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In Mexico

February 26, 2010

We had one car, two pith helmets, three kids and just nine days to visit eleven Maya sites across the Mexican states of the Yucatan, Campeche, Chiapas and Quintana Roo. Sheer madness really, but we’re nothing if not intrepid.
We started with an easy one: Chichen Itza, home of El Castillo, probably the best known of all Maya pyramids. An hour or so down the road was Izamal, where the infamous Friar DeLanda built a monastery directly on top of an ancient Maya temple. The delightfully named pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo (Sun-Eyed Fire Macaw) still towers over this beautiful colonial town where almost every building is painted the same shade of eggy yellow.
After visiting the museum in Merida to check out the Ancient Maya skulls, we headed for Uxmal – an enchanting site built across a series of low hills. Every temple and pyramid in Uxmal is lavishly decorated in mosaic stonework.
From Uxmal it was a long, hot drive down to Palenque fabled city of King Pakal the Great and his mother Lady Sak K’uk’. Like the Romans half a world away, Pakal’s palace had creature comforts like steam baths and flush toilets. His tomb, beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions, was one of the most spectacular discoveries of Maya archeology.
We drove on across the Zapatista heartland to the treacherous Usumacinta river, which marks the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The only way to access the remote site of Yaxchilan is by boat, past freshwater crocodiles and the ruins of a Maya bridge. This lush green city of Yaxchilan is famous for its stone lintels which are some of the most evocative carvings in the Maya world.
Back down the river and through the Lacondan rainforest, we found the tiny site of Bonampak. While there is not much to see architecturally, it is famous for its brightly painted murals which provide a thrilling window into Maya court life.
Our next destination was Calakmul, a huge site deep in its own biosphere. From the gateway of the nature reserve, it’s another hour’s drive on a single track road teeming with wildlife to arrive at the ruins of the city. The mind-blowingly massive pyramids (one has a base that covers four acres) rise majestically above the rainforest canopy which spreads out as far as the eye can see.
It was a short drive from Calakmul to the delightful walled city of Becán with its narrow village streets and characteristic double pyramid construction style. Nearby is the small site of Chicanna whose main claim to fame is a well restored temple entered through the open maw of the earth monster.
Continuing northeast toward the Caribbean, we arrived at the city of Cobá. After days when we’d had whole sites to ourselves, it was a surprise to suddenly be surrounded by hordes of tourists (from nearby Cancun). The steps of the highest pyramid were as busy as a New York subway station with bodies making their way up and down. Nestled in the forest was a grove of carved stela, one of which bears the largest number ever conceived by ancient man.
We ended the trip on the coast at the striking seaside city of Tulum. With its city walls and pillars and palm trees, it felt like a Roman trading port on the Mediterranean.
To see more photographs, click on J&Ps travels in Mexico.

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