Among the Ruins
Travel and travail in Yucatan: the most exotica a Texan can buy for $112 round trip.
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Here we are, eating our tunafish ice-cream-scoop pate, an hour’s worth of the Gulf of Mexico behind us and, amazingly enough, only about another half-hour’s flying time left.
“What’s the name of this godforsaken town we’re going to?” a man in front of us asks his wife.
“Mérida,” she says.
Mérida, the capital of Yucatan, the peninsula that spoils Mexico’s otherwise perfect cyclonic dwindle into Central America, a broad limestone projection into the sea that forces the distinction between the Gulf and the Caribbean. Aeronaves de Mexico will fly you from Houston to Mérida for (as of May, 1974) $112 round trip.
That includes your in-flight tunafish and, if you’re no luckier than we are, a severe case of unequalized ear pressure as the descent begins, along with the chance to see an entire planeload of people holding their ears, feverishly moving their jaws, swallowing, chewing gum, writhing in agony, ready even for the coup de grace of ruptured eardrums, while the stewardess, the hollows of whose head are as efficiently accessible to one another as, say, the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway, smiles helplessly.
We arrive in Mérida in darkness. It is the only city of any size on the peninsula (population about 200,000), and the airport is fairly large and filled with blind corridors. After a minor visa hassle, exacerbated by our recently-developed deafness, we take a taxi into the city.
It’s about nine o’clock at night, but the middle of town (site of our quarters—El Gran Hotel) is throbbing, alive as no American city could be after dark—the narrow streets congested with inhabitants on foot or on motorcycles or customized bicycles, with helados carts and rented VW Safaris overhanging with tourists. It’s a very old city, established by Francisco de Montejo in 1542, after he conquered the peninsula from the Mayans; Montejo later became famous as the name of a beer. In its center, at night, the town has a balmy, irritable charm, half tension and half what guidebooks call “atmosphere.” Down the street from our hotel is the University of Yucatan, a single building which takes up the greater part of a block and from which, night and day, students harangue from a loudspeaker in a top-floor window and lurk about cautiously below. The university is on strike, as near as we can determine, because, we are told, the Mérida Chief of Police has recently murdered a protesting trade student in cold blood. There are maybe 60 or 70 students taking part in the marathon and they don’t seem to have struck any populist nerves: the rest of Mérida mills quietly around zócalo, or crams into the city buses whose sides bear dozens of overlapping strike slogans. Dump trucks filled with sneering adolescent soldiers holding real guns cruise back and forth through the streets looking for trouble. It’s as though we’ve arrived at a movie set, the dense streets pulling the buildings together and making them seem like facades, rendering the whole city collapsible and claustrophobic. Since we’ve come at night there is no sense of landscape or of direction, no visible skyline above the tops of the buildings, where the darkness might as well be the walls of a studio.
There are three of us, plus one bewildered soul from Minnesota who’s lost his luggage and is looking for his friends somewhere in the Caribbean, and we rent two connecting rooms at El Gran Hotel for $2.50 for each of us (that’s about 30 pesos); tall high-ceilinged rooms, and one bathroom with a huge shower stall and a fake hot-water handle. The beds, all five or six of them, have no bedspreads, only very cool-looking sheets that impress upon us for the first time that it’s hot here, and always is.
Mérida gains nothing by daylight. If you go to Yucatan you’ll probably read delightful guidebooks about “spotless Mérida,” “the white city,” etc. Maybe it once was, certainly it once was. But now Mérida is just another dumping ground for used-up American modes of life: fantastic noise and air pollution issue out of those narrow streets where macho cab drivers swerve in and out of lopsided buses so overloaded that it’s the passengers with seats who have the worst of it. You have to shout to be heard; the noise makes you irritable and camouflages everything of interest.
It’s clear the thing to do is to leave Mérida as soon as possible. It’s the unavoidable center of Yucatan, but it has no focus. It’s a departure point grudging you your freedom to leave.
So we walk to the bus station in hopes of being able to make our way to Cozumel, on the east coast, by that afternoon. No luck. The buses are full until midnight. We buy our tickets for that bus and deliberate how to spend the next twelve hours. We walk around a lot, and eat lunch at the Continental, a good restaurant in the tourist part of town where you can drink the water and for 35 pesos can set two waiters into motion and eat barbecued red snapper and Lebanese bread.
About an hour-and-a-half’s drive south from Mérida is the classic Mayan site of Uxmal, a trip to which is one of the many compelling reasons to leave the city. A cab driver agrees to take us there and back for what comes out to about $5 apiece, and we’re soon on our way back out the main boulevard, past the airport, past the giant neon Pepsi-Cola bottlecap and then past the Pepsi-Cola plant itself, out onto the shoulderless highway at 90 mph and across the scraggly limestone landscape which occasionally opens into an oasis-like henequen plantation. The highway cuts through the centers of three or four villages, passing within twenty feet of palm-thatched huts and angling across the squares. The land rises a little, then drops again into a verdant savannah before it comes into the Puuc hills for good. Soon the Temple of the Dwarf begins to loom out of the landscape, followed by the rest of those austere, cream-colored buildings that are so starkly unlike the pictures of them in the history books and the brochures; so real and imaginary.
Uxmal is one of those historical places where the sense of history has survived, maybe because the rote of history has been mislaid. The gate opens (for three pesos) onto the steep backside of the Temple of the Dwarf, an ungainly, slumping pyramid whose contrary angles and curves somehow all blend together at some imprecise point. I climb up the steps on all fours, up to the broken temple on the top and around to the other side, where the city of Uxmal spreads out below, into unexcavated irregular mounds far past the restored area. The stairs are even steeper on the other side of the pyramid, and as I descend them toward a complex of buildings called the Nunnery, I slip in two or three places and feel an exhilaration above my fear: at no monument in the United States can you run the risk of killing yourself so easily.
The Palace of the Governor, Uxmal’s famous centerpiece, stands on a stately, artificial rise that puts it approximately on the same level with the pyramid. The Palace is a long and intricate building, elegant and aloof. Swallows attack visitors inside its vaulted and graffiti-scarred rooms and land iguanas two feet long crawl in and out of its cracks. Across the city the Temple of the Dwarf hunkers like a monument to another civilization.
Back in Mérida we kill the little time remaining until midnight and then board the bus that will take us to the coast for 40 pesos. The bus is crowded and hot, but since it’s first class we’re guaranteed a seat and a chance for a little sleep. It takes six hours to reach Playa del Carmen, the coastal village two hundred miles away, from which the ferry leaves for Cozumel. On the way there we cross the border between the state of Yucatan and the territory of Quintana Roo, which makes up most of the eastern half of the peninsula and which the new highway has just begun to open to exploitation. We watch the sun rise green through the tinted windows, over a low, even jungle which somewhere back in the darkness has begun to travel with us.
The bus, against our expectations, arrives precisely on time, and we’re able to catch the first out-going ferry from Playa del Carmen. At six in the morning the water is milky turquoise, and the beach, as we pull away from it, stretches out endlessly in either direction, as open and vulnerable as it must have seemed to conquistadores Córdoba and Cortés.
After nearly an hour Cozumel appears, a beige discoloration of the water on the horizon. Flying fish come out of the water and sail above it like rubber-band airplanes. It’s another hour before we’re close enough to make out the town of San Miguel on the island and before the water is shallow enough to become turquoise again. And now that the sun is fully risen the color and clarity of the water is staggering: all those “Caribbean a Go Go” short subjects with their faded color have left us unprepared. The sea is so brilliant it seems to have its own power source. It is how you might imagine the ocean on another planet, or how a child thinks of the blue of the sky, as something that at some point can be entered.
The ferry docks at San Miguel’s concrete pier and the cab drivers and hotel representatives and baggage carriers are there to greet it, weeding out the natives and the hippies from the “fares.” San Miguel is still a small town, and Cozumel is still largely undefiled. Things are booming miserably, however, and probably by now another couple of hotels will have sprouted on the island’s lee side, a 25-mile strip of garden that’s being very carefully watered.
Where the highway that surrounds the island turns into the main street of the village are dive shops huddled next door to one another the way loncherías would be in any other Mexican town. All of them offer the same thing for the same price: equipment and a boat to the reefs, where, on a good day, is the clearest water in the world. We sign up for the next day and look around for a cheap hotel.
We check in at the Hotel Yoli, which is just off the main square. For $3.50 each (our friend from Minnesota is still in Mérida looking for his luggage) we rent a very small room with three beds and hammock hooks, and a bathroom whose hot water proves to be a useless luxury once we develop sunburns. Since it is painted a vivid azure blue the Yoli lingers in the memory as being breezy and cool, a point I cannot prove.
That afternoon we rent Mexican steel bicycles with their characteristic double castration bar and locomotive brakes and waddle off north on the highway. (The ubiquitous VW Safaris or trail bikes can also be rented. There are Mayan temples all over the island but they can be reached only by jeep or on horseback.)
Nearly all the beach on Cozumel is still public land, and there’s no difficulty in finding a deserted place to stop and snorkel. The lee side of the island is as calm as a swimming pool except for the occasional wake of a boat thundering into shore. The visibility underwater, even just off the beach, is stunning: the clarity strengthens the impression of flight. I hover above what I think to be a sand dollar and, after a precautionary brush of the sand around it with my flipper, a sting ray casually glides out of his or her hiding place like a plane leaving a hangar.
The next morning we eat breakfast at Pepe’s, the island’s most-patronized restaurant, a good place to sit outdoors and watch the cosmopolites and their scions cavort and discuss politics and ocean cruises in languages other than your own. Pepe’s is also a passable place to eat if you don’t mind grudging service and if you can get across the idea that you want fruit, not shrimp cocktail.
After breakfast we go to the diveshop where we’ve signed up for the day’s outing. (You don’t, apparently, have to be a certified diver to rent equipment in Mexico, as you do in the U.S. At any rate nobody asks for our cards, which I’m proud to say we have. But if you’re going to Cozumel and can’t afford diving lessons, you should have at least some idea of what you’re doing.) The trip out to Palancar reef costs $18 each. This price includes an all-but-all-day boat ride, a surrealistic guide, a fantastic (we are assured) lunch, equipment rental (for tanks and regulators—we’ve brought what equipment we have to keep down rental costs), and enough air, theoretically, for two dives, although I don’t think the tanks are full.
Palancar reef is off the southern tip of the island, and as we approach it we put on our equipment. We’re short a regulator so the guide, a boy of about nineteen who is constantly chuckling at some internal joke and who, I’m willing to bet, even smiles when he’s underwater, just points into the water with instructions for us not to get lost. So we and the other six passengers flop over the side. At first, there is that customary moment of floundering near-panic followed by complete rapture and ease. The reef yawns at us from 70 feet below and we work down to it against the current. We find ourselves inside huge coral canyons and caves pulsating with brain coral and anemones and opening out into valleys of pure white sand. Everything about the reef breathes and waves; it’s every childhood daydream come true at once. Snappers and grunts and blowfish and schools of lesser ocean denizens cruise by constantly. I look over my shoulder and see a spotted ray with a six-foot wingspan flapping straight for me and then, seven or eight yards off, curving gloomily away from the reef.
After we surface and are on the boat the pilot starts fishing for lunch, pulling out red snappers and grunts every time he throws in his line (to which there is no pole attached—he hauls the line in with his bare hands). The guide has already gone down to gather an excessive amount of conch and is now hacking it up in the stern. All this, plus enormous amounts of fruit and tortillas, make up our “fantastic” lunch, which is cooked on a white-sand beach under a thatched hut, etc. But when you realize the plunder involved in obtaining it, it’s easy enough to see yourself as an accomplice to something you don’t approve of.
A few years ago the lunch included lobster: now the lobster population is apparently exhausted and the conch beds aren’t far behind.
We dive again before eating lunch and returning to San Miguel. This time we drift with the current, gliding over the reef without any other effort besides slight movements of our flippers to keep us from brushing against the coral.
That night we eat kingfish steak at La Marinera restaurant, where the sound system plays a retrospective of Beatles and Moody Blues hits as interpreted by a falsetto group remarkably reminiscent of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Then we saunter on down to the movie theater and see Fess Parker in Daniel Boone, with Spanish subtitles. Our bodies being racked with sunburn, we decide to take the morning ferry back to the mainland. And so we bid goodbye to sunny Cozumel, gem of the Caribbean, etc.
From Playa del Carmen we take the bus back towards Mérida to Chichen-Itzá, the most-celebrated and most-visited ruin site in Yucatan. El Castillo, the main pyramid at Chichen-Itzá, rises like a captive oddity above a row of refresco stands on the other side of the highway, where tourists mill about swilling lukewarm cervezas and Pepsis. El Castillo is a severe, angular building; like nearly everything else in Chichen-Itzá it reflects the harsh but clever architecture of the Toltecs, who at some ancient date conquered what was then a Mayan city, assimilated some of its culture, and built over it. From the top of the pyramid there is a fine view of the rest of the city, bisected by the highway, dark grey and desolate except for the bobbing panama hats that swarm across its major buildings.
We remain at the ruins for two days, staying at a motel in Piste, a little highway village about a mile up the road. We meet an architect from the University of Mexico who takes us on a tour of Chichen-Itzá’s ball court and sacred cenote, a great preternaturally round sinkhole formed by collapsed limestone and filled with water, over which the Toltecs built a temple platform from which to shove off sacrificial victims.
We walk around gawking at the ruins, reading the ridiculous guidebooks, trying to cram in the aura of the place and not really succeeding. One evening I sit on the top of El Castillo and watch the sunset until a man on a bicycle rides around the ruins blowing his whistle to announce that it’s time for the ancient city to go to sleep.
Back in Mérida we spend an entire day at the train station waiting to get tickets for the train to Palenque. Palenque is south of Yucatan, in Chiapas, about twelve hours away by train and the site of the most spectacular Mayan ruins. It costs about a hundred pesos for a pullman berth, but the price is worth it for the air conditioning and the short but comfortable beds. We leave at eight p.m. and arrive at eight the next morning at the village of Palenque, which is about five miles from the ruins, a small, very hot town huddled on a plain in the crook of a mountainous jungle that turns misty at twilight.
There is one respectable hotel, the Hotel Palenque, to which constantly flows a stream of tourist-laden chartered buses. We stay at the Hotel Regional, a semi-squalid establishment which costs the three of us together 40 pesos a night and which grows peculiarly tolerable.
Palenque is full of Americans, mostly hippies who have drifted down here for the mushrooms and who sit blearily around the square nursing jugo de piñas and praying for rain. No one we talk to, in fact, fails to ask if we’ve found any mushrooms yet, a pastime which is a little less idyllic than you might expect, since psilocybin mushrooms tend to spring up out of cowplop.
“You just follow a cow around and wait, man,” a girl, who seems to be operated by a ventriloquist, tells us. “Those are really spaced-out cows, too. They only moo about once a day.”
Dilapidated buses make the trip to the ruins three or four times a day, picking up Mayan farmers with samurai-sized machetes along the way. The road winds up from the plain into the high, lush jungle out of which Palenque was carved. Dead as it is, it still has to be counted as one of the most beautiful cities in the world; it looks like something the jungle has deposited at low tide and is on its way back for at any moment. The buildings are full of elaborate, whimsical tunnels and compelling vaulted doorways that lead to well-preserved relief carvings of Mayan priests as stylized as cartoons. Inside the pyramid is a stairway that descends sharply to the tomb of some ancient ruler, who is pictured on a gigantic relief slab which is perfectly preserved and which, unfortunately, you have to dislocate your neck to see. This is the slab which Erich von Daniken in one of his rhetorical outer space books says represents a man in a Mercury capsule. And, charlatan that von Daniken may be, there are few better places than Palenque to try to sell someone on the theory of alien visitors. Otherworldliness, like the dense foliage creeping down from the hills, seems always on the verge of engulfing everything.
“You know what I think had a lot to do with these buildings?” a voice from another building is saying, “The mushrooms. I mean, they’re just all so mellow, you know.”
We spend four days in Palenque, at the ruins and in side trips to two of the area’s many waterfalls, one a lichen-covered terrace in the jungle reached by a path crossed at one point by army ants, and the other a huge cascade, surrounded by caves, that feeds a deep pool where the local construction workers come to watch the gringos skinny-dipping.
On our last night in Palenque we walk down to the movie theater to see Wayne Newton in 80 Pasos a La Felicidad, but our hopes are crushed when the town’s electricity disappears, as it does regularly. The next day we take the train back to Mérida to catch our return flight to McDonaldland.
And Mérida is worse than ever. To get away from the street noise we take a tour of the Montejo house, an old and opulent residence apparently still in use by our tourguide, a Montejo descendant who looks and acts like a Dr. Seuss character, swinging on a hammock and speaking in three languages at once.
Then we go home and a friend brings me a Whopperburger and I write this article, even as the amoebae in my intestines make plans to invade and, I’m told, to perforate my liver. Yucatan is a beautiful, sultry, nervous place in the fledgling stages of commercial devastation, I’d advise you to go soon if it interests you, before even the amoebae, like everything else, are gone forever.