by Mike Connelly
My wife Lauri and I recently went to Mexico to celebrate her birthday and to relieve ourselves of the 'Chicago Winter Blues'. We were delighted to see that temperatures in Chicago remained in the teens, with snow falling daily, while we vacationed in the sun. Although this was my first trip to Mexico, my wife had visited the country once previously while on a family cruise - before she met your's truly. She had toured the Mayan ruins of Tulum on that trip, and her one goal this time around was to take in the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. My goals were to relax, read a book or two, smoke many cigars and find cigars locally during our stay. And now, on to our trip!
Lauri and I leave the frigid chill of Chicago early Friday morning, and before noon, are peering out of the window of the American Airlines 777 at sunshine, ocean and beaches. The next 8 days indulge us with a near perfect climate of mid 80 degree high temps, warm ocean water, plentiful sunshine and comforting oceanic breezes - a welcome relief from the drudgery of a long winter in the Windy City.
After clearing customs and securing our luggage, we head through the airport expeditiously. For a first time visitor, landing in Mexico can be bewildering and a little intimidating. Despite the fact I'm a regular business traveler, I find myself confused by the ground transportation outside of the airport. Fortunately, I'm pointed in the direction of the ground transportation firm arranged by our travel company, and am relieved to know they are expecting us. After a brief wait in the warm humid air, we're on our way to the resort.
I love travel. It's like a field trip back in elementary school. As we leave the airport and head towards what will be our home for the next week, we drive on strange routes past unfamiliar surroundings. The road signs are in Spanish. The gas stations are different. The landscape is short, scrubby and rocky. White rock, instead of dirt, is the covering along the highways. I find the little roadside stores, with their simple facades and single-story concrete structures, fascinating. We are a long way from the hustle, bustle and skyscrapers of our native Midwestern cities.
Our resort is the Iberostar Paraiso Maya. As we approach its gated entrance, we can see the replica pyramid that is the focus of the main common building in the community. At the time, I do not adequately recognize that our resort, replete with ancient symbolism, is fashioned after Chichen Itza. That realization only takes place when we visit the famous Mayan ruins later in the week.
The grounds at the Iberostar Paraiso Maya Resort
The resort is nothing short of spectacular, with its brightly colored four-story hotel buildings located throughout the wonderfully manicured grounds.
Statues, pottery and other sculptural art pieces grace the grounds.
Beautiful artwork to view, and benches to repose on, make walking through the grounds a wonderful experience every time.
A plethora of wonderful green plants and colorful flowers melts the winter blues away. The pathways seem to surround you as you walk beneath the warm sun of the Caribbean sky.
And, of course, let us not forget the draw to the Mexican Riviera - the wonderful Caribbean Sea with it's warm water and white sand beaches. A truly beautiful place in the world, and one right outside our door for the week.
After a few days of relaxing on the beach, reading by the pool and reeling our way around the resort, we've had enough, and are ready for our first adventure.
Coach (Randy) of CW and I had discussed Mexico while he was in Chicago for a visit this winter. Randy had visited the Riviera Maya before, and told me that we would enjoy a visit to Playa del Carmen. It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.
Playa del Carmen is a small city on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, located between Cancun (to the north) and Tulum (to the south). It's considered one of the main cities along the Riviera Maya, and is also the place where you can catch a ferry to Cozumel from the mainland.
Lauri and I spend our time during our visit along Quinto Avenida (5th Avenue), a central shopping strip in town that runs parallel to the sea. Quinto Avenida is really more of a pedestrian walkway than an actual street. There are shops and restaurants of all types along this stretch near the ocean, and here you can find anything from the latest fashion stores such as Lacoste and Diesel to little local shops that sell locally made crafts.
A view along 5th Avenue.
Another picture of 5th Avenue.
Here, you see a picture of a woman (at one of the local stores) who is making sweaters and pullovers. She perches above her work on the balcony. Very camera shy, she pulled away from the railing after I took this shot.
The joy of walking outside in the sunshine with the ocean a stone's throw away - beautiful!
We also enjoy sampling some local fare. One of our greatest pleasures is going to restaurants, and there's no shortage of eateries to try along Quinto Avenida. Our first destination is La Bodeguita Del Medio, a place recommended by Coach. My wife would probably describe it as more of a quest than a restaurant to actually eat and get a drink. Randy had said that it was a locale with Havana Club Rum where a real Cuban Mojito could be enjoyed, as well as housing a small but well stocked and legitimate Habano humidor. As we walk south along the street, I start to lose hope we'll actually find it. But just when we get to the Ferry landing for Cozumel, I remember that it should be nearby. I've written the name of the restaurant down, and ask a securitas if he's familiar with the place - he is! And La Bodeguita Del Medio is right around the corner, just to the west of the ferry dock. We've found it! .
As promised, La Bodeguita Del Medio delivers. Lauri can have a real Mojito, and I can pick up a legitimate Habano from a storefront for the first time since I lived in Bermuda.
Lauri with her Mojito
My Upmann No. 2 makes for a phenomenal smoke. Not only that - I have my wife as great company, and we've both enjoyed our walk and the relaxing atmosphere. I place an order for Café Cubano and the bartender replies, "It will take a long time to make." That's OK. We have all the time in the world.
Café Cubano at La Bodeguita del Medio.
We end up visiting Playa del Carmen twice during our trip, and have a wonderful time shopping in the local stores and visiting with the locals. I, true to form, get a major kick out of looking in the different cigar shops. Mexico is notorious for fake cigars - and not just Glass Top Cohiba's, although they are everywhere! There are plenty of cigar stores in Mexico that look legitimate and carry many of the famous Cuban marcas. My only suggestion is that if you plan on going to Mexico and have cigars on your list of items to enjoy while there - and why wouldn't you!? - learn as much as you can. And if you question whether or not a cigar is authentic, then don't buy it. Many people on the street will ask, "Do you want Cuban Cigars, amigo?" Caveat Emptor. There are legitimate stores along 5th Avenue, including a LaCasa del Habano at the far northern end of the street. Have fun going into them, be educated before visiting, have a laugh at the fugazis and enjoy browsing the legitimate humidors.
My favorite store in Playa del Carmen is the Casa Partagás Cigar Shop. I meet the owner as well as his wife - unfortunately I do not remember their names. They are very nice people, and let me browse their humidor in peace while answering any questions I might have. They carry a wonderful selection of cigars, and while I don't buy many during my visit, I do pick up a very nice ERDM Grandes de España there - a wonderful cigar!
The Casa del Partagás cigar shop.
Of course, I am not going to let the opportunity to visit the La Casa del Habano pass either, and when we finally find it, I think Lauri is happier than I! Ironically, the basketball game playing in the background on the TV is a High School game featuring Fenwick High School from, of all places, Chicago! We get a pretty good laugh out of that.
La Casa del Habano in Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen is a wonderful place to visit, shop, eat, drink and have a grand time. Enjoy the cafés, people, cigars, food and ocean if you plan to visit. Here is my favorite café for a cup of local coffee...
My favorite coffee shop in Playa del Carmen.
Our next adventure on this vacation is a trip to the Chitzen Itza Mayan Ruins. My wife, Lauri, visited Tulum (or Tulu'um, as it's sometimes referred to) during a family cruise a number of years ago, and developed a keen interest in the Mayans and their ruins. So the Chitzen Itza ruins are a must see.
Chichen Itza is a two hour drive from the Riveria Maya. We leave early in the morning and board a tour bus. The trip allows us the opportunity to see much more of Mexico. There are little villages and towns along the way, some inhabited by Mayan descendants. One regret I have is that we don't get to stop in some of the villages and towns that better represent the 'real' Mexico.
Along the drive, our tour guide, Manuel, gives us an education on the Mayan culture, their history and their place in the world then and now. Manuel is a man in his early 20s who is working while he studies at the university. Already holding an advanced degree, he's finalizing his PhD in Mayan Culture. We're amazed and impressed with his vast knowledge, passion for the subject and desire and enthusiasm to educate each one of us on the tour. He is a wonderful guide.
After arriving at the ruins and going through the entry gate, we're surprised at the number of people selling wares along the walkway to the sacred grounds. Numerous vendors - some elementary school aged, some much older - are selling mini pyramids, sweaters, blankets and wooden carved masks. Walking along the paths to the ruins seems almost like passing through a bazaar.
The first thing we see after passing through the bazaar-like walkways and into the clearing is the main pyramid. This is the first such structure I've ever seen in my life, and it is amazing!
The pyramid is named El Castillo. It is the temple of the feather serpent, Kukulcan. As Manuel explains, the Maya at one time had hundreds of gods, but eventually worshiped Kukulan as their main god because this particular god could actually be seen and heard. Everything about this pyramid is full of religious symbolism. Perhaps the most complex and amazing aspect is how, during the spring and fall equinox, light and shade line up as the sun moves through the sky to made it appear as though a serpent is making its way down the stairs. This is how the Maya 'saw' their god. Furthermore, they could hear their god because of the curious acoustical feedback at the temple. As you will note in the following two pictures, along the steps is a 'feathered' serpent carved into the stone.
The 'feathered' serpent
Sacrifices took place at the top of the pyramid, and the door shown here...
...is where they would take humans into the pyramid to be sacrificed.
Another two views of El Castillo
While El Castillo is the best known and largest draw of the ruins, there are many other amazing structures at Chichen Itza. The next one up is the Temple of the Warriors...
Three views of the Temple of the Warriors
The columns you see above are meant to depict warriors. The warriors would sleep along the back wall and within the structure in order to protect it. Notice the serpents and warrior symbolism on the top of the temple.
The Caracol, or Observatory, is the only structure you are allowed to climb at Chichen Itza.
The Caracol, or Observatory
"This structure was an observatory with its doors aligned to view the vernal equinox, the moon's greatest northern and southern declinations, and other astronomical events sacred to Kukulcan, the feathered-serpent god of the wind and learning. The Maya used the shadows inside the room cast from the angle of the sun hitting the doorway to tell when the solstices would occur." (Source: Wikipedia)
A close-up of the Observatory
Notice the detail on top of the Observatory, as well as the two eyes, nose and mouth made out of stone.
One of the most amazing buildings of the entire Chichen Itza complex is the Great Ball Court. It's not the structure itself that impresses as much as imagining the 'games' that took place in this court. More often than not, these were games to the death.
The Grest Ball Court
Human sacrifice took place at the conclusion of every game, although it is unclear if the winner or loser was sacrificed. One theory of how the game was played is that participants had to put a ball, which was several pounds in weight, through rings protruding from the walls.
Here, you can see one of the rings.
However, the 'players' were not permitted to use their hands, head, feet or legs. They had to use only their hips!
A sight to remember
Chichen Itza remains a highlight of our Mexican Riviera adventure - a place full of history and beauty, and one not to be missed if you ever visit Mexico.
Mike Connelly (ConMan) is originally from Pittsubrgh, PA. He has made Chicago, Illinois his home with his wife Lauri. When not in the city, you may find him on a trout stream in Wisconsin or Pennslyvania.