Tuesday, March 15, 2011

#13: Explore the Mayan ruins—CHECK!

Bright and early on a sunny morning in Mexico, Zoe and I set off for Chichén Itzá in our $26-a-day rental car. From Cancun, we took the Highway 180 cuota autopista (toll road) to beat the tour buses to Chichén Itzá. It was safe, fast and well-paved with two minuses:
  • The road was dreadfully boring. Three hours of driving on a straight road surrounded by nothing but trees and with no functioning radio stations.
  • The toll fees are exorbitant: $26 to drive from Cancun to Pisté and another $7 for the remainder of the journey to Chichén Itzá. One way. In American dollars. While this may well be the safest road in the Yucatan Peninsula, the toll fees are highway robbery.
    The fee pile-up continued at Chichén Itzá. At the admissions booth, I asked, "¿Cuánto cuesta?" I was told we had to pay twice: 116 pesos now and 51 pesos later for a total of 166 pesos. I forked over the dough but was confounded with the double charge. For a disconcerting moment, I feared we'd been suckered into donating to some cultural institute due to my inadequate Español. Finally, it was explained to us at the entrance that 166 pesos is charged by the Federal government while 51 pesos is charged by the State. While I was relieved the fees were legit, I couldn't help but feel like a thoroughly milked cow by the time we entered.

    But the gratification was instant once we stepped foot in the ancient Mayan city. The first sight that assails you is the magnificent El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan), rising up 82 meters above the ground. Constructed between 1000 and 1200 A.D. the temple was built around the Mayan calendar. The stairs flanking the four sides of the pyramid each have 91 steps, adding up to the 365 days in the calendar. The faces of the terraces number 52 in total, corresponding to the 52-year cycle when both solar and religious calendars realign. At the north side of the tower, serpent's heads crown the base of the stairs. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the setting sun casts a shadow that looks like a snake slithering down these stairs. It felt surreal to finally be there after seeing so many pictures and movies depicting this mysterious, ancient wonder.
    After snapping photos to our heart's content at El Castillo, Zoe and I trekked through Chichén Itzá to see the other structures. El Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) is an imposing vision—a pyramid surrounded by row upon row of columns.
    During ancient Mayan times, these columns were carved with the images of warriors, a few of which can still be glimpsed today.
    I found the Group of the Thousand Columns impressive in their simple symmetry and had to stop for a picture.
    Over at the Mercado, Zoe and I got cute with some columns.
    We braved the long line of souvenir peddlers lining the road to the Sacred Cenote. After hearing "One dollar!" ad nauseum, we finally reached our destination. Now, sinkholes creep me out in general, and according to history, this one was actually used for sacrifices. So this sucker gave me the heebie jeebies.
    Creeped out as I was, I found it odd to overhear a man indignantly complaining about how people  seem to forget that so many were killed in these sites as sacrifices during Mayan times. I certainly do not relish the thought of people getting decapitated and thrown into sinkholes, but what is the point in getting angered by a long lost civilization's customs? We did not live in that space and time, and cannot possibly understand why they clung to their beliefs the way they did. All we can do is marvel at the multifaceted culture that was developed by a civilization that existed thousands of years before our era.

    That said, it's tough not to cringe when faced with such a blatant testament to the brutality of this civilization: Tzompantli (Temple of the Skulls). The stone platform is carved with rows of skulls because every decapitated head of a sacrificial warrior would be impaled on a stick and neatly displayed on this platform back in the day. If you have the stomach for it, the movie Apocalypto has some pretty graphic scenes depicting what went on in these various sites during those times.
    Near this temple is one of the most interesting ruins in Chichén Itzá: the Juego de Pelota (Ball Court). Here, they played an ancient form of basketball where players attempted to get a ball through the stone hoops using only their elbows, knees and hips.
    Tales vary on whether it was the losers that paid with their lives or if it was only the winning player that was deemed fit to be sacrificed to the gods. Whatever the case may be, one of these remaining wall carvings show a player who's literally lost his head ... so somebody goes either way.
    Despite the minor hiccups, it was truly and absolutely worth it to travel all the way to Mexico and through the Yucatan Peninsula to see Chichén Itzá. Seeing the ruins of a highly advanced, ancient civilization always makes me think about how our lives are such a very tiny blip in the story of mankind. So much had already transpired before we were born, and so much more will continue on when our turn eventually passes.
    Wonders never cease.


    1. CONGRATS! :) I completely spaced out on all the details of my trip and it's very nice to remember all of it when I read this post.

      Looking forward to the next bits of your trip, Celine! :)

    2. Waaah! I am soo inggit!!!! Congrats Celine!! :) What's next after your 30 before 30 project? :D

    3. Very Cool & Congrats! I'm going to Cozumel in 3 weeks and am going to explore the Mayan Ruins there...Can't Wait!!!

    4. Tara - I cannot believe I wrote a Chichen Itza post before you did, crazy girl. Put up pictures at least!! Haha. Glad you enjoyed it. More to come!
      Kira - Thanks! I have a few ideas but let me get through this list first before I unleash them on the world!
      Lindsey - Thank you!
      Annette - That sounds exciting! Cannot wait to read your posts about it!

    5. I'm glad to see that there weren't a lot of people; I had always been told that it was crazy touristy and they there were always throngs of people at the site that made visiting not as pleasant as visiting the other sites. Glad you had fun!

    6. By the time we left, the tour buses started to come and I can see how it could be touristy and unpleasant. The hyper-aggressive souvenir sellers definitely do not help. I wish the atmosphere at Chichen Itza could be like that in Il-Kil where you can really soak up the feeling of being somewhere ancient and quite sacred. We were definitely lucky to have even a moment's peace in Chichen Itza.

    7. I visited a Mayan site known as Cahal Pech when I was in Belize. I haven't made it to Chichen Itza yet, but I would like to see the site one day. The ruins are full of so much history and culture.

    8. More than a few people told me about Belize when they heard about my Mayan ruin fixation. I may have to explore it someday. Let's see who gets to finally see Xunantunich first huh? ;-)


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