Any Caribbean traveler will soon make friends with the locals – including the reptiles! Here are 7 stories from my travels in Mexico and Puerto Rico, recounted by crocodiles, snakes, iguanas, and other cold-blooded friends I met along the way.
1. Uxmal Iguanas
As soon as we entered the Uxmal archaeological park, we were caught spell-bound by the Pyramid of the Magician. This enormous pyramid towers over the landscape and ignites the imagination: Why was the temple built? What’s inside? After the requisite photo frenzy, I noticed some other tourists inspecting the right side of the temple. A large male iguana was (unsuccessfully) courting a female iguana, and we soon realized that the temple was covered in iguanas popping in and out of rocky crevices. As we made our way through the impressive ancient city ruins, it became clear that reptiles were the current guardians of these Mayan ruins.
2. Chichen Itza mooch
They all told us one thing, one simple piece of advice: get there early.
“Avoid the crowds!” they all said. “It get’s packed after 10” they warned us. Go early, go early, go early.
Well, we didn’t.
We arrived around 11am, and the entrance line was already snaking far down the alley of vendors. The wait was long, the sun was sweltering, and the obnoxiously loud Jaguar growl whistles blown every minute by the vendors didn’t improve the situation.
However, were were graced by one reprieve from the line’s monotony. On the other side of one merchandise stall, we spotted a beautiful iguana. On closer inspection, we saw that the iguana had one thing on mind – lunch! A vendor had left an unguarded bean and cheese panucho sitting by the stall.
The iguana was slowly inching towards the midday snack, keeping one eye on us inquisitive tourists. When the iguana finally reached the panucho, he took dove in for a bite. Unfortunately, the panucho crust was too hard for him to bite, and the whole panucho slid down the slope. We all expressed our sympathy with sighs and exclamations; however, this iguana was not giving up. He slid down the slope and began chowing down at the only reasonably priced meal in the entire park.
Kulkulkan is the plumed serpent god of the Mayans. Similar to how the Greek gods and goddesses were adopted into Roman religion, Kulkulkan was also a major player in Aztec (as Quetzalcoatl) and Toltec myths. There were many snake carvings and statues scattered all over the Chichen Itza complex, but this snake on the El Castillo temple stands out from the rest. The Mayans built their temples and other buildings with the alignment of the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars, planets – not celebrities on beach week) in mind, and on the spring and fall equinoxes, the setting sun brings this snake to life. The temple steps align with the setting sun to cast a shadow that looks like a weaving snake body coming off of the Kulkulkan head. It’s pretty awesome!
3. Free Entertainment in Cancun
After returning the rental car in Cancun, my sister and I realized that our pesos were down to nada. So what do you do in Cancun without money? Well, you sneak onto the hotel beaches. But what else can you do in Cancun when you’re broke? Visit the park!
The Parque Urbano Kabah is a nice little escape from the city (and trust me, you’ll need one) that’s located within walking distance of downtown. The park had walking trails, historical village reconstructions, a nature center, workout areas, and … crocodiles!
We were going to ask what was in the marsh, but when we saw the dude tossing raw meat into the water, we got a pretty good hunch. He told us that he fed the crocodilio yesterday, and that was why she wasn’t hungry today. It made me feel a little safer to be around the animal, but we still kept our distance!
4. Ponce Japanese Garden
When we arrived in the the southern Puerto Rican city of Ponce, we were given two hours to explore. I wanted to make the most of that time, but I frankly had no idea where to go. Fortunately, the city was gorgeous. I wandered around, taking in the distinct architecture, the beautiful parks, and the rainbow collections of houses and churches. Strolling was pleasant, but when I looked up at the hills, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Way up on the hills, a giant windowed cross towered over the city like Cristo-Redentor watching over Rio. Equally persuasive, there was also a cool looking castle next to the cross. The only question was how to get up there.
After grabbing a map in a hotel lobby, I headed up the steep and winding roads to the cross. Upon arriving, I realized two things:
One, there was an entire complex that included the giant cross, the castle, and a Japanese garden.
and two, it had taken much longer than I had planned to hike up, and if I wanted time to see the sites, I would need to hitchhike back down.
Nevertheless, I was already there, so I purchased a ticket and enjoyed the time I had. The park was nearly empty, and I was completely alone to witness the beautiful view from the cross’s viewing deck. The Japanese garden was even more serene, and my only company was a lizard, some koi, and a couple of backpackers who had fallen asleep underneath a pagoda.
5. Ponce Art Museum
After running back down the mountain, I managed to arrive at our bus just in time. We drove around the block to the Museo de Arte de Ponce, a wonderful modern museum with a mixture of Puerto Rican and European art. The museum had several outdoor areas to explore, and I sighted my second reptile of the day hanging out on the fence.
6. Lousy day Iguana
Have you ever had a truly horrible day? I’m talking about a day where you mess one thing up and everything after that topples down like a giant set of misfortune dominos. A day where the only picture you could bring yourself to take was of some scaly, old iguana lounging on the end of a dirty pier.
7. Taino Coquí
Okay so a coqui is not technically a reptile, but amphibians are close enough , right? Before I arrived at Puerto Rico, I had read about the indigenous Taino people who once inhabited the island. However, while staying on the island, the only time I ever heard about them was in gift shops, which sold jewelery and trinkets with “Taino symbols”. The most common symbol was a four legged animal that I mistook for a lizard; however, it turns out that is animal is the coqui, a unique species of tropical frog that is only found in Puerto Rico. Besides their interesting reproductive characteristics, the coqui was used as a symbol in Taino art.
To be fair, I spent most of my time in urban centers, where indigenous history is often near impossible to find. This is what I found in Taiwan, where indigenous culture is much more visible and prevalent in rural and less densely populated areas such as the mountains and on the East coast. However, the only information I found about theTainos came from an incredibly informative coloring book in a San Juan tourist shop and Taino artifacts in a remote museum on the island of Vieques. The indigenous local culture of Puerto Rico is a fascinating subject, and I definitely hope to learn more in the future. But for now, I’m stuck with this enchanting frog symbol from la isla del encanto.
I hope you enjoyed these reptiles and the stories they tell. Happy travels!