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29th June 2011
In the quaint colonial town of Izamal , one of México´s Pueblos Mágicos, all the central buildings are painted in egg yolk yellow. Towering above everything else is the Franciscan church and convent, built on top and out of a Mayan pyramid. The Spanish monk Fray Diego de Landa who founded the Monastery later burnt all the Maya writings – lost forever (only 4 books remain). There are various Maya pyramids scattered about town, even the remains of one in our hotel´s garden.
When Francisco de Montejo and his Conquistadores arrived at the Maya city of T’ho in 1542, the white limestone covered buildings reminded them of the Roman city of Mérida  back in Spain. They renamed the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas and then proceeded to dismantle it, using the stone for the construction of churches and public buildings. We got there on a wet and windy day. Thoroughly soaked, we set out to explore the colonial architecture. The rain had eased the next day as we bussed and hour and a half out to Uxmal, one of the best restored Mayan sites with magnificent examples of Puuc construction – buildings beautifully decorated with carefully cut stones, often featuring the God of Rain, Chac.
|Two of the stones taken from a Mayan temple used in the Monastery|
24th June 2011
Unpretentious, colonial Valladolid , was established in 1543 by the Spanish who built on top of a Mayan settlement. Pastel coloured buildings line wide streets, and the huge, shady square is always full of locals. It made a good base to see the nearby attractions. Valladolid is well known for its cuisine; we liked the Queso Relleno Estilo Valladolid, stuffed cheese with turkey, pork, Dutch cheese, olives, capers, almonds, raisins, and spices.
The closest Maya ruins are at Ek Balam, Mayan for “Black Jaguar”, dating from 300 BC. Unusually, the central religious area where the elite resided was surrounded by a double set of walls. The Mayans buried the Acropolis (160 metres by 70 metres at the base and 31 metres high), preserving the stucco sculptures and many painted hieroglyphic inscriptions. We arrived at the opening time of 0800 and had the entire place to ourselves.
The most famous of the Maya ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula is Chichén Itzá, listed in the New Seven Wonders of the World. Occupied until the 800´s when it was abandoned, it was re settled 100 years later by the warlike Toltecs. Thus a mixture of styles is evident. It is the best preserved and restored of all the Mayan sites and most impressive.
On the way back to Valladolid we stopped at Cenote Xkekén, a large underground cavern with a hole in the ceiling, for a refreshing swim in its cool clear waters. Then a taxi took us to the town of Uyama with its beautiful red, white and blue church built in 1642 from the stones of Mayan pyramids.
Two buses north brought us to Rio Largartos (Lizard River)  a small fishing village nestled in the mangroves near the coast. There are colonies of flame red flamingos and 387 other bird species have been sighted nearby. We went by boat to see the flamingos and weren´t disappointed; there were hundreds feeding in flocks. On the way we spotted a couple of crocs, eagles, herons and dozens of other birds.
|Details of head masks at Ek-Balam|
21st June 2011
The ruins at Tulum  may be modest but the setting on a cliff above the ocean, grand. It was occupied between 1200 AD and 1521 AD, at the end of the Mayan civilization. On borrowed bikes from the hotel we peddled out early to avoid the heat and the hordes.
Around Tulum there are many cenotes, sections of caves that have collapsed leaving behind round sinkholes filled with clear, cool water. No need for a mask and snorkel, the water is crystal clear and the underwater wonderland of stalactites and stalagmites is clearly visible. The Maya believed cenotes to be entrances to the underworld.
Bypassing the “planned paradise” resorts of Cancún, we took the fast ferry out to Isla Mujeres (Island of Women)  on a rainy, windy day. After 2 days the weather improved and we were able to head northeast into the open sea, an hour in a small boat doing 20 knots, to snorkel with the whale sharks. Scarcely able to believe it, a school of about 200, average length 10 meters, circled around our boat. Into the deep ocean we went, nervous as the gentle giants approached within a meter of us, mouths wide open, cleaner fish attached to their gills. It was an incredible experience. Back on board the sea was getting rougher with a choppy meter high swell – everyone threw up.
17th June 2011
México at last!!!
We began in Chetumal , just over the border from Belize, with a visit to the “must see” Museum of Maya Culture. The Yucatán Peninsula is dotted with the remains of grand Maya cities so we headed inland to the small village of Xpujil  to see the ruins of Xpujil. A large structure topped by 3 towers dominates the site.
Becán (550 BC – 1000 AD), a few kilometres away, is surrounded by a moat, unique in the Mayan cities. We had the ruins to ourselves surrounded by only the jungle and its eerie early morning sounds.
The vast World Heritage site of Calakmul sits within a biosphere reserve. Our guide Nicolas (Kaan Expeditions) pointed out birds and animals along the way. Being hard to reach there were very few other visitors. The tallest 82 metre high building towers over the trees that surround ancient temples. The city flourished from 250 AD to 695 AD and some of the structures still have wooden beams from those times. We tried to picture the city as it once stood, brightly painted stucco covering huge pyramids which surrounded large paved plazas.
|Mens and Ladies baños (toilets)|
12th June 2011
Leaving the coast behind we headed inland to San Ignacio  for the Maya ruins of Caracol. With experienced guide Elias Cambranes of K’Atun Ahaw Tours we were able to understand more about the earliest inhabitants. It is believed that more than 1 million Maya once lived in what is now Belize (present population 321,000). Extensive ruins can be found right across the country.
Caracol was once one of the largest city states. The centre piece of the site is the 43 metre high structure known as Caana (Sky Palace) topped with 3 temples. There is a great view of the rest of the site from the top.
Caves, representing the underworld were important to the Maya. Rituals and human sacrifice was performed deep inside. A tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave was certainly an adventure. We swam into the dark mouth of the cave then slowly scrambled over rocks, waded through water and squeezed through narrow spaces some 800 metres into the 5 kilometre long cave. We then left the water by climbing up the rocky wall to reach a large chamber filled with spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. The floor was littered with pottery vessels placed there over 1 thousand years ago as well as human remains. Everything lies where it did when the Mayas left – nothing has been removed. The most interesting was a complete calcified skeleton of a woman (the crystal maiden) tucked away in small cavern.
Further north from the town of Orange Walk  we travelled by boat down the New River to the Maya site of Lamanai (Submerged Crocodile). Jungle overhanging the river banks was reflected in the inky black water, crocodiles were sunning themselves on tree trunks, a spider monkey swung through the trees following the boat and water birds were everywhere. Lamanai was one of the largest and longest inhabited ceremonial centres in Belize.
08th June 2011
From the cool Guatemala highlands we flew to hot, humid Belize on the Caribbean. Once a British colony (and a haven for English pirates), Belize is a primarily English speaking country. The Maya were the first inhabitants and together with an interesting mix of Creoles (African/European), Mestizos (Spanish/Maya) and Garifuna (African/Caribbean) plus a few Chinese, Indians and Mennonites make it quite a different country to the rest of Central America.
We spent a night in Belize City  before catching the water taxi to Caye Caulker , a super laid back island 3 blocks wide and 3 kilometres long with sandy streets and only a few cars.
Belize has the world´s second largest barrier reef dotted with some 200 islands or cays. We took a 3 day trip on the 40 foot gaff rigged, traditional Belizean wooden sailing boat, Ragga King, heading south from Caye Caulker to Placencia , reggae music blaring. There were 11 of us tourists, plus 2 crew on board. Patrick, the skipper, was an expert spear fisherman while the first mate and cook Shane kept us amused with his antics and singing. Sailing between islands through aqua blue water, we stopped every couple of hours to snorkel on shallow patches of reef. Under water was a different world – beautiful corals and fish we´ve not seen before. We were thrilled to see a manatee glide by. The first night we pitched our tents on the deserted Rendezvous Caye  a tiny sand patch with 5 coconut trees, the second night on sandy Tobacco Caye . Dinner was the fish caught each day washed down with a few rum punches whilst sitting around a campfire.