Splashing Out at Uxmal

My Guide, Jorge Mex, at the Governor’s Palace

At the key Maya ruins I visited, I hired a guide all to myself. It only cost a few hundred pesos for an hour or two, and it was worth it for the quality of information conveyed.  At Uxmal, I sought out and hired Jorge Mex (pronounced Mesh), who had been recommended to me by Valerie Pickles, a hotelier at Santa Elena. I could have joined a group tour with a large crowd of ignoramuses who didn’t know the first thing about the Maya, but to have the time of someone who worked with the archeologists at digging and restoring the ruins is worth the extra cost.

As I said before, this was my fourth visit to Uxmal, but it has always ranked first with me; so it was worth the extra effort. At Chichen Itza, I was my own guide: Although Chichen is a spectacular site in many ways, I was less interested.

Double-Headed Jaguar Throne at the Governor’s Palace

Although there was a structure at Uxmal called the Governor’s Palace, there was no governor. There was, however, a king who ruled at the time the Palace was built: His name was Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw. Curiously, none of the other god/kings of Uxmal are known by name, according to Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler’s authoritative The Ancient Maya (Sixth Edition). Unfortunately, the glyphs at Uxmal have been badly weathered.

Details of Carved Stones on the Governor’s Palace

Notice the square stones at the bottom of the above photo. They are characteristic of the Puuc (pronounced Pook) style of architecture. The word puuc in Maya means “hill.” The Puuc region included some five or six sites that were in the hill country in the south of the State of Yucatán, ranging up to six hundred feet (183 meters) above sea level. This made access to water for drinking and growing crops a bit of a problem, as the underground river system of the peninsula was too deep, and there were no nearby cenotes (sinkholes) allowing access to the water.

 

Maya Nuns?

Detail of the “Nunnery Quadrangle” by Frederick Catherwood

The names ascribed to Maya archeological structures has almost nothing to do with their real function, which is mostly unknown to us. The names were assigned by the Spanish or local Maya who were in many cases a thousand years from having inhabited the ruins. Most of the great Maya cities were abandoned around the Ninth Century A.D., and Uxmal was no exception.

By the time John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited in 1839, the various names were already in use, such as the Templo del Adivino or Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle, the Palace of the Governor, and so on.

One of the Buildings of the Quadrangle Today

So if you think there were a bunch of Maya nuns running around in the quadrangle of buildings that bears their name, you can forget about it. I am sure that some twelve hundred years ago, the local residents knew exactly what function every public building served. But we will likely never know.

The buildings have various themes carved in the area above the doors, including snakes, masks of the rain god Chaak, geometrical designs, and even a typical residential Maya hut of recent vintage. There are even a few very worn hieroglyphs which commemorate various dynastic events about which we know very little.

Chaak Masks at the Edge of the Structures (and Note the Maya Hut at the Upper Right)

As I wrote in my previous post entitled “The Crown Jewel,” I regard Uxmal as the greatest of the Yucatec Maya sites because of the excellence of the architecture and the care with which the structures have been restored using the mostly original stones. I remember on my earlier visits seeing piles of carved stones which the archeologists of that time had not yet decided how to use. Now there are fewer of those piles lying around.

Next: The Palace of the Governor

 

 

The Crown Jewel

Overview of Uxmal Ruins Today

When John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood traveled in Mexico and Central America to visit Maya ruins, the only place where they went twice was Uxmal in Yucatán. Their description of the site appears in both of their books: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.

In fact, there is something about the place which calls one back. I have now visited it a total of four times, usually staying overnight at the Hacienda Uxmal Hotel and spending extra time with what I consider to be the crown jewel of Maya architecture.Over the next few days, I intend to share with you why I feel this way.

Pretty Much the Same View in 1839 as Drawn by Catherwood

On my first visit, I went on a group tour under the auspices of Turistica Yucateca in Mérida. As the tour van pulled up within sight of the Templo del Adivino, also known as the Pyramid of the Magician, I noted that he crossed himself twice. The Templo del Adivino is shown below in greater detail:

The Templo del Adivino, or Pyramid of the Magician

On previous visits, tourists were allowed to climb the pyramids, and a chain stretched from the base to the top of the Templo del Adivino to help with this. As you can see for yourself, the stairs are steep, with higher than usual risers and narrow treads. When some tourists fell to their deaths from the heights of the pyramid, INAH (the national Institute of Anthropology and History, which controls the archeological zones) began to forbid climbing the ruins. Because “boys will be boys,” some lesser and more easily scalable ruins still allow climbers—but only if the ruins are not as important as the Templo del Adivino or the Castillo at Chichen Itza.

Next: The so-called nunnery quadrangle.

 

No-News Booze Cruise

It’s That Time Again

I suspect that one of the reason so many Americans don’t vote is that politics as practiced in these United States is so divisive and utterly ugsome. With the many 24-hour news channels hammering into our brains and all the phone calls and TV ads, we all look forward wistfully to the day after the November elections—provided that we don’t have another 2016 debacle on our hands.

The above cartoon was in today’s Los Angeles Times in Wiley Miller’s underrated “Non Sequitur” comic strip. I laughed as I thought about the endless Democratic debates and the never-ending tweets of our orange-headed troll of a president. Treating our obsession with the news as an info-virus was a stroke of genius.

When I spent election day 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, I thought I was being smart. Instead, learning that Trump won, I seriously considered for a few minutes staying in South America, but I did return to the mess that greeted me when I returned to our borders.

In recent weeks, there are some of my friends with whom I refuse to discuss politics. I just mutter something about endlessly covering “Subject A” and hurriedly trying (not always successfully) to change the subject.

Kind Hearts and Blistered Toes

A Mexican Doctor’s Prescription for a Blistered Toe

Whenever I encounter a medical problem in my travels, I go to see one of the local doctors. This trip, I developed a nasty blood blister on my left big toe after just two days in Mérida. As I walked out of the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, I was approached by an English-speaking guide named Rafael. Although I was limping badly, I willingly took his guided tour. As it was winding down, I asked him if he could translate my English into Spanish for me to a Mexican physician. He was willing, and suggested the “Doc-in-a-Box” connected with the big Farmacia Yza on the main square.

So he and I saw Dr. Durán Chacón, a young locally trained physician, with Rafael translating. Using the bandaging, wound cleanser, antibiotic capsules, and antibiotic ointment he recommended from the Farmacia, the good doctor cleansed my wound and suggested that I bandage the toe twice a day, applying the cleanser and ointment. Three times a day, I took a 300mg Dalacin C Clindamicina capsule for about five days.

The Antibiotic I Was Prescribed

Fortunately, the good doctor’s recommendations worked; and my toe healed in record time. And it only cost me a few hundred pesos, a small fraction of what I would have had to pay Stateside.

Not surprisingly, Rafael invited me to a souvenir shop in which he was a partner. I knew I should express my gratitude for his kindness so I purchased a few nice items to take back to L.A.

Do I think he was being mercenary? Yes and no. He was a small businessman with a kind heart, and he saved my vacation from turning into a medical casualty. Again and again during my trip, I met with kindness; and I tried to express my appreciation in a meaningful way, even if it meant dispensing a few extra pesos.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Statue of Pirate on a Bench in Campeche

It was by no means one of the gold and silver ports used by the Spanish treasure fleets (those were in what is today Panama), but the city of Campeche, Mexico, was the main port of Yucatán from the 17th through the beginning of the 19th centuries. The city’s wealth came primarily from a plant used for dyeing textiles called palo de Campeche, salt from evaporation, and shipbuilding. The result was that the city was frequently attacked by pirates.

The most prominent of these were the Dutchman Laurens de Graaf, called Lorencillo, and Jean David Nau, called El Olonés. Of the latter, it was said:

He committed innumerable and famous stumbling against the Spanish viceroyalty of the mainland. In a terrible storm, he lost his ship on the coast of Campeche. All the men were saved, but, arriving on land, the Spanish persecuted them by killing most of them, and also hurting the Olonés. Not knowing this how to escape, he thought about saving his life through a ploy: he took several handfuls of sand and mixing it with the blood of his own wounds he smeared his face and other parts of his body. Then, hiding with great skill among the dead, he remained motionless until the Spaniards left the field of struggle. Since they were gone, he retired to the forest, sold his wounds and took care of them until heal and then headed to the City of Campeche perfectly disguised. In the city, he spoke with certain slaves to whom he promised freedom in case they obeyed him. They accepted their promises and stealing a canoe at night, threw themselves into the sea with the Olonés.

Surviving Fortifications in Campeche

Other pirates included Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Cornelius Jol, Portuguese Bartholemew, Jacobo Jackson, Michel de Grandmont, Henry Morgan, and finally Jean Lafitte, who helped Andrew Jackson win the 1815 Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

What the Spanish and the people of Campeche did was to fortify their city, surrounding the center with walls on all sides and putting separate fortifications on the north and south.

The Fortress of San Miguel, South of the City

With independence from Spain, the pirate menace eventually abated. But many of the walls (baluartes) that surrounded the city still exist and are walkable. You can also visit the two large fortresses that protect Campeche on either side.

 

Boat People

Oh, Those Evil Mexicans!

For this post to make any sense, you’ll need to know the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso around the time of my trip. When I was there, the peso ran around 17.5 to the dollar, or about 6¢ each.

There is not much love lost between cruise ship passengers and Mexicans. (In fact, there is not much love lost between cruise ship passengers and me, for that matter.) They tend to be retirees whose idea of paradise is to rot on some beach somewhere. They know next to nothing about the countries they visit. In fact, they don’t know the language; their wallets are stuffed with dollars; and they basically listen to what their handlers tell them.

I was in Izamal when for a brief moment, I was mistaken for a boat person. I hand just seen the Church of San Antonio de Padua and wanted to get back to my room. There was a taxi tout next to the Centro bus station who said a taxi would cost 100 pesos for the five-block ride. I glared at him, said that was demasiado caro (“too expensive”), and hoofed it back to my room, which I would have done in the first place if I weren’t recovering from a nasty blister on my right big toe. The tout looked surprised: These boat Gringos weren’t supposed to know any Spanish, and certainly wouldn’t know that the in-town taxi rate in Izamal was only 25 pesos.

Cut to Progreso, which has two or more cruise ships call each week. The malécon fills up with American cruise ship zombies, who quite naturally have to relieve themselves from time to time. There are bathrooms (sanitarios) in the alleys off the malécon, costing 5 or 10 pesos each. The equivalent price in dollars is 30-60¢, but U.S. coins cannot be exchanged for pesos in Mexico, so the bathroom is charging $1.00 to Gringos. (The sign on the right side of the above photo sets the price in Mexican currency for a bathroom visit to be 10 pesos.)

Finally, also in Progreso, I saw a scene that annoyed me to no end. I purchased a one-way ticket to Mérida for 21 pesos. At the same time, a tout was selling round trip tickets to Mérida for $10.00 each, about four times what I paid. The boat people were grabbing them up as if they were a bargain. Several, seeing that I spoke Spanish while looking like a Gringo, came up to ask me questions. I smiled and answered them … in Hungarian. I have no intention of being a cavaliere servente to a bunch of brain-dead Yanqui tourists.