Chitzen Itza, Detours and a Deluge

Yesterday morning we set out on our trip to Chitzen Itza, the world famous Mayan pyramids and temples and one of the 7 new Wonders of the World. The trip is just over 100 km – nothing by the standards of Californias; we drive further than that to have dinner with friends.

Chitzen Itza


When we left Merida we had about 1/8 of a tank of gas left, according to Uli more than enough to get to Chitzen Itza and halfway back again. So I was surprised to hear him mention, about 50 km out, that we really needed a gas station, like now or within the next few kilometers. Unlike the Californian outback which are scattered with gas stations, chain food restaurants and Bad, Bath & Beyond stores the Yucatecan outbacks are just that: outbacks, like in there is nothing there, not even a taco stand, let alone a Pemex (Mexican gas station). It has taken me the better part of 30 years to acknowledge to myself that I am just not a daring explorer and adventurer. I don’t like the idea of crossing either Antarctica or the Sahara dessert by foot, don’t need to dive into caves or old ships – in short (and here comes the third Startrek reference) I just rather not go boldly where no man has gone before – and that includes being stranded without gas and food but with whining toddler in the Yucatecan outbacks.

Izamal in the Rain

I am telling this because because the almost empty gas tank forced us to take a detour to the next larger town Izamal (only Pemex in a 50km radius or so). We rolled into town with what surely must have been the last shot glass full of gasoline and it was marvellous. Just the neatest little town, the houses all painted in orange with white trim, a nice main plaza with food stands and people selling things like peeled mangos on sticks and model pyramids carved out of stone (yeah, we got one for Max), a huge church and a “piramide” inside the town (imagine that). On closer inspection it turns out that the “piramide” was missing big chunks and looking more closely at the church it became quite clear where all the stones had ended up.

Chitzen Itza

We strolled around together with the rest of the people there who were enjoying a leisurely midday on this sunny Sunday, climbed the pyramid, walked around the church, and ended up in a little restaurant on the edge of the main plaza were Max again was the center of the attention of the ladies. We were sitting eating our pollo y papas fritas and salbutes when it started raining and three seconds later it started pouring and another three seconds later – I am not sure there is a word for it. Everybody was scrambling for shelter (we were under a roof but outside) and then it felt like somebody just pushed the “pause” button – vendors stopped selling, shoppers stopped shopping, people stopped strolling, the bicylce taxis disappeared, even the stray dogs stopped sniffing (the girls didn’t stop giggling, in case you wondered).

Chitzen Itza
A vendor is taking a rest while the rain storm hits

It went on for 45 minutes or so, the temperature must have dropped by 20 degress and even my always hot little boy came crawling on my lap to get warm. And then it stopped. I am no great fan of rain but for a photographer this is really pretty much as cool as it gets: cute little colorful town with flooded (and flodded they were, we are talking ankle deep or higher) streets. Just think of the reflections and the bright wet look of all the colors. So I waded around the water in the middle of the street accompanied by a few curious looks from the locals and Max’s screams warning me not to walk in the street but to come to the safety of the side walk (after all that’s what we always tell him).

Eventually we left, we had to go to Chitzen and there are only so many pictures even I can take without lying flat in the dirt water in the middle of the street (I am a dedicated photographer, really, but there are limits).

Chitzen Itza at Last

So we drove to Chitzen Itza and stayed at the same hotel we stayed at in Uxmal and by “same” I mean identical building layout (slightly different color scheme and a large map of Chitzen instead of Uxmal mounted in the lobby) and we stayed in the very same room we stayed in in Uxmal and they looked completely identical. This confused Max no end, he just didn’t understand the concept that we were in the same room in two different places and so he keep thinking we were in Uxmal and somebody had snuck down into the lobby and exchanged the maps.

We rose early and walked over to Chitzen Itza which is right next to the hotel. What a difference to Uxmal. Uxmal had mainly Mexican families as visitors but in Chitzen we found ourselves surrounded by Germans, French and Scandinavians by the busload right from the start. Chitzen is huge and truly amazing, not just Kukulkan, the main pyramid but the whole area and very well taken care of and protected which meant to Max’s great disappointment: no climbing on pyramids. We had to explain it about thirty times and it still didn’t make sense to him.

If you want to know about Chitzen, its architecture, history, art, and people I recommed a travel guide or the Internet, not me. Temperamentwise I am not particularly well-suited for reading longish explanations of buildings and to memorizing the random factoids they normally put on the placards. I much rather just stand there, look at it, take a few pictures, stare at the other tourists, make some snide remarks about them and move on. I am going to share some of my observations here. If you are very politically correct – please stop reading now.

Chitzen Itza
Colorful souvenirs sold by French speaking street vendors

One of my pet-peeves is organized travel, especially by bus, with pre-arragend everything from breakfast menu to the timing of your bathroom breaks and the minutes allowed at each sight. I have always felt that it requires a specific kind of masochism to enjoy these trips (my parents used to take trips like that and always came back complaining about this or that person, who annoyed the hell out of everybody by being bossy, boorish, obnoxious and greedy just to book another one half a year down the road). So, anyway, that place was crawling with organized bus tour tourists. Europeans, pretty much all of them. Germans, of course, Austrians, Swiss, lots of French, Brits, Dutch and Scandinavians of every description. They toiled around in largish groups with their travel guides who were pouring their hearts and souls into their talks to make them interesting. So sentences like “this building was build in such and such a year in honor of king what’s-his-face and consists of umpteen colums on a seriously long stretch of ground” got acted out with waving arms and crescendos. It still was rather boring if you ask me. Walking by the Germans I could therefore make out serious gossiping along the lines of “and then my sister said to her husband ….. but he really is a bastard and so ….. finally they ended up getting a nasty divorce…..”

The sheer number of French surprised me. I have never encountered them in droves and I never realized that they aren’t immune to the effects of fast food either. The stereotyp requires the French to drink red wine all day long, nibble on cheese, be stuck up and more than anything else be slim, svelte and fit. Not these guys and gals today, no way. We had some serious weight huffing up the few stairs one is allow to access and a lot of the huffing was done in French.

Where are the Americans?

Chitzen Itza
The famous Kukulkan in Chitzen Itza

Another surprising fact was the underrepresentation of the Americans. From Houston it takes about 2 hours to get to Merida and another 2 hours to get to Chitzen Itza – one of the truly great sights in the world and so one should think that the occassional American would make their way there. And some do, don’t get me wrong, but the overwhelming majority seems to think their time is better spend adding an extra hour to their flights, go straight to Cancun and hit the beaches and bars there. Now this might be a sampling bias, it was some random Monday during Valentines week when all Americans need to celebrate love and don’t even get an official holiday to do so but one little thing tipped me off that it might be more permanent than that: many of the vendors on the ground seem to speak French – nothing one would assume the average Yucateco/a street vendor learns purely out of intellectual curiosity.
And then the Germans, what can I say about them that I haven’t said before. I’ll be kind for once and just point out that nobody shows up with more guides and books and brochures. A bunch of them could surely have taught the guides a thing or two. Not sure that makes them favorites with everybody.

The rest is quickly told, we drove home, it rained and then it poured, we got home to find the kitchen halfways flooded and now it just stopped pouring for a little bit but it really feels like the quite before the next rain storm hits.

I am getting ready for India!

More pictures are in the gallery

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