Photo of the Day: Jungle Pyramid

This is a shot of the Pyramid of the Magician rising above the jungle in Uxmal, Mexico. This was my favorite of the pyramid sites I visited: more remote, less crowded, and less touristy than the more famous sites of Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan. When you walk around here you can really feel like you’re in the middle of an Indiana Jones film.

Date: 11/2/2013
Camera: Nikon D5100
Click for larger view

You can view more featured photos at my Photo of the Day Collection.

Down in Mexico, Days 6 to 9: Swimming and Snorkeling in Cancun

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November 3, 2013: After a long day of driving from Merida to Cancun, with a visit to Chichen Itza in between, I finally checked into my hotel around 8 p.m. on a rainy evening. The hotel was one of those all-inclusive joints that are always trying to sell you a time share or vacation club or whatever they call it. I discovered just how aggressive they can be before I even made it to the elevator with my suitcase when I was intercepted by one of their marketing people. Really? Could I at least unpack before you start harassing me? I was tired and not in a sales-pitch kind of mood, so I just kind of played dumb until she let me go.

Moments later, I finally arrived in my room. I’m not picky about hotel rooms (when you do most of your traveling with a dog, you learn to take what you can get), but I was surprised by the cheap-motel feel of the room, like a leftover relic from the 50’s or 60’s, with concrete walls painted lime green. No mini-bar, which I guess is understandable in an all-inclusive place, but I missed the ability to keep my water cool (the broken ice machine on the floor didn’t help matters). There was also no free WiFi and you had to pay if you wanted to use the in-room safe (so much for all-inclusive). Minor quibbles, but I would have expected more considering how much you pay to stay in one of these resorts.

On the other hand, I had a great view of both the ocean and the bay from my window, which I was looking forward to seeing in the daylight.

Daylight view from my room. A Mayan ruin is visible to the right.

In the meantime, I ventured downstairs for dinner and then outside to take a nighttime stroll. The rain had let up so I decided to take a walk up to the nearby Mayan ruin. I had the entire ruin to myself; it was so peaceful overlooking the ocean. I could have stayed there all night.

Mayan Ruin
Overlooking the beach from the ruin (long exposure).

I headed back to my room and went to bed. Since I had gotten very little sleep over the long week, I decided I would sleep in the following morning so I would be rejuvenated for the rest of my stay. That idea, however, was quashed when someone from the marketing staff called me at 7 a.m. to ask me if I was going on their trip to Chichen Itza. I had just come from Chichen Itza the night before, why would I want to go back? I tried to go back to sleep, but a half-hour later someone else called to ask if I was coming to their breakfast presentation. Umm, no! I was really irritated now (I guess I should have unplugged the phone).

There was no going back to sleep now, so I got ready and then headed downstairs, sought out the first marketing person I could find, and told her I was not interested in anything they had to sell and to please make sure nobody called my room again. I’m normally not that assertive but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my brief stay dodging sales pitches. Anyway, it worked; no salesperson called me again for the rest of my stay; they just resorted to slipping things under my door.

So if you’re considering staying in one of these all-inclusive places, just know what you’re in for. It’s not the kind of place in which I would have chosen to stay if it hadn’t been a part of my tour package. While the all-inclusive aspect has its appeal (especially the unlimited mixed drinks I was able to order), it’s not really my cup of tea. I would rather not be married to eating all of my meals at the hotel buffet (which you almost feel obligated to do given that you already paid for it), and the whole Dirty-Dancing-Catskills-resort atmosphere with the scheduled events and activities doesn’t really appeal to me. It seems designed to keep you in or near the hotel for your entire stay, or to use the hotel for any excursions.

Cancun in general strikes me as a vacation destination for Americans who don’t like to travel, as it’s essentially an American resort that happens to exist in Mexico. You don’t have to learn the language or customs or venture outside of your comfort zone because you’re shielded in this self-contained luxury cocoon. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re looking for, but for my part, when I want to spend a week at the beach I can just drive to the Jersey shore.

That being said, the beaches and waters of Cancun are stunningly beautiful. The turquoise Caribbean was like nothing I had ever seen before, and the white sand was incredibly soft and powdery, not coarse like the beaches back home. I was so taken by the comfort of the sand and the beauty of the water that I was inspired to go swimming in the ocean, which is something I almost never do at the Jersey shore.

Looking Up the Beach
The Gorgeous Water

After swimming I spent some more time on the beach and then took another walk up to the Mayan ruin to see it in daylight.

On the way up to the ruin I encountered this guy on the steps.
The Mayan Ruin
Another view of the ruin.
View of the beach from the ruin.

I then headed to the hotel pool, which has a bar that serves drinks while you sit on a bar stool in the pool, and enjoyed some Mai Tais. So yes, despite my protestations, I did make good use of the all-inclusive package. 🙂

I also scheduled an excursion for the following day called Jungle Tour that involved driving your own motor boat through a lagoon and mangroves and out to sea to go snorkeling on the Great Mayan Reef, which is said to be the largest reef in the Western Hemisphere. I had never been snorkeling before, so I was looking forward to it. The rest of the evening was spent checking out a nearby outdoor mall and stopping by the hotel’s “Pirate Party” on the beach, which was basically a glorified high school dance, so I left quickly.

The Outdoor Mall

The next day I headed out for my snorkeling excursion. I had trouble figuring out where to pick up the bus that would take me to the tour operator and almost wound up being late, but I eventually made it. I decided to buy a disposable underwater camera in their shop and then I was off to change, pick up my gear, and report to the dock.

Me on my boat (taken with disposable camera).

We each had our own boats to drive as we headed out to the reef, which took about a half-hour. Once there, after some instruction, we jumped in. I stayed with the beginners, though I think I would have been okay following the experienced snorkelers. Despite the overcast sky, the view underwater was amazing, and nothing can prepare you for the first time a large fish appears out of nowhere to swim right in front of your face. Startling, but also exhilarating.

The underwater camera turned out to be a waste because most of the pictures did not come out, and the ones that did are not of very good quality. In fact, this is the only underwater shot that was even remotely worth sharing:

As a novice snorkeler, I kept making the mistake of turning my head to the point where the snorkel became submerged, causing me to swallow seawater. The ocean was rough as well, which led to a bout of motion sickness (I should have taken Dramamine or something). On top of that, the life vest kept scraping against my underarms until my skin was raw (next time I’ll have to wear something to prevent that). So I wound up returning to my boat about ten minutes early, with a headache and the world spinning around me. Despite all of that, it was still an amazing experience and definitely something I want to do again. I’ll be better prepared for it next time.

At the end of my snorkeling adventure.

That evening, for my final dinner of the trip, I decided to forego the buffet and make a reservation at the hotel’s fancy Italian restaurant. It was part of the all-inclusive package, which meant unlimited glasses of prosecco. The lasagna was just okay, but the antipasto and dessert buffets were great, especially the cannolis filled with chocolate mousse.

After dinner I headed upstairs to pack for my flight. I asked for an 8 a.m. wake-up call the next morning only to have the front desk call me at 7:30 to let me know when my airport transfer would be arriving—they were just determined not to let me sleep. :-

The shuttle was late because the driver had to switch vehicles after the AC broke on the first vehicle, but he eventually came and I made it to the airport with time to spare. I was a bit annoyed that I had to wait in line with the rest of the people checking their baggage when I only had a carry-on, but it was nice to go through a security checkpoint that doesn’t make you take your shoes off. Before long I was on the plane and headed back to Jersey. The flight home was very comfortable—I had sprung the extra $49 for premium economy seats and nobody else was sitting in them, so I basically had two entire rows on both sides of the plane to myself, which enabled me to get some nice sunset views like these, captured with my cell phone camera:

Before signing off, a quick word about the tour company I used, Tour By Mexico. I tried to do as much research as possible before my trip, but there was not a whole lot of info about them online in terms of reviews, so I took a bit of a gamble in booking with them. It paid off. They were very professional and organized, answered all of my questions before the trip, showed up promptly for all of my transfer pickups (save the Cancun pickup mentioned above), and they quickly resolved the issue I had with my Mexico City hotel. I would recommend them if you are looking for an organized tour in Mexico, and the Pyramid Tour in particular was a great way to visit many of Mexico’s more famous pyramid sites within the span of a week.

Well, that’s it for my Mexico journal. Before long I’ll be writing about my U.K. trip. Until then, I leave you with my Mexico trip video:

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Down in Mexico, Day 6: Chichen Itza

Me at Chichen Itza
Click on any image in this post for a larger view.

November 3, 2013: The longest day of my Mexico trip began in the morning with a pickup at my hotel in Merida for the drive to Chichen Itza. I would not be returning to the hotel, so I had all of my luggage with me. Fortunately, I had chosen to travel with just a carry-on, so there wasn’t much to lug around. We drove around the city picking up others until the van was full. The entire group would be moving on to Cancun after Chichen Itza, so the back of the van was piled with everyone’s luggage.

After a couple of hours of driving we arrived at Chichen Itza, home of one Mexico’s most famous pyramids, El Castillo (pictured above), but first our guide took us on an extended tour of other buildings in the complex.

El Caracol (aka, The Observatory)
A building in the Las Monjas complex.
Supposedly the hole on the right was blown by an overzealous archaeologist.
Another building in the Las Monjas complex.

Before long I got my first view of El Castillo.

El Castillo

Unfortunately, they no longer allow you to climb this pyramid. They closed it off to public access seven years ago after an elderly woman slipped on the steps and fell to her death. From what the guide was saying, it sounds like Mexican authorities are closing off more and more ruins for both safety reasons and to preserve the ruins from human erosion, so if you want to climb the still-open pyramids in places like Teotihuacan and Uxmal, you might want to get down to Mexico sooner rather than later.

After spending some time at the great pyramid, our guide took us to some of the other nearby structures.

The Skull Platform
Closeup of some of the skulls.
The Great Ball Court.
Mayan nobility would have viewed the event from the tall structure on the upper left.

After the guided tour ended we were given free time to explore the rest of the complex. I headed over to the Temple of the Warriors.

Temple of the Warriors
Temple of the Warriors
Standing among the pillars near the Temple of the Warriors.

I then headed down to the other end of the complex to check out the Sacred Cenote, which supplied water to the city. On a side note, we were supposed to go swimming in a nearby underground cenote after leaving Chichen Itza but that never materialized, bummer. 😩

The Sacred Cenote

Along the way I had to run the gauntlet of vendors. They’re not as annoying as the ones in Teotihuacan because they are set up behind tables, so they don’t follow you around as much. And they’re located on side paths away from the ruins so, unlike Teotihuacan, it’s easier to avoid them, but it still adds a touristy vibe to the place that you don’t get when visiting more remote sites like Uxmal and Kabah.

After walking around the cenote I made my way back to the great pyramid for some more photos.

It was time to leave, so I headed back toward the park entrance. I had 20 pesos left in my pocket so I figured I’d see what I could get from one of the vendors before exiting. I wasn’t expecting much since 20 pesos is roughly the equivalent of $2, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, and maybe they’d want to unload some goods since it was near the end of the day. I stopped at a vendor, found what I thought was a cheap item and asked how much. He said, “50 pesos,” so I said, “No thanks,” and started to leave. He followed me and asked me how much I wanted to give. I said, “20.” He said, “Okay, 20.” I handed him the 20 pesos and he said, “No, 20 U.S. dollars.” So he had increased  the price from $5 (50 pesos) to $20 (200 pesos) while acting like he was giving me a bargain because 20 was less than 50. He obviously was counting on my misunderstanding of the currency differences to try and swindle me. I walked away.

When I reached the end of the path I realized I was at the wrong gate, so I had to turn around and try to find my way to the correct gate (Chichen Itza is a large complex). By the time I finally reached it, I was very late. I walked around looking for my group but could not find anyone. Eventually my guide found me and led me to the dining hall where the group was having lunch. I sat near a couple from Switzerland and we had a nice conversation. I told them how much I love Switzerland and it turned out that they were from Basel, which I had just visited on my last Eurotrip.

The observatory from outside the park.

After dinner it was time to head back to the van for the long drive to Cancun. About three hours later, around 8 p.m. on a rainy evening, I checked into my Cancun hotel for the final leg of my trip, which will be covered in the next installment. In the meantime, here’s one more photo of El Castilo:

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Down in Mexico, Day 5: Indiana Jonesing in Uxmal and Kabah

You can click on any image in this post for a larger view.

November 2, 2013: This was my favorite day of the trip. It began with a morning pickup at the hotel across from mine, where I met a couple from California (I met a lot of California people on this trip). The driver apparently spoke only a few words of English so we had some trouble communicating with him. However, after everyone was picked up and in the van, the driver grabbed the microphone and began speaking in perfect English. Turns out he was actually our guide and was just pranking us. 🙂

So we sat back for the long ride to Uxmal. It was literally in the middle of nowhere, as the road cut through forest with virtually nothing else around. It reminded me a bit of driving through certain portions of the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, but with even longer stretches of remoteness.

We eventually reached Uxmal and had time to do a little shopping before entering. It was a very hot day, and just as humid as the previous day. I considered buying one of those Panama hats to block the sun but instead settled for an Uxmal baseball cap since I have collected baseball caps from most of my other travel destinations. I still hadn’t managed to find any sunscreen on this trip (a store in the ground-floor mall of my hotel in Merida wanted like $35 for a little tube!), so I just used some hand lotion on my face and my Avon bug spray (which includes some sunscreen) for the rest of me. The bug spray has proven to be very effective on my two jungle-ish trips in Peru and Mexico at keeping away the insects, so I was glad I brought it.

Upon entering the Uxmal complex the first thing you see is the glorious Pyramid of the Magician. Unfortunately, this is not a pyramid they allow you to climb.

Pyramid of the Magician
Pyramid of the Magician

I noticed several lizards crawling up and down the pyramid walls (I believe they were iguanas). They were everywhere and had no fear of humans, so you could walk right up to them and take a picture like this:

An Uxmal Citizen

Our guide took us through the entire complex, providing excellent background and commentary. This was easily my favorite of all the pyramid sites I visited. Because it is so remote and peaceful, with far fewer tourists than the more popular pyramid sites (and no vendors harassing you to buy stuff), it’s really easy to imagine yourself as an Indiana Jones-type of explorer stumbling onto a lost Mayan city in the middle of the jungle.

Nunnery Quadrangle (a government palace)
A building of the Nunnery Quadrangle
Looking through the ball court toward the Governor’s Palace.
Governor’s Palace

After our tour, the guide gave us free time that I used to climb the Great Pyramid at the other end of the complex, which has only been partially restored.

The Great Pyramid

The top offers a bird’s-eye view of the entire complex and really gives you a sense of its remoteness as you gaze upon jungle stretching to the horizon in every direction.

Me on top of the Great Pyramid
Pyramid of the Magician viewed from the Great Pyramid

After spending some time at the top I made my way to an unrestored, ruined structure called the House of the Doves. Located in an isolated area of the complex through some foliage, I was the only person there. I love having a place to myself like that; it always makes me feel as if I’m discovering something that no one else knows about. I could practically hear John Williams’ Raiders theme in my head. 😉

House of the Doves
House of the Doves

Soon it was time to leave and head to Kabah. Here are a few Uxmal parting shots:

Looking up toward the Governor’s Palace
Front of the Governor’s Palace
View of the Uxmal complex from the Governor’s Palace hill.
Pyramid of the Magician
Pyramid of the Magician

Kabah is a sister site to Uxmal located about 14 miles away. The two sites are connected by an ancient Mayan causeway, though I’m not sure if you are actually able to hike the whole thing. A grand arch sits at either end of the causeway but I did not have the chance to see this at Kabah since I was unaware of it at the time.

In the distance on the upper right you can see the overgrown Great Pyramid of Kabah.

Kabah is even more remote than Uxmal, with very little in the way of facilities, which to me is a good thing because it feel much less touristy than the more popular sites. In fact, we were the only group there, so we basically had the run of the place. It’s a smaller site than Uxmal, but apparently only a portion of it has actually been excavated, so it could prove to be much larger than it appears. As I toured the various buildings I could see excavators working on structures in the woods. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, so I never made it to the other side of the road (where the causeway is), but from what I hear, it’s worth a hike to see structures still overgrown with forest (as well as the aforementioned arch).

Codz Poop (Palace of the Masks)
Codz Poop
Closeup of Codz Poop facade.
El Palacio (to the right)
El Palacio
(may also be known as the Governor’s palace, though I’m not sure about that)
Another temple.

After Kabah I was not feeling too well, mostly because I hadn’t hydrated enough to counteract the extreme humidity; I did not bring as much water as I should have, but the California couple was kind enough to give me an extra bottle of water they had. For lunch we went to an outdoor buffet at a charming hotel, though I wasn’t feeling up to eating much. After dinner, we were scheduled to go home, but another couple wanted to see a working Mayan village and the group voted to go. I would much rather have just gone back to my hotel at that point, given the way I was feeling (and the fact that there was an extra cost associated with it), but I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else, so I went.

I think the village was just for show and that they don’t actually live there, but it was still a neat experience. We saw them make rope from leaves and enjoyed tortillas made right in front of us. We also were able to pick tasty oranges right off the trees and eat them; I had never seen oranges with green peels before.

Me with one of the Mayans. I’m holding a piece of rope he had just made.
Interior of a Mayan Hut.
According to my guide in Merida, many people on the Yucatan still sleep in hammocks rather than beds.

When I finally returned to the hotel that night, I skipped dinner again but found time to enjoy the hot tub, which really hit the spot. In the lobby that night there was a big Day of the Dead corporate party going on, with music loud enough that anyone who wanted to go to bed early would be screwed. Luckily, I’m a night owl anyway, and I had to pack since this was my last night in Merida. In the morning I would be headed to Chichen Itza and then on to Cancun.

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Down in Mexico, Day 4: Merida (Summer in November)

November 1, 2013: A few hours after my morning pickup in Mexico City I landed in Merida. As the plane approached I got a good bird’s-eye view of the Yucatan Peninsula: lush, green, and flat. The noon sun was almost directly overhead, which resulted in the neat effect of the clouds casting shadows that looked like lakes:

The first thing that struck me when I stepped out of the airport was the humidity. I knew it would be hotter on the Yucatan Peninsula, but I was not prepared for the feeling of stepping outside into a steam room. The temperature was in the 90’s and the humidity level was over 90-percent, which meant that sweat basically began pouring off you right away. The humidity also wreaked havoc with my camera; the lens fogged up as soon as I walked outside. I had to head back inside and treat the lens with an anti-fog coating.

My Merida guide met me at the airport and took me on a tour of the city via automobile. As with my first full day in Mexico City, I was the only person in the vehicle, so it was essentially my own private tour. Merida is a very charming city full of colonial architecture and devoid of skyscrapers. I did not take pictures from the car because I figured I’d return to most of these sites on foot. Unfortunately, I was not feeling too well during my two days in Merida, so I did not see as much of the city as I would have liked.

The guide was very good, giving me lots of historical background. Regarding the heat, he told me that even at its coldest the temperature in Merida rarely dips below the 60’s, but during that time the locals can been seen walking around in sweaters and scarves, which I found amusing since those of us enduring this brutal winter in the States would consider 60 degrees practically beach weather. 😉

I was disappointed to learn that Merida had already had its big Day of the Dead celebration, complete with full parade to the cemetery, on the previous day, so I missed out on all of the festivities. I had timed my trip so that I would arrive in Merida on November 1, which I thought was the first official day of the holiday, but as my guide pointed out, the previous day was for the public while November 1st and 2nd are more for the family. Oh well, I guess I should have researched that better.

After the tour the guide dropped me at my hotel, The Fiesta Americana, and waited while I checked in. The hotel had a very cool interior, by far the nicest of the hotels in which I stayed during this trip.

Fiesta Americana Interior (vertical panorama)

After getting settled in my room I returned downstairs so my guide could drive me back into the center of town and drop me off. Although my hotel was little more than a mile from the center of town (easy walking distance), I nevertheless appreciated the ride. No sooner had I started meandering about than a man came up to me and started chatting me up. He wanted me to come eat lunch in his restaurant. I would have liked to explore my options, but I figured what the hell, I was hungry anyway. I ordered a traditional Yucatan dish, a chicken stew type of thing; it was pretty good.

After lunch, the restaurant owner offered to show me to some museum that only locals know about. Based on my experience in Mexico so far, I figured it was a ploy to get me to buy something, but I went along because he was a nice guy. He took me into a building and upstairs and then left. The “museum” turned out to just be a shop of the same type of stuff you could buy anywhere else, so I left quickly, much to the shop owner’s chagrin.

I then walked around some more and slowly made my way back to the hotel, figuring I’d come back into town around dinner time. That did not happen as I was feeling the effects of both the humidity and perhaps some food I ate, so I skipped dinner, though I did head out later that evening for a walk. After returning, I went to bed. I had an early pickup scheduled in the morning for my trip out to Uxmal, an excursion to which I was very much looking forward.

Here are some photos from my day in Merida:

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Down in Mexico, Day 3: Climbing Pyramids


October 31, 2013, Mexico City: For the second time in three years, I was celebrating Halloween in another country, but instead of trick-or-treating, I would be going pyramid climbing. Today was my long-awaited visit to the mysterious Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, built by an unknown civilization beginning around 100 BC, and, at its zenith in 450 AD, one of the largest cities in the world.

As with the previous day’s Mexico City tour, I was picked up in front of my hotel and dropped off at the same garage in the center of the city. After a short wait, I boarded a van with a small group (unlike the previous day, I would not be taking this tour by myself). On the ride I befriended a couple of guys from San Diego; it was nice to have someone to talk to.

Before leaving Mexico City we stopped at the archaeological site of Tlatelolco, the sister city of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. There was much more to see here than at the Tenochtitlan site, but we didn’t have time to explore, so we just snapped a few photos and hopped back in the van.

The ruins of Tlatelolco.
Tlatelolco and a 17th-century church called Templo de Santiago.

When we arrived at Teotihuacan we first endured what I call the “hard sell,” basically a sales pitch disguised as a tour at a tourist spot outside the pyramid complex. It wasn’t all bad, though. The guide for this portion gave us a primer on how they extract cactus juice and the various drinks they make from it. He then extracted some juice from a cactus and let us try some. Next he showed us masks and other trinkets that were created onsite by artisans, talking up their quality and authenticity (the hard sell). He took us around to some of the artisans as they worked, carving masks from stone and painting them. From there we headed inside to the store, where he walked us up and down the aisles, showing us more purchasable souvenirs (ahem, hard sell).

The tour ended at a station with several bottles of tequila and other liquor, where he proceeded to pour us shot after shot from the various bottles. By the end, I had a pleasant buzz—I think the plan was to get us drunk so we’d buy stuff. 😉

The various liquors we sampled.

Finally, it was time to head into the pyramid complex. It was a hot sunny day, so I borrowed some sunblock from one of the San Diego guys for my face and neck (luckily I don’t really need it for my arms and legs).

We entered near the immense Pyramid of the Sun and then headed toward the other end of the complex and the Pyramid of the Moon. From here, the guide gave us about two-hours of free time. I had been expecting a guided tour of the complex, complete with history and everything, but that’s okay, the free time enabled me to climb both of the large pyramids.

Our first view of the Pyramid of the Sun…
…and our first view of the Pyramid of the Moon.

I began with the Pyramid of the Moon, the smaller of the two massive pyramids.

Approaching the Pyramid of the Moon

You can only climb about 2/3 of the way up as a rope blocks any further ascent to the summit, but even on the lower level the view of the entire complex was spectacular.

The roped-off upper portion of the Pyramid of the Moon.

There was a crowd going up and down the steps, but not too bad. I imagine in the summer months it gets so packed that you can barely move, so once again, I was glad to have taken this trip outside of peak season. After taking some pictures from the top I sat for a while just admiring the view (the panorama at the top of this post represents the view I enjoyed from this spot).

Me on top of the Pyramid of the Moon.

I then headed down and climbed one of the smaller pyramids. At the top I had the entire structure to myself (everyone else was busy knocking about the more popular structures). Sitting at the top in complete isolation was peaceful and sublime, and I stayed there for quite a while. I could have sat there all day, but I needed to make my way to the Sun Pyramid if I hoped to climb it before my time was up. Here are some views from my “private” pyramid vantage point:

Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Moon
Rocks on top of my “private” pyramid.

I headed down the Avenue of the Dead toward my ultimate destination, occasionally stopping to visit some of the other structures.

The Avenue of the Dead looking back toward the Pyramid of the Moon.
Some surviving wall art.

Along the way I was repeatedly accosted by vendors trying to sell me stuff, and they don’t take “no” for an answer, so be prepared to have them follow you for a bit before finally giving up. I realize people have to earn a living, but it kind of ruins the atmosphere when you have to run through gauntlets of vendors stationed near all of the attractions. It would be nice if they were restricted to designated areas near the gates of the complex.

Most annoying was that the vendors kept blowing into these toys to create a sound that they claimed was a jaguar, but really sounded more like a duck being tortured. Over and over again as you make your way through the complex, the tortured ducks assault your senses. Thankfully, the vendors are apparently not allowed on the pyramids, so once you’ve fought your way through the gauntlet and started to climb, you’re home free—at least until you come back down again. You will find yourself saying “No, Gracias” so many times that it becomes almost like breathing, because even after you’ve said “no” to the first four vendors in the gauntlet, the fifth one will still think you might be interested in his wares.

That being said, Teotihuacan is still an amazing place to see, so don’t let the vendor situation turn you off from visiting. In the larger scheme of things, they are a minor annoyance. Once you’re at the top of the pyramids surrounded by expansive beauty, all of that disappears. And Teotihuacan is one of the few places in Mexico where you can still climb the pyramids, so it definitely should be at the top of anyone’s must-visit list while in Mexico.

Anyway, it was time to climb the magnificent Pyramid of the Sun. Depending on which source you read, it is anywhere from the 3rd to the 7th largest pyramid in the world—for the purposes of this post, we’ll call it the 3rd largest. 🙂

This zoomed-in shot of the Pyramid of the Sun gives you a good
idea of just how massive it is by observing how tiny the people appear.
Approaching the Pyramid of the Sun

It’s not a difficult climb and there are guide ropes to help you along, though I did have to rest a couple of times (you’d think after surviving the Inca Trail that I’d be in better shape than that).

Beginning the climb.

I eventually reached the top and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the pyramid complex and the surrounding terrain. I bumped into the San Diego guys at the very top and they were kind enough to take my picture (as they had earlier on top of the Pyramid of the Moon) and I returned the favor. Here are a couple of my views from this vantage point:

Panorama of Teotihuacan
Pyramid of the Moon and the surrounding terrain.

From up here I could see another small pyramid at the far end of the complex but I would not have time to venture down there (another reason to lament having wasted our first hour on the “hard sell”), so I spent the rest of my free time walking around the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, enjoying the view and taking lots of photos.

View of the small pyramid at the far end of the complex.
Small pyramid (zoomed in).

Before long, it was time to go. Here are a couple of parting shots from my walk back to the complex entrance:

Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Moon

When I returned to the van, one of the guides drove me to a restaurant for a late lunch. I was the only member of my group whose lunch was included in the price of the tour, so I was taken to a different restaurant to eat by myself (I had a similar experience in Peru). The restaurant was in the shadow of the Pyramid of the Moon so I had a nice view while I ate.

The view from my restaurant table.

After lunch I was driven to the restaurant where the rest of the group was eating (they thought that I had gotten lost and left behind). We then boarded the van and headed back to Mexico City for a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is basically like the Mexican version of the Vatican. Here are a few photos:

Outside the Basilica
Basilica Interior
View of the Basilica from the rear square.
The square behind the Basilica.
The old basilica (left).
Side view of the old basilica, which was replaced when it began sinking (much of Mexico City was built over an old lake). Toward the back you can see where the sinking caused the building to split apart.

It was pretty late in the evening when I finally got back to my hotel and I had to pack for my flight in the morning, but I decided to head out for one last walk around the city. In particular I was looking for a Mexican franchise restaurant called La Casa de Tono, which had been recommended by some of my fellow bloggers. I was walking for some time with no luck and I eventually wound up in an unfamiliar area, where I stumbled onto a Star Wars shop.

It was pretty cool finding one of these in Mexico.

I circled back toward my hotel, but decided to try one last time to find La Casa de Tono. It turned out that the restaurant was right down the street from my hotel (I could practically have thrown a stone from my window and hit it) and I had walked right past it. This time I found it and headed upstairs. I ordered pozole, a Mexican soup that had been highly recommended by other bloggers. I had some trouble because I only knew enough Spanish to place the order, so I was unable to understand the waiter when he asked me a question about the order (I’m guessing he was asking about some customization option), and he eventually gave up, wrote something down, and left. I ordered the grande pozole with chicken, which was huge (probably should have gone with the smaller size). It was delicious, though, especially after spicing it up with salsa. It came with a bunch of tortillas. I wasn’t sure if they were meant to be eaten as bread, put into the soup, or what, so I ended up putting some chicken in them and eating them like fajitas, which was most likely wrong and probably looked bizarre to the locals. 😉

After dinner I made my way back to the hotel and packed for the morning flight to Merida, my time in Mexico City near an end.

View my full Mexico photo album (including larger versions of the photos in this post)…

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Teotihuacan, Mexico: View from the Pyramid of the Moon

Down in Mexico, Day 2.5: A Quest Fulfilled and a Dalliance with the Dead

Flash Forward: Day of the Dead Festivities

October 30, 2013, Mexico City: I was back at my hotel around 4 p.m. after my tour ended without the scheduled visit to the historic city center. My guide claimed he could not take me there because protests were preventing traffic from getting through, but I didn’t want to leave Mexico City without visiting the excavation site of the Templo Mayor, the great dual pyramid of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, so I decided to make the long walk to the city center myself. It appeared that it would take about an hour to reach the Templo Mayor, though in reality it would be closer to 90 minutes after factoring in stops for sightseeing.

I didn’t have access to a map or a data plan on my phone, so I mapped a route out on my wifi tablet, committed it to memory, and then snapped photos of the important turns with my phone so I could reference them when necessary. Rather than walking along the main highway, I chose a back way that looked a bit more direct and would enable me to see more of the city.

A monument I passed during my walk.

As I approached the city center I began to notice police lined up in the streets dressed in riot gear. However, traffic appeared to be getting by fine, so I was annoyed that my guide didn’t even try to take me there. On the other hand, if he had, I would never have seen all of the things I did on my walk that afternoon and evening, so I guess it worked out.

You can see some leftover protesters and the police presence in front of this monument.
A large contingent of police dressed in riot gear.
The Palace of Fine Arts

The very center of the city is a pedestrian area (i.e., no cars) which reminded me of some cities in Europe.

Interesting building in the pedestrian section.

I meandered about the main square (known as the ZĂłcalo), soaking in the atmosphere, taking time to appreciate the architecture of the historic buildings, and watching the locals set up for Day of the Dead.

Locals setting up for Day of the Dead.
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
National Palace of Mexico

At one point a military squad armed with rifles marched into the square, which can be somewhat unnerving when you’re a visitor in a foreign country, especially after hearing about the protests and seeing the riot police earlier, but I was more fascinated than anything.

The military marching out from the palace.

I turned my attention back to the task for which I had originally set out: finding the excavation site of the Templo Mayor. A few more minutes of walking and I arrived. There’s not a lot to see (I think most people would walk by without much of a second glance), but I found it amazing to be standing on the site of what was once the great pyramid at the heart of the Aztec empire. I’ve always been fascinated with Mesoamerican culture (I even incorporated the Aztecs into my novel, complete with a sequence that takes place inside the Templo Mayor), so to be standing here among its ruins was sort of a Holy Grail moment for me. Unfortunately, the museum was closed, so there wasn’t much more to do than snap a couple of photos.

The ruin of the Templo Mayor.
This model in the Museum of Anthropology shows what the Templo Mayor looked like in its glory days.
The background painting depicts the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan as it would have appeared to Cortes.

My quest fulfilled, it was time for dinner. I walked around looking for a place where I could try tacos al pastor, which had been recommended by a fellow blogger. It’s basically meat (usually pork) cooked on a spit, similar to how a gyro or doener is made. I eventually found a place and sat down. I was the only non-local in there so that was a good sign. The tacos did not disappoint. Delicious.

By the time I left the restaurant it was dark.

The pedestrian area at night.

I walked around the pedestrian area and indulged in some gelato before coming across street performers dressed in costume. Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees stalking the streets of Mexico City was an interesting sight.

One-two, Freddy’s coming for you…
You can see Jason and his big machete in the background.
Some demons I saw earlier in the day.

A little later I stumbled onto an early Day of the Dead celebration.

Day of the Dead Entry Gate

I wasn’t sure I could enter so I watched from outside for a little bit, but when I saw other people coming and going, I decided to head in. It was pretty cool, there were decorations, dancers, and people dressed in traditional Catrina costumes. It was a small event, but a nice prelude to the full-blown festivities I thought I would be experiencing later that week in Merida (which was not to be, but more on that later). Here are some photos:

A Catrina poses for a photo.

The Day of the Dead event was being held in the shadow of one of Mexico City’s tallest buildings, the Torre Latinoamericana. On the advice of another fellow blogger, who told me I could save money and avoid the crowds by bypassing the observation deck and heading straight to the bar (the blogging community sure came in handy on this trip), I took the elevator up to the bar.

The blue-lit bar had a noirish feel to it, and the man in this photo had the perfect outfit for the atmosphere.

Looks like something out of a detective story.

It was mostly empty, so I grabbed a table by the window and ordered a corona while enjoying a spectacular view of Mexico City. It was strange to hear American music blasting on the stereo, especially of the 80’s hair metal variety (I can’t remember the last time I heard Europe’s The Final Countdown.). I called my wife while I was there to check in, but a combination of loud music and a bad connection forced me to keep the conversation short.

My table.
Mexico City
More Mexico City

After finishing my beer I headed down for the long walk back to my hotel. I decided to take the main road home rather than returning the way I had come since I didn’t want to walk down unfamiliar back streets in the dark. I hadn’t mapped this way out ahead of time, but I knew that the main road ran close to my hotel, and I was confident in my sense of direction.

It began lightly raining during my walk, but not enough to pull my poncho out of my backpack, so I just wore my windbreaker. I was surprised to discover how warm it was–I had brought layers for mornings and evenings based on the average temperature in Mexico City for late October, but I never really needed them.

On the way home I found a churro stand (whoohoo!). Although I had already indulged in gelato, there was no way I was missing out on a fresh churro, this one filled with chocolate. Besides, pigging out on good food is what vacation is all about, at least for me. 🙂

I eventually found my way back to the hotel and turned in, exhausted from all of the walking I had done, and hoping I would not be too sore the following day when I reached the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Lots of climbing lay ahead of me.

View more of my photos from Mexico

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Down in Mexico, Day 2: Floating Gardens, Ancient Artifacts, and Traffic Jams

Flash Forward: The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco

October 30, 2013, Mexico City: The second day of my trip got off to a late start when I apparently missed my wake-up call (I was wearing earplugs and didn’t realize that the phone’s ringer was set to low). I awoke to someone from the staff knocking lightly on my door to try and wake me—I have no idea how long he had been knocking—that’ll teach me to check the ringer level on my phone.  I quickly got ready and headed down to breakfast with about five minutes to shove some food down my throat and get outside for my pickup.

A driver arrived and took me to a garage near the center of the city, where I waited for my tour to begin. Since I was the only person waiting for a tour, I must confess to a fleeting bout of uneasiness over waiting by myself in this dark garage with a bunch of strangers. Of course I knew this was completely irrational, but human fear is rarely rational, like when you’re downstairs in your house by yourself and you shut the lights out to go to bed—you know there’s nothing hiding in the dark but you still hop upstairs a little faster into the safety of the light. 😉

Eventually my guide showed up and we were off in a little sedan. As the only person on this tour, I had my own private driver and guide for the day—one of the advantages to traveling outside of peak season. For our first stop, the guide claimed he was taking me to a silver museum not listed on the itinerary that the average tourist doesn’t get to see. In actuality, it was a tiny silver shop in a part of the city that, according to the guide, you don’t want to walk around at night. He took me into the back where a jeweler briefly showed me how he makes silver jewelry. Afterward, the guide walked me around the shop and it quickly became clear that this entire detour was nothing more than a ploy to get me to buy something here. Given how much time we would later spend sitting in traffic, I could really have done without this stop taking time away from the tour for which I had actually paid.

When they realized I wasn’t going to buy anything, we got back in the car and headed out. Our next stop was the Olympic Stadium for a quick photo.

Olympic Stadium

We then headed for Xochimilco on the other side of the city, where we were scheduled to go for a boat ride on the Floating Gardens. Traffic was horrendous; it took us about two hours to drive roughly 18 miles. There was a raised expressway for a large portion of this drive, but according to the guide, nobody uses it because the tolls are too expensive—I should have offered to pay the tolls myself to avoid that mess. 🙂

We finally arrived and embarked on one of the boats, which are called trajineras.

We walked across this line of boats to get to ours in front.

As with the car ride, I had the boat to myself along with my guide and the boatman.

Me on my boat.

There are tons of these boats on the canals, but there weren’t too many in operation on this day, so it was a nice relaxing ride, though I imagine that during peak season and on weekends the canals must be absolutely crammed with boats. As I floated down the canal, I thought of Apocalypse Now and began to hear The Doors’ The End in my head.

“This is the end…”

At one point a guy from another boat hopped onto ours with a case full of jewelry. I politely declined to purchase anything and he eventually hopped on to another boat. After that, some food merchants attached their boat to ours and cooked us lunch.  I ordered quesadillas and they threw in rice, tasty hot salsa, and guacamole (I’m not a big guac guy, but I had some and gave the rest to my guide). The quesadillas were not the grilled cheesy kind to which we are accustomed in the U.S.; these were essentially fried tacos. I ordered pork quesadillas, but only one of them was pork. The second was some sort of dark vegetable (which I think might have been cactus, though it could have been mushroom), and the third was just cheese (fresh and melted). The pork and cheese ones were good, and since I was hungry, I devoured the dark vegetable one as quickly as I could before I had a chance to taste it too much—I’m not the most adventurous of eaters but I have gotten better as I’ve traveled more.

The people on this boat cooked lunch for us.

Among the other boats in the water was a party boat with a Mariachi band, boats full of the orange flowers for Day of the Dead festivities, and people cooking various food items such as corn.

A local feeding the ducks.
Another cooking corn.
Flowers for the Day of the Dead.

At one point we passed by a creepy display of dolls hanging from trees that reminded me of a sequence from a horror show that was on TV last year called The River. The dolls were hung by a resident named JuliĂĄn Santana Barrera, supposedly to keep away evil spirits and appease the spirit of a girl who had drowned nearby. According to legend the dolls come alive at night.

The creepy dolls.
I think I just saw that one turn its head!
One final look at the Floating Gardens.

After the Floating Gardens we made our way back toward the center of the city for a visit to the Museum of Anthropology.

The Museum of Anthropology

It was very cool to see all of the ancient Aztec artifacts (and those of other civilizations). You could spend an entire day in that museum and not see everything. I won’t bore you with too many photos because I know that photos of museum artifacts don’t exactly have the same impact as seeing them live, but here are a few:

Sacrificial stone with a groove for the blood to run down.
Crystal Skull (cue the Indiana Jones music)
Statue with Aztec calendar in background.
My guide insisted on taking a bunch of silly pose pictures like this.
My first thought when seeing this: Quentin Tarantino!
Even the Mesoamericans worshiped his films. 😉

The tour was also supposed to include a visit to the historic center of Mexico City, but there were protests going on and my guide claimed that traffic was not being allowed through, so they ended up dropping me back at my hotel a couple of hours early around 4 p.m. I knew this would be my last chance to see the city center because my entire day tomorrow would be spent at the pyramids of Teotihuacan and then I’d have to pack for my flight to Merida, and I would have kicked myself if I left Mexico City without visiting the excavation site of the Templo Mayor, the great dual pyramid of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, so I decided to make the long walk.

However, this post is getting a little on the long side, so I will be following in the footsteps of Tarantino by splitting it in two, a la Kill Bill.  Stay tuned for the next installment, which will cover my journey to the Templo Mayor as well as my first encounter with Day of the Dead festivities.  Until then…

View more of my photos from Mexico

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One final photo:
The inner courtyard of the anthropological museum.

Down in Mexico: The Movie

This is a compilation of the mini-videos I shot during my October 2013 trip to Mexico, highlighted by my visits to the pyramid sites of Teotihuacan, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. Mostly absent are my stays in Merida and Cancun, as I neglected to take video in those cities.

I apologize for the jerkiness of the zooms, but the manual zoom lens of my new camera does not lend itself well to smooth zooming. I tried to smooth out some of the zooms by slowing the video down, with mixed results. This is one case where my older camera (with its auto-zoom) would have been preferable, but I wasn’t about to haul two cameras all over Mexico. 🙂

For musical accompaniment, having already used most of the other pieces from Holst’s The Planets for previous movies, I decided it was time to use Mars, The Bringer of War. I think it fits pretty well with the visions of the pyramids.

The video quality defaults to 360p, but you can increase this up to 1080p if you want to view it in higher quality.

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Down in Mexico, Day 1: Getting Acquainted with Mexico City

Flash Forward: Teotihuacan (click to enlarge)

October 29, 2013: The time had finally come to embark upon my first ever solo trip to another country. I chose Mexico because I’ve always wanted to visit the pyramids of Mesoamerica, and I found a tour that would take me to several pyramid sites across Mexico. I’d come a long way in just a few years—before my first Eurotrip in 2007 I had never visited another country (unless you count Niagara Falls, Canada) and I hadn’t flown on an airplane since my senior class trip to Disney World in 1989. Three Eurotrips and a trip to South America later, I had developed the confidence to not only fly solo, but to travel solo in a foreign country, so I was not nervous at all about my trip. My wife and family, on the other hand, were concerned about me being alone in Mexico City because of its reputation, but in reality, it is no less safe than any major American city as long as you stick to the good parts (hell, there are plenty of U.S. cities in which I would feel considerably less safe than in Mexico City).

For this trip I decided to try packing for the entire nine days in just a carry-on. I liked the idea of being able to breeze through check-in without having to wait in the baggage-check line and, after landing, not having to wait at the luggage carousel for my checked bag (not to mention eliminating any worry about lost luggage). It was tough to fit everything in the carry-on and personal item tote bag (especially with the size of my camera bag) but I managed. The hardest part was cramming all of the 3 oz liquid items into the tiny quart bag the TSA allows you (don’t even get me started on how ridiculous the whole liquid restriction rule is). Normally I would check most of my liquid items, but that was not an option this time, so I had to get creative, and also leave some items behind like sunscreen, which I figured I could buy down there, though that was not meant to be (more on that later).

Another downside to the carry-on strategy is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for souvenirs, though I’m not a big souvenir buyer anyway, so it didn’t really impact me. Overall, I think the carry-on was the right decision for this trip—it forced me to pack lighter but also allowed me to travel leaner. For a longer trip, or one that would require more different types of clothing, I would still bring a larger checked bag.

I had booked a very early flight because I didn’t want to waste my first day in Mexico City. Unfortunately, this meant waking up just a couple of hours after my usual bed time to catch a 5 a.m. train to the airport. It was worth it, though, because the train was mostly empty and I breezed through check-in and security at the airport. Like last year, I chose to fly out of Newark. It’s a very convenient location if you live near a train station because the train takes you to a monorail that drops you off directly at your gate.  It’s so much easier than trying to get to JFK (and the security lines are ten times shorter).

For my United Airlines flights I sprung for the premium economy seats with extra legroom (an extra $70 for the flight down and an extra $40 for the flight back). Some people might not think the extra fee is worth it for a relatively short flight, but I was glad I did it—both of my flights were very comfortable. On my flight down I sat right behind first class, and the middle seat was unoccupied, giving me even more room to stretch out. On a side note, it’s an interesting feeling when you’re sitting right behind first class and the flight attendant closes the curtain in front of you—I tweeted at the time that I felt like Kay at the end of The Godfather.

When I arrived in Mexico City, the driver affiliated with my tour company was waiting for me holding up a sign with my name on it. He watched my bags so I could exchange some cash and then we were off to my hotel. I chose the deluxe package for my tour (a treat to myself after spending four days in the wilderness on the Inca Trail last year), so my hotels were pretty nice. The first one was the Galeria Plaza, one of the taller buildings in the Zona Rosa section of the city, complete with doormen and a pool on the roof.

View from my hotel room.

When I checked in there was a bit of a problem with the staff claiming that my breakfast was not included (all breakfasts were supposed to be included with my package). It took some time and back-and-forth communication with my tour company, but it eventually got straightened out (though I would only end up eating one breakfast anyway). Because of the mix-up, however, I didn’t want to end up with any unforeseen charges on my bill, so I chose not to leave a credit card number with the front desk. The downside of this was that they would not give me a key to the mini-bar in my room. I wasn’t planning on using it anyway, but I usually like to place drinks I purchase in the fridge to keep them cold. Oh well, not a huge deal. A slightly bigger deal was the fact that they did not have a key for my room safe, so I either had to leave my valuables with the front desk or take my chances by leaving them in the room (I chose the latter, with a locked suitcase).

Anyway, after settling in I went for my first walk around the city. One thing I noticed off the bat was the ubiquity of VW bugs. I knew they had a lot of them in Mexico, but I was still amazed at the sheer volume. If you were to play the famous ‘punch the buggie’ game here, someone would end up in the hospital. 🙂 Another thing I realized was that New York City has nothing on Mexico City when it comes to drivers leaning on their horns. It’s a constant cacophony of horn blowing, and not for any particular reason; just sitting at a light the horns frequently blare away.

My first order of business was to look for something to eat, so in a pedestrian mall down the street from my hotel I had my first authentic tacos at an outdoor café, drenched in hot salsa and cilantro (Mmmm) and accompanied by a large beer.

Statue at entrance to pedestrian mall.

After lunch I walked around some more and came across the monument pictured below. I decided not to venture up to the monument because traffic at the circle was insane and there was no apparent pedestrian crossing, so basically you take your life in your hands if you choose to cross to the monument.

(click to enlarge)

Following this detour I made my way back to the hotel, first stopping at a convenience store right across the street to buy some bottles of water (I would return to this store several times during my stay because the water was so much cheaper than what they were charging at the hotel). I decided to check out the hotel’s rooftop pool. It was pretty cool, but I never ended up using it since it closed at 6 p.m. and I was usually out on excursions all day.

Pool on the roof of my hotel.
View of the monument statue from the roof of my hotel. (click to enlarge)

That evening I went to dinner at a charming restaurant called El Refugio, which had been recommended on the Wikitravel web site (I’ve gotten some good tips from that site for my various travels; it’s a valuable resource). I had a nice steak dish with an interesting lemonade drink that had a bunch of chia seeds in it. The waiter warned me about the hot peppers that came with my dish and then seemed stunned that I ate all of them without blinking an eye—I guess he thought I was one of those wimpy Americans who consider mild Ortega taco sauce too spicy. 🙂

El Refugio restaurant.
El Refugio interior.

After dinner I returned to the monument on the circle. I figured since it was now later in the evening I would have a better chance of crossing to it. Little did I know that traffic in Mexico City never dies down. I managed to get across but getting back was an ordeal. I thought I had judged when I could cross, but suddenly when the light changed, all of the cars started coming from the opposite direction! A traffic circle that goes in both directions? Definitely the wackiest circle I’d ever seen. Here are a few photos from my treacherous journey to the monument:

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
From this angle the cherub seems to be pointing at the building. (click to enlarge)

I finally managed to cross back over from the monument and returned to the hotel. I was pretty beat after being up since 4 a.m. and I had an early pickup the next morning for my guided tour around the city (which would include visits to Xochimilco and the Museum of Anthropology), so it was off to bed, visions of floating gardens and ancient relics dancing in my head.

View more of my photos from Mexico

Mexico City lights viewed from my hotel room.

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