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The Pyramid of Kulkulkan at Chichén Itzá.

“Trust me, you will find your life divided,” predicted my best friend Ricardo Gallardo, director of the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble in México City. “There will be your life before the Yucatán, and then your life after the Yucatán.”

And Ricardo was right. After experiencing the vanished myths blending with the contemporary reality of the Maya Empire for the first time, a world that still spreads itself from Chiapas and the Yucatán Peninsula in México south to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador in Central America, I am forever changed.

A visit to the birthplace of the sky? You can find it in the Yucatán.


Sian Ka’an, outside of Tulum, is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere, and where the Maya believe the sky is born.

This was my tenth trip to México but my first to the Yucatán. I’m happy to share the insights received from many friends who shaped our journey. These include composer Javier Álvarez, who lives in Mérida, the main city of the Yucatán, and of course Ricardo Gallardo of Tambuco.


Family dinner in Mérida with Miren Díaz, the niece of composer Javier Álvarez and my wife, Jan Karlin.

But music always animates my travel. Not only had I conducted Javier’s stunning Metal de Corazones at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall at the July 2015 Los Angeles International New Music Festival with Tambuco and Southwest Chamber Music, the same series had, for me, a special emotional landmark that swirled with a debt to the Maya.

Baalkah by dear friend Gabriela Ortiz for soprano and string quartet truly inspired us to see the Mayan world. With a Mayan text hauntingly sung by Ayana Haviv and a splendid performance by the Eclipse Quartet, the ending still stays in my mind. Each member of the quartet moves off stage bowing a pitched finger cymbal as the soft chants of the soprano wander into a Mayan infinity. The stage fades to black. We had heard our soundtrack to visiting the land of the Maya and kept searching for the time to visit.


Ayana Haviv and the Eclipse Quartet perform Baalkah by Gabriela Ortiz.

First things first. We like to circle our trips so we began and ended in the main city of Mérida. From there you’ll need to rent a car (and driving in the Yucatán to the Maya locations is safe and easy). Our itinerary was approved by Mexican friends and you might want to incorporate some of these ideas.

Our order was from Mérida to Chichén Itzá, then to Tulum and Sian Ka’an on the Caribbean Sea, stopping at Cobá on the way to the city of Valladolid and its amazing Casa de Los Venados, a day trip to Ek’Balam, the Temple of the Black Jaguar, then on to the Magic Yellow City of Izamal and the Pyramid of the Sun, easy to do on the way back to Mérida. For a grand finale, drive an hour from Mérida to the coup de grace, Uxmal and its Temple of the Sorcerer. A few cenote and hacienda stops are essential and I’ll be sharing great eating recommendations as my diary continues.

So I’ll begin my Mayan diary with this short overview of numerous posts to come!

The Spanish built the city of Mérida in 1542, destroying the site of a long inhabited Maya city. The existence of T’ho, the Mayan City of Five Pyramids, makes Mérida today truly the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas. You’ll find the Maya are still very present, at close to 7 million people, with Mayan spoken equally with Spanish. You’ll find Mayan, Spanish, French, and Mexican influence everywhere, unlike any other place in México.

For a short period of time from the end of the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th, Merida was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The reason? Mérida and its surrounding haciendas produced rope, the oil of the era. Walking in the city center and the Paseo de Montejo is inspiring, and surprising if you aren’t expecting the lavish and almost endless display of Porfiriato buildings and mansions.


The Champs Élysées of Mérida on the Paseo de Montejo.

We rented our car in Mérida and head off straight for Chichén Itzá, whose Temple of Kulkulkan began my post. From Chichén Itzá (which is about 90 minutes from Mérida) we headed to the Caribbean Sea and the ruins of Tulum. Tulum is the anti-Cancún resort town – think of it as a tropical 1960s Santa Cruz in Northern California hippie-back packer-expat location. If you’re a vegetarian, base your Mayan stay in Tulum.


The Ruins of Tulum on the Caribbean Sea. Bring your bathing suit.

From Tulum we headed towards the Spanish city of Valladolid so we could stop on the way at Cobá, which is all of 27 miles from Tulum. Cobá is vast, in a cool forest jungle with birds worthy of Olivier Messiaen’s greatest music. It was the meeting point of the largest network of stone causeways – sacbe in Mayan – that stitched their world together.  There are six major sites in Cobá, and renting a pedi-cab can be a truly good idea for a portion of your visit. But walking in the Yucatán jungle? Be quiet and take advantage of the opportunity worked for us.


A quiet jungle path at Cobá.


Jan at the Pyramid of Nohoch Mul at Cobá.

Valladolid is not far from Cobá, and we settled in for a few days to absorb the 16th century city built upon Mayan ruins. Valladolid plays an important role in both the Yucatán Caste War in the 19th century and provided the first spark – la primera chispa – of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. First impression was of a modest town, but after poking around a bit, Jan and I were entranced.

One highlight is a visit to the Casa de Los Venados, a private home in a recently renovated 16th century Spanish mansion featuring an 18,000 square feet collection of over 3,000 pieces of Mexican Folk Art. A comprehensive chance to revel in the vibrant world of all of Mexico, American expat collectors John and Dorianne Venator from Chicago are to be congratulated.


3,000 pieces of Mexican Folk Art are at the Casa de Los Venados in Valladolid.

And the image of sacred blood and sacred hearts infuse both the Mayan and Catholic world that shape the Mexican Yucatán. Head to the Convent of San Bernadino in Valladolid to view the red shades of a 16th century nunnery in the Americas.


The Convent of San Bernadino in Valladolid.

In under 30 minutes you can drive 16 miles from Valladolid to The Temple of the Black Jaguar, Ek’ Balam, which you’ll find north towards the village of Temozón. With the palapas embedded into the pyramid, we were able to dream of a true urban existence amongst the ruins. You’ll also find a fabulous cenote at Ek’ Balam, as these cooling fresh water caverns are found all over the Yucatán peninsula.


Ek’ Balam, the Black Jaguar, is only thirty minutes from Valladolid.

Midway between Valladolid and Mérida, we stopped off at the Magic Yellow City of Izamal. The town is literally painted in a gold yellow, everywhere. It’s cathedral has the largest nave in the world, excepting only the Vatican in Rome. Izamal is a bilingual city – you will hear Mayan easily here along with Spanish. And you’ll see both Spanish buildings and Mayan ruins coexist, as the Spanish felt that destroying many locales was not worth the effort. Izamal is easily visited in a long afternoon stop, including lunch, so heading back to Mérida saved us some time.


The Magic Yellow City of Izamal is only 30 minutes from Mérida.

There are, of course, many ways to decide any itinerary. But our friends Javier Álvarez, who lives in Mérida, and Ricardo Gallardo, had input into our trip, and I pass that insider information along to help you share in the impact of seeing the Mayan world.

They were right. Save Uxmal, about an hour out of Mérida, for last. Plan to be there at 8 AM and you’ll have the site virtually to yourself. Alarm clocks are good and you should leave Mérida at 7 AM to arrive with plenty of time to beat the crowds. And soak in the only cobalt blue morning sky I’ve ever seen.


At Uxmal, which exerted profound influence on Frank Lloyd Wright.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my brief introduction. So let’s stay connected and I’ll be back soon with a series of blog posts about the Yucatán and the world of the Maya.

Best, best, best,