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Chichen Itza, city of an ancient god

The ancient Mayan metropolis of Chichen Itza is still revealing its secrets. Pyramids within pyramids, cenotes deep under the sacred heart of the city and paths that seem to lead towards Xibalba, the Underworld, are some of the amazing finds in recent years. If you haven’t visited this majestic UNESCO World Heritage Site before or you did so many years ago, then perhaps it is time to book a trip and learn about some of the discoveries archaeologists have been making.

Sunset of the serpent, Equinox, September 22

If you are staying in Cancun or the Riviera Maya in September, why not join thousands of other visitors and local people who gather to celebrate the Equinox at Chichen Itza on September 22 and 23? You’ll see the famous Pyramid of Kukulcan transformed by the shadow of a serpent seemingly slithering down from the heavens.

Also known as El Castillo, the 25-meter-high pyramid is a solar clock, aligned to catch the rays of the setting sun on the days of the spring and fall equinoxes in March and September. Triangles of light and shadow appear along the side of the north staircase and the undulating body of a snake forms. It merges with the head of a stone serpent at the foot of the building, creating the illusion of a gigantic reptile coming down from the sky and rippling across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote.

The snake symbolizes Kukulcan (also known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), the feathered serpent god, returning to earth to give hope to his followers and heralding the spring planting season and fall harvest for the Maya.

The pyramid of Kukulcan was built some time between A.D. 650 and 800, with later modifications during the Itzae period of glory, possibly from A.D. 1000 to 1150. The earlier temples are deep inside the pyramid we see today. When archaeologists dug through tons of stone and earth to reach the inner sanctum, they discovered a chac mool statue, the enigmatic reclining figure with hands cupped to receive the heart of a sacrificial victim, guarding the entrance and a magnificent throne in the form of a red jaguar with jade spots and eyes. The jaguar was discovered with an offering of coral, sacrificial flint knives and a turquoise mosaic disc.

The pyramid also represents the ancient Mayan calendar as the number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases, including the top platform, equals 365, the days in the year.

The Observatory, a view of the heavens

A short distance from the Pyramid of Kukulcan, the Temple of the Warriors, the Ball court and the other temples in the Great Plaza is the round tower known as El Caracol or the Observatory. It has a viewing platform and wells, which were used by ancient astronomers to mirror starlight, and it was aligned to catch sunsets and moonsets on both equinoxes and to mark the course of Venus.

Other buildings of note at Chichen are the Ossuary, the Akab Dzib, Las Monjas, the North Group and the earlier ruins in the forest known as Chichen Viejo or Old Chichen.

Explore one of the greatest ancient cities in the Americas and see why UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site and a global poll in 2007 rated it as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, book your Chichen Itza trip now. The snake of light and shadow is also visible the day before and after the equinox, cloud cover permitting.

If you would like to stay longer, why not sign up for the Thomas More trip that takes in the Hubiku cenote, the colonial town of Valladolid, an afternoon tour of Chichen Itza and the evening Light and Sound Show?

Dzibilchaltun at sunrise

Chichen Itza is not the only Mayan ceremonial center in the Yucatán to have temples with solar, lunar or planetary alignments. The doorway of the Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltun (13 miles north of Mérida) makes a perfect frame for the rising sun on the day of the Equinox.

Visiting Chichen Itza

Thomas More Travel offers several day trips to Chichen Itza. Choose the one that suits you best. An alternative is to rent a car and explore the eastern Yucatan at your own pace, visiting Valladolid, cenotes and Balancanche Cave and even exploring the smaller Maya site of Ek Balam too.

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Equinox at Chichen Itza, one of the new 7 wonders of the world
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Serpent of Light and Shadow, Spring Equinox at Chichen Itza, March 20-21

adfasdfasdfchichenAs the sun sets in the west and the shadows lengthen in the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, a collective sigh of amazement goes up from thousands of people standing at the foot of the Pyramid of Kukulcan on March 20-21, the spring equinox. They gather to witness an amazing spectacle, the mysterious shadow of a serpent rippling across the stone, the powerful symbol of an ancient god returning to earth.

Dominating the Great Plaza, the 25-meter-high El Castillo or Pyramid of Kukulcan is a feat of ancient engineering and a solar clock, aligned so precisely by its creators to catch the rays of the setting sun on the days of the spring and fall equinoxes in March and September. Isosceles triangles of light and shadow form along the side of the north staircase and the figure of a snake appears, merging with the head of a stone serpent at the foot of the building. The illusion is created of a gigantic snake slithering down from the heavens and across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote.

The snake symbolizes Kukulcan, a great leader and ruler of Chichen Itza associated with the feathered serpent god (known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), who is said to return to earth to give hope to his followers. It also heralds the spring planting and fall harvest seasons for the Maya.

In ancient times, the city’s rulers, priests and astronomers would scan the heavens for portents, recording the movements of the stars and charting the passage of the seasons. They could predict the Equinoxes and on this day, they would have summoned their subjects to the main square for a ceremony invoking Kukulcan with prayers, rites and offerings. Imagine the awe of the populace as the shadow of the serpent appeared before them.

Experts believe that Kukulcan, the leader who gave his name to the pyramid, may have come from the west and that he resided at Chichen Itza some time in the 10th century. This coincided with the period when the city was ruled by the Itzae, a group of seafaring warrior traders or Putun from Chontal Maya territory in Tabasco and Campeche who had political and commercial ties with central Mexican cultures.

Built some time between A.D. 650 and 800 using only stone tools and with later modifications, possibly from 1000 to 1150, the pyramid is also a symbol of the Mayan calendar. Sitting on a square base measuring 55.5 meters on all sides, the pyramid has nine terraces, divided by two stairways. The number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the ancient year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases (91), in addition to the top platform, the entrance to the temple, equals 365, the days in the year.

This year, the Spring Equinox falls on March 20 but it is traditionally observed on March 21 at Chichen Itza as it coincides with an official Mexican holiday, the birthday of Benito Juarez, a 19th-century reformist president and national hero. The light and shadow snake is visible the day before and after the equinox, cloud cover permitting.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan is just one of the marvels awaiting discovery at Chichen Itza. This huge Mayan metropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a global online poll in 2007.

Dawn at Dzibilchaltun on the Equinox

Chichen Itza is not the only Mayan ceremonial center in the Yucatán to have temples with solar, lunar or planetary alignments. The doorway of the Temple of The Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltun (13 miles north of Mérida) makes a perfect frame for the rising sun on the day of the Equinox.

 

Chichen Itza and Valladolid

If you would prefer to explore Chichen Itza at your own pace, why not arrange a private guided tour or rent a car and stop off in the colonial city of Valladolid on the way? This peaceful pueblo magico is steeped in history and tradition and is the perfect spot to spend a few hours before making your way to Chichen Itza.

Start with the spectacular Zaci Cenote and then stroll through the main square to the Cathedral. On Calle 40, just a short walk from the main square is Casa de Los Venados, a 17th-century restored mansion that is a private home and a museum with an impressive collection of more than 3,000 pieces of Mexican folk art. Guided tours of the property are available at 10 a.m. and are recommended. Admission is a $60 peso donation for local charities.

Then walk along Calzada de Los Frailes, the street leading to San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent. You’ll pass more restored mansions, craft shops, a workshop where cacao is transformed into chocolate using traditional techniques, and the Coqui Coqui perfumery where native flowers and fruits are transformed into soaps, candles, essences and fragrances.

To the north of Valladolid, a side trip to the Mayapan artisanal distillery gives you a glimpse of the world of the blue agave, the plant that gives us tequila. Native to the state of Jalisco, the plant has adapted to the climate and soils of the Yucatan and is thriving in the fields surrounding the distillery.

When the plants are seven years old they are harvested for their root stem or piña, which is then roasted. The sugary liquid crushed from the cooked piña is fermented, distilled and stored in wooden barrels until ready to be bottled as blanco, reposado or añejado varieties of Mayapan.

Mayapan is not the only spirit produced in Valladolid, the town is also famous for Xtabentun, the fragrant anise-flavored liqueur of the Yucatan, which is made from honey and a native flower.

More impressive cenotes await you en route to Chichen Itza; Dzitnup and Samula are in villages on the outskirts of Valladolid (via Highway 180) and Balancanche Caves and Ik-Kil Cenote are located a short drive from the archaeological site.

 

Planning your Chichen Itza Trip

Thomas More Travel www.thomasmoretravel.com offers a variety of trips to Chichen Itza and you can also arrange a private tour to take you to the places mentioned in this post. An alternative is to rent a car and explore on your own.

The new evening Light & Sound Show in Chichen Itza is highly recommended if you decide to enjoy cocktails and an early dinner at one of the nearby hotels and then return to the site for the multimedia event.

Chichen Itza is located in the eastern Yucatan, 200 kilometers/125 miles from Cancun via the toll road (take the exit at Piste). An alternative route that takes longer is Highway 180 via Valladolid.

Mayan community theater in Xocen, near Valladolid, Yucatan

Momentos Sagrados Mayas, Mayan community theater in Xocen, near Valladolid, Yucatan

The ancient cities that pepper the Yucatan may be abandoned, but the heart of the Maya beats strong throughout the area and timeless traditions spring to life. Meet the Maya and see how they live by witnessing Momentos Sagrados Mayas or Sacred Mayan Moments, a community theater production featuring over 200 actors of all ages from seven different villages in eastern Yucatan. This moving and colorful event is a celebration of village life, customs, faith and festivities and takes place on Sundays at 4 p.m. from January 20 to March 10 in the village of Xocen, a 30-minute drive from the colonial town of Valladolid.

Village Life in Xocen
Thatched homes, each with its own tiny garden and huerta or orchard where hens, turkeys and  pigs scrabble for food under orange, lime, guava and mango trees, line the streets of Xocen. The ubiquitous tricycle taxis ferry people around the village, men work in the milpas or cornfields and women go about their household chores, grinding corn to prepare tortillas for the family meal.
As the sun sets, villagers down tools and join visitors making their way to a clearing in the forest. Dotted with trees and Mayan huts, the grassy bowl is a natural stage for Sacred Mayan Moments, a < portrayal of Mayan  life performed by over 200 actors hailing from communities in eastern Yucatan.

Community Theater
X'ocenMomentos Sagrados Mayas is a theater production staged by actors from the community and written and directed by Maria Alicia Martinez Medrano of the Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena (Rural and Indigenous Community Theater Workshop), an arts group founded in 1983 as part of a community development project in Oxolotan, Tabasco. The group has worked with communities in nine Mexican states, including Tabasco, Sinaloa, the state of Mexico, Morelos and Yucatan, and has trained more than 22,000 actors over the last 30 years.
The work of the Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena has received glowing reviews at home and abroad and the group is best known for its performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and for Blood Weddings, by Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Two hundred actors from villages in Tabasco performed the play in Central Park, New York and in Lorca’s birthplace, the village of FuenteVaqueros, in Granada, Spain.
Members of the group have been studying Mayan traditions in the Yucatán for more than 20 years, with the aim of bringing them to the public eye through community theater performances and of preserving legends, dance steps, music, garments, rituals and festivals for posterity. The view is that communities may benefit financially from the performances, which represent a source of income to supplement traditional activities such as agriculture and beekeeping. Organizers also hope that the pride that older people feel for their culture will be strengthened and passed on to younger generations. Sacred Mayan Moments is a work in constant evolution, telling the story of today’s Maya.

Bey’o’oná: this is our story
From the village elders and the h’men or Mayan priest to the smallest child, the actors in Sacred Mayan Moments are of all ages. Some of them live in Xocen and the others hail from neighboring villages such as Dzitnup, San Silverio and Tikuch. They come together to tell a tale of corn and copal incense, of dreams woven into the threads of a hammock or the delicate embroidery of a huipil, of solemn worship, the celebration of life and the explosion of sound and color that heralds the village fiesta.
Different vignettes or scenes of village life are reenacted, and include the appearance of the H’menes or Mayan priests who greet the dawn with offerings of copal and perform a ritual requesting divine protection for the village. They kneel before a cross, which is draped with a shawl according to Mayan custom, and pray to God and the saints who watch over the community.
A procession of standard bearers headed by the priests, the village authorities and the leaders of the gremios or guilds takes to the stage. Their white garments contrast with the bright colors of their banners as they parade past the audience. They leave their flags center stage at the foot of a ceiba, the sacred tree of the Maya.
X'ocenA series of scenes involving different members of the community follows. Children play and women approach the altar with offerings of flowers and flickering candles. Young girls gather in the shade of the ceiba to gossip and giggle at their admirers who sidle past showing off and casting longing looks in their direction. A wife pursues her drunken husband and his compadre, shaking her fist and scolding the irresponsible pair with a tirade of insults. Woodcutters, hammock weavers and embroiderers show off their craft. Women draw water from the well, carry corn to the mill to be ground and then prepare tortillas on a comal or cooking stone placed over an open fire, a method used for thousands of years in Mayan homes.
The stage fills with children who play and perform traditional songs and then disperse as another procession appears. Women enter from one side carrying colorful banners and from the other, men bearing racks covered in yellow, brown, black and blue corn cobs and the corn plants themselves. They wait patiently for the priest to arrive and bless the corn with offerings of copal and pozol (a drink made with corn, cacao and water) in honor of Chaac, the Mayan rain god.
Members of the different community guilds approach carrying white banners and floral offerings and singing “Viva Cristo Rey.” They then give way to a reenactment of the Hetz mek ceremony, the Mayan baptism. The baby is blessed by the priest and carried on the hip of its godparents for the first time. They give it the tools it will need during life: for boys a tiny machete, hoe and a gourd and bag to hold water and food, and for girls, household items such as a needle, cooking pot and hearthstones.

The Village Fiesta
The event draws to a climax with the annual village fiesta. The most important day in the community calendar, la Vaquería mixes Catholic ceremony and pre-Hispanic rites. Fireworks are set off with a resounding bang and young men carry a young ceiba tree on to the stage, planting it in the middle of the village square. They are followed by the local band and a couple of drunks who started their celebrations early and are scolded for their pains.
The official festivities begin with the Cabeza de Cochino, a dance around a pig’s head on a pole festooned with flowers and ribbons. The pig’s head is a traditional offering to the gods to ask them for a good harvest.
Dressed in cowboy hats and carrying gourds, young women known as vaqueras make their entrance and dance around the pole in a celebration of life.

X'ocen
The villagers then encircle the ceiba to ask for protection and permission to start the dances or jaranas. During a real village fiesta, they may dance for days in its shade, dancing in honor of the gods, the sky, the sun, the moon and the earth itself. The vaqueras are joined by children, then by young people, matrons and grandparents all eager to show off their dancing skills. Children are taught to dance at the age of four and some of the steps they learn from their elders are over 200 years old. Young couples dance around the pole, weaving the ribbons into a web of colors and then by changing direction, unfurling them again.
In the midst of the festivities, a funeral cortege appears; a reminder that death is never far away. A man has died and his widow is leading the veiled mourners to the cemetery to bury him. The dancers fall silent as the coffin passes and then start to stamp their feet in tribute to the deceased, accompanying his soul as it begins its journey to heaven.
The dances reach their climax with El Torito, a dance representing a bullfight. An actor portraying the bull makes his entrance, pursuing villagers round the stage and challenging the dancers to a duel of strength. They accept and give chase with swords and machetes, eventually cornering the defiant, but now visibly tiring, animal and killing him. The “bull” is blessed by the hmen and carried off stage.
Sacred Mayan Moments concludes with a blessing for the spectators. Then the entire cast takes to the stage once more and chants the words: Esto somos…aqui estamos…Bey’o’oná…huay’an’oné… “This is our story and here we are,” releasing the captivated audience from a magical world of ritual, tradition and color.

Getting there
If you would like to see Momentos Sagrados Mayas (Sacred Mayan Moments), private tours can be arranged through Thomas More Travel. Spend the morning exploring the charming colonial town of Valladolid, one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos or Magical Towns, villages or towns that are important for their rich heritage, craft and culinary traditions, natural beauty or historic monuments. Your Valladolid sightseeing list includes San Gervasio Cathedral and the Town Hall in the main square, the street known as Calzada de los Frailes and San Bernardino de Siena Convent, Santa Lucia, Santa Ana, La Candelaria and San Juan churches, San Roque Museum and Zaci Cenote. Stroll through the leafy park in the main square and call in at the Craft Center and Town Market and be sure to sample some Yucatecan cuisine for lunch. By prior appointment, it may also be possible to visit Casa de los Venados, a privately owned restored colonial home with an impressive collection of Mexican folk art, with over 3000 museum-quality exhibits. Tours take place at 10 a.m. and visitors are asked to make a small donation, which goes to support a local clinic and charity work in the area.

In the afternoon you’ll drive to Xocen for the open-air show. You need to be there at least 15 minutes before the performance is due to begin at 4 p.m. The cost of admission to this unforgettable event is $150 pesos per person.
More information: tourdesk@royalresorts.com or at the travel desk in all six of the Royal Resorts in Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

San Bernardino de Sisal Convent Valladolid Yucatan, Mexico
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Valladolid, a Magical Community in the Yucatan

San Servasio Cathedral, Valladolid, Yucatan

Traditionally a popular stop en route to the Mayan metropolis of Chichen Itza, Merida or the Gulf Coast biosphere reserve of Rio Lagartos, the Yucatan’s second largest city, Valladolid, is a fascinating travel destination in its own right. A civic program has restored many of the city’s colonial buildings to their former glory and the central square bustles with life. On August 30, 2012 it was declared one of the “Pueblos Magicos” by the Mexico Tourism Board and now joins another Yucatecan colonial treasure Izamal in the Pueblos Magicos listing, a collection of magical communities scattered throughout the country that are rich in history, traditions, their craft or culinary heritage, festivals or natural beauty and that no visitor should miss.

Affectionately referred to as the “Sultana of the East” by local people, Valladolid is steeped in history. Attracted by a huge cenote (sinkhole), which was the only source of fresh water in the area, the Maya first settled here during the Post-Classic period (900 – 1521 A.D.), calling the site Zaci or Saci in honor of one of their leaders. Also called Zaci, the cenote still exists and is accessible from Calle 36. With sheer rock walls festooned with jungle creepers and swallows skimming the surface of the green water to scoop up insects, the cenote is reminiscent of the much larger Sacred Well at Chichen Itza. There is a rustic restaurant overlooking the cenote and the view at the full moon is breathtaking.

cenote zaci yucatan

Cenote Zaci – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

Photo by bryandkeith

The Coming of the Spaniards
In 1543, despite fierce resistance from the Maya, Francisco de Montejo El Mozo and his followers overran Zaci, destroyed the temples and founded their own city, laying the streets out around the main square in a grid. During the Colonial Period, Valladolid was the commercial center of the eastern Yucatan and was dominated by a handful of Spanish families.

In 1847, centuries of exploitation and social injustice came to a head and the bloody uprising known as the Caste War exploded in Tepich, a Mayan community to the south, and quickly spread to Valladolid. The Maya attacked the city with such fury that the citizens who survived the initial raid were forced to beat a retreat to Merida.
Strolling through the park in the tranquil central square, it is hard to imagine that Valladolid had such a violent past, yet the paintings by Marco Lizama, which line the balcony at City Hall, depict the Spanish Conquest and Caste War, in addition to Valladolid’s most important native sons. Behind City Hall, the tiny San Roque Museum features displays on city history, including La Chispa, a 1910 uprising against social injustice that was the spark that ignited the Mexican Revolution.

The San Servasio Cathedral (built in 1705 on the site of an earlier church dating from 1545) dominates the main square and the Valladolid skyline, its twin towers visible from every part of the city. As night falls, the bells summon worshippers to evening mass and visitors can sometimes witness the arrival of local brides. Seven other barrios or neighborhoods such as Santa Lucia and La Candelaria have their own smaller colonial chapels and a stroll through the streets and squares to visit them is highly recommended.

San Servasio Cathedral - Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

San Servasio Cathedral – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

The city’s other major landmark is the imposing San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent, 1.5 kilometers to the southwest of the square along Calle 41 and 41-A. Founded by the Franciscans in 1552, the San Bernardino complex was the center of missionary work with Mayan communities in the eastern Yucatán. Another cenote lies under the floor of the convent and there is also a network of tunnels from the mission leading across the city. History tells us that they were used in times of strife.

San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent - Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

The convent is now the site of many cultural and community events during the year and the lawn in front of the building is a popular meeting place for local people.

En route to the church and convent, visitors can stroll along the Calzada de los Frailes and see some of the colonial houses that have been renovated as part of the city’s Heritage program. Other Valladolid landmarks include the exhibition of Mayan ceramics in Los Portales on the main square, a perfumery creating fragrances from native flowers and herbs, jewelry and textile workshops. You can even watch chocolate being made using traditional Mexican techniques and cacao grown in the Maya World.

Located at Calle 40, a short walk from the main square is Casa de los Venados or the “House of the Deer.” Built between 1600 and 1620, this impressive casona or hacienda-style house was once the home of the Alcalde or Mayor during the Colonial period. Abandoned since 1964 and crumbling into ruin, it was purchased by American couple John and Dorianne Venator ten years ago and has been lovingly restored. Merida-based architect William Ramirez has blended contemporary architecture with the original colonial features and facade in a way that has won the house awards in architectural competitions in Yucatan, Mexico and in Costa Rica.

In addition to being a private home, Casa de los Venados also houses a collection of Mexican folk and contemporary art, the reflection of a lifelong passion for Mexico. More than 3,000 pieces ranging from giant trees of life, ceramic jaguars and carved wooden masks to Day of the Dead art, Frida Kahlo-inspired tiles and murals by local artists are exhibited throughout the house in what is one of the extensive collections of folk art in private hands, and a joyous celebration of the creativity, color and humor of the country’s artisans. Tours of Casa de los Venados and its collection can be arranged with an advance reservation and visitors are asked to give a 60-peso donation to the owners’ charitable foundation to support local causes such as a clinic and community health programs, education and the arts in Valladolid.

Sightseeing over, spend some time sitting on a park bench or stroll through the main square for a glimpse of life in the Yucatan. Visit the market and the Craft Center to shop for locally made embroidered dresses, hammocks, straw hats, leather, gold filigree jewelry and honey. You’ll also find a good selection of crafts from other parts of the country in La Casona, another colonial mansion restored by the Xcaret Group that is now a restaurant serving delicious Yucatecan cuisine. Be sure to sample some of the city’s culinary specialties: lomitos de Valladolid (roast pork) and longaniza (spicy chorizo-style sausage).

Main Square - Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

Main Square – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

Getting to Valladolid
Valladolid is 160 km/100 miles from Cancun via the toll road and Highway 180. Thomas More Travel offers trips to the town and also to Valladolid and Ek Balam on Thursdays. Contact tourdesk@thomasmoretravel.com for more information. If you would like to explore at your own pace, side trips to Dzitnup Cenote, five minutes to the west of town, Ik-Kil Cenote, 30 minutes away en route to Chichen Itza, and the ancient Mayan site of Ek Balam, 20 minutes to the north on the highway to Tizimin and the Gulf Coast are recommended.

Flamingos nest in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in the state of Yucatán
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Think Pink, Flamingo Watching, Rio Lagartos, Yucatan, Mexico

Open your eyes and you’ll see clouds of pink! Thousands of flamingos nest in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in the state of Yucatán, one of the natural wonders of the Maya World and Mexico, read more in our trip report.

Rio Largartos - Yucatan

Rio Largartos – Yucatan

The setting sun gilded the flamingos turning them to molten copper and the only sound was the whisper of their wings carried on the breeze. I was on the Gulf coast of the Yucatán and the flamingos were flying east, towards the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. These regal birds travel great distances, fanning out along the shoreline during the day in search of food and returning to roost in the reserve as dusk falls.

Early next morning, I made my way to the village of Río Lagartos in search of more flamingos. As I waited on the waterfront for the local guide who was going to take me on a boat trip through the reserve, I watched the sun sparkling on the waters of the estuary and listened to the cries of the gulls. Pelicans and cormorants were already perching on the fishing boats, waiting patiently for the chance of an easy breakfast. Nearby, a great egret stood motionless in the shallows on the look out for an unwary fish.

Rio Lagartos, Wetland Home to 365 Bird Species, including Flamingos
Rio Lagartos, or Reserva de la Biosfera de Ria Lagartos as it is officially known, is a 60,348-hectare reserve of mangroves, marshes, estuaries, salt flats, dunes, beaches, dry forest and jungle straddling the north coast of the Yucatan. It was the

first area of marshland in Mexico to receive global attention

and to be included on the UNESCO RAMSAR list of internationally important and fragile wetlands. The Mexican government declared it a biosphere reserve in 1979 to protect its incredible biodiversity: 365 recorded bird species, 58 mammals, including the jaguar, ocelot and spider monkey, 95 reptiles and amphibians and 523 species of plants. This stretch of the Gulf coast is the most important nesting site in the world for the endangered hawksbill turtle or tortuga carey, but the reserve is famous for having the largest nesting colony of American or Caribbean flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in the wild.

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Apart from Rio Lagartos, flamingos can also be seen in the Celestun Biosphere Reserve on the west coast of the Yucatan or feeding in lagoons along the Gulf coast. Elsewhere, the American flamingo is found in the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Bonaire, the Galapagos Islands, Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana. Three other species of flamingo are found in the Americas: the Andean, Chilean and James flamingos inhabit volcanic lakes in the barren wastes of the high Andes.

Exploring Rio Lagartos
My Rio Lagartos guide untied his boat from its moorings and we set off along the estuary and into the ria, a channel winding through the mangrove forest. There were birds everywhere I looked: a hunting osprey, a roseate spoonbill startled from its cover as we passed its roost, swallows skimming the water to catch flies and even a flock of chattering parrots overhead. I spotted ibis, a green kingfisher, frigate birds and a peregrine falcon. Herons were everywhere – there are 16 species of heron and egret in the Yucatan – and I saw green, blue and tricolored herons, reddish, snowy and white egrets along just one short stretch of the waterway.

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Heron, Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

The boatman motioned for me to keep silent and gestured towards the mangroves. A Morelet crocodile was concealed among the tree roots, only its powerful jaws visible above the water. A rare sighting nowadays, crocodiles or “lagartos” in Spanish used to be so common in the area that they gave the reserve its name Rio Lagartos.

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Morelet Crocodile, Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

The ria began to widen and the mangroves receded. Suddenly we were in a stretch of shallower water and surrounded by flocks of flamingos that turned the horizon pink. Some were feeding, following the flock leader in single file to the choicest spots, others were preening their feathers and wherever I looked I could see birds taking to the wing only to land in another part of the lagoon. The flamingos share their feeding grounds with flocks of white pelicans, skimmers, cormorants, herons and a variety of other waders. The view was breathtaking and the air was filled with a deafening chorus of squawks, croaks and honks.

Watching the Flamingos
You can spend hours observing flamingos. With their lanky legs, high-steeping gait and huge beaks, they are somewhat comical, but altogether fascinating. Watching them search for food is particularly intriguing. They feed with their heads upside down, underwater, moving their beaks from side to side in a sweeping motion as they walk forward. They stir up the mud, sieving it with their spine-covered tongues and extracting minute crustaceans. Sometimes they stamp their feet in a circle to stir the silt up. Biologists have discovered that the even more vivid salmon pink plumage of the Yucatan flamingos is the result of a diet based on tiny brine shrimps and crustaceans found only in this area.

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

A vision in pink, Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Large flocks of flamingos can often be spotted foraging in lagoons between Progreso and Telchac, in Bocas de Dzilam, around the island of Holbox in the Yum Balam Reserve, El Palmar Reserve and especially in Celestun, where thousands of them winter. Small numbers of flamingos have also been recorded in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in central Quintana Roo and the Los Petenes Biosphere Reserve in Campeche. Several years ago, one ringed bird from Rio Lagartos was spotted in the Everglades National Park and two turned up in Cuba.

Salt from the Yucatan
We left the flamingos to their search for food and continued on our journey, as far as the boat could venture into the shallows, to the saltpans of Las Coloradas. In this barren landscape salt evaporates naturally under the fierce tropical sun, turning shades of pink, red and purple almost as brilliant as the flamingos. The ancient Maya were the first to extract salt in the area and it was one of the most important trade commodities for the coastal communities of the Yucatan in the pre-Hispanic period.

In 1946, the Yucatan Salt Company began commercial exploitation of the salt pans on a stretch of the coast to the east of Las Coloradas.

As we walked across the barren flats, my guide pointed out a horseshoe crab hiding under a rock in one pool; these strange creatures that bear no resemblance to the crabs we are used to, are some of the oldest life forms on the planet and are now an endangered species. Some guides also swear by the therapeutic properties of the salt-rich clay and encourage visitors to try it themselves and see how it softens their skin!

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Eco trip, Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Caution, Flamingos Nesting
We headed back to the boat but could not go any further along the estuary on this occasion. During the flamingo breeding season, the remote nesting sites at El Cuyo in the eastern part of the reserve are off limits to visitors. The flamingo mating ritual begins in the spring with strange courtship dances and once the male finds a mate, the pair retreats to the salt flats of El Cuyo in late April or early May to build strange pedestal nests sculpted from mud where the females lay one egg. It is important that the birds are left in peace at this time, if they are disturbed when they are selecting their nest site, they may not nest at all. And they face other challenges too. Biologists estimate that up to 50 percent of the eggs may be lost during the season. Adult flamingos will abandon their eggs if they are frightened and nests can be flooded during heavy rain. Predators such as raccoons, wild dogs, birds of prey and even jaguars also feast on flamingo eggs and fledglings.

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Constant movement of flocks, Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Adults raise their offspring on a soup of regurgitated crustaceans and fresh water until the chick’s salt glands are fully developed. Congregating in “nursery flocks,” for mutual protection while the adults are off foraging, flamingo chicks are grayish brown and do not acquire their smart pink plumage for months after they have begun to feed on their own. During the summer, biologists working for the Niños y Crias conservation group, park wardens and volunteers patrol the nesting areas counting and tagging the birds and rescuing abandoned or weak chicks to raise them by hand.

On the return journey through the estuary I noticed how nervous the flamingos are, the slightest noise or movement is enough to cause panic in the flock and for thousands of birds to take to the air. Low flying aircraft or boats that get too close with their motors still running frighten the birds. It may look like a great photo opportunity but research shows that this stresses the birds and disrupts their feeding habits, and for a bird that spends up to 70 percent of its day feeding this is a serious threat. Local conservationists and state officials have been working with the inhabitants of both Rio Lagartos and Celestun reserves to get them to respect a minimum viewing distance of 50 meters and to cut their motors when they pass flocks.

Back to Shore
On our return journey, my guide pointed out a reddish egret in flight, the jewel-like plumage of a shy purple gallinule in the reeds and a turkey vulture circling lazily overhead on the afternoon updrafts. A little blue heron darted out from the mangroves in front of the boat as the clapboard houses of Rio Lagartos came into view and my voyage ended.

Reddish Egret - Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Reddish Egret – Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

It was time for a late lunch of fresh fish and shrimp in a waterfront restaurant in the nearby village of San Felipe, a Gulf coast fishing community of colorful wooden houses lining sandy lanes that lead towards a peaceful beach.
Later when clouds rimmed in rose and gold covered a darkening sky; I watched a pair of black-necked stilts searching for food as flamingos dipped their wings in salute. A day in Ria Lagartos always ends the way it begins… with birds.

If you go to Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos is a three and a half hour drive from Cancun via the toll road (longer if you take Highway 180) to Valladolid and then Highway 295 to the coast, via Tizimín. Local fishermen offer trips along the estuary, usually lasting two or three hours. Longer trips can also be arranged.

Rio Lagartos at dawn

Rio Lagartos at dawn

Wear a hat, sunglasses and sun block and drink plenty of bottled water. Don’t forget your camera and always carry spare chips, a recharger and extra batteries! Binoculars and a bird guide or checklist will also come in handy and you can even download a bird identification app for your smart phone or tablet. If you are staying in the Yucatan for longer, you may also wish to visit Celestun, one and a half hours to the west of Merida via Highway 281

You’ll see birds at any time of the day at Rio Lagartos but remember that they are more plentiful at daybreak and also at sunset when they fly back to their roosts. If you are a seasoned birdwatcher, the best time to visit is during the winter months when the reserve also welcomes hundreds of thousands of migrant birds from the United States and Canada. Shore birds such as sandpipers, waders and waterfowl, songbirds, birds of prey and even hummingbirds make the dangerous and long Gulf crossing, which can take them up to 18 hours, to the Yucatán Peninsula. Some species spend all winter in Río Lagartos, while others stay only a few days to feed and recover from their journey before continuing south.

Protecting the Flamingos
For centuries, the American flamingo was hunted for food and its striking plumage, and captured by collectors for aviaries and zoos. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the soldier who wrote an eyewitness account of Hernan Cortes’ campaign to conquer Mexico in 1519-1521, reported seeing flamingos in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan where they were kept in an aviary for Emperor Moctezuma’s pleasure. Nowadays, habitat destruction, the draining of wetlands and pollution have caused a decline in flamingo numbers throughout the Caribbean, placing the bird on the endangered species list. The Yucatán flamingo population is also under threat. It rallied from a low of 5,000 birds in 1956 to 30,000 in 2002 and although more recent estimates put it at over 40,000, much remains to be done in the fight to save them.

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Stepping out, Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

The problems facing Rio Lagartos include deforestation, habitat fragmentation, unregulated fishing and highway and breakwater construction. Tourist boats and low flying aircraft can disturb the birds; contaminated water, electricity pylons and hurricanes also pose great dangers to birds, feeding and nesting areas. Other endangered species such as the jaguar and ocelot also fall victim to poachers. The situation in Celestun is similar but problems there are exacerbated by greater population growth.

In recent years, Mérida-based universities, research centers and conservation groups such as Niños y Crias, Pronatura and CAPY have been working with the inhabitants of Rio Lagartos on a variety of projects ranging from reforestation, conservation of key areas, efficient land management, flamingo, turtle and jaguar research and protection, environmental education and sustainable development.

Active in Rio Lagartos and Celestun, Niños y Crias has a flamingo ringing program, which enables its biologists to study feeding migrations along the coast and breeding. An annual aerial census and monthly counts from a boat are carried out. The group also works with reserve wardens, other organizations and local people to protect flamingo feeding and nesting areas.

Environmental education with the goal of changing the mentality of residents and visitors alike is crucial. Pronatura and Niños y Crias are both working with communities in the reserve and along the coast to teach them about the importance of their environment, its fragility and the need to use resources in a sustainable way. The development of eco tourism is one way to provide the inhabitants of villages such as Rio Lagartos with an alternative source of income and in recent years many local people have been trained as birding guides by CAPY, a Mérida-based program of Amigos de Sian Ka’an A.C.

Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

White pelicans, Rio Lagartos, Yucatan

Thomas More Travel offers trips to Rio Lagartos (small groups only) and a day trip that combines a visit to the reserve with a trip to the ancient Mayan city of Ek Balam, information: www.thomasmoretravel.com Birding trips can also be arranged on request.

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2012 Spring Equinox at Chichén Itzá

On March 20 and 21, the period marking this year’s spring equinox, thousands of people will gather in the Great Plaza, the sacred heart of the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, Yucatán’s famous World Heritage Site to watch the sunset. As the sun’s rays strike the massive Pyramid of Kukulcan, it begins to reveal its secrets.

Pyramid of Kukulcan

The pyramid is a solar clock, aligned to catch the rays of the sun. As it sets on the spring and fall equinoxes in March and September, triangles of light and shadow form along the side of the north staircase and the figure of a snake appears, merging with a stone head at the foot of the building, creating the illusion of a gigantic serpent slithering down from the heavens and across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote. The snake symbolizes Kukulcán (also known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), the feathered serpent god and an ancient ruler of the city, returning to earth to give hope to his followers and heralding the planting (spring) and harvest (fall) seasons for the Maya.

The shadow creates the image of a descending snake.

The pyramid also represents the ancient Mayan calendar as the number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases, including the top platform, equals 365, the days in the year.

In 2012, the equinox falls on March 20, but the snake of light and shadow is visible the day before and after the equinox, cloud cover permitting. March 21 is also the anniversary of the birth of Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s most famous reformist presidents.

chichenequinox1

If you would like to explore one of the greatest ancient cities in the Americas and see why UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site and a global poll in 2007 rated it as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza Trips and Chichen Itza Tours are available through Thomas More Travel, our on-site tour operator. Book now!

Favorites from the Yucatecan Kitchen

During your visit to the Mexican Caribbean or Yucatan, be sure to sample the delicious local cuisine. Although it is based on the famous trio of corn, chilies and beans, the use of which dates back to the days of the ancient Maya, it couldn’t be more different to the Mexican classics you may already be acquainted with.

A veritable fusion cuisine, Yucatecan dishes blend time-honored Mayan staples such as corn, chili, tomato, beans, squash, cacao, honey and turkey with European and Middle Eastern ingredients that include pork, Seville oranges (known locally as naranja agria) and garlic introduced by 16th-century Spanish settlers and later immigrants from the Levant. The result is a sophisticated blend of flavors.

Local chefs say that the secret is in the seasoning and they use recados or spice mixes of ground achiote (annatto) or pumpkin seeds and chilies that are sold in the markets as pastes or powders and dissolved in chicken stock or Seville orange juice to make sauces.

In Mayan communities, a pib or cooking pit is traditionally used to slow cook pork, turkey, chicken and fish (in the past the Maya also hunted wild game such as agouti, peccary and deer and in some areas they still do). The meat is marinated, wrapped in banana leaves to keep the juices in and baked underground for hours until it is so tender that it falls off the bone.

Setting up a "pib" or cooking pit

Photo: mayaculture (Flickr)

Cochinita Pibil
Pork marinated in achiote (annatto) and Seville orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves and slowly cooked in a pit for hours until it is tender. Pollo or Pavo Pibil is cooked the same way except that chicken or turkey is substituted for pork. Served with tortillas, pickled red onion and habanero chili sauce.

Cochinita Pibil

Photo: mark hollander (Flickr)

Sopa de Lima
A tasty chicken broth with shredded chicken, slices of lime, tomato, onion and green pepper and fried tortilla strips.

Sopa de Lima

Photo: dommichu (Flickr)

Poc Chuc
Slices of tender grilled pork marinated in Seville orange juice and served with a chili sauce, pickled red onions, corn tortillas and side dishes such as guacamole.

Poc Chuc

Photo: Larry Miller (Flickr)

Panuchos & Salbutes
Yucatecan finger food! Panuchos feature a special tortilla filled with refried beans. They are topped with shredded chicken or turkey, lettuce, tomato and pickled onion. Salbutes are fried tortillas topped with the same ingredients.

Chicken Panuchos

Photo: phaedra torres (Flickr)

Cochinita Pibil Panuchos

Photo: Adriana Pérez (Flickr)

Papadzules
Corn tortillas filled with chopped hard-boiled egg and topped with two sauces made from pipian or ground pumpkin seeds and tomato.

Papadzules

Photo: David Sosa (Flickr)

Queso Relleno
A dish that is proof of the Caribbean connection with the island of Curacao, once a Dutch trade enclave. It consists of a steamed Dutch cheese with a minced beef and pork, hard-boiled egg, raisin and almond filling and is served with a white and a tomato sauce. Traditionally this would have been cooked in banana leaves, but it can also be baked in the oven.

Queso Relleno

Photo: turismoyucatan (Flickr)

Tikinxic
A whole fish marinated in achiote and Seville orange juice, topped with slices of onion, green pepper and tomato wrapped in banana leaves and cooked on the grill or in tin foil and cooked in the oven.

Tikinxic

Photo: Ana Noble (Flickr)

Local Seafood
No Mexican Caribbean or Yucatan vacation is complete without sampling the local seafood. Your choices include juicy and sweet Caribbean lobster, shrimp, octopus, conch and a variety of good eating fish such as grouper (mero), huachinango (snapper) and boquinete (hogfish). Try your fish and seafood grilled, fried al mojo de ajo in garlic butter, in ceviche or in a hearty broth.

Photo: Fresh local seafood available at Captain’s Cove Restaurant

Relleno Negro
Turkey and a meat stuffing cooked in a spicy black sauce made with onions, hard-boiled egg and seared chilies. You may also come across relleno blanco on the menu.

Relleno Negro

Photo: rfung8 (Flickr)

Codzitos
Rolled tortillas which are fried until crispy and topped with a tomato sauce and crumbled cheese.

Codzitos

Photo: Alejandra Can (Flickr)

Frijol con Puerco
Chunks of pork cooked until tender with black beans, served with rice and a garnish of coriander, chopped onion and radish.

Frijol con Puerco

Photo: Alfonso Becerra (Flickr)

Pavo en Escabeche
Turkey, onion, peppercorns, bay leaves and other herbs stewed in a vinegar-rich pickling sauce.

Pavo en Escabeche

Photo: aya (Flickr)

Longaniza
A spicy black sausage from the town of Valladolid that makes a great taco filling! Try it with handmade corn tortillas cooked over a wood fire.

Longaniza platter

Photo: Ryan&Jo (Flickr)

Mucbil Pollo
Served on Hanal Pixan, the Mayan Day of the Dead (November 1 and 2), this corn tamale is stuffed with chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in a pit.

Tamales being put in the "pib" or pit oven for cooking

Photo: Tips de Viajero (Flickr)

Cooked Mucpilpollos for sale

Photo: Maggy Molina (Flickr)

Puchero
A meat or poultry stew with vegetables. Sometimes beef, pork and chicken are used in the same dish.

Puchero

Photo: Alberto Vázquez (Flickr)

Dzotobichay
A tamal stuffed with pumpkin seeds and wrapped in chaya leaves, a native plant with more iron, calcium and trace minerals than spinach and Swiss chard.

Dzotobichay

Photo: ausmemoria (Blogspot)

Habanero Chili, a Gift from the Yucatan
Packing between 250,000 and 350,000 Scoville units on the heat scale, the habanero chili is definitely for serious chili eaters who crave its fiery yet fresh, grassy flavor. The Yucatan’s famous heart-shaped chile may be served whole, sliced or roasted in a red tomato sauce. It is also served with lime juice and chopped onion in a sauce called xnipek. In the Mayan language xnipek means “dog’s nose” and this salsa will literally make your nose run and your eyes water!

Habanero Chilies

Photo: Mario Vázquez (Flickr)

A Cool Drink to Accompany your Meal
We recommend that you try a limonada or naranjada, lemonade and orangeade made with freshly squeezed juice or an agua fresca, a water-based fruit drink made with a variety of fresh tropical fruit. Try whatever is in season; your choices include mango, pineapple, tangerine, guava, melon, tamarind, grapefruit and even more exotic fruit such as the fuschia-colored pitahaya (the flesh is actually white with tiny black seeds rather like a kiwi fruit), the guanabana or soursop and the mamey. You will also find agua de chaya on the menu, often flavored with lime juice or pineapple, this is a highly nutritious energy booster! In coastal fishing communities, you may be able to try agua de coco, literally the water inside a freshly cut coconut (a traditional remedy for upset stomaches). And Mexican favorites such as agua de jamaica (made with dried hibiscus petals) and horchata (a creamy sweet drink made from rice and water) are widely available.

A cold beer also goes well with your meal and you should try the local brand called Montejo in its light (clara) and dark (oscura) presentations. Finally, be sure to sample the Yucatecan liqueur Xtabentun, a scented drink made from honey, native herbs and aniseed.

Share your Stories
We would love to know if you have tried Yucatecan cuisine and which was your favorite dish? Why not drop us a line and let us know.

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Merida Celebrates its 470th Anniversary

Merida, the beautiful capital of the state of Yucatan is 470 years old on January 6! It is celebrating the anniversary of its foundation by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo y Leon the Younger “El Mozo,” in 1542 amidst the ruins of a much earlier Mayan city called T’Ho. The festivities will last the whole month with the Merida City Festival, January 5 – 30.

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Merida

The fun started on January 5 with the Alborada, a strolling serenade from Santa Lucia Park to the main square with over 100 local musicians and thousands of the city’s inhabitants, culminating with the traditional Mexican birthday song Las Mañanitas at midnight and a firework display. At 8 a.m. on January 6, local people gathered before the altar in San Idelfonso Cathedral, one of the oldest in the Americas, to offer their prayers for their city.

Festival de la Ciudad, 2012
The City Festival features more than 200 events ranging from concerts, plays and ballet and dance performances to street performances, art shows, cinema, historical exhibitions and literary workshops. This is in addition to the traditional weekly musical recitals and folk ballet events staged in the city’s parks and squares. The performers come from the Yucatan, different parts of Mexico and other countries, including Spain and Cuba. On Saturday, January 28, the National Poetry Prize Merida 2012 will be awarded at the Olimpo Cultural Center in the main square.
This year holds particular significance in the Yucatan as one cycle in the ancient Mayan calendar draws to a close on December 21 and a new one begins, accordingly, many of the festival events showcase the Mayan culture this time.

The 2012 festival program is available on http://www.merida.gob.mx/festival/index.html

Merida, a City for All Seasons
With historic monuments ranging from the impressive 16th century Cathedral and a collection of colonial churches and convents to 19th century civic buildings and the palatial residences of the henequen barons along Paseo Montejo, not to mention an ever expanding collection of museums, art galleries and craft centers there’s always something to see and do in Merida, whatever the season. The cultural scene is thriving and the city is also home to the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra (2012 season begins on January 20 – June 26, to see the concert program visit: http://www.sinfonicadeyucatan.com.mx/temporada/temporadactual.html ), several theaters, dance troupes and universities with their own community programs. Be sure to take in some of the evening concerts and folk dance performances staged throughout the year, here’s a listing.

Weekly Events in Merida

Saturday
Fiesta Mexicana
Live music and folk dances from Yucatan and other Mexican states, food and craft stalls and lots of ambiance.
8 p.m. to midnight, Calle 47 and Paseo Montejo

Corazon de Merida
Music, dance and open-air dining along Calle 60, the street leading north from the main square where the Church of the Third Order, Peon Contreras Theater, the University of the Yucatan and other landmarks are located.
From 9 p.m. Calle 60

Sunday
Merida en Domingo
The main square and surrounding streets are closed to traffic for this popular family gala featuring live music and dance performances, trio serenades, art exhibitions, handicraft and food stands.
9 a.m. – 9 p.m., main square and Calle 60. There is also a concert at the MACAY Museum next to the Cathedral from 12 to 1 p.m., a trio serenade at Pasaje Picheta at 8 p.m. and vaqueria folk dances at 1 and 5 p.m. Ask about midday concerts of classical music at Peon Contreras Theater during the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra season.

Biciruta
The streets of the historic heart of Merida, Paseo Montejo and those in Barrio San Juan and to Ermita de Santa Isabel are closed during the morning along this five-kilometer bicycle route which will take you past some of the city’s most important monuments.
8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Art on Sundays
Local and foreign artists display and sell their work on Merida’s famous tree-lined boulevard.
9 a.m. Paseo Montejo

Monday
Vaqueria
9 p.m. in front of City Hall in the main square.
Colorful traditional dances from the Yucatan, including those forming a part in village fiestas called vaquerias.

Tuesday
Musical Memories Big Band Concert
From 8:30 p.m., Santiago Park, Calle 59 & 72

Wednesday
Live music and art at the Olimpo Cultural Center.
9 p.m., main square

Thursday
Santa Lucia Serenade
Concerts, traditional dances and poetry readings
9 p.m. Santa Lucía Park

Corazon de Merida
Music and open-air dining along Calle 60, the street leading north from the main square where the Church of the Third Order, Peon Contreras Theater, the University of the Yucatan and other landmarks are located.
From 9 p.m. Calle 60

Friday
Trio Serenades in the main square
9 p.m. Pasaje Picheta

Noches de Leyenda
A two-hour walking tour and theatrical experience in one, scenes from Merida’s history are reenacted in nine different settings. At this time performances are in Spanish.
8:30 p.m., tickets available in Santa Lucia Park.
A repeat performance is staged on Saturday.

Corazon de Merida
Calle 60, the street leading north from the main square is closed to traffic and local restaurants set up tables al fresco in the squares and outside Peon Contreras Theater for an evening of dining under the stars. There’s live music at different points along the route with everything from trios and jazz to salsa on the repertoire.
From 9 p.m. Calle 60

Merida Walking Tours
Explore the historic heart of Merida on a free walking tour available Monday to Saturday at 9:30 a.m. The meeting point is the City Hall Information office on the main square.

Merida

Merida - City Center

Events are subject to change; when in Merida ask for the current program.

Merida’s Trio Tradition
Wander through the streets of Merida on any given night and you’ll discover how important music is to area inhabitants, the serenades performed by guitar-strumming trios playing in the squares and serenading diners at local restaurants are the very essence of trova, the music of the Yucatan.

Don’t miss the trio concert in Santa Lucia square every Thursday at 9 p.m. If you are interested in learning more about trova music, why not visit the museum dedicated to the history of these romantic ballads and local composers, Museo de la Cancion Yucateca, Calle 57 No. 464-A x 48. Open: Tuesday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Trips to Merida

merida

Palacio Canton, home of the Regional Museum, Paseo Montejo, Merida

Thomas More Travel offers day trips and overnight stays to Merida. If you plan to rent a car and make your own way there, Merida is 320 km/200 miles from Cancun and the drive takes around three and a half hours by car on the toll road and four hours or more depending on traffic on Highway 180. Flights also are available from Cancun.

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Sweet Beginnings, Yucatan’s New Cacao Museum

Everyone loves chocolate but did you know that cacao was first grown in southeast Mexico or that the ancient Maya made offerings of the cacao pods and a drink to their gods and used it as currency in their trade negotiations? And did you know that Emperor Montezuma drank up to 50 goblets of xocolatl (chocolate) a day and that Hernan Cortez and his band of conquistadors had their first taste of it at the Aztec court in 1519? You didn’t, then, you are in for a sweet treat! On July 5, the Eco Museo del Cacao or Cacao Museum opened at Plantacion Tikul between the archaeological sites of Labná and Xlapak on the Puuc Route, near the famous ancient Maya capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Uxmal in southern Yucatan.

cacao museum yucatan | royal resorts news

Entrance to the Cacao Museum in Ticul

In a tropical setting amidst cacao bushes, orchards and forest, and with the exhibits in traditional thatched Mayan huts, the eco museum is the brainchild of Belgian entrepreneur and chocolateur Eddy Van Belle. This is his fourth cacao museum; the others are in Prague, Bruges and Paris and all showcase the role of cacao in the Maya World and in Mexico. He teamed up with Merida-based chocolateur Mathieu Brees for his Yucatan Museum and says that the project started as all good things do “over dinner and a bottle of tequila.”

The museum galleries are located at regular intervals on a nature trail through the forest and wooden signs show native trees and shrubs exploited by the Maya for food, building materials, medicine and more. There are also outdoor displays showcasing the milpa or corn field and slash and burn agriculture, the raised seed bed or kanche used to grow herbs and delicate food plants and the traditional beehive made from a hollow tree trunk.

cacao museum yucatan | royal resorts news

Cacao beans

During your guided visit you’ll learn about cacao, the history of cultivation and the manufacture of chocolate.

The first gallery is dedicated to the origin of cacao in southeast Mexico and its role in Mayan culture. It explains the significance of the cacao pod, which resembles a human heart, and the drink a symbol for blood, its use in sacrificial ceremonies and its association with religion, kingship and everything divine. Examples of cacao plants depicted in Mayan art are displayed and there is an interesting introduction to Mayan trade. Cacao was a lucrative cash crop and the beans were the common currency throughout the Mesoamerica.

cacao museum ticul | royal resorts news

Cacao pods

The second gallery is devoted to Mayan life. You’ll learn about the foods a Mayan family would consume – apart from the sweet flesh of the cacao pod – and how they obtained them from farming, hunting and gathering; their houses, social organization, festivals and more.

It’s on to the third gallery where there are exhibits on the origin of cacao in tropical America and the history of its cultivation from the early days of the Olmecs more than 3,000 years ago, to the court of Emperor Moctezuma in the 16th century. Discover how chocolate became all the rage in Europe after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico and when cacao plantations sprang up in other parts of the world such as Ivory Coast and Brazil. The different species of cacao are shown and there are displays on cultivation and the insect pests and diseases that farmers dread.

cacao museum yucatan | royal resorts news

Mayan figurine in display - Cacao Museum

All the cacao and chocolate facts you absorb naturally makes you want the real thing and in the Tasting Hut you’ll take a break and watch as Mayan women roast cacao beans for 10 to 15 minutes. They then peel and then grind them on a metate (mortar), add water and prepare hot chocolate flavored with honey the way it is served in the Yucatan. You can experiment and sprinkle other spices such as pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and even chili into your chocolate. The ancient Maya used ground achiote seeds (annatto) for ritual purposes to give the drink a deep red color to resemble blood.

cacao museum yucatan | royal resorts news

Mayan woman preparing fresh hot chocolate

Displays in the fifth and final hut touch on cacao processing process and chocolate making, with interesting facts such as the percentages of cacao – 70 to 90 percent – needed to produce the world’s finest chocolate. The Mexican Criollo variety of cacao is renowned for its quality and is deemed far superior to the Forastero variety grown by rival cacao producing nations.

At the end of the tour, after discovering some of the secrets of cacao, you will be craving a bite or two of rich, deliciously satisfying chocolate.

Reviving Cacao Cultivation in the Yucatan
The Tikul Cacao Plantation is the first of its kind in the state of Yucatan since the days of the ancient Maya. Cacao needs fertile, well drained soil with a depth of 1.5 meters and high humidity levels to flourish and you would think that it would be impossible for it to grow on the infertile rocky landscape of the Yucatan. Yet the Maya grew their cacao in rejolladas, the hollows filled with a thicker layer of moist soil and humus found in the forest, usually near cenotes. Evidence of cacao cultivation has been found around Chichen Itza and this strain of the plant is known as sacred cacao due to the fact that it would have been used by priests in sacrificial rites and was also consumed by the nobility.

cacao museum yucatan | royal resorts news

Cacao tree

The plantation will eventually have more than 100,000 cacao trees in 289 hectares, with an estimated annual yield of 1.2 tons of high quality Criollo cacao per hectare. Sixty thousand trees have already been planted on 60 hectares and the harvest from the first 30 hectares is expected in 18 months. Traditionally, it takes five to seven years for cacao trees to bear their first fruit but thanks to the use of a sophisticated irrigation system, the growth process has been speeded up.

Organic farming methods, including planting shade plants such as yuca and bananas are employed on the plantation, and it is staffed by local people from Ticul, Oxkutzcab and Tekax. It will soon be certified by the Rain Forest Alliance for its sustainable farming practices and the developers hope that more farmers in the area will plant cacao as their forefathers once did.

cacao museum yucatan | royal resorts news

Tikul cacao plantation

Getting there
The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed at Christmas and New Year) and has a small restaurant and chocolate shop. Admission is currently $80 pesos for adults and $40 pesos for children (6 – 12 years).

If you are thinking about renting a car in Cancun or the Riviera Maya and spending a couple of days in Yucatan, visiting Uxmal and exploring the other archaeological sites along the Puuc Route, Loltun Caves and the colonial churches in Mani and Oxkutzcab, do call in at the Cacao Museum. Remember that you can also organize private van trips with Thomas More Travel whenever you want to go off the beaten track.

For more information about Uxmal, Labna and the other archaeologicial sites on the Puuc Route, check out our article “Uxmal & the Puuc Route

Cacao Facts

• Did you know that in the days of the ancient Maya 10 cacao beans would buy you a rabbit?

• Did you know that Mayan traders had to be on the lookout for counterfeit cacao beans made of clay?

• Did you know that Mexico was once the world’s leading cacao producer but currently accounts for 0.3 percent of the global harvest?

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Secrets of the Sacred Cenote

During a visit to the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, your guide will take you to the mysterious natural well known as the Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado). A short walk from the Great Plaza and the Pyramid of Kukulcan along a sacbe or Mayan pathway, this huge sinkhole was once the site of ceremonies to appease Chaac, the Mayan rain god. Ancient priests cast pottery and other treasures into the water and offered human sacrifices to the all-powerful deity. Cenotes and caves were portals to Xibalbá, the Mayan underworld, the realm of the gods, and with its sheer limestone walls, green water and the sounds of the wind in the jungle, it is rather eerie.

Bishop Diego de Landa was the first European to describe the Sacred Cenote and its religious symbolism in a 16th century report to the Spanish king. He speculated about the treasures that could lie beneath the surface. The intrepid Maya World explorers John L Stephens and Frederick Catherwood also visited Chichén Itzá in 1841 and had this to say about the cenote: “A mysterious influence seemed to pervade it, in unison with the historical account that the well of Chichen was a place of pilgrimage and that human victims were thrown into it in sacrifice.”

The murky depths have intrigued all those who have visited the cenote and in 1904-7, Edward Thompson, the American Consul to Merida, dredged the well, an act that would prove to be very controversial. Later dredging work was carried out by the National Geographic Society and CEDAM (Mexican Dive Association) in 1960-61 and 1967-8, respectively.

Over the years, the cenote has yielded over 30,000 artifacts including gold, jade, copper, turquoise, obsidian, copal or incense, pottery, rubber, shells and the bones of around 200 people, mostly children and old men who had the misfortune to be selected as sacrificial victims to honor the gods. Archaeologists have discovered that the offerings date from A.D. 800 to 1550 and the human sacrifices spanned 550 years between 1000 and 1550.

Many of the most precious objects were recovered during the first dredging expedition and using the diplomatic pouch, Edward Thompson smuggled them out of Mexico to the Peabody Museum where they remain on display to this day. In 1959 and 1976, the museum returned some of the finds such as a turquoise disc, gold figurines and 246 carved jades to Mexico as a goodwill gesture.

The ancient Maya were great traders and the ceremonial objects thrown into the well speak volumes about the extent of ancient trade routes and the wealth of Chichén’s ruling elite. Jade was mined in southeastern Guatemala, gold came from Costa Rica and Panama, obsidian from central Mexico and turquoise from northern Mexico and the area that is now New Mexico and Arizona.

Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) , Chichén Itzá

Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) , Chichén Itzá

Thomas More Travel offers a variety of trips to Chichén Itzá and there is always something to see as archaeologists continue to excavate this huge site and make amazing discoveries. And nature also puts on a show with hummingbirds, parrots and orioles and Yucatan’s own bird of paradise, the turquoise-browed motmot often spotted. As you gaze into the depths of the cenote you may see a flash of turquoise and hear a soft call, the motmot nests in the limestone walls of cenotes. This handsome species is also known as the clock bird due to its disc-shaped tail feathers which resemble the pendulum on a clock.