When scuba diving the Yucatan Peninsula there are many options for non diving activities. In between diving days you can visit many ancient Maya sites.
Whenever I go on a diving trip, I try to set aside some time to see some topside sights, and Yucatan really has them. So the third phase of my vacation was a visit to three of the area’s Mayan ruins. I alternated these visits with my days of diving the cenotes.
I have long been fascinated with this ancient civilization, whose cities spanned Yucatan, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and a little of Costa Rica. They had a highly developed level of agriculture, medicine, astronomy, and architecture. Their ruined cities are some of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites.
Photo Credit: archer10 (Dennis)
The first day’s tour would be to the ruins of Tulum and Coba, both of which were near my hotel. I traveled to them in an air conditioned van along with the rest of the tour’s guests and our English-speaking guide. First was Tulum. It dates from about 1200 – 1520 AD. It was a port town and retreat for the higher-ups of Mayan society, and had living quarters for about 150 people. Tulum sits on a cliff face overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
It is fenced off by a long stone wall, about 10-15 feet high and 20 feet thick, stretching for about a mile, with stone guard towers posted periodically.
The commoners would have lived in mud and thatch huts outside the walls. The most notable building is the Temple of the Wind God, which is flanked on either side by the Palace and the Castle (these are names the conquistadors gave the sites after the Mayans abandoned Tulum). There were a lot of wall inscriptions. The Temple of the Diving God has a god going head –down into the ocean. There were also a lot of iguanas cropping the grass. They acted like they owned the place.
Photo Credit: Rafael Robayna – ecocentrik.com
Crocodiles in Coba Lake
From there, we went to Coba, about half an hour’s drive away. While I was waiting to go into the site, I heard there were crocodiles in Coba Lake. I thought it was all a croc, but I took a look and sure enough, in the reeds near the shore was a small crocodile, about six feet long. I stepped out to the water’s edge to snap his picture, and somebody poked me in the leg with a stick, about the same level where a crocodile would bite. Not funny.
Coba was quite different. It is older than Tulum, about 800 – 1100 AD. Whereas Tulum has had all the jungle cleared away from the site, at Coba they just cleared it away from the buildings. So you walk down paths in the jungle and suddenly, in the best Indiana Jones tradition, you come upon this great stone pyramid or temple. The first site I came to was The Church (conquistador name), a huge pyramid with stone pillars in the front. Unfortunately, you can’t climb it.
Lets play ball!
Nearby was a stone ball court. The Mayans played a game something like soccer, and teams tried to hit a small rubber ball through stone rings set in either side of the court, using elbows, knees, feet, but no hands. The captain of the losing team was beheaded. There are inscriptions on the walls of this happening. The tallest building is Nhoch Mul, a pyramid that towers about 140 feet above the jungle.
This one you can climb, but it is badly worn down, and it looked easy to fall and mess up your hands or knees.
The more I looked at it, the easier it became to talk myself out of climbing it.
So I just took pictures from the bottom and was quite happy with that. Last was the conical Xaibe, The Observatory, which is a domed tower with an opening through which Mayan astronomers would chart the stars. By the way, Mayan astronomers determined that the world would end on December 21, 2012, so you guys might want to get ready.
Photo Credit: gripso_banana_prune
The next day’s tour was of Chichen Itza. This is the largest and best excavated site in the Yucatan peninsula, and has been declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It is actually two ruins; the foundation is Mayan, dating from about the 9th century, when they abandoned it for unknown reasons.
It was then rebuilt in the 10th century by the Toltecs, a far more warlike tribe from central Mexico. It was farther away than the other two sites, and the bus trip took about 1 ½ hours.
There were souvenir stands everywhere. The guy at the stand would show me a wood carving of a Mayan god and tell me that the wood could only be found in a special grove in the jungle, and there was only one sculptor in all of Mexico who could carve it right, and he had exclusive rights to his carvings, which he would give me a bargain on.
Then I would walk to the next stand 100 feet away and see the exact same carving and get the exact same story from the next guy. I wondered if, when I examined the carving, if I would see “Made in Taiwan” anywhere.
Behold the pyramid of Kukulcan
But when I came through the ticket area and out of a grove of trees, the first thing I saw, looming before me, was the great step pyramid of Kukulcan (Mayan for Quetzalcoatl). It was impressive. It is the most intact of all the Mayan pyramids, and looks like it was built yesterday. It is over 80 feet tall, and sits in the middle of the complex.
The pyramid is actually a giant calendar. It has nine levels, and each of the four faces of the pyramid are divided by a central staircase, making 18 separate terraces that mark the 18 20-day months of the Mayan year.
Each of the four staircases has 91 steps, which, when you add the top platform, it comes out to 365, the days of the year. On each façade of the pyramid are 52 flat panels, representing the 52 years of a Mayan calendar cycle. Moreover, the pyramid was positioned so that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the light of rising sun strikes the edge of one of the staircases, giving the appearance of a serpent of light descending the stairs.
Photo Credit: Alaskan Dude
Each staircase ends in stone serpent heads on either side. By the way, March 21 and September 21 are the days when you definitely do not want to visit Chichen Itza. Everybody and his brother comes then to see the sun snake, and it’s like Disneyland on a summer Saturday. It was crowded enough when I was there. As I walked around the Pyramid, I could see that they were still excavating around its base, apparently uncovering another terrace.
North of the Pyramid was the Temple of the Bearded Man. This has some of the most intact wall inscriptions of any Mayan ruins, with some of the original painted colors remaining. I could make out sculpted flowers, birds, and trees. Also a lot of prisoners kneeling before their triumphant captors before getting their hearts cut out by priests. The Toltecs were a lot bloodier than the Mayans. The Mayans did human sacrifice in times of emergency like prolonged drought.
The Toltecs sacrificed people constantly to keep droughts from happening in the first place. There was a stone jaguar in the temple which served as the surface where the victims were laid before their hearts were removed (I know Jesus wants our hearts too, but I’m glad He doesn’t want them that way).
To the west was the Great Ball Court. This was similar to the one in Coba, with stone rings set in the wall, but it was much bigger, about 450 feet long. It had stone grandstand on either side, and overlooking it was the Temple of the Jaguar. The court had a lot of carvings of losing team captains getting their heads cut off. Nearby was the Platform of the Skulls, where the heads were displayed and then buried (over 1100 skulls have been excavated there).
Every time a team lost a ball game, a flat stone with an inscribed skull was placed in the platform wall to commemorate the team captain.
South of the Great Pyramid was the Thousand Columns, a long building whose wooden roof has long ago rotted away, leaving the long, long, long rows of supporting stone columns supporting nothing. To the west is the Temple of the Warriors, which supposedly has some great carvings, only we couldn’t see them because you aren’t allowed to climb the stairs.
There was a lot more to see. If you were really into this stuff, you could easily spend a month at Chichen Itza going over all the inscriptions and carvings. But for this layman, it was enough. It was hot and humid, and I was glad to get back to the air conditioned bus and a drink of cold water.
Well, that was my vacation, and it saw three firsts for me: My first Whale sharks, my first cavern dives, and my first Mayan ruins. They won’t be my last. I hope you enjoyed my trip too.
This guest post is written by: Alan Kempner
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