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Magic amid Mayan ruins
BECAL, a tiny blip of a place in south-eastern Mexico's Campeche State, doesn't have much to offer in the way of art museums, luxury hotels or famous restaurants. Chances are most people have never heard of this sun-baked blink-and-you'll-miss-it town. But those in the know go to Becal to find that special something: a handwoven straw hat known universally as the Panama.
The Panama's origins can be traced (oddly enough) to Ecuador, but hats from Becal - handmade from palm frond - have a reputation for quality, developed over the years using techniques passed down from generation to generation. Here, visitors will have a chance to pick up headgear ranging from a colourful sombrero (wide-brimmed) to an elegant superfino (top grade), which can take weeks to make, at prices significantly lower than those in big city stores.
Unless you have a hat fetish or enjoy seeking out obscure villages in exotic lands, the lure of a well-made Panama may not be incentive enough to make the trek to Becal. Fortunately, the Yucatan Peninsula, encompassing Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo states, is a world-class destination with a dazzling array of attractions on its roster. If your itinerary brings you anywhere near Becal - about an hour south of Yucatan's state capital Merida - it's worth a brief detour.
Beach bums will focus on resorts in Cancun or Tulum while history and culture buffs will head for the colonial capitals of Campeche, Merida, Izamal, Valladolid and ancient Maya ruins such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Edzna. Along the way, they will encounter long, straight and blissfully traffic-free roads as well as (for much of the year) bright sunshine and high temperatures. That's when those hats will come in handy.
Yucatan lies within the Mesoamerica region where pre-Colombian civilisations flourished before Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century. The cities that the indigenous Maya peoples built - and the Spanish colonialists after them - give the Yucatan a distinct architectural identity, while modern-day Mayan culture is a combination of two separate cultures.
Perhaps the most famous of the cities the Mayans built - and surely one of the most impressive - is Chichen Itza, a vast (15 square-kilometre) complex about 120 kms from Merida. The city's heyday may have been over a thousand years ago, but visitors will still be awed by the sheer scale and sophistication of the site.
Astronomy, ritual sacrifices and worshipping the sun god were integral parts of Maya culture, as was calculating the Mayan calendar and other mathematics-based activity, but large sections of Chichen Itza and other Maya sites were devoted to a ritual-based sport known as pitz in Classical Maya or El Juego de Pelota in Spanish - The Ballgame. The remains of these unique "courts" can be seen at Maya sites throughout the peninsula.
Opposing teams of men wearing protective leather gear would try to direct a solid rubber ball - using only hips, elbows and knees - through a stone ring attached high up on the side of a long wall. The person who succeeded in "scoring" would have the honour of having his head detached from the rest of his body - rewarded in death and remembered for eternity.
A walk along one of the carved pelota walls will provide an idea of how the game was played, but the undisputed star at Chichen Itza is the Pyramid of Kukulcan, sitting smack in the middle of the complex's great ceremonial square. Get to the site early, before the crowds who bus in for the day from Cancun and Merida. It would be wise to stay overnight at one of the lodges next to the site in order to gain early morning entry, when the heat is less severe and before the souvenir vendors set up their stalls within the complex.
Chichen Itza - designated one of the new Seven Wonders of the World - is by far the busiest of the Maya sites, so the peace and quiet of Edzna and Uxmal will be welcome relief. These sites are smaller in scale - Edzna in Campeche state is an oasis of calm - but no less breathtaking.
Uxmal, in particular, is considered a masterpiece of the Classic Period of Maya civilisation (between 250 AD and 900 AD) and structures with names like the Pyramid of the Magician, House of the Turtles, Temple of the Soothsayer and Palace of the Governor give a mystical quality to the place. Frank Lloyd Wright - a titan of design - considered the buildings at Uxmal to be some of the finest expressions of art and architecture in the world.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Yucatan was one of the richest states in the region, thanks to the production and export of henequen (sisal rope), made from a plant that still grows in abundance. Although the prosperity was short-lived (nylon eventually replaced sisal), Merida is rich in history and its broad main street Paseo de Montejo is lined with turn-of-the-century European-style mansions.
Merida is a good base from which to explore the peninsula as arguably the best places to eat can also be found in town. Smaller towns such as Valladolid and Campeche have individual charm, while Izamal is notable as the painted "Yellow City" where the large 16th-century Franciscan monastery of San Antonio de Padua was built atop an older Maya complex (Spanish colonialists typically did this to subvert local cultures).
If the many Maya ruins in the Yucatan peninsula are evidence of an advanced ancient culture, then the thousands of natural sinkholes (cenotes) located throughout the region are proof of nature's magic hand. These subterranean swimming holes, formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock to create mineral-rich groundwater pools, are better than anything you'll see at Disneyworld. Descend a set of steep stairs and then look up at the sky, framed by rocky a ceiling, before taking a cooling dip in the crystal-clear waters. You'll have a sense of why the Mayans called them dzonot (sacred well). And you won't even need to wear a hat.
- The writer's itinerary in the Yucatan peninsula was arranged by Asia to Africa Safaris (www.a2ajourneys.com)