Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2017
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Vacation in ruins

The Yucatán is an armchair archaeologist's dream destination. The area was one of the last to fall during the Spanish conquest and, when Mexico finally achieved independence, the Maya of the Yucatán were among the last to join the republic. The region's lush, green landscape is speckled with pre-Hispanic sites that date back 30 centuries, many of which have yet to be excavated. Due to the increasing importance of tourism in Mexico's economy, new government funding has accelerated the excavation of ancient Maya sites to a fevered pace. Where last year there was a mountain of rubble and grass, today there's a restored temple.

Well-known Maya sites such as Chichén Itzá, Dzibilchaltú Uxmal and other ruins on the Puuc Route are always worth a visit because so much is known about their history, and the quality of the excavations and restorations is excellent. Unfortunately, the crowds of tourists that flock there each day can make the experience of wandering among ruins less than idyllic. To avoid the crowds and lineups, visit some of the Yucatán's lesser-known and recently restored sites. Many of these, such as Ek-Balam and Xcambó, are so new there hasn't even been time to build a gift shop.

If these stones could talk
Though new facts about the Maya are continuously uncovered, so much about the ancient civilization is still cloaked in mystery. The little that is known has been traced back to 2000BC when Mexico's earliest Maya settlements took root; nomadic tribes migrated north into the Yucatán Peninsula, becoming farmers and settling in villages. Around 800BC, these scattered settlements coalesced into centralized groups and formed kingdoms, with nobles, warriors, architects, administrators, craftsmen and farmers.

During the Classic period of Maya civilization, from 200 to 900AD, art, science, cosmology and construction flourished. Just think: while Europe was pushing through the Dark Ages, the Maya were building cities with temples, palaces, paved roads and sewer systems. They became experts in astronomy, mastered the study of time and developed an intricate and accurate calendar system that was based on precise astronomical observations. They could measure stars beyond our solar system. They have even been credited with developing barkless dogs and stingless bees. Incredibly, all this was accomplished without the use of the wheel, metal tools or domesticated labour-animals.

The Maya civilization reached its height toward the end of the Classic period only to decline rapidly as the population in major cities plummeted. The Maya gravitated back to the jungle and to farming in small bands. By the time the conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, the great cities had long been abandoned. While many believe that wars and political infighting made city living unfeasible, others argue that the Maya were forced to move on when cenotes, wells from underground rivers, dried up. Whatever the case, the collapse of Maya civilization is one of the world's great mysteries. What makes these ruins so appealing is that underneath each stone lies the potential for the mystery to be solved.

Maya powerhouse
The newly-opened site of Ek-Balam is one of the more important archaeological sites in the eastern Yucatán, with 45 structures already identified in a 12-square-kilometre zone. This once influential city was surrounded by two large stone walls while a third circled the city's principal buildings. Few Maya cities were enclosed within one wall, let alone three. Proof of its wealth is also visible in its ball court: a rectangular stadium where a popular game resembling a mixture of soccer, basketball and tennis was played by members of the ruling class. Not to be missed is the Tower Pyramid, a massive, 18-metre palace that dwarfs the other structures. It consists of two smaller temples decorated with sculptures, masks and figures.

Ek-Balam was inhabited as far back as 100AD right to the time of the Spanish conquest. There was a peak in development between 700AD and 1000AD as Ek-Balam became a powerful centre for agricultural exports. In later years the city was part of a rare alliance with Tikibalon and Chichén Itzá. The settlement began dwindling in 1200AD; by this time construction was in decline and involved only small temples erected on top of earlier stone platforms.

You won't run into hoards of tourists here. The site is a 20-minute drive from Valladolid on highway 295, direction Tizimin, and can also be reached by bus from Valladolid. Wear good walking shoes to climb the Tower Pyramid; the steep steps can be scary on the way down.

Crouching jaguar
Shielded by trees, Xcambó, the Black Jaguar, is an enormous site waiting to be discovered. Forty-five kilometres northeast of Mérida through grassy dunes and ponds, it can be easily reached by bus from the city. Even though the reconstruction isn't complete, there's plenty to see. The tallest of the elegant temples are the simple Pyramid of the Cross and the Pyramid of the Masks, with figures embedded into its facade. A climb to the top of either pyramid is rewarded with a view of the tree-fringed coastline and dark blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the distance.

Local villagers have long used stones from Xcambó to build their fences, homes and churches. In fact, one church was built right into the ruins and has been the centre of debate between the Mexican government and the villagers who don't want excavations and tourists to interrupt mass.

Xcambó was an important centre for the production of salt, which was distributed, along with salted fish, to Maya cities as far away as Belize and Guatemala. As salt was a popular commodity, this was a very prosperous city. Research into a burial ground containing 600 skeletons and a cache of ceramics and shell artefacts showed that the people of Xcambó ate well and did not suffer from the diseases that afflicted those in poorer cities. The remains also showed evidence that the Maya of Xcambó practiced cranial and dental mutilation.

 

 

World wonder
If this is your first trip to the Yucatán, it won't be complete without a visit to one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world: Chichén Itzá. Only 40 kilometres from Valladolid, the site can also be reached from Mérida (157 kilometres). If possible, give yourself two days to explore the ruins; there's so much to see.

In the midst of jungle that's constantly encroaching, the site is divided into three groups of buildings. The North Group displays distinct influences from the neighbouring Toltec tribes. The well-known Pyramid to Kukulcán, or El Castillo, is the first building you see when you reach the site. Each side of this staggered pyramid has a staircase leading to a temple at the summit. The view of the entire complex from the summit is breathtaking. Every year during the spring and fall equinoxes, thousands of tourists come to watch the play of light create a shadowy serpent that slides down the steps of the pyramid.

The North Group also includes a huge ball court with astounding acoustics (you can hear someone whispering from the other end of the field) and the Group of a Thousand Columns, a large plaza surrounded by intricately carved columns and the sacred cenote, a short walk from the main ceremonial area. From the cenote, human sacrifices, as well as offerings of jade and gold, were made to Chaac, the rain god. Divers have explored the waters three times in the last century and each time precious jewellery, artefacts and human bones were recovered.

The buildings of the South Group date from 200 to 400CE and include the Temple of the Wall Panels, La Iglesia and the Nunnery complex. Not to be missed is the curiously designed Observatory: enlarged and renovated many times, its mismatched elements were built on two differently oriented platforms for astronomical observations. Chichén Viejo, the less-frequented third group of ruins can be reached from here, though you shouldn't venture there alone. Arrange for a park caretaker to guide you.

Chichén Itzá was twice settled and twice abandoned by the Maya. It first became a prominent military and ceremonial centre sometime between 600AD and 800AD, but was abandoned toward the end of the Classic period and only used for religious ceremonies or to bury the dead. During the 10th century, the Maya struck allegiances with Xio and Cocom, powerful Toltec tribes, and people returned to the city. The serpent, a typical Toltec motif, can be found on all of the buildings in the second settlement. When the Maya eventually broke off their ties with the Toltec, the city was once again abandoned.

Setting up camp
The Yucatán is more than just a peninsula in ruins. It's one of the most ecologically important regions in the world, filled with lush tropical jungle, white-sand beaches, coral reefs and animal species that can't be found anywhere else. Small towns with colonial-era monasteries dot the map and make for great stopovers between archaeological sites.

Mérida
The state capital is teeming with mansions, haciendas and convents from the colonial era. It's the perfect place to laze around for a few days and makes a good base for exploring the Yucatán's western ruins. The city was founded by Francisco de Montejo in 1542 on top of T'ho, a large Maya city. When the Spanish conquered the area, they forced the Maya to dismantle the pyramid and temples and used the stones to create new buildings, churches and mansions, including the Cathedral of San Idelfonso on the east side of the zócalo, or main plaza.

The zócalo is a great place to stroll around for an afternoon. The square is flanked with architecture that reflects the tumultuous past between the Maya and the Spanish. The Casa de Montejo, built by the city's conqueror, has stone carvings above the entrance that depict armoured conquistadors standing with each foot planted on the head of a Mayan.

Hotel Misión Mérida (Calle 60, No. 491, corner Calle 57, tel: 011-52-99-23-9500; fax: 011-52-99-23-7665; www. hotelesmision.com.mx) is just two blocks from the zócalo. The hotel lobby, restaurant, bar, garden and pool area are in a 17th-century house. Located in an adjacent 10-storey tower, all 180 rooms have air conditioning, telephone and TV. Single and double rooms cost $170. El Gran Hotel (Calle 60, No. 496, corner Calle 59; tel: 011-52-99-23-6963; fax: 011-52-99-24-7622; www.granhoteldemerida.com.mx) is also just a few steps from the zócalo. The hotel was built in 1901 and has been recently renovated. Rooms include air conditioning, telephone, TV and free parking. Single rooms are around $80, doubles, $89, including tax.

Yucatecan cuisine mixes the best of Maya, Caribbean and Spanish flavours. The habanero, the world's hottest chili is grown in the Yucatán and is the favoured chili here. Don't worry, chilis are served on the side. Pórtico del Peregrino (Calle 57 No. 501, between Calles 60 and 62; tel: 011-52-99-28-6163; pop@linux.mda.com.mx) serves what is arguably the city's best sopa de lima, or lime soup. Other dishes you should sample before leaving include berenjenas al horno, a baked eggplant-chicken casserole and pollo pibil, a traditional Maya dish consisting of a half chicken cooked in banana leaves. Dinner shouldn't set you back more than $12.

Valladolid
Halfway between Mérida and Cancú Valladolid is slower-paced and blissfully free of heavy tourist traffic. This old colonial town is just minutes from Chichén Itzá and an hour-and-a-half drive from the beaches of Canc£n. The city was built on the ruins of Zací, a Maya ceremonial site, and witnessed countless Maya revolts against the Spanish during the conquest.

Hotel Mesùn del Marqués (Calle 39 No. 203, Valladolid, Mexico CP 97780; tel: 011-52-98-56-2073; www.mayanroutes.com/hotels/valladolid) is a renovated 18th-century colonial house with a beautiful garden and swimming pool across the street from the zócalo. Single and double rooms are $75 and include tax and a large breakfast. Ask for a room with a balcony overlooking the courtyard.

Hosteria del Marqués is the exception to the rule that hotel restaurants are overrated. The extensive menu includes many traditional Yucatecan dishes, including a great sopa de lima and lomito de Valladolid, a delicious pork dish in tomato sauce. A meal in the courtyard by the fountain won't cost more than $15.

Restaurant Cenote Zací (Calle 36, between Calles 37 and 39) looks out onto, surprise, cenote Zací, where you can dive in and cool down before eating. The restaurant hand-rolls its own tortillas and serves soups, panuchos, tacos and pollo a la yucateca, chicken baked in a delicious red sauce. Lunch is a very reasonable $8.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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