Souvenirs, Souvenirs

In case you didn’t know: Playa del Carmen is a metropolis. And like any other metropolis, we, too, have a 5th Avenue that is our main shopping area, only that we call it Quinta Avenida. Which is a good thing for not everybody fancies getting spat on by people trying to pronounce “fifth”.

Lately, this area has changed a lot. We got a somewhat fancy new mall with stores like “ALDO”, “Forever 21”, “The Body Shop” and whatnot. All of a sudden, we also got MAC, BOSS, ZARA, and Armani Exchange, so we do not have to drive to Cancun all the time we want to shop something other than beach wear or souvenirs.

Look at that! Those are refrigerator magnets mostly. Almost a work of art.

Look at that! Those are refrigerator magnets mostly. Almost a work of art.

Already, I heard people complain about Playa losing its charms. Well, I am not so convinced it was the least bit charming before with nothing around but touristy knickknacks and beer bars for miles. Luckily, though, for those people who consider this kind of shopping experience desirable, they will still find what they are looking for.

Last week my in-laws were visiting and during our many strolls I came up with a list of what I’d consider the most worthwhile souvenirs (apart from a large variety of STDs and party drugs that you can both get on every corner if you are interested… just sayin’…):

1. T-Shirts with silly messages. Always a big trend. See, what I found:

I pooped today. - Really?

I pooped today. – Really?

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“May I suggest the sausage?” – How terribly polite. I also like the numbered stuff, like “Bitch 1 – 4”. It’s a good thing to let people know what they are dealing with.

P1050705 2. Bracelets with your name. Always comes in handy when you had too much tequila.

3. Temporary tattoos. So venturesome.

4. Hair braids. Honestly, who doesn’t look good with those? Around the corner, there is a family business of hair braiders. In the evenings, I can see how they are checking each other for head lice. Sounds promising, right?

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Hair braids, tattoos, bracelets – what more could you wish for?

5. And my absolute favourite: Wrestling masks. I actually see people buying those and I cannot help but wonder: Do they use those in the bedroom? Or when driving too fast so nobody can prove it was them? Or is Playa just THE holiday destination for wrestlers?

In this case, these are also suitable for children, but they were the only ones I found that were displayed on dummies. I was actually tempted to get a spiderman mask for my godson... yes, yes, I admit it!

In this case, these are also suitable for children, but they were the only ones I found that were displayed on dummies. I was actually tempted to get a spiderman mask for my godson… yes, yes, I admit it!

Have you ever bought some silly souvenirs? Do you like getting souvenirs? 

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Hidden in the jungle: Coba

Can you feel it? Christmas is around the corner! Not that in this part of the world anything would indicate it except for the very persistent Christmas items in all the stores. And it is surprising they are still available, after all, I spotted the first stands of wrapping paper and dancing santas already in July.

That’s as Christmassy as it gets: Christmas Tree in Cancun.

Last year, my parents came for Christmas which is why at the moment I am thinking a lot about all the fun stuff we did together. And I realized that I never wrote that post about Coba that I actually promised in August!

Every tourist visits Tulum at some point, but not everybody makes it all the way to Coba. But if you have one full day and are in the mood to discover some ancient Mayan history, you can easily set off for Tulum in the morning and then go to Coba from there. From Playa del Carmen you drive about an hour to the south to get to Tulum. It takes most people about an hour, maybe an hour and a half to explore the ruins, afterwards there is plenty of time to drive another hour northwest to Coba. And even the drive is worthwhile: You pass through tiny Mexican villages and finally get to Coba that is set amongst two lagoons, so you can catch a glimpse over the water before entering the parking lot.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, if you think (like I did) that seeing one Maya site covers them all more or less, you are wrong. They are all very different and unique, and while I love Tulum for its picturesque setting by the sea, I still prefer Coba due to its almost mystical flair.

Coba is a lot older than Tulum, it is said to have been founded between 100 BC and 100 AD. It very quickly became the most important and powerful trade hub in Yucatan with more than 50,000 inhabitants. I read that Coba had strong connections with Guatemala and the south states of Campeche and established not only military alliances with those states, but also arranged marriages. I always wonder how people back then travelled that far. By the time the bride arrived, she must have grown a lot older!

Around 750 AD, Chichen Itza emerged and altered Coba’s importance. In fact, those 2 cities got into a power struggle resulting in Coba losing its position as political leader, but maintaining its religious importance. But although Coba lost its leading role to cities closer to the coastline, it only got abandoned around 1550 when the Spanish conquered Yucatan.

Taxi Bikes in Coba.

By now, I have been to Coba a few times, but I vividly remember the first time: It was magical! Unlike Tulum, Coba is not such a popular tourist attraction and I was relieved to see that we didn’t have to pass a plaza of souvenir shops and restaurants to get to the site. Instead, you enter through a large gate and find yourself amidst the jungle. If you don’t like to walk, you can either rent a bike for USD 3 per hour, but there are also rickshaws waiting behind the entrance which is great for people who are in whatever way handicapped (they cost USD 10 per hour).Or lazy. My vicious me couldn’t help but notice how bizarre it looks to see young, slim, and mostly short guys transporting big and often just sluggish tourists through the woods… Could there be any better motivation to get your butt off the couch than seeing a muscular sweaty back in front of you while you are doing nothing but having your heavy body carried around? Sorry, got sidetracked…

Coba gets a lot less visitors than Tulum, but even if you might feel that there are still quite a few tourists with you when you enter the site, after a few yards everyone spreads out, and it is getting really quiet around you. The first ruin that you encounter is the iglesia, the church. The name is due to a little statue that people once interpreted as a statue or virgin Mary. Unfortunately, this statue got destroyed during a hurricane, yet the name remains.

Right behind the church is the ballcourt where they used to play pelota – the Maya version of soccer.

The ball court.

Afterwards you follow the little pathway towards the big Nohoch Mul pyramid that is actually the tallest pyramid on the whole Yucatan peninsula. You can climb up the 120 steps that are rather steep (bring hiking boots!) and enjoy the view over the treetops. But although the pyramid is very impressive, my favourite part is getting there: You wander amongst the high trees and lucious bushes – and all of a sudden you stumble upon a majestic ruin! It always makes me realize how enthralling it must have been for archeologists to detect those ancient buildings! And still, there is a lot to discover, a lot that lies hidden in the jungle. You really have to look left and right in order not to miss a ruin, it feels like being an explorer!

The big pyramid.

And like a real explorer, you shouldn’t forget to bring mosquito repellent, water and good hiking shoes (if you want to climb the pyramid). Now that I come to think of it… It’s time we get some more visitors, I am really in the mood for another trip to Coba now!

A building from the paintings complex.

Paco, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…

After a more or less sleepless night in the jungle, we had been looking forward to getting rid of our hiking boots and enjoying some city life in Campeche. Campeche is the capital of Campeche state and was declared world heritage site in 1997. (By the way, Campeche’s original name Ah-Kin-Pech means “place of snakes and ticks” – doesn’t that sound awfully inviting?)

Our drive to Campeche, though, proved to be full of hurdles. Like before, we got stopped at each and every police and military checkpoint. Finally, we were about an hour away from our destination when we entered a roundabout. Straight on, there was a waving policeman standing, however, we needed to turn left. Upon entering the street, we got stopped by a second policeman. He checked our license, registration card and told Mr. R. to get out of the car. Apparently, we had done something wrong. You might remember how I was raving about freestyle Mexican driving but my enthusiasm turned out as a little premature. The policeman, let’s call him Paco, pointed out Mr. R. hadn’t used the indicators.

Although sometimes Mr. R. tends to drive like 007, he almost always indicates, a fact that Paco couldn’t possibly know. He took all the papers and told us we couldn’t drive on, instead they would keep the car until we had gone to the nearest police station to pay a fine, and we would get the car back tomorrow. Mr. R. insisted we needed to get to Campeche where our hotel room was waiting, but Paco kept repeating: “Today you will go nowhere, Sir.” At that point, I would have waved with some peso notes, but Mr. R. didn’t give up. He claimed he had indicated and that I was his witness. Paco started thinking. Then we had to show him that our indicators worked. He thought some more and said, well… MAYBE he didn’t see it because of the sunlight.

Looked like we could have continued on our journey? No, Paco still wasn’t happy. Probably he had to buy his wife a birthday gift or something and was a little short on cash. He took our registraton card and claimed it wasn’t a valid formate. Huh? Mr. R. then pointed out that if the state of Quintana Roo didn’t use the right formate, it wouldn’t be his fault, would it? Paco sighed, shook my husband’s hand and handed him the papers, whereupon Mr. R. gave him a pat on the back. It almost seemed like the tender beginning of a beautiful friendship. But then we drove on and left Paco behind.

And while we were still laughing about how ridiculous this whole incident had been, we entered the next checkpoint. To our relief, they didn’t find anything wrong with our papers or their formates this time. The rest of our trip, it became my husband’s obsession to analyze the faulty vehicles we passed, and almost every car had something that was off: lack of an outside mirror (or 2), no license plates, 25 passengers too many, a sooting exhaust pipe, cracked or missing windows, flat tires… Not to mention all the families that all squeeze onto one motorcycle – without wearing helmets, of course. Well, at least that little incident kept us entertained until we reached the city of Campeche.

Now isn’t that beautiful?

We checked into a beautiful colonial style hotel in the old town and were eager to explore the city. That is until we entered the room. Once I saw the room, I felt like never leaving again, it was stunning. Maybe even more so after our experience of the previous night. But forget about the room, I could have LIVED in that bathroom. Anyway, never mind, we wanted to go for a city tour. When we went outside, it was like walking into an oven, but luckily, the plaza where the city tour busses leave, wasn’t far from the hotel. To our disappointment, though, there were no city tours between 12 and 5pm.

Hotel Casa Don Gustavo

One of the beautiful Streets of Campeche

Instead, we went for a walk. So we walked down one pretty, colourful street and found out that all shops and restaurants were closed until 6pm. Then we walked down another pretty, colourful street, and then another. One street looked like the other – beautiful, but if you’d seen one street, you’d seen them all. We decided that there had to be more, probably on the outside of the old town.

Reminds me of some people: A beautiful facade with nothing behind…

The tiny picturesque old town of Campeche is surrounded by an old city wall, and we paid a little fee to go up and enjoy the view of the city. Maybe then we would discover where we had to go. Well,… There was really nothing to see. What amused us was the fact that we saw many colourful housefronts – with nothing behind. It was like a theatre backdrop, very bizarre! Sweaty and exhausted from 97 degrees (36 Celsius), we returned to our cool hotel room and hung out until 5pm to then finally take that sightseeing tour. However, the friendly lady at the ticket counter informed us that today there was a big event in Campeche that all busses were needed for. But the next morning, they would start again at 9am.

A little disappointed, we went to the waterfront (Campeche is by the Gulf of Mexico), watched the sunset and went for a little walk. And then we saw the event that the lady had referred to earlier: Hundreds of people were marching into the town square, all wearing Mexican costumes, a band was playing, and all those people started performing a dance. It was beautiful to watch! Well, maybe not the dancing, but all the costumes, the cheering crowd, and all the happy faces put us into a very festive mood.

We found a charming little restaurant serving Italian and Mexican cuisine and a little chocolaterie where we had the best chocolate cake ever, and decided that Campeche was worth a visit for half a day – preferably after dark.

Campeche’s cathedral at night.

When on the next morning we were informed that the next city tour would leave at 12pm only – in the unlikely case of 5 or more passengers showing up until then – we packed our bags and drove back to Playa del Carmen.

By the way, once we had passed the border to Quintana Roo, we never got stopped by the police once.

Green Stones and Colourful Murals – Yaxchilan and Bonampak

The next morning, the rain had stopped, the sun was about to peep through the clouds, and the jungle was wide awake. We skipped breakfast and instead signed up for a boat trip to Yaxchilan straight away, the only way to get to this isolated Mayan site. Since it was early, we were the only guests on the trip, and it was stunning!

Rio Usumacinta

The trip takes about 45 minutes and the boat goes really fast – better put on sunglasses for otherwise, you get all kinds of insects in your eyes! Oh, and keep your mouth shut. Luckily, our boat driver wasn’t the talkative kind, so we could admire the nature and the early morning light.

When we reached Yaxchilan, we got off and climbed a large flight of steep stairs that lead us right into the jungle. Again, we were the first and only visitors so far and were tempted to only whisper. The howling apes however, didn’t feel shy about making a lot of noise and were howling away like crazy. But after all, that’s their trademark.

Yaxchilan is called the “place of the green stones”, and once you arrive you see why. Whereas the Tulum ruins are all pretty and clean and dried out by the sun, and while Palenque rather reminded me of a beautiful campus with fancy (and strangely decayed) buildings, the ruins of Yaxchilan are mysteriously mossy so you actually get the feeling for how old they are! The whole place is humid and sticky, yet I got the chills when we had to find our way through a pitchdark ruin. The walls exuded an unfamiliar coolness, and I screamed when something dropped on my head – why hadn’t we brought our torch lights???

Doesn’t it look mysterious?

Being the only ones wandering around the ruins was, of course, a very special treat. Everything was so quiet (apart from the apes) and peaceful. However, when I did a little research on Yaxchilan’s history, I had to find out that it hadn’t been a peaceful place at all. Yaxchilan had been founded prior to 300 A.D. as a little hamlet that evolved into a powerful city by 600. Somehow, I would have thought that due to its remote location, Yaxchilan’s inhabitants would have had no choice but to stay to themselves and lead a quiet life. Silly me. In fact, Yaxchilan’s history includes a series of wars with neighbouring kingdoms like Piedras Negras, another site by the river which is now Guatemala, and surprisingly Palenque. Now, when I think of how much time it took us to travel from Palenque to Yaxchilan, it goes beyond my imagination how they actually got there. But they did, and they also liked to take war captives. They apparently were not so wise and peaceful as I would have thought! At the end of the Maya classical period around 900, Yaxchilan collapsed as did the other Maya hubs.

One thing that always surprises me when visiting Maya ruins is the height of the steps. I am an average size kind of girl, but I really have to stretch my legs. At the same time, the steps are that short that it becomes clear that Mayas at that time must have had tiny feet, and on top of that, the stairs are terribly steep. Mr. R. and I used to zigzag our way down in order not to fall and jolt our way down… But how did those tiny guys do it? Mr. R. suggested they might have gone on all fours. Maybe that’s the solution. Or they must have had bouncing powers, hopping up and down the ruins – anything is possible, right?

Sometimes I think that maybe those Mayas were able to fly. How else would they be able to do all those beautiful carvings so high up?

After visiting Yaxchilan, it was time for us to get to know Bonampak, a site famous for its still colourfully preserved murals. You cannot drive to the site itself but have to leave your car at a small parking lot where a handful of guides are waiting for you. Luckily, they are not as intrusive as the ones we met earlier on… From the parking lot, you can continue on your way in a little shuttle. Well, shuttle sounds quite sophisticated, doesn’t it? An old Indian was driving us in his van while chewing and spitting out his chewing tobacco. When he dropped us off, he promised to be back in an hour since Bonampak is rather tiny. Then he disappeared in the jungle, and we were surrounded by silence.

We had to walk across some fields to the site, passing some stalls with Indian jewellery, but nothing in this area is as touristy as are Palenque or Tulum or, of course, Chichen Itza. In fact, apart from us, there was only one other family inspecting the site – we got spoilt that day! There is really not much to see other than the murals, but those are truly impressive. Understandably, you are not allowed to take pictures as the flash light would harm the colours, but I was amazed by how well they are preserved.

A photograph of one of the paintings at Bonampak

A photograph of one of the paintings at Bonampak (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Bonampak, we felt we had seen enough ruins for a day and drove to Campeche as the last stop of our journey. So next time, I will tell you about the weird backdrop city of Campeche and how Mr. R. found a new friend amongst the Mexican police force…

Ruins, Beach, Iguanas – Tulum has it all!

Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages of living in a touristy area. One of the big advantages is, that there is plenty of fun stuff to do when you have visitors.

The first sight I like to show are the ruins. In my opinion, they are spectacular. Some may find it boring to look at old stone monuments, but for me the magic lies in picturing what life was like back then. It is like taking a trip to another time.

Entrance to the ruins through the town wall.

Close to Playa del Carmen, about 45 minutes south by car, is Tulum. Not only is it a quite picturesque Caribbean village (on a sunny day, don’t go when it’s raining!), but the archaeological site is one of my favourites. By now, I have been to Tulum so many times, if it wasn’t too far a commute, I’d consider working there. I would like to walk around with an umbrella, gathering my little tourist sheep, taking pictures of families posing with iguanas…

In comparison to other Maya sites, Tulum is rather small, but what makes it unique is its setting. I am sure that is the reason why the Mayans decided to settle down there. After all, location is everything, isn’t it? Keeps the real estate prices up. Tulum is located right above the sea, so even on a very hot day (and we have those right now), there is always a very pleasant breeze that dries off your pearls (or in my case: rivers) of sweat. Always good for pictures! Although the Mayans didn’t know that back then, but still: Thank you!

Tulum is one of the younger Mayan pueblos. The Maya civilization had already begun its decline by A.D. 900. However, Tulum rose in the 13th century and became an important trade hub due to its location by the sea. I love to picture the Mayan people arriving in their boats down below and then climbing up the steep cliffs – they must have been tough little monkeys, I wouldn’t want to do that in the heat! (…hmm… maybe not even if it was cooler…) The site is surrounded by a big wall (Tulum means “wall” in Mayan language). I read that people used to live on the outside and used the inside for festivities and religious rituals – supposedly some pretty bloody ones, I am just so glad I live NOW…

Templo del Dios de los Vientos

When the Spanish arrived in the late 16th century, Tulum was still a flourishing town in contrast to other Maya towns. And even after the arrival of the not so friendly Spains, Tulum remained a place for Mayan rituals up to the 20th century which I find a very intriguing thought. There are some beautiful temples to see, my favourite one is the Templo del Dios de los Vientos – the temple of the God of the winds. When you stand up there, you feel like you are on top of the word, below the turquoise water and the white beach, above the blue skies – no wonder that the iguanas like to hang out there!

Another beautiful one is the Templo de los Frescos with its well maintained murals.

Templo de los Frescos

Tulum is an ideal excursion for families because you don’t need forever to get around. Don’t get scared when you arrive: It is terribly touristy, people try to sell you all kinds of stuff that nobody needs, but that is just the entrance area. From there, you can either take a little train towards the ruins which might be fun for children or you can just walk, it basically only takes 5 minutes. The walk around the ruins might take you up to an hour, but if you bring your bathing suit, you can walk down the stairs to the beautiful beach and go for a swim to cool off.

Traditional Mayan costume.

During high season around Christmas, Tulum gets rather crowded and loses all its magic. However, if you go on a Sunday afternoon, you might be lucky and avoid millions of visitors. The entrance closes at 5pm, so if you get there at 3 / 3:30 pm, most people are gone already. Unless, of course, you like tourist watching. I am always amazed to see that all tourists pick the same spots for pictures and do the same silly things! Like all pulling a crazy face or jumping up in the air. It’s a miracle to me – the Tulum miracle.

If you still can’t get enough of ruins, you can easily combine a trip to Tulum with a trip to Coba, another Maya site located in the jungle which is a beautiful contrast to the beach setting. The drive from Tulum to Coba only takes about an hour, but we will talk about Coba another time!