We’re on the second leg of our Mexican trip now: the Yucatán leg. We’ve called it that, knowing – now, at least, unlike when we planned it in the middle of last year, when such subtleties were lost on us – that Yucatán is only one state among the five we’d be in when we finally left Mexico City and flew west into a jungle full of howler monkeys and abandoned cities. But the whole peninsula, the one both the dinosaurs and the Mayan civilization came to grief on, the one that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico, in fact that separates the Golfo from the Caribbean, and which comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche, and the Australian-sounding Quintana Roo, is known just by the name of the first of those states.
The most obvious jumping off point, if you’re coming from the east as we were, is one of the most celebrated archaeological sites in all of Mexico: Palenque. Arriving in the medium-sized town of the same name, some eight kilometres from the ruins themselves, we lay low in a cat-bedevilled family guesthouse for a day, glad of the buffer in time we’d allowed ourselves, to let the bacterial throat infection raging through our party fizzle out so we could be in good form the following day, our only other chance to visit las ruinas. One has to be in good shape for these outings, we’d found in Teotihuacán, the pyramids to the north-east of Mexico City. There, the great distances and lack of shelter had overcome one of us, forcing us to retreat to civilisation earlier than we’d wanted.
Given that the archaeological site of Palenque is the regional golden goose, you have a few options to reach it from town. But Uber is prohibido here (as it is in several Mexican cities and states), so that was out. And the colectivo bus can be hard to locate, especially around this time of year, the week between Navidad and the new year when normal services tend to be disrupted. But if you factor in our maternal innkeeper, one who arranges doctor’s appointments and, in general, eagerly facilitates things for one and one’s niños, then one is getting a taxi into the jungle.
As we’d done in Teotihuacán, we got there nice and early. Unlike at Teotihuacán, however, that didn’t seem to matter one iotita. The Mexicans are on holiday until the 6th of January, and so, actually, is the rest of the world. This is a big name destination, one of the top five destinos in México. No sooner alighted from the taxi, you’re earmarked as someone who needs a guide. We fought one guy off who wanted roughly $2,000 (“I speak four languages. But I can recommend a friend of mine who doesn’t, if you want something a bit cheaper,” he sniffed) and, worse, had no sense of humour. So we plumped for his cheaper, plumper friend, who seemed to at least have a dry wit about him, and who promptly led us into the jungle.
Now, coming from Queensland, tropical rainforest isn’t new to us. We’re used to the weak rays of sunshine straining through the dense canopy overhead, the dead, once-stalwart giants choked by strangler figs, the elaborate three-dimensional spider webs halfway to the sky. But the Tarzan vines here were stupendously large, and the most you’ll hear in a rainforest our side of the pond is a whipbird, or the odd kookaburra, not the unearthly call of a howler monkey (“the seventh loudest animal in the world”, according our our guide). And, of course, when you hike around O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park, you don’t normally come across the stuccoed remains of two-thousand year old houses. Our guide had brought us here to show us how just much of the city was still left uncovered, left in the fatal embrace of the jungle, as it had always been. And maybe ever will be: it costs a huge amount to uncover each ruin, clear it, maintain it, guard whatever treasures it may still contain. The cleared ruins are just the tip of the iceberg, you might say.
After the entrée, the main course. The famous Templo de los Inscripciones was brilliant in the sunshine. But, today at least, it was keeping its inscriptions to itself. No climbing the stairs. And certainly no descending the interior stairs to the tomb of Pakal, discovered for the first time only seventy years ago. We’d recently watched the PBS documentary Cracking the Maya Code with the kids, so we were all familiar with the story of the archaeologists, linguists, and rock-rubbers who between them had worked out the code, the combination of phonetic and logogrammatical glyphs that told the story of the dynasties of the cities. In fact, our guide proudly showed off a selfie he’d taken here on the site with wunderkind and official genius David Stuart.
Two days later, dosed up with Clavulin and SensiDex, we were in the walled city of Campeche, further up the gulf coast, having bussed it up from Palenque town. The thing about the Yucatán is: for every site of renown like Palenque, there seem to be dozens of lesser-known, but still spectacular, ones. Sites like Edzná (main picture), which we only heard of when we began researching what there was in the vicinity of Campeche by way of ancient sites. It looked good. We decided to go.
It was New Year’s day, though: the colectivo was nowhere to be seen. And to be honest, locating the bus station, our preferred mode of transport that day, had taken us out of the old walled city and into a rubbish-strewn market-zone, not somewhere we wanted to be. “Taxi!” For less than it costs us to get from the airport to our home in Brisbane, the first driver we snagged agreed to take us to the ruins at Edzná, wait the two hours deemed by common consent sufficient to wander the relatively-compact site, and drive us back again.
Passing a troupe of Menonites on the path to the acropolis, we noted the main difference, as far as we were concerned, between this site and Palenque: el muchidumbre – the size of the crowds. One things was the same though: no climbing the spectacular main staircase of El Edificio de los Cinco Pisos (The Building of the Five Floors). That was ok by us – once again we found an adjacent temple, and were happy to just sit and look at the things we’d come a long way to see.