A Visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

One of the first stops on our latest Southern Arizona road trip was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the outskirts of Tucson.

Last time I visited it my now-21-year old son was still in elementary school, his sister in preschool.  Living in the desert ourselves, we didn’t feel the need to revisit for a long time.  But my youngest daughter has never been there, and I wanted her to see it.

The Desert Museum is a zoo and botanical garden comprised. To get there, we drove through Saguaro National Monument. I wanted to stop, but in mid-November it was still too hot this year to hike the trails.  Even though we didn’t hit any trails, driving through the highest concentration of saguaro cacti through the park was a treat.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

Aquarium at the Desert Museum

As soon as we entered the Desert Museum, my daughter took off towards the aquarium.  Yes, aquarium in the desert. I didn’t remember it being here, but it makes sense.  We do have water in the desert, and most people wouldn’t expect it.  Added in 2013, long after my latest visit, it is set up to teach out-of-state visitors (and locals, though we should know this) about life in the rivers of the Sonoran Desert, including the Colorado, and life in the Sea of Cortez.  Without these bodies of water, the Sonoran Desert would not be known as the “greenest desert”. Following our daughter, we walked through two exhibits, one highlighting life in the freshwater rivers, the other one in the Sea of Cortez.

Aquatic Life at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Walking on the Trail

Out on the trail it was warm, so we were trying to find shade as soon as possible.  We walked out towards the pollinator gardens, with bats, bees and butterflies. Since it was daytime, we didn’t see any bats, but bees and butterflies fluttered and buzzed around us.  I learned that female bees don’t sting, something I never knew in my fifty years of life, even though at some point my dad owned a beehive while I was growing up. You learn something new every day.

Walking towards the hummingbird aviary, I noticed a docent with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, giving a presentation. We stopped for a few minutes to listen, and admire the bird.

We spent some time in the hummingbird aviary, trying to follow some of the tiny birds. Yes, we have lots of them in our backyard, but we still wanted to see them here, as well.  I did notice one with deep purple colors that I haven’t seen before. We were able to see them close by at times, if we stood still for a few minutes.  No luck taking photos of them though, they are much too fast for that.

The Organ Pipe – Cactus

Organ Pipe Cactus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

We walked through a desert garden, where I pointed out an organ pipe cactus to my daughter.

“Do you recognize this?” I asked her. “We have one in our front yard.”

“No way, it doesn’t even look close,” she answered.

“This one is probably a few hundred years old”, I said. “Ours is only about twenty.”

As she looked closer, she did notice the resemblance.

“Could ours get this big?” she asked.  “It would take over the whole front yard.”

It probably would.  As I stopped to read what they say about my cactus, I realized why I see bats in and around our house sometimes at night.  It is a night-blooming cactus.  Although I have not seen its flower in bloom yet, my son told me that last year, when he came home very late, that he did see one of the flowers open.  It is beautiful, but only opens for the night pollinators, the bats.

Back on the Trail

Back on the trail we walked through the riparian corridor and stopped to admire the bighorn sheep in their enclosure. The underwater viewing center offered shade and a fun way to see the river otter and beaver up close in their element. The beaver was very active, and we stopped to watch him from the outside as well, standing under the shade of some trees.

We bypassed the cactus garden, because, well, we pretty much live in a cactus garden, and it was still too hot to hang out outside.  Instead, we took a beeline to the cat canyon.  The bobcat and the ocelot were sleeping, or resting, but the grey fox was walking around her enclosure, and I was able to stand there and watch her for a while. The porcupine was sleeping right by the window, easy to see.  My daughter remembered seeing one in the wild, in Banff National Park a few years ago.  They live in both environments.

Though we originally planned to walk through the Desert Loop Trail, we didn’t do it this time.  It was sunny and still too warm to walk the half-mile with no shade in sight. We live in the desert, after all, we see it every day.  But for out-of-state visitors, it is a great hike.  Especially on a cooler day. Normally it cools down enough by this time of the year, but global warming must be real, we haven’t seen real fall/winter weather yet.

Blue Heron in the Desert?

In the Desert Grassland Exhibit I admired the great blue heron, standing by the water, and grooming herself.  Her neck is so long and so flexible, she seemed to turn her head all the way around.  The prairie dogs here are bigger than those in the Phoenix Zoo, and they are fun to watch. A few turkey vultures and black vultures added to the diversity in this exhibit.

My Visit with the Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Mountain Woodland was the highlight of our visit.  I noticed the mountain lion.  She is one of the most beautiful creatures I can imagine.  As it was still hot, she just sat in the shade under a rock, grooming herself and lazily looking at the visitors, and me, as well. She looked so much like my kitty at home, I wanted to pet her.  Of course, she’s much bigger and I doubt she would have enjoyed me petting her. We walked around and looked at her through the glass, from the other side of her enclosure, she was closer to the window.

They have a beautiful Mexican Wolf in this exhibit, as well. It is an endangered species and I know that the Southwest Wildlife Center in Phoenix helps with its captive breeding program.  So far, the program seems to be successful and these wolves are slowly reintroduced to the mountains of the Southwest. Their howl is one of the most beautiful music I ever heard.

Earth Science Center

Before leaving, we walked through the artificial cave in the Earth Science Center. It was a great place to get away from the sun and fun to explore it. but the real deal was waiting for us later on, when we visited Kartchner Caverns at the end of the trip.

 

 

 

Revisiting Chichen Itzá and Its Pyramid of Kukulcan

Chichen Itzá is probably the best-known and the most spectacular ancient Mayan site. It is not only a World Heritage site but also one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. Architectural wonders, of course.

Over the years we visited the site often.  While we always noticed changes, our latest trip, seven years after our last, took us by surprise.

We Notice the Changes As Soon As We Return

Once upon a time, it was possible to visit the site without the crowds that it attracts today.  I remember climbing the Pyramid of Kukulcan, walking through its temple, and taking a tour inside of it.  We climbed the Temple of the Warriors and even sat on its jaguar throne. No one stopped us, all the visitors did it. Only a handful of us drove to the site anyway. We climbed the Observatory or Caracol and walked through its rooms. I remember with nostalgia watching our kids play in the enormous ball court, and being virtually alone in it.

Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá. 2017
Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá. 2017

While we knew that we couldn’t do any of those things now, we still decided to revisit the site.  Our youngest daughter was a tiny baby last time we walked through the site and she didn’t remember it. She wanted her to see this famous place.

At first I was disappointed. We stood on a long line for at least an hour to enter, even though we stayed in a hotel basically on the premises. As soon as it opened, the crowds were unbelievable.  Vendors lined up the trails, calling to us as we passed by, offering tourist junk made in China. Yes, it was annoying.

“Call something Paradise, kiss it goodbye” – in this case, call it a “wonder of the world”. So true.  However, we are trying to preserve these wonders for future generations.  So I understand and even agree that no one is allowed to climb or even touch the monuments.  When they get thousands of visitors a day, it is the only way to keep them from getting destroyed.

Chichen Itzá. Temple
Chichen Itzá. Temple
A Walk through the Ancient City

Once passed the shock of the changes,  we managed to have a wonderful time.

How could we not? The structures are all spectacular, even more so than we remember them. More of the facades are restored and the paint in some of the rooms looks more vivid from outside.

Chichen Itzá. Chac Mul
Chichen Itzá. Chac Mul

We didn’t have a lot to walk, most of the trails we used to walk on are closed, and to look to the structures takes less time than to climb them.  While I missed the old trails, it was nice to take it easy and be able to leave by noon.

Our first stop was the Sacred Cenote, where legend has it that virgins were sacrificed. I’m not so sure the legend is true though. Some of the early archaeologists searched the cenote and found lots of offerings.  Not necessarily human ones though.

The Sacred Cenote. Chichen Itzá
The Sacred Cenote. Chichen Itzá

Thousands of beautiful artifacts found their tomb in the bottom of the cenote.  Of course they found human remains as well, but not enough to prove the idea that they were sacrificed. It is quite possible that people fell into it by accident, either in the ancient times or much later. The edge is very steep, I remember worrying about my own kids a lifetime ago when we used to visit. It is not possible now to get close to the edge, so no danger of that kind lurks around it. The remains of the ancient temple sit on the edge of the cenote.

 

Walking through a Line of Vendors

Walking back towards the main plaza, we watched the vendors set up their fare.  We walked fast past them, avoiding eye contact. We didn’t want to hear their offering of things that we were not interested in buying.  I have trouble saying no to anything, and they seem to know it.

Though we entered the ruins as soon as they opened, by the time we were in front of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, the crowds have already descended on the plaza.  Fortunately, it is a large enough area that we could enjoy the monuments if we lingered a few minutes in front of each.

The Ball Court, Temple of the Warriors and Caracol

The Ball Court is the largest in Mesoamerica.  As I walked through it, I heard the familiar yells and hoots of the tour guides, demonstrating the acoustics of the place.  It still makes me smile.  The Maya figured out how to build an outdoor monument with perfect acoustics. If a person talks on one end, his voice is audible and sounds clear on the other side.  It rivals the best opera houses of the modern world.  And it is outdoors.

The Great Ballcourt. Chichen Itzá
The Great Ballcourt. Chichen Itzá

The Temple of the Warriors sits as magnificent as ever, though we couldn’t get too close to it.  The Mercado with its hundreds of columns is off limits, as well.  It is still beautiful to look at from the trail that goes around it.

Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itzá
Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itzá

We walked to the Observatory or Caracol and to the structures around it.  As we shared the plaza with hundreds of tourists, people watching became part of the game. The Observatory is spectacular from the outside as well.

Caracol. The Observatory. Chichen Itzá
Caracol. The Observatory. Chichen Itzá

Looking at it makes me think of the ancient Maya watching the sky, night after night.  Based solely on their observations alone, without the aid of modern telescopes, they understood the movements of the planets, the moon, and the stars.  They were even able to predict eclipses, both lunar and solar.  They based their calendars on the movements of these celestial bodies they watched from structures like this one.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan

Still, the greatest structure in Chichen Itzá remains the famous pyramid.  I am lucky to have climbed it once upon a time and even walked inside it.  But even looking at it from outside it is spectacular.

The Temple of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá

It sits in the middle of an open plaza, dominating the center of the site.  Stairways lead to the top on all four of its sides, but the most spectacular one is the one facing north. It is the only one where two huge serpent heads adorn the bottom of the stairs.  These are the representations of the mythical great serpent-god, Kukulcan.  Hence the name.

The Shadow of Kukulcan descending. Chichen Itzá
The Shadow of Kukulcan descending. Chichen Itzá

During both spring and autumn equinoxes, at sunset, the whole serpent is visible, descending the stairs of the pyramid.  How did they know to face the building in this way?

A few years ago we ended up in Chichen Itzá soon after the spring equinox.  Though it was about a week later, we were still able to see the shadow of the mythical serpent descending the stairs of the pyramid.

In addition, the number of stairs on the four sides of the pyramid equals the number of days in a year. Each side has 91 steps (91×4=364), and one extra step on the top leads into the temple.

Leaving Chichen Itzá

We knew that it was probably the last time we would visit this amazing site.  We’ve seen it many times, we have explored it, we have even seen the great serpent Kukulcan, descending the stairs a few years ago.  We happened to be there about a week after the equinox.  At the right time, it was still visible.  We have seen the night show, where they reenact the great serpent descending, with artificial lights, as they tell stories from the ancient city. The show is spectacular, especially if you understand Spanish.  You can listen to it in English as well, with headphones, but this version is never quite as vivid.

If it is your first time, it is worth the time and effort.  Try to get there early though and remember that you need to deal with crowds.  Sort of like Disneyland.  If you don’t let the crowds and the heat (during the day) get to you, you’ll have an amazing experience.

Uxmal and the Pyramid of the Magician

Uxmal is one of my favorite ancient Maya cities in the state of Yucatan.  Over the past twenty-five years, my family and I visited it often.  No matter how many times we see it, we don’t mind coming back to it over and over.

Revisiting the Ancient City of Uxmal
We were some of the first visitors of the day to the ancient Maya site of Uxmal. We enjoyed the cool breeze when we started walking, since we knew that later it would be hot and sticky.  In the hills of Yucatan a breeze is a rare commodity and the humidity is high enough to make the heat unbearable.
Like every time we find ourselves in the region, we got up early to arrive to the site when it opened. Once again, we managed to beat the crowds that show up late morning in the tour buses from Cancun.
The Pyramid of the Magician
Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal
Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal
The first structure we noticed upon entering the site was the Pyramid of the Magician. Its massive frame dominates the plaza, and the whole site.  One of the largest reconstructed pyramid on the peninsula, it is also my favorite.  Its rounded sides have more of an appeal to me than the sharp corners of the pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza.
But part of the reason I love this particular pyramid has to do with the legend of its creation.
 
According to this legend, a dwarf, hatched from an egg, built it in one night. While doing it, he proved himself worthy to be the king of the ancient city.  Read the whole legend, as well as a different point of view of my trip to Uxmal here.
Revisiting the Nunnery Quadrangle
The Nunnery. Uxmal
The Nunnery Quadrangle
Early in the morning we were sharing the site with only a handful of visitors. We made our way to the main compound of the Nunnery Quadrangle. The name doesn’t fit, it has nothing to do with nuns or any kind of nunnery. The Spaniards mislabeled it when they first saw it.  The plaza surrounded by four major structures resembled their idea of a nunnery.
Archaeologists think that the plaza was a palace for high officials. In the center, it has a stage for ceremonial dances.  Walking though it, we marvel at the elaborately decorated facades of the buildings. We can no longer enter any of the rooms, though we remember being inside them during previous visits. They are each very similar, in shape and size, with small variations.
Archway Entrance to the Nunnery. Uxmal
Archway Entrance to the Nunnery
Ball Court in Uxmal

We left the Nunnery Quadrangle, and walked through the ball court.  Not quite as large as the one in Chichen Itza, it is still spectacular. This time it looked better than I remembered. We could tell that work was done to reconstruct it in the past few years.

Ballcourt. Uxmal
Ballcourt.
Walking through the Palace of the Governors

We walked over to the Palace of the Governors, a long building on top of a high platform.  My favorite feature of it is the facade. In fact, it is the longest facade in the Yucatan featuring the Rain God, Chak.

Palace of the Governors. Uxmal
Palace of the Governors. Uxmal

These rooms were not closed, so we were able to enter them once again. We revisited the rooms that Stevens and Catherwood, the first Western explorers of the region, lived in while here.  We talk about them as we walk through the rooms, and recognize the signs of fire in one of them.  I remembered reading an interesting entry in their book about how a native built the fire for them. They wrote the Incidents of Travels in Yucatan over a century ago, but the book is still a good read.

Facade on the Palace of the Governors. Uxmal
Facade on the Palace of the Governors

Facade on the Palace of the Governors

Casa de la Tortugas

We walked over to the Casa de Las Tortugas, the small structure decorated with turtles. It was starting to get warm as the day progressed. We were prepared for the usual hot and sticky feeling we always get while exploring Mayan ruins. This time, Chak must have been in an unusually good mood. Clouds rolled in and a welcomed breeze cooled us down.

Casa de las Tortugas. Uxmal
Casa de las Tortugas
On the Grand Pyramid
We moved on to one of the structures we can still climb, the Grand Pyramid.  We sat on top of it for a long time, enjoying the breeze, and the view of the site.  
The pleasant breeze was soon accompanied by a few drops of rain. We visited this site often during the years, but I don’t ever remember rain here.  Chak, the rain god, was happy indeed.  We stood on top for a long time, enjoying the water hitting our hot bodies.
On top of the Main Pyramid. Uxmal
On top of the Grand Pyramid
While we were enjoying the light rain, we didn’t notice the crowds coming into the site. We looked down and realized that the major parts of the site were overrun by huge tour groups. When one of the large groups started climbing the stairs of the pyramid, we decided that it was time to leave.
The Cemetery
We took the opportunity to revisit the cemetery. Most tours and visitors don’t bother walking so far, so we found ourselves alone once again. Later, we encountered one lone visitor here, among the stones decorated with skulls. Like us, he was enjoying the quiet that this out-of-the-way part of the site offered.
The Pyramid of the Old Woman
Later on we took the less traveled path towards the Pyramid of the Old Woman, the mother of the legendary dwarf. Overgrown by vegetation, the trail doesn’t seem to be used, though is not closed down. Few visitors wonder out this far off the beaten path.
The pyramid of the Old Woman is still in rubble, though for the first time since our many visits, it is roped off. ‘Will they work on reconstructing it?’, we wonder. It is a good size pyramid, though far from the center of the city.
According to legend, this Old Woman was a witch and lived in a small hut.  After her son, the dwarf, became king, he built this pyramid for her.  It must have been beautiful in its time.
 
On the way out, we had trouble navigating the crowds in the main plaza and the entrance area. We were glad that once again we managed to enjoy the site while sharing it with only a handful of fellow visitors.