Before even setting a foot down in Cancun outside the hotel, we got into a car and drove 200km or so to see one of the wonders of the world, the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza; the driver picked us up at 8.30 am. Like many places designed primarily for the sun and the night, the Cancun hotel zone looked raw and embarrassed that time of day, as if it woke up feeling big and clumsy. More on that later. Once we got out of Cancun, the drive was as monotonous as any you’ll ever do – two hours along an almost entirely straight and very empty road, all of it lined with the same kind of trees with no glimpses of anything behind them (it was a toll road so this is the way you want it, compared to taking the free route and crawling along I guess). We only stopped briefly at an artifact store where we felt obliged to buy a couple of small things despite knowing we’d see exactly the same stuff over and over again elsewhere (and so we did).
The driver, Javier, had recommended a particular guide, Jesus (you get the sense that everyone who deals with tourists is constantly scheming to pass the same opportunity on to their friends, not that you can blame them) and we went with that idea. It worked well, although Javier sold Jesus to us partly on the basis of the magical explanatory material on his ipad; since the ipad was apparently broken, he was using a rusty old binder of photographs instead. But without him we would certainly have missed many of the complexities of the site. We had assumed that the “wonder” status was a function of the pyramids itself – that you would stare at them and go, wow, that’s one of the seven most amazing things in the world – but I don’t think they would actually astonish most people in the way that, say, the Great Wall of China does. First of all, we didn’t realize how many structures Chichen Itza encompasses – the classic photographs of it focus on the two or three most imposing, but there are many others beyond (and even then, only 2 square kms of the full 25 square km site has been reclaimed for visitors). The full marvel emerges in the storytelling – for example, in realizing what limited tools the Mayans had at their disposal when they built all this, or on the intricacy of what the buildings represented: the largest of the pyramids for example embodies a conversation about numerology and the solar calendar (a good chunk of the other stories involve blood and human sacrifice). The site was effectively lost for centuries, rediscovered by explorers in the mid 19th century, and you can almost still feel it receding from you; you take your pictures and acknowledge how amazing it is, but you’re just running your finger over the traces of a history that might as well have taken place on another planet.
It was pretty busy – by the time we came out the parking lot must have had twenty or thirty tour buses, but it’s not so crowded when spread out over such an area. Jesus had a photograph showing the ground beneath the main pyramid just packed with people, which would probably have been unbearable. Even today the heat started to feel oppressive, but it gets twelve or fifteen degrees hotter in the summer. Anyway, Jesus (who said he speaks five languages and works as a professor when not doing the tour guide thing) left us and we walked round a bit more. Of course, you can’t go two steps without someone approaching you and trying to sell merchandise – in this case the most common approach was to hold something up and say it only costs a dollar, or as some put it, almost free. Almost free or not, there’s so much of the stuff – it’s hard to imagine some of the vendors ever making a sale. I guess they get by somehow.
Javier took us to a nearby restaurant for what he promised as excellent and cheap ($12 each, excluding drinks) Mayan cuisine. Actually it wasn’t so excellent – it was a mundane and underheated buffet, with entertainment provided by two or three dancers traipsing around with beer bottles balanced on their heads. He drove us round the local town, with dogs running in the streets (if we want one, he said, we should just take one) and a structure built for an upcoming bullfight (looking about as secure as a wicker basket).
Then we drove some of the way back and stopped at the small town of Valladolid, which he described as the “real Mexico.” Talking with obvious pride and affection, he brought up how Mexico’s image is coloured by drug dealers and assassinations (true unfortunately) but said that's concentrated around the border - 40 hours’ drive away apparently - and is far from being the real Mexico. In Valladolid, he said, there’s no crime at all (just moments earlier though, I’d seen someone being taken away in the back of a little police truck, but maybe it was the benign town drunk or suchlike). He took us into a 400-year-old church, part Mayan, part former Franciscan priory, and talked us through its details and quirks with immense affection. The church is built over an underground water reservoir which you can glimpse through a well – from that angle it just looks like a little puddle, but there’s a photograph showing how impossibly deep and far it actually extends: another moment of perception shift (there could be monsters down there!). We also enjoyed seeing the church dog, fast asleep today, but apparently an expert at catching lizards.
We drove back after that. I read about one and a half New Yorker magazines between the two legs of the trip, but eventually had to stop – the light was already starting to fade by 4.45 or so, and not long after 5 it was completely dark. We crawled along through Cancun. And then we reached our hotel. It must be in a prime spot. We have two Starbucks’ within five minutes’ walk, and a Hooters, and a Hard Rock Café, and a Senor Frogs, and so on. Will all this too one day be lost and then later rediscovered as an official wonder?