Photo of the Day: Jungle Pyramid

This is a shot of the Pyramid of the Magician rising above the jungle in Uxmal, Mexico. This was my favorite of the pyramid sites I visited: more remote, less crowded, and less touristy than the more famous sites of Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan. When you walk around here you can really feel like you’re in the middle of an Indiana Jones film.

Date: 11/2/2013
Camera: Nikon D5100
Click for larger view

You can view more featured photos at my Photo of the Day Collection.


Down in Mexico, Days 6 to 9: Swimming and Snorkeling in Cancun

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November 3, 2013: After a long day of driving from Merida to Cancun, with a visit to Chichen Itza in between, I finally checked into my hotel around 8 p.m. on a rainy evening. The hotel was one of those all-inclusive joints that are always trying to sell you a time share or vacation club or whatever they call it. I discovered just how aggressive they can be before I even made it to the elevator with my suitcase when I was intercepted by one of their marketing people. Really? Could I at least unpack before you start harassing me? I was tired and not in a sales-pitch kind of mood, so I just kind of played dumb until she let me go.

Moments later, I finally arrived in my room. I’m not picky about hotel rooms (when you do most of your traveling with a dog, you learn to take what you can get), but I was surprised by the cheap-motel feel of the room, like a leftover relic from the 50’s or 60’s, with concrete walls painted lime green. No mini-bar, which I guess is understandable in an all-inclusive place, but I missed the ability to keep my water cool (the broken ice machine on the floor didn’t help matters). There was also no free WiFi and you had to pay if you wanted to use the in-room safe (so much for all-inclusive). Minor quibbles, but I would have expected more considering how much you pay to stay in one of these resorts.

On the other hand, I had a great view of both the ocean and the bay from my window, which I was looking forward to seeing in the daylight.

Daylight view from my room. A Mayan ruin is visible to the right.

In the meantime, I ventured downstairs for dinner and then outside to take a nighttime stroll. The rain had let up so I decided to take a walk up to the nearby Mayan ruin. I had the entire ruin to myself; it was so peaceful overlooking the ocean. I could have stayed there all night.

Mayan Ruin
Overlooking the beach from the ruin (long exposure).

I headed back to my room and went to bed. Since I had gotten very little sleep over the long week, I decided I would sleep in the following morning so I would be rejuvenated for the rest of my stay. That idea, however, was quashed when someone from the marketing staff called me at 7 a.m. to ask me if I was going on their trip to Chichen Itza. I had just come from Chichen Itza the night before, why would I want to go back? I tried to go back to sleep, but a half-hour later someone else called to ask if I was coming to their breakfast presentation. Umm, no! I was really irritated now (I guess I should have unplugged the phone).

There was no going back to sleep now, so I got ready and then headed downstairs, sought out the first marketing person I could find, and told her I was not interested in anything they had to sell and to please make sure nobody called my room again. I’m normally not that assertive but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my brief stay dodging sales pitches. Anyway, it worked; no salesperson called me again for the rest of my stay; they just resorted to slipping things under my door.

So if you’re considering staying in one of these all-inclusive places, just know what you’re in for. It’s not the kind of place in which I would have chosen to stay if it hadn’t been a part of my tour package. While the all-inclusive aspect has its appeal (especially the unlimited mixed drinks I was able to order), it’s not really my cup of tea. I would rather not be married to eating all of my meals at the hotel buffet (which you almost feel obligated to do given that you already paid for it), and the whole Dirty-Dancing-Catskills-resort atmosphere with the scheduled events and activities doesn’t really appeal to me. It seems designed to keep you in or near the hotel for your entire stay, or to use the hotel for any excursions.

Cancun in general strikes me as a vacation destination for Americans who don’t like to travel, as it’s essentially an American resort that happens to exist in Mexico. You don’t have to learn the language or customs or venture outside of your comfort zone because you’re shielded in this self-contained luxury cocoon. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re looking for, but for my part, when I want to spend a week at the beach I can just drive to the Jersey shore.

That being said, the beaches and waters of Cancun are stunningly beautiful. The turquoise Caribbean was like nothing I had ever seen before, and the white sand was incredibly soft and powdery, not coarse like the beaches back home. I was so taken by the comfort of the sand and the beauty of the water that I was inspired to go swimming in the ocean, which is something I almost never do at the Jersey shore.

Looking Up the Beach
The Gorgeous Water

After swimming I spent some more time on the beach and then took another walk up to the Mayan ruin to see it in daylight.

On the way up to the ruin I encountered this guy on the steps.
The Mayan Ruin
Another view of the ruin.
View of the beach from the ruin.

I then headed to the hotel pool, which has a bar that serves drinks while you sit on a bar stool in the pool, and enjoyed some Mai Tais. So yes, despite my protestations, I did make good use of the all-inclusive package. ūüôā

I also scheduled an excursion for the following day called Jungle Tour that involved driving your own motor boat through a lagoon and mangroves and out to sea to go snorkeling on the Great Mayan Reef, which is said to be the largest reef in the Western Hemisphere. I had never been snorkeling before, so I was looking forward to it. The rest of the evening was spent checking out a nearby outdoor mall and stopping by the hotel’s “Pirate Party” on the beach, which was basically a glorified high school dance, so I left quickly.

The Outdoor Mall

The next day I headed out for my snorkeling excursion. I had trouble figuring out where to pick up the bus that would take me to the tour operator and almost wound up being late, but I eventually made it. I decided to buy a disposable underwater camera in their shop and then I was off to change, pick up my gear, and report to the dock.

Me on my boat (taken with disposable camera).

We each had our own boats to drive as we headed out to the reef, which took about a half-hour. Once there, after some instruction, we jumped in. I stayed with the beginners, though I think I would have been okay following the experienced snorkelers. Despite the overcast sky, the view underwater was amazing, and nothing can prepare you for the first time a large fish appears out of nowhere to swim right in front of your face. Startling, but also exhilarating.

The underwater camera turned out to be a waste because most of the pictures did not come out, and the ones that did are not of very good quality. In fact, this is the only underwater shot that was even remotely worth sharing:

As a novice snorkeler, I kept making the mistake of turning my head to the point where the snorkel became submerged, causing me to swallow seawater. The ocean was rough as well, which led to a bout of motion sickness (I should have taken Dramamine or something). On top of that, the life vest kept scraping against my underarms until my skin was raw (next time I’ll have to wear something to prevent that). So I wound up returning to my boat about ten minutes early, with a headache and the world spinning around me. Despite all of that, it was still an amazing experience and definitely something I want to do again. I’ll be better prepared for it next time.

At the end of my snorkeling adventure.

That evening, for my final dinner of the trip, I decided to forego the buffet and make a reservation at the hotel’s fancy Italian restaurant. It was part of the all-inclusive package, which meant unlimited glasses of prosecco. The lasagna was just okay, but the antipasto and dessert buffets were great, especially the cannolis filled with chocolate mousse.

After dinner I headed upstairs to pack for my flight. I asked for an 8 a.m. wake-up call the next morning only to have the front desk call me at 7:30 to let me know when my airport transfer would be arriving‚ÄĒthey were just determined not to let me sleep. :-\

The shuttle was late because the driver had to switch vehicles after the AC broke on the first vehicle, but he eventually came and I made it to the airport with time to spare. I was a bit annoyed that I had to wait in line with the rest of the people checking their baggage when I only had a carry-on, but it was nice to go through a security checkpoint that doesn’t make you take your shoes off. Before long I was on the plane and headed back to Jersey. The flight home was very comfortable‚ÄĒI had sprung the extra $49 for premium economy seats and nobody else was sitting in them, so I basically had two entire rows on both sides of the plane to myself, which enabled me to get some nice sunset views like these, captured with my cell phone camera:

Before signing off, a quick word about the tour company I used, Tour By Mexico. I tried to do as much research as possible before my trip, but there was not a whole lot of info about them online in terms of reviews, so I took a bit of a gamble in booking with them. It paid off. They were very professional and organized, answered all of my questions before the trip, showed up promptly for all of my transfer pickups (save the Cancun pickup mentioned above), and they quickly resolved the issue I had with my Mexico City hotel. I would recommend them if you are looking for an organized tour in Mexico, and the Pyramid Tour in particular was a great way to visit many of Mexico’s more famous pyramid sites within the span of a week.

Well, that’s it for my Mexico journal. Before long I’ll be writing about my U.K. trip. Until then, I leave you with my Mexico trip video:

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Down in Mexico, Day 6: Chichen Itza

Me at Chichen Itza
Click on any image in this post for a larger view.

November 3, 2013:¬†The longest day of my Mexico¬†trip began in the morning with a pickup at my hotel in Merida for the drive to Chichen Itza. I would not be returning to the hotel, so I had all of my luggage with me. Fortunately, I had chosen to travel with just a carry-on, so there wasn’t much to lug around. We drove around the city picking up others until the van was full. The entire group would be moving on to Cancun after Chichen Itza, so the back of the van was piled with everyone’s luggage.

After a couple of hours of driving we arrived at Chichen Itza, home of one Mexico’s most famous pyramids, El Castillo (pictured above), but first our guide took us on an extended tour of other buildings in the complex.

El Caracol (aka, The Observatory)
A building in the Las Monjas complex.
Supposedly the hole on the right was blown by an overzealous archaeologist.
Another building in the Las Monjas complex.

Before long I got my first view of El Castillo.

El Castillo

Unfortunately, they no longer allow you to climb this pyramid. They closed it off to public access seven years ago after an elderly woman slipped on the steps and fell to her death. From what the guide was saying, it sounds like Mexican authorities are closing off more and more ruins for both safety reasons and to preserve the ruins from human erosion, so if you want to climb the still-open pyramids in places like Teotihuacan and Uxmal, you might want to get down to Mexico sooner rather than later.

After spending some time at the great pyramid, our guide took us to some of the other nearby structures.

The Skull Platform
Closeup of some of the skulls.
The Great Ball Court.
Mayan nobility would have viewed the event from the tall structure on the upper left.

After the guided tour ended we were given free time to explore the rest of the complex. I headed over to the Temple of the Warriors.

Temple of the Warriors
Temple of the Warriors
Standing among the pillars near the Temple of the Warriors.

I then headed down to the other end of the complex to check out the Sacred Cenote, which supplied water to the city. On a side note, we were supposed to go swimming in a nearby underground cenote after leaving Chichen Itza but that never materialized, bummer. ūüė¶

The Sacred Cenote

Along the way I had to run the gauntlet of vendors. They’re not as annoying as the ones in Teotihuacan because they are set up behind tables, so they don’t follow you around as much. And they’re located on side paths away from the ruins so, unlike Teotihuacan, it’s easier to avoid them, but it still adds a touristy vibe to the place that you don’t get when visiting more remote sites like Uxmal and Kabah.

After walking around the cenote I made my way back to the great pyramid for some more photos.

It was time to leave, so I headed back toward the park entrance. I had 20 pesos left in my pocket so I figured I’d see what I could get from one of the vendors before exiting. I wasn’t expecting much since 20 pesos is roughly the equivalent of $2, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, and maybe they’d want to unload some goods since it was near the end of the day. I stopped at a vendor, found what I thought was a cheap item and asked how much. He said, “50 pesos,” so I said, “No thanks,” and started to leave. He followed me and asked me how much I wanted to give. I said, “20.” He said, “Okay, 20.” I handed him the 20 pesos and he said, “No, 20 U.S. dollars.” So he had increased ¬†the price from $5 (50 pesos) to $20 (200 pesos) while acting like he was giving me a bargain because 20 was less than 50. He obviously was counting on my misunderstanding of the currency differences to try and swindle me. I walked away.

When I reached the end of the path I realized I was at the wrong gate, so I had to turn around and try to find my way to the correct gate (Chichen Itza is a large complex). By the time I finally reached it, I was very late. I walked around looking for my group but could not find anyone. Eventually my guide found me and led me to the dining hall where the group was having lunch. I sat near a couple from Switzerland and we had a nice conversation. I told them how much I love Switzerland and it turned out that they were from Basel, which I had just visited on my last Eurotrip.

The observatory from outside the park.

After dinner it was time to head back to the van for the long drive to Cancun. About three hours later, around 8 p.m. on a rainy evening, I checked into my Cancun hotel for the final leg of my trip, which will be covered in the next installment. In the meantime, here’s one more photo of El Castilo:

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Down in Mexico, Day 5: Indiana Jonesing in Uxmal and Kabah

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November 2, 2013:¬†This was my favorite day of the¬†trip. It began with a morning pickup at the hotel across from mine, where I met a couple from California (I met a lot of California people on this trip). The driver apparently spoke only a few words of English so we had some trouble communicating with him. However, after everyone was picked up and in the van, the driver grabbed¬†the microphone and began speaking in perfect English. Turns out he was actually our guide and was just pranking us. ūüôā

So we sat back for the long ride to Uxmal. It was literally in the middle of nowhere, as the road cut through forest with virtually nothing else around. It reminded me a bit of driving through certain portions of the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, but with even longer stretches of remoteness.

We eventually reached Uxmal and had time to do a little shopping before entering. It was a very hot day, and just as humid as the previous day. I considered buying one of those Panama hats to block the sun but instead settled for an Uxmal baseball cap since I have collected baseball caps from most of my other travel destinations. I still hadn’t managed to find any sunscreen on this trip (a store in the ground-floor mall of my hotel in Merida wanted like $35 for a little tube!), so I just used some hand lotion on my face and my Avon bug spray (which includes some sunscreen) for the rest of me. The bug spray has proven to be very effective on my two jungle-ish trips in Peru and Mexico at keeping away the insects, so I was glad I brought it.

Upon entering the Uxmal complex the first thing you see is the glorious Pyramid of the Magician. Unfortunately, this is not a pyramid they allow you to climb.

Pyramid of the Magician
Pyramid of the Magician

I noticed several lizards crawling up and down the pyramid walls (I believe they were iguanas). They were everywhere and had no fear of humans, so you could walk right up to them and take a picture like this:

An Uxmal Citizen

Our guide took us through the entire complex, providing excellent background and commentary. This was easily¬†my favorite of all the pyramid sites I visited. Because it is so remote and peaceful, with far fewer tourists than the more popular pyramid sites (and no vendors harassing you to buy stuff), it’s really easy to imagine yourself as an Indiana Jones-type of explorer stumbling onto a lost Mayan city in the middle of the jungle.

Nunnery Quadrangle (a government palace)
A building of the Nunnery Quadrangle
Looking through the ball court toward the Governor’s Palace.
Governor’s Palace

After our tour, the guide gave us free time that I used to climb the Great Pyramid at the other end of the complex, which has only been partially restored.

The Great Pyramid

The top offers¬†a bird’s-eye view of the entire complex and really gives you a sense of its remoteness as you gaze upon¬†jungle stretching to the horizon in every direction.

Me on top of the Great Pyramid
Pyramid of the Magician viewed from the Great Pyramid

After spending some time at the top I made my way to an unrestored, ruined structure called the House of the Doves. Located in an isolated area of the complex through some foliage, I was the only person there. I love having a place to myself like that; it always makes me feel as if I’m discovering something that no one else knows about. I could practically¬†hear John Williams’¬†Raiders¬†theme in my head. ūüėČ

House of the Doves
House of the Doves

Soon it was time to leave and head to Kabah. Here are a few Uxmal parting shots:

Looking up toward the Governor’s Palace
Front of the Governor’s Palace
View of the Uxmal complex from the Governor’s Palace hill.
Pyramid of the Magician
Pyramid of the Magician

Kabah is a sister site to Uxmal located about 14 miles away. The two sites are connected by an ancient Mayan causeway, though I’m not sure if you are actually able to hike the whole thing. A grand arch sits at either end of the causeway¬†but¬†I did not have the chance to see this at Kabah since¬†I was unaware of it at the time.

In the distance on the upper right you can see the overgrown Great Pyramid of Kabah.

Kabah is even more remote than Uxmal, with very little in the way of facilities, which to me is a good thing because it feel much less touristy than the more popular sites. In fact, we were the only group there, so we basically had the run of the place. It’s a smaller site than Uxmal, but apparently only a portion of it has actually been excavated, so it could prove to be much larger than it appears. As I toured the various buildings I could see excavators working on structures in the woods. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, so I never made it to the other side of the road (where the causeway is), but from what I hear, it’s worth a hike to see structures still overgrown with forest (as well as the aforementioned arch).

Codz Poop (Palace of the Masks)
Codz Poop
Closeup of Codz Poop facade.
El Palacio (to the right)
El Palacio
(may also be known as the Governor’s palace, though I’m not sure about that)
Another temple.

After Kabah I was not feeling too well, mostly because I hadn’t hydrated enough to counteract the extreme humidity; I did not bring as much water as I should have, but the California couple was kind enough to give me an extra bottle of water they had. For lunch we went to an outdoor buffet at a charming hotel, though I wasn’t feeling up to eating much. After dinner, we were scheduled to go home, but another couple wanted to see a working Mayan village and the group voted to go. I would much rather have just gone back to my hotel at that point, given the way I was feeling (and the fact that there was an extra cost associated with it), but I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else, so I went.

I think the village was just for show and that they don’t actually live there, but it was still a neat experience. We saw them make rope from leaves and enjoyed tortillas made right in front of us. We also were able to pick tasty oranges right off the trees and eat them; I had never seen oranges with green peels before.

Me with one of the Mayans. I’m holding a piece of rope he had just made.
Interior of a Mayan Hut.
According to my guide in Merida, many people on the Yucatan still sleep in hammocks rather than beds.

When I finally returned to the hotel that night, I skipped dinner again but found time to enjoy the hot tub, which really hit the spot. In the lobby that night there was a big Day of the Dead corporate party going on, with music loud enough that anyone who wanted to go to bed early would be screwed. Luckily, I’m a night owl anyway, and I had to pack since this was my last night in Merida. In the morning I would be headed to Chichen Itza and then on to Cancun.

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Down in Mexico, Day 4: Merida (Summer in November)

November 1, 2013: A few hours after my morning pickup in Mexico City I landed in Merida. As the plane approached I got a good bird’s-eye view of the Yucatan Peninsula: lush, green, and flat. The noon sun was almost directly overhead, which resulted in the neat effect of the clouds casting shadows that looked like lakes:

The first thing that struck me when I stepped out of the airport was the humidity. I knew it would be hotter on the Yucatan Peninsula, but I was not prepared for the feeling of stepping outside into a steam room. The temperature was in the 90’s and the humidity level was over 90-percent, which meant that sweat basically began pouring off you right away. The humidity also wreaked havoc with my camera; the lens fogged up as soon as I walked outside. I had to head back inside and treat the lens with an anti-fog coating.

My Merida guide met me at the airport and took me on a tour of the city via automobile. As with my first full day in Mexico City, I was the only person in the vehicle, so it was essentially my own private tour. Merida is a very charming city full of colonial architecture and devoid of skyscrapers. I did not take pictures from the car because I figured I’d return to most of these sites on foot. Unfortunately, I was not feeling too well during my two days in Merida, so I did not see as much of the city as I would have liked.

The guide was very good, giving me¬†lots of historical background. Regarding the heat, he told me that even at its coldest the temperature in Merida rarely dips below the 60’s, but¬†during that time the locals can been seen walking around in sweaters and scarves, which I found amusing since those of us enduring this brutal winter in the States would consider 60 degrees practically beach weather. ūüėČ

I was disappointed to learn that Merida had already had its big Day of the Dead celebration, complete with full parade to the cemetery, on the previous day, so I missed out on all of the festivities. I had timed my trip so that I would arrive in Merida on November 1, which I thought was the first official day of the holiday, but as my guide pointed out, the previous day was for the public while November 1st and 2nd are more for the family. Oh well, I guess I should have researched that better.

After the tour the guide dropped me at my hotel, The Fiesta Americana, and waited while I checked in. The hotel had a very cool interior, by far the nicest of the hotels in which I stayed during this trip.

Fiesta Americana Interior (vertical panorama)

After getting settled in my room I returned downstairs so my guide could drive me back into the center of town and drop me off. Although my hotel was little more than a mile from the center of town (easy walking distance), I nevertheless appreciated the ride. No sooner had I started meandering about than a man came up to me and started chatting me up. He wanted me to come eat lunch in his restaurant. I would have liked to explore my options, but I figured what the hell, I was hungry anyway. I ordered a traditional Yucatan dish, a chicken stew type of thing; it was pretty good.

After lunch, the restaurant owner offered to show me to some museum that only locals know about. Based on my experience in Mexico so far, I figured it was a ploy to get me to buy something, but I went along because he was a nice guy. He took me into a building and upstairs and then left. The ‚Äúmuseum‚ÄĚ turned out to just be a shop of the same type of stuff you could buy anywhere else, so I left quickly, much to the shop owner‚Äôs chagrin.

I then walked around some more and slowly made my way back to the hotel, figuring I’d come back into town around dinner time. That did not happen as I was feeling the effects of both the humidity and perhaps some food I ate, so I skipped dinner, though I did head out later that evening for a walk. After returning, I went to bed. I had an early pickup scheduled in the morning for my trip out to Uxmal, an excursion to which I was very much looking forward.

Here are some photos from my day in Merida:

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