Colonial Arch in Merida, Mexico at sunset.
Doesn’t this look like paradise? Where are the people? Celestún is famous for the breeding grounds of flamingos and the area is a bio preserve. This means that Celestún hasn’t developed as much as other places in Yucatan such as Cancun. It was warm but very breezy as you can see from the waves.
After I walked along the beach, I investigated some of the streets close by. First I saw a group of elderly ladies in various stages of ill health that had been to the local clinic. I doubt their medical care was as extensive as mine but they were happily chattering as they walked home. They had probably known each other from childhood and I looked at them in quiet envy.
There were a few restaurants and one was right on the beach. I really needed a clean restroom but ordered a local beer and admired the view. The restrooms were like most in the area – spotlessly clean, smelling of bleach with that fantastic foot pedal to flush the toilet. There was also a clean wastebasket to put your toilet paper in. The pipes are too narrow and the paper pollutes the pristine environment. I thanked my hosts kindly and walked out.
As I rounded the corner, reality struck me in the face. An old sick dog was seizing in the road. Her eyes were sunken and she was just hours or days from death. I immediately went into triage mode. How could I euthanize this dog, likely a stray? I had left my tranquillizers at the hotel which I could have crushed into some tuna. As I stopped and stared, I knew I could do nothing. My rabies vaccinations are long since out of date. The dog was not mine and it might not be culturally acceptable for me to be the angel of death. In Cairo most people disapproved of animal euthanasia as it was God’s decision when we die.
I walked on with the knowledge that as much as I would like to, I couldn’t live in a poor rural country. In Belize I snuck food out of the hotel to feed the starving dogs because there were no shops. When I got back to the car, Angel, my driver, asked me what I thought of the village. I told him truthfully that it was exquisite and charming. Then I told him about the dog in halting Spanish – to my astonishment he seemed to truly understand my dilemma. Ah, the yin and yang of life.
I always loved the names for groups of animals but the real name for a group of bats is a cauldron of bats. That is just superstitious nonsense – look at those cute little furry faces! I think there is at least three of them – a mama and two babies, perhaps. On my very first internship at Chester Zoo in England, I helped edit the zoo magazine which pictured a Dominican Republic fruit bat which the zoo had saved from the edge of extinction. Fruit bats are terribly important to our ecosystem. Their guano or poop fertilizes both the soil and the fruit trees. What would we do without our guavas or bananas or fruit bats?
Just as I was leaving Jaltun Parque near Celestún in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, my guide, Senor Ortega, pointed out the fruit bats nestled in the palm tree. I tried so hard to get a great photograph but this was the best I could process. When we lived in Cairo, we were woken up by a strange thumping in the back garden. All we could see in the dark were fallen guavas but then we made out the faint outline of fruit bats knocking the guavas out of the tree and picking them off the ground. When we lived in our first bought house on an estuary in North Wales, my mum’s cat Tibby came to visit and was terrified by the strange ‘birds’ that flew right at her with their radar. We have bats in our back yard but go to bed too early to see them…sleepy Teddy and Bunny.
The park also had some orchids
The spiny tailed iguana pictured in the last blog lives in hollowed out logs.
This is a slightly better shot of my pensive heron with the terracotta water below. Celestún is an isthmus and just before you reach the beach area you cross over the first body of water. It looked so tranquil.
Angel, my driver in Merida, was intuitive about what I was enjoying. I got very animated about nature ‘naturalis’ and he suggested that we go to Celestun the day after visiting Mayapan and Dzibiltchaltun archeological sites. Celestun is famous for its large flocks of pink flamingos that live on what is now a nature reserve. It is a small beach town situated on an isthmus in the Gulf of Mexico, right around the corner from the Caribbean. The night before I excitedly googled the area and was concerned about the small boats that take you out to see the flamingos (fear of water in small boats). Additionally, some of the articles mentioned that the influx of tourists was affecting where the flamingos nested. They keep moving further away from humans. I knew the beach would be magnificent but noted that there was a small Nature Park, Jaltun Parque Recreativo, just before the town.
Angel looked at me quizzically, as he had never gone there before, but followed his GPS and we arrived at a scrubby bit of jungle. I looked at it uncertainly not knowing that this was going to be the cherry on the cake in Mexico. No one spoke English but the gentleman who guided me had his wildlife book in both Spanish and English. We excitedly chatted and I discovered that he was an Ortega – my cousin! It takes me a while to get my eye in, when hunting for critters, but my guide was an expert. He could identify every bird song, every tree and all the critters. It’s amazing how you don’t really need a common language when you are in tune with nature. I perfectly understood that he was telling me about the wonders of nature – one tree, very close to another, was very toxic but the other provided the antidote. Most of the animals were in the jungle but there were a few in small caged areas.
One of them was the Yucatan spiny tailed iguana. I asked Senor Ortega if I could hold it and he explained,with concern, that they were very fast and I would have to hold it firmly behind the neck. As an expert lizard catcher, I eagerly held out my hands. It was a chilly winter morning in Celestun and the poor wee thing was cold. I snuggled it into my sweater for warmth, delighting in the opportunity to be up close to an indigenous critter.
My guide was delighted at my derring-do and we walked into the jungle where he heard a carpenter woodpecker. We tracked it down and he was more excited than me! I knew my camera wasn’t up to a good shot because the woodpecker wouldn’t stop tapping but patiently waited for my guide to get just the right shot! He was terribly impressed by my ability to track quietly and see birds. Ah, that native DNA comes in handy at times…
This is a shot of a Morelet Crocadillo just gently basking in the stream. I have seen many alligators and crocodiles but that might have been my only opportunity to see this particular crocodile that is found only in Central America. Just call me Crocodile Kerry…
A special treat was to pop my head inside the boa’s enclosure and take a shot while they were both hissing at me. When I got back to the car, tired and happy, Angel looked horrified at my shots of serpientes and shuddered! Off we drove, along the road into Celestun. It struck me afterwards that I had been cuddling all sorts of critters and it didn’t even cross my mind to wash my hands. This might be why I got a parasite in Egypt.
More shots to follow of the Yucatan jungle
I saved my most surprising tale from Merida for just before Valentine’s Day. As you know, I had a marvelous driver, Angel, who I paid to drive me all over the Yucatan. We are both naturally chatty and speaking different languages didn’t stop us. I had a Spanish/English book and he had Google Translate when we were in cell phone range. When we first met, he asked me if I wanted to travel in the front or the back. It would have been weird to have been in the back, as though he was limousine driver, so I jumped in the front.
We learned a lot about each other over two days. He showed me photos of his pretty wife and children. They had been married for 14 years and he was astonished that I had been married for 35 years (so am I…) I think he thought I was in my mid 40’s and I would have guessed he was in his late 30’s. On the first day, we chatted about my Mexican Spanish heritage and I told him about my mum and dad. He asked me if I was famous which perplexed and amused me. I think it was because I told him I was a writer and my mum was a model. As many of you now know, being a published writer doesn’t necessarily make you ‘famoso’ or wealthy.
By the second day, we had got into a good groove with our Spanglish banter. I was feeling good and I put on some mascara and lipstick. Maybe he thought it was for him? Both days I just dressed in t-shirts and leggings because the rural Yucatan areas are quite conservative. My expeditions were into potentially dusty and dirty areas, so no point in being glamorous. He was very intuitive about what I would enjoy and had asked all the right questions. Yes, I wanted to see unusual pyramids (no turistas, por favor) but I got most excited about handling an iguana and seeing fruit bats. Curiously, when I showed him my photograph of the Carpenter Woodpecker he knew immediately what it was. Perhaps he had worked in another field before driving.
I make a good traveling companion, if my health is good, and I could see that he enjoyed all the laughter. He told me that I was a really nice, funny person. There are police checkpoints all over the Yucatan and I said, “Lento, Policia!” which means ‘slowly, police!’ Angel wasn’t speeding (he was an excellent driver) but he thoroughly enjoyed my mime of what I do when I see the Texas police, braking really fast. They seem less afraid of Mexican police than we are of Texan ones…
About an hour before we returned to Merida on the second day, he told me that I was very pretty. I laughed and said, ‘Pero vieja (but old)’ “No, no” he insisted “Muy bonita”. Finally, I just accepted the compliment. Then he asked me if I liked to dance and my face lit up. Salsa is my favorite, I shared, and it is very popular in Houston. “Do you have lots of boyfriends?” “No!” I squealed, “I am married.” “Did I have lots of boyfriends before I married?” I explained that I married at age 21 but yes, I did have lots of boyfriends. Of course I did!
So, after beautifully
predating courting me for 2 days he came up with the final stunning question, “¿Haces trampa?” which means do I cheat (on my husband). Another squeal of NO from me followed by delighted giggles. I have had plenty of propositions even in recent years but I was beginning to think I was getting to my ‘best before’ date. Then I explained that even though my husband was REALLY old, he was very romantic, telling me he loves me most days and that I love him.
We reached the hotel, having previously organized that he would pick me up for my early flight the third day. He ran around to open my door (please take note, Teddy) and we shook hands while Angel looked at me with big brown eyes. Just at that moment a few Europeans appeared across the road. One of the men shouted in broken English, “You should take her!” Angel didn’t understand what he was saying but I thought, “He very nearly did.”
I was a little anxious about the atmosphere on the ride to the airport the following morning, after my rejection of my suitor. He usually turned up early and I was pacing at the hotel door. Then the red car turned up and I ran out with my suitcase. A woman got out of the car – he had sent his wife!! She was really very pretty and charming. One of his little daughters was in her school uniform, for an unusual school run via the airport with a strange blond lady who spoke bad Spanish. It is not the first time that a much younger man has approached me, even when they know my age. I am complimented and fascinated. Perhaps some of the ageism has disappeared from society. Maybe a good figure and a fun personality negate the age barrier? Keep it coming, guys, because it makes me feel fantastic!
PS. Before anyone mentions hashtags, bear in mind that no boundaries were crossed. I was perfectly comfortable and he just asked me questions. As to whether he was a cheater; I am not sure. It was curious that he showed me his wife and children immediately. Perhaps I just enchanted him and he saw a once in a lifetime opportunity with a quirky white cougar who might be really good in bed….
Try saying that when you have had a couple of glasses of Mexican Rosé… Dzibilchaltún, (Dzeebeelchaltoon is the pronunciation and it translates as ‘the place with writing on the walls) is a Maya archeological site close to the city of Mérida in Yucatan, Mexico. Seven small clay or stone figurines were found at the Temple of the Dolls which led to the name and it is built under the ruins of a previous pyramid. The city has been continuously occupied for 3000 years. It was exciting walking towards the Temple along the ‘sacbe’ or white road wondering what type of religious processions took place there.
The cenôte is likely the reason why the city was situated in that location and it is one of the largest, deepest in the Yucatan. Dzibilchaltún was a wealthy port, close to the Caribbean and local salt production. Archeologists have studied just a portion of the site and have found up to 8000 structures – it must have been a buzzing city with a peak population of about 20,000 to 40,000 people, even larger than Mayapan. Dzibilchaltún was not as remote or quiet as Mayapan but still relatively quiet with many local visitors, some expats and non-tourists just like me! Throughout the ages Dzibilchaltún has changed from a city to a town to its current status as a village. It began to decline in popularity after the rise of Chichen Itza.
When the Conquistadores arrived they used the local stone from previous structures to build a 16th century chapel which is now also a ruin.
Eight stucco masks of the Rain God Chaac were found in the Temple of the Dolls. The Yucatan has no natural lakes or rivers so rain is still much needed to fill the cenotes and water crops. My upbringing in Scotland has given me enough rain to last a lifetime… At the equinoxes the sun shines right through the entrance to the Temple of the Dolls creating a fantastic effect.
On a final side note, my Mexican Rose wine was quite delicious and went well with the food in Yucatan, which is hearty. The Spanish brought wine-making to Mexico and most of it comes from Baja, just below California.
Although I have been to the Yucatan area of Mexico a few times, I have never visited the famous pyramids. I have visited Tulum, the youngest Maya site, as you can read in an older blog. As much as Chechen Itza fascinates me, my almost phobic fear of too many tourists, has made me avoid it. Before this rapidly organized trip to Merida, I researched travel blogs to see how easy it would be to hire a driver to reach some of the more remote archeological sites. Apparently it was as easy as negotiating with a taxi driver, especially since I only wanted to go for 4 hours at a time.
After I arrived at my newly renovated hotel, I asked the receptionist about a driver. She told me that a driver had just handed in some cards. I said that websites had indicated that 800 pesos was reasonable for 4 hours. When she called him, he counter offered 1,100 pesos which is about $60. That seemed fair and he arrived very promptly in a very clean new red car. He was a charming young man, perhaps in his late 30s, rejoicing in the name Angel Ku. Ku is a native name meaning frypan. He had a little English and I had bad Spanish but we communicated perfectly well. I explained that I didn’t like crowds, so off we went to the Mayapán Zona Arqueológica, not to be confused with the town of Mayapán.
The archeological ruins were in excellent condition, it cost just a few pesos and there were about 20 other visitors in what was once a city of 17,000 people. Between the 1200s and 1400s it was the capital of the Maya, situated about 30 miles south east of Merida and 70 miles west of Chichen Itza. Mayapán had about 4000 structures within the city walls and many more outside, presumably for workers and farmers. One of the most attractive temples is the Temple of Kukulcan – it is the light version as the temple at Chichen Itza is more intricate and structurally sound. The limestone used at Mayapán is an inferior grade, perhaps all that was available in that location? It is believed that the founder of Mayapán was King Kukulcan (aka Quezalcoactl) after the fall of Chichen Itza.
There are some unique elements to the site with so many rounded buildings and no ball courts. This is the Temple Redondo –
There were 26 cenotes (sinkholes providing water) around the city which perhaps explains the high population or vice versa. It has a central plaza which was surrounded by government buildings and houses of nobles. Other houses within the walled area encircled patios. Mayapán has a rather bloody history with shafts filled with sacrificial victims but at some point it was an important center of trade all across Central America. A wide range of foods were eaten and grown; there is some evidence of slaves which suggests wealth of the nobility. There is some evidence that there was a death cult. I mused if a large population and perhaps a catastrophic weather change might have contributed to the fighting with other tribes and the ultimate demise of Mayapán but that is pure supposition on my part. All great empires fall eventually, take note USA.
It was utterly magical to be in a pyramid city, almost alone with endless acreage of jungle right beside the site. If I had walked into the jungle, I might never have been found again. The photograph below shows how steep the pyramid climb was but it was so worth it! You really had to go up on hands and feet. On the way down I sat on my bottom and climbed down that way. If I had stood up, the steepness would have terrified me. It amused me that the teenagers just copied what I did (and they were a tad slower).
It was blissfully quiet with no signs of any current habitations. If you visit, there are no facilities at the sight – no restrooms and you can only travel by car, bus or local bus. Please don’t tell too many people… La belleza estaba en la tranquilidad – the beauty was in the tranquility. There are no vendors, just some staff and it is still being excavated by archaeologists.