Do they say ‘Olé!’ In Mexico? I do not know. But that’s my mood. Olé! Vamonos!
Next stop was Vallodolid, which you pronounce with a B in place of the V, cos Spanish. I took the ADO bus with Luuk and Bas. ADO buses are cool, they’re air conditioned, comfy as sin, and they have little TVs that drop down and show popular films with horrendous Spanish dubs. For some reason, on the bus to Vallodolid, they were playing a Justin Timberlake live concert.
We arrived in the city elated. We were elated because it looks like Mexico. Cancun didn’t, obviously, and while Holbox is beautiful, it looked like a Caribbean island. In Vallodolid, the narrow streets were paved with red-brown stone, ancient VWs rumbled past with curved bonnets, and every last building was painted in gorgeous pastel colours – blues and greens and pinks and yellows, all artfully done, juxtaposed perfectly. A nation of artists.
It was fearsomely hot – dry heat, now. Murals sung from every spare expanse of wall, and in the centre of town we found a large, hot square, with people lazing on stone benches in the shade. There were stalls selling tacos and sweet treats, hot off the pan – marquesitas, I think they’re called, they have jam in the middle – and beyond the palm trees of the plaza we saw a great church with two square spires, painted warm yellow.
We crossed a broad street, past a multi-coloured side that read ‘VIVA MEXICO’, and navigated slowly to our hostel, past streetside open restaurants with fans blowing and people eating chicken with the greenest avocados you ever saw. We passed motorcycle repair shops and shops selling washing machines, and down a sidestreet we found our hostel – recommended by Megan – Case Xtakay.
We checked in – the guy on reception had a ponytail, he was called Alex – and we chucked our bags on our bunks and went to sit in the garden out the back. We slapped mosquitoes off our legs and listened to strange birds sing, as fruit fell from the trees and bumped along the roof. Lime green lizards darted over the stone floor and up tree trunks while we planned our next adventure.
In the afternoon we found a local food hall, and we ordered without really knowing what we would be getting. I can’t read much Spanish – only a few obvious ingredients like eggs (heuvos) and cheese (queso) and ham (jamon). Beyond that, it’s a guessing game – a fun and rewarding guessing game. I’ve been drinking Coca Cola here every day, because my body craves the sugar after spending even half an hour in the intense heat. You can get it everywhere, in tall thin bottles.
In the evening we went to visit a light show, somewhere across town. Over a large grassy plaza, lights were projected onto an ancient church, birds and animals and Mayan jaguar warriors, and a voiceover told us the history of the town, from Ancient Maya to the Spanish invasion, up to modern day. After we found a bar with a DJ and we sat drinking Coronas in an old hollowed out VW van turned into a booth.
Next day we got up early for breakfast. There’s a sweet old couple who run the hostel, and every morning they cook a free, delicious, authentic Mexican breakfast for everybody. As they serve up each dish, they talk you through how it’s made with great passion and warmth. It gives the tiny hostel a beautiful family atmosphere.
Later on the guys headed out to visit some cenotes on a rented scooter, and I stayed at the hostel to finish some freelance writing work. It was a quiet day, with a lot of mosquito bites from the garden. In the evening we went for food with a group of hostel people and had an early night. We had another arrival from Holbox – a young and excitable Dutch girl called Nienke, who we met at the beach party at Bikini Bottom one evening. She joined our little gang.
Our third day was the big one: Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world. After another big fat breakfast, we headed out to get a collectivo – a shared taxi, which in Mexico takes the form of a minibus. I took them in Cuba too, although there it was 1960s Fords with no seatbelts which you clamber in to zoom from city to city. We paid 40 pesos – two English pounds – and waited for our collectivo to fill up. Mexico is like Cuba: slow. You have to wait around a lot, and it took me a few days to adjust and get used to simply… sitting.
The collectivo flew out of Vallodolid, down bumpy roads lined with jungle and little villages bursting with colour. We arrived at Chichen Itza after 40 minutes and bought tickets at the big entrance building. It’s touristy – there’s no getting around that. Through the ticket gate we walked down a long jungle path past a hundred stalls selling skulls and carvings and rainbow fabrics, and at the end we emerged from beneath the canopy of trees to see it: a great stone pyramid, silhouetted against the sky, in the centre of a grassy clearing.
The truth: our collective first impression was “I though it would be bigger.” However, the more time we spent circling the pyramid slowly, closer and then further, the bigger and more impressive it looked. I took Luuk aside and told him what I was imagining.
“It’s cooler if you imagine it’s nighttime, a thousand years ago. Delete the tourists, and imagine there’s fire everywhere, and up at the top are Mayan priests conducting a sacrifice in front of a huge crowd.”
I saw a smile grow on Luuk’s face.
Chichen Itza isn’t just one pyramid – it’s an ancient city. In the jungle, 1500 years ago, a great stone city once existed, with temples and palaces looming over everything, with carved serpents and jaguars and fearsome warriors in floral headdresses on the walls. There’s a huge playing stadium at the far end of the site, where Mayan warriors played a sport where they hit a leather ball with their hips, trying to get it through a high-up stone hoop. The stakes? Human sacrifice of the team’s captains. The twist? The winning team’s captain gets sacrificed – thought of as a great honour.
We saw crumbling ruined schools and an archaic observatory. The Mayans were astronomical geniuses, building their temples in line with stars and planets and cosmic events. They were masters of acoustics too – if you speak softly at one end of the hundred-metre stadium, you can be heard perfectly on the far side. And if you clap in front of the pyramid staircases, a twisted echo returns; the sound of a sacred bird.
The last site we visited at Chichen Itza – we were there for two extraordinarily sweaty hours – was a vast cenote; a sinkhole in the earth, filled with water deep down. The Mayans used to sacrifice people here, and throw them over the lip into the deep green waters. Over 200 skeletons were excavated from the bottom. This is nothing, however. At their peak, they sacrificed tens of thousands to their gods.
That evening we met a new arrival at the hostel, Olatz. She’s a radio reporter and journalist from the Basque Country, Spain, and she joined our little gang too. We went out to a local restaurant for the cheapest meal we’d found so far – 15 pesos for a taco, or about 75 pence. After that we hit up the bar with the VW again, ten of us this time, as the whole hostel headed out together. We drank bottled beers in a big icy bucket, and I tried my first shot(s) of mezcal. It’s like tequila, but smoky, and we took it with a lime and some pink powder which I assumed was salt. We learned after that it’s actually dried and crushed up worm.
Mezcal and tequila – they do something to you out here. Back home, I swear they’re just a way to get drunk fast or whatever. In Mexico the shots are huge, but they don’t burn, and just seconds after drinking you feel it throughout your body – a sudden energy and a desire to dance. Maybe it’s just a placebo, I don’t know, but it’s happened multiple times. On our last night in Holbox we were all flagging after several days partying, when Luuk suggested tequilas. One round and we were dancing all night.
Paying the bill in Mexico is complicated. You get a waiter for your table for the evening, and you get one bill for everybody. And obviously, settling up between ten of you when you’re all wankered is no easy task. We spent fifteen minutes dishing out pesos and exchanging notes, and we still came up 200 pesos short. Olatz and I paid extra to make the total, but then there was the matter of the tip. We gave what meagre change we had left, and our previously affable waiter was, rather understandably, fuming. He cursed us:
“God is everywhere, and he is always watching. And he does not forgive.”
We cringed and laughed guiltily on the way back to the hostel, and had a last beer before bed. When we’d turned the lights off and I was tucked up and nodding off, a torch turned on. And then, a scream:
I sat bold upright and looked across at Olatz. On her top bunk, she was shaking her bedsheets wildly. From within, something dropped to the floor. She shone her torch on it. A scorpion.
It was the size of my palm, obsidian pincers, tailed curled high in the air. I yelled.
“A fucking SCORPION?!”
In an instant, our door flew open and Luuk and Bas and the rest of the hostel poured in, asking what was the commotion. We watched the giant scorpion scuttle around the room, disappearing beneath a chest of drawers, perilously close to my open backpack. I booted it out of reach.
Thankfully, we had a pair of wonderful, practical Germans in the dorm. A young guy, Julius, took a cup and scooped up the scorpion in one swift motion.
“Vat? It is just an arachnid.”
And he launched it outside, much to our relief.