Ancient, Colonial, and Modern Mexico
Brent E Weigel
04/06/02 - Quintana Roo: Cancun
When getting off of the plane we come into the Customs area. The first thing I see is a sign that says "foreigners this way." Seems strange to see that, since I'm not used to being the one who is a foreigner. As we are walking through Customs I see a man who is an airport worker typing on a typewriter. I cannot remember the last time I have seen anyone use a typewriter. To me this is the first real impression that Mexico is not as technologically advanced as the United States. After picking up out luggage, we start to leave the terminal and there are a lot of people handing out coupons and specials for all the local hotels and restaurants. When we exit the terminal there are lots of taxi drivers. I think I got stopped like 12 times asking if I needed cab. It was like walking through a gauntlet. Eventually I just walked through without even acknowledging them because if you stop to say no, they try to reason with you even if you say you already have arrangements.
As we get to the Executive car rental office we sit outside for about an hour, even though there are no other customers. Dr. Delacova and Lex go inside and give them all of their relevant drivers info. This lack of speed is just like Dr. Delacova said in class. He said that there is a completely different mindset down in Mexico; that the culture is much more laid back and that you cannot expect things to be done as quickly as in the US. It took almost 45 minutes for them to start prepping the vans. When they did they starting cleaning them fully, Dr. Delacova went and told the workers to quit vacuuming so that we did not have to wait another hour for the car to be ready, knowing well that it would get dirty with all the driving we would be doing. It was now dark as we left the airport to go to the hotel.
As we walked into the hotel I was very impressed, it was very nice looking for such a cheap price. We got our room keys and got ready to go to dinner. Dinner was good, but it was not very ethnic. I am guessing this is because we are still in Cancun, which is more of a tourist town than anything else. After dinner Dr. Delacova asked Lex, Matt, and myself to go with him to go gas up the vans since when we got them they were almost empty. Going to the gas station was interesting because in class we learned that the oil industry in Mexico had been nationalized so working at the gas station is a government job. All the gas stations are called Pemex. When we found one we pulled and had to wait in line even though there were some open unmanned pumps because there is no self-serve. I used this as a chance to go get some money out of the ATM. When I took money out it was weird to see my options as 200, 500, 1000, 5000 because the numbers were in pesos. I really wasn't sure what the exchange rate was for the day, I guessed 10:1 so I only took out 500 since I didn't have a lot of money in my bank account. When I got back to the van it was ready to be fueled up. Lex not knowing that it is full self-serve got out and washed the windows to help out the guy filling up the vehicle. He got dirty looks the whole time; Dr. Delacova said this was because he was pretty much taking part of the guys tip away. Looking at the pump was confusing because the price was in pesos/liter instead of dollars per gallon.
04/07/02 - Quintana Roo: Cancun, Coba, Tulum
Got up at 6:00 local time. The sun is already rising and it is a really nice day outside not to hot yet and there is a pleasant breeze. Had breakfast at the hotel and waited for the others to get up and ready to go.
On the road to Coba we say several things that we had talked about in class. One such thing was a religious shrine on the side of the road. They are placed there when someone is killed as the result of a car accident. Usually there are pieces of the vehicles involved in the accidents in the shrines. Also another thing to note about the major roads is that they have lots of signs that tell you obvious things not to do and they are about every half mile or so. After going through some of the small villages on the way to Coba you can tell right away that most of Mexico is nothing like Cancun. Many of the buildings in the towns are very run down. In a lot of cases they are just huts with thatch roofs on them. If there were any concrete structures they were generally not completed. In the towns there are also a lot of signs that say vote for the PRI party, which lost the 2000 presidential election.
At Coba the first thing we all did was use the restroom. It costs two pesos to use the restroom and for that you get a little toilet paper and the privilege to not have to use a bush. In the restroom you are not supposed to put the toilet paper in the toilet when you are done using it, rather there is a little trash can for it because there is very poor water pressure and not a lot of water to waste, so the paper will jam up the toilet. Going into Coba we see some of the first ruins I was not too impressed yet because they were not anything grand. As we are getting explanations of the various things in this first area, one of the guides comes up to Dr. Delacova wanting money from him because we did not hire a guide and he was explaining the sites to us. So Dr. Delacova stopped explaining until we got a little farther away and then started again. We all thought it was funny that the guy told him he could not teach us unless he pays the guide. In the first part we saw two things that we learned about in class: the Korbel Arch, and the Stela. The Korbel Arch is a type of arch that is straight on the sides and is an inverted "V" at the top. A Stella is a flat sheet of rock that has various glyphs and reliefs on it. We walked down a long path to another part of the site. When we got to the next location, we saw another thing that we learned about in class, a ball court. We actually saw two ball courts at this site. The last big thing to note at this site was that we saw the large pyramid called Nohoch Mul. Climbing the pyramid was really fun. There is a rope in the middle of the steps because it is a very steep ascent. From the top you can see everything in the surrounding area for several miles. You also get no concept of how tall the building looking at it from the ground up. Going back to the vans we stop at the souvenir stands to get drinks. I thought it was funny that while the building has a thatch roof it still had a DSS satellite dish on top of it. I bought a Coke inside and when I went to give the guy pesos for it he saw I had a USD in my wallet and offered to take that instead, pretty much giving me a better exchange rate. I asked him why and he said so he can make more money because he will just wait until the pesos gets a little weaker and then exchange the dollar so he can get more pesos.
Not much to report on the way to Tulum since I slept in the van. When we got there we stopped and ate at Subway. When Dr. Delacova paid for us, he asked for a receipt and the person there tried to tell him that the machine must have just broke. He said the reason for this is similar to something he told us in class, that there is a lot of corruption in Mexico and when you have someone giving you 1000+ pesos for a group of people the money will usually just get pocketed. After eating we saw the flying Voladares do their ceremony. It consists of 5 actors. One stands at the top of a tall pole and plays music while the other four are tied to the top of the pole by their ankle and spin around in the air until they reach the ground. After the ceremony, Dr. Delacova gave them a big tip so that we could all get our picture taken with them. After that we took a bus ride to the architectural site. From the outskirts this site had a very unique feel to it. It had a lot of open area with very little vegetation or overgrowth. There were not very many tall buildings. Lastly there was a coastline right on the edge of Tulum. The site had a definite Toltec influence to it, by that I mean that the roofs were flat and there were columns, which were not indicative of the Mayan architecture as we learned in class.
At the Solymar after dinner we sat down at the bar and talked with the bartenders Ossmany and David. They told a lot of interesting things about Mexico and gave us explanations for a lot of things we did not understand. Ossmany told us that the reason there were so many buildings not complete in the region was due to the fact that the economy took off for a short while right after NAFTA and a lot of people starting building to take advantage of the good times but then the Mexican economy crashed and the dollar was over the pesos by about 50:1. The result of this crash at this time meant that the construction costs skyrocketed so many people could not complete the construction of these buildings so they stopped construction. David, who is Maya, told us about some of his believes about predictions that had been made long ago that correspond to events that happened recently.
This was a club that we went to on the strip in Cancun. It was totally Americanized with expensive prices even by US standards. To me it did not seem any better than some clubs and bars I have been to in Chicago.
04/08/02 - Quintana Roo: Cancun; Yucatan: Ek'Balam, Chichen Itza, Merida
On the way to Ek'Balam we left the state of Quintana Roo and entered the Yucatan. Immediately I noticed many changes in the way things looked. Everything seemed to be a lot cleaner and there was less trash on the sides of the roads. The small villages, while some were still poor, looked cleaner than those in Quintana Roo. Also along the road, many of the rocks were painted with bright colors. Dr. Delacova said that the reason for this was that the people of the Yucatan are very nationalistic and have much more pride in their state and they take better care of it. I think also the absence of as many tourists assists in this too. When we got off the main road and onto the road to go to Ek'Balam the road was very narrow. It could comfortably fit one car and barely two. There were also a lot of blind turns, so it was really fun driving. At the site everything looked very clean and new. The signs for the site described it as a newly excavated site that had not been discovered very long ago. The INAH had just opened it to tourists four years ago. Walking into the site I was already a little more impressed than with the other two sites we had been to. The first thing you see when entering the main site is a large Korbel arch. It was partially reconstructed as you could tell by a small layer of thin rocks that marks the end of the original/reconstructed border, as pointed out to us by Dr. Delacova. We also saw one thing that we had talked about in class, a chultun. A chultun is a large well-like structure that is made to collect water and hold it after a rainfall. The main feature of this site was the pyramid, which was still under a lot of reconstruction and excavation. On it there was a part with a lot of carvings that had several reliefs of the rain god Chaac. Chaac was one of the most important figures in the ancient Mexican culture because rain meant survival for anyone in the dry regions.
When pulling up to Chichen Itza, I could tell right away that this was a huge tourist site. All the gift shops and small museums around it were fully modernized. We went into the site when we first got there, instead of going to lunch, because we wanted to see the inner pyramid of the main pyramid, as it closed before the rest of the site, so we had to make sure we would get a chance to see it. When we went into the main pyramid it was very humid. The walls were very damp with moisture and there was a slight amount of mold growing on the walls. It smelled like being inside of a cave. The stairway going up was very narrow and steep. When we got to the top there was only one room that you could see because everything else you were not allowed to go into. We did see something that we learned about in class tough. There was a red jaguar throne. After this went back out to the main entrance of the site and had lunch. This was slightly more ethnic food than we had before. The stuff I liked the best was the salsa they gave us for our chips. I have never had salsa that tasted so good before, and it was hot too, the way I like it. After lunch we went back into the main site. Since it was a little later, many of the tourists had already left. The first thing we did was head south and saw a bunch of smaller buildings and temples. After that we saw the observatory. It was a pretty cool looking building but we were not allowed to go up and look at it since it was roped off. We headed a little more south and saw a group of larger buildings with very interesting reliefs on them. There was a general thatch like architecture around the top parts of the building with several Chaac reliefs interspersed. After this, we headed back into the center of the site to climb the pyramid. This was really fun. At the top you could see everything in the surrounding region. We got a good view of the ball court and the temple of the warriors from the top. In the temple of the warriors, with my camera on full zoom, I could make out a Chac Mool, which we learned about in class. When we came back down the pyramid, we stood at a location which, if you clapped, the echo came back as the sound of a hawk. And if you go to the other side and do the same thing the echo that comes back sounds like an eagle. After that little interesting experiment we went over to the ball court. Compared to all the other ball courts we saw, this one was absolutely huge. It was easily the size of a football field or larger. On the sides there were many carvings depicting the players of the game. As we walked over to the east we came across some walls that were covered with carvings of skulls. According to Dr. Delacova, this spot used to have thousands of actual skulls on top of it to serve as a warning to those who might come to Chichen will ill intent. Walking over to the Temple of the Warriors we saw the many columns that went up and down the paths there. I took several pictures in here because the sun was at a perfect angle and the shadows that were cast across the pillars on to the ground were incredibly beautiful. Walking further southeast behind the Temple of the Warriors, we came across the bathhouse. This was a place were they would burn wood against the wall rocks and splash pots of water on the inner wall to make a steam bath. The roof of the building was collapsed, so if you went on top of the building you could see inside. Although, there wasn't too much to look at. At this point it was closing time for the park, so we all had to leave.
Merida - Holiday Inn
Driving into Merida was interesting. You can tell right away that this was a normal Mexican big city. It did not have that Americanized feel to it at all. While still a tourist city, Merida had a definite Spanish and Mexican feel about it in its architecture, layout, and by the appearance and apparel of its people. The Holiday Inn wasn't anything too special. It was a very nice hotel though. After getting cleaned up, we all went down to eat dinner at the outdoor area in front of the hotel. This was actual Mexican cuisine. There were many types of salsas, and of course I tried them all. My favorite was a green one that was primarily made of habanero peppers. Also there were many typed of Spanish pasta and dished to try. I found my new favorite Spanish dessert to be flan. It was excellent. If I had to place a similarity to another dessert, I would say that the custard for it is of similar make-up to that of crème-brulee with a honey glazing on the top. During dinner there was live music outside where we ate. I did not stick around too long though because all the walking around, climbing at the sites, and extensive driving had worn me out. I opted to back to the room and watch TV.
On the TV I watched the Simpsons in Spanish, it was an episode that I had seen many times and knew a lot of the words to, so I actually knew what was going on and that helped me to pick up some basics of the language. After that I watched the movie Red Planet, which was in English with Spanish sub-titles. Actually most of the movies that were on were broadcast in this manner.
04/09/02 - Yucatan: Oxkintok, Uxmal, Muna, Merida
Oxkintok was a fun ride to get there. We went over some very hilly regions on the way there. We passed several areas where we saw slash and burn techniques either currently happening or evidence that it had happened. We learned about this in class, as a technique used to clear large areas of land quickly. At Oxkintok we met a guide that was very useful and Dr. Delacova actually asked him to come along with us around the site, since he had not been here before. The first thing we saw was a ball court. The one at this site was similar in size to the ones we saw at Coba. Next to the top of the area, where spectators sat, there was a wooden cross. I asked the guide what that was for. He said that it was for the Day of the Cross, for the workers who lost their lives in excavations. We then walked to a very interesting temple. The building was not to impressive at first but it was actually a labyrinth. When we went inside, the guide told us that this was the only one like it in the whole Mayan world. It was very interesting inside and very dark. There were some small windows on the building in all of the cardinal directions. According to the guide, on the equinox they line up such that all the tunnels are filled with light. When we left the labyrinth, we climbed to the top of the pyramid. From its height you could see the whole site. In the distance you could see several hills that where actually unexcavated buildings. You could also see all the sacbe roads in the site. This was one of the few sites that actually had sacbe connecting all of the buildings. This site had many chultuns, as there was not too much in the way of rainfall in this region. Therefore, as much as possible had to be retained and saved by the ancient Maya that lived here. Other unique features that were in this site were some buildings, which had column like structures built into the walls with the normal brick layout, this style is known as Puuc as we learned in class. Also there were several doorways that did not have a Korbel arch but rather a simple wooden lintel to support and distribute the load across the wall. Some of the lintels were original too. One such lintel had carvings in it that showed a calendar.
It was clear when entering Uxmal that this was a highly trafficked tourist site. Although the day we were there, there were not too many other people there. Before doing too much, we stopped and had lunch. This was an authentic Mexican meal too. Walking into the site, the first thing you see is the Pyramid of the Magician. It is real cool. Unlike most other pyramids, this had a unique feature of having rounded edges at the corners. We were not able to go up the pyramid, which was disappointing, since it was still being restored. When we walked around to the other side of the pyramid, there were carvings of Chaac going all the way up to the top temple on both sides of the stairs. There was a heavy influence of Puuc style architecture on the buildings in this surrounding area. Next, we walked over to the Nunnery Quadrangle. This was amazing. The reliefs, glyphs, and carvings that adorned the tops of the building were all in excellent condition and were present on all of the buildings all the way around the entire quadrangle courtyard. As we left this area, we saw the Uxmal ball court. It was not too impressive in size, but it did have one of the original hoops that had been on the sides of the ball court, which usually were not present at most other sites. Walking away from this area, we made our ascent up to see the palace. This building had a lot of architecture features that very similar in nature to that of the Nunnery Quadrangle. There is a unique feature on this building that I did not see on any other ruins or building in this site. One of the doorways, the entrance to the palace, looked like and upward arrow. Not Korbel style, but an actual up arrow in appearance. From here we walked over to the Great Pyramid. At the top there were many interesting carvings. The main thing to look at was the very large Chaac cutout in the temple at the top. From the top you could see the whole site and much farther out over the countryside for several miles. To the left was the House of Doves, which had the typical Honeycomb structure at the top of it that we learned about in class and was pictured in our textbook.
From there we went up the southern pyramid, which had not yet been excavated. It was really fun to go up a pyramid that had not been excavated. When we left here, we went to the Cemetery Quadrangle. Here we saw something that we only saw at Chichen, reliefs of skulls on walls. This was a particularly hot day, and I drank so much water that when we got back to the entrance of the site, I realized that I had gone through more than 5 liters of water just at Uxmal.
Muna was a small town that we stopped in on the way back to Merida. Here we saw an old church that was from the 16th century. The town was laid out in typical Spanish colonial fashion as we had learned about in class. The church was somewhat interesting. The main feature was that at the front of the church was the Virgin of the Assumption statue dressed in traditional Maya clothing. This practice is known as religious syncretism as we had learned in class.
When we got back to Merida, several of us went to Wal-Mart. This was pretty cool; being a person who studies globalization and growth in economics, I saw things I had learned about other classes. Wal-Mart uses growth type known as granulation for expansion. What that means is that you take your concept for your business and adapt it to the area you are moving into with local things. In the store many of the brands were local from the region or from other parts of Mexico. There were very few products from the U.S. in the store unless they were companies that had distribution/manufacturing centers in Mexico like Coca-Cola. This makes sense because otherwise Wal-Mart would not be able to have cheap prices due to import tariffs. At Wal-Mart, I purchased several bottles of tequila to try some local brands that I had never heard of.
04/10/02 - Yucatan: Merida
Merida - Market Place
The market place was somewhat interesting, but it was not as much fun for me since I didn't have too much in the way of money to spend. I really did enjoy watching people haggle over the prices of things. Items that were of particular interest were in the plaza center. This meets all the requirements for a standard Spanish colonial town center. We went into the cathedral at the plaza and it was really neat. The architectural highlights inside reminded me of St. Peters cathedral in New York City, when I visited there a few years ago. Along the sides of the church there were memorials to people buried there who had been influential with the church. We then stopped for a drink at one of the places along the central plaza. Many street vendors came by and tried to pawn stuff off on us. We decided that no matter what these guys think, all tourists want hats, ponchos, and hammocks. After that we went to the House of Montejo. The Montejo family was important in the foundation of Merida. The bank Bannamex now occupies the house.
Merida - Museum of Ancient History Yucatan
The museum had many artifacts from the archeological sites of the Yucatan. The main thing of interest to me was that it contained many diagrams about the construction of the many architectural features at the sites we saw. The thing that also amazed me is that I was able to at least understand what some of the signs said, picking up Spanish quickly after being here only a few days.
04/11/02 - Yucatan: Merida; Campeche: Santa Rosa Xtampak, Tochok, Edzna
The ride out to this site was crazy. The road we took was riddled with potholes and was falling apart. The site itself was relatively new. It was also completely unexcavated. This made it somewhat interesting since you got to see what things look like when the vegetation takes over. It was really exciting going up the four story main palace. I climbed all the way to the top of the roof; since this was not heavily traveled, there were no ropes or anything to prevent you from doing so. The site other than that was interesting but there isn't a whole lot to say. There was some evidence or Puuc style architecture. It was hard to get a good view of too much, even from most high points, because the land was over grown with dense trees and foliage.
This is the smallest site we visited. It was right off the road we were driving down. It consisted of one building. It was somewhat excavated and reconstructed. The guide told us that the INAH did not officially help with the excavation of the site. He said that the town nearby had paid to have it done in an effort to get tourists to come into the region.
We got to this site about a half hour before it was supposed to close. They weren't going to let us in, but Dr. Delacova very skillfully talked the ticket person into letting us stay there an extra hour. Of course he did so with the help of about 200 pesos. This site was by far one of the coolest ones we have seen. There was no one there, so we had the whole place to ourselves. I decided to go off on my own and get some pictures of all the buildings. One interesting thing to note is that the acoustics of the place are such that from the top of the palace you can here some one talking with a normal voice from the other side of the site, well over 750 yards away. And they can hear you.
After returning to the Holiday Inn, we had dinner at the outdoor terrace and listened to a local folkloric group playing music. I was so tired from visiting three sites that after eating I almost fell asleep, but the went with Matt, Casey, and Skippy to go get some ice cream. It was well deserved after all that exercise. But shortly after that I did go right to sleep. Dr. Delacova is still running around like there is no end to it.
04/12/02 - Yucatan: Ake, Itzamal, Merida
This was more of a town than a major site. There were some ruins along the eastern edges of town. One of the pyramids actually had a colonial church that was built on top of it. When the Spanish came they even used some of the stones from the pyramid to build the church so that the Mayas would have to practice Christianity at their own religious site. The main thing we saw at this location was a rope factory. It was very interesting because there were a lot of very old machines. Many had old brass gears. It was pretty much a mechanical engineering professor's play land. Being an electrical engineer, I was amazed at one point when we were in the factory and I saw the main distribution panel. It was just a big mess of wires that were all the same color. The only protection was a set of Christian crosses on the wall.
This town was very interesting. When we arrived, a tour guide for the city showed us around. We told him we were hungry and he sent us to the best restaurant in town, El Toro. This was the most authentic Mexican food yet. There were no American options on the menu at all. In the town the majority of the buildings were painted yellow with white trim. After the meal we went to the local cathedral, which was built in the 16th century. The guide told us two unique things about the church. The first was that the pope at one point had visited it. The second was that it has one of the largest courtyards of any church in Mexico. After we saw all of the church he took us to some of the ruins in the town. These were pretty cool to go up to the top of because there was a storm coming in, so you could see it coming right at us. A couple of us joked that Chaac was on his way.
Sat outside most of the night listening to music after dinner. I sampled the local beers from the bar to get a good idea of what they tasted like. There were only two that were served in Merida in addition to Corona: Montejo and Leon.
04/13/02 - Yucatan: Merida; Quintana Roo: Cancun
We got up a little later today and went back to the market place. I bought a black Guayabera, a panama hat, and a machete. We walked around until noon and then headed back to the vans to leave for Cancun to make our flight. No problems getting through Customs. Overall, this was an excellent learning experience that more students should benefit from.