Riviera Maya: An Accidental Honeymoon

I was in Mexico last December, just before the 21st of the month. The date would come and go without catastrophe, of course, but the fringe theories had brought Maya culture to the forefront of the media and I took the opportunity to learn a bit about the ancient and modern Maya myself. My time spent in Merida was grueling, but rewarding. My room at Hotel Dolores Alba, which was located near the noisy downtown center of the city, had a shower that spilled water from the bathroom into the rest of the room when used. When I swapped out that room for another, I was happy to find my luggage still dry after a shower. I propped a chair up against the flimsy door at night because the lock was wobbly. I mysteriously watched a disturbing movie starring Ashley Greene all the way to the end while taking a break from the sun one afternoon. I had black coffee and refried beans for breakfast in the hotel lobby, which was adorned with portraits of Frida Kahlo. There was something unmistakably charming about the place; maybe it was the open-air courtyard bolting the wings of the hotel together. But charm doesn’t cancel out exhaustion and I was beat.

%Gallery-186761%I had been attempting to keep a more or less vegan diet while in Merida and as one might imagine, this isn’t easy to do in any city and just plain difficult to do in most foreign countries. Guacamole, beans and fresh juice had become my sustenance and the sun was my motor, revving me out of bed each day and hovering over me from one place to the next. The streets of Merida were enthusiastically loud that weekend; they were loud late at night and loud early in the morning. I was missing sleep and calories and looking forward to the two “off” days I’d planned for myself and my husband before we flew back to New York. We’d booked just two nights at Grand Velas Riviera Maya. We would be there for a total of 43 hours.

My fingers were crossed as we made the four-hour trip from Merida to Riviera Maya. All-inclusive resorts often get a bad name – they often earn a bad name. But we wanted to detox and just stare at the ocean for a couple of days. We hadn’t ever had the chance to honeymoon and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally stop looking in every nook and cranny for story-worthy happenings or perfect photo ops while traveling and to just relax. I was depleted. I didn’t want to have to leave our room to hopelessly look for vegetarian food in town. I didn’t want to have to drive around during the two days off trying to entertain myself. Grand Velas, so it seemed through my research, had everything I needed on site and for once, I wanted that. They had kayaks and snorkeling gear, bars and restaurants, spas and shopping – I never dreamed I’d be so tired as to want this manifestation of serenity, but it was what I needed and I only hoped the accommodations and amenities would match the glowing reviews online.

We entered through a washed out fortress of a wall that stood erect behind turquoise pools of water in a man-made beach at the resort’s entrance. We were shown to our beachfront room by our personal concierge, a man who somehow anticipated most of our needs before they could be vocalized. When we asked him for suggestions of where in the resort to find vegan or vegetarian food, he made reservations for us at their French restaurant, Piaf. When we sat down to eat, our waiter informed us that the restaurant had put together a special menu just for us – it was almost entirely vegan, a nearly impossible accomplishment for a French restaurant. All of our other meals panned out the same way. Grand Velas’ website had conveyed flexibility for diet restrictions, but after eating mostly guacamole, beans and juice for four days, I was shocked at the spontaneous fluency in plant-based foods the chefs on site proved to have. We had several dishes to choose from no matter how or where we dined, whether we were in one of the resort’s restaurants, having food brought to us as we lounged on the beach or ordering from their 24-hour room service late at night. We scheduled and received some of the best massage treatments we’ve ever had at their spa. We swam in the pools. We admired the lapping waves of the Caribbean.

We saw only a few other guests while there; it felt as though we had the grounds to ourselves. The reviews were right. Grand Velas is the antithesis of the traditional all-inclusive resort where kids run amok, meals are slopped onto plates from buffets, cocktails are made from bottom shelf liquor and the beach is crowded. I wish I had stayed longer in Riviera Maya, where a much-needed break became an accidental honeymoon.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

The Beaches of Riviera Maya, Mexico

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.

Visit Altun Ha in Belize

[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]

Business Fuels Doomsday Prophecies In Mexico

Every other billboard seemed to mention 2012 as I drove along that famously flat stretch of road from Cancun to Playa del Carmen. I was on my way to spend a couple of days relaxing at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, but the easiest way to reach Riviera Maya is via Carretera Federal 307 and 307 is ornamented with billboards, as anyone would expect. Riviera Maya is a popular vacation destination, and popularity and advertising are two peas in the Business Success pod. It wasn’t the billboards themselves that caught my attention, though. What flashed before me memorably every few minutes was a billboard referencing 2012, or the apocalypse, or Doomsday prophecies, or the Maya calendar – and this consistency is what I noticed. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the ads approach and then disappear; marketers, when they’re good, are usually really good.

%Gallery-173831%The billboards along 307 were just bigger, bolder versions of what I’d already been seeing all over Cancun and Merida in the days prior. In Cancun, an employee at the car rental company tried to convince me to go to a tourist trap complete with Maya this and End Of The World that. He was moonlighting as a promotions guy for the place while I signed the forms for my rental car. In Merida, it seemed as though most businesses and individuals who had thought of a way to capitalize off of the December 21 hype had acted on those thoughts. The enterprising women and men behind these ventures, many of them holding shops at the weekly Merida market, sold Doomsday books and guides, Maya calendars, Maya calendars made out of chocolate, apocalypse T-shirts and key-chains. I ate at a restaurant in Merida called 2012 Mayan Spaces and Something Else. The food was very good, as were the drinks, especially for being one of the few vegetarian options in Merida. Nonetheless, the restaurant carried this name and thus, so did the menu. The back wall of the outdoor patio displayed Maya-based art. The hotel I stayed at in Merida offered an impressive selection of Maya-themed tours to guests and “2012” was scribbled in large numerals on their office chalkboard. The crowds at Chichen Itza were insufferable; the long lines buzzed with End Times speculations.

Of course no one else was talking about the world ending on December 21. The only people who seemed to engage in any of these theories in the Yucatan were the people who were in a position to profit from the surprisingly widespread belief. The first man I spoke to in Merida, a man of Maya descent, was quick to discuss the modern Maya and history of the Maya in Merida with me, but he didn’t comment on the 2012 prophecies until 15 minutes into our conversation and he only spoke of the prophecies as a response to my questioning. When I mentioned the lore, his eyes glazed over as if he were remembering something he’d only taken note of in the most distant, peripheral sense. Like asking a non-Christian for their thoughts on the rapture mentioned in the Book of Revelation, locals were aware that others had attached themselves to this prophecy, but they were not believers.

When Pastor John Hinkle made his D-Day declaration for June 9, 1994, my parents nervously anticipated the date. I cuddled with my elementary school friend that night, waiting for fiery claws to rip the skies wide open, and of course it never happened. But it isn’t the truth behind the prediction that matters. What matters is how much publicity the prediction can collect leading up to the date. Hinkle’s ratings for his TBN show were probably skyrocketing from the hoopla before June 9 that year. All of this is to say, the “end of the world” appears to be relevant to the people of the Yucatan in only one way for certain: business.

It’s a good thing December 21 falls on a Friday. All of the opportunistic entrepreneurs out there can take their hype-checks to the bank and have them deposited before Christmas morning.

Read more from my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan,” here.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

Why The Modern Maya Don’t Think The World Is Ending

If you want to meet Maya people, go to the Yucatan. More specifically, go to the city of Merida. Merida’s population is nearly at a million and 60% of all inhabitants are of Maya ethnicity. Roughly a third of the population of Merida speak Mayan – the Yucatec Maya language. Fighting for space for my body on the crowded sidewalks and space for my car on the congested streets, my time in Merida was spent in close physical proximity to the modern Maya, as comes with the territory when visiting the downtown area of a capital city in Mexico over a weekend.

Although Merida was created atop a Spanish-overtaken and demolished Maya community, the Maya culture today is preserved in Merida through museums, music, dance, art, fashion, markets, cuisine and language, as well as in other areas of modern Merida life. When the conquistadors set out to rule the land now known as Merida, the Maya were forced to learn Spanish and their books were burned. The stones from Maya buildings were used to build Merida – the walls of the cathedral downtown are made from these stones. Old Spanish city gates that were once a part of a massive wall still stand in Merida. The wall was initially erected to protect the city’s center from revolting Maya. The last major revolt was the Caste War of Yucatan (1847-1901). Today, an outwardly integrated city greets travelers and it is flush with Maya souvenirs and Maya experiences to take home.

%Gallery-173726%The words of Rigoberta Menchu were in my mind when I conversed with the local Maya about the popular Doomsday Prophecies:

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”

Before entering into these conversations, I already knew what I later found supporting evidence for in my discussions: modern Maya don’t think the world is ending on December 21. Careful not to speak in a way that would carry offensive implications of mystic misunderstandings, I asked the Maya I met about their own take on December 21 and all the hype. I asked the Maya on the street and in the market, I asked the Maya at restaurants and hotels. The answer was the same for everyone, there was no exception to this.

“We are entering into a new cycle,” they’d tell me. “This is just a new beginning,” they’d say without doubt.

I’m not alone in my findings. In a MINNPOST article, Phyllis Messenger, the president of the Maya Society of Minnestoa, is quoted as saying, “I have not yet run across any indigenous person who believes this is the end of the world.” The article’s author, Catherine Watson, goes on to make a good point when she reiterates the words of archaeologists with, “The Mayans probably didn’t fear the end of one baktun and the start of the next, archaeologists say. More likely, they celebrated it, much as we go all-out for really significant New Year’s Eves, like the ones when a century turns.”

Modern Maya aren’t worried because ancient Maya weren’t worried. The 13th baktun, a 400-year unit, is coming to a close and a new one is beginning. But because it is not a 14th baktun that is beginning but rather the first again (this method of tracking time is cyclical), the ancient Maya inscribed the date in zeroes. The lesson to take home from modern Maya: zeroes in this context represent resetting the clock, not unplugging it.

Make sure to check out the rest of my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan,” which explores the Yucatan region, Maya culture and more.