Following my wonderful visit to northwest Argentina I had a few transition days in Costa Rica; in Jaco I went zip lining and ATV riding, and I watched the third round of the Masters in an open street bar filled with aging American hippies and young Costa Rican hookers, a demographic pairing that seemed to function quite well.
Then I headed to Mexico for a ten-day tour that focused on Mayan ruins. I booked this trip long ago thinking that it would be an interesting way to spend a week, but certainly not knowing that over the past four months I would develop a serious interest in once-great civilizations by visiting Ayutthaya north of Bangkok, in 1700 one of the largest and most culturally-advanced cities in the world before it was destroyed by the Burmese; the Angkor complex in Cambodia, a massive community that once included 1,500 temples before it was destroyed by Ayutthaya; Easter Island, where the Rapa Nui culture ultimately fell victim to civil war and depleted resources; and northwest Argentina, to which the Incans migrated from Peru before being overcome by the Spanish. Spending some time in the heart of the Mayan world was timely.
Regarding these ancient civilizations of South America and Mesoamerica (which extends from central Mexico south to Costa Rica), I’ve always thought in terms of the big three: Mayans, Aztecs and Incans. But in truth there were many more indigenous peoples; the Mayans and Aztecs both evolved to some extent from the Olmec, and in Mesoamerica there were also the Mixtec (from whom Mexico gets its name), Yucatecs, Zapotecs and the Toltecs,
who came down from the north to ultimately blend with the Mayans, who had come up from Guatemala and Belize in the south.
The Mayans were both brilliant and brutal. Their calendar was much more precise than the one we currently use, and they actually had three different ways of measuring time, which they considered to be a repeating cycle rather than linear. Most of their major cities had observatories, and their understanding of astronomy exceeded all of their contemporaries; they revered the planet Venus and used it in one of their calendar systems. The sophistication of their architecture, the intricacy of their art, their knowledge of mathematics and the fact that they had the only fully-developed written language in Mesoamerica all pay tribute to their superior intellect.
Yet they believed in and widely practiced human sacrifice, often with children aged eight to 12, but also with religious leaders and prisoners. It was believed to provide sustenance for the sun and was considered an honor; in the biggest athletic contests it was the winning team or winning captain who was beheaded after the victory. If it wasn’t beheading, others were sacrificed by having their hearts removed while they were conscious. When Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors overcame the Mayans they were appalled at these practices and destroyed all hieroglyphic documentation and manuscripts in the belief they contained elements of the Mayan depravity.
The first ruins we visited were actually Zapotec, at Monte Alban in the Valley of Oaxaca, a day’s ride from Mexico City. Monte Alban (pronounced as one word, like Ricardo’s last name) was the first urban complex in Mesoamerica and dates from 500 B.C. Prior to Monte Alban social organization had been based loosely on agricultural communities, but in a remarkable effort by the leaders of the main villages, this ceremonial center was built over three neighboring hills and became the center of religious and political activities. It was also a center for the arts and science as seen in the pottery, architecture, palace of dance and a substantial observatory.
Next stop was the Mayan city of Palenque, which features the tomb of perhaps the greatest of all Mayan kings, Pakal, who came to power in 615 A.D. as a teenager and ruled for 68 years. In 1948 an archeologist found a hidden stairway within the Temple of the Inscriptions and took four years to follow it downward, digging out the mud and breaking through barriers. Finally, in 1952, in a moment that rivaled any discovery in Egypt, he entered a chamber to find the sarcophagus that contained the remains of the great Pakal, as well as the bones of six people who were sacrificed to accompany Pakal on his journey to the underworld.
Palenque isn’t the largest of the major ruin sites but it has some of the best examples of architecture, sculpture and aqueducts in the Mayan empire. The city thrived from about 200 B.C. to 1200, when it was abandoned and consumed by the jungle. Spanish conquistadors discovered it in 1773, and scientists have since determined that Palenque once consisted of about 1,500 buildings, 90% of which are still buried.
The following day our bus pulled up at Uxmal (pronounced, as best I can figure it, “Ooshmal”), which featured a number of impressive structures including the five-level Pyramid of the Magician and the huge Governor’s Palace. Because the site is elevated and water is too deep to access, a complex system of aqueducts and cisterns was developed, including a charcoal filtration process to purify the water. There are hundreds of masks of Chaac, the rain god, with his large spout-like nose representing the rays of the storms. Uxmal also features many carvings of serpents, which, along with the jaguar, figured prominently into all levels of Mayan mythology.
Between 600 and 900 A.D. Uxmal was the most important and powerful site in Yucatan, an influential ally to Chichen Itza, but the last construction took place in 1050 and while there were still inhabitants there in the mid 1500s no Spanish community was ever built there and by 1600 it was completely abandoned.
Finally we arrived at one of the most famous Mayan cities, the great Chichen Itza, far and away my least favorite of the places we visited, for three reasons. One, it was easily the most crowded because of its proximity to Cancun and the cruise ships that dock there. Two, the entire “campus” of ruins is lined with vendors hawking their wares, hundreds of them selling the same stuff. And three, it is incredibly restrictive in terms of where you can go; you can’t climb anything. Apparently five years ago or so a woman ascending the great pyramid of Kukulcan, perhaps the most visible and well-known of all remnants of the Mayan civilization, fainted and fell to her death, so now the limitations are excessive.
Despite these drawbacks Chichen Itza is impressive. The Kukulcan pyramid is in reality a huge calendar, and on the March and September equinox a shadow forms on the edge of the pyramid with triangles of light making it appear as if a serpent is slithering down from the top if the structure to a snake’s head carved at the bottom, and on into the underworld. The pyramid is the centerpiece of a core city two miles square, with residential buildings extending beyond that, one of the largest of all the Mayan cities.
Chichen Itza was actually owned by an American named Edward Herbert Thompson around 1900; after raiding it of its jade and gold (much of which he gave to Harvard University, which should give it back) he sold the site to a Mexican family, who sold it to the Mexican government five years ago for 20 million U.S. dollars.
Chichen Itza features no fewer than 13 ball fields of various sizes, including the largest stadium in the Mayan kingdom for the playing of the Mesoamerican ballgame. Depending on the size of the field the game was played with between two and seven players per side, who could use only their hips, knees, shoulders and elbows to propel a rubber ball about the size of a volleyball and try to navigate it through a stone hoop jutting out from the side wall of the stadium, by all appearances an almost impossible task. Much like soccer today, many games ended in scoreless ties, in which case I suppose no one was beheaded.
The Mayans were never wiped out as a people. Today, the Mexican states of Yucatan and Chaipas, as well as large sections of Guatemala and Belize, are populated with people of Mayan descent who still use the various dialects of the Mayan language. In the 1950s, a Dutch guy working for an American company in search of oil found a community of Mayans in the jungle who had never seen a non-Mayan. The leader of the tribe was 120 years old, and had fathered a child when he was 102.
My hope is that someday the Mexican government – if it can get financial support from the drug lords who really run the country – will pay for archeologists to uncover an entire Mayan city and then hire architects and artists to restore it and color it and return it to exactly as it was in its time of glory. It would be the most breathtaking and educational tourist attraction on the planet.