Friday, July 27, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 19: Labná, Maya jewel in the jungle

At Labná's El Palacio, a human face peers from the wide-open jaws of a serpent. The sculpture above is on a prominent corner of El Palacio, a large multi-story structure on the north end of Labná. This ancient Maya city may be small, but those who built it crafted a true jewel of architecture. Labná whose name means "Old House," is located in the heart of the Puuc region of NW Yucatan, about 122 km (75.8 mi) south of Merida. The area is full of Maya ruins and the Puuc style of architecture is among the most elegant and sophisticated of ancient Mesoamerica.  Our visit to Labná was one of the four stops on our Ruta Puuc tour, which also included the caves at Loltún (see in Part 18 of this series), a cacao plantation at Tikul, and the ruins at Sayil. In this posting, we'll look at the many beautiful architectural details of El Palacio, and at the ancient sacbé (raised roadway) that connects it to the rest of the ruins to the south. In the next posting, we will walk down that long sacbé to visit the famous Labná Arch, see a temple pyramid called El Mirador, and examine a residential area with exquisitely detailed stone carvings. View a map that shows El Palacio in the context of the whole Labná site, click here.

Approaching El Palacio

Jungle canopy provided welcome shade on a hot Yucatan afternoon. Puuc means "hill" in Maya, and the rolling country is covered with a thick green jungle. The forest contains many bird species, as well as more dangerous creatures like jaguars and poisonous snakes. Our guide urged us to stay on the marked trails and to step carefully, remarking that even the Maya people who live nearby seldom move around much at night. Other than the Belgian girls, whom we had met earlier at Loltún, and the site caretaker, our small party of 5 had Labná all to ourselves. This is definitely the way to visit ancient ruins, where the only sounds are wind in the trees, bird songs, and the occasional buzz of an insect. The solitude of the centuries settled over us and I felt an urge to speak in whispers.

Nearing El Palacio, we passed stone sculptures, including a large fálico. The two small chubby-cheeked heads on pedestals were once part of a wall decoration. The fálico (phallus) in the middle is similar to one we saw near the entrance to Loltún cave. The phallic cult appears to have started in the Vera Cruz area, and moved down into the Puuc region around the end of the Classic period (800 AD -1000 AD). Fálicos have been found not only at Loltún and Labná, but also at Sayil, Uxmal, and several other sites in the area. The phallic cult was associated with the creator-god Itzamna, maiz (corn), and fertility in general.

El Palacio stands on three levels at the end of the sacbé. A sacbé is a raised road made out of crushed limestone, with blocks of limestone set as curbs on either side. This one is about 200 m (600 ft) long and about 3 m (9 ft) wide. The Maya were amazing road engineers and one of their sacbeob extended 300 km (186.4 mi) to connect ancient T'ho (today's Mérida) with the Caribbean Sea. These roads were built by people who had no draft animals or metal tools and did not use the wheel. Early settlement in the area occurred around 300 AD, but the real heyday of Labná was between 750 AD and 1000 AD, also known as the Terminal Classic and Early Post-Classic period. The population was never very large, about 1,500 to 2,500 people. The total area of Labná during this period was a bit less than 2 sq. km (1.24 sq. mi). In the Puuc area there are few cenotes, and rainfall is uncertain. To compensate, ancient communities invented the chultun for water collection and storage. These were underground cisterns, carved out of the limestone in the shape of a squat, fat vase with a narrow neck reaching to the surface. Seventy chultunob have been found at Labná, capable of storing thousands of liters of water, yet another example of Maya engineering prowesss.

El Palacio is an unusually large and complex site. The structure underwent at least 12 construction periods before reaching the appearance it has today. There are three levels, including the huge platform on which the 2-story structure stands. The complex contains about 70 rooms and 8 patios. These are connected by several stairways and passages for easy circulation throughout the building. The length of the structure is 120 m (393 ft), making it one of the largest in the Puuc region. By contrast, the famous Governor's Palace at the great city of Uxmal is 97 m (320 ft) long, and has only a single story.

The Palace's left wing and center

View of the left wing of the palace. El Palacio was used for both residential and administrative purposes. The area in front of the left wing is known as the West Patio where ceramic objects and metates (grinding stones) have been found, indicating that it was a food preparation area.

The South Wing is a long rectangular block of 5 rooms. It extends perpendicularly out toward the south from the front of the complex. This block effectively divides the West Patio from the Central Area. The rooms of the South Wing all face onto the broad, raised patio in front of the Central Area. Since the Central Area appears to have been used for administrative purposes, it seems likely that these rooms were also administrative, rather than residential.

The Central Area is reached by this broad stairway. The 5 steps lead up from the open patio in front. A room extends out from the building into the small terrace at the top of the steps, its front walls still showing white plaster or paint. A natural question is: "why so big a complex for so small a city?" The answer may be that Labná was a satellite administrative center for either Uxmal or Sayil. Perhaps the rulers of the dominant city felt they needed an auxiliary center to handle this outlying territory? The satellite city theory is still unproven, however.

How the Central Area may have originally appeared. This drawing is from approximately the same view as the previous photo. The tall structure in the back is now only piled rubble. In this artist's conception, you can clearly see El Palacio's elegant lines. The decorative feature at the upper right is a profile view of the serpent's mouth seen in the first photo of this posting.

View of the corner of the Central Area's projecting room. Here you can see a typical Puuc feature: groups of columns separated by sections of limestone blocks. The columns themselves are not the long, single pillar found in a Greek or Roman structure. Instead, they are sectioned, with the upper and lower pieces separated by joints. However, the three columns grouped together to form the front corner are a very unusual feature for Puuc construction.

A Chaac face with a dark drooping nose peers out of the upper facade. Chaac was the god of rain and cenotes. In an area of scarce water, this made him an extremely important deity. Consequently, Puuc architecture is richly decorated with Chaac masks on its stone facades. The drooping nose of this one is a bit unusual, since Chaac masks usually have noses that writhe upwards, like a snake preparing to strike. Above the nose you can see the two square eyeholes, and below them, a protruding mouth.

Abstract design on a Central Area wall. Puuc architects also tended to use either plain facades or abstract designs on the lower part of a wall, reserving the upper facade for Chaac faces or designs from the natural world. This wall reminded me of the designs we saw at the ruins of Mitla in Oaxaca. Mitla, a city of palaces built by the Mixtec people, was built later and was a considerable distance away. However, there were trade links between Oaxaca and the Maya areas, so there could have been some cultural exchange, including architectural influences.

A graceful arch separates the Central Area from the East Wing. The stairway under the arch leads up to the second story of the complex. Unforunately, I didn't have time to visit the three buildings on the upper story. Notice the Chaac mask on the upper side of the building to the right. The Chaac's nose curls snakily upward in the way it is most usually represented.

The East Wing

A classic Puuc Chaac mask. This is the same mask seen in profile in the last photo. The nose curls upward, and above it on either side are openings representing eye sockets. Often sockets like these are filled with large, round stones representing Chaac's eyes. Directly below the nose is a magnificent mouth with fearsome-looking fangs. There is a glyph carved into the nose with a date that is the Maya equivalent of 862 AD. Chaac was believed to create thunder and lightning by beating the clouds with stone clubs or snakes. The Maya sacrificed young men and women in order to persuade him to provide rain. Chaac was believed to live in cenotes (collapsed limestone sinkholes filled with water), and human bones have been found in a number of them. However, there is some dispute about whether these were the result of sacrifices or simply accidental drownings over the centuries.

A florette with a pendant, backed by a feather. The stone carvings above, located near the Chaac mask just seen, are fine examples of Puuc architectural decorations. Keep in mind that the Maya were doing all this fine stone carving without metal tools.

Lower torso of a human figure. The upper body is missing above the belted waist. Hanging from the belt, the torso wears a finely decorated loincloth and some sort of leggings up to the knee.

Upper left corner of the East wing. For me, this was one of the most interesting parts of the whole palace complex. On the corner itself, the human face peers out of the snake jaws. On either side are a cornucopia of shapes and abstract designs.

Profile of the snake jaws. Looking out from the toothy upper jaw is the clear profile of the human face. Notice how the individual stone blocks on the left of the photo each have designs carved into them. An immense amount of work went into this corner of the structure.

Abstract or natural designs adjacent to the snake jaws. The rosette feature is repeated, this time without the pendant, but still with the feather extending above. A tall curled carving may represent an opening bud. One of the most interesting objects is the one at the lower left. This appears, for all the world, like a cog wheel from a modern machine, complete with gear teeth. The Maya clearly understood the concept of the wheel, they just never found a use for it.

The East Wing is actually much larger than it appears here. This south-facing side has six doors entering a like number of rooms. However, if you refer back to the site map of El Palacio, you will see that the far right (east) end is actually a corner, with a long block containing 10 more rooms stretching out to the north. The stairway on the left of the photo leads to a long narrow terrace above the rooms whose 4 doors you can see. The wall on the second level is mostly rubble, but contains some abstract designs.

View of the sacbé looking south from El Palacio's Central Area patio. Just visible at the end of the roadway is the residential complex containing the Labná Arch. We will view this area next week, along with a pyramid temple called El Mirador, and a sunken plaza.

This completes Part 19 of my NW Yucatan series. Next week we will complete Labná, and the following week we'll visit the cacao plantation of Tikul. I hope you have enjoyed this posting and that I haven't bored you with my obsession with piles of old rocks. If you have any thoughts you'd like to share, including corrections or additions to the information I have provided, please do so either in the Comments section below or by return email.

If you'd like to leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, July 20, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 18: Loltún Cave and its 10,000-year occupation

Loltún Cave was our first stop as we followed the Ruta Puuc. Above, Carole and our Belgian and Spanish tour companions stand in awe before a great gallery lit by beams of light pouring through the fallen limestone ceiling. We were eager to go on the Ruta Puuc tour because the 2-lane blacktop road winds through some of Yucatan's wildest jungle, making stops at a series of ancient Maya sites. Puuc is the Maya word for "hill" and the Puuc culture got its name from a range of hills that cut diagonally across the northwest Yucatan Peninsula.  Although the Ruta Puuc tour visits some of the Maya world's most beautiful ruins, it apparently attracts few people. The tour company would not schedule the trip unless at least four people signed up and we weren't certain anyone else would join us until the last minute. Chichen Itzá and Uxmal are much more famous and tend to draw the lion's share of attention. The result is that, especially in the case of Chichen Itzá, the better-known sites are overrun by mobs of tourists, with other mobs of local vendors nipping at their heels. By contrast, during most of our Ruta Puuc stops, there were not more than ten people present, including the caretakers. At Sayil, our group of five comprised the only visitors at the time. This provided a sense of serenity, solitude, and mystery totally lacking in our previous visits to the larger, more famous sites. For a map showing the Ruta Puuc, click here. If you click on the map itself when it comes up, you can enlarge it.

The Cave Entrance

The entrance to the cave is approached by descending a long series of steps. The steps drop down into a large pit full of trees and jungle vegetation. This particular stop is definitely not for anyone with mobility issues. Even those in good condition should be sure to wear good hiking shoes or boots because some areas of the cave are slippery with mud and algae. The 1000 m (.62 mi.) path through the cave is mostly unpaved and involves climbing through some narrow passageways and up some steep sets of stairs. However, it is definitely worth doing, if you are up to it. Caves had a special meaning to the ancient Maya, who viewed them as openings into Xibalbá ("the place of fear"), the multi-level underworld of the dead. According to the Popul Vuh, the Maya holy book, Xibalbá was ruled by the Lords of Death, who made a point of tricking and humiliating people who entered their realm by requiring them pass through a series of unpleasant and dangerous tests.

The earliest visitors were not human. Scientists have dug pits in the cave as deep as 9.2 m (30 ft), discovering remains of creatures from as far back as the Pleistocene Era, more than 28,400 years ago. The bones above, found outside the cave entrance, are from an Ice Age mastodon, an ancestor of the modern elephant. Other bones from ancient bison, camels, and horses have also been found. All of these were extinct in the Americas at least 14,000 years ago. The first Paleo-Indians didn't arrive at the cave until about 10,000 years ago. (Photo taken at Mérida's Museum of Anthropology and History).

To the right of the cave entrance is a large bas relief carving. Archaeologists named the carving El Guerrero ("The Warrior"). At least one source claims that it shows Olmec characteristics. A study by Anthony Andrews compared this carving with others found in Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala and concluded that this one dates to between 2,200 to 2,500 BC. The artist who carved it lived very early in the so-called Formative, or Pre-classic era. By contrast, Chichen Itzá was not built until almost 3,500 years later.

Carole enters Loltún Cave and begins her descent into Xilbalbá. The cave floor at the entrance immediately begins to descend, although the ceiling remains fairly high. Only a few places in the tourist areas of the cave would require anyone but the very tallest person to duck his head, and some of the galleries are cathedral-like. This was comforting to me, as I am a bit claustrophobic.

Loltún's human occupants

The Manos Negras ("Black Hands"). There are a number of rock paintings in the cave, but I found these to be the most arresting and eery. There are a total of 85 such hand prints within Loltún. A variety of interpretations have placed the Black Hands anywhere from the Paleo-Indians to the Maya of the Classic Era, many thousands of years later. However, both the concept and technique are extremely old. Something in ancient man led him to leave similar hand prints on rock surfaces elsewhere, including Europe and Africa. Some of those paintings have been given extraordinarily ancient dates. The technique is called Negative Painting, a bit like a photo negative. The artist places his hand on the wall and then blows pigment, probably through a hollow tube made of wood or bone, to create an outline. I was transfixed by the idea that these were the handprints of an actual person who may have lived as much as 10,000 years ago. More than encountering a fragment of a spear point or even a human bone, these prints connected me with a particular person across an almost incomprehensible span of time.

Early stone tools found in and around the cave. Tools like these were found in layers of earth which marked the transition from the Pleistocene to the "modern" era, which began about 8,000 years ago. Scientists were able to determine this by flora and fauna found at the same earth stratum. This is one reason why archaeologists despair about looted sites. The context in which the object is found is as important as the looted artifact itself. Man-made objects found at Loltún are the oldest in the Yucatan Peninsula. The stone objects above are associated with butchering animals and cleaning the skins. They are primarily made of silex found in the vicinity of the cave, but others of obsidian and basalt have also been found. Very few objects made of organic material have been found because of the climate.  (Photo taken at Mérida's Museum of Anthropology and History).

An ancient metate and mano. There were a variety of these not far inside the cave in an area called Sala de los Metates ("The Grindstone Room"). Some metates were moveable stone trays like the one above, while others were simply grooved areas in the bedrock. The mano is the rock held in the hand to grind material against the metate's surface. Manos and metates were used to grind food, particularly grains and seeds like maiz (corn). Another function was to powder various materials, perhaps including the pigment used to create the Manos Negras. Finally, they could act as water containers. Manos and metates are among the oldest known food preparation implements, dating back even earlier than the development of agriculture. Even so, they can still be purchased for kitchen use in many Mexican hardware stores.

Ancient water collector in the Sala de los Holtunes. A holtun is a man-made cup in the bedrock at the base of the cave. Its purpose was to collect the water dripping from stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The entire base of the Yucatan Peninsula, except for a thin layer of soil, is a shelf of porous limestone. Rain water percolates down through the stone, eventually creating caves like Loltún and continuing on until it collects in underground rivers. Since there are no above-ground rivers or lakes in NW Yucatan, cenotes and caves became the primary source for human consumption. I found it a bit ironic that an important source of life-giving water was found in Xibalbá, the domain of the dead.

Stone head with possible Olmec features. In one sala, we encountered this carved stone head, mounted on a rock shelf. The accompanying sign gave very little information and my research hasn't come up with much more. In examining the features of the head, I was struck by how un-Maya-like they are. To me, the thick lips and flattened nose seem much more Olmec than Maya. Were the Olmecs here, or did some Maya acquire an Olmec head and place it here? Or, perhaps, a Maya artist simply copied the style from some object that arrived through the extensive trade routes. If anyone has further information on this head, I would be glad to receive it.

Defensive wall from the 19th Century Caste War. From the mid-19th Century through the early 20th, the ferocious Caste War raged between the indigenous Maya and the Yucatecas (Mexican's of Spanish descent and mestizos or mixed-blood people). The Yucatecas were so beleaguered at one point that the Governor of Yucatan almost ordered an evacuation of the Peninsula. After decades of no-quarter struggle, the Mexican Army finally pushed the last remaining Maya insurgents into the remote jungles of southern Yucatan, where they exist today as the Lacandon people. During the war, the Maya used caves like Loltún as refuges, fortifying them with defensive walls like the one seen above. With the end of the Caste War, the last period of extensive Maya use of Loltún ended, closing out 10,000 years of human occupation (except for tourist visits, of course).

The Galleries

Carole and friends pause to admire one of the many galleries. Carole is in the center wearing the red vest. On the right right is our local guide. To the left are two young women from Belgium who joined our group for the cave tour. The "galleries" were large open rooms connected by narrow passageways. Some of the galleries were as big as the inside of a cathedral, with very high ceilings that disappeared into the darkness far above. Others were a smaller, like the one above. There is no set fee for a local guide. They live on the tips they receive from tourists, so we gave generously.

Ceiling formations changed from one gallery to the next. This one looked like some sort of whipped caramel. It all comes from the slow action of water on rock, and the deposit of minerals over the millennia.

Carole asks a question about holtunes at our feet. We found some additional holtunes on the floor of this small side gallery. You can see the small pits in the floor between Carole and the Belgian girls.


Opening to one of many passageways. To move between galleries, we had to pass through much smaller areas, some of them a bit tricky. This one had a broad opening, but narrowed down a bit further on.

Watch your step! The Belgians, followed by Carole, carefully pick their way through this bottleneck. Not only was the footing wet, but it was very uneven. In addition, there was very little light, so we all had to feel our way along. In fact, nearly all the light in this scene came courtesy of my flash. Everybody made it without mishap, fortunately.

Another kind of passageway. In this case, a set of stairs was cut into the wall leading up to another level of the cave. Fortunately there was a railing to grip. Carole stands in the foreground, looking a bit dubious as she watches our companions carefully make their way up.

The Hall of Columns

The "Lot-tún" columns. One of the galleries is called the Hall of Columns because a large number of stalactites and stalagmites that have joined to form columns like these. There are two claims about the origin of the cave's name. The most probable is that Loltún means "Flower Stone" in Maya, and some of the formations definitely resemble flowers. Our guide, however, claimed that the name comes from the two columns shown above. To make his point, he thumped each one, distinctly producing a deep "Lol" sound from the left column and and then a "Tun" from the right. We each took a try and managed credible duplications of the same sounds. The first explanation of the name is probably true, but I like the second better.

Hanging emeralds. Mineral deposits caused the striking green color of these two stalactites. I took dozens of photos of the various interesting formation, but could only include a few in this posting. If you want to see more, you'll just have to visit Loltún.

Columns in formation. Here, you see a complete column where the stalactite (forming from the ceiling) met and joined its stalagmite (forming from the ground up). The stalactite on the right has not yet formed a stalagmite. This is all the product of the deposit of infinitesimal amounts of minerals contained in each drop of water coming down from above.

More columns, stalactites, and stalagmites. Some of these have a distinct phallic appearance. This may account for the phallic cult that played a prominent part in the Puuc culture. Several of the Puuc area sites, including Loltún, contain Maya sculptures of anatomically correct phallae.

A way out? The open-air gallery shown above was one of several we visited where the limestone roof had collapsed, leaving a dramatically lit room. These openings provided the Maya with multiple ways to enter and leave the cave, no doubt frustrating their pursuers during the Caste War.

This completes Part 18 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next two postings on the Ruta Puuc, I'll show you the exquisite Maya city of Labná with its ornate palaces and famous Arch. I hope you have enjoyed this visit to Loltún, one of the more unusual sites I have photographed. I welcome feedback, and, if you'd like, you can leave it in the Comments section below, or send them by return email.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, July 13, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 17: Las Monjas and random scenes around Mérida

"Can I take your order, please?" We encountered this cheerful little guy at a restaurant along the north side of the Plaza Grande in Mérida. In the first part of this posting, we'll take a stroll through Las Monjas, a 16th Century nunnery a few blocks to the west of the Plaza. I will follow that with a random group of photos that don't seem to fit anywhere but with each other. I have commented often in the past about the typically off-beat Mexican sense of humor that I enjoy so much. The monkey-waiter above is a good example.

Las Monjas

Las Monjas as it looked in 1867. The name monjas means "nuns." The convent originally occupied an entire city block and was a self-contained complex. Within the convent walls were a church, residential areas for 40 nuns, courtyards, gardens, and food production areas. What remains today is the church and a couple of courtyards on the southeast corner of the quadrangle at the intersection of Calles 63 and 64, about 1 1/2 blocks west of the Plaza Grande. For a map showing the location of Las Monjas and its relation to the Plaza Grande, click here.

This gate guards the central courtyard inside the entrance on Calle 64. Such iron gates are unfortunately necessary, but Mexican ironworkers can often make them seem like works of art in their own right. At first, as we peeked through the grill, we thought Las Monjas was closed. Then, a very nice woman appeared and offered us a tour of the premises. Fortunately our Spanish abilities are improving, because our guide spoke only a few words of English. 

The long, rectangular, central courtyard ends with this cross. To the right, an arched doorway leads to another courtyard. However, the area we visited was the main church on the left side. The Gothic-style complex was built in during the 16th and 17th Centuries. The tower above the church was completed in 1633. Las Monjas functioned as a convent for nuns of the Order of the Conception until it was closed in 1863. The nuns were cloistered, meaning that they took vows that forbade contact with the outside world

This old bell was part of a small garden tableau in the central courtyard. The bell was cast in 1591. It had been removed from Las Monjas after the closure in 1863. However, the bell was eventually acquired by Tomas Alfonso and Carlos Martin Vázquez who donated back to Las Monjas, according to an adjacent sign. 

The main nave of the church. In the years after 1863, the convent was evacuated and the property used for a variety of purposes. These changes occurred in the context of the Reform Laws of Benito Juarez, aimed at limiting the power of the Church in society. At that time, the convent at Las Monjas owned 24 properties in Merida with a combined worth of 8,725 pesos, a very substantial sum. Most of the city block once occupied by the nunnery was sold off after the closure. Finally, in 1920, the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Consolación (originally founded within Las Monjas in 1633) was reopened as a parish church. Another part of the former convent is now occupied by the Casa de la Cultura del Mayab, which sponsors Maya art and artists. In addition, the Cultural Institute of Yucatan offers artistic workshops for children and there is a school offering theater and dance classes. Visible on a pew at the lower right of the photo is my new Yucatan straw hat.

An iron grille separates the cloistered from the public areas of the church. The nuns did not share the pews with the general public during mass, but sat behind this iron grille at the back of the nave. The penalty of violating the cloister restrictions was excommunication, either for a person entering the area without permission, or a nun leaving it. In the early days, there were only three legitimate reasons to leave a cloister: fire, leprosy, and contagious disease. Cloister restrictions tended to be significantly more severe for nuns than for monks.

Behind the cloister grille. During Mass, the nuns would sit in this area while listening through the iron grille.The pillars appear to be original 16th Century stonework. Notice the two rectangular panels at the lower right of the photo.

Wall burials for prominent relatives of the nuns were sometimes allowed.  Above is one of several panels that were set in the walls at the back of the cloistered area of the church. The inscription, in somewhat archaic Spanish, reads "Burial of Juan de Aguilar and his heirs. He was from the city of (undecipherable) and neighbor of the first conquistadors of these provinces." There is no date, but given the reference to conquistador neighbors, Juan de Aguilar probably lived and died in the 16th Century. Many thanks to Gladys in Chile who emailed me this translation.

Random Street Scenes

"Step right up and give it a try!" We encountered these young clowns on Calle 60, north of the Plaza Grande, chatting with a hostess at a local eatery. Mexicans love clowns, and we have run into them along the streets of just about every city we have visited. It seems to be a good way for a young student to have fun while making a little money.

This plaque is embedded in the wall at a corner along the old Camino Real. The location is the corner of Calles 64 and 75, south of the Plaza Grande. While almost all of the streets in the Centro Historico are numbered now, they used to possess names and many of the names can be found on plaques like this. I haven't been able determine the origin of the name (which means "the Harem").  However, it clearly depicts a canopy under which a cross-legged male figure sits on a pillow, fanned by two girls wearing veils. Perhaps this was once the "red-light district?"

Young students relaxing in Parque Maternidad. This quintet of young lovelies obligingly posed for me. From their matching t-shirts, they all appear to go to the same school. Their postures and smiles exemplify the easy-going friendliness we encountered in Mérida.

Street music in front of Casa de Montejo. A young musician strums a tune while waiting to see who will drop some dinero into his cap. Since I appreciate a live sound track to my life, I always contribute to street musicians.

The old re-emerges as the new. This is an example of the restoration work underway all over the Centro Historico. The difference between the restored structure and the dingy buildings that bracket it is startling. Mérida still has far more of the dingy than the new, but work is proceeding and someday the city may achieve the beauty of its glory days at the beginning of the 20th Century.

A quiet afternoon under the shade of the portales. A small coffee house set up tables on the walkway next a book store on Calle 61, along the northern edge of the Plaza Grande. Corridors like this, separated from plazas by a line of arches, were mandated by King Phillip II of Spain in the 17th Century. He wanted to promote commerce in the colony, and rightly thought the covered areas would protect itinerate merchants and their customers from both rain and hot sun. As a consequence, virtually every plaza in Mexico possesses an area like this.

Get your pigs' heads here (and every other part but the squeal). The carneceria (butcher's area) in the Mercado contained every kind of meat you might desire, and a few you might not. The Mercado is offers a wide variety of food and other products. It is located on Calle 65, between Calles 54 and 56, to the southeast of the Plaza Grande.

Another example of odd-ball Mexican humor. I encountered this display while walking along Calle 63 between Hotel Dolores Alba and the Plaza Grande. Vigorously peddling a bicycle is a man-sized robotic jaguar dressed in a Santa suit. The sight of this cheerfully peddling critter stopped me in my tracks which, I suppose, was the idea.

Another kind of wheeled vehicle. This fellow nearly ran me down when I stepped into the street. In fairness, he was watching for the kamikaze buses that hurtle down Mérida's streets. I snapped a quick shot, but didn't realize until I looked at it much later that the vehicle is actually a wheelchair tricycle, operated by hand rather than foot. For a guy confined to a wheelchair, he got around pretty well.

"Willkommen" the sign beckons, while a German monk offers a tankard of beer. The sign perplexed me at first, until I remembered that the Mexican beer industry was started by expatriate Germans who arrived in the mid-19th Century. Until then, pulque, a mildly alcohoic drink made from the maguey plant, was the drink of choice for the Mexican working classes. By 1918, there were 36 different brewing companies. However, there are now only two companies, Modelo and FEMSA, that control 90% of the market.

Young love, one of life's universals. This pair was oblivious to the world, including me with my telephoto camera. Mérida is a city for lovers.

This completes Part 17 of my NW Yucatan series. Next week, we'll probe the mysterious depths of the Loltún cave, inhabited from paleolithic times down to the Caste War of the 1840s. That will begin a journey following the Puuc Route to visit several stunning Maya ruins and a cacao finca. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you'd like to provide feedback, please use the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim