Notes on the Yucatan

9 UNMISSABLE Things To Do In Riviera Maya, Mexico (2021 Update)

I spent eight days in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, primarily in and around the cities of Cancun, Valladolid, and Merida.

Honestly, it wasn’t a great trip. My sense is that most of the interesting sites are designed for Spring Breakers to take single-day cultural excursions so they can feel like they did something besides getting wasted on the beach for a week. I saw some neat stuff, but I wish I had done it in three days instead of six.

Mayans

I know a bit about the Aztecs and Incas but didn’t know much about the Mayans until Mexico. They’re fairly similar to the other two in the basics: Meso-American civilization, largely based on corn, did trade north and south, ate chocolate, had lots of gold, built lots of pyramids, made some extremely impressive accomplishments in architecture, astronomy, and maybe medicine, but was civilizationally held by a lack of metallurgy that kept the bulk of its tech behind the Bronze Age.

One Mayan distinction was a lack of political unity. The Aztecs and Incas had many tribes/nations/kingdoms/whatever-you-want-to-call them, but eventually consolidated into empires centralized around a monarch in a capital. The Mayans never quite got there, and always remained divided into a bunch of city-states with local dominance.

But the most interesting Mayan distinction is their downfall. I vaguely remember learning in elementary school that the Mayan civilization peaked before the Aztecs and Incas and then mysteriously collapsed, and even modern scholars aren’t sure why.

The collapse narrative is a bit of an overstatement, but mostly true. Mayan civilization is considered to have started around 2000 BC and entered a golden age from 250-900 AD. Then the Mayans hit what I think can be aptly described as a dark age; the regional economy imploded, the population fell, most of the cities were abandoned, and technology regressed. Even capital cities were virtually emptied and royal palaces were supposedly occupied by squatters. A recovery period started hundreds of years later, but they never managed to reach their previous heights before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s and the Mayans faced the same fate as the Aztecs and Incas.

As an amateur fan of history, the Mayan dark age seems like a rare, maybe even unique phenomenon. How many times has a fairly sophisticated civilization internally collapsed without foreign pressure? The Roman Empire had plenty of internal problems before its fall, but the proximate catalyst was a series of barbarian invasions. My knowledge of Chinese and Indian history is much shakier, but I’m pretty sure there were usually foreign adversaries knocking at the door during every downturn. But the Mayans fell all on their own.

Why?

First an aside… here’s one of a few related excerpts from the Mayan World Museum of Merida:

This description is hilariously inaccurate in at least one regard.

I don’t want to overstate the case because Mayan historiography seems pretty spotty, but the current historical consensus (based on lots of Googling) seems to be that the Mayans imploded because they engaged in intensive slash-and-burn agriculture which deforested the land, drained the soil of nutrients, and eventually triggered crop shortfalls which cratered the economy. This process occurred along with, or more likely led to, warfare among Mayan states which drained increasingly scarce resources. War, famine, and disease caused enough depopulation for most Mayans to abandon the commercial centers based around the cities and turn to subsistence life in the Yucatan jungles.

Far from being conservationists, the Mayans are a prime example of the potential costs of reckless environmental destruction.

(Though it’s worth noting that there is some evidence of intense droughts and even an invasion by non-Mayans, but the evidence for them seems shakier IMO.)

Ruined

I found the Mayan ruins underwhelming. The best ruins in the world are Ankor Wat in Cambodia, followed closely by Machu Pichu in Peru, then a whole bunch of Roman and Greek stuff throughout the Mediterranean, etc, and compared to all that the Mayan ruins weren’t too interesting.

The first site I went to was Ek Balam, a smaller and less frequented Mayan settlement to the north. Its big selling point as a tourist attractions is that you can climb on the ruins, which is pretty damn cool. My highlight of all the Mexican ruins was standing at the top of Ek Balam’s main pyramid and seeing over a jungle canopy in all directions.

The only downside to the place was that it was small and expensive. I spent only about an hour walking around (slowly) for about $40.

The second ruin site I saw was Chichen Itza, the most famous Mayan ruin, and a place first known to me via Civilization IV. It has the iconic pyramid at its center where human sacrifices were once made (IIRC), and a few clusters of buildings around it, the most interesting of which is a giant court for Maya Ballgame, which the Mayan World Museum of Merida claims is the oldest team sport on earth (though I have no idea if that’s true).

You can see a ring against the wall, the Mayan equivalent to a basketball hoop.

The problem with Chichen Itza is that it’s suuuuuuuper touristy. I think I have a pretty good tolerance for touristy-ism; I recognize that fascinating places tend to become famous and attract lots of tourists, and that’s fine. But there are good ways to be touristy and bad ways to be touristy, and Chichen Itza is the latter.

The first time I heard what sounded like a large cat yowling while walking around Chichen Itza I was confused and intrigued. I actually glanced around for a few seconds trying to find it. By the 10th jaguar call I was sick of it, and by the 100th I never wanted to hear a jaguar again.

That’s what happens when hundreds of kitchy vendor stores are packed between otherwise impressive ruins. They all sold variants of the same 20+ items, including a whistle-thing which made a jaguar noise, so both irritating vendors and extra-irritating children were blasting the things.

Then there were the vendors shouting at me as I walked by to get my attention. Then there were the hundreds of Spring Breakers milling around, many of whom took extended photoshoots in front of the ruins. I didn’t time it, but I saw at least one girl taking selfies for 5+ minutes in front of a lesser ruin.

Maybe I’m elitist, but the touristy-ism detracted from the experience. If this was some random group of ruins I stumbled upon, they still wouldn’t be Machu Pichu-tier, but they’d be pretty damn cool. But between the tourists, vendors, and the literal Starbucks at the welcome center, some of the wonder gets lost.

Driving

I heard a lot of Mexican driving horror stories, but I found it fairly easy to drive my little Nissan. There was little traffic and not many crazy drivers, certainly no worse than New York or Los Angeles. The only significant hazard was some ill-placed stop signs in the cities and some needlessly aggressive passing on the highways.

But generally Yucatan roads have the Panama problem of being too safe. The speed limit on the major highway often hung in the 60-80 kph (37-50 mph) range which was incredibly annoying. But not as annoying as fucking speed bumps. They’re everywhere! At random highway intersections, in every small town, at every significant city straight-away, fucking everywhere. I am frankly stunned that my Nissan wasn’t damaged because I hit some bumps way faster than I should have.

One more random thing – the Yucatan is full of bugs… Volkswagen Bugs. I know that developing countries will often have old cars which are duct taped together for decades, but I don’t know why the Yucatan has so many Bugs in particular. I must have seen 20-30 during my trip.

Rip Offs

I know of three instances of attempted or successful scams during my trip.

First, I went to a cenote, which is a sinkhole in the jungle that forms a lagoon-type thing. There were a bunch of lockers to leave bags and clothes while people swim, and a guy was standing nearby with locker keys. I asked how much it costs to rent a locker. In very bad English he said, “twen… thirty pesos.” I didn’t pay him.

Second, I met two friends for a few days in Cancun. When one got off the place from the US, he went to a food stand right outside the airport. A big sign read “Gatorade 3 USD.” He grabbed a Gatorade and handed the clerk a $5 bill. The clerk took it and smiled. My friend asked for change. The clerk said there was no change. My friend pointed to the sign and said Gatorade costs $3. The clerk informed him it costs $5. My friend briefly paused and then demanded his money back. The clerk demanded the Gatorade back. But my friend had already taken a sip… he sheepishly walked away and bitched about the $2 loss for the next three days.

The other friend successfully got off the plane from the US, got a rental car, drove around for a few days, and then on his way to returning it, he was pulled over by the police. My friend asked the cop why. He said speeding. My friend said he wasn’t speeding. The cop said he was. They started arguing. Then the cop said he could bring him down to the station for processing or he could pay his fine here. My friend started to get the message. He asked how much the fine was. The cop said 2000 pesos ($95). He paid, and he somehow bitched about it less over the next two days than my other friend about his $2.

Hostel Creatures

You meet weird people in hostels, usually in a good way. Most are young, poor, many are well-traveled. The more out-of-the-way the hostel, the more interesting the people. In the past I had made mental notes to write down summaries of some of the people I met, but I never did so until now.

The Brit

Age 22, tall, very thin. Somewhat handsome, but looks weathered, looks older than he is. I understood what he was saying about 95% of the time, but his Jon Snow accent was a bit tricky. Other foreigners at the hostel had far more trouble understanding him than my generic American accent.

His right hand is withered/atrophied and always clenched. He first told me that he had gotten stabbed and had extensive nerve damage, with estimates of 6+ months for recovery.

He later clarified that he had gotten stabbed over an old grudge. He grew up in one of the poor industrial cities in England, got into drug dealing early, was in-and-out of juvenile detention, made and spent decent money, made a bunch of enemies, and eventually left the city to live with his mother in the countryside. But then he went back to the city, got stabbed by an old rival almost immediately, and then bailed. He was chilling in Mexico for a few months while collecting disability welfare and waiting for his hand to recover.

He claims he spent three days in a Mexican prison last week. He got his hands on some Valium (legal over-the-counter in Mexico), took way too much, blacked out for two days, and woke up in prison. The guards wouldn’t tell him what he did, but he was released the next day. He left Cancun for another Yucatan city to relax and recover.

It’s a fairly outlandish story, but I believe him. He had a lot to say about drugs and gang life. Some of it was flattering, but plenty of it wasn’t.

He swears he’s reformed now. He just wants to stay out of trouble. He’s planning on going to the British equivalent of trade school to become a plumber.

Was running out of money when I met him. He asked the hostel owner for a job, but none was available.

Not vaccinated. Gave vague conspiratorial reasons as an explanation.

The Spaniard

“Almost 40,” thin, attractive, though has a slightly dirty look. Professional yoga teacher who has worked around the world, including the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and India. She just finished a year-long stay in rural Mexico where she made 5,000 pesos per month ($240) and had no internet.

Despite being as hippyish as you’d expect, she smokes and drinks a lot. I asked if she could afford to continue doing so on 5,000 pesos per month, and she assured me she could.

English was fine, but heavy Spanish accent. She complained that Spaniards have ugly accents. I think I agree, at least compared to other Mediterraneans.

She spoke at length about the value of her freedom. She had spent decades traveling the world, jumping from city-to-city, often stopping for a year or two for work. She didn’t like contracts, social media, or passports – nothing that represented boundaries, bureaucracy, impositions. She occasionally went home to Spain, but she always got annoyed when her family asked how long she would stay. She didn’t like to make plans.

She met a man while traveling. They married, traveled together for five years. He got his fill of the freedom and asked her to move back to Spain to settle down with him. She did so. Within three months she became depressed. Within six months she couldn’t stand it. She got a divorce and continued travelling.

She does not want kids. She is not worried about aging. She loves her life and never wants it to end. But I think she resents the normies a bit too much. Some bitterness has grown over the years of defending herself. Still, she seems happy.

Unvaccinated for explicitly conspiratorial reasons.

The Mexican

Late 20s, athletic, big smile. Spoke English better than any other Mexican I met, so definitely educated. She was travelling around her country; I’m not sure if she is a student or has a job, but she parties a lot.

She returned from Germany a few weeks ago after living there for two years with a boyfriend. He was great, Germany wasn’t. She found the people cold, unfriendly. She claims they regarded her with suspicion, and maybe even condescension due to her skin color. She learned a bit of German, but it’s a tough language.

She had no friends in Germany. She worked, but didn’t enjoy it. She became depressed. She asked her boyfriend if they could leave. He wouldn’t, he had a great job, made lots of money and was passionate about it. So she left.

The German

I never talked to the German or learned her name, but she stripped completely naked in front of me and two other strangers (one male and one female) in our mixed-gender hostel room at 10 AM to get changed.

This has never happened to me in a hostel before, but I’m told Germans are the least concerned about nudity of all the Europeans. There’s even a line in Sense8 about it. This is another data point.

There is Poop in Mexico

If it was less out of the way, I probably would have gone, just so I could say “I stepped in Poop.”

Miscellaneous

  • I had one horrible hostel experience. It was boiling hot every day in Mexico, but something about the buildings at this one hostel made the rooms even hotter – it must have been 15+ degrees warmer in my room than outside of it. It would have been barely tolerable if I had just laid on the mattress with no blanket, but the geniuses running the place had an outdoor “pool” in the center of the hostel with no filters or chlorine, so the large body of stagnant water in the tropical climate was a breeding ground for a horrible mosquito infestation. Over two nights, I deliberated whether its better to sleep without a sheet over me and get eaten alive, or sleep with a sheet and boil alive. I compromised by leaving my feet exposed, and I had at least a dozen mosquito bites by the time I left.
  • Aside from my car rental place, service was awful, much worse than Peru, DR, and Panama. One hostel over booked me, so I had to sleep in the hostel owner’s house’s living room. Another hostel couldn’t find a record of me until I showed them on my email. It generally took forever to get the attention of customer-facing people.
  • There are lots of iguanas and they’re wonderful. Just super cool creatures, so unlike anything you’d find in 95% of the US. I’m told they’re quite tasty, I gotta keep an eye out for a culinary opportunity.
  • A local claimed that the Yucatan is relatively safe as far as Mexican regions go because the local cartels are benevolent and discourage violence. I have no idea if that’s true. My guess is that the Yucatan is very touristy, so the government focuses its crime fighting capital on crime suppression here.
  • The casinos charge a 7% winning tax! Can you believe that bullshit?

2 thoughts on “Notes on the Yucatan

  1. Hello.
    This was good to read and a good critique on your experience, however i think you are blaming your bad experience on your poor choices like staying at a cheapo hostel without AC. Complaining Paying 1.50 USD for keeping your stuff safe in Locker (all day) is pretty cheap from you. Try to find that price in Rome or London.
    Your knowledge of Maya history seems to be poor, since you are confussed about the Classic Maya collapse in Guatemala and Belize, when you visited the Yucatan area wich did not experienced that phenomena and had no man made environmental collapse, but a severe drought that they were in the middle of when the spanish arrived.

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    1. I always assume cheap accommodations are lower quality, but I don’t assume, and don’t think they should, try to trick customers about prices.

      In my post I did not make a distinction between southern and northern Mayans in the Classical period collapse, I just gave my short summarized understanding of why Mayan civilization fell from its heights.
      Though the sources I used said there were the same deforestation problems in the north (which led to the droughts)
      (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-did-the-mayan-civilization-collapse-a-new-study-points-to-deforestation-and-climate-change-30863026/):
      “In the first study, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Arizona State University analyzed archaeological data from across the Yucatan to reach a better understanding of the environmental conditions when the area was abandoned. Around this time, they found, severe reductions in rainfall were coupled with an rapid rate of deforestation, as the Mayans burned and chopped down more and more forest to clear land for agriculture. Interestingly, they also required massive amounts of wood to fuel the fires that cooked the lime plaster for their elaborate constructions—experts estimate it would have taken 20 trees to produce a single square meter of cityscape.”
      “Because cleared land absorbs less solar radiation, less water evaporates from its surface, making clouds and rainfall more scarce. As a result, the rapid deforestation exacerbated an already severe drought—in the simulation, deforestation reduced precipitation by five to 15 percent and was responsible for 60 percent of the total drying that occurred over the course of a century as the Mayan civilization collapsed. The lack of forest cover also contributed to erosion and soil depletion.”
      “In other words, the Maya were no fools. They knew their environment and how to survive within it—and still they continued deforesting at a rapid pace, until the local environment was unable to sustain their society.”

      Another source (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/02/new-clues-about-how-and-why-the-maya-culture-collapsed/):
      “For example, mineral deposits at the bottom of Lake Chichancanab show evidence of what Turner called “a megadrought,” prolonged periods of significantly less precipitation. Luminescence in stalagmites in the Macal Chasm provide additional chemical proof of years of “significant dessication” during the era from 750 to around 1150, while other sources, such as leaf wax lipids from around Lake Salpeten, offer more datable evidence showing not only that there was no water but when the shortage occurred.”
      “While the data resolved some issues there remained one nagging question: The Maya had not only survived the five earlier droughts but had continued to build and to grow. So, why couldn’t they weather the last two?”
      ““They had a huge population, a large urbanized population, and had made fundamental changes in the landscape,” said Turner. To support both farms and cities of 60,000 to 100,000, he explained, the Maya had cut down forests and increasingly manipulated wetlands, drawing water off into reservoirs and expanding agriculture into lowland wetlands. These moves consumed water that could not be spared during periods of drought. The Maya also unintentionally made their own agriculture less productive with their extensive deforestation. Removing trees, Turner explained, stopped the cycle by which the tree canopy would capture and return the naturally occurring nutrient phosphorus to the soil and also increased its temperature.”

      Like

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