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Discovering new horizons away from home

January 11, 2017
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist (tahawus@northnet.org) , Lake Placid News

It's been many years since I first traveled with my wife to visit the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula, near Chichen Itza, Mexico. It was the early 1980s and tourism was still in its infancy in the eastern portion of the Yucatan State. At the time, the hotbed of activity centered primarily around the small resort town of Cancun.

Although there were a few companies providing guided tours, it was easy enough to rent a vehicle - mostly battered old Vokswagen Beetles - which we did.

My wife, who was a travel agent at the time, also speaks Spanish. So I figured we had all of our bases pretty well covered. What could go wrong?

At the car rental agency the following morning, the first sign of trouble appeared when the VW Bug we had reserved was also booked for another couple that was vacationing in Cancun. Fortunately, they were good company, and we were willing to share the ride and split the cost of the adventure.

In typical Mexican tradition, we argued and dickered with the rental agency over our choice of a proper vehicle before they finally produced a duplicate of the same old battle worn, rusted out VW Beetle we had previously refused.

Although the day started off with a few glitches in the road, I was feeling pretty good about the adventures that lay ahead. As we were tooling along a narrow strip of blacktop that was considered a road in Mexico, we passed through long stretches of jungle that were separated by vast charred forests. The practice of slash and burn was still very much alive at the time, and we drove through choking black smoke for many miles before we reached a small town that consisted of just a few tin shacks and a fruit stand.

We filled up on a basket of some of the most incredible fruits I've ever had, before setting off toward Chichen Itza.

Through the smokey haze, we would occasionally catch a glimpse of headlights coming our way, and I quickly learned to pull over to the side. The lights were connected to huge tanker trucks that took up both lanes of the rutted single-lane road we were on. The only alternative was to attempt to negotiate the smaller dirt paths that provided passage for cattle, ox carts and dirt bikes.

We were more than 50 miles into the journey when the double lane road became a single lane. Occasionally, there were signs of life, but very few signs of where we were or how far we had yet to go.

Finally, there were a few signs of life as we passed by a roadside cantina in the middle of nowhere. The village had the usual tin shacks, and the pall of the burning forests was omnipresent.

In the cantina, we were informed that the ruins were still an hour's drive distant, and already the sun was scorching hot. However, we were all in for the adventure and we were soon on our way through many more miles of burning jungle and barren land.

Vehicles became less frequent and even the occasional passing trucks were nowhere to be seen.

We'd been on the road for hours, and still no sign of Chichen Itza, or any other location for that matter. Just as we were ready to turn back, and bail out on the adventure, we noticed a roadside cantina just down the road.

Of course we stopped, and my wife got the entire low down. The burning had been going on for months, and the only relief available was to be found at a local swimming hole known as Cenote Sagrado.

With a six-pack of semi-cold beer in the cooler and a wide grin on my face, we set off down a bumpy single lane dirt road that likely handled more ox carts than VW Beetles.

After a mile or so, there was evidence of life, and just beyond we saw a hand-painted sign pointing toward a long dirt path. The sign read that Dzed Cenote was in one direction and Chichen Itza was in the other.

After having traveled over rough roads for hours, the prospect of finding a cool pool of fresh water was beyond belief. I quickly parked the VW, and we took off down a dirt path over a small hill, where a group of local residents were gathered.

I suppose they were just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. As we approached, one particularly large barrel-chested fellow stepped up to greet us with a beer in his hand.

Wearing a half grimace, half grin on his face, he sized the crew up.

After the brief inspection, he asked, "Americano, eh?"

The tension was obvious, as we were on his turf. So I nodded my head yes, and replied with a laugh, "Mexicano, si?"

I suppose my reply caught him off guard.

The assembled crowd roared with laughter as he stepped forward to offer me a cold beer.

With the benefit of my wife translating, we learned that the Yucatan is blessed with a huge network of underground freshwater rivers, of which the nearby Dzed Cenote was one of the lesser known. At the time, it was one of the lesser known cenotes. It appeared to be a local swimming hole rather than a tourist attraction.

Cenotes were created as flowing waters carved away the stone. The fresh waters have served residents of the region for centuries, and there are still many sites that have yet to be explored. In recent years, scuba divers have discovered numerous sites that were used for ceremonial purporses, as well as industrial.

After enjoying the pool and the company, we made our way to the Mayan temples at Chichen Itza, which were still in a very primitive state at the time.

We were able to climb to the very top of the pyramid-like structures, and into a labyrinth of tunnels that laced the interior of the temple.

Since those early days, the Mexican government has clamped down on things and visitors are no longer permitted to access the interior or exterior of the structures.

In more recent times, satellite imagery has been utilized to uncover a number of previously unknown temples. As the process of slash and burn continues, I expect there will be a number of previously unknown structures discovered.

 
 

 

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