I wanted to do a mix of activities on my trip to Cancun, exposing the boys to some history as well as the more accessible (for kids) water activities. One of the great cities of the Mayan Civilization is Chichen Itza, with its famous pyramid, El Castillo. It was our first major activity, which started with a 2+ hour bus ride West into the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The site is dominated by the 95 feet high Step Pyramid that is now closed to tourists. Back many years ago, my wife was allowed to climb the great temple. The tour guide mentioned that with the increase in traffic, these archeological treasures are now closed to the public. Luckily they are easily photographed and if you are patient enough, it maybe possible to shoot without getting unwanted people in your shot. In the photo above, I purposely decided to include the brightly colored woman as a counter point in the composition.
I brought my tripod with me but left it on the bus. The tour guide said that you need special permits to use one. I opted to shoot HDRs freehand, the only reason I needed a tripod in the first place. It turned out that the needed dynamic range was not as wide as I imagined. One RAW photo was able to capture the scene without any blown highlights or dark shadows. Very strange. This is not the experience I have in Texas when I shoot during the day time. Perhaps the quality of light here is different? Either way, I decided to throw away my extra HDR exposures and process single photographs.
There is much to see architecturally with a giant ball court, temple remains and an observatory. I’m not going into detail about the place, you can read this Wikipedia article if you are inclined. While it is an interesting place to visit and I didn’t regret going, I didn’t find it inspiring for photography.
While historically significant, the buildings lacked detail and beyond taking pictures of the pyramid and several of other noteworthy structures, there weren’t enough things to ultimately intrigue me. The funny thing is that large-scale white limestone structures reminded me of buildings in Central Texas, though we certainly don’t have a giant pyramid in Austin. The same ancient seas that formed the limestone in Texas must have done so here in the Yucatan.
On the way to Chichen Itza, we passed through an old city called Valladolid. This place had a wonderful center square with a park and big church. The area was bustling with activity and would be a wonderful place to street shoot. Ironically, I think I would have enjoyed photographing there more than the famous tourist spot. I like living cities with real people. While the pyramid is dynamic, Chichen Itza is ultimately a dead place, merely visited by tourists.
Our bus didn’t stop in Valladolid, it just passed through and I couldn’t get any good photographs. I saw other buses parked near the town square so I recommend a tour that includes a stop at this place. The Wikipedia article on Valladolid makes it sound interesting. I think I could have easily spent a day there taking pictures. The contrast of this place to some of the Texas towns I’ve visited recently, couldn’t be more dramatic. While the Central Texas cities were half boarded up, this place is vibrant and charming. I can’t vouch for its safety with the recent incidents in Mexico but from the number of big tour buses there, I imagine it’s safe enough.
One of my readers suggested adding a bit of tint to black and whites to add a little warmth. I decided to process some of the photographs in a toned black and white. I do think it works here and gives a kind of archeological and timeless feel to the photographs. Some of these images looks like they could have been taken 100 years ago. Though actual photographs from a century back shows a place over grown and nearly taken over by the jungle. The place has been rebuilt to some extent so what you see here is not the original stonework. The backside of the pyramid, however, shows what appears to be the original condition.
If you visit Cancun, it is certainly worth visiting Chichen Itza, especially if you are a history buff. See if there are tours that stop at Valladolid. I think that will add a nice slice of Mexican life and give you the feel of an old Spanish town.
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