In June, I left on an anticipated holiday to Mexico with my boyfriend, M. We had a few excursions in mind but had otherwise decided to keep our options open in regards to off-resort trips. However, we did know that we wanted to visit some Mayan ruins. Not only was this an application of the phrase ‘when in Rome’ but it would also satisfy M’s personal desire as an ex-archaeology student. Although situated closer to Tulum, we agreed upon the big daddy of ruins, Chichen Itza, which was nominated in 2007 as a New7Wonder.
The day started out sizzling hot and dry as the coach picked us up from our hotel and drove us on a 3 hours trip through villages and jungle into the heartland of the once mighty Mayan empire. Here, upon the parched soil lies Chichen Itza, a city of ruins, most famous for its majestic El Castillo pyramid. Travelling around in a tour group at first proved tedious on our strained and overheated attention, but we stuck it out and learnt some interesting lessons. For instance, did you know the city was originally painted in red to symbolise the Mayan love for bloodsport and battle? Or that the grand observatory tower, El Caracol, had windows directly facing the position of the equinoxes and other such astronomical events?
The Mayan people relied heavily on the sun, lunar and planetary calenders to predict the future and orchestrate their lives. We also learnt that they believed that life is cylindrical and that there was no need to panic over the impeding date of 21st December 2012 (big surprise there) – the Mayans only predicted this as a start of a new earth cycle; a time of renewal, not death.
The masterpiece of the city, El Castillo is unmatched in size and grandeur. The bottom of the stair rails are serpent heads; commonly carved into the stone along with jaguars, birds and skulls. Although visually enthralling, the experience was once complimented by an optional climb to the top of the pyramid but for obvious preservational purposes, it is now closed to the public (as are most of the Mayan ruins with the exception of Coba).
The Great Ballcourt was perhaps the most interesting spectacle for the imaginative. For those who have yet to see Dreamwork’s The Road to El Dorado, think volley ball, but using only your hips to score through tiny vertical hoops constructed up to 8 meters high. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?
Games could last for days, and the end result wouldn’t be pretty; etchings on the court walls denote that death would conclude the game. However it is an active debate as to whether the person beheaded was on the winning team or the losing team, as the Mayans deeply glorified death.
Ending with a visit to a Mayan buffet, a local crafts shop and a cenote (a sort of natural swimming pool in a sinkhole), our visit to Chichen Itza was well worth the extra distance and coin. However as a warning, vendors on site have become a huge aesthetic plague. Everywhere you looked, ancient history collided with cheap, tacky souvenirs from 100+ vendors who locate themselves without legal permits. The newly elected president of Mexico has intentions of removing the problem but the reality is that it speaks of a large issue of national poverty and desperation – something that, even as vacationers, we should be humbled by.