In which our writer exits a snake pit in search of authentic Mexico….
Apparently, some posh hotels in Cancun will tell you that Cancun means “end of the rainbow.” In Mayan, Cancun actually means “snake pit”, and I can see why. My airport shuttle scuttles past major brand resorts and a dozen hotels that look exactly like them (although one did look tremendously, and somewhat appropriately, phallic). In my airport transfer van are four couples on honeymoon. Using non-existent Spanish, I ask the driver if he knows the weather forecast. This involves me making splashing sounds, blowing wind, and pretending to sunbathe, badly. My fellow passengers do their best to ignore me. “Senor,” says Jose, for that is the name on his badge, ” it will rain for 11 days.” The shuttle lovers react like someone has punched them in the armpit. “Good thing I’m leaving in the morning then,” I say proudly, irritating the lovers no end. No disrespect to the desires of honeymooners, but this month, I came to experience some real Mexico.
I want to see the Yucatan, and the real Yucatan is out of Cancun. You’ll get a small taste of it when you get on an air-conditioned bus, blown away by the badly dubbed American action movie blaring at top volume. Then you’ll stop at the global bucket list landmark of Chichen Itsa: that giant Mayan pyramid sitting in a jungle clearing as an incredibly accurate cosmic calendar. We’re in Mayan country, still the largest indigenous group in Mexico, although a shadow of the mighty empire that ruled these parts before the Spanish invasion. Besides their astronomy, city-states, and massive stone temples, Mayans also invented a precursor to soccer, basketball, and tennis called Pok-Atok – the sound of a ball against their long, walled ball courts. The captain of the winning team would be sacrificed, a rather strange incentive to compete. They also sacrificed children born on August 6-10, once they reached the age of 4 to 12. Happy birthday, now… we rip your heart out!
Human sacrifice was viewed by Mayans as an honour, but history points to a large, lowly population working for an elite class of priests who forbade them to look at the stars (they had to use mirror pools of water) or even to use the wheel. Sacrifice kept the masses in place, with lucky heads rolling down the steps of the pyramids, and evidence suggests that bodies dumped into the nearby water sinkholes, or cenotes, ultimately poisoned the community’s drinking supply. People were dying, so to appease the gods more people were sacrificed, their bodies dumped into the wells, and soon enough everyone is either dying or being sacrificed, and it’s hasta luego to the powerful empire that once ruled Chichen Itsa.
Any visit to the region has to include the other cenotes, found outside the disarmingly charming colonial city of Merida. These cave pools are sparklingly clean, and outrageously fun to swim in. To find them, I take a one-hour bus ride, passing small Mayan villages where heat bakes the earth, and toothy kids play traditional games in the streets. Nobody appears taller than 5ft, and the tallest buildings are bright, white churches. From the bus stop, it’s an adventurous horse ride along a narrow gauge rail to the first sinkhole, warm and clear, where I see catfish swimming below. A wooden platform lets visitors dive into the blue water, as deep and bright as if someone has poured in that colour therapy bath stuff you buy at hippy stores. I visit three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling. Giant roots from a tree above descend through the limestone, and one cave has a small opening for a 12m plummet into the dark water below. Perfect for thrill-seeking and rock jumping, just mind your cajones!
Montezuma’s Revenge be damned! Tacos, enchiladas, milanesas, hundreds of varieties of chili, and you can’t go wrong with food in the Yucatan. I finally learn the difference between a burrito and an enchilada. Enchiladas are made with corn wraps and burritos with flour wraps. Now you know too.
Compared to Chichen Itsa, the jungle ruins of Palenque feel more authentic, a tad more Indiana Jones, a little less Disney. The view of the surrounding jungle from atop Palenque sets it apart. Here I learn more about Mayan rituals and practices, including head flattening, and the Mongolian Spot – a birthmark linking Mayans to Mongolian nomads. Another loud bus ride drops me off in St Cristobal de las Casas, once a volatile Zapatista stronghold, now a leafy, colourful postcard. This is the launch pad to visit the Mayan villages of Chamula and Zinacantan for a fascinating cultural encounter. Where else will you see live chickens sacrificed in a church, or Coca-Cola worshipped along with the Saints? The bizarre evolution and integration of Christianity into Mayan paganism has created a spectacle, to be witnessed respectfully (or else shamans will confiscate your cameras).
Late night salsa dancing in the bars, taco-gorging in cheap taco-joints – you can drown me in swamps of guacamole and flash-floods of lime-soaked beer, but not in the Rio Grande. One final adventure has me speeding its waters on a boat beneath the 1km high cliffs of the dramatic Sumidero Canyon. Mayans once jumped off the edges here rather than being slaves to the Spanish, and it’s a long, long way down. I see a large crocodile swimming just 50m upriver from children playing in the river. The cocodrillo is clearly not into Mexican food the way I am. A guide is machine-gunning facts in Spanish, so I sit back, and just appreciate that I’m out of the hotel bubble, exposed to a culture unique to the world, and surrounded by a beauty that is authentically, and distinctly, Mexico.