When we told Valerie, the proprietress of the Pickled Onion, that we planned to spend three nights in Campeche after leaving her hotel, she looked at us with the horror and surprise of someone discovering a hidden, profound stupidity in people she had previously assumed to be normal. Even after explaining that we would use the city as a base to explore its surrounding area, we were unable to convince her that there could be any logic in giving the port town more than a day of our precious time.
Although we remained confident in our plans, Valerie’s reaction did succeed in lowering our expectations. We were therefore pleasantly surprised that evening when we arrived in the region’s colorful, well-preserved capital, a city that would soon become our favorite on the peninsula.
For travelers, Campeche offers a pleasant balance of outsider-friendly amenities—including good, reasonably priced hotels; a plethora of restaurants; excellent museums; generously distributed drug stores; and an electronics shop—without the crowds, hectic roads, or unavoidable tourist traps found in the larger centers of Mérida or Cancún. The historic center is also modest enough to be covered on foot, with narrow streets lined by sidewalks and brightly painted buildings, many of which conceal courtyards behind their opaque exteriors. The main square, too, offers a quiet, scenic place to rest and people-watch or feed the pigeons after a day of sightseeing.
While three full days out of a two week vacation would have been a lot to spend in the city itself, Campeche’s many good museums and location near several important but otherwise out-of-the way sites—including monumental Edzná, Chenes-style Hochob, and the island necropolis of Jaina—meant that we left feeling our time there had been too short.
Loltún (aka, Lol-tun or Grutas de Loltún) is an expansive network of caverns located in the northern Puuc region of the Yucatán Peninsula about 20 km (at least 30 minutes by car) northeast of Labná. The inhabitants of the Yucatán have used the caves here for thousands of years for both practical and sacred purposes: as a source of water, clay, and shelter; as a burial place; as a pilgrimage destination; and, more recently, as a defense during the Caste War (1847-1901).
Despite my initial enthusiasm for what promised to be a naturally and culturally fascinating site, as the day of our visit approached I found myself torn about embarking on another cave tour after our experience at Balankanché. On the one hand, I had been looking forward to seeing Loltún’s rock paintings and in-situ artifacts for months. On the other, I really did not enjoy the sensation of having my lungs squeezed or the subsequent panic attack that came with it. Therefore, the night before we were scheduled to head to Loltún, I decided to read some of the more recent descriptions on TripAdvisor to get a better sense of what we were in for.
That decision turned out to be a mixed blessing. While I didn’t find any signs we would experience the same level of discomfort we had at Balankanché, I did come across a few reviews by angry visitors stating that after paying the entrance fee and going on the tour, their guide had insisted upon tips of 500 pesos (between $25-$30) per person. Not only was this much higher than the going rate for guides at any other place we had encountered, but when taking the day’s expenses of hotel and gas into account, it was more cash than we had. In addition, ATMs—like gas stations—are fairly rare commodities in this area; the only one we knew of for certain was at Uxmal, but there was no way of getting to it without spending precious time and gas driving out of our way and then paying for parking again.
After some debate, we decided to take our chances and stick to our original plan of going to Loltún, put aside as much cash as we could, and just look for ATMs along the way. (We didn’t find any.) After all, we reasoned, if guides wanted to require high, unstated costs that most visitors couldn’t reasonably be expected to be prepared for, surely there must at least be an ATM at the site. (There wasn’t.)
By the time we finally reached Loltún, we were low on both cash and gas, leaving me high on anxiety. At the welcome center, we looked in vain for any indication of what the cost of the guide should be, but saw only the (also rather high) entrance fee. We swallowed hard and paid for our tickets, then waited.
The crowd grew considerably over the next 20 minutes, until eventually the guides approached and shuffled us into two, large groups of around 12 people each. Although tours were supposed to be available in English or Spanish, and although there were still several guides who did not accompany either group, both tours were in Spanish. I was disappointed until I realized that being handled like extra luggage rather than actual members of a tour relinquished us from the pressure of giving a particularly high tip. I was finally able to relax. A little.
Without the insight of a guide, we relied on the dual-language signs posted at some of the important stopping points along the path, as well as Andrew Coe’s guidebook, for information on the history of the cave. Mostly, though, we just focused on what we saw and tried not to fall as we slipped over slick, sometimes steep, and often dark paths that connected the caverns’ dramatically lit highlights, including the roughly carved “Head of Loltun;” hand paintings; and the giant “Room of Inscriptions,” which is naturally illuminated by two, large holes in its ceiling. Crucially, these openings let in air as well as light, and are thus partially responsible for the cave’s relatively cool—and breathable—climate. Even with the more pleasant temperatures, however, the caverns were still quite humid and some of the smaller spaces became less-than-comfortable when filled with people. The precariousness of the paths, too, make Loltún a destination that requires at least a moderate level of fitness and lack of fragility, not to mention a pair of good, grippy shoes.
Even though we couldn’t follow most of what was being said, the guide still enabled us to navigate the sometimes precarious terrain, in one spot acting as a physical anchor and pulling us up a particularly difficult incline. At the end of the tour, we handed him all the money we had set aside (minus a small amount held back for buying the gas we would need to get to Campeche that evening) and he accepted it with a thank you and without a second glance.
Would we go back? Probably not. Even a year later, a smog of stress still hangs over my memories of our visit. But much of what we saw was spectacular and unlike anything we encountered elsewhere. All-in-all, I’m glad we went and mostly wish I hadn’t worried so much along the way.
Highly subjective personal rating: 6.5/10 [Actual content of the caves: 8/10; experience leading up to and during the tour: 5/10]
Driving another three km east from Xlapak took us to Labná, the last of the ancient cities along the Ruta Puuc included within Uxmal’sWorld Heritage site. Labná is a bit smaller than Kabah and Sayil, and is one of the oldest cities of the region. The primary buildings, including the palace, gateway, and mirador (observatory), are notable not only for their unusually well-preserved state, but for being particularly emblematic of the Puuc style in both architecture and decoration, with myriad long-snouted masks, attached columns, step-and-fret designs, and even figural reliefs gracing their exteriors.
According to the entranceway plaque, Labná’s origins likely date “from around the beginning of our era,” although the remaining structures are the result of multiple building phases from 750 to 1000 CE. Like the other cities in this arid area, Labná depended on its ability to catch and store rainwater, which it did using nearly 70 chultuns (narrow, domestic cisterns) and a natural aguada (sealed depression in the land, similar to a cenote).
The palace is the first major building visitors encounter within the archaeological area. Set on a platform and facing the sacbe that still connects it to the residential and mirador groups located directly to the south, this structure is the largest of several buildings that make up the “palace group.” Although shorter and less imposing than Sayil’s three-story version, Labná’s palace has the relative advantage of being more accessible and better preserved. And its many nooks and crannies do benefit by close inspection.
From the palace, visitors can take a path east to the “Edificio de las Columnas,” an L-shaped residential structure built in the Puuc Junquillo style, or walk south to Labná’s most distinctive feature: its gate.
As an imposing structure that simultaneously limited and permitted movement between two plazas, the gate would have both connected and demarcated the spaces of the residential group to the west of the sacbe and what was likely a ceremonial center to the east [ref. map]. Iconographically speaking, the western face is the more exciting façade, with its miniature huts flanking either side of the archway. Each hut’s niche once contained a brightly painted stucco sculpture of a seated warrior, remnants of which are still extant today. The blue-green headdress and red walls are especially visible in the niche to the right (south) of the central doorway.
For us, the gate is also memorable as the place where, while trying to 123D Catch the exterior, Josh smacked his head, skinned his shin, and bruised his foot falling down a pile of rubble. The experience was a good reminder to stick to the better-worn paths or, at the very least, to avoid unsure footing while wearing sandals.
To the east of the gate stands el Mirador, a 20 meter, pyramidal heap of stones topped by a small temple with a giant roof comb.
The many support stones on the south side of the comb are evidence of elaborate stucco work that once covered the front of the building and, like the archway, was probably brightly painted. Although we know from early descriptions that most, if not all, of this decoration consisted of human figures, very little of the original ornamentation has survived [ref. image]. Fortunately, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand that this area—which is still impressive in its denuded state—would have been spectacular in its original condition.
We eventually returned to the welcome center via a more shaded (and rather beautiful) path on the western side of the site before once again hopping into our car and heading to Loltun cave, our final archaeological stop in the region and of the day.
Whether you’re into automata; infinity rooms; female grotesques; pan-Asian decorative arts; antique guns; circuses; scrimshaw; sea monsters; stained glass; heavily carpeted surfaces; discordant music; winged, semi-nude mannequins; pseudo-Victorian street scenes; or carousels of dolls riding bug-eyed ponies, the House on the Rock has something for you. Dark, convoluted, and often flat-out creepy, the three-part complex located in the forests of southwestern Wisconsin is a call to imagination, a celebration of fakery, and a product of the extreme “eccentricity” of its designer, Alex Jordan, Jr. (1914–1989). Making one’s way past the indiscriminate jumbles of stuff that fill the multitude of tiny nooks and massive, elaborately constructed vignettes can feel like a journey through the mind of a mad man, but one that is as fascinating and surprising as it is exhausting and disturbing.
Jordan opened the original house in 1959 and built the more carnivalesque second and third sections over the next three decades before selling the complex in the late 1980s. The newer owners have continued to expand on the original site, adding an aviation exhibit and, in 2008, opening a welcome center and museum dedicated to Jordan’s life.
I owe particular thanks to Joshua Albers for this post, whose camera and low-light photography skills did laps around mine. Whenever possible, I’ve used his photos from our visit and supplemented the group with my own. All videos are his.
Departing from Sayil, we continued east for 5.5km until we reached another gravel drive branching off to the south, this time leading to Xlapak.
Unlike the other stops along the Puuc Route, little Xlapak is not officially inscribed by UNESCO within the Uxmal World Heritage Site. This is probably because the visitable area includes only one well-preserved building (Structure 1, aka, the “palace”), while the rest of the former city still lies in near-complete ruin. And yet, the singularity of this building, which seems to stand alone within an encroaching jungle, lends it a jewel-like quality unmatched by the larger and more elaborate structures elsewhere.
From the parking area, we followed a stone-lined footpath under a canopy of slender but densely growing trees. After the open and expansive locations of Sayil, Kabah, and Uxmal, the trail through Xlapak felt unusually intimate—almost eerily so.
After about 200 meters, we arrived at the north façade of the palace. This is the best preserved part of the building, with its step-and-fret frieze bordered by three sets of long-nosed masks stacked in triplicate at the corners and above the central doorway.
The frieze wraps all the way around the building (or did at one time, when the exterior walls were still fully intact), and it’s probable that the east and west sides were once identical. Likewise, the design of the south wall is similar to that of the north, in that both originally possessed three doors and a frieze divided into two equal sections.
However, the southern façade boasts two large masks above its central doorway, just to the right of the pile of rubble that was once the structure’s southwest corner, that are unlike anything else on the building. With their long, hooked noses and modular construction, these faces bear some resemblance to other Puuc depictions of Chaac or Witz. And yet they also display unusually wide mouths, the upper jaws of which are filled with regular, serrated teeth. The noses, too, are turned in the opposite direction of most Chaac masks, curving upwards rather than down. It is unclear whether these differences are iconographically significant or simply a matter of style, but it is possible, as Andrew Coe has suggested, that the faces represent Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed rain god of central Mexico, rather than the Maya counterpart of Chaac (370).
Continuing down the path leads to Group 2, but there is little to see here for the casual visitor. So little, in fact, that we have no photographs from this part of the site and I can no longer remember what it looked like. In another context, that might have been disappointing. At the time, however, we still had two more sites to visit that day before we needed to drive to Campeche and leave the Puuc behind. As a result, we were actually grateful to find the rest of the site undemanding and kept our time there brief.
Highly subjective personal rating: 7.5/10 [Although there is less to see here than at the other stops along the Puuc Route, Xlapak’s compact but scenic grounds offer a pleasant break from its more overwhelming neighbors. Also, it’s free to visit.]
On day two of our Puuc Route adventure, we followed Highway 261 south for just under five km past Kabah, then turned left onto a narrow, unnamed road. After another five km of doubt, we came upon Sayil, our first destination of the day. Turning right (south) off the unnamed road, we drove beneath a canopy of bright orange and green foliage up to the parking lot.
After paying the modest entrance fee, visitors walk about 100 meters south to a clearing and the site’s most impressive structure, the Great Palace.
According to the accompanying plaque, this monumental, three-story structure was built in several stages during the Late Classic period, mostly from 800–1000 AD. By the time of completion, it contained over 90 bedrooms and eight chultuns, and could have housed as many as 350 people. Its primary function was probably to serve as living quarters for the city’s governing elite, but some rooms were likely used for storage or administrative purposes.
In addition to its palace and unusual trove of artifacts related to non-elite life, the sprawling grounds of Sayil are particularly valued for their avian diversity, attracting bird watchers and archaeology buffs alike. As we followed the sacbe through the rest of the visitable area, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of fauna we encountered. The only place we saw a more diverse range of wildlife was at Calakmul, the massive, isolated site and nature preserve located over 300 km to the south near the border of Guatemala.
Highly subjective personal rating: 7.5/10
All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2015, unless otherwise indicated.
After a full morning at Uxmal (and much needed siesta at the Pickled Onion), we drove south-east to our next stop on the Ruta Puuc: Kabah.
As one of Uxmal’s closest and largest neighbors, Kabah was once connected to the larger city by means of a 30 km sacbe. Today, Highway 261 unites the sites. Visitors park on the west side of the modern road, then cross to pay the entrance fee and explore the remains of two palace-style structures.
From the guard’s office, we passed over the open field and climbed the raised platform on which the city’s temples and elite residences once stood. Towards the front of this low plateau sits Kabah’s best preserved and most ornate building, the Codz Poop [“rolled matting”], also known as the “Palace of Masks.”
As its nickname suggests, the Codz Poop is best known for the 250+ interconnected Chaac masks covering the west-facing façade. Although the lower portion of this wall remains remarkably intact, relatively few embellishments still grace the upper register. Instead, unassigned fragments of the modular faces—mostly upper and lower eyelids—sit in stacked pairs on the ground at the foot of the structure.
Despite the façade’s partially ruined state, it’s easy to imagine that at its peak, when the wall of faces was not only intact but brightly painted and possibly decorated with hundreds of lights perched on the Chaacs’ long, angular noses, the effect would have been overwhelming, intimidating, and, ultimately, sublime.
Viewing the same building from its east side, however, gives a very different impression. In contrast to the uniformity of the front, the rear decoration is clearly divided into lower and upper registers. The sections between the doorways are covered in the cross-hatching patterns of abstracted mats—from which the building gets its name—while the scant remains of the section along the roofline host two figures in the round. Although one of these warriors is now missing his head, both wore elaborate feathered headdresses, the depictions of which are clearly visible in low-relief on the stone wall behind the statues.
The militaristic theme continues on the late-9th century doorjambs located on either side of the east façade’s main doorway. Aside from their value as rare examples of highly legible, in-situ Puuc reliefs, the doorjambs are especially fascinating for the clues they provide (and questions they raise) about the history of the region. In addition to the inclusion of glyph dates between the upper and lower scenes of each jamb, the carvings also depict warriors possessing attributes associated with central Mexican cultures, including atlatls (spear throwers). Their presence is evidence of contact between the Toltec and Maya, and may suggest an early Toltec invasion of the Yucatan.
After taking in the second “palace” and carefully crossing back over the road, we followed the trail from the parking lot to a free-standing Maya arch that marked the beginning of the sacbe that connected Kabah to Nohpat and Uxmal. Aside from this one large but unadorned structure, most of the ruins on the west side of the highway, including Kabah’s great temple, remain overgrown and unreconstructed. Without a wealth of ruins to hold our attention, our focus shifted to other aspects of the landscape, including the hard-working dung beetles who shared our path.
Highly subjective personal rating: 7.5/10 [The Codz Poop is outstanding, but after Uxmal, the smaller site is bound to feel a little underwhelming by comparison.]
All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2015, unless otherwise indicated.
Of the many exceptional Maya ruins we visited in the Yucatán Peninsula, both Josh and I agree that Uxmal was our favorite. My notes from the half-day we spent at the site simply read, “Uxmal=Amazing,” and that still pretty well sums up our impression of the ancient city.
Like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal is an UNESCO World Heritage site located within day-trip distance of Mérida. However, its more southwesterly position off a less trafficked route means that it is not as convenient a destination for cruise travelers or those staying in Tulum, and thus receives fewer visitors than its slightly more famous cousin. This is good news for those who do put in the small amount of extra effort necessary to get there, as it not only means you will be sharing the grounds with fewer people, but also that those other people usually care about what they’re seeing (a characteristic we didn’t fully appreciate until later, when we found it lacking among too many of the tourists populating the Maya Riviera).
When traveling within the peninsula, moving south generally means moving back in time. Whereas the buildings at Chichén Itzá mostly date to the Post-Classic era (c. 11th-13th centuries CE), Uxmal is a Late Classic site, built primarily between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. It is the largest and most complex of the cities designed in the Puuc style, and one of the few Yucatan centers not near a cenote. Instead, the residents dug chultuns (deep, narrow cisterns) to capture rain water. The many masks that typify the stone latticework in Puuc architecture have long been thought to represent Chaac (Chac, Chaahk), god of rain, in part because rain would have been both relatively scarce and extremely important to the city’s survival.
[Note: According to a display at the Canton Palace Museum, some recent studies have suggested that these masks might be depictions of Witz, the sacred mountain, rather than the rain deity. However, another plaque located a few feet away in the same exhibition clearly takes the more traditional view that these are the faces of Chaac. Since the question is still contested, I am using the traditional identification of the masks as Chaac because it is both the more widespread view and the one most repeated at the site itself.]
Although more difficult to capture in photographs, the layout of Uxmal is almost as striking as its highly decorated architecture. After visiting Chichén Itzá and Dzibilchaltún, where the major buildings are spread out and emphasized through man-made horizon lines, the relationships between buildings in Uxmal can feel layered and compact despite the substantial size of the site. This is particularly true of the area around the Magician’s Pyramid. Even though the structure is one of the largest and most conspicuous monuments in the ancient city, the courtyard (known as the “Quadrangle of the Birds”) separating it from the buildings of the “Nunnery” is quite small—so small, in fact, that it is impossible to capture the entire front of the pyramid in a single photograph. This means that there are few opportunities to view the face of the pyramid as a whole. And yet, the building’s upper portion is one of the most visible and eye-catching sights in the city, with a giant, open-mouthed mask looking out towards the Nunnery and marking the entrance of the temple located at the top of the central staircase. Instead of opening the space around the pyramid so it could be easily understood as a whole, the city’s builders created multiple opportunities for visually framing, and thus drawing specific attention to, this mask.
Case in point:
And so on.
No other single feature stands out so dramatically at the site, especially when seen from a distance, suggesting that it was this part of the pyramid, rather than the totality of the structure, that held the most significance for the city’s residents. The doorway is also unusual for Puuc architecture, and appears to be a blend of local Puuc and southern Chenes decorative styles. For instance, the use of stacked Chaac masks (seen here at the edges of the central face) is a typically Puuc (and Chenes) feature, while Chenes architects frequently incorporated open-mouthed serpent masks around the doorways of important buildings. In fact, the closest known parallel may be at Hormiguero, one of the most far-flung of the Chenes-style sites, located nearly 300 km away in the south of the Peninsula.
Unfortunately, no one now knows exactly what Uxmal’s structures, including the Magician’s Pyramid, were used for. The city had long been abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived and christened the buildings with names based on their own initial impressions of the site. However, modern scholars have noted that Uxmal’s layout appears to follow astrological features, particularly the movements of the sun and Venus. The cycles of both stars played definitive roles in Maya conceptions of time, but how that translated into the uses of these buildings is still largely a matter of speculation.
The unfortunately named Nunnery, located near the site’s entrance beside the Magician’s Pyramid, is a slightly asymmetrical complex with long, heavily ornamented buildings framing a large courtyard. The light show, held in the evenings just after dusk, takes place here, with the audience sitting in folding chairs near the top of the northern building.
Most scholars believe that both the layout and decorative façades of the Nunnery possess dense symbolism. The buildings themselves may have formed a mandala of the Maya universe, with the tall, north building embodying the Upper World; the short, southern building representing the Underworld; and the east and west buildings standing for the rising and setting aspects of the Middle World (Coe 360). If correct, the complex—built toward the end of Uxmal’s peak—was a physical declaration of the city’s place at the center of the universe.
In addition to the ubiquitous Chaac masks, the courtyard-facing imagery includes repeated depictions of double-headed or feathered serpents, Maya huts, jaguars, and even masks of Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed water deity associated with central Mexican cultures. The cross-hatching designs, common throughout Uxmal, depict mats, emblems of power.
From the Nunnery, we walked through the small ballcourt, past the stepped hill supporting the Governor’s Palace, over the Dovecote, and up the Great Pyramid.
Unlike the Magician’s Pyramid, the Great Pyramid’s 100 feet of steps are still open to those visitors who are willing to climb them. Which we did.
In addition to offering a view of the city’s central buildings, the platform at the top of the pyramid supports a small temple decorated with macaws—perhaps representing an aspect of the sun god—and more long-snouted masks, some of which hold human heads in their mouths. Only one side of the pyramid has been reconstructed, and it is not possible to enter the temple proper.
The northeast corner of the Great Pyramid abuts the man-made hill that forms the platform for the Governor’s Palace (or House of the Governor) and House of the Turtles. Walking around the narrow south end of the Palace leads to an open plaza that faces the front (east) side of the building.
Near the center of the plaza, directly before the Palace’s staircase, stands an altar supporting Uxmal’s two-headed jaguar throne. Excavations revealed a large cache of over 900 objects, including pots, jade jewelry, and obsidian knives, buried beneath this altar (Coe 360). Although we were unaware of it at the time, Coe also notes that an invisible line corresponding “to an important point in the Venus-cycle” runs from the central doorway of the House of the Governor, through the throne, to the largest structure at the nearby site of Nohpat (361). This relationship between the two cities is further emphasized by the fact that they were once also directly connected by a sacbe (white road).
From the plaza, it becomes clear that the Palace is in fact three separate buildings connected by spear-point arches and unifying visual features, including one of the most intricate friezes of the region. Altogether, the buildings run for over 100 meters, making the three-part unit one of the longest palace-style structures of any Maya city. Visitors can walk up yet another platform to approach and look into these buildings, but are not supposed to enter them. The rooms currently hold unassigned architectural fragments and serve as a cool-ish resting places for iguanas.
The northern corners of the Palace have been dug out to reveal more Chaac masks sunk below the walkway. Their strange placement may indicate that the patio area around the structure represents a later building stage than the rest of the House of the Governor.
Descending from the Palace, we approached the House of the Turtles, located at the northeast corner of the hill-platform.
Some scholars have proposed that the House of the Turtles, named for the row of 40-plus stone turtles encircling the upper portion of its roof, may have been dedicated to a rain “cult,” since turtles are associated with rain. If that is the case, however, it raises the questions of why no images of Chaac adorn the building, especially given the proliferation of the god elsewhere at the site (there are over 100 such masks on the Governor’s Palace alone), and why one of the only other depictions of turtles in the city is clearly attached to the god of the underworld (see image of God N relief at the Nunnery, above).
The relative austerity and small size of the building complements the ornate enormity of its neighbor. Its exterior is punctuated by 10 doors: three each on the east, west, and south walls and just one in the north. Another sight-line leads from the central doorway on the south wall, through the northern opening, across the ball court, to the central entrance of the Nunnery’s south building.
For our last stop, we walked west to the “Cemetery Complex,” which, in keeping with the misnomers that abound at the site, is not an actual cemetery. Named for the numerous images of skulls and cross-bones carved on the low platforms dotting its main square, the Complex includes a heavily overgrown pyramid and temple platform. Much of the western area has yet to be reconstructed and is thus far less spectacular than the eastern side of the site. Even so, this quiet group offers the rare opportunity for close inspection of in situ, fairly well preserved reliefs that make it another not-to-be missed section of an already remarkable place.
After leaving X’batún and Dzom-Bacal cenotes, Josh and I headed to the Pickled Onion, an eco-hotel that would serve as our base and surrogate home for the next two nights as we explored the Ruta Puuc.
Located between Uxmal (15 km) and Kabah (8 km) on the outskirts of the small town of Santa Elena, the Pickled Onion is run by Canadian ex-patriot, Valerie Pickles. Valerie’s passion for the Yucatan and her pride in cooking with fresh ingredients and purified water made the B&B one of the highlights of our trip and, thus, deserving of its own post. I also had the best mojito of my life here, a fact that gives the Pickled Onion a particularly special place in my heart.
Guest quarters consist of a series of small cabanas designed for minimal environmental impact and constructed in the style of contemporary Maya homes, with wood-and-concrete walls and thatched roofs. For those unaccustomed to eco-hotels (as we were), the structures may at first feel disconcertingly permeable, with insects and geckos passing easily through windows, within the woven ceiling, and beneath the roofline. Of these visitors, we most appreciated the geckos. Not only were they cute, but they served as natural bug-reducers. Their tiny feces, which dropped down from the ceiling onto furniture and suitcases, were less welcome but easy to clean up.
Our room contained both a western-style bed (with netting) and a hammock, the latter of which is the preferred bedding for many locals and the cooler option on warm nights. Unfortunately for us, we were not particularly adept at sleeping in hammocks, and our first night was tortuously uncomfortable due to the inescapable heat. In addition, we had to choose between using the mosquito netting over the bed—which helped to deter the small, black, biting insects that made their way into our sheets at night—or the overhead fan, because the manufactured breeze could not penetrate the lightweight canopy. Eventually, though, we accepted our bug-bitten fate, chose the fan, and finally fell asleep.
The temperature the next day—like most days—was in the 90s, and we ended up relaxing in the well-kept pool after an intense several hours of exploring ruins. Thankfully, the evening finally cooled off and our room became perfectly comfortable. We slept hard that night, and only reluctantly rolled out of bed (late) the next morning.
The only other unpleasant aspect of our time at the Pickled Onion, aside from our hot and buggy first night, was the appearance of moldy fruit in our breakfasts both mornings. This may sound nitpicky—and probably is, given that the rest of our food, even the rest of the fruit, was either good or excellent. At the time, though, we were already on our guard about all things food related, and had specifically been warned about eating the skins of uncooked fruits and vegetables. While never enticing, the repeated discovery of mold was especially off-putting in this context of food-paranoia, and made us nervous about everything else we consumed there. Fortunately, it turned out that such worries were needless, as we never got sick from anything we ate or drank at the B&B.
Now back to the good stuff. In addition to the hammock, our room contained a number of thoughtful details, including decorations of locally made crafts and a fridge (which, even when turned off, was useful for storing food without attracting bugs). My favorite touch, however, was the binder Valerie put together with descriptions of nearby sites, important information about the rooms (toilet paper goes in the trash; tipping is encouraged; to-go lunches need to be ordered the night before; etc.), and a short autobiography explaining how she came to own a bed and breakfast in Santa Elena.
All things considered, we would definitely stay at the Pickled Onion again, although preferably in the cooler months. The restaurant is open to non-guests in the evenings, so if you are in the area, even if you stay at another hotel, I strongly suggest getting your dinner (and a mojito) here.
Having spent the morning at Dzibilchaltún and the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, we returned to Mérida’s city center to drop off the car and take a short break at the hotel before walking to our next destination, the Canton Palace Museum. Also known as the Museo Regional de Antropología, the mansion-turned-museum blends early 20th century opulence with archaeological artifacts and, sometimes, more contemporary art. During our visit, the downstairs was closed for installation, but the upstairs hosted an exhibition on Puuc architecture that included relief details from Uxmal and other related sites, as well as quite a few illustrative photographs and explanatory text. Although visually the exhibition could not, of course, compare with seeing the works in situ, the written content was extremely informative, with clearer explanations for the development and significance of Puuc architecture than I have seen elsewhere.
Our visit was brief—around 30 minutes—and I remember being disappointed in the museum on the whole. Our guidebooks had been rather gushing in their praise for its collection, and the reality felt significantly less impressive, especially after having just seen the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. It also didn’t help that we were nearing the end of a day spent in nearly relentless heat, including a long walk through the congested (if sometimes scenic) sidewalks of Mérida to get there. Looking back, however, I primarily think of the quality of the scholarship and the beauty of the mansion itself. We also appreciated the exhibition more when we went to Uxmal just two days later and were able to mentally place some of the architectural details we had seen in the Canton Palace on the buildings from which they are now missing.
Highly subjective personal rating: 6.5/10 [probably 7/10 or higher when both levels are open]