Postcard from the Edge of Stairs

There are many theories as to why the Mayan people abandoned their remarkable cities on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico around 1100 AD. These range from climate change; war; drought; the arrival of hoards of Spanish (enough to make anyone make a dash for it) – but after spending 2 weeks in the region, I know the answer: failure to invent handrails. Any civilization that can build huge temples and expects its people to traipse up and down treacherously angled staircases without handrails is asking for demise. Every year there are several deaths on the few staircases that can still be climbed – more than enough reason to retreat to the comparative safety of the level ground of the jungle.

Having said this, the Mayan cities are still pretty awe inspiring today – from Chichen Itza, with its magnificently restored pyramid (with 4 staircases @ 91 steps + 1 step on the top to equal 365), the massive magician’s temple at Uxmal, to the gorgeous beach front property at Tulum – all are engineering marvels in their own rights and along with hundreds of miles of Mayan roads offer a lasting tribute to what was achieved here. As well as these archeological spectacles, we also visited several of the lesser known sites (such as Xlapak, Labna and Sayil) which are still being cleared out of the jungle, but here the novelty wore off quickly. Not only are these really only piles of rubble, the “seen one, seen them all” effect emerges and, as they are deep in the jungle, you return to the car with about half the rain-forest sticking to your shoes, along with associated small mammals, insects and reptiles, which accompany you for the rest of the trip.

Driving in Mexico was quite an experience – we drove about 1,400 kms over 9 days and every kilometer was fraught with danger. Firstly the “roads” are not quite up to European standards. Sure the main highways in the tourist areas are OK, but off the beaten track and driving is like an interactive arcade game, avoiding dangers thrown at you, including pot-holes, encroaching jungle, snakes, iguanas, parakeets and unidentifiable furry things that wiz pass at speed. All these dangers are supplemented at frequent and random intervals with huge “topas” (speed bumps) which gratingly scrape the underside of the car if you go over them faster than about 0.3 km/hour. Also the risk of accidents is quite high – and believe me, you do not want to have an accident in Mexico. Even the most minor knocks can mean weeks in prison, as the police generally round-up and incarcerate anyone who had anything to do with it, including witnesses, until all insurance claims have been settled. Luckily, our car had no identifying features (such as number plates), so if anything had gone wrong I am sure we would have gotten away with it.

During our travels, we stayed in a variety of establishments – from 5 star resort luxury in Cancun to stifling hot, ludicrously expensive beach shacks (cabanas) in Tulum, where you could spend a quiet evening relaxing with about 5,000,000 mosquitoes, mites and spiders, and then lie awake sweating profusely all night. At least, you think, the morning shower will help you wash off the sweat – wrong – the shower disgorged tepid, salty water so you end up leaving the “resort” feeling like a salt stick.

However, the best hotel we stayed at was somewhere between the extremes, the Tierra Maya Hotel in Xcalak – a beach front property in an idyllic location on the southern tip of the Yucatan next to Belize. A single road, 100 kms long through the jungle, connects Xcalak with civilization. Here we stayed for 3 wonderful days snorkeling with an abundance of fish and sting rays, taking an amazing (and risky) boat ride through the reef for a day trip to San Pedro, Belize (a former British colony, so very civilized, they even have the Queen on their money) and eating some of the best food we had in Mexico, such as shrimps the size of your hand. The hotel is so remote, all power is from generators (so no air-con, just a gentle sea breeze) and shower water is re-cycled to water the lush gardens, but it really is a little piece of paradise (as long as the mosquitoes and mites stay away).

Food otherwise in Mexico was surprisingly bland. As a result, restaurants have a cornucopia of salsa and condiments to accompany any meal. They normally have names like “Inferno Flames” or “Combustion Firestorm” and don’t half spice up a meal. These sauces proved to be surprisingly good, especially as, due to my crap Spanish, we were never really 100% sure what food we would get. Even in McDonalds, with its limited menu, we did not always get what we were expecting. Still, everything tastes the same if you put enough Inferno Flame on it.

Mexican life style is very relaxed and enjoyable with life centered around the central plaza that every town seems to have. I don’t expect many people never get to see the “real” Mexico, most people we met just seem to stay in one of the plethora of mega-resorts that are being built everywhere. I can thoroughly recommend vacationing in Mexico and meeting “real” people – we had a perfect mix of adventure, culture and relaxation. Me thinks South America needs more exploring… I am already planning my next trip.

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