Saturday, February 9, 2019

Mahahual could be "Margaritaville" for real!

The "Pier of the Bucaneers" stretches out into turquoise water. Surf breaks over a distant reef as kayakers and swimmers enjoy the warm and colorful waters. This long, beautiful beach can be found at Mahahual, on the Yucatan Peninsula's Caribbean Coast. Recently, the news has been full of Polar Vortex stories and the horrors of blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in Canada and the northern US. I decided that I should dedicate this posting to all those who are shivering up there in the Land of Ice and Snow.

During our visit to the southeastern region of the Yucatan Peninsula, Carole and I stopped by the little beach town of Mahahual. It is located about two hours drive north of Chetumal, the capital of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Until fairly recently, Mahahual was a fishing village, remote and sleepy. Then it was discovered by young backpackers and sailboat enthusiasts, who enjoyed its laid-back atmosphere as well as snorkeling and scuba diving in the pristine water. As usual, word spread.

Mahahual became ever more popular to those seeking an off-the-beaten-track beach experience. Eventually (some would say unfortunately), the people with money noticed it. Then, the cruise industry built a dock and big ships began to tie up here. Fortunately, none were in port on the day we visited, so the scene was fairly calm and sedate. To find Mahahual on a Google map, click here.

The Beach Scene

Three hammocks form a triangle between pilings driven into the sand.  This takes "hanging out together" to a whole new level. Mahahual feels like the laid-back Mexican beach paradise in Jimmy Buffet's famous song. The brown piles are dried, raked-up seaweed waiting for removal. In this shot you are looking north. 

Just off shore, a Brown Pelican paddles quietly by. These large seabirds outnumber other birds along the shore. Eastern brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis carolinus) inhabit the Caribbean Coast from Belize to Cancun, Mexico, as well as all around the Gulf Coast from northern Yucatan to Texas. It was listed as an endangered species in 1970, but has largely recovered. These birds are stately while paddling through the water and graceful while soaring over the waves. However, it's hard to keep a smile off your face while watching them move about on shore, doing their Charlie Chaplin waddle.

Shadows of overhanging palms reach toward the shore as fishing boats rock gently in the shallows. The view here is toward the south. The white line along the horizon is the Great Maya Reef, also known as  the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. It stretches 1000 km (620 mi) along the Caribbean shore from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula all the way down to Honduras. Because of the protection it provides from ocean swells, the water along the shore is calm. This makes the area between the shore and the reef ideal for swimming and snorkeling.

A fisherman cuts up his catch of the day. One nice thing about hanging out in a fishing pueblo is the ready availability of really fresh seafood. The catch could include Tarpon, Snook, Bonefish, Jack and many others. Charter services are available to take you out on a boat, or you could spearfish using a snorkel (tanks are not allowed for this). If you are not inclined to work that hard, you could buy your dinner from a local fisherman and cook it yourself. Still too much work? Try one of the many seafood restaurants in town. 

A Little Blue Heron stands a the water's edge, watching for its next meal. The diet of Egretta caerulea includes fish, frogs, crustaceans, small rodents, and insects. These birds are snow white during their first year, after which their feathers begin to change. They breed in the Gulf Coast area of the US and the eastern coast of South America.  

A kayaker sets out as children and adults play in the shallows. A tall white lighthouse stands on a point in the distance. Its light and foghorn will warn ships against getting too close to the offshore reef. To the right of the lighthouse, in the distance, are the cruise ship docks, located about 3km (1.9mi) north of town. If you want to avoid the crowds by finding the days of the week when they are not in port, check out this link.

Strolling the Malecon

Mahahual's Malecon is a broad walkway along the shoreline. One side is lined with groves of palms and the beach. On the other are hotels, restaurants, cantinas, and various shops. The Malecon is one of Mahahual's fairly recent improvements. It not only provides all kinds of services to visitors but lots of employment for local people.

A pair of young backpackers strolls past a dive shop. Carole and I have noticed that many of the foreigners we encounter on the Peninsula are young backpackers. Many of these come from Britain, France, Germany, Denmark and Italy. Others come from the US or Canada or other Latin American countries. Mahahual has quite a variety of inexpensive hostels where they can stay, as well as camping areas. Compared to Europe, the Yucatan Peninsula is very inexpensive and it has a reputation as one of the safest areas in Mexico.

A large guitarist stands outside a popular local bar. The Maha Sand Bar and Cigar Lounge is one of many off-beat eating and drinking establishments you will find along the Malecon.

The "Nap Queen", accompanied by her diminutive friend. I couldn't resist a photo of this pair, particularly because of the message on her chest. The pair reminded me of the old comic strip characters, "Mutt and Jeff", with one very tall and the other unusually short.

A knick-knack stand attracts a couple of older foreigners. Little shops like this are a standard feature of any beach town in Mexico. Much of the stuff is cheaply made junk, but you can occasionally find some inexpensive little treasures.

Accommodations to fit any budget

Hotel Caballo Blanco faces the beach across the Malecon. The hotel is definitely upscale, with a bar and a swimming pool on its roof and a stunning view of the town and the ocean. It even has its own 24-hour pharmacy, in case you come down with "turista" during your visit. Be advised that the Caballo Blanco needs to be booked quite a bit in advance.  

This place had no sign, so I'm not sure if it's a hotel or an apartment. The absence of a sign doesn't necessarily mean anything in Mexico. It looked nice and casual though, and has at least four rental units.

Club de Playa is an Eco-Hotel with a bar and restaurant. Exactly what "eco-hotel" meant was not clear to me when we came by. It looked fun and funky, though. Like most places in Mexico that cater to tourists, it has WiFi.

And then there was this place. Those who want to try out traditional Maya accommodations might check this place out. By "traditional" I mean literally back to 300 AD, or so. I'm not sure what the rent would be, but I'm guessing pretty low. No extra charge for the dog, I assume.

Fun in the water

Swimming in the shallows is a popular option. This very photogenic young woman was watching her dog romp through the water when I snapped the shot. Those who are young and single are likely to find many others of a similar persuasion.

Kayaking is very popular here. The water inside the reef is relatively calm, so novices can try it out in relative safety. Many beach clubs will rent you a kayak, or provide one free if you are a patron. One popular type of kayak has a transparent bottom so you can observe the sea life as you glide along.

A couple relives their underwater experience on the steps of a dive shop. The Great Mayan Reef provides a variety of areas where divers can enjoy an underwater adventure, including a visit to a sunken 17th century Dutch galleon with 16 cannons still visible out of its original 40.

The Wahoo Aqua Rocket Extreme Ride is for those seeking an adrenaline high. We didn't have time for it, but we saw the docked boat. Even tied up, it looked like it was going full-tilt-boogie.

Riding a banana tube is not quite as wild, but it still gives people a thrill. Riders sit astride the tube with their feet on the blue foot-rests while hanging on to a strap in front of them. When towed by the boat, the tube doesn't reach the speed of the Aqua Rocket, but it still moves along pretty rapidly. In choppy water, some riders inevitably get tossed off, which adds to the experience. 

Things to do out of the water

Get a relaxing massage under a palapa on the beach. There are numerous places along the Malecon where you and stretch out and have someone loosen up all those tight muscles you got on your long drive to the beach. Or, perhaps, the ones that tightened up on you during your Aqua Rocket ride.

Rent a bicycle to explore the town. Carole and I are walkers, and we pretty much stuck to the Malecon and the beach, so we didn't feel the need for a bicycle. However, for someone who wants to explore more of the town and the area around it, this inexpensive mode of transportation is available.

Hang out in your hammock while sending beach photos to your snow-bound friends. If you listen closely, you can hear them gnash their teeth even at the distance of a couple of thousand miles. The pup seems as laid-back as its owner.

Try this place for full-service sublimity. Here, you can experience just about everything you need to get your inner groove going: yoga, massage, tarot readings, and meditation. And this is definitely not the only place of its kind in Mahahual.

Or, lay back with your eyes closed, while bathed with balmy breezes. Sometimes, the best way to spend your time here is to do absolutely nothing. Perhaps Jimmy Buffet described it best in his song: "Wastin' away again in Margaritaville..." 

This completes my posting on Mahahual. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question, PLEASE include your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Ancient Chacchoben, "The Place of the Red Maiz"

Chacchoben's largest pyramid is Templo 1, which stands on the Gran Basamento. After our visit to Lago de Bacalar, we continued on to the ancient Maya city of Chacchoben (Chak-cho-ben), located approximately 50 km (31 mi) north of the town of Bacalar. The very scenic route takes you north along the east bank of the lake to the intersection with Highway 293 where you head west. After about 10 km (6 mi), you come to the Chacchoben Archeological Zone. Google maps will sometimes misdirect you to the pueblo of Chacchoben, which is on a different road about 10 km away. Ancient Chacchoben was an important Maya city-state that controlled a substantial region of the southeastern Yucatan Peninsula. Its domain included an important trading center called B'ak Halal. Spanish colonists corrupted the pronunciation into Bacalar. To locate the Chacchoben Archeological Zone on a Google map, click here.


Site map of the Archeological Zone. You should be able to stroll through all of the site in less than an hour. That is, unless you are a photographer, like me, who is intensely interested in all the architectural details. In that case, I suggest an extra hour or two. Essentials for the trip include good walking shoes, a couple of bottles of water, and some insect repellent. There are plenty of shady spots to stop for a rest and a snack while contemplating the ruined structures.

From the entrance, a trail winds through thick jungle to an impressive pyramid called Templo 24. This pyramid occupies the west side of Plaza B which is surrounded on its north, south and east sides by un-excavated temples and palaces. A low altar, picturesquely overgrown with trees, stands in the center of Plaza B. Further to the east is the Gran Plaza, which spreads out before a huge man-made platform called the Gran Basamento. Standing on the broad level top are Templo 1 and a second pyramid called Templo Las Vasijas. Located at the top of a ceremonial staircase are a pair of large altars called Los Gemelos. To the south of the Gran Plaza are the ruins of a residential area. This section is called Las Vias and was once occupied by the city's elite.

Thick jungle surrounds Chacchoben. Although it looks primordial, it has grown up since the city's abandonment about 1000 AD. Within this jungle, I could just make out mounds of overgrown limestone rubble. These are the remains of buildings which have been mapped by archeologists, but not yet excavated. Some of them may have served administrative or religious purposes, while others are the ancient foundations of the homes of artisans, traders, and other commoners. They lived within the urban area but outside the zone restricted to the elite. Beyond the urban area, farmers grew maiz (corn), frijol (beans) and other crops to feed the city. Archeologists estimate that the city once covered an area of six square kilometers, far larger than the relatively small area that has been excavated.

When we visited, the site was quiet and serene, and almost empty of people. However, cruise ships dock regularly at Mayahual, about an hour away, so there may be times when busloads of noisy tourists swarm the place. The Archeological Zone is open from 8 AM to 5 PM (last access at 4:30). If you get there early, you can probably avoid the crowds. General admission is $60 pesos ($3.14 USD) and parking is free. There are restrooms at the entrance, but no other services are available at the site or in the immediate area.

Broken stela, covered by glyphs too worn and faint to be deciphered. Stelae are upright stone monuments, usually flat and covered on one or both sides with relief carvings or stucco designs. Some ancient sites contain many stelae and, when deciphered, they often reveal details about rulers, dynasties, conquests, and even dates and timelines. However, Chacchoben has only two, and neither contains any intelligible information. This is unfortunate, because very little is known about the ancient history and rulers of this city.

The name of the city, which means "Place of the Red Maiz", comes from the small pueblo a few miles away. No one knows the original name. The first people may have arrived in the area as early as 1000 BC. However, the first settlements weren't constructed until the Late Pre-Classic Era (200 BC). These settlements were gradually incorporated into an urban area which peaked between 300 AD and 700 AD. The Maya abandoned Chacchoben about 1000 AD, except to use its temples and pyramids for ritual purposes. This continued for the following several centuries. Further excavation will, no doubt, result in more information. Unlike other sites I have visited, there are few informational signs at Chacchoben other than one at the entrance. As a result, I had to do a great deal of research to come up with the fairly limited information I present here.

Templo 24 & Plaza B

Templo 24 is the first large structure you encounter at the site. After walking along a jungle path, you enter a broad grassy area. This clearing contains a multi-level pyramid that is 16m (52ft) tall. Broad staircases on all four sides lead up to a temple at the top. Impressed as I was by my first sight of this pyramid, I was astonished to find that this is only the rear (west) side of it.

North side of Templo 24. We proceeded around the pyramid to Plaza B, passing the north side on the way. Above, you can see the north staircase and a bit of the temple at the top. Excavation has revealed that Templo 24 is the last of several phases of construction. Over the centuries, Maya rulers constructed new temples and pyramids over those built by their predecessors, with each new structure larger and more magnificent than the last. The final phase of Templo 24 used the Petén style, typical of cities in the lowlands of northern Guatemala.

The front of Templo 24 faces east. Plaza B can be seen in the foreground. A broad staircase leads up to a terrace below the temple. The stumps of large rectangular pillars line the front of the terrace. On the left side of the staircase you can see the arched entrance of a passageway under the staircase.

In the center of the staircase, part way up to the terrace, you can see an opening which appears to have been made by archeologists looking for a burial. In this part of the Maya world, it is not unusual to find human remains buried under the steps of a pyramid or temple. Usually these are elite individuals and their families. For example, at Oxtankah's Structure VI, the remains of 12 individuals were found in four separate tombs under the stairs. However, I have not been able to determine what, if anything, archeologists found when they dug into these steps.

A large rectangular altar occupies the center of Plaza B. Offerings left here, and sacrificial rituals performed, would have been viewed by the rulers, nobles, and priests standing on Templo 24's staircase and terrace. Other structures surrounding Plaza B would also have accommodated elite audiences. Today, the altar is covered by the spreading roots of large trees. The trained eyes of archeologists were needed to find it in the dense jungle which covered the site in 1972. They would have known to look because such altars are often found near the base of the main staircase of a pyramid or temple.

Un-excavated pyramid beside Plaza B. There are a number of large heaps of rubble around the perimeter of the Plaza B, as well as elsewhere in the site. Those with a conical shape, like this one, are almost certainly un-excavated pyramids. Others are long and rectangular and probably conceal the ruins of administrative or elite residential structures. Like most pre-hispanic sites in Mexico, only a fraction of Chacchoben's ruined structures have been dug. Many of the others have been mapped and some have even been named.

Gran Basamento & Plaza

A magnificent staircase leads up to the top of the Gran Basamento. In the foreground is a broad, flat expanse called the Gran Plaza. The Gran Basamento (Great Platform) forms the western edge of this plaza. The main staircase provides access, along with a smaller one to its left. These are the only ways to enter the platform. The small thatched structure at the bottom of the staircase protects the second of the only two stelae found at Chaccoben.

The rectangular platform rises at least 10m (32ft) above the plaza and measures 99m x 102m  (324ft x 336ft) on the sides. Atop the Gran Basamento are two pyramids and several temples. While these structures are impressive, they are dwarfed by the great platform on which they sit. The number of laborers and amount of man-hours it must have taken to construct the Gran Basamento are mind-boggling. This is particularly so, since the Maya had no metal tools, wheeled vehicles, or draft animals.

The second stairway, seen through the jungle trees. While it is smaller than the other staircase, this one was much more intricately designed and clearly had an important ceremonial function. At the top of the staircase are two large side-by-side altars called Los Gemelos (the twins). The staircase and its ceremonies appear to have been linked to astronomical observations. Part way up the stairs is a stela with a hole in it through which the sun shines at 3 PM on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year).

The second stairway has multiple landings and platforms. Apparently, multiple ceremonies, or perhaps several parts of the same ceremony, were performed on the various landings and platforms, culminating at the two altars. Passing between the altars, you emerge on the top of the Gran Basamento.

View of the Gemelo on the left side. A stairway on the front leads to the top of each altar. The corner of the right-hand Gemelo can be seen in the lower right of the photo. Also visible is the passage between them, through which processions would proceed onto the Gran Basamento.

Templo de las Vasijas

Templo de las Vasijas sits on the northern edge of the Gran Basamento. This is the first pyramid you encounter when you emerge onto the great platform. Templo de las Vasijas (Temple of the Vessels) was named for the ceramic cups, pitchers, bowls, and plates found during its excavation. These vessels once contained offerings left during religious ceremonies. Rising to about 8m (26ft), Templo de las Vasijas is the smaller of the Gran Basamento's two pyramids. The pyramid's single staircase leads up to the remains of a temple on the top level.

View of Templo de las Vasijas from the southeast corner. Similar to Templo 24, the rounded corners show the influence of the Petén architectural style. Elements of the later Chenes and Rio Bec styles can be found in other parts of the ruins. This mix of styles demonstrates how ideas were transmitted along Yucatan's trade routes, along with goods. Archeologists have found evidence of a connection to Dzibanche, another Maya city located to the southwest of Chacchoben.

Carole explores the rear of the pyramid. Templo de las Vasijas sits right on the lip of the Gran Basamento. Note how the terrain drops sharply off to the right. By constructing their main ceremonial center atop a large man-made platform with limited access, Chacchoben's rulers ensured that this area would remain the exclusive domain of the city's elite.

Templo 1

Templo 1, viewed from the base of Templo de las Vasijas. From this point, Templo 1 appears rather small, but that is an illusion because the distance between the two is considerable. This serves to demonstrate the size of the Gran Basamento. The young couple in the middle of the photo were the only other visitors we saw during our visit to Chaccoben.

This view of Templo 1 reveals its true dimensions. Standing 18m (60ft) high, Templo 1 is the tallest of Chacchoben's pyramids. The pyramid's single staircase rises up nine levels from the base to a small temple at the top. The Maya believed that Xibalba (the Underworld) was ruled by nine Lords. At the base of the staircase is a small structure archeologists have dubbed the Adosado (Attached) Temple. It was added to the pyramid in the Post-Classic Era (1000 AD - 1500 AD), when the city had been abandoned as an urban center but its temples were still used for ceremonial purposes.

Front view of Templo 1. Like Los Gemelos, Templo 1 had an astronomical function. During the Summer Solstice, the sun shines through an opening on the top of Templo 1. In the photo above, you can see how the Adosado Temple acts as an antechamber to the great stairway. Directly in front of the Adosado Temple are four small altars.

Interior of the Adosado Temple. The narrow passage on the right leads to the grand staircase. The Adosado Temple creates a threshold between the earthly and the sacred realms and may also have played a role in astronomical observations.

Las Vias, the elite residential area

A long, four-step staircase leads up to the residential area called Las Vias. In Spanish, the name means "the route or road". This probably refers to the layout, which is a long narrow plaza surrounded by low platforms.  In the photo above, the area at the top of the stairs once contained dwellings that were made of perishable materials that have long-since disappeared. In front of the stairs is the narrow plaza. The elite inhabitants of La Vias would have been nobles, priests, and high status warriors. Commoners such as artisans, merchants, and farmers would have lived in humbler structures outside the elite zone.

A low, humped structure stands to the left of the long staircase. The lack of signs at Chaccoben's various structures left me puzzled as to their exact function. I know, in general, that these were residential, but a little more detail would have been helpful. In spite of that, this area was very photogenic because of how the forest has taken over the ruined structures.

Large trees grow atop a residential platform. The forest contains a wide variety of trees, including ramón, cedro, chicozapote, alamo, banyon, guanacaste, and various palms. Local animals include deer, peccary, armadillo, gray fox, spider and howler monkeys, jaguar, ocelot, puma, and tapir.

Chacchoben was initially discovered by a farmer not archeologists. In 1942, a Maya farmer named Servillano Cohuo was looking for farmland when he stumbled across these ancient ruins. He built a house for his family on the Gran Plaza beside the Gran Basamento and grew crops in the area. However, he recognized the value of the ruins and left them untouched and covered by jungle for the next 30 years.

In 1972, an archeologist named Dr. Peter Harrison traveled by helicopter over the usually flat jungle landscape. Looking down, he was surprised to see the tell-tale shapes of temples and pyramids protruding through the thick forest canopy. Harrison returned and, after mapping the ruins, reported his discovery to the Mexican government. Servillano Cohuo was allowed to remain as caretaker of the ruins until he died in 1991, after which the government expropriated the site. However, it wasn't until 1994 that Juan Rique, of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), began excavations. In 2002, INAH finally opened Chacchoben to the public. Today, the site is run entirely by workers from the local pueblos, rather than employees of the federal government.

This completes my posting on Chacchoben. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thought or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim