant

Our jungle accommodation
Faced with the 400km journey back to Campeche, we decided to take the scenic route as an alternative to the boring monotony of the highway (remember what I said before about getting lost...). Three hours later, with the fuel gauge perilously close to empty we stopped in a random little village to ask for directions. This just happened to be the single creepiest village in the world. Strange, demonic music was blaring across the town from an unknown location in the central square, all the cars were without wheels at the side of the road, and we were suspiciously and vacantly stared at by a group of hill-billy, slightly-inbred looking white people who were riding around in rickety carts - the men dressed in black overalls and the women in floral dresses and straw hats. (It turns out that they are part of a Hamish-like, German agricultural community called the Mennonites - still, very odd....). At the time it felt like we had driven through a time warp into a twisted, real-life version of Deliverance. We were very relieved to find some gasoline and eventually make our way back to Campeche.

I've stayed one extra day in Campeche to get this blog written and just relax a bit before another long journey to more Mayan ruins at Palenque tomorrow. After that I'm heading to the highland city of San Cristobal de las Casas, before crossing the border south into Guatemala. At least, that's the plan at the moment.....

(as always, more photos below - click to enlarge!)


Kaisa on top of the Gran Piramide at Uxmal

Anna entering the cold cenote water

Cenote exploring in the dark! (I have a good camera flash)

Our secret cenote

Lee lighting the way

Light coming into the Cenote

Railroad to ´Los tres cenotes´
Horse and cart to 'Los tres cenotes'

Me and Lee

Lee jumping/diving into a cenote

Cenote swimming

Georg in a cenote

Very steep cenote entrance

Another precarious entrance

Cenote jumping

One last cenote picture!

Rooftop sunset in Campeche

Sunset in the jungle

Approaching rain in the jungle



Me, Anna & Georg on top of Calakmul

Anna & Georg climbing Calakmul

Me, striking a very sweaty pose, on top of Calakmul

Big bird at Calakmul

Anna & Georg at Calakmul

Anna & Georg taking a well-earned rest on top of Calakmul

My new favourite hat at Calakmul....

1 comment:

  1. Hi Son,

    3rd time lucky with a comment! All looks good apart from the dodgy issues with the cops a bit worrying. Not gonna put any more in case previous 2 attempts at comment have atually gone through!! Lots of love,