All aboard Bus No.4 to Chichén Itzá pt.1

Trip Start Dec 29, 2012
Trip End Jan 12, 2013

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Flag of Mexico  , Yucatan Peninsula,
Saturday, January 5, 2013

Oh the joys of the package tour! What is meant to be the pinnacle of our visit to Mexico - visiting the amazing pyramids of Chichén Itzá - is consumed by the trials of the prescribed itinerary. We knew it wouldn't be as pleasant as having our own private transport to Tulum and grit our teeth accordingly but it's a long, long pday for just three hours of wonder.

With a little foresight at breakfast we ask if the staff can prepare us a mini picnic bag, so we have a few snacks for the journey. It proves a wise decision. As we're herded aboard the coach at 8am Armando, our guide, introduces himself, and makes us look at the big no.4 on the front of the bus. He's a touch brusque but that is nothing to what's to come.

Within minutes of setting off he picks up the mike and starts talking. And talking and talking. With the stereotype of the tourguide it's a typically frustrating experience, not just because most people are more interested in a quiet journey or private chats with their friends, and not even because he tries to induce participation from the disinterested parties and tells 'jokes', but mainly because his microphone keeps cutting in and out.

So as he gives a very lengthy description of the entire history of pre-Hispanic peoples from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, their calendars and numerical systems, cranial deformation and physical disfigurement - switching mid sentence between Spanish and English - he cuts in and out of the speakers as he goes.

Despite us trying to tell him repeatedly that we can only hear half of what he says and understand even less he ploughs on regardless, more concerned with reeling off his prepared speeches and pointing at various charts he's holding up (which you need a telescope to decipher from four seats back), than caring if we comprehend.

We pick up snippets such as the fact that the religious Mayan calendar was counted in periods of 260 days, which matches the standard gestation period for humans, and that you can't climb the main pyramid anymore as an old lady tourist fell from the top all the way down and died in 2006... but much of it sails past us. The thing he keeps repeating is that we must remember we are on Bus Number 4!!

After an hour of talking Armando realises most of us are past caring so he demands, "Do you want me to shut up? I am not done yet, I have only just started!" Looking a little crestfallen he then says, "OK, I will shut up...", but with a slight glare announces, "for 20 minutes."

Ah, silence is golden! And then, joy of joys, a baby starts crying at the front of the bus. I'm not sure why you would bring a baby on a twelve-hour round trip to overcrowded ruins which will be sweltering at over 100 degrees. I know I'm not a parent but that just seems like you're building a rod for your own back.

Armando isn't happy and keeps glaring at the baby and once he starts droning on again he even tells the parents to quieten their child as the rest of the bus can't hear him. Everyone feels a lot more sorry for the harassed couple than they do for Armando. He even berates us all saying, "Each time I speak, you close your eyes!"

I shut out all the disturbances and settle back with my Lonely Planet guide to glean the following information about Chichén Itzá, designated one of the new wonders of the world in 2007 (alongside Petra in Syria, the Colosseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China, Macchu Pichu, the statue of Christ in Rio and the Taj Mahal).

The most famous of all the Yucatan Maya sites Chichén Itzá is essentially a vast astronomical design, with the temples all counting cosmic time. Established in the late Classic period of Mayan history (around 600AD) it was taken over by the invading Toltecs around the time of the first millennium.

The resourceful Maya assimilated the Toltecs and their worship of the winged serpent god Quetzalcoatl into their culture, fortunately having already revered him under their own name Kukulcan. And the main pyramind, El Castillo, is actually a Toltec construction over a smaller Maya pyramid which boasts a red jaguar throne inside it. This second, grander, exterior pyramid famously produces a light and shadow illusion on the spring and autumn equinoxes of the serpent god ascending and descending the side of the staircase.

So the Toltecs were pretty happy, especially as the pyramid provided them with the perfect place to elevate their favourite past-time to a near obsession - human sacrifice. When the steps weren't playing host to shadowy serpents they were running with blood. And the Mayans and Toltecs became intermingled with time.

Chichén Itzá was finally abandoned in the late 13th century but remained the site of Maya pilgrimage for many years until it ultimately disappeared into the forest, only to be rediscovered many centuries later.

At 10.30 we pull into a restaurant on the outskirts of Valladolid, a city en route to Chichén Itzá. Apparently this is an obligatory government stop for coach parties at a place where artefacts and food are prepared to help the community. Hmmm. That seems like a load of old nonsense to us. But we stop for the obligatory 'official' photo as instructed.

Armando says we'll be here for an hour for lunch and shopping and then there's not another stop for food until we return to the hotel about 8pm. So lunch mid-morning and then starvation by late afternoon. Thank God we grabbed that picnic bag earlier. We'll be glad of it on the way home.

Unsurprisingly, everything in the gift shop is five times the price of the same items in Playa del Carmen, and to be honest, Playa seems to have much better quality and range. There are even signs saying that shoplifters will have to pay even more inflated prices for the items they try to purloin, or they'll be handed over to the police. Charming. Our entire bus load of passengers mills around aimlessly without a single purchase, all wondering why on earth we're putting up with this crap, but powerless to do anything about it. At least there's airconditioning!

After 50 minutes we're seated for lunch - at table no. 4! - just as other coaches start arriving but the buffet that's provided is quite simply terrible, so with the exception of a rotund Japanese child who not only goes up for thirds but has spent the entire trip eating chocolate, most of us leave without finishing our plates.

Eventually at midday we're allowed back on the bus but not before they've tried to flog us little bottles of Mayan liquer with our photo from earlier slapped onto the label for $20 US. We decline and pick up our books to settle in for the final hour's drive only to find that the family with the crying baby have been sent to the back of the bus by Armando and are now sat right behind us.

Our fellow passengers are quicker on their feet and there's a mass exodus to the empty seats at the front while we're left stuck next to the permanently distressed child whowon't stop bawling. Her parents are more interested in eating crisps than attending to their child. I wish we'd taken that bottle of licquor and downed it in one!
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