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Mexico Travel - Progreso, Merida, Uxmal, and Chichen-Itza
( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )
WINDMILLS ARE THE MOST CONSPICUOUS FEATURE OF THE landscape of Yucatan, and you will see many of them used for irrigating the henequen fields. The henequen is the most important source of wealth in Yucatan, for from it comes the sisal hemp. The natives of Yucatan, whom you will see in the fields as you ride by, are Maya Indians and still speak the Mayan language among themselves, although, of course, the official and business language is Spanish.
PROGRESO, which is the chief port of Yucatan, can be reached by steamer either from New York or from New Orleans. The U. S. & Cuba Mail permits a stopover on the way down, but makes no call there on the return trip. There are Mexican steamers from Progreso to Veracruz, and vice versa, and a daily airplane by the Pan-American Airways. The air trip is extremely beautiful-in fact, probably one of the most beautiful trips anywhere, and it is almost as cheap as going by boat.
There is not the slightest reason for stopping in Progreso. There is practically not a sight in town, and you would be well advised to take a train for Merida just as quickly as possible. The fastest trains run on the broadgauge line, in the morning and afternoon.
MERIDA 1S a fine little city of 130,000 people, about 35 kilometers back from the sea, and too often considered a mere jumping-off place for the great ruins farther inland, although it is really an interesting place.
One of the best ways to see the town is by taking an OLD-FASHIONED CARRIAGE. Automobiles are, of course, available, but the leisurely carriage method will allow you to see a great many things as you drive past without even getting out.
The center of town is the PLAZA MAYOR. On one side is the CATHEDRAL, a solid structure, rather plain, but extremely imposing. Notice the doors, which, like the great solid mahogany doors in Cuba, are not hung on hinges, but are swung on pivots. The interior is a trifle gloomy. Most of its once-elaborate decoration is gone, and the high altar, which was of gold and silver and had magnificent chalices and decorations, disappeared during the revolution of 1917 and has not yet been replaced.
Also on the Plaza Mayor is the MONTEJO HOUSE, which has one of the most exquisite plateresque facades to be seen anywhere. It is one of the oldest houses in Merida, having been built in 1549, and is in the most amazing state of preservation. It has been occupied continuously as a residence since the time it was built, but the owners will permit you to go inside. The most interesting sight in the interior is probably the quaint kitchen.
The STATE GOVERNMENT PALACE is worth seeing. SO IS the MUSEUM, where there is a fine collection of Mayan relics.
Another delightful little square is the PLAZA HIDALGO. Near it are several interesting churches and the OLD CITY GATES.
The MARKET is interesting and clean, and the Mayan people whom you see there are a pleasant crowd. There is little of local interest to buy, except, perhaps, the FILIGREED GOLD JEWELRY. This frequently is worked in with coral and makes a most charming souvenir.
The RUINS OF UXMAL are one of the great sights near Merida. To visit these, I think you should use an organized excursion, unless you are making a fairly long stay in Yucatan, for if you go independently, you will have to stay for two nights near the ruins, whereas in the organized excursion, you can do it in one day.
The ruins of Uxmal are not so large as those at Chichen-Itza, but they are quite as important archaeologically. The first building you will see as you approach the ruins is the HOUSE OF THE PROPHET, and unless you have already been to Chichen-Itza, you will see here your first true Mayan arch. The arch is sloped, instead of being round, and has no keystone. A great deal of the decoration is built right into the structure in the same way that you see it at the ruins of Mitla. In the usual Indian style, this ruined temple was constructed on top of a pyramid, and the result is that from the top you get a wonderful view of the whole group of ruins.
The HOUSE OF THE NUNS is elaborately ornamented, and consists actually, not of one, but of four low structures enclosing a court. The house derives its name probably from the fact that of the eighty-eight rooms around the court, not a single one had a door and window leading to the outside. Probably the most interesting of the four sides is the one to the west, where the whole side is decorated with two immense serpents, as well as many other carvings. Although some people consider the north side opposite the gate the finest, and while undoubtedly it is more intricate in its decoration, it does not seem to me to be so striking as that on the west.
There is, of course, the inevitable ball court. As far as we know, the Mayans invented the game played with a hard rubber ball which the Spaniards took back to Spain and which then became pelota, and finally wandered back again to Cuba and Mexico under the name of jai alai. The HOUSE OF THE GOVERNOR is the most impressive building at Uxmal and the most ornamented structure in all Yucatan. There are said to be some 20,000 stones which have been carved as part of the various designs. The way in which these stones have been fitted together to form part of the human figure or other design is simply incredible. The building stands high on a triple terrace, and although at one time these terraces were probably faced with stones, they are no longer there.
There are many other ruins in Yucatan, and more are being discovered all the time. At Uxmal it is believed that all the tall mounds scattered around cover buildings of some sort. However, the ruins outside of Uxmal and Chichen-Itza are so difficult to reach that they will appeal only to the ardent archaeologist and hardly to the casual tourist.
Of course, the greatest ruins of Yucatan, which are easily accessible to tourists, are those of CHICHEN-ITZA. These ruins can be reached in either of two ways. There is a narrow-gauge railroad which will take you from Merida in about six hours to Dzitas, and there you can hire an automobile for the drive of about an hour to the ruins. Or, preferably, you can go direct from Merida over the new auto road in two hours and a half to three hours. Perhaps the simplest and easiest way is to join one of the organized excursions of the Mayaland Tours. They control the Mayaland Lodge at Chichen-Itza and reserve it for members of their tours, so that if you go by yourself, you are, as one guidebook put it, "reduced to Dona Victoria's boarding house."
Although there has been much excavation at ChichenItza, they have hardly begun to uncover the ruins. The known ruins cover perhaps two square miles. There are many mounds still scattered all around the woods nearby, but the principal ones are located fairly close together. You will, of course, want to see the HOUSE OF THE NUNS, which is one of the largest buildings in the group. (Nobody knows why it is called the House of the Nuns, either at Chichen-Itza or at Uxmal. Supposedly, it is on account of the construction.) However that may be, and whether or not the name is correct, it is one of the finest examples of Mayan architecture. There are three fine staircases in front of the building.
On one side of the building is the temple called the FOLOC, or church, because of its carving. The corners are done in what is called the "elephant trunks." The Foloc is practically part of the House of the Nuns, although it stands by itself and is separated from the main building by a few steps.
Near the House of the Nuns is the ROUND TOWER. Built on an artificial mound like the other buildings, it consists of three shelves with a staircase up the middle, and is the only building of its type yet discovered. The upper parts of the walls are covered with many interesting hieroglyphs. As you go from this temple to the Pyramid of the Castle, you will pass several smaller pyramids decorated with carved stone serpents.
The CASTLE is amazing. It stands on top of a superb pyramid about 200 feet high with an ascent of 103 steps. The temple itself, which crowns the pyramid is in an excellent state of preservation and has some fine decoration.
The HOUSE OF WRITING, which contains some good examples of the Mayan arch and some five ornamented walls, is very close to the House of the Nuns. Near the Castle 1S the BALL COURT, where they played the game which eventually became pelota and finally jai alai, as mentioned in the description of Uxmal, and at the end of the ball court is one of the finest ruins in Chichen-Itza.
This building, known as the TEMPLE OF THE TIGER, is decorated on the outside with carvings of a procession of tigers. The portico is a splendid structure, with its famous carving of serpents, and the frescoes on the interior of the building are still in vivid colors and are nothing short of magnificent.
Of course, everyone wants to see the great courtyard near the castle, known as the COURT OF A THOUSAND COLUMNS. In ancient times this was probably a sort of forum.
Even nearer to the castle is the TEMPLE OF THE WARRIORS, which is remarkable for the perfection of its preservation. As is customary, this temple stands on top of a pyramid, and in the inside of the pyramid there is a still older construction known as the TEMPLE OF CHACMOOL. This inner temple has only recently been discovered by excavating.
The TEMPLE OF THE TABLES is probably the last that you will wish to see at Chichen-Itza. Before leaving Chichen-Itza, however, you should visit the SACRED WELL. Here victims and various kinds of treasures, some of which have been recovered in later years, were sacrificed to the gods.
If your ambition holds out, you still have at ChichenItZa the HOUSE OF THE DEER; the HOUSE OF THE SNAIL, believed to be an astronomical observatory; the HOUSE OF THE TURTLES, named, of course, after the row of turtles which stands around its cornice; the HOUSE OF THE OLD WOMAN; and the HOUSE OF THE DWARF. It 1S quite possible to spend days in Chichen-Itza, but since most of us don't have days to spend, we can content ourselves with going there in the morning, spending the afternoon there, staying one night and seeing the ruins at sunset when they are most beautiful, and then returning to Merida the next day.
In Merida the best hotel is probably the Hotel Itza. The Imperial is noted particularly for its Yucatan cooking, and Yucatan cooking has a well-deserved fame. The Imperial chef excels in the preparation of fish, especially the pompano.