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Day 231 – Cheesy Pop! Tastes As Good As It Sounds (Ek’ Balam & Dzitnup Cenotes)

May 29, 2011

Location: Ruins of Ek’ Balam and Dzitnup Cenotes, Mexico

Date: Sunday, May 29, 2011

As a foodie, you’re supposed to take the taco truck over Del Taco. As a man, you should choose Scarface over Bridget Jones’s Diary. And real music connoisseurs choose Velvet Underground over Kelly Clarkson.

Me. I can’t help it. Sometimes, I’d rather curl up on the couch with a Del Classic Chicken Burrito and be “Alllll by mysellllllllffff!”. Ain’t no one can tell me different.

For example: As a backpacker I’m supposed to love ancient ruins. They’re “real.” They’re culture. They allow me to experience “the other.”

Moreover, a real backpacker should shun the gentrification, the Disneyfication, the cheesification of any natural wonder. Who–in God’s name–wants to visit Yosemite and be subjected to El Capitan: The Laser Show or dive the depths of The Great Barrier Reef and be bombarded by The Britney Spears Underwater Sound Extravaganza (sponsored by Pepsi)?

Don’t laser it up. Don’t paint it orange. Don’t pump in panpipe. Don’t hang a flat panel with a cartoon tour guide. “You’re taking away from my moment of Zen!” cries the traveler (who loathes being called a “tourist”).

But what if you can’t help it? What if you’d discover you prefer cheesy pop over ancient culture?

Let’s back up a bit. I started off my day at the ruins of Ek’ Balam a few miles outside Valladolid. I hopped a collectivo taxi with some locals. Without any A/C, we dropped the windows all the way and allowed the thick tropical air to whip around the car. As we passed through little towns we picked up and dropped of passengers. By the time I hit the ruins, the taxista and I had the car to ourselves. I got there so early, it was just me and a long-haired hippie gringo walking the site. The sun was still low and the air was almost bearable. Perfect atmosphere for exploring Ek’ Balam.

The site is in the Yucatan flatlands, which means that below the tops of the trees the air is jungle-still. Climbing the giant acropolis, therefore, is a highlight not just for of the view of the lowlands but also for the breeze.

Much of the site is still raw. The jungle still has a grip on many of the structures. Plants grow from the tops of buildings and piles of rubble await the money to be restored. The silence of the morning is broken only by the sounds of workers hacking out brush from the building’s terraces. It should be a traveler’s paradise. I’m supposed to love it. It’s classic. It’s timeless. It’s the traveling equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It was fine. And by mid-morning I’d had my fill.

The afternoon, however, turned out to be Justin Beiber to Ek’ Balam’s Bach.  The Yucatan peninsula is renowned for its cenotes (seh-NOH-tehs). The all-knowing Wikipedia defines these as “sinkholes” but really they’re caves filled with groundwater. Often these underground pools open into larger cave systems. The water is often crystal clear, having been filtered through porous rock. There are thousands of cenotes on the peninsula and most are unexplored.

The Dzitnup Cenotes, however, are anything but untouched. These particular holes in the ground are, in fact, straight up tourist traps. Located just outside Valladolid both the Cenote Xkeken and Cenote Samula are well-known to both locals and foreigners. Accordingly, they are fronted by the usual array of touts and vendor stalls. There are the Mayan kids offering to watch your stuff, in English. There are the guys hard selling fresh coconut juice. Despite the (relatively expensive) 50 peso entrance fee for each, the cenotes are the area’s public swimming pool which means they lack a certain tranquility. Worst of all, a fellow traveler informed me that the caves had been “ruined” by tacky, colored lights. I should shudder at the thought. I should cringe at how the locals have tarted up the place.

I should. Because when I arrived the cenotes were crowded with Germans wearing too little and Mexicans talking too much. Worst of all, there were Americans. And then there were the lights. Every 10 minutes floodlights flipfrom bright orange to neon purple to electric blue giving the cavern the feel of a cheap amusement park ride. They’ve taken a natural beauty, slathered it in too much eyeliner, blush, and lipstick and turned it tawdry.

And I loved it. Floating in the cool waters, you can stare at the sky through holes in the cave ceiling. The water is crystalline and, if you sit still on the rocks, you can watch fish nibble on your feet. (“The pools relax and exfoliate!”) Cenote Samula features giant tree roots that reach down from the surface above to the pool’s cool waters below like an Indiana Jones set come to life. Bats flit overhead, diving occasionally at the water and forcing this swimmer to ignore thoughts about bathing in the rodents’ toilet. Though the water is clear, parts of the pools are so deep that it feels like you’re swimming in black, empty space.

It’s stunning. It’s relaxing. It’s heavenly. It’s lights, tourists, and satisfaction. You almost don’t notice that you’re surrounded by Mexicans in life jackets. You overlook the disco lights. You forget that it’s something you’re not supposed to like.

GALLERY: Today’s bonus gallery features more pictures of ruins, cenotes, and some food that Mervyn ate but doesn’t feel up to writing about.

One Comment leave one →
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