We’re up early – the one-hour time advantage comes in handy. The pool is empty at 8:30am when we splash in for a chilly start to the day. Lily and Emma try out their snorkel gear with much excitement. Within minutes, everyone is in the hot tub again. It’s just not warm enough to spend the day in the pool.
There is a new toll-road two-lane highway connecting Cancun and Merida, serving all the major points of northern Yucatan. We purchased the Mexico map database for our GPS but it’s not terribly useful. Some of the roads are missing and most importantly, many of the sites and places do not have regular street addresses. On the way, we see relatively few cars and get to the turn-off at Valladolid in about two hours.
North of Valladolid are the ruins of Ek Balam, and we head there for our first Mayan experience. First, thanks to a TripAdvisor review, we stop at the “Ek Balam” restaurant outside the ruins for a bite to eat. It’s just a small kitchen and a palapa. We are the only customers at first but a few more arrive as we eat. We can’t believe it’s already day three, and the girls are just getting their first beans and rice! These are tasty, lard-filled, garlicky, mashed black beans and white rice, yum. Surprisingly they don’t like the fresh corn tortillas, but Trisha and I devour them with simple Pollo enchiladas.
Ek balam is only recently discovered and still in the process of being excavated. It’s a spectacular discovery for Mayan anthropologists because it has some of the most sophisticated art and the only examples of three-dimensional sculpture (above) known. There are about 4-5 pyramid structures, each one steeper than the last. The ball court is in pristine condition and we discuss the concept of human sacrifice.
More alarming to Lily than sporting-event sacrifice is the gigantic toothed mouth with a doorway in the middle. It’s presumably a symbol of the entrance to the underworld and in genuinely scary. Lily smartly reassures herself (and us) that it’s just a SYMBOL and the REAL entrance to the underworld is death. Fortunately for Lily we had no chance to test her hypothesis, because the door is cordoned off while it’s being restored.
The great pyramid is, well, great. The girls get up and down fairly quickly, although my heart stops once as Lily wobbly begins the descent upright. She switches to the safer butt-slide for the remainder of the crawl down. It’s fun to see the girls so engaged and excited. We’ve only been here for 90 minutes but both are breathless and filed with adrenaline.
We’ve made much better time than expected. In fact we are back on track with our original itinerary despite loosing a day in Baltimore. Our destination tomorrow is Chichen Itza but first we take a stop at cenote dzitnup. Most of the Yucatan is porous limestone and it’s riddled with caves, passageways and holes. In fact, there are no real rivers above ground as all water slides quickly through the thin crust of soil into the cavernous underground system. There is some evidence that these caves are partly the result of the gigantic meteorite that hit the area 65 million years ago.
Cenotes are cavernous lakes, usually partly exposed. Based on reports from guidebooks and travel reviews, it’s easy to dismiss them as an uninspiring hole filled with water. They are so much more than that! Down a narrow entrance with slippery stairs, a dimly lit grotto appears with stalactites, stalgmites and most errily, 60 foot tree roots dangling down from the ceiling. The water is very cold, and there are rare black, eyeless fish in the clear water that will nip at your ankles. To top it off, bats fly about the roof making squeaks and flutters. It’s creepy and awesome.
Lily is petrified of the fish but angry that she can’t enjoy the swim. We spend a lot of our time there helping her adapt to her fright. She is, despite the panic, amazingly determined to swim across the cenote to the other side. Eventually she does with the help of a rope and many failed attempts. We all cheer. She’s got a powerful will.
It’s getting dark. Our hotel tonight is Dolores Alba, an amazing bargain for $40 including breakfast and two pools. it’s close to Chichen Itza, tomorrows destination. Tonight we have dinner with the family we met back in Cancun and swap travel stories. Their boys and our girls are greatly relieved to be with kids. The play and talk in the hammocks by the pool until late at night. It’s Christmas eve and they play a few Christmas songs at the restaurant before we pile into the tiny room for bed.