Adventure, Adventure Prep, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, Travel

Bicycling to Mexico’s Great Pyramids

Last time I explored the city of Mérida, where a 13 year old gave me a lesson in spirituality and a local artist joined me for a bike ride.

Now it’s time to push on—for the final leg of the Mexico ride. With literally thousands of miles behind me, just three more days will take me to my endpoint in Valladolid. And on the way I’ll see some of the most famous pyramids in Mexico.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

February 5 (Day 944 of the Great Adventure)—The Yellow Town

I made a last minute change of plans. A major highway stretches from Mérida all the way to Valladolid, and I had planned to stick to it. But I heard great things about the town of Izamal, supposedly one of Yucatán’s prettiest, and I decided to go out of my way and see it.

I had a late start, around 12:45 in the afternoon. (I took so long getting ready that hotel staff moved my bike back into a storage closet after I’d already wheeled it out.) But with only 40 miles to go, I wasn’t worried about time.

The ride out of town mimicked the route Martín and I took for our joy ride days earlier. I remembered the fresh squeezed orange juice he’d brought along and got a hankering. Luckily Mexico has fruit stands just about everywhere, and soon I had a fresh 1-liter bottle in my rack.

Choosing the path less taken was a good call. Instead of a cuota (freeway) it was a country highway with jungle on both sides. There was a threat of rain but never more than a few drops, and traffic was blissfully light. Along the way I passed through Mayan villages. The people there would either gawk at me in surprise or pretend they didn’t even see me, depending on their mood, but if I waved and said good afternoon they’d always return the greeting.

Izamal is great! The entire town is yellow. Every single building is painted the same shade—thankfully it’s marigold and not, say, butter or lemon color. Other than white trim and some red-tile roofs, you can’t find another color within the city limits. I have a feeling that if a homeowner breaks ranks they face a forcible re-paint.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

There was still plenty of light left, which was good because I had no idea where I was staying. I headed straight for the town center, rattling along on the faux cobble streets, but when I got there hotels were the last thing on my mind.

Instead, I stared up at a yellow and white palace sprawling across the top of a pyramid mound. The was the convento, the monastery at the heart of Izamal. If you can imagine slicing off the top of the Great Pyramid and dropping a medieval church into it, that’s pretty much literally what happened. The old Mayan temple had simply been replaced by a Christian one.

The Convento overlooks two squares, and I circled both and then explored out through the town streets. I found two very low-budget inns that could put me up (one with a nonstop barking dog and one with more mosquitoes than intact bathroom tiles). After that was a hotel that was blatantly vacant but which I was told was “completely full,” and one at the very edge of town that was out of my price range.

Despairing, I decided to take one more pass down the main road to see if I’d missed anything. That was when I found the Posada Ya’ax Ich, and immediately fell in love. The posada is actually a private home, with two guest bedrooms for rent. It was spotlessly clean, incredibly comfortable and had the first strong wi-fi signal I’d seen since Xalapa. I had a great conversation with the owner Elena and her sister Soco while Elena made up my room. Later I would meet her son Andrés as well.

Elena told me which of the three restaurants in town I should go to, and I mounted up one last time. (To be fair, there are actually four real restaurants in town, but one of them is super pricey and set up mainly for receiving tour buses.) My eyes dazzled: with the light of sunset on ochre buildings and polished streets, I thought I’d fallen into a bronze casting of a colonial scene.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

Dinner was tasty, eaten in under the arcade surrounding the main plaza. I had my first taste of dzikil-pak, a Mayan dip made from toasted pumpkin seeds (amazing). It rained for a spell, and I enjoyed the cool air before the last ride back to the posada.

41.0 miles.

Map.

The Convento. Photo by Andre.

The Convento. Photo by Andre.

February 6 (Day 945 of the Great Adventure)

Morning came and I got up early. I had exploring to do. Andrés served a great homemade breakfast and Elena said I could leave my things in the room while I looked around.

Before long I was climbing the steps to the Convento, finding a giant courtyard with arched arcades on all sides. Each of the corners of the courtyard once housed a shrine, and the arcades were built to shelter religious processions from rain as they marched from one to the next. These days the shrines stand empty, for no reason explained at the site.

I didn’t spend long at the Convento, however. I was more interested in something else I discovered during yesterday’s hotel hunt: a giant pyramid right in the middle of a city block.

This one wasn’t cut off halfway to put a church on top. It’s gigantic—200 meters to a side—and rises in multiple levels up to a tiny stone platform stories above the city. Most of Mexico’s pyramids are cordoned off in archaeological parks far away from development, but this one is part of the neighborhood. One on street the lineup is literally: house, oil change shop, restaurant, house, pyramid.

Photo by Andre

First stairs up to the pyramid. Photo by Andre

I found the stone stairs that lead up to it—nestled in a break between yellow homes—and started up. The climb was intense; a series of steps led up to a large plateau, big enough that there were trees growing on it and a local family enjoying it like a park. Just past their picnic the stairs continued up the pyramid proper. I waved to them and up I went.

Second staircase up. Photo by Andre.

Second staircase up. Photo by Andre.

The pyramid itself. Photo by Andre.

The pyramid itself. Photo by Andre.

According to legend, offerings left at this pyramid were once collected by a red macaw who carried them up to the heavens. I’m not sure if mine will ever be collected, but I paid my respects and placed a few coins as gifts. If not a macaw, perhaps the next kid who climbs up will find a use for them.

Then I gazed out over Izamal, all yellow and white. From here I could see that the town is the original Mayan city, following the same streets as 600 years ago. It was obvious now that the Convento was once a much higher pyramid, looming directly over the town center. It would have been a twin to the one I stood on, and together they made up the heart of a once city-state.

Climbing the pyramid. Photo by Andre.

Climbing the pyramid. Photo by Andre.

View from the top. Photo by Andre.

View from the top. Photo by Andre.

There were other pyramids, too, according to the map, but each of them is in the center of a city block, houses and shops literally leaning against its stone sides as a convenient foundation. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up with a pyramid in your backyard. I suppose that like all growings-up it must seem boring at the time.

Jim Morrison and the Road

Soon enough I was back on the road, headed toward Pisté—the nearest town to Chichén Itzá, Mexico’s most famous pyramids. I noticed a cocina economica (tiny restaurant) in the first village along the way. I didn’t stop but it put the idea in my head, and every time I coasted through a village after that I looked around hopefully for another one. No dice.

The hours passed by, listening to music or podcasts or just enjoying the jungle road. I got about three fourths of the way to Izamal before my tummy began rumbling in protest, and at the last real town I turned off the road and hunted around. Sure enough, a doña was willing to serve me some chipotle chicken and rice. I shared the only table in her kitchen with several construction workers, who had matching mustaches and all seemed more interested in football than asking a foreigner any questions.

After that it was a short, sweet ride in the late afternoon air. Golden light cut through the forest. Because my spiritual experience in Mérida had been inspired (indirectly) by Jim Morrison, I had downloaded a few of his albums. Previously I wasn’t really familiar with his music, and it seemed surreal to hear it in the peaceful Mayan jungle. The songs were as trancey as I’d been told, and reminded me of all the things I missed about New Orleans.

But every good buzz has to come to an end, and by late afternoon I crossed the toll road and entered the sprawl of Pisté. Everything that Izamal is, Pisté is not: it’s ugly, noisy, busy (for such a small place) and has no colonial town center that I could find. I suspect it exploded when Chichén Itzá, just a few kilometers down the road, became a major tourist site.

I was headed toward a cheap hotel, but first scouted the road to Chichén, clearly marked and even closer than I thought. After checking in and taking a shower I headed out for dinner, at an outdoor market alongside the busy main road of town.

The night ended peacefully. I had made a pledge to those who backed my journey that I would make offerings for them at the great pyramids. Now, one by one, I unpacked stalks of copal incense carefully bundled in my toolkit, and clipped pieces of red ribbon with my boot knife. As I tied a ribbon around each incense stalk, I said the prayers that had been requested by my friends, binding them to the offerings in knots.

It was a beautiful night.

45.7 miles.

Map.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

February 7 (Day 946 of the Great Adventure)—The Last Day

Another early start. This hotel owner wasn’t as understanding as Elena, and I had to get all my stuff out of the room before I headed out to see the pyramids. I left it in the owner’s living room, then biked up the road. I wanted to be in the gate as soon as they opened at 8 a.m., and would save breakfast for later.

Even at 8:01, an entire tour bus managed to offload in front of me, but soon enough I had my ticket. I’ve actually been to Chichén once before, ten years ago. It felt good to revisit this place now that I’d come all the way on my own body power. To the various guides at the entrance I was just another tourist though, and I had to endure sales pitches in multiple languages to get through the gate.

Chichén Itzá was the capital of the Itzá people, one of the most powerful Mayan nations in the days before the Conquest. But it wasn’t the Spanish who knocked the Itzá off their throne; they had declined as a civilization long before smallpox or gunpowder. Even so, this city—the one I was walking into—had become such an important ritual center that it remained a destination for pilgrims long after its fall. Supposedly, emissaries from other Mayan civilizations would arrive here in large processions, walking through the ghost city to visit the oracle who still dwelt there.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The main draw of Chichén today is its largest pyramid, nicknamed El Castillo (the Castle). The railings of its staircases are carved stone snakes that run from the top to the bottom, where giant feathered serpent heads leer with gaping stone mouths. The main staircase was made with incredible precision: at the winter solstice, when the run rises, the shadows on the stairs look like serpents wending their way down from above.

That’s not the only engineering marvel. I was surprised to see none of the tourists clapping their hands. Standing in front of the staircase I took out my camera and recorded a short video for my supporters showing what happens when you clap in front of the temple.

“Excuse me,” said a Belgian after the video was done. “What was that you just said?”

“Oh,” I laughed. “Yeah, when you clap your hands here, the echo comes back sounding like the call of a quetzal bird. The quetzal is sacred to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. This pyramid is his temple.”

The Belgian was floored. Soon, he and his girlfriend were clapping as hard as they could, and twee twee twee came the echoes back. I’ve heard recordings of actual quetzal birds played just before the handclaps, and they’re almost indistinguishable. The Maya (with possible help from the Toltecs) knew what they were doing.

This news spread to more tourists, and more, all of them wanting to know why we were clapping. Soon about fifty people were applauding in front of the pyramid and a cacophany of birds answered back. Smiling, I walked away.

El Castillo isn’t the only sight, though. The preserved ruins of Chichén are a Vatican-like city of temples and palaces. It’s bigger than most of the surrounding towns, and you could walk there for hours. Not far from the main pyramid I found a giant platform decorated with thousands of stone skulls, each one representing a sacrificial victim killed at the site. This is the monument that stands out most in my memory from 10 years ago.

I also strolled through the ball court, where warriors once played a soccer-like game with their lives on the line. Standing in the middle of the stadium, one of the tour guides demonstrated the “whisper effect.” A word whispered in the middle of the field echoes down the walls and can be heard everywhere. Then he had about 30 German tourists shout something in unison, and the sound of their cry resounded through the stands. It must have been a hell of a ball game.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

In bygone times, the Chichén Itzá’s cenote (underground lake) was as much of a draw as the pyramids. In fact, the Chichén in the name basically means “well.” The water source was the reason there was a sacred city in the first place, and it was also considered a ritual gateway to the underworld; Maya pilgrims would once have paid at least as much homage to the cenote as they did to the oracle.

These days that sacred pool is at the end of a long trail lined with merchandise vendors. Their stalls crowd both sides and they aren’t afraid to accost you with promises of “Only one dollar!” (none of the merchandise actually costs $1). I thought about it and said my prayers from afar. I’d be making offerings at a different cenote soon in Valladolid, and didn’t really need the extra headache.

That’s not to say the rest of Chichén is vendor-free. Now that the park was filling up the salesmen were out in force, lining all the trails that wander away from the Castillo toward other areas of interest. I decided to do what I’d come for while the doing was good. I found a shady, empty spot around the back of El Castillo, knelt, and said the prayers of my supporters. These were people who had helped make my dream come true, and whose own dreams I had carried with me for 1,700 miles.

As I finished placing the offerings, a call split the sky. An eagle swooped over the pyramid.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

From there on I wandered the ruins with a light heart. Toward the back of the site is a forested area with giant palaces crumbling amidst it; certainly my favorite spot. A different trail takes you to El Caracol (“The Snail”), a spiral-shaped tower once used as an observatory. Near the Caracol is a pyramid that’s a smaller replica of El Castillo, and a gigantic structure that has collapsed just enough to reveal that  its pyramid is largely hollow. All of it is breathtaking.

I didn’t dawdle as much as other tourists, and none of this was new to me. But it still inspired awe. And it marked a major accomplishment on my Adventure, reaching this sacred landmark and also reuniting with the place where I first fell in love with Mexico.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The Last Road

By 11:00 I was back in Pisté. I found a small kitchen on the main road where a doña served breakfast in a sunny room. Again, there was no sense of hurry: this was my last morning as an itinerant cyclist, at least for the Mexico trip; why not stop and enjoy it?

Ready for breakfast. And yes, that's Nescafé there. Photo by Andre.

Ready for breakfast. And yes, that’s Nescafé there. Photo by Andre.

Eventually I got back to the hotel and found the landlady, extracting my things from behind her couch. And just like that, the last day on the road had begun.

The road to Valladolid took me right past Chichén Itzá once again. The jungle is so thick you can only see the entrance; not even the pyramid tops are visible from the road. I turned my eyes forward. Again I had chosen a country road instead of the toll road, though this one had plenty of tour buses to buzz past me.

Time went by. I was in no hurry, and the wind was a little against me. As I approached the halfway point, I noticed a little trail running alongside the highway, tucked away back in the woods. To my surprise the trail was paved, and I quickly switched over. (It turns out Yucatán roads often have a bike/pedestrian path somewhere nearby, though the pavement on this one was remarkably good.)

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The highlight of rolling down this trail was coming upon a small dog who got spooked and fled from me—but had nowhere to go except further down the trail. I ended up basically chasing him for a quarter of a mile. Eventually the path connected with the side streets of a village, and kids stared or waved as I rolled through.

Valladolid!

Valladolid was my home base on my first ever trip to Mexico. At the time it was a quiet, charming town without a lot of tourist buzz: large enough to have things to do, but not so big it was annnoying. As I entered the outskirts I was relieved to see that it hadn’t transformed, hadn’t tripled in size, hadn’t lost its charm. It was a lot like I remembered it, and for some reason that made  me happy.

I reached the town center, a giant central garden with a fountain and trees and iron fences and gates. It was as if I had just left yesterday. The Giant took a victory lap around the central square, then I pulled aside and recorded this video:

I couldn’t believe it. Later that night, riding in the dark just to enjoy the night air, it would suddenly hit me: I rode across Mexico. Everyone told me I would die, and here I was, alive and ready for 4,000 more miles.

But first a rest. I had booked an AirBnB in town based on simple criteria: pick the one with the coolest owner. That happened to be a British fashion designer who had built much of her home of out recycled wood and salvage. Once I got through congratulating myself I headed toward her house, some English tea, and the new adventure: find out where I’d live for the next few months.

28.9 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 115.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4757.1 miles.

Thank you to everyone who followed along so far. The Mexico leg is over, but the Adventure is not. Next time I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to since Valladolid and what I have planned for the future.

Until then, of course, feel free to peruse past road logs, get yourself a postcard (yes, I’m still in Mexico) or ask me anything about the ride. Anything except, “How does it feel to bike across Mexico?” because the answer is, “Boy are my knees tired.”

Thanks guys!

Thanks guys!

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5 thoughts on “Bicycling to Mexico’s Great Pyramids

  1. susanTblake says:

    Congratulations Drew / Dre / Andre! It seems like I was just reading about your departure from Minnesota! I lost track of you along the way but I’m glad to have found you again and look forward to going back and catching up on what I missed. Well done!

  2. Oh congratulations! I know this is long after you did finish, But I am just learning it and I am so happy for you! I’ve read all of your logs and blogs and observations and do hope you do that the career year for writing.

    I loved being on this journey with you.

    Blessings on your path,
    Faelind

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