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, 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:

View my full Mexico photo album

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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.

View my full Mexico photo album

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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

Mexico Panoramas

View of Teotihuacan taken from on top of the Pyramid of the Moon

I’m back from my trip to Mexico (it was awesome!) and eager to start blogging about my adventures, but it will be a while before I finish organizing my photos and my journal (which at the moment exists only in my head), so in the meantime I thought I’d share a few horizontal and vertical panoramas I shot along the way (you can click on an image to view a larger version):

Teotihuacan: The Pyramid of the Moon viewed from the Avenue of the Dead
Teotihuacan: The Pyramid of the Sun
(one of the largest pyramids in the world)
View of Teotihuacan from on top of the Pyramid of the Sun
Teotihuacan: Pyramid of the Moon viewed from the Pyramid of the Sun
Teotihuacan: The Pyramid of the Sun
Chichen Itza: El Castillo (the main pyramid)
Chichen Itza: El Castillo
Chichen Itza: El Castillo
Uxmal: The Great Pyramid, which has only been partially restored.
View of Uxmal from on top of the Great Pyramid
Mexico City: Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

And finally…


Mexico: The Home Stretch

Day of the Dead

It’s almost here! In less than two weeks I’ll finally be headed south of the border. While the main purpose of this trip is to realize my lifelong dream of visiting the Mexican pyramid sites, I am also very excited to experience el Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead). I will be in Mexico City for the days leading up to the holiday, and in Merida when it officially begins on November 1st. Although I’ll be on tours during the day, I should have plenty of free time in the evenings to take in all of the festivities. Have any of you ever been in Mexico City or Merida for Day of the Dead?

Of course my other primary goal on this trip is to eat as much of the local food as possible. I have already received some good Mexico City dining tips from my fellow bloggers, for which I thank you. I’d also be grateful if anybody out there has some tips for dining in Merida. I don’t know if I’ll dine out much in Cancun since I will be staying in an all-inclusive hotel, but if there are any can’t-miss places out there, I would definitely be up for checking them out.

Speaking of Cancun, I’m still deciding whether I want to make my three days there relaxing or adventurous. I would like to do some exploring and possibly some snorkeling and activities like that. I also find the idea of swimming with dolphins enticing, but I am a little concerned that I would be contributing to their exploitation, so I am still up in the air about that. Another option if I want to take a bit of a road trip is to visit Xcaret, a cool-looking park featuring underground rivers among Mayan ruins. Then again, I may become so spoiled by being pampered at the Cancun resort that I wind up just vegging on the beach or in the pool all day. 🙂

Anyway, this will probably be my last post until I return from Mexico (hopefully with lots of stories to accompany my photos). Now, I’m off to pack. See you on the other side!

Countdown to Mexico

Mexico City

I’m just about three months away from my Mexico trip: got all of my booking vouchers for the hotels and transportation, my new camera, and my Timberland low cut trail shoes for climbing those pyramids (at least the ones they let you climb). Now it’s time to start playing those Spanish learning CDs again.

I’m considering just bringing a carry-on suitcase for the trip, but I’m not sure about the practicality of doing so in light of how restrictive the TSA is about what you are allowed to bring. I’ve always done checked luggage in the past, but I’m thinking it would be nice to just hop off the plane and head to my destination, especially since I will be traveling by myself. It would also be convenient to not have to check a bag during my in-country flight from Mexico City to Merida, and to not have to lug around a large suitcase in between other destinations. I guess the big question is whether I will be able to fit everything I need into one small suitcase.

Have any of you ever traveled overseas for roughly a week with just a carry-on? How did you make out?

Below are a few of my destinations. I will have a little bit of free time in Mexico City and Merida, and a lot of free time in Cancun. If you have traveled to any of these cities and would like to share some tips about things to do, I would be most grateful. Thanks!

Three months is still a ways off but it will be here before I know it!

Chichen Itza

Mexico Awaits

I have just booked my next big trip: a tour of Aztec and Mayan pyramids in Mexico that starts in Mexico City, moves to the Yucatan Peninsula, and eventually ends up in Cancun. I am also timing the trip so that I will be in Mexico City and Merida during the Day of the Dead festivities, which should be a neat experience.

This will be my first completely solo trip, which I now feel comfortable doing after my partially solo trip to Peru last year and my two days alone in Venice in 2011. I decided to treat myself to the deluxe tour package so I should be staying in some pretty nice hotels–my reward to myself after four days of roughing it in the wilderness of the Inca Trail last year. 🙂

Below is the rough itinerary according to the tour company’s web site. I don’t think I’ll have a ton of free time, but if anyone who has traveled to that part of Mexico has any suggestions about things to do, places to eat, etc., I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Day 01:

  • Arrival in Mexico City.  Free time.

Day 02:

  • All-day sightseeing tour in Mexico City.

Day 03:

  • Visit the Guadalupe shrine.
  • Guided tour of Teotihuacan pyramids with free time allotted for climbing.

Day 04:

  • Fly to Merida.
  • Short sightseeing tour in the afternoon.

Day 05:

  • Visit the Kabah and Uxmal pyramid sites.

Day 06:

  • Visit the Chichen Itza pyramid site.
  • Transfer to Cancun.

Days 07 and 08:

  • Free time in Cancun.

Day 09:

  • Depart for home.

Sounds like a nice tour.  The Aztec and Mayan pyramids have always been near the top of my bucket list.  I can’t wait!