From the modern resorts of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, the mysteries of the Maya, the entrance to the underworld and the city that sparked the Mexican Revolution are in close proximity, yet centuries apart
I sluggishly stumble out of the tepid Caribbean at dawn like some shipwrecked Conquistador of yore and onto a primordial coastline where a black howler monkey is capering in ivory sand and a colony of spiny green iguanas is silently licking the early morning dew off the equally abundant agave plants. This hushed reverie is blissfully interrupted by a chorus of Yucatán Parrots hiding in a nearby mangrove forest whose trumpeting siren song is beckoning me off the beach, giving new life to my weary limbs and luring me to delve deep into the jungle and commune with the spirits of its past.
This illusion is shattered as the sun rises over a sprawling resort and the smell of vats of frying bacon and scrambled eggs wafts out from the nearby kitchens that are preparing to feed an army of suntan-lotion-slathered tourists who are getting ready to invade the beach after wolfing down their buffet breakfasts so they can commandeer every inch of this sand. A cadre of beach-minders begins primping the palm-leaf palapas and raking the sand as if prepping this famous beach that had a long night for a photo shoot.
The Yucatán Peninsula is perhaps best known for Cancún and the beaches of the Riviera Maya, which are world-class, but it’s time to leave the beach. Besides, travel writers have described them ad nauseam with descriptions as sugary as its white-sand beaches and colorful as its Caribbean waters. That’s not to say you should discount them; not going to the beach on the Riviera Maya is like going to Naples, the birthplace of pizza, and not having pizza. However, there’s much more to be found off the beaten beach in the historic and mysterious jungles of the Yucatán so I make an arduous trek to this seemingly never-ending resort’s parking lot where a fleet of antiquated, more rust-colored than white Econoline vans is waiting to take me to the pre-Columbian structures of fabled Chichén Itzá.
I’m the last to board yet quickly become the van’s de facto interpreter. As the driver explains the tour’s itinerary in rapid-fire Spanish, I, with my limited grasp of the language, attempt to convey to the rest of the passengers, all five of them Chinese who speak not a word of English let alone Spanish, where we will be going. All I can say to them as they turn to me for reassurance is “Chichén Itzá, cenote and Valladolid,” all Spanish or Mayan words. Admittedly, besides Chichén Itzá, I only know this because it’s printed on the itinerary, which is not printed in Chinese or even in the same alphabet in which my van mates are accustomed.
We soon pass into another state; in this case from Quintana Roo to the eponymous Yucatán, and in the Yucatán Peninsula, this is like traveling back to some timeless past. I notice indigenous people on the side of the road who Jack Kerouac, if he were on the road with me, would describe as “fellaheen,” peasants who adapt and survive from one civilization to the next without becoming part of any, therefore remaining separate from the great movements of history, or as Jack puts it in Lonesome Traveler, “…people not involved in great cultural and civilization issues.” However, these are the descendants of the Maya, who forged one of the greatest civilizations and empires in Mesoamerica, long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, a people who developed the only known written language of the pre-Columbian Americas and whose astronomical systems were light years ahead of their time.
Approaching Chichén Itzá, the rounded dome of the ancient Maya observatory pokes through the top of the jungle canopy like a rocket ready to blast off into space and looks like a much smaller and weathered version of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. Our driver unceremoniously passes us off to a guide who speaks flawless English, but not Chinese. My sidekicks look as puzzled as ever and I still get the distinct impression that they have no idea what they are about to see, which happens to be the second most visited archeological site in all of Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our new handler, Ernesto, tells us to close our eyes, put a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us (which I have to physically demonstrate to my non-English-speaking compadres in a sort of spastic pantomime) and to follow the sound of his voice. I start to wonder if we’ve been shuttled to this remote jungle outpost in order to be sacrificed to the Maya sun god, Kinich Ahau, who seems to be working overtime this day. I have my hand on Ernesto’s shoulder and the human chain following me blindly traipses along and I feel like we are being led to a sacrificial alter. We abruptly stop and are told to “turn to your right and open your eyes.” We are now witnessing the awesome spectacle of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichén Itzá and the Kukulkan Pyramid, named for the “feathered serpent” and supreme Maya god.
The 365-step pyramid, also known as “El Castillo,” has a step for each day of the year, which demonstrates the incredible accuracy of Maya astronomy and makes this structure the world’s largest calendar. It is so intact and preserved it looks like it could have been built in this century instead of between 800 to 900 A.D. My eyes gradually rise from its base to the top of the 79-foot-high structure (each of its four sides has 91 steps and the top platform makes 365) where the Temple of Kukulkan sits.
“The pyramid was placed according to the sun’s location during the spring and fall equinoxes and twice a year at sunset on these two days a shadow falls on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent and as the sun sets, this shadowy snake descends the steps to eventually join the head of the Mayan serpent god at the base of the staircase and forms its body,” explains Ernesto. “This is just one of the numerous remarkable structures that comprise Chichén Itzá that demonstrates the extraordinary ingenuity of the Maya.”
Ernesto next leads us to the ancient stone arena where only the bravest of the Maya played: the Great Ball Court, where the losers of the Maya ball game “pitz,” the world’s first team sport, were often sacrificed. The 554-feet long, 231-feet wide stone court, the largest in the Americas, is lined on both sides with high walls where the players tried to hit a 12-pound rubber ball through stone scoring hoops placed high up the walls; the catch, ironically, was that they were not allowed to use their hands, but rather used their hips, forearms or any other part of the body. It was a monumental fete, and the winners were treated with all honors, while the captain of the losing team often lost his life. Sitting in the middle of the arena’s playing field looking up at the seemingly impossible-to-score-on stone rings and now knowing the fate of those that lost makes modern football seem like badminton in comparison.
After explaining this very fierce and deadly game, Ernesto tells us we are free to wander Chichén Itzá at our leisure and I immediately set off on my own to the observatory that I first spotted driving in. The astronomical accomplishments of the Maya, many of which were born at this very observatory, cannot be more astounding, including devising two calendars and predicting solar eclipses. The rounded dome of the observatory, aka “El Caracol,” strikingly resembles modern, technologically advanced observatories with their universe-piercing telescopes found throughout the world, and it’s mind-boggling that Maya astronomers accomplished so much astronomically without the benefits of technology, such as charting astronomical cycles to aid in planting and harvesting and developing a calendar that was as precise as the one we use today (thankfully the doomsday prophecy that some predicted for Dec. 21, 2012, in regards to the Maya Long Count calendar
I make my way back toward the grand Temple of the Warriors and take a seat at the nearby Plaza of a Thousand Columns, which once supported a frieze and a roof of what is believed to be a great meeting hall but now looks like a colonnade forest, and contemplate the mystifying disappearance of this culturally advanced, seemingly omnipotent empire. Some historians proclaim it was due to war, while others believe Maya agricultural practices and rapid population growth resulted in climate change and deforestation. But whatever the reason, their legacy lives on in the jungles of Mexico and Central America (much of which is still buried under centuries of jungle growth in Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras) in extensive archaeological sites such as Chichén Itzá where the history of the Maya is tangible.
I’m left dizzy with the enormity of Chichén Itzá and thoughts of Maya accomplishment, but the day isn’t over yet. Now it is time to appreciate the natural beauty of the Yucatán while simultaneously finding much-needed relief from the crippling heat in an enchanted underground pool. Cenote roughly translates as “deep thing,” but they are more commonly referred to as “sinkholes,” as they are literally limestone sinkholes, and there are an estimated 7,000 or more of them in the Yucatán. But seeing one for the first time makes me think what a complete misnomer that is because they are, at least Cenote Dzitnup, dreamlike mini-lakes that are part of the Earth’s longest submerged cave system, some of which have natural skylights from which the elongated roots of trees dangle and the rays of the sun filter through spotlighting water as turquoise as the Caribbean.
The Maya called them dzonot, meaning “abysmal and deep,” as they were thought to be the entrances to the underworld. Although deep, they are anything but abysmal. Not only is the water a perfect temperature for swimming but a made-to-order respite from the blistering Yucatán heat parching the ground above your head. Cenote Dzitnup is overflowing with swimmers and I don’t hesitate to jump into this underground oasis with them and I, along with everyone else, am hypnotically drawn to the center of the cenote where a piercing beam of sunlight hits the water reflecting hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites that dance and shimmer on the rippling surface. I wait my turn for the spotlight and float on my back staring up at the hole in the earth and feel like I’m floating in some celestial subterranean universe and I think if Kukulkan himself had a swimming pool, it would look exactly like this.
Our driver comes to retrieve us as we still have one more stop and I briefly contemplate ditching the last leg of the drive and legging it to our final destination some 2.5 miles away, but I’m anxious to see one of Mexico’s most charming and historically significant Colonial towns.
Rolling into Valladolid (part of the “Magical Villages Program” that is an initiative led by the Mexican tourism department to display influential towns in Mexico based on their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance to the country), vibrant box-shaped row houses of every imaginable color unfold on its streets. I imagine Valladolid residents have no need for actual addresses as they can easily say “just knock on the door of the lime-green house on Calle 33,” for example, as no two houses on any street seem to share the same color.
Valladolid is home to 16th-century Iglesia San Gervasio, a magnificent cathedral and our first and only stop. Our driver, who now mysteriously speaks English, appears exhausted and a little put out after a day of shuttling us around the Yucatán and wearily asks if we even want to see the cathedral or go back to the resort. My Chinese tour mates, who miraculously seem to now understand English, vote unanimously for the resort and have no apparent interest in seeing any of this town where the 1847 “War of the Castes” erupted, an uprising of native Maya, and the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, due to the signing of the Dzelkoop Plan which started a rebellion against Porfirio Diaz.. But I must be channeling the ghost of the former autocrat Diaz and instantly veto that vote and ask for at least 30 minutes. My disgruntled, sweaty, formerly affable friends dejectedly shuffle off across the street to Valladolid’s leafy and lush main plaza,
an idyllic old Colonial square, and I sense another uprising is going to take place here in Valladolid.
Alas, I am only able to appreciate the church from the outside as its doors are locked so I retreat to the shady, traditional zócalo across the street and take a seat on a bench next to my now friendly again fellow day trippers who are exuberantly enjoying ice cream, so much so it appears to be the highlight of their day and seems to have quelled any rebellious notions. The lights of the park flicker to life as the bells from San Gervasio’s twin bell towers chime out. The coral Yucatan sunset illuminates the stone church turning it a glowing white and I look at my friends who are clearly content with this peaceful scene. “Good,” one of them says to me with a broad smile. “Good,” I agree, wondering where they got the ice cream.