Chichen-Itza, the renowned Maya ruin and UNESCO World Heritage site was only a couple easy hours by bus from my hotel in Merida. I walked a few blocks from the bus stop to the pleasant, affordable, family-run Posada Oldalde in Pisté, which is the gateway town to the ruins. I decided stay for two nights—the ruins would take a full day, and I didn’t want to rush.
Chichen Itza is huge, hot, and sprawling. It is magnificent, but must be taken in measured doses because of the heat and complexity. I wandered around as long as I could, reading placards and stumbling across more and yet more graceful ruins that never make the picture postcards.
In its time, Chichen-Itza was no remote village or ceremonial site. It was a city as grand as Tenochtitlan, the Aztec metropolis that is now Mexico City. But it began as a humble Maya settlement that gradually grew to regional importance by about 600A.D.
A couple centuries later, the warlike Toltec arrived at Chichen-Itza from the central Mexican highlands. The new arrivals began to influence the city’s architecture, such as the plumed serpents on the iconic El Castillo pyramid, and its culture, such as a more pronounced focus on human sacrifice.
By the time the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, the glory of Chichen-Itza had dissipated, although it was still a Maya settlement and pilgrim site to the Cenote Sagrada (the sacred cenote). Today, it’s one of Mexico’s top tourist attractions, bringing busloads of tourists from Cancun and the Maya Riviera.
Finally, as the afternoon sun blazed down, I threw in my very damp towel. Lightheaded and overwhelmed, I staggered to the entrance café for a refreshing agua fresca—limón or jamaica, if you please.
Yet another tour bus was disgorging clots of older people. I wondered at the wisdom of turning these folks loose in the heat of the day, but I’m sure they would be rushed along. They’d probably spent the day hopscotching across the Yucatán. That’s the thing about tours, useful as they often are—you will fill the day and get your money’s worth, exhaustion be damned.
I roused a dusty taxi some distance from the entrance, and paid Western prices for the one-mile drive to my little casa rural. I lay under the fan in the dark room and pretended it was cool. I talked myself out of visiting a cenote (the natural pools deep in limestone caves that riddle the Yucatán). I’m embarrassed to say that I never did visit a cenote during my time in that part of the world.
I recognized how lazy I was becoming—spending aimless days in lovely towns, not taking full advantage of the local sights. This bothers me even now, although I know it was because, after five months, the trip was ending: My thoughts were turning elsewhere; emotionally, I was pulling up the rug: I was less engaged and not as adventurous. It was an odd in-between feeling.
So I napped the afternoon away and went out in the evening for a nosh. In the morning, I’d take an early bus back to Mérida to wait out the final few days of my time in Mexico.