Sunday, May 04, 2008

Mexico: Yucutan Peninsular

Between 600 and 1250A.D Chichen Itza city was the centre of political control for the Yucutan Peninsular in Mexico. Here the Mayans lived and built amazing pyramids - primarily as astrological guides so the farmers knew when to reap and when to sow depending on the shadows cast by the pyramids. None of this was particularly original, most pyramids we had seen in Mexico had been built in this way. However, there was a most interesting feature about this particular pyramid. 
On the day of the solstice the sun's rays would strike one side of the pyramid. As the corner is stepped, only intermittent rays would make it through. On the other side of the pyramid, where the rays had made it through, a shadow in the form of a snake would form and give the appearance it was descending down the stairs of the pyramid. In this photo, you can see the jagged right side and imagine how the sun could cast a snake-like shadow down the side of the steps in the middle. The snake's decent would indicate the start of the harvesting season.
During times of droughts, the Mayans believed that their gods were unhappy with them. To find favour in their eyes again, they believed they would need to sacrifice someone. But who? A virgin? A child? No, the winner of a basketball game.
Below, to the left is a giant court. To the right is the ring. The rules are slightly different to modern day rules of basketball. For a start, you cannot use your hands to throw only your hips and shoulders. The scoring is simple. First person to score is the 'winner'. Naturally, to actually score a goal in this insanely difficult game would require a person of incredible skill and agility. A person most suitable for sacrifice!
Considering the mammoth size of this court, it is interesting to note that the acoustics are incredible. Priests used to sit on one side and nobility on the other. They could communicate across the court perfectly well without yelling at each other. Further, if you stand below the basketball ring and clap your hands once, the clap echoes back 7 times - a deliberate acoustic effect as 7 is a spiritually lucky number. If you are wondering how the rules of the game are known, the answer is found in the pictorial demonstrations carved into the walls of the court. See 7 snakes spurting from the decapitated victor!
We also visited a couple of other pyramid sites. It was little more of the same but we managed to get into the spirit of things. In Kabah Jez re-enacts the public announcement of the upcoming sacrificial victim...
We had almost seen enough pyramids when we made our way to the romantic coastal town of Playa de Carmen - Cancun's less touristy and in our opinion, more beautiful neighbour. Here we chilled for a couple of days in a beautiful bed and breakfast. It was by far the most luxurious accommodation we had stayed in whilst travelling South America. Most hostels don't provide you with towels let alone perform origami on them!
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We also treated ourselves to a fancy dinner at the highly recommended Blue Parrot hotel. Our Mexican friend Memo insisted we stay there but on our backpacking budget we opted to sample their menu instead. Look at us all dressed up, we barely recognise ourselves!
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Did we mention that we actually ate in a tree house within the restaurant?
After spoiling ourselves rotten, we changed accommodation type completely swapping our beautiful B&B for a tent on the beach. We had bussed to the stinking hot coastal town of Tulum a few hours away to see more pyramids. This time though the pyramids were situated right on the beach. However this was not actually our prime reason for being here...we had something a lot more interesting in mind...
As it turned out, even sleeping in tents would prove hard as the nights were just as hot as the days. Luckily we had other options. Our campsite included a colourful array of hammocks to rest in.
Some mornings, we would wake up to find a visitor had broken into our tent. Quite a task when you consider she had to make her way through a zipped tent and then into our 'room'. The tent had a zipped up plastic wall in the middle! 
Although we lived a simple life on the beach, things could also be a little tricky - such as the issue of how to flush the toilet. 

Note that the same hose pipe was used to shower, as well as wash our food and clean the dishes. This is Ernesto. He helped out in the campsite and often washed our dishes for us in exchange for a couple of hotdogs.
He also has a penchant for freckled any ladies fitting that description and interested in this Mexican beach bum please let us know and we can pass on your details.
The manager of the campsite, Jorge, also moonlighted as a dive instructor. This was very useful for us as we had come to Tulum to dive in the cenotes (underground rivers). Underneath his treehouse, where he lived with his girlfriend and new baby, he had his dive shop.
To reach the cenotes involved travelling into the forest where we would prepare ourselves for the dive. We would get dressed into our double layered wetsuits, put our tanks on our backs, our weights on our hips and then walk a few minutes into the forest until we reached a sight to behold: the spectacular blue water that would hold secrets known only to divers.
The Grande Cenote was the first of our dives. It is not officially a cave but sure looked like one, complete with stalactites and stalagmites.

After that relaxing dive we drove to the Temple of Doom. It was here we would see and experience the natural phenomena of the halocline. This is where fresh river water sits on top of sea water creating a mirror effect when you look down at the interface. As you make your way through the halocline, the water looks like an oil emulsion, a trick for new players that can cause severe disorientation!
Once we graduated from halocline school, we could move onto advanced halocline dives. This was something altogether different. This time we dived a 40m sink hole, with a hydrogen sulphide cloud at 20m separating the fresh and salt water. To dive through the cloud involves a little blind faith as there is no visibility within the cloud. To add to the excitement this was TZs first deep dive.This is a photo of the cloud from the internet, unfortunately we were not so lucky this time as to have our own photographer.
At some points from above the cloud we felt more like astronauts than divers. Only the eerie protrusions of dead trees reminded us that this was a sink hole in the jungle!
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We just felt our way down a piece of string to guide us down. When we reached the sea water, it was pitch black so we had to use our torches. We could see trees in the water! It looked as if we were in a forest at night with fish swimming through branches.
Click the movie below to hear our instructor brief us.

Here Jorge warns us about the resident caiman. As you know we have some experience with caimans but swimming with them is something altogether different. Actually we didnt believe Jorge about the caiman until we had completed the dive and surfaced, to find the reptile sunning itself on a floating log only meters from our bobbing heads!
The last cenote we dived was called Car Wash as it used to be the place where taxi drivers would clean their cars. Thankfully it has been a while since then and the water has returned to pristine condition. We particularly liked this instruction panel, enlarge it to see properly. On the left side you can see the right way to dive. On the left side you can see that if you dont follow the instructions, you will die. 
As you can see, Jez made it out in one piece.
Having spent so much time under the water, we had almost forgotten how hot it was outside. The day we went to Tulum ruins on the beach we were torn between wanting to swim and wanting to see the ruins.
After a quick lap of the ruins, we could not stand it any longer. We stripped down to our underwear and jumped into the ocean. As we emerged we saw this fellow sunning himself...
...which Jez found inspirational.
The following day we would take a flight to Cuba. Here we would discover the smoothness of 7 Year Old Havana Club drunk neat and the beauty of fresh Cuban cigars.

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