Valladolid and more ruinas

June 6, 2007

Merida grew on us eventually, but we were glad to arrive in the consumately mellow town of Valladolid. It’s Yucatan state’s second city, but is considerably smaller than Merida and has considerably less bustle. The zocalo is a nice wee place with funny little fountain in the middle of a Mayan lady surrounded by frogs. Or maybe toads. I’ve been informed frogs/toads were important to the Maya as they seemed to move between here and the underworld. The funny thing is, the ceramic frogs/toads you see in roadside stalls and around this fountain are colourful, cartoony and decidedly cheesey. Very at odds with the remarkable Mayan friezes and wotnot we’ve been seeing in the area’s ruinas.

Yesterday, we went to Chichen Itza (sorry, I can’t be bothered to find all the necessary special characters for these words. I’ll just cut and paste this one for now Chichén Itzá). This is perhaps the most famous of the Mayan ruinas, and has a commensurate number of visitors. It’s the low season (the flipping rainy season; don’t we just know it) but the place was inundated with coach loads of American and Italian tourists from Cancun (sorry, Cancún). Gazillions of them. I thought the Brits were supposed to be the yobs of Europe, but those Italians certainly know how to make themselves heard. Which must have been confusing for Fran, who’s been doing an amazing job summonsing up Spanish language abilities, but who has a few glitches when her Italian creeps in.

Anyway, I was disappointed when we arrived at Chichén Itzá as I’d read about the amazing crypt of ‘El Castillo’, the main postcard pyramid. It showed how the Maya used to build new temples on top of the old, a literal example of how Mesoamerican culture was all about overlays and hybridity even before the Spanish arrived. However, it’s now closed off, as are the steps to the summit. This is a shame, but probably fair enough given the cumulative erosion of 5,000 pairs of tourist feet every day. There’s also a rumour that an 80-year-old tourist died after slipping down the steps, which brought about the closure.

Luckily, we decided to stump up for a taxi to the Ek Balam ruinas today. Some folks in our hotel were enthusing about them, so we decided we had to go. This place is marvellous. After yesterday it was a real treat to find no more than half a dozen other tourists there. It’s surprising it’s not on the coach tour route, as the government has been doing a lot of remarkable restoration work and it has some unique features. It’s not as grand as Chichen Itza, it’s far more compact, but around the central plaza it has three large structures, one of which has been extensively rebuilt. This building, Le Torre, is 200m long at its base and has a remarkable doorway, the stucco of which has been thoroughly restored/recreated. It takes the form of a huge mouth, with teeth over the top and along a jutting lower jaw. Very striking, and unlike anything we’ve seen at the other ruinas. The theory is that it was the entrance to the tomb of one of the city’s leaders from the 9th century AD.

This afty we managed a quick swim before the heavens opened (have I mentioned it’s the rainy season? Doh, just when we were heading for the beach!), then had a stroll round Valladolid. Heading southwest of the centre of we found an even more charming, mellow area of this already charming, mellow town, around the church and monastery (convent?) of San Bernadino. It was almost like a whole different country – except for the quintessentially Mexico combo of an antique building, a mangy mutt and couple of awnings emblazoned with the logos of that ubiqutious muck Coke.

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