Progreso and Chichen Itza

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series Father and Son Cruise

Someone punched me hard in the stomach. Really hard. The pain had me doubled over.

I opened my eyes to darkness. It still hurt, and I tossed around trying to stretch the feeling away. It would not leave.

The digits on the clock slowly came into focus; 4:20 a.m. I got up, walked around and then began to feel nauseous. “What the heck?” I wondered, waiting for the feeling to pass. In a few minutes it was gone, but the pain remained.

Was I seasick? The ship felt perfectly still, as it had for the entire trip. Where were we? Ah, Mexico. Did I drink the water? No. Ice cubes? Just one drink… Oh, oh.

Eventually I crawled back into bed and finally fought my way back to sleep. It was probably only a matter of minutes before the alarm went off at 6:30.

Our destination for this day had been uncertain. The original itinerary included Progreso, but in the weeks preceding the cruise the port was closed due to hurricane damage. The itinerary was then altered to Costa Maya, but in the days before the trip conflicting information started trickling in. Our ticket books included material for both ports. It was only when I booked the excursions onboard that it became clear that Progreso was ready for us.

Ryan popped out of bed, showered and dressed. “Want some coffee? I’ll go get it for you.”

“No, you go ahead. I really don’t feel well. Do you feel o.k.?” I knew that we had consumed the same food and drink the day before.

“I feel great. What’s the matter?”

“I feel like somebody punched me in the gut.”

“Do you feel sick?”

“Not really. It just hurts.”

“Do you still want to go on the trip today?”

“Yeah, I’m not going to miss this chance. I’ll be fine.”

Ryan left to fuel himself. I took my time getting up.

The sun was trying to burst through the curtains. I took a quick peek outside and saw land on the horizon several miles away. The sun was very hot so I closed the curtains again, restoring semi-darkness in the cabin. We should be coming onto port soon, but the ship seemed very still.

Ryan and the sound of a trumpet entered the room at the same time, from opposite sides. I thought it strange that a passenger would be practicing trumpet out on their verandah. Ryan opened the curtains and stepped out, and I followed. Land was still miles off, but now I saw that we were actually alongside a concrete pier. A Mariachi band was warming up below us. Toward the stern the pier widened and held a couple of buildings and a parking lot. A narrow strip of pavement headed off toward the mainland.

I had read but temporarily forgotten that the dock at Progreso stretched four miles out into the sea. I assume that the water is too shallow to accommodate large ships any closer to shore.


I went for the video camera as the band quit warming up and started playing, joined by a group of dancers whirling around a May-pole. The lens fogged up immediately.

We had only a couple of minutes before we were due to meet in Rendezvous square for the excursion. I had lost track of time, and we were not ready. By the time we got downstairs, the group was already lining up.

“I can’t believe it,” said Ryan.

“What’s the matter?”

“I forgot my camera.”

“You definitely want to have it for this,” I offered. “Run back and get it. I’ll walk slowly.”

The group began to move out. I found that the continuing pain in my midsection forced me to walk slowly anyway, and Ryan was back at my side before I’d gone 100 feet.

“That was quick.”

“Shouldn’t we have gotten some water?”

Excellent idea, but too late.

“I really hope they give us some.”

We followed the group down the stairs and out onto the pier where we stood in line for a few minutes watching the band and the dancers. The sun was scorching and the light colored concrete amplified the brightness. A few stragglers brought up the rear before we were marched toward the parking lot a few hundred feet away.

A couple of shops were opening in the buildings next to the parking lot, although most of the space appeared to be vacant. In the lot, a few cab drivers appealed for passengers, apparently confident that someone would abandon the prepaid excursion to ride with them. Since the cruise line was sponsoring a complimentary shuttle into town, I wondered what these guys were thinking.

A row of modern buses waited. Ryan led the way to one of them, and we entered the cool dark interior with relief. A cardboard lunch box occupied each seat.

“Here’s your lunch,” I said, putting the boxes into the overhead storage bin.

“When do we eat?”

“Whenever you feel like it, I guess.”

We settled in, although I found it impossible to get comfortable. The bus departed in a few minutes, traveling down the four-lane road that occupied the width of the pier. About halfway to shore, the bus shifted to the left side of the road. In places, the right lanes were gone, washed out by the tide. I wondered if this happened during the most recent hurricane, but somehow the damage did not look recent.

A couple of decrepit industrial buildings marked our approach to the mainland. We passed through a small security checkpoint and entered the city. The bus navigated narrow, crowded streets for a while before settling on a highway that led toward the interior. The road was buffered by a flat grassy strip, scrub trees and in most places, by walls.

Walls were everywhere. In places, settled areas could be seen stretching off into the distance. Each narrow lot held a simple structure separated from its neighbor by a wall. Walls outlined vacant lots. Stubs of walls intersected with main walls that seemed to go on forever. Many were incomplete or just tumbling down. Where there wasn’t a wall, a pile of construction material lay waiting to be turned into one. It was striking.

Later I would speak to someone who told of the terrible hurricane damage visible on the trip. “I didn’t really see much at all,” I offered.

“What about all those walls that were falling down?”

I’m quite sure the vast majority of the walls looked the same after the hurricane as they had before. In fact, I had only seen one unmistakable sign of the hurricane – a corrugated steel roof on an industrial building partially peeled back by the wind. The guide told us that the real problem with the storm was water – it had rained torrents for 36 hours. Indeed, standing water could be seen in places that were probably parched by the sun in normal times. I’d say that Progreso was lucky in this one.

During the ride, our guides fed us information about “Chicken Pizza”. That joke got old fairly quickly. We were offered the opportunity to order a personalized Mayan calendar, shown some pictures, given the rules and warned to drink lots of water. We had none.

After two hours we pulled in to sort of a resort town, populated by shopping strips, restaurants and motels all adorned with images and names from nearby Chichen Itza. The buses stopped at one of the shopping areas for a 15-minute break.

As we got off the bus, a man carrying a load of wares on his back appeared on the opposite side of the road. He whistled frantically and waved some of his goods at the passengers, pacing back and forth like an expectant father. Some invisible barrier kept him on the opposite side of the street though. I figured that there must be some kind of rule keeping itinerant vendors off of the commercial property we were visiting.

Ryan got busy with his camera and I wandered inside. Narrow doorways interconnected a series of small shops crammed with goods. Of particular interest to me was the restroom that the guide said was ‘in the back’. Finally I found an exit in the rear of one of the shops.

The very pleasant landscaped courtyard was kind of a surprise. A canopy of high trees offered shelter from the heat. Down a pathway I came to a huge outdoor restaurant where the staff was setting up for a big crowd. It was tempting to sit down and order something just to take in the atmosphere. I stuck to my business. The pain had not subsided, and I was not really interested in eating anything at all.

Back out front, I found Ryan. He had secured a couple of bottles of water, and they really hit the spot. The street vendors had multiplied and become bolder. They were holding their line just behind the busses. Two girls under the age of ten shouted in piercing voices, “Fidolla, fidolla, fidolla, fidolla”. They did not seem to pause for breath, and the sound became very unpleasant. The adults in the group chimed in with whistles and chants of their own, but the girls drowned them out. A couple of people approached the hoard to take pictures, but I didn’t see anyone brave enough to make a purchase. To this day I can still hear those girls. I wonder if they ever make a sale.

When we finally boarded the bus, the chant became even more frantic. “Twodolla, twodolla, twodolla. Hey! Twodolla!!!”

The bus backed out carefully. In just a couple of minutes, we entered the gates at Chichen Itza.

“O.K. everybody. What time are we supposed to be back to the bus?” asked the guide.

“Two o’clock!’ forty or so voices replied in semi-unison.

“When you get back, we will have some beer to go with your lunches! Don’t be late!”

Clever. The lure of cold beer ought to ensure timeliness.

While one guide was our main entertainer on the bus, another (Carlos) specialized in Mayan culture and would be our educator at Chichen Itza. Our buses were the first in the parking lot, so their front row location would be easy to spot later on. We donned wrist bands for entry, and marched through one of two modern buildings to the entry gate.

pyramid_fullA short way down a wide dirt path, we entered a broad grassy clearing. Slightly to the right a stunning sight stopped me in my tracks — the Pyramid of Kukulcán rose high above everything else.

“Cooool!” Ryan thrust his backpack my way before swinging his camera up for a shot. “Awesome!”

For a moment, the nagging pain was forgotten, and I felt a little lump in my throat. It was indeed awesome. And I was relieved that Ryan seemed to think so, too.pyramis_corner

Carlos encouraged the awestruck to continue moving. He led us to the shade of a large tree where we could enjoy the view without getting sunburned. He began his lecture, and it was obvious that he had a wealth of knowledge to share. He held up pictures and artist’s renderings of the site. Unfortunately, 3”x5” images are difficult to see from 20 feet away. I resolved to buy the book.

We left the Great Pyramid and headed to the ball court. The ball court at Chichén Itzá is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. The acoustics are such that almost any sound, even a whisper, can be heard from one end to the other. We were told that attempts to understand this phenomenon have failed.


ballfieldCarlos described the scene. Midway along each of the long sidewalls, carved stone hoops about 20 feet above the ground served as the goals. The game was played with a large and heavy rubber ball, and the players apparently could not use their hands – opinions vary, but theories indicate the game was played using elbows, knees, hips, and thighs. The final score must have always been about the same – 1 to 0.

Under one goal we studied a huge carving which depicts a decapitated player. Some theorize that the game’s winners were beheaded – an honor. A skull adorns an image of the ball.player

Around the corner we came to a long wall covered top to bottom with images of sculls. They continued around the corner and marched off into the distance.


Some of the smaller temples had carvings that still had some coloration. In its day, Chichen Itza was apparently blazing with colors – not the sun-washed stone-faced uniformity visible today.

We walked down a road paved with a mix of crushed white material that is said to glow in the darkness of night. The entire central section of the site is built on a man-made plateau, and the walls marking its extremes were clearly visible through the woods next to the road.

At length we came to a huge round sinkhole. The vertical walls dropped straight down to bright green water about 60 feet below. A few simple stone structures teetered an the edge of the abyss – this is where the condemned spent their last moments before being sacrificed to the depths.

Nearby stood a refreshment stand. Our group was asked if we wanted to take a break. I thought the answer was obvious, but someone said “No” loudly enough that Carlos marched off back toward the main plaza. A couple of people, myself included, went for water instead.

I bought two bottles and watched as the group went over the rise up the road. Ryan seemed to be fascinated with the sacrificial sinkhole, and he was climbing all over the edge looking for good picture angles. I waited for a good long while before calling him.

“Just a few more minutes,” he answered. “There are some great shots here.”

I waited for a good ten minutes before he finished. We polished off the water, and headed back to the main site. We caught up with the group just as Carlos was dismissing everyone for a period of free exploration. We were to meet at 1:00 for a tour of the “old city”.

Ryan wanted to climb the Great Pyramid. I watched some people do it before deciding to pass on the opportunity myself. Going up looked strenuous but manageable. Coming down however was a different story. The stairs are very steep, and many people came down on their butts, too disoriented to stand.

warning_signWhile Ryan climbed, I wandered around. At the base of one of the staircases was a passage to the interior of the pyramid. I entered, went around a couple of corners and was confronted by a steep staircase leading up. It was surprisingly hot inside. Partway up I was met by a bunch of kids running down. Apparently I was going the wrong way on a one-way street, so I abandoned the journey. I have since seen pictures of the interior room at the top of the stairs, filled with artifacts.

Back outside, I turned around just in time to see Ryan descending the stairs. I ran to get some distance before taking what is now my favorite photograph (supplanting the one I took of the burning Angelina Lauro in 1979). I had this picture  made into a poster – one for Ryan and one for Kris.


We met Carlos at the rendezvous point and headed down into another section of Chichen Itza. This was the “old” part, filled with stunning architecture. Carlos went a little too fast for me, and I soon lagged behind. In turn, I went a little too fast for Ryan. I left him as he was crouching on the ground for the perfect picture angle. We all knew to be back at the bus by 2:00, so I figured that operating at our individual paces would be best.

observatoryI looked at the observatory building for a long time, from all different angles. It looks remarkably like a modern observatory, with a huge domed tower in the center. The building features some of the only curves in a very angular place.

I timed my arrival at the bus perfectly. Almost everyone was already there. You know how these tours go – there’s always somebody who doesn’t get back on time and delays everything. “Hah! It won’t be me,” I thought as I clambered aboard the bus. The guide was filling cups with beer for the embarking passengers.

I fought my way back to our seats. My midsection hurt like the dickens, but I felt a little hunger. The lunchbox contained a roll, a can of tuna, a fruit cup, a piece of anonymous cake and a cookie. The cookie went nicely with the beer, but the rest of it just didn’t appeal to me.

At about 2:10, a couple ran up to the bus.

“Sorry we’re so late.”

“O.K. Everybody here?” asked the guide.

I stood and walked to the front of the bus.

“My son is missing. Will they let me back in to find him?” I asked.

“Of course,” answered the guide.

Holding my aching gut, I trotted back up to the gate. A huge line of people waited for admission. I went around the side and explained the situation to the man at the gate. He let me in.

People were pouring out at a steady rate. As I walked I searched through the crowd for Ryan. A couple of hundred feet into the park, I spotted him sauntering along.

“Come on! The bus is waiting for us!”

“What time is it?”


“I thought we were leaving at 2:30. I decided to come up here because I couldn’t find anybody.”

This was no time for small talk. I set the hurried pace. In the end, I was the last person to get on the bus – 18 minutes late. Oh the shame…

“Wow, what an awesome place. I’ve never really seen any ruins or anything. I’m really glad we did that…”

I felt relief.

In contrast to the return from Passion Island, the trip back to Progreso was peaceful. I set up the MP3 player with two sets of headphones, and we both dozed off listening to Bob Marley.

At dinner that night, Ryan ordered an Irish Coffee to go with dessert. I realized that Kris and I had overlooked this tradition of ours during the entire Galaxy trip. Although I had managed to eat dinner I didn’t want to push my luck, so I passed on the chance.

A few minutes later, Ryan excused himself from the table for a few minutes. As soon as he was out of sight, two women rolled a cart up to the table. The cocktail waitress asked, “Where is Mr. Ryan? We are here to make his Irish Coffee.”

“That’s fine. He’ll be back in a few minutes. You can just leave it for him,” I answered.

The waitress gave me kind of a funny look. “Are you sure?”

I nodded.

What happened next made me doubly regret not having ordered Irish Coffee with Kris on the Galaxy trip. The second woman proceeded to make a concoction fit for a king in a ceremony so elaborate it made me feel guilty. Flaming whiskey was poured back and forth between little silver pitchers before being cascaded into the glass. Then, the coffee was gently added so that the flames floated on top of the rising black liquid. Finally, fresh cream was poured on top over the backside of a long spoon, extinguishing the flame.

When Ryan returned, everyone at the table was still marveling over the show. An ordinary-looking Irish Coffee sat at Ryan’s place.

“You should have seen how they made that.” Everyone piped in with a description. I don’t think Ryan believed any of it (the video below was made the following evening).

Get the Flash Player to see this content.

We were both exhausted from the long day. Ryan went off to scope out the activities for a little while before turning in. I went to an internet station and sent an email to Kris. It began with this line:

“Montezuma’s younger brother has taken revenge.”

As it turned out, I was not even close.

Tomorrow’s day at sea would be a welcome break.

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