It was here in Mexico, on our way to see our first of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World that my husband and I decided to begin our journey to see them all. Over the next 5 years we would span 4 continents to accomplish this feat.
It’s a lonely road leading inwards from Riviera Maya, but don’t let it lull you to sleep, there are panthers and jaguars looming in the brush that line both sides of the highway. Since it is a 3 hour drive each way, we decided to stop off half way through to break up the journey and see what the real Yucatan was about. We stopped at one of the many cactus farms in the area. Not exactly the Arizona cactus I envisioned standing tall
and green, this is agave. These agave azul cactus’ were much shorter, leafy and blue; and as we exited the car we were offered their fruits…a shot of Tequila!! After what we took as a traditional Mexican greeting, we were led to uncover a natural phenomenon that plagues this peninsula, a cenote, known as Xkeken. Cenotes are large sinkholes with exposed rocky edges containing ground water. To my surprise, we were given the opportunity to dive into the Cenote from the cliffs surrounding it. (Be warned: jump at your own risk!). Once at the top reality hit – it was lot higher than it initially looked, but to avoid the walk of shame, I jumped as far out as possible in efforts to avoid the jagged rocks below. It actually wasn’t the jump that was the scariest part, it was hitting the freezing water that sent me into a panic, causing me to swim back to the top as quick as my legs would take me. Once the initial cold rush was over and with my head above the water, I felt calm and happy with my jump. That was until the fish started swarming around my feet – not sure why I wasn’t expecting any but I don’t like fish so I swam straight to the stairs and out of the water. With all that said, how many times in life are you able to cliff dive into a pristine cenote? So, I had at least one more jump before enjoying the traditional Yucatán buffet and cultural dance show that awaited.
The road that leads to Chichen Itza is dotted with small villages still occupied by the direct ancestors of the Mayan people that once resided in Chichen Itza. These Mayans have deep ties to this land as they still live similar life styles of their ancestors, including dressing in traditional Mayan clothing. Chichen Itza itself was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya People dating from 600-1200 AD. It was one of the largest Mayan cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, or Tollans, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site. Dominating the North Platform of Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan (a Maya feathered serpent deity similar to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl), usually referred to as El Castillo. This pyramid was used for many things including lectures given by the high priest, as it was built to project his voice for miles if he stood directly in the altar room atop. At the base of each staircase is the head of a snake and on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western barrier on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wiggling down the staircase, which some scholars have suggested is a representation of the feathered-serpent god Kukulkan. It truly is an amazing spectacle.
Chichen Itza doesn’t cease to impress you at El Castillo. The Mayans were enthralled with astronomy, and built many observatories. El Caracol even looks similar to an observatory we would see today; it had a domed roof, which has windows not aligned with the steps giving the illusion the tower is turning like a telescope. This may have even been where they conceived the creation of the calendar whose accuracy still astonishes academics today.
Another notable structure at Chichen Itza is the Temple of the Warriors, a three-level pyramid with neighboring colonnades on two sides creating a semi-enclosed court. The temple of warriors was dedicated to Chac Mool, and his statue sits between two columns at the top of the stairs. They built the columns so that on two days a year the sun rises and sets directly between these columns illuminating the statue and establishing the seasons. All the temples seem to align with the heavens somehow and their ability to apprehend this with so little technology is astounding.
The Mayans were also spiritual, and considered the Cenotes within the city to be sacred. It has been discovered that the Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chac. They would tie an abundance of jewelry to those being sacrificed then many willing jumped into the cenote as sacrifice during ceremonies ultimately drowning themselves.
Finally, I must mention their love of sport and the Great Ball court since this is the best-preserved court in all of ancient Mesoamerica. The court consists of a long field in between two walls that stood 26 ft. high on either side. Set high up in the center of each of these walls were rings carved with intertwined feathered serpents. The object of the game was to take a very heavy ball and use your entire body (apart from your hands) to score goals in these circles high above the walls. Not at all an easy task, but they took much pride in victory, in fact, if you were the captain of the winning team you got the privilege of sacrificing yourself!