I wake up this morning and join Stewart and Chucho for coffee before they go to work and I hit the road. I depart out of Cancun in two days and am driving back to Akumal to get a bit closer. Yes, I could stay in Cancun or even in Playa del Carmen, but they’re awfully crowded with tourists and people trying to sell me stuff and, with my forty pound checked bag weight limit, I can’t buy anything anyway, unless I consume it here, which would pretty much rule out all but a bottle of tequila. Probably not a great idea. Besides, I’ve fallen in love with the sleepy town of Akumal, and the kids from the library, in conjunction with the Akumal Artist in Residency program, are having an art show.
It takes approximately four hours to drive from Merida to Akumal. As Jake and Elwood said, “It’s 106 miles to Chicago (a little more to Akumal), we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it!” I hook up my tiny speaker to my iPhone and, with Springsteen singing Born to Run, I take to the open (if slightly potholed) road.
After about an hour-and-a-half, I come to the exit for Chichen Itza. Remember what I just said about tourists and people trying to sell me stuff? Well, if you like that kind of thing, this is nirvana; it’s also why I’ve avoided it. But, being the largest of the unearthed Mayan ruins, everyone says I must go. Even the passengers who sailed with me when I worked on board cruise ships said the “Chicken Pizza” tour was great. I exit the freeway and somehow turn in the opposite direction from Chichen Itza. Really, this is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mexico and I can’t find it? I think my mind is so set on avoiding it that it’s subliminally taken over my car. After driving in the wrong direction for ten minutes, I do a sixteen-point turn and, twenty minutes later, I arrive at Chichen Itza.
I pay my entrance fee and head out to explore. Chichen Itza was the sophisticated urban center of the Mayan empire from A.D. 750 to 1200, and a central focus seems to be the hard to miss pyramid called Kukulkan, which is the most photographed spot in Chichen Itza. It’s striking due to the size (24 meters high/79 feet), with the surrounding grassy, open-area making it seem even larger. While they used to allow people to climb this pyramid, it’s no longer permitted (not sure whether it’s due to wear-and-tear on the pyramid or wear-and-tear on the people falling down it). After observing it from all four sides (a bit redundant), I continue on to the other ruins within Chichen Itza. There are approximately sixteen buildings here including; The Akeb Dzib, Temple of the Bearded Man, Eagles and Jaguars Platform, the all-important Ball Court, and the impressive Observatory.
The issue I have with this place is the allowing of vendors inside to sell their magnets, pottery, jewelry, carvings, key chains, blankets, sarapes, statues, masks, lighters, wooden games, and even animal calls. There are hundreds of them set up at tables lining every path. It’s a bit like Disneyland, where all of the rides exit through the gift shop, only the gift shop is actually on the ride. I wonder what the Mayans would think. Then again, they’re the ones who chopped off the head of the winners of the ball game (Chichen Itza is a new Mayan site) so I’m not sure I’d value their opinion so much anyway.
While I only came to Chichen Itza due to the insistence of others as well as it being one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and also to avoid the comment of, “What? You went to the Yucatan peninsula and didn’t go to Chichen Itza? Blasphemy”), I’ll admit that the size of it is impressive (size does matter). And by size, I don’t mean any one ruined structure – although the large, main pyramid is pretty impressive – but the size of the entire Mayan village of Chichen Itza. Also, the parking lot is shaded and, if you come during the summer or fall and rent a car, you’ll learn to appreciate this.
After two hours exploring Chichen Itza, I get into my not hot as hell car, make a quick stop for lunch at a neighboring town, and head out towards Akumal. As soon as I depart, the rain begins. Up until this point, I’ve been very lucky with regards to the weather. You’d think I’d be pleased as, if it’s going to rain, it might as well be while I’m in the car rather than at the beach or exploring Mayan ruins. But this rain is the very definition of a torrential downpour. I can’t adjust my windshield wiper speed to go fast enough for me to see clearly. And the situation really comes to a head as I pass through the fairly large town of Valladolid. As I drive through the town, each street is more flooded than the last. By the time I approach the central square (which, by the way, is beautiful) I’m convinced my tiny car will stall-out and be enveloped by the raging river which used to be a road. I consider pulling over and staying here as it’s a beautiful town and I’m not sure what raging waters lie ahead, but I can’t figure out a place to pull over which doesn’t put my car at risk of being washed away, so I continue on (I do, however, make a mental note to return to Valladolid when I’m in this area in the future).
Eventually the rain stops; no more raining cats and dogs, now it’s all about pigs. While they’re not falling from the sky, they’re in cages on a really slow truck directly in front of me on this two lane highway and, with no opportunity to pass for quite some time, the scent envelops my car and I begin to feel as if I’m back at the mercado in Mérida. The truck finally turns off the main road (thinking this won’t end well for the pigs) and I pick up some speed.
After another hour, I slow for one of the many police checks. These are all around the highway system in a supposed attempt to catch drug traffickers. In most cases, I’m waved forward to proceed without stopping. I’ve only been stopped at one – when Karen and I were traveling to Merida and, as I didn’t wish to waste time with them searching a car that was filled only with an excess of shoes, I flirted shamelessly with the officer. During this current stop I, once again, end up behind pigs or, shall I say pig. Yes, only one, but he, or perhaps she, is impressive. He or she completely fills the back of the pick-up truck he/she’s riding in. He/she reminds me of Wilber, the pig in Charlotte’s Web. She’s the Chichen Itza of pigs! Certainly the largest and most impressive I’ve seen. Now I can say to people who have traveled to this area and not seen The Pig, “What? You went to the Yucatan peninsula and didn’t see The Pig? Blasphemy!” I feel a bit bad as I have a feeling this not-so-little piggy went to market.
After another hour, I see the Akumal sign. It’s a bit like coming home again. I see Anne on the sidewalk walking towards the building where the children from the library are displaying their artwork. I park the car and head in to grab some hugs and view the very impressive paintings, drawings and jewelry, all made by the children at Hekab Be Biblioteca in Akumal (those vendors at Chichen Itza have nothing on these kids). I hand over a book I’ve picked up for them while in Merida – Around the World in 80 Days (in Spanish) – hoping it inspires them to both read and to travel when they get older.
From there I head over to Vista del Mar Hotel to check in and sit out on my balcony for a bit and breathe in the sea air.
Tomorrow – finally some beach time as well as a final visit with the kids at the library.