Though we had everything we needed growing up, a clean comfortable home, healthy homemade meals and plenty of opportunities in sports and the arts, one thing Granny and Grumpy always wanted for us was an exotic family vacation. Determined to make this a reality, they planned an all-inclusive vacation to a five star resort on the Mayan Riviera. Wanting to see the whole of the Yucatan in one week, Granny and Grumpy decided to rent a car to visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza and go snorkeling with sting rays and barracuda at Xela. Everyone knows that Granny gets lost just pulling out of the driveway and that Grumpy drives with conviction so that he does not have to stop and ask for directions. That combination made for quite the adventure on our Mexican family vacation.
Wanting to make the most of the sun, Granny thought it would be a good idea to spend the morning lounging around the resort and then catch the evening light show at Chichen Itza. We set out on the two hour drive with plenty of time to spare but somehow it still wasn’t enough. Granny is the definition of a Good Samaritan and insisted that we stop to help the eight Mexicans standing beside their tiny Volkswagon Beetle with a flat tire. Though we had no tools, no spare tire, and could not speak a word of Spanish, we pulled over to offer a hand. The Mexicans needed a wrench to remove the lug nuts and a jack to boost the car, and I can still remember when Granny pulled out a set of nail clippers, turned out the file and asked with all sincerity, “will this help?” The best we could do was flag down a bus that carried tools to fix the flat. As we drove on toward the ruins, Granny wondered if there was more we could have done and the rest of us wondered how eight people fit in that tiny car.
Somehow Grumpy managed to find his way to Chichen Itza, but the rental agency failed to mention the half a dozen highway tolls along the way. By the time we reached the final toll, we were completely out of Pesos and they did not accept American currency. They did however accept my watch and now with the sun fully set, the sky was pitch black as we pulled up to the main entrance of these majestic ruins. We all sighed with relief when we saw the sign indicating that they accepted US dollars, but the sensation was short lived as the front desk clerk informed us in Spanglish that Chichen Itza was now closed. CLOSED? We just drove all this way and even coughed up a watch and it is closed? We could see the glow of spotlights in the distance, took one look at each other and then yelled RUN! Uncle Jeff was carrying the video camera and turned it on to film whatever we could see of this place, now shrouded even more in mystery, and everyone jogged behind, Grumpy uttering curses under his breath and Granny trying to hold her bladder. We suddenly came to a clearing and the illuminated main pyramid commanded the landscape. Uncle Sean immediately ran for the rugged steps to climb up while Uncle Jeff did his best to steady the camera. Just as Uncle Sean leaped onto the first step, the large spotlight went out. The Mayan Blair Witch Project video camera captured several long seconds of complete darkness then a sudden flash of stadium lighting turned on, revealing a huge crowd of tourists staring directly at the confused Canadian family who apparently didn’t miss the light show, because we were the light show.
We replayed the video in the car ride home and laughed at the fact that we captured exactly twelve seconds of this world wonder on film. Riled up from the excitement, we three boys sang the theme song from Fresh Prince on loop until we fell asleep while Grumpy drove with conviction. We all woke up screaming when we felt the car lift off from the ground and saw sparks emerge through the back window when we collided back down to the asphalt. To control the speed, Latin American highways are riddled with massive speed bumps and we hit this one going 100km/h. Grumpy invented a few more words and when we all came to, we inquired as to why we were still driving since it had been three hours since we left the ruins. We later came to learn that we drove several hours past our resort. We hit a few more of those speed bumps on the way back, but at this point, Grumpy wasn’t slowing down for anything. We finally pulled into the resort at 1am and many of the patrons we had befriended, clapped us in. For the rest of the week, we were called The Griswalds.
Needless to say Asher, we never did get to see those impressive ruins, so Granny and Grumpy more than deserved a visit to the largest excavated Mayan ruin site in the whole of the Americas. Chichen Itza is minuscule in comparison to the Grand Plaza at Tikal and we were happy to be their tour guides. Between all of our budget backpacking trips, we have spent ten months on the road, so by now we know that it is almost never better to book anything in advance. This knowledge paid off in spades today. By not pre-booking anything, we were able to leave at a time that was good for us, decide whether we wanted a guide when we got there, and return at a time that was best for us. Not to mention we saved a pile of Quetzales along the way.
Asher, you were quite tired in the morning and had a tough time trying to fall asleep in the overstuffed collectivo but you hung in there and fell fast asleep as soon as we arrived. Enjoying the guided tour five years previous, we debated as to whether we should take a guide again this time, however with Granny’s difficulty hearing, especially accents, and Grumpy’s turtle pace, we decided that a self-guided tour would be best for us. We set off into the dense jungle with a tourist map in hand and within five minutes, we knew we made the right decision. We turned around to see Granny and Grumpy laughing uncontrollably at the quantity of rugged stone stairs that lay before them. We were trying to keep the guided tour group in our sights but by the time we reached the upper path, we were sharing the jungle with only spider monkeys. The four hour jogging tour would have landed Granny and Grumpy in a coma and we preferred to move at our own speed with you as well.
We stopped to read about every tree accompanied by an information board and were fascinated by the tree that makes chewing gum, the horse testicle tree (because the fruit resembles horse testicles), the garlic smelling tree, the allspice tree and the mighty sacred Ceiba tree. On our last trip, the guide had an accent and we thought he was saying Saber tree, yet it was because of our self guided tour that we learned the Ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala. As Granny and Grumpy posed for photos, they could not believe the size of the Ceiba but could easily see why the Maya revered these 200 foot giants of the jungle.
After a thirty minute hike through the jungle, mostly uphill, we came upon the Grand Plaza of Tikal, flanked east and west by the 40 meter high Temple I and Temple II and to the north and south by the royal residential acropolis filled with a labyrinth of rooms with passive climate control. Just as on our previous visit to Tikal and in the shadows of the Taj Mahal, we took some time to marvel at the amount of human effort that was required to build these massive relics. The time spent on our daily life projects is suddenly dwarfed when realizing it took 1000 years to complete the site of Tikal. Most people find it difficult to spend twenty minutes making a healthy meal. Imagine having the patience and foresight to contribute to a project which you would never see completed? It is wild to imagine the Mayan rulers, headdresses laden with the tail feathers of the elusive Scarlet Macaw and Emerald Quetzal, perched atop their temple tombs as their countrymen danced around the central fire below. Asher, just as the Mayan babies had done more than 2000 years ago, you crawled on the grassy field of the Grand Plaza with the free range Ocellated Turkeys, who appear as though natural selection could not choose a color so just splashed the birds with a little of all.
Our self-guided tour saw us climb 182 stairs to the top of Temple IV. At 64.6m, the two-headed snake temple is the tallest temple in all of Mesoamerica and gave us a 360 degree uninterrupted view of the entire landscape. To stay fit during her pregnancy, your mom ran 20 flights of stairs nearly every single day, so even with your added twenty pounds, she glided up the stairs with grace. While enjoying the view, we chatted with Joy, who is backpacking on her own with her sweet daughter Eleanor. We admired Joy for her strength and courage to continue living her dreams. Like the massive staircase she just climbed, Joy viewed children not as a burden but as a challenge worthy of the extra effort, for the extra effort afforded adventures as far as the eye could see.
Now that the rickety ladder to the top of Temple V was taken down, few people made the trek out to this remote masterpiece, allowing us to enjoy the experience in solitude with the family of monkeys swinging nearby. With time for introspection, we wondered what happened to this great civilization and why the Maya left these monuments to be swallowed by the jungle. Granny and Grumpy found a flatter alternative for the kilometer hike to the exit and we stumbled across a giant six foot snake no more than three feet from us on the path. We later learned that it was a boa constrictor capable of suffocating an adult human. Needless to say, it even had Grumpy moving a little quicker.
Asher, you instantly fell asleep on the bus ride home from Tikal and with a camera full of photos and hearts full of wonder, we barely noticed the throbbing pain in our feet. Though we did not run out of Quetzales, fix a flat tire with nail clippers, fly home over giant speed bumps, or get clapped in upon our return, we were happy that Granny and Grumpy could finally see some grandiose Mayan ruins, and we were grateful for this exotic family vacation.