Two of the things my wife Stephanie and I wanted to do on our recent trip to Cancun, Mexico was to see the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and swim in a cenote. We managed to accomplish both in one day.
Carlos the tour guide insisted that our day-long bus trip from Cancun to Chichen Itza, to a Cenote, through Valladolid, and back to Cancun was not going to be run on “Mexican Time.” This was the Tour of Definite Stops at a Definite Time, unlike a previous day-long tour in another country….He stated that if he told us a time to be back on the bus, we had to be back on the bus by that time because taxis from Chichen Itza to Cancun were very expensive.
My wife and I were picked up from our hotel at 7:30 on Sunday morning in a small shuttle bus and dropped off at a collection point where we boarded a full-sized tourist bus.
While the bus was driven on a highway cut through flat savannah of low trees on white and light gray, rocky soil, another of the guides, Tony, gave us all a lecture on Mayan history. He told us, in both English and Spanish, about the rise and fall of the Mayan civilization, the locations of their settlements (in what is now El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico), their numbering system, their pictographic alphabet, the accuracy of their calendar, and their amazing feats of engineering, and how they merged with the Toltecs around 1000 AD.
Tony also told us how 300 years ago a zealous Spanish missionary burned nearly every Mayan book/codex that the Conquistadors could find. “Burn first, ask questions centuries later” is a fantastic way to set a monumental standard for ignorance and fear. Four of these Mayan books remain. Three reside in Europe. Only one resides in Mexico.
A dozen or so people sitting in the back of the bus slept through the entire ride and all of the lecture. Clearly, they were catching up on the sleep they lost the night before, maybe because they were out at a club or seeing a “show and disco” like Coco Bongo. Tony called them the “Sleeping Beauties.” For the record, most of the sleeping tourists were female and younger than 35.
At the end of his’s lecture, when we were approaching the entrance to Chichen Itza, Tony told a story. It went like this:
“When my daughter was little and had trouble sleeping, I would go into her room and ask her what was wrong. She would say that she couldn’t sleep. I would ask her what I could do to help her sleep, and she would say, ‘Daddy, tell me about Mayans.’”
Inside the park, Tony led us English speakers on a tour through the grounds. It was hot and the sun stung hard, so we made sure we drank water and wore sunscreen, and stood in the shade of the trees whenever possible.
One thing to keep in mind while looking at these pictures is that the Mayans built all of these structures without metal tools of any kind or the use of wheels of any kind.
Here’s the Kukulkan Pyramid, aka “El Castillo.”
During both the Spring and Fall equinoxes a shadow falls on the side of the steps of the pyramid in the shape of a snake. This is not an accident. “Kukulkan” means “feathered serpent.” There are 365 steps on the pyramid: 91 on each of the four sides with one at the top for the temple. The Mayans devised a 365 day yearly calendar and were able to predict eclipses.
While we were getting a closer look at the pyramid, I took a picture of the Thousand Columns nearby.
Notice the guy in the foreground. He was doing yoga, pulling off all kinds of intense, pretzel-like poses with smooth precision. My wife, who also does yoga, was amazed at his ability. She said that there are many yoga practitioners who like to do yoga on sacred grounds like those at Chichen Itza. Here’s Stephanie doing tree pose in front of the pyramid.
Note: People are no longer allowed to climb on the structures. The thousands who came to see the structures and walked on them were damaging the structures over time. Tony also told us that he had seen four people fall from the pyramid while climbing up the steps and that three of them had died.
We also saw the Ball Court. Teams of seven would play against each other using every part of their bodies (with the exception of hands) to hit a rubber ball through a stone hole.
The hole is pretty high up the side of the court.
Contrary to popular belief, the losers were not killed. The captain of the winning team was sacrificed to their gods. Why? Because if you’re going to sacrifice someone to your gods, you don’t sacrifice your worst players. You offer someone worthy of the gods’ respect. At least, that was the logic.
When I saw this, I turned to my wife and whispered, “I see dead people.”
The Wall of Skulls was where the heads of sacrificial victims were put. Apparently, in the 1800s the French blew up one of these skull platforms with dynamite, looking for gold. They didn’t find any gold. But they made a lot of rubble.
In between many areas of the site were places selling T-shirts, skirts, and all kinds of artisanal “Mexican” and “Mayan” objects. What caught my eye was this:
Mayan chess sets. I didn’t see anyone buy one.
The Astronomical Observatory was built for observing the movements of the stars. Inside is a spiral staircase leading to the top.
After this walking history lesson, I was hungry. Conveniently, there was a small snack shop set in the shade, away from the observatory.
They didn’t have the Dove-bar type ice cream I am pointing to in the picture above, so I ate a four-dollar ice cream sandwich instead. (I could have bought a whole box of them for that price at the local Kroger here in Michigan, but there, under the Yucatan sun, I paid the Archeological Site Premium Price.) I ate it quickly and then we all walked back to the bus to head to the restaurant for lunch.