Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Worship of a feathered serpent deity may have begun as early as 200 B.C. at Teotihuacan near present day Mexico City, but it reached its pinnacle at Chichen Itza, the Mayan cultural capital in the north central plains of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Named Quetzalcoatl by Nahua residents of Teotihuacan, to Maya the plumed serpent was Kukulcan, a name they also gave to the famous stepped pyramid that today dominates the archeological site.

Serpent protruding from ball court stadium appears to devour Kukulcan pyramid

Chichen Itza is rife with signs of serpent worship. Thousands of limestone blocks at the base of the great ball court are carved with scenes of athletes who, upon losing a match, were decapitated; the blood flowing from their severed necks turns into wriggling serpents. Giant serpent heads protrude from the ends of the ball court stadia, while still others stand guard at the bottom of the staircase leading to the top of the smaller Ossario pyramid. The Kukulcan Pyramid also features a pair of serpent heads but strangely, they flank only the north staircase; the other three grand staircases may have purposely been left unadorned as a clue to the significance of the solo pair. The Maya built the temple so precisely that on the spring and autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the pyramid casts a serpent-shaped shadow on the side of the north staircase that slithers down to the serpent’s head at the base.

North stairway with serpent heads at base on normal days

Corner of Kukulcan pyramid casts shadow of a serpent’s body on north stairway during sunrise and sunset on spring and fall equinox. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

By all indications, the Maya culture at Chichen Itza was steeped in violence. In addition to serpents, other carvings feature jaguars eating human hearts, battle scenes, and row upon row of stones depicting human skulls. Even the cenote, which was undoubtedly their sole source of Read More

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Well rested from my previous three days at the amazing Hacienda Xcanatun Resort, I set off with renewed vigor to discover more of the northern Yucatan. As with so many of the other locales I had visited in Mexico, there is so much to do in the Yucatan that it is difficult to choose which sites to see. No matter how hard I tried, there would not be time enough to visit all the ruins, cenotes, colonial towns, biosphere reserves, and cultural sites, but staying in centrally located Valladolid would at least allow me to see as much as possible.

Pastel houses line cobblestone strets in Valladolid

Though this third largest city in the Yucatan is a mere two hours east of the cultural center of Merida and three hours west of Cancun’s tourist mecca, in character it might as well have been light years away from either. Located in the sultry interior, where not even a whisper of a breeze penetrated most days, the pace of life was simple and slow. Ancient men on three-wheeled bikes languidly pedaled down cobblestone streets past pastel houses, each hawking his product with a trademark signal. A bottled water delivery man rasped “agua” every dozen feet. A knife sharpener rang a jangly bell. On a third bike, an enormous silver wok-shaped vessel had been welded in front of the handlebars. “Que tienes?” I inquired – What do you have? He braked, smiled shyly and lifted the lid, allowing the yeasty aroma of fresh baked bread to engulf me.

Can’t view the above slide show of the Plaza Principal in Valladolid, Mexico? Click here.

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I followed the bellman down a long covered portico, where lustrous marble floors gleamed like polished bronze in the slanting rays of a late afternoon sun. At the end of the terrace he stopped before a massive set of wooden doors and jiggled a large metal skeleton key in the lock. Shifting my backpack impatiently, I focused on how wonderful it would be to drop my heavy load for a few days and do absolutely nothing. After what seemed an eternity, the door finally swung open to reveal an exquisite Master Suite. I nearly wept. For the past three months I’d been trekking around Mexico, staying in hostel dormitories and modest inns, until Hacienda Xcanatun had kindly offered to host me. Dog-tired and desperately in need of a rest, I’d jumped at the chance to sleep in a “real” bed in a private room for a change, but this was more than I had expected. This Master Suite was larger than most of the hostels I’d stayed in.

Master Suite

I tried not to show my embarrassment as the bellman rolled my small dust-caked suitcase through the sitting room and set it up on a heavy wooden bench in the bedroom. He pointed out myriad switches that turned on lamps, wall sconces, and overhead fans and then explained how to work the multiple rain heads in the glass shower enclosure and operate the separate whirlpool soaking tub. Stepping to the far wall in the bathroom he tugged on cords that drew back a ceiling drapery, revealing a skylight; did I wish to let sunlight stream in or would I prefer dimmer lighting? Open. No, closed. Oh, I don’t care. Whatever would make him leave faster. Read More

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Recently, the manufacturer of Paperwallet, a new lightweight wallet made from a thin, tear-resistant, elastic fabric called Tyvek, asked me to try out their product. Although I don’t write a lot of product reviews, I agreed in this instance because I have been searching for a solution to the “wallet issue” for years. When I am not traveling I carry a large wallet that has room for money, coins, ID, photos, and a myriad of credit, debit, and membership cards. But when I hit the road, I leave behind all the extraneous stuff and pare down to a small wallet. Over the years I’ve tried many different styles, but I have never been able to find one that suits me. For example, the man’s style tri-fold that I am currently using is a has a slot for paper money that is not long enough for many foreign currencies; I end up crumpling and double folding bills to get them to fit, which often makes the wallet too thick to close.

Solid color Paperwallet, made of tear-resistant Tyvek

While the Paperwallet is not a product I would not consider for everyday use, its design was perfect for traveling. It has two credit card slots, two contact card flaps, two easy access pockets, and a cash pocket that handles U.S. bills with room to spare. And because it’s made of Tyvek, Paperwallet is recyclable; you can send your old wallet back to the company for recycling and the company provides a 15% discount on the purchase of your next wallet. Read More

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The demon’s manic eyes stopped me in my tracks. I shivered, imagining its hawk-like beak flaying the flesh from my bones. This was the Mayan rain god, Chac, the most important deity in a land where the only source of fresh water was infrequent rain. Ominous Chac visages framed the stairway on the Pyramid of the Magician, leading to a stone doorway said to be the mouth of the powerful god. Here, Mayan high priests ripped out the heart of human sacrifices with a flint knife before throwing their bodies back down the steep steps.

Stone mask of Chac, Mayan rain god

Uxmal, one of the most important cities of the Maya empire, is located just an hour south of present-day Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Located away from regions of heavy rainfall and the jungles that smother the ruins of Palenque, it stands with all its walls erect, almost as perfect as the day it was deserted by its inhabitants. Perhaps because Uxmal is in better condition than many other Maya sites, very little archeological excavation and research has been done on the site, however archeologists estimate that up to 25,000 residents lived in Uxmal at the zenith of its development during the Late Classic Mayan Period, from 850 to 925 AD.

Archeologists also speculate that Uxmal may have been more of an arts community than a governmental center, which could in part account for its stunning architecture. The Pyramid of the Magician, soaring 117 feet high and built on an unique elliptical base, is actually five superimposed temples. It anchors one side of the Nunnery Quadrangle, so named by Spanish Conquistadores because its 74 small rooms reminded them of nuns’ quarters in a convent. The western building’s facade is decorated with entwined stone serpent images, ubiquitous in the Maya world, which symbolized birth, change, and crawling though time. Even the latticework designs are thought to represent the diamond pattern on the rattlesnake’s skin.

Can’t view the above YouTube video of Uxmal Mayan ruins in Mexico? Click here.

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I pressed my nose to the bus window as we rolled into Merida, one of the places in Mexico that I had yearned to see for years. My brow furrowed in disappointment; the city looked nothing like I had envisioned. With its location in the northwestern corner of the Yucatan, just inland of where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean, I had expected to see palm trees and sun-splashed cottages dripping in tropical colors. Instead, unbroken lines of flat-fronted buildings stood so close together that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the next began. Like haughty neighbors, they turned their backs, forming fortress walls that made claustrophobic canyons of the streets. As I climbed into a taxi, the unbroken row houses flushed briefly gold in the setting sun and then skulked into shadow.

Flat-fronted buildings line the streets of the historic district

Although I’d felt completely safe traveling around Mexico solo for the past few months, I was suddenly anxious about exploring this large, unfamiliar city after dark. By day the city had been intimidating; by night its dark streets seemed positively ominous. Fortunately, the hostel owner assured me that Merida is the safest city in the Republic, handed me a map, and told me to be sure to check out the artwork inside the Palacio de Gobierno on the Read More