The Dzilbilchaltun Ruins: We Come In Peace

It’s nearly impossible to avoid Maya culture in the Yucatan, particularly during the month of December in 2012, when conspiracy theories detailing the “predicted” Maya doomsday were running wild like a pack of wolves through the Internet, dirtying websites with their footprints. When you can’t beat them, you’re instructed to join them. And so I went to Mexico in December alongside the wolves and I followed their trails, which of course led, in some divergences, to Maya ruins. The Dzibilchaltun Ruins, small and unassuming, were the ruins I liked best from the trip.

Located just 10 miles north of Merida, where I stayed for a few days, the Dzibilchaltun Ruins aren’t as popular as other ruins in the Yucatan, but they were popular enough for me to have heard a Texan woman tell her guide, “We Texans are very familiar with rattlesnakes.” I lived in Texas for two years. I’m happy to report that I am still not, nor do I hope to ever be, familiar with rattlesnakes.

%Gallery-179972%Modern researchers speculate that this relatively small group of Maya ruins sits on a site that was probably chosen for its close proximity to the salt-producing region on the cost, which is around 30 minutes by car from the ruins. That coast, which welcomes the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico, hosts the beach town of Progreso. That coast is also the spot where the meteorite that possibly killed off the dinosaurs first made impact. You can’t see a crater at the modern day coast, but the effects are seen in the soil and rock beneath the surface – effects that just might have been apparent to the Maya community that once thrived within the walls of Dzibilchaltun.

Dzibilchaltun was occupied for thousands of years. The city expanded and became a mid-sized city as well as contracted down to a small town on more than one occasion throughout its extensive history. The Temple of the Seven Dolls, which was filled with stones and covered by another building around 800 A.D., is the most famous structure at the ruins. I climbed the wall leading up to the elevated structure that once encased seven small effigies, unearthed only when the site was discovered in the 1950s. The Maya stones at this site are sometimes sharper than you might expect; I sliced a part of my finger open while approaching the temple through what I assumed to be a shortcut. As I stood at the temple’s entrance and studied its interior, I couldn’t help but wish to have scheduled my visit during the spring equinox, when the sunrise shines directly through one window and out the other of the small building.

I descended the stairs and continued exploring the remaining ruins spread out across the open field. It was my husband’s birthday. I spotted him in the distance atop a tall and wide staircase formation, crouching down to snap a photo. As I made my way toward him, sparkling turquoise waters glistened through shading tree branches and the voices of fellow travelers became clearer as I approached the spot. A small path through the trees yielded a wonderland of a clearing; a lily-ornamented cenote holding crystal-clear, blue-green water. A couple donned their snorkeling gear and submerged themselves beneath the surface, emanating tranquility with each smooth stride. They call it Cenote Xlakah and, like many of the other cenotes in the Yucatan, it’s a vision to behold.

A 16th-century Spanish church was built in Dzibilchaltun after the conquest. I approached it in awe, stunned by its perfectly rounded ceiling and entranceways, wondering if, even with the tangential engineering and architecture knowledge I have solely from living in our modernity, I could ever carry what I know from this age back in time and apply it with any success. I doubt it.

The steep inclines and small windows of the structures at Dzibilchaltun mesmerized me. The open field, resembling that of the National Mall, allowed the sun to beat down on my bare shoulders as I made the trek from one end to another. There may have been as many as 40,000 inhabitants in this city at one time – an estimate that would have made Dzibilchaltun one of the largest cities of Mesoamerica. With each stone sculpture and engraved rock, I became entranced by the legacy of this site. Curious and sweating, I made my way into the Museum of the Mayan People, which is on the grounds and included in the entrance fee. Unearthed works of art stand erect in the museum’s garden and behind protective glass. In contrast to the quiet of the grounds that day, these collective images of a once-bustling Dzibilchaltun seemed out of place.

As I made my way out of the museum and toward my car, I remembered the three young Korean men I had briefly met while standing in line to purchase my ticket. One of them had asked if he could take a photo with my husband and me. His fingers formed a peace sign as the picture was taken and, unable to say much else in English, he said, “thank you.” He was studying us and we were all on our way to study them – the ghosts of the Maya who once inhabited Dzibilchaltun. It’s circular, it seems, our fascination with those from whom we differ. We take notes and learn from them, no matter where or when they are from and, if we do it well, we come in peace.

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[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

The Beaches Near Merida: Progreso And Chicxulub

The nearest beach to Merida, Mexico, is Progreso. The ancient Maya frequented Progreso to collect sea salt from lagoons near the coast. Salt was a valuable product for trade for the ancient Maya – so valuable that many Maya made the trek frequently, despite its semi-arid obstacles. And so, after walking around on the beach via Google Street View for a while, I decided to make the 30-minute or so drive to Progreso while staying in Merida. With bottled water in tow, I hit the straight-shot road that connects the two cities and arrived to the port city of Progreso just in time for lunch.

When I noticed the shirtless, drunk man pacing back and forth on the sidewalk behind my car, which I’d parked where the pavement meets the boardwalk, I hesitated and made sure I’d locked everything up. Reminding myself to hope for the best, I tucked my anxiety away and began my leisurely walk down the boardwalk. The sky was mostly empty of clouds revealing a crisp blue canvas. The ocean water’s color changed like Ombre hair – a deep, midnight blue yielded a bright sea-green at the sand. Progreso‘s famous pier, the Terminal Remota, protruded out toward the horizon, spanning a full four miles. Although it was a Saturday afternoon, the beach town was sleepy, which worked out well because I was sleepy, too.

%Gallery-175115%I weaved my way through stores selling Mexican tchotchkies. A charismatic young man offered me “unbeatable” deals on each item I touched in his store. He spoke to me in English with an unidentifiable accent. He was a student of the world and a speaker of many languages. It wasn’t easy to walk away from his melodic tongue, particularly where the French and Spanish accents merged into an indecipherable, charming blur, but I was hungry. I left only with his suggestion of where to find a vegetarian lunch.

As I strolled leisurely down the boardwalk with the Gulf to my left side, restaurant owners emerged out of their shaded corners, reciting their most popular dishes for me as I passed. But I had my sights set on what had been recommended to me and when I finally found it, a restaurant called Flamingo’s, I initially doubted my devotion to the local’s direction.

In line with the sleepy atmosphere of Progreso that day, I sat at the table awaiting service for 10 or 15 minutes. But when service arrived, it came boldly and warmly. An order of just-squeezed orange juice yielded an overflowing pitcher. Guacamole, refried beans, salsa, vegetable soup, lentil soup, fajitas, tortilla chips and fried bananas proved to be more food than my husband I could consume, but not for lack of fresh flavor.

My car was still parked and in tact when I returned for it, as was the shirtless drunk man, who was sitting curbside and rambling. I decided to make the 10 minute drive over to Chicxulub after lunch. Chicxulub is located at almost the exact geographical center of the Chicxulub crater. The crater, although unobservable, is an impact crater that extends into the Gulf. Created by the impact of a comet or asteroid around 65 million years ago, the Chicxulub crater is believed by many to be evidence of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event – the event that destroyed the dinosaurs.

I wanted to see this place for myself, although there was nothing to see (the remnants of the impact crater are buried far below today’s topsoil.) I walked out to the beach, which was littered with boats and debris from the sea. The sand smelled like cat urine. I stood there for a moment, thinking about the scientific importance of the ground on which I was standing, and ignoring the putrid scent.

Stray cats scurried away from my car as I approached it and I considered for a moment the delight these cats must take in the fish to be found in a port city like Chicxulub. I thought about the impressive degree to which mammals have evolved since this crater was formed. I dodged stray dogs on the way back to Merida and found myself back in my hotel room and preparing for a night out on the town before the sun began to set.

Read more from my series on the Yucatan and the Maya here.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

I Found My Silver Lining At Grayton Beach State Park

My husband and I were wandering down the East Coast with our two dogs. We had just made an unplanned visit to West Virginia to be with my family during a medical emergency and, as a silver lining to the sudden and stressful trip, we figured we’d meander down the Atlantic and across the Gulf on our way back to Texas rather than traverse the highways we already knew so well; the ones that run through Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. We didn’t have much of a plan, but we had a bed in our van and a small list of dog-friendly beaches we’d be passing through.

%Gallery-160758%But by the time we reached Jacksonville, we were over it. One dog had already climbed up onto, and proceeded to puke off of, the lofted bed and onto everything we had with us in the van, causing us to pull over in a random rural driveway in Maryland. We cleaned out the car as best we could with bottled water. We drove to D.C. in search of a 24-hour laundromat and we ordered Chinese takeout as we waited for the laundry to finish. The smallest bill I had was a 20, and with no attendant in sight to give me smaller bills, I walked away with $20 in quarters. In Virginia, I woke up to the smell of reeking Chinese food in the parking lot of my gym with a tow truck parked beside me that didn’t pull away until I entered the gym. Once I was in the gym, a cop came and talked to my husband after a call had been placed reporting that I had left my dogs in the vehicle unattended. I hadn’t. We arrived to a park we’d been hoping to camp at in Wilmington only to find out there wasn’t any vacancy. We stopped at the Highway 21 drive-in movie theater in Beaufort, South Carolina, and woke up to a flashlight in our faces at 2 a.m. and a voice asking us to leave. Everyone else had cleared the field and in our exhaustion, we didn’t even see the movie we’d come to see. The iPhone had gotten us lost more than once and if that wasn’t bad enough, we got into an accident in Savannah. The car endured a few thousand dollars of damage, but it was still drivable. No one was injured and everyone involved was polite, especially the officers, so we went on our way to Jacksonville. And we were beat. We made our way over to the park we’d been looking forward to, but we were 10 minutes late and they wouldn’t let us stay. The men working directed us to another park and when we finally arrived there, we found out it was a community playground, not a place to camp.

To hell with the romantic detour, we decided that night. We agreed to leave town early and just drive straight to Austin. Still, I noticed Grayton Beach State Park on the map as we drove through the panhandle. We got there in time for sunset and although we only spent 20 hours there, that park was our silver lining. The dogs weren’t allowed on the beach, so we had to spend our beach time separate. I went first, inhaling more deeply than usual during yoga postures. With my feet rooted in the wet sand and the sun setting to my right, I felt as though, for the first time in two weeks, I could breathe. With each crashing wave that was lapped back up by the ocean, my muscles loosened. My head fell to the ground before me and, just like that, I let it all go.

We got delicious takeout that night from a little Italian place near the beach called Borago. We drank big pours of wine and whiskey at the bar while we waited for the food. We took the boxes back to our campsite and with the headlights turned on and shining toward us, we dined at 10:30 p.m. at the picnic table.

We continued west in the morning. We stopped at the KOA Baton Rouge on our last night of the trip. A woman in an especially sour mood greeted us. She scoffed at us for having a bed in our car and seemed intent on not letting us stay at all until a colleague of hers shooed her away and took over. He told me about his plans to drive straight down to Panama soon. He used to live there and is eager to return. Were it not for the reprieve we found in Grayton Beach State Park, the kind of “hospitality” the KOA woman showed us would have, I am guessing, broken my last nerve. But that 20-hour vacation is just what we needed. It was enough to redeem the two weeks that preceded it. It was enough to keep me focused on the drive to Panama this man would soon be making.

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Wildlife refuge on island of Sanibel, Florida, introduces iNature Trail for smartphone users

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has introduced a new interactive smartphone capability for visitors. Called iNature Trail, the program utilizes QR (Quick Response) codes that are located around the refuge, which can be scanned by your smartphone using free downloadable applications like Neoscan and QR Scan. Once scanned, the codes will bring up YouTube videos and other informative resources for an enhanced experience in nature. For example, scanning a particular code could bring up a video of the refuge manager welcoming guests to the area, while another might teach users how to plant a mangrove tree.

According to Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland, out of the more than 550 national wildlife refuges, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is the first to put in place an interactive trail program like this one.

To get a better idea of how the app works, check out this video:


Stand up paddling the length of the Mississippi River

Stand up paddling the length of the Mississippi RiverAt more than 2400 miles in length, the mighty Mississippi is one of the longest rivers in North America. The iconic waterway, which has become an indelible part of American folklore, stretches from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through the heart of the nation in the process. Over the years, the muddy waters of the Mississippi have been explored by every kind of watercraft from steamboat and simple river raft to kayaks and modern motorboats. Now, British adventurer Dave Cornthwaite is attempting to become the latest person to travel the length of the river from source to sea, but he’s doing it on a stand up paddle board.

In recent years, stand up paddling (SUP) has become a popular activity amongst outdoor enthusiasts looking to spend some time on their local rivers, lakes, or even ocean. The sport is a combination of surfing and paddling, that has participants standing on a surfboard while using an oar to help maneuver and generate forward momentum. Most stand up paddlers restrict themselves to relatively calm bodies of water, but the more skilled athletes have taken to challenging themselves on big waves and wild rapids.

Back in early June, Cornthwaite traveled to the headwaters of the Mississippi located at Lake Itasca, and started his southward journey. By last week he had arrived in Minneapolis, having already covered approximately 500 miles. That leaves him with more than 1900 miles yet to go, and he expects that it will take him well into September before he reaches the finish line in New Orleans, where the river enters into the Gulf at last.

This stand up paddle adventure is just the latest long distance journey that Cornthwaite has undertaken. He has already traveled from Vancouver to Las Vegas on a tandem bike and kayaked Australia’s Murry River – a distance of nearly 1480 miles. Even more impressive, he once went 3618 miles coast-to-coast across Australia using only a skateboard. All of these trips are part of his Expedition 1000 project, during which he hopes to complete 25 unique journeys of at least a 1000 miles in length, while only using non-motorized forms of transportation. Along the way he also hopes to raise £1 million ($1.5 million) for charity.

So what’s it like for Dave while he’s out on the water? Check out the video below for an idea.




[Photo courtesy of Dave Cornthwaite]