Another early start (very keen!) got us on the road for 9am. This was
probably going to be a long day, as we planned to ride from Campeche,
via Merida, to somewhere near Valladolid (get the map! get the map!)
for the night. This would be a convenient starting point for a tour
of Chichen Itza, an ancient Mayan archaelogical site, the following
morning and the subsequent (short!) 100km ride into Cancun in the
The early start and good, although uninteresting, roads meant we made
Merida just before lunch. A food (crisps, biscuits and Gatorade!) and
fuel (petrol…) stop got us through Merida and out the other side,
unfortunately on the wrong road, although this turned out to be a more
scenic and lesuirely ride parallel to the hectic 180 Highway we’d been
aiming for. Signs for Chichen Itza began sprouting by the side of the
road and we pulled into an ageing, lurid turquoise motel in a village
called Piste, a stone’s throw from Chichen Itza about 2pm. Will’s
lapse into a snoring coma postponed plans for an afternoon tour of
Chichen Itza, fortunately so, as the heavens opened, thunder rolled
and most of the world’s fresh water supplies drenched the area. When
the floods had subsided, we had an almost mosquito-free dinner in a
local restaurant and headed for bed. The more-than-helpful owner
helped us secure the bikes, blocking them in with his car – such a
contrast with the attitude at the snotty, upmarket hotel at which I’d
enquired for a room…although to be fair, a day’s biking doesn’t
result in the neatest of appearances!
Back on the bikes the next day, sans panniers making them feel a LOT
faster – and thinner! – we headed for Chichen Itza. Initially
baulking at the prices – the few weeks we’ve spent in rural Mexico has
made us seriously tight with money! – we coughed up 190pesos, about
19USD, for entry to the site. Our experiences at Teotihuacan – i.e.
knowing slightly less than not very much about the history – convinced
us that a guided tour would be the best idea…so, somewhat
snobbishly eschewing a group tour, we opted for our own guide, at the
astronomical cost of 480pesos, about 24GBP. This proved to be a great
investment, as Willy, our sun-wrinkled 57-year guide, knew everything
and more about the site, was married to a Mayan princess – COOL! – and
was a great laugh too.
Chichen Itza is an ancient Mayan city, parts dating back to 400AD with
the main pyramid, probably the most impressive part, constructed in
900AD. Discovered in the late 1800s, several of the most impressive
buildings have been restored – i.e. rebuilt with the original bricks.
The highlights are the main pyramid, the ball court, the observatory
and the temple of the warriors.
The site is incredible, and having a guide to bring to life the
buildings and culture really helped – well worth the extra cash. It’s
difficult wandering round these big sites on our own as once the
impact of the majestic buildings has worn off we can’t but help feel a
little lost! Having Willy there to describe the purpose of the many
buldings was great.
The main pyramid dominates the site, and although not as initially
domniating as the structures at Teotihuacan in terms of size, they are
far more impressive as they describe the Mayan culture and were used
as giant calculators for harvest seasons. All the dimensions are
significant – although one gets a bit sceptical of the convenience
with which the numbers fit – number of steps up the sides is
significant (4 sides, 91 steps a side – days in a Mayan year; number
of levels = number of months in Mayan year). Best of all, on equinox
days, the setting sun casts a diamondback shadow down one side of the
pyramid ending in a stone snake head at the base of the
steps…supposedly this told the Maya when to start and stop
harvesting. In th 1980’s, a few thousand people turned up to watch
the snake appear…last year nearly 50,000 turned up!
More plausible, and arguably more impressive still, is the
Observatory, where the Mayan astromomers studied the stars.
Accurately aligned with astronomical north, this allowed the Mayan
farmers to use a spohisticated harvesting schedule to increase their
The ball court, the site where the “league finals” were held once a
year, is incredible. Parallel walls four metres high and more than
seventy metres long formed the bounds of the echoing playing area,
decorated with intricate carvings, with a vertical ring midway along
and over three metres off the ground forming the goal through which
two teams of seven would try to punt a heavy, baseball-sized ball.
The winning team’s captain would be decapitated, apparently an
enviable fate as it circumvented the otherwise laborious process of
reincarnation – or so the Maya believed – makes today’s
man-of-the-match award look a bit tame!
Although the number of human sacrifices was a lot less than is
thought, the Maya did actually sacrifice warriors to their main god,
the Rain God. Gruesome stories of pyramidal stones used to break
spines and still-pumping hearts placed on altars gave the Temple of
the Warriors a sinister edge – carvings on all each side of the square
columns at the front of the temple indicate four sacrificed
warriors…and there are 1500 columns spread over three acres of
jungle! These columns formed the supports for the roof of the local
market too…mildly disturbing when you’re buying your sunday turkey I
Two hours later, we were knackered and brimming with Mayan knowledge.
TIme to hit the road and head for Cancun…many, many dead butterflies
later we pulled into the resort, drove through the main hotel zone and
headed directly for Playa del Carmen instead. Cancun is a massive
commercialised district, with endless repititions of the
hotel/beach/cheesy bar formula to keep the mindless Americans happy –
yuck. Gambling on Playa del Carmen being better, we headed 30km south
along the dual carriageway fenced with adverts for “Real Estate”,
Burger King (best advert yet – “Just Do Eat” – classic) and everything
else faux-american. Grim.
The gamble paid off, Playa del Carmen proving a much smaller and more
hospitable town. A hotel with a swimming pool designed specifically
for grimy bikers was a handy place to dump the gear (in the room, not
the swimming pool…) and lock the bikes before heading out to 5th Avenue,
the main restaurant bar area in PdC. A bewildering array of
restaurants and small bars totally confused us, accustomed as we are
to a single choice of eatery in the towns we’ve stayed in until now,
but we battled through, finishing with some ice-cold Coronas in a late
bar before piling into bed, air-conditioning reducing the temperature
to approximately absolute zero 🙂
We should have a few days here to relax, change the oil in the bikes
and build ourselves up on food that ISN’T tacos/tortillas/etc for a
change…the plan is to head for the Belize border, 200km to the
south, on the 19th or 20th…wait for the next update!