“When Others Were Fighting, Mayans Were Learning”

This was a quote from my tour guide when visiting Chichen Itza last week while in Mexico for a wedding.  After visiting a multitude of ancient sites over the years, I was curious to see how Chichen Itza would compare to such places as the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Machu Picchu.  I was curious to learn more about the Mayan civilization, particularly the Mayan calendar and their contribution to Mathematics.  And finally, I was curious to explore the infamous, mysterious ruins, that on July 7th, 2007, were named one of the Wonders of the World.

As I’ve never been to Mexico before, I was very excited when one of my best friends announced she was planning on having a destination wedding in the Riviera Maya.  Upon hearing the news, I immediately researched the internet and happily discovered that Chichen Itza was only 3 short hours away from the resort we would be staying at and could easily be reached by public transportation or through a tour company.  In the spirit of generosity and gratitude, the bride to be offered to book a tour for me and another one of our close friends to visit the ruins the day after the wedding.  Not usually an organized tour-type of person I decided to embrace a different style of traveling on this trip, indulge in the amenities included at the all-inclusive resort where the wedding was being held, and gracefully accept my friends offer to book and pay for the tour for us.

Substantially hung-over from celebrating the night before, the morning of my visit, I arose early and made my way to the giant, open-aired, bamboo decorated lobby where the tour company representative would be meeting us at 8am.    As I sat there sipping my coffee, talking to Karen, and admiring the elaborate columns and oak furniture accompanied by beautiful vistas of the ocean, I knew that I was eager to get off of the resort and see a little of the “real” Mexico, even if it was only from a passing window in a tour van.

On our way to Chichen Itza, we stopped off at the colonial city of Valladolid where we were given a very brief period of time to explore the historic downtown.  Imposing itself over the main square, I was immediately drawn to the Cathedral of San Servacio.  We quickly hurried our way past the typical beggars and souvenir hawkers that often adorn the entrance ways to cathedrals world-wide, and made our way inside the church only to discover that Mass was being held.  I quickly and silently said a prayer, then headed out back into the street where Karen and I worked our way counter-clockwise around the  “Francisco Cantón Rosado”; the main square of the city.  Sprinkled along the periphery of the park were souvenir stores, vendors, and restaurants.  Not really allotted enough time before we had to be back on the bus, we hastily tried to bargain for souvenirs and find ourselves a snack.  We failed at both.

Cathedral of San Servacio

Before we knew it we were back on the bus heading towards Chichen Itza when our tour guide Carlo reminded us that part of the tour included a 15 minute bathroom break in a government-run souvenir store.  I am always struck by the similarity between organized tours in all different parts of the world.  It seems as if they follow the same pattern that has no international boundaries; early morning pick-up, stop at a government approved souvenir shop, a rushed visit to the main attraction followed by lunch at an “authentic” (fill in country you are visiting here) restaurant filled with tour buses.  Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be visiting Chichen Itza and a quick break in a souvenir shop did not bother me one bit.

We finally reached Chichen Itza around noon where we were greeted by an on-sight tour guide, who informed us that he was also a teacher.  Maybe I’m being partial here, but these are always my favorite guides.  He spent the next hour imparting on us information about specific temples, the cultural and political significance of Chichen Itza, and the Mayan Civilization’s rise and fall.  For those of you who are history nerds, read on..for those of you who are not, I would recommend skipping the next part:

Here’s what I learned at Chichen Itza:

Chichen Itza was an important capital of the Mayan empire, but was long destroyed and covered by the jungle by the time the Spanish arrived.  The city was divided by a wall which clearly delineated a ritual section and a residential section.  The first temple we visited is probably the most recognized of the complex; the Kukulkan pyramid.  The Mayans worshipped the snake and this temple’s acoustic “tricks” are a testament to those beliefs.  When one stands in front of the temple at a given point and claps, the acoustic echoes sound like a bird chirping, or at times, you can hear a rattlesnake echo off of the other buildings.  Each side of the temple has a staircase with 91 stairs.  91 multiplied by 4 is 360.  In addition to worshipping the snake, the conception behind this temple was to measure time.   Also, archeologists have discovered an inner temple inside the pyramid with 13 stone Chac Muls (Jaguars).  The #13 for the Mayans represented good luck.  There were also 13 entrances and 13 cenotes throughout the city.

Karen and I in front of the Kukulcan Pyramid

We also visited the giant ball court, which is believed to be the biggest one found in Central America.  The Mayan ball game is still very much a mystery, but there are certain things that are fairly agreed upon by scholars.  The teams would play each other with the hope that they would win.  The winner would be sacrificed through decapitation, which was considered an honor.

The Ball Court
Where the sacrifices took place

It is important to note that initially, the Mayans were not practicing human sacrifice.  The original form of the Mayan’s sacrifice to the Gods was to take a fish bone and use it as a needle to bleed drops of blood from a person.  The person whose blood was being sacrificed was drunk so they did not feel the pain. (I’m sure college kids can relate).  It wasn’t until contact with the Aztecs that the concept of whole human sacrifice was introduced.  Aztecs would sacrifice prisoners of war in rather graphic and violent ways.  Unfortunately, these customs eventually crept into Mayan civilization and helped contribute to its downfall.

Chichen Itza

After visiting the ruins, and getting poured on in the process, we headed to a local “authentic” restaurant for lunch and then onto visit the Ik kil cenote.  A cenote is essentially a deep body of fresh water in a sunlit cave.  I had never heard of these before visiting Mexico but would highly recommend it to anyone who had the option on a tour or on your own.  Even though we were cold, tired, and full from just eating lunch, the cenote lived up to its expectations.  The Mayans believed that swimming in this water would keep one young and energetic.  I have to admit that only after a short period of time in the water I felt extremely refreshed and, for lack of a better word, alive.

Ik kil Cenote
The Cenote from down below
Karen and I after swimming in the Cenote

As I mentioned earlier, I am not a big fan of organized tours.  That said, when one is taking a relaxing vacation in the Yucatan and has a free day on their hands where they would like to get off of the resort, I would highly recommend taking a tour to the ruins.  In one adventure-packed day, I was able to visit a colonial city, explore ancient Mayan ruins, and end the day swimming in a cave.  There are worse ways I could think of to spend my time, especially if the world is going to end in 2012:)


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