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]

Carnival Triumph Being Towed To Shore After Engine Room Fire

Carnival TriumphCarnival Triumph was nearing the end of a four-night cruise when an engine room fire stopped the ship, about 150 miles off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Without propulsion and running on only backup generator power, Carnival Triumph will be towed to closest port where passengers will disembark and be flown back home.

Carnival Cruise Lines, owner of the ship, posted a statement Sunday night on its website. Along with details on how passengers would get home, compensation they would receive and other pertinent information, the cruise line explained what happened and the current status of the ship.

The ship’s automatic fire extinguishing systems activated and the fire was contained to the aft engine room. At this time, the fire is fully extinguished. There were no casualties or injuries to guests or crew. All appropriate authorities including U.S. Coast Guard have been notified.”

Meeting Carnival Triumph at the scene, another Carnival ship, Carnival Elation, transferred additional beverages and supplies to distressed ship as it drifted in open sea, waiting for a tugboat.

Expected to arrive in Progresso, Mexico, by Wednesday afternoon, passengers on board will make the best of what is now a free cruise with another free cruise coming in the future.

“All guests on the current Carnival Triumph voyage will receive a full refund of the cruise, along with transportation expenses,” reads the statement on the Carnival website. “In addition, they will receive a future cruise credit equal to the amount paid for this voyage, as well as reimbursement of all shipboard purchases during the voyage, with the exception of gift shop and casino charges.“Meanwhile, booked passengers preparing to depart on the next regularly scheduled sailing of Carnival Triumph are being contacted by the cruise line with the bad news. The next two sailings of Carnival Triumph have been canceled. Those passengers will receive a full refund of their cruise fare and any non-refundable travel expenses plus a discount on a future cruise.

If this sounds a bit familiar, it is. Gadling reported a fire aboard Carnival Splendor in November 2010. At the time, it was believed that the ship would be out of service for several sailings. But once repairs were underway, additional issues were discovered and some needed parts where not available, causing Carnival Splendor to stay out of service until February 2011.

We will provide updates as this story develops. Visit the Carnival website for the most current information.


[Photo credit – Flickr user Daniel Slaughter]

The Stray Dogs Of The Yucatan

“Dog!” I exclaimed to my husband, who was driving our small rental car along a toll-free road that meanders slowly through the towns of the Yucatan, slowly meandering much like the many stray dogs along these roads. Sometimes the dogs would sleepily walk into the road and stop, find a warm spot and lay down in the sun. These dogs don’t know about time; their previous moments determine their next and that is all. I rescued one of my two dogs a year ago from a street in Laredo. He casually trotted in front of a car that screeched to a halt to avoid hitting him while I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. When I peeked out to see that he’d made it back onto the sidewalk, I got out of the car and beckoned him over. He didn’t have tags, a chip, “wanted” signs or any ads online. And so I took him home with me and he’s been a part of my family ever since.

The last thing I wanted to do during my recent trip to the Yucatan was hit a dog, so I watched the roads vigilantly as my husband drove. We didn’t hit any dogs while we drove around the peninsula, but we came close. Since there are so many stray dogs in the Yucatan, they don’t get spayed or neutered and the stray dog population keeps growing. There isn’t any sort of government-operated SPCA or Humane Society in the Yucatan. Private organizations try to combat the situation and a Planned Pethood in the Yucatan aims to aggressively implement spay/neuter programs throughout the region, but the problem is still widely apparent. For anyone who has traveled to areas of the world wherein programs like these aren’t financed fixtures, stray dogs are usually just an unfortunate truth of travel.

%Gallery-174158%Winding our way through the small towns between Cancun and Merida, the dogs came in all sizes and colors. We occasionally passed an identifiable breed – a Doberman here, a litter of newborn Rottweilers there – but most of the dogs we saw on these roads were that recognizable mix of everything. Usually tan with a medium build, these dogs were wherever people were. Begging for food or attention, they weaved their way through pedestrians and cars in the towns we passed. Some of them looked surprisingly healthy with shiny coats and smiling faces. Others were mangy and diseased. Some were dead.

The reality of the stray dog problem in places like the Yucatan cannot be negotiated without concerted effort. These dogs are part of the culture and landscape of this peninsula, for better or worse, and for all intents and purposes, they always have been. Ancient Maya communities included domesticated dogs. The Maya used the dogs for hunting, companionship, food and sacrifice. They fed the dogs corn and some Yucatec Maya today continue this tradition and give dogs tortillas. Spanish explorers in the 16th century visited Merida and documented the breeding, feeding and sale of dogs in the city.

Maya literature incorporated dogs, too. The Popol Vuh is the K’iche’ Maya creation story. According to it, the gods failed horribly at their second attempt to make humans. The legend says that these humans were made out of wood. These humans were emotionless and would not feed the dogs, so the dogs retaliated in anger and destroyed them. The lesson in this story resonated with the Maya and they placed strong emphasis on respecting and feeding dogs. Associated with human life, renewal and death, dogs were of incredible symbolic importance to the ancient Maya. They held the job of leading people into the Underworld and protecting the home. Dog remains have been found buried alongside humans in Maya graves and royal homes. Presumably, the dogs were buried with their owners in order to guide them into the afterlife.

I clenched my teeth each time we passed these dogs, dead or alive. Dogs have long been an important component of human life. A dog was found buried with a human in Palestine in a 12,000-year-old grave. A dog and human were found together in a 14,000-year-old burial site in Germany. In my experience, most people who grasp the unique relationship between dogs and humans have a difficult time witnessing the kind of abundance of stray dogs I saw while navigating those small-town roads in the Yucatan.

As I was getting ready to leave the market in Merida one afternoon, two little girls walked past me, both cradling tiny, dirty puppies in their hands. I asked the girls how old the dogs were and if I could pet them. I crouched down in the plaza and held one of the one-week-old puppies. I didn’t know whether or not they belonged to the girls or the street and in that moment, it didn’t matter. Just like every other puppy from every time period and every part of the world, the little dog eagerly welcomed my affection.

Read more from my series on the Yucatan here.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

Frommer’s reveals top destinations for 2012

What destination are you dreaming of for 2012? The staff at Frommer’s have just unveiled their list of top travel destinations for the coming year. Included in the list is a little something for everyone: large metropolises, secluded beach towns, colorful riverside villas, and more.

But Frommer’s didn’t just rely on their expert editors and author’s for this years list–they also polled readers to find out where they wanted to visit in 2012. Click through the gallery below to see Frommer’s (and their reader’s) picks–including one surprising midwestern city that is the only spot in the United States to make the cut.
%Gallery-137425%

Other Winners:
Top Family Destination: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Top Cruise Destination: Tromso, Norway
Top Beach Destination: Hanalei Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Top Adventure Destination: Moab, Utah
Top Food & Drink Destination: Lima, Peru
Top City Break Destination: Chicago, Illinois
Top Endangered Destination: Aysen Region, Chile
Top Value Destination: Albanian Riviera
Top Destination to Get Lost: Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Rancher destroys ancient Mayan buildings in Mexico

Maya, Mayan, maya, mayan, archaeology, archeology
A rancher in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, has destroyed a large Mayan residential complex to make way for pastureland, Fox News Latino reports.

The 2,300 year-old site covers 250 acres and includes many homes, temples, and other buildings. Much of the center of the site was bulldozed away so the rancher could graze his animals there. The rancher claims he recently bought the land and didn’t know the site had any archaeological importance. The government says the site is registered and is launching an investigation.

The rancher didn’t explain how he couldn’t know of the site’s importance if he knew it was so big that he needed to clear it away with heavy machinery. Some of the buildings stood up to ten feet tall. The workers cleared away the town’s main square, including seven buildings and two altars.

[Photo courtesy user Adalberto.H.Vega via Gadling’s flickr pool. This is actually a Mayan site in Honduras and not the site that was destroyed. Sadly, thanks to rancher Ricardo Ascencio Maldonado we can’t get photos of the actual site!]