Oh sure, mention Cancun, and you probably think I’m gonna tell you about the hours I spent getting hammered at Carlos and Charlies or plastered at Senor Frog’s. Well, I did. But that’s not this tale. And Cancun was just the starting point for this trip, as it is for this story.
I’d been to Cancun several times before. Party town, gleaming white beaches, and beautiful turquoise waters. Who could ask for anything more? (OK, so you can’t get stoned there legally like in Amsterdamn, but why quibble over the little things?) This time around I was in town to see Mayan ruins. Tulum, a beautiful oceanside temple that I’d visited decades ago with a group of friends, deserved a revisit. And I’d always wanted to see Chichén Itzá. But you can do that at any old time. Better, visit during the spring or autumn equinox to see the shadow of the serpent travel down the face of the ruins. But as I said, this tales begins in Cancun, so let’s start there.
I travel alone a lot. Not because I don’t have friends, but rather I make so many more in distant lands that way. For some reason being single and a touri makes others reach out to you. Probably out of pity, but who cares? I’ve met some great folk this way, had fantastic times, and if you get tired of them you can ditch ‘em unlike your ability to do so if you were travelling with them in the first place.
So, I met Mike and Rita at a bar in Cancun (you knew that was coming, huh?) Great couple on holiday from London. Having been to England a few times, I had stories to swap while we got plastered on margaritas debating the relative merits of the Mexican Cantina versus the English pub. Mike was pushing 60 and his lovely wife had to be up there too, but they acted like 20 year olds and were out to have a grand time. High age and low morals are a good mix. We had dinner together that night, stumbled our way back to our respective hotels to prepare for the next morning’s hang over, and then spent hours at the beach the following day huddled under thatched umbrellas knocking back cervezas served by dreamy looking local boys. Cold beer, aqua-blue water, and hot studs with mahogany skin set off by gleaming white smiles, a tropical paradise. I mentioned my plan to see the ruins at Chichén Itzá for the equinox the next day, and they too were intending on being there. But, I’d hired a car and driver and they had already booked seats on a tour bus.
Ah well, hours on a long drive might not have been all that fun with them anyway, and the temptation of too many bars along the way could have meant our missing out on the event. But we agreed to hook up once there. Three hours travelling at slow speeds over a bumpy road the next morning provided a long siesta for me. No longer nursing a hangover and somewhat refreshed, we arrived at the ruins to find an ocean of humanity packing the grounds of the ancient temple. Guess I wasn’t the only fan of the event; there were 50,000 touri there by the end of the day. Finding Mike and Rita was a colossal chore, and after about a half an hour of trying I gave up figuring if fate meant us to see the spectacle together, well, que sera, sera is the Mexican answer to the Buddhists’ karma.
My driver and guide for the day, Angel, had suggested an early start that morning, with good reason. The best viewing seats were filling up quickly when we arrived, even though we were still 5 hours away from showtime. Angel held our spot while I went exploring and hunting for Mike and Rita. He’d secured umbrellas for shade and beer to quench our thirst by the time I pushed my way through the crowd to get back to him, packing an array of spicy meats to snack on. No Mike or Rita, but I had found the food booths.
The Mayan temple Chichén Itzá is a major touri spot. Twice each year visitor numbers swell as the shadow of the serpent makes its way across the temple’s stairs. The way this works is Kukulcán, the feathered serpent of the ancient Mayans, appears at the main temple located in the center of the ruins. The temple, El Castillo, is about 82 feet high and is shaped like a pyramid. There are a pair of snake heads made by huge quarried stone flanking a grand staircase at the north bottom. Think a Mexican version of nagas. Beginning about 4:30 in the afternoon, the rays of the setting sun shine across the stepped northwestern corner casting alternating triangles of light and shadow that stretch from top to bottom, as though the serpent is moving its way down the stairs. Finally, the acutely bright Mexican sun illuminates the snake head at the bottom, forming a giant sunlit serpent laid out in all its splendor.
When the snake figure gradually begins to appear, everyone raises their hands to feel the power radiating from the feathered serpent. It isn’t the typical touri party festival you’d imagine, but more of a solemn ritual. Quite awesome to see, even with 50,000 of my closest friends, you have to wonder about the knowledge of the skies that the ancient Mayans must have had to plan and build such a spectacular spectacle. And how a race that could accomplish such a feat could vanish from the face of the planet. I believe their demise was not due to battle with neighboring tribes, or the ruthlessness of conquistadors on holy crusade, but rather over indulgence in one of the area’s major crops. Light up enough blunts and the end of the world becomes but an amusing sideshow.
Though there was a special light show planned for the evening, sort of an oil on black velvet finish Mexicans would consider fine art, Angel proclaimed it tacky and we headed back to Cancun a bit before dusk, never having seen Mike or Rita. I ended up sending the night partying with Angel and some of his friends at a local’s bar, toasting the serpent, Mexico, and missing friends as we drank our way through a succession of worms. Yup, rich Americans are loved the world over . . . rich meaning you’re willing to pick up the tab, not that you have big bucks back home.
I ran across Mike and his wife on the beach the next morning (OK, early afternoon, which qualifies as morning for me). I was jazzed about my previous day’s excursion and began telling them about the great seats we had and how awesome the whole trip had been. But noticed they were not sharing in my enthusiasm. Turns out their tour failed to take into account the enormous crowds and the bus parked far away from the ruins. Since they had to be back on board by 5:00, they had to leave just as the serpent began to make its appearance. Lesson here, as it seems to be everywhere, is to avoid organized tours and strike out on your own. You’ll have a much better time and might even get to see a mythical serpent slither its way through a crowd of sunburned touri.