Category Archives: Letters from Mexico

Coba: human sacrifice and scary heights!

Coba: main pyramid

Sadly, many who come to this part of Mexico stay cocooned in their holiday resorts,

Cycle taxis for the lazy!

doing little more than sunbathing or wallowing in a pool with a tequila sour or pina colada in hand. They may occasionally venture out on an expensive organised tour, being picked up at their resort and taken to a distant location whilst being fed and watered en route, given lunch at the venue and plied with cocktails and tequila on the journey back (tipsy passengers are much more generous with tips!). The day we visited Tulum, we could have paid $200US on one such tour, but opted instead to pick up a local minibus used by Mexicans (called a “colectivo”), arrange our own entry to the ruins, and it cost us the princely sum of $16 all inclusive. And we got to meet some very interesting people.

Coba. Today, Rachael’s friend Zuleima picked us up at the hotel and we drove the 80kms

Zuleima & Rachael

inland to the much less visited site of the Mayan ruins at Coba. This extensive site has one of the few pyramids that the public are still allowed to climb. But first a little about its history. Before Chichen Itza challenged its power, Coba had been the greatest Mayan city in the Yucatan, but declined from about 860AD. Its construction had been spread over a huge area, situated between two lakes, and its was famed for the longest road ever being built in these parts (nearly 100kms long).

Begining the climb!

Like most Mayan ruins, the central pyramid commands attention, but so also do the ball courts, scenes of the famous ballgames that inevitably

Ball court

resulted in the sacrifice of the captain of the losing team. In the case of Coba (and this is very much open to question) sacrifices were conducted by a priest at the top of the pyramid, the heart was torn out and the decapitated head was allowed to roll down the steps to the bottom.

Human sacrifice was certainly not peculiar to the Mayans.

Scary descent!

All the indigenous communities of Meso-America (all of whom had migrated over the Bering straits from Asia over 40,000 years ago) had similar sacrificial practices to appease the gods and ensure future

Descending is easy!

wealth, health and happiness. The Aztecs, however, were probably the league champions in this field. They would raid communities near and far, take thousands of prisoners, and sacrifice them in a manner that we would call ‘genocide’ today.

That’s Jenny at the bottom!

Climbing these pyramids is definitely not for the feint of heart. Going up is the easy bit. Your head doesn’t have to negotiate the head-spinning reality of the sheer fall. Coming down, however, is when some wished they had never opted to climb to the top! The reward at the top is a sweeping panorama of the Yucatan landscape, revealing the tops of other temples and pyramids in the area.

Surviving the crises in Mexico

All parents are rightly proud of their offspring, especially when they stretch themselves in difficult circumstances to make a life and living for themselves. Rachael has amazed us with her ability to turn unpromising circumstances to her own advantage. Having spent a couple of years working as part of an “equipo de animacion” (entertainment team) in a resort on the Pacific coast (Manzanillo), she moved over to the Yucatan just as the avian flu virus was breaking out across Mexico, thus devastating the tourist industry in a matter of weeks. Then came the economic collapse of world banks, which was especially difficult for Mexico, since its 3rd highest source of income is “remittances” sent back by emigrant Mexicans living in the US. When an economy goes through difficult times, the first to feel the pain are the low-paid casual workers, and many thousands had to make their way home to possible penury.

What is now strangling the tourist market in Mexico is the detailed reporting on violence connected with drug-trafficking, which appears to be prevalent throughout the country. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Mexico is geographically about the size of continental Europe, and what goes on in the north is as far away from the Yucatan as England is from Greece. But quiet, sleepy corners like the Yucatan pay the consequences of indiscrimate global reporting. In fact, the Mexicans and Mayans in the Yucatan are the most unassuming, friendly people you could wish to meet.

As a member of the sales staff of the Palace group of hotels, selling residential memberships, Rachael’s commission-only income is entirely dependent on visitors feeling secure about their investments, and prevailing global fears can mean she is swimming against a strong current. When a “dry spell” concludes with a good sale, there is cause for much celebration (which actually happened yesterday!). The positive, supportive atmosphere of the sales team ensures that members going through a lean patch are buoyed up by camaraderie. And in the meantime, Rachael constantly looks for promotional work outside her job to keep the ‘pesos’ coming in and the wolf from the door.

Playa del Carmen. Until 40 years ago, the whole of the coastline in the Yucatan was populated by small Mayan fishing communities. Then with the help of the IMF, a huge investment was injected into making a 100km stretch of the coast into a premier resort. Hundreds of hotels went up and whole towns were created to house the tens of thousands of workers needed to service the industry. Playa del Carmen is one such town which, 25 years ago, simply existed as a tiny fishing community. It is now a bustling, thriving coastal town, and this is where Rachael chose to put down her roots for a while. Taking us to visit some of her favourite haunts about the town, we came to appreciate the attractiveness of this lively community, which is not without its quieter, meditative corners far-removed from the incessant tourist bustle.

Tulum & Yucatan wildlife

When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in these parts in the early 16th century, they found the coastline of the Yucatan lined with impressive castles and fortifications, not entirely disimilar from what they were familiar with in Spain at the time. As they sailed over from Cuba, they must have been impressed and intimidated by what they saw, and hesitated to make their initial landings. The Mayans they were to confront on later attempts were an advanced and intelligent race of people. The whole of Central America had been divided up into Mayan kingdoms, each independent of each other with its own ruling oligarchy, and frequently at war with neighbouring communties.

Tulum had been built on the coast, and had operated as a successful trading post for several centuries. Its prominent position on the cliffs gave it a vantage point for surveying approaching seacraft and guarding its own outgoing and incoming trade, but today it overlooks a stunning beach which is a favourite amongst beachlovers visiting this area. Mayan ruins are usually found deep in the jungle, but here the location of Tulum is visually astonishing.

Yucatan wildlife. My time in Belize prepared me for some of the birds and beasts to be found in the Yucatan. The iguana has to be classified as one of the most lethargic of creatures, whereas the spider monkey is nervous and hyperactive, one minute hiding from intrusive observers, the next doing a little tarzan performance for those who care to stop by.

Pelicans are the most amazing of sea-divers. They soar above the waves scanning the shoals of fish, then plummet like a stone in pursuit of the delicate morsel that has caught their eye. They are the most entertaining of seabirds, and they like to perform in full view of crowded beaches.

Keep your eyes peeled even in urban environments, and you may see essentially wild creatures roaming around the undergrowth, like these wild boar. You may chance by coatis and racoons, and the plethora of tropical birds will keep you entranced. If you are a wildlife enthusiast, the Yucatan should feature on your shortlist.

Selling the dream

Our daughter, Rachael, and her friend Zuleima, who are both members of the Moon Palace team that sells residential membership to clients, have made us aware of some of the subtleties of the art of “selling the dream”. Brits feature amongst the hardest nuts to crack. We don’t readily buy into the dream. We are reserved, somewhat suspicious, likely to have our arms folded and legs crossed, and will frequently refuse to be “sold to”. Americans, on the other hand, seem to have the readiness and ability to “dream big”. Although geographical proximity makes Cancun and its coast a realistic dream for many Americans (few have to fly more than 3-4 hours to get here), they are still more open to buying into a concept that promises some luxury, a pleasant environment and good service. And that is what the Palace resorts do to perfection. The staff have a natural friendliness in their manner, but their training and preparation helps them to be pro-active, anticipating your needs before even you might be aware of them! This can be seen at every level of service, and I personally find it astonishing. But………… it all comes at a price, and despite these stringent economic times, there are still plenty out there who are willing and financially able to buy into the Cancun dream.

Isla Mujeres Just 20 minutes hydrofoil ride from Cancun is Isla Mujeres, an island measuring just 5miles long. One of the longest inhabited islands of Mexico, it was here that the Spanish Conquistadores first set foot on Mexican soil, and it was here that the indigenous Mayans held out the longest by resisting the overwhelming force that invaded this part of the world. The island is surrounded by the most exquisite ocean blues of the Carribbean and, with the proximity of the Barrier Reef (which runs for 350kms along the coast) it is a great place for snorkelling and scuba diving. It’s the sort of place where people celebrate weddings and enjoy honeymoons, resulting in a whole industry dedicated to producing romantic settings fit for the wedding experience of a lifetime.

And when you have sunsets like this, it’s not hard to feed that dream!

Yucatan, Mexico:building the dream resort

You tell people that you are going out to the Yucatan in Mexico to visit your daughter, and

you can tell from the expression on their faces that you need to explain further. Rachael has been living and working in various parts of Mexico for almost five years, and just happens to currently find herself in the Yucatan, near Cancun, selling residential memberships at the Moon Palace Hotel, a favourite haunt with well-healed Americans.  A judicious reduction offered to staff relatives means that Jenny and I can afford to stay in this 5* hotel, where the Climate Change Conference took place before Christmas. The hotel is, in fact, a complete resort with over 2,500 rooms, 14 restaurants and a golf course. If you want, you can eat and drink 10,000 calories a day and slumber it off by one of its 10 swimming pools, or you can eat and drink sensibly, ‘work out’ regularly in the gym or walk/jog along the beach, and still probably gain weight. It’s all about pampering to your every need, even though your actual needs are very few.

The Yucatan, until about 40 years ago, was a remote corner of this country that nobody ever visited, primarily because there were no surfaced roads and it was a long way from anywhere. In fact, during its recent history, it was easier to get to it by sea from the USA, so much so that during the process of  Mexico gaining its independence from Spain, this peninsula applied to become a federal state of the USA.

In the post-Olympic phase in 1968, after the games had been held in Mexico City, the idea was launched to develop a premier holiday resort on the Carribbean to match the success of Acapulco on the Pacific Coast. This was aided and abetted by a huge grant from the IMF, and so began the building of hundreds of hotels along a 100km stretch of the coast, in an area that had a very small indigenous population. To service this massive expansion, workers have moved from all parts of Mexico, attracted by the ready availability of work, settling into a community (now called Cancun) that has grown to over 600,000 inhabitants. If you like the sheer hedonism of the all-inclusive holiday resort atmosphere that caters for your every whim, you will love it, if not…………………… stay well away!!!!

Kuklican temple

Chichen Itza

Having visited a couple of Mayan sites in Belize, I was longing to visit the premier of all Mayan temples at Chichen Itza, now voted as one of the “Seven New Wonders of the world”. It is astonishing to learn of the wisdom of this much undervalued indigenous race, and to discover the sophistication of their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Sadly, so much of what we know of the ancient Maya is still conjectural, in the absence of historical evidence and documentation. With the advent of the Spanish invaders and the imposition of the Catholic faith, all the available writings were destroyed, and the succeeding process of domination and conversion almost annihilated all vestiges of this rich civilization.

Although Chichen Itza now suffers from the huge affluence of millions of visitors, along with

Death-masks of the beheaded

the resulting advent of vendors and trinket-sellers, it is still an astonishing place. The structures and temples so assiduously designed to reflect their knowledge of astronomy and the passage of time, the ball-games that so frequently resulted in human sacrifice, the acoustic subtlety of the environment that produces echoes of astonishing resonance……………….. and they did all of this without the use of metal tools, beasts of burden and the wheel. It is hard to reconcile all of this mature history sharing the same territory with the huge holiday empire that has sprouted along the coast.


Cenotes. The Yucatan has no rivers above ground, but underneath the limestone layer there are

vast reserves of water that flow along immense underground cave systems, some of them so big that they are referred to as ‘cathedrals’. Some of these caves have been opened up to reveal ‘cenotes’ which, once used by the Maya for their drinking water, are now favourite spots for fresh water bathing. They say that there are some 4000 such cenotes throughout the Yucatan peninsula. An absolute magnet for cavers and fresh-water bathers.

Robert Burns. How disturbing it was to find that the immortal memory of the Bard, on January 25th, did not even register on any of the programmes of activities along this coast. Surely there must have been some Americans of Scottish descent, somewhere, who were secretly piping in and addressing the haggis, opening up its ‘gushing entrails’ and enjoying the ‘warm, reeking rich’ scent of its innards. Anyway, to rectify any absence of this immensely important event, Jenny and I did our little bit under the ‘most trying of circumstances’. Jenny sang “John Anderson my jo” and I addressed a couple of chocolate-coated strawberries, having already read the complete works of the Bard while doing lengths of the pool. How decadent is that!!