February 2, 2009
Birthday Trip to the Yucatan

Regular Update readers know that each year, I reach into our bank of frequent flier miles, and spirit Susie away to some exotic/romantic/relaxing destination. It is a joy to head for the airport without 200 pounds of gear and just carry-on baggage.

Early on, I had organized a “surprise birthday trip”. But now days it is neither. The birthday is in December and Susie long ago insisted on participating in the details. But it is still a fun way to end a busy year or start a new one.

The plan this time was five days enjoying the sun, history, and ambiance of the Yucatan in Southern Mexico. We’ve long been enamored with the mysterious Mayan cities there and wanted to base right next to the archeological parks. That way we could miss the crowds and explore without some bus schedule cutting things short.

We departed Portland at six in the morning, connected through Los Angeles, and then flew to Cancun. From there, we were to rent a car and drive to the luscious Mayaland Resort for sunset. Of course, the airlines had a different idea. A five-hour delay in LA brought us to Mexico at 10. Our car was ready at 11 and then we drove off into the darkness for the two-hour commute. Our trip had begun with an adventure!


At some time after one, we woke the hotel security guard to open the gate and let us in. It was pitch black, and we didn’t understand at the time that the gate led to the back of the resort. I drove around looking for the main building and discovered later that I was mostly on sidewalks and utility roads. Eventually we found our way back to the entrance, woke the guard again, and insisted he come with us to find registration.

Mayaland Mayaland Mayaland

Staff at the Mayaland were exceptional! With few guests on site, we were given a choice of a Royal Bungalow or Junior Suite. The Suite had a king bed, large veranda overlooking lush gardens, was close to the bar, and offered free internet. We were home!

First stop – Chichen Itza. This best-known Mayan city showcases five centuries of culture and history, and the hotel has a private entrance that let us in long before the bulk of tourists arrived.

A private guide explained the background and subtleties, and then left us to wander for hours among the pyramids, ball-courts, observatory, temples, carvings and cenotes (large natural wells).

Mayan civilization reached its pinnacle here. Art, astronomy, medicine, agriculture and architecture all flourished.

They understood the zero and binary numbers, had penicillin 200 years before Europe, determined true north, and had a calendar more accurate then our own. Everywhere, carvings portray the supreme jaguar, feathered serpent gods, the morning star Venus, and the enigmatic lord Kukulcan.

Chichen Chichen Chichen

The Mayans flourished a thousand years ago and then for reasons that may have included drought, overpopulation, disease, or Mel Gibson’s awful film about them, the cities were deserted and left to decay. When the Spaniards arrived, little was left.

We finished our first day with a great meal under a warm starry sky and made plans to drive further inland.

From Mayaland, it was a two-hour commute to a partner hotel at Uxmal. The Lodge was adjacent to this large Mayan center and within an hour of three other cities.

Doors in the Hacienda featured carved plaques noting previous guests – Jackie Onassis, Indira Ghandi, and Queen Elizabeth.

Our 1A room at the Lodge (bottom left), was large and comfortable with panoramic windows. We looked for someone to carve a plaque for our door, but no one was available....

We finished the smaller sites the first afternoon and planned to enter Uxmal first thing in the morning.

Uxmal Lodge

Kabah was small but exquisite. The main structure here is the haunting Palace of the Masks, an imposing building used for religious rituals and state ceremonies. Scattered around are pieces being still assembled into an archeological jig-saw puzzle. Here I am holding two eye-balls.

Kabah Kabah Kabah

Further down the road, we arrived at Sayil late. The caretaker’s wife was gardening and called out for him in Spanish. He came running to collect our entrance fee and warn us that closing was just an hour away. No one else was around! And yet, a thousand years earlier, 10,000 people had lived here.


Uxmal is acclaimed to be the architectural masterpiece of Mayan civilization. The Great Pyramid, Palace of the Governors, Nunnery Quadrangle, and House of the Magician are all extensively restored. This would be an aerial photographer’s dream-come-true. Susan and I finished our private tour, and climbed to the top of the Pyramid. Suddenly our cell phones sprang to life! Altitude = access!

Uxmal Uxmal Uxmal


We returned to Mayaland at Chichen Itza for our two final nights. The resort was larger, there were more amenities, and it was two hours closer to the airport. We slept late, walked the gardens, debated a horse-back tour of nearby Old Chichen (decision – no…) and then drove to one more city – Ek Balam.

Ek Balam

In the more popular sites, buildings are closed to the public. But in Ek Balam, we found the tallest pyramid yet – and one we were encouraged to scale!

Climbing up is easy. You look at one step and then the next. But coming down, you stand on a worn and rounded stone, and reach a foot down to another. Your eyes wander ahead into space, ten stories in the air….

I wasn’t the only climber that sat and waited for my head to clear.

If you enjoy history, culture, mystery, and travel, the Mayan cities are just a few hours south on the Gulf of Mexico. Travel inland like us and stay at the sites. Or hang in colonial Merida or beachside Cancun and bus in for the day. It is a remarkable trip!

Another fine meal, margaritas on the patio, and farewell to new friends. Then we retired for one last night in Mexico.

On the fifth morning, we departed for Cancun and the flight home. And like before, the airlines had different ideas. Flights were delayed, we missed connections, and had to overnight in Phoenix. But we returned home refreshed, filled with memories, and happy to have made the effort.

KAP Sale

At times like this, I wish I’d more of an effort to improve my aerial photography skills. I actually took a kite once in to Beijing’s Forbidden City. But when I tried to launch it, I was told it was … forbidden…

I didn’t bring a kite to Mexico. But to help you avoid my omissions, I’ll sell you one this week for 20% off the list price.

Consider the Dopero, the Fled, or a Pilot 50. Each works well in different KAP situations. Or if you just want to cheat a little, I’ll discount our 28 and 31 foot telescopic poles too. We call that “PAP" – pole aerial photography…

The discounts are good until February 10. Just mention the Update when you order.

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