Mexico 2012 – Coba Maya Village and Ancient City

No matter how luxurious the White Sands resort was, we didn’t cross the Atlantic solely to lie in the Sun and drink tequila. On our previous Mayan Riviera trip we had visited the ancient Mayan sites of Chichen Itsa and Tulum, but just did not have the time to go to Coba. Fortunately Thomson had a trip that took us not only to the ancient Maya city, but also to a real Maya village where we could see how the local people lived.

Cool summer shack Coba Mayan village

Cool summer shack Coba Mayan village

Now the Maya people who live around here are just starting to feel the benefit of the increasing number of tourists who are arriving to stay at the all-inclusive resorts. Most families have two houses; an airy wood and thatch shack, which is great in the heat of the day and a slightly less scenic breeze-block construction for when hurricane season hits town. Things are fairly basic, clean water comes from a well, supplied by the underground rivers that criss-cross the Yucatan.

Well, Coba Mayan village

Well, Coba Mayan village

While cooking is done over brush fires, there are now solar panels outside the shacks providing power for things like TVs and radios instead of old car batteries.

Making tortillas Coba Mayan village

Making tortillas Coba Mayan village

The Maya keep lots of cats and dogs about their homes,

Doggy siesta

Doggy siesta

it isn’t that they like animals so much (which of course they do), but more as a predator early warning system, to warn of any jaguars or mountain lions that may be around and wanting to eat their chickens or their children.

Chickens Coba Mayan Village

Chickens Coba Mayan Village

We also met a lovely little wild pig, she’s called Linda.

Wild pig Linda, a very well camoflaged creature

Wild pig Linda, a very well camouflaged creature

Linda was taken as a piglet, but not for the table. She has two very important jobs. First she is part of the jaguar alert team, but also when she comes into season she attracts male wild pigs who do end up on the table. She also converts table scraps into useful fertiliser for the main village crops of squash, chili and corn.

We were also introduced to the local Maya holy man who performed a traditional blessing for us.

Mayan holy man

Mayan holy man

Now the eagle-eyed will have noted the cross on the banner above the altar. This is not a Christian symbol, in the local religion the cross represents the four cardinal points of the compass. When the Spanish conquered this part of Mexico, they didn’t really spend much time trying to forcibly convert the local people as there wasn’t any gold or silver to be had off them, so a lot of local traditions went unmolested by the Inquisition. I suspect a quick glance said they must be Christians with that cross and all that, before they went off to bully some folks with a bit of precious metal knocking about. The Maya believe that man is made from a mixture of corn flour and the blood of the gods.

We thanked the holy man for his blessing and travelled on to the ancient Pre-Columbian city of Coba.

Mayan Temple Coba

Mayan Temple Coba

Coba was first settled around 100 BCE, grew to prominence between 100AD and 600AD before being eclipsed in a local power struggle by the city of Chichen Itza to the east around 1000AD. From then the city went into decline and by the time the Spanish arrived it had been deserted. Although the site was never truely lost, the remoteness of the Yucatan peninsula meant that archeologists never really got around to exploring Coba until the 1920s and 30s and it was only when the Yucatan was opened up to mass tourism from the 1980s onwards that any serious money was spent on opening the site up.

The site itself is huge so we hired a Maya taxi (or rickshaw) to take us to the most important buildings. These buildings are mostly ceremonial as the residential buildings used by the inhabitants would have been built from wood and thatch and haven’t survived.

There are two ball courts where a kind of basket ball was played with rubber balls made from tree sap.

Ball Court Coba

Ball Court Coba

The object of the game was to get your side’s ball through the hoop. The game had religious significance for the Maya and depending on who you believe, the consequences of winning were either mutilation and bloodletting or mutilation and death for the winners and losers alike. The spilt blood fertilising the soil for harvests yet to come. Aside from the ball courts the other significant buildings are the pyramid temples.

The temple of Nohoch Mul

The temple of Nohoch Mul

The largest temple on the complex is Nohoch Mul, which at 138 feet is the highest pyramid in Yucatan. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt there is nobody buried within the pyramids. People talk a lot of nonsense about pyramids, but it’s worth remembering that pyramids are a pretty basic architectural structure, which is why so many different people separated by distance and time built them. You can climb to the top of Nohoch Mall if you want, but at 53 I thought better of it just enjoyed being there.

I suppose the big question is why did the Maya desert Coba? The consensus of opinion seems to be an ecological collapse as more and more of the surrounding area was deforested and the local population was unable to feed itself.

Holding all the stones of Coba together is the same sticky rubber that was used to make the balls for the ball courts. The Maya also used it as a teeth cleaning gum, but it was a Colonel Adams (who was working for the Mexican army in the late 19th century) who thought the gum might make a substitute for chewing tobacco and Adams Chicklets were born. Then along came Mr Wrigley who added mint to the gum and became a millionaire.
We got to sample some of this gum at our next stop where a local farmer climbed a tree and pretended to hack a well for the sap to emerge from, with his machete.

I am up a tree pretending to hack it with my machete

I am up a tree pretending to hack it with my machete

I can’t say that the freshly collected gum was particularly lovely, but it was quite chewy!

Chewing gum at he firts stage of its evolution

Chewing gum at he first stage of its evolution

Mexico 2012 – Anole Lizard

Thee are four different species of Anole Lizard to be found in the Yucatan. This fellow was about four inches long, mostly tail, but I don’t know to which of the four species he belongs to.

Anole lizard

Anole lizard

What he does have is an orange throat pouch that he puffs up. I’m not sure why, but it will more than likely be to do with sex.

Now you see it

Now you see it

Americans often call anolis (for that is the plural) chameleons, because they have the ability to change colour, but true chameleons are only found in sub-Saharan Africa and a few parts of Asia and Mediterranean Europe.

Into the light

Into the light

This fellow was in the reception area of the Grand Palladium and White Sands Resort somehow avoiding becoming lunch for the feral cats.

Mexico 2012 – My Mexican Bird Walk

Apparently there are 1000 species of bird that either live in or visit Mexico. Including the handsome Yucatan jay (or Weiner Bird as it came to be known) we only got to see a tiny fraction of these birds while we were at the Grand Palladium White Sands Resort on the Mayan Riviera. Here are some of my favourite bird photos from our trip, working our way down from the hotel lobby area to the beach.

By far the most common sighting was the great tailed grackle.

Great Tailed Grackle comes to lunch

Great Tailed Grackle comes to lunch

They were absolutely everywhere, with little or no fear of people they even joined us at the table for lunch. There is a remarkable degree of sexual dimorphism between the male and female of this species.

Male and femail Great Tailed Grackle

Male and female Great Tailed Grackle

The females are brown and much smaller than the males who are an iridescent black .

Around the restaurant area there are a number of ornamental pools with Koi carp. Beautiful to look at, the smaller ones were also an object of deep interest to this Mexican green heron.

Mexican Green Heron

Mexican Green Heron

These are small heron, about the size of a small chicken. Somewhat larger was this bare throated tiger heron,

Bare Throuted Tiger Heron

Bare Throated Tiger Heron

who also liked hanging around the ornamental pools and hunting in the crocodile enclosure (rather him than me).

Bare ThroutedTiger Heron hunting

Bare Throated
Tiger Heron hunting

From the front he looks like he is wearing a tie.

Bare Throuted Tiger Heron

Bare Throated Tiger Heron

This is a great kiskadee, which is a tyrant flycatcher. These were also very common, often hanging about in pairs we saw them in the mangroves and on the beach as well as in the hotel gardens.

Graet Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

Flycatcher is a bit of a misnomer these are relatively large birds, somewhere between a starling and a jackdaw, and they will take small mammals and lizards as well as insects.

The hotel gardens were also a good place to see the orange oriole,

Orange Oriole

Orange Oriole

and the northern mockingbird. Big thanks here to HJ Ruiz of Avian 101, whose wonderful blog of North American bird photography helped me to identify the mockingbird.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

On the verges of the mangroves we encountered these plain chachalacas bustling around in the leaf litter.

Plain Chachalaca

Plain Chachalaca

These are about the size of a wood-pigeon and hang around in family groups. They eat seeds and fruit. the name is derived from the call which sounds like Cha-Cha-la-Ka.

Down on the beach there were of course lots of gulls.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull

I think they were laughing gulls (mind you if any gull experts out there think otherwise please let me know) in their winter plumage. We also saw frigate birds soaring on the thermals and osprey and terns diving for fish. Occasionally we’d be joined by a group of brown pelicans.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Last time we were on the Mayan Riviera one of them joined us at the saltwater pool (which is always a good excuse for reusing an old photo)

Poolside pelican

Poolside pelican

These semipalmated plovers were also quite a common site on the rocks by the saltwater pool,

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

The picture I am most pleased with is this one of a sanderling,

Sanderling

Sanderling

not because they are unusual or anything like that (you get them in the UK and many other places, but because the little devils are so fast. I have tens of discarded blurred images of these little chaps, but this one is just the ticket.

Mexico 2012 – The Weiner Bird

One of the first creatures we met in the Mayan Riviera was this handsome bird.

Mexican Jay obviously does not read Spanish

Yucatan Jay obviously does not read Spanish

He’s a Yucatan Jay and they are found over most of southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Sometimes we’d see them on their own, but sometimes they’d form great big flocks of twenty or so birds.

Immature Yucatan Jay

Yucatan Jay

Like his European namesake, the Yucatan Jay eats pretty much anything in the forest habitat. An interesting thing that I discovered (thank you Wikipedia) is that when they are young, the birds have a gold eye ring.

Immature Yucatan Jay

Immature Yucatan Jay

This turns black as they get older. Naturally the place we most often saw them was perched on the ‘Do not feed the animals’ sign, often in the company of coatis and raccoons.

Yucatan Jay

One handsome bird

With their cobalt blue wings and tail they must be the most gorgeous birds that I have seen in Mexico, but they do have a funny cry “Weiner weiner”. Do you think they like hot dogs?

Mexico 2012 – Agouti

This handsome little fellow is an Agouti

Agouti got to get you into my life

Agouti got to get you into my life

He’s a relative of the guinea pig only about the size of a cat and with longer legs. Agoutis are found throughout Central and north South America and we often saw them about the grounds of the Grand Palladium resort. They were a lot more wary of human contact than the coati and the raccoons though.

Had enough of your crap puns, I'm off

Had enough of your crap puns, I’m off

Mexico 2012 – Masked Banditos

Tired and hungry after our mammoth journey we made our way through the mangroves to the restaurant block. Suddenly there was a scuttling in the bushes, so we looked down from the walkway to find a masked bandit staring up at us.

Go on give us a kiss

Go on give us a kiss

It was our first sighting of a raccoon on this trip. Later in the week  we found that they clustered around the ‘Do Not Feed the Animals‘ sign at the hotel lobby, where people were of course feeding them.

Tickle your tum

Tickle your tum

For some reason the raccoons were not quite as bold as on our last visit back in 2009, when we frequently saw them down by the beach, washing items filched from the salad bar under the shower. Either the coati have filled part of that niche or perhaps they had been culled after complaints from guests.

What do mean Do Not Feed the Animals

What do mean Do Not Feed the Animals

I had never really thought of raccoons as being typically Mexican, but after looking them up on Google I discovered that they range all the way from the north of Canada down to Panama. They are also becoming common in Germany and parts of the former Soviet Union after being released as game animals and escaping from fur farms. I read somewhere that it was Herman Goering’s bright idea to release them in Germany, but it was actually a poultry farmer called Rolf Haag who released the first pair back in 1936. We don’t have any wild in the UK, but that didn’t stop Disney having them wreck the villains’ car in the live action 101 Dalmatians!

Mexico 2012 – The Lap of Luxury

A lot of travellers look down on package deals and all-inclusive holidays – I remember a particularly catty comment I received from one of the Simonseeks’ editors knocking the value of a guide I wrote to the Mayan Riviera because people on all-inclusive breaks were just ‘handed things on a plate.’ I think that sort of attitude is just pretentious snobbery, the thing about travel is that it offers many different opportunities according to how people want (or indeed can afford) to do things. Travel isn’t all about spending 24 hours on a bus in the Andes on $2, with only a goat for company.

Mayn Riviera sunrise

Mayan Riviera sunrise

Now while I am not above snagging a bargain easyJet fare and hotel deal on the internet see our trips to the Prague, Tallinn or Cyprus for example), I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying a touch of luxury from time to time and that is exactly what we got at the Grand Palladium and White Sands on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera. What I liked about the Grand Palladium resort was that it had been developed in an ecologically sound fashion where the advantages of providing local employment were balanced with protecting the environment. The coastline of the Mayan Riviera is mangrove swamp, which provides a natural barrier against hurricanes coming in from the Caribbean and these mangroves have been retained as part of the resort infrastructure.

Mangrove path

Mangrove path

Naturally some of the wildlife has had to be relocated or confined.

Myan dolphin? I don't think so

Mayan dolphin? I don’t think so

but many of the other creatures like the coati, iguana and agouti roam quite freely around the discreet villa blocks that fringe the central lagoon.

Basking Iguana

Basking Iguana

The lagoon teams with fish and trees are full of colourful birds. Down on the white coral sand beach we watched osprey and terns dive for prey, pelicans fishing and high above frigate birds soaring on the thermals.

Our apartment was luxurious with a huge wide-screen telly, a constantly restocked mini-bar, bath room with spa bath and a safe that was placed on an eye-level shelf in the wardrobe (hooray for that no lying on the floor to access our valuables). Getting around the resort was by golf cart, an erratically timetabled boat of on foot.

Eating opportunities were fantastic. We had the free range of a host of restaurants, like Rodizio, a Brazilian grill where grilled meats were carved off gigantic skewers at our table, we got to eat the whole farm, turkey, chicken, pork, two types of beef, lamb, rabbit, sausage and pineapple. Ok I know pineapples don’t run around going baa, but after so much meat it was very cleansing to the palette .

Rodizio - not for vegetarians

Rodizio – not for vegetarians

Other restaurants included: the pan-Asian Bamboo which did a nice line in beef teyiaki. Sumptori the Japanese restaurant had Teppanyaki tables, but we didn’t want to wait for that and contented ourselves with some very good sushi and a delicious beef soba that just melted in the mouth. El Dorado is a steak house that does a fantastic Fillet Mignon. Ribs and More is exactly what you’d expect, I thought the beef broth starter was great but the burger (and a good burger is my guilty pleasure) was a bit ordinary. the only real disappointment was La Adelita the Mexican restaurant, where although the food was nicely presented it was a little bland.

Lovely presentation - enchilada at La Adelita

Lovely presentation – enchilada at La Adelita

On our previous visit in 2009 we also tried Portofino, a very competent Italian and Mare Nostrum a pan Mediterranean restaurant which tried to be all things (Spanish, Greek, Moroccan, Italian) but didn’t quite pull it off successfully.

Then there were the bars. There are bars on the beaches, by the pools and in each of the four hotel lobbys. There is even one for cigar smokers called Churchill’s appropriately enough. All the bar men can knock up a decent Margarita, Martini, Cosmo or Manhattan. And of course the all-inclusive advantage, no big bar and restaurant tabs to spoil the end of your stay with a huge credit card bill.

While I agree that this is a fairly sanitised version of Mexico we still got out to visit the archeological site and a Mayan village at Coba. however I also noticed at several points along the highways police road blocks manned by seriously tooled up coppers, a stark reminder that Mexico is still wild, untamed and dangerous outside the perimetre of our luxury resort. Only today it isn’t so much banditos and revolutionaries, but drug cartels calling the shots.

Mexico 2012 – I’ll get my Coati

Touching down at a wet cold and foggy Gatwick Airport on Tuesday it hardly seemed possible that just a week earlier we had been awakened by these fellows crashing through the mangrove swamp outside our apartment on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera.

White nosed coati

It was a family troop of white nosed coati, relatives of the raccoon. These fellows were pretty bold, almost as soon as they saw me with my camera they were happily posing,

We are coming to get you

and then up onto the balcony looking for breakfast.

Where’s the bacon?

Having seen their sharp pointy teeth I popped back inside and shut the door before we had any kind of misunderstanding. I imagine the apartment’s previous occupants must have been feeding them, but I wasn’t up for that in my opinion wild animals should be foraging for wild food not being fed from an all-inclusive buffet breakfast. Mind you if anyone else wanted to feed them by hand that was up to them and I wasn’t going to miss a good photo-op for any eco-hippy principles.

Family breakfast

Especially as they were taking the risk of bites, scratches, tetanus, blood poisoning and fleas.

Gimme, gimme gimme