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A 2-HOUR DRIVE FROM CANCÚN’S BEACHES, THE MYSTERIOUS AND LOOMING PYRAMIDS AND TEMPLES OF CHICHÉN-ITZÁ OFFER A FASCINATING JOURNEY INTO AN ANCIENT MAYAN CITY IN MEXICO’S YUCATÁN JUNGLE INTERIOR.

Chac-Mool statue on top of the Temple of the Warriors at the ancient Mayan archeological site of Chichén-Itzá. This impressive sculpture was used in ancient times as an altar for sacrifices.

Text and photographs by John P. Walsh

Cancún’s spit of land at the northern tip of the Yucatán peninsula was uninhabited by the ancient Mayans, trodden by the conquistadores, and used by assorted pirates as a hide-out. Today, oozing like wet plaster into the Caribbean sea, the beaches are a new jet-age resort. I visited the Yucatán from Chicago for a few days in May 1988.

Though the tourist board in Cancún was telling of more resort development by the mid-1990s, during my trip it already boasted of 85 hotels and about 9,000 guest rooms.

After two days acclimating myself nicely to the Caribbean climate and working my way un poco with the Spanish language, I signed up with a local tour operator for a 12-hour bus tour to one of the most famous sites on the Yucatán peninsula, as well as the world: the ancient Mayan archeological site of Chichén-Itzá.

With its mysterious, virtually-intact looming pyramids and temples as well as startling tales of human sacrifice and one of the world’s most accurate cosmic calendar systems—all from over 1,000 years ago—I was excited to adventure out of the comfort of Cancún’s “Zona Hotelera” into the Yucatán jungle interior.

Setting out from Cancún into the Yucatán jungle

The ancient Mayan cities and later Spanish colonial ones that sit on top of them are a stark contrast to the touristy jet-set beaches of Cancún. An extensive jungle stretches across the Yucatán’s three states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Yucatán that are inhabited by human communities as well as wild animals such as jaguars. We frequently saw black-headed, blue-bodied birds called Yucatán jays. We also saw iguanas on the sun-washed rocks.

I left the hotel and met the bus in Cancún town at 8:00 a.m. Francisco drove the air-conditioned 40-seater as Raúl toted a microphone and told the group about some of the things we were seeing.

They would take us out of Quintana Roo’s Cancún to Yucatán’s Chichén-Itzá about 125 miles away. On arrow-straight highway 180 we drove into several small local communities along the two-lane road. We would finally reach Chichén-Itzá by way of a short distance out of the Mayan/Spanish colonial city of Valladolid which is sometimes called the most colorful town in Mexico.

Chichén-Itzá’s famous complex of Mayan ruins dates from the Classic period of 600 CE to 1200 CE. Important archeological sites in the Yucatán still await reclamation from the jungle–such as a smaller Cobá in Quintana Roo. Guided tours like this one are recommended for a remarkably extensive and safe visit into these interesting but backwater places.

Route 180: From Cancún to Valladolid

Yucatán’s South 180.

The bus climbed onto south highway 180 and followed it through villages such as Cocoyol, Catzin, Chemax, Xalaú, and others. Along the route there were thatched-roof dwellings which held patterned hammocks inside. Outside, dogs slinked around and small farm animals sometimes shared the road. The entire Yucatán peninsula is sparsley populated with only a fraction (about 4%) of Mexico’s total population. 

Francisco told us that the thatched-roof dwellings were durable. One such dwelling could last almost 20 years. The huts were made of sticks which we were told kept dwellers cool and comfortable year-round. Raúl said that the average year-round temperature on the peninsula was 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Starting in April, humidity levels rose and the temperature hovered over 100 degrees. Thatched hut dwellings were the predominant local housing we saw from highway 180.

With few exceptions, the lifestyle of modern Mayans has not strayed far from their ancestors of previous millennia. Traditional Mayan homes are oval-shaped huts made of sticks bound together to form walls. Palm fronds are laid upon this wood frame for a peaked roof. Inside there is a main room usually with a dirt floor. Hammocks create a sleeping area.

In Valladolid, a Spanish colonial town founded in 1543, there were larger stores. From the bus windows, we saw local women in the huipil, the traditional garment worn by indigenous women from central Mexico to Central America, doing their errands. They outnumbered men on the street who were mostly absent on this sunny, hot weekday May morning.

Raúl said the men worked in Cancún during the week for about eight dollars a day, This wage was significantly higher than the $5 a day usually earned on the peninsula. The workers, Raúl said, are “smart” because when they are working, they live at the hotels where they eat, shower, and live rent-free. When they return home to the villages, they bring all of their earnings with them to their families. In most of these outlying towns it requires about $40 per week in income to meet living expenses, whereas workers in Cancún can earn nearly twice that amount.

Iglesia de San Servacio (1545), Valladolid

The Iglesia de San Servacio is in the center of Valladolid on the south side of the main square. It was founded and built by Fr. Francisco Hernandez on March 24, 1545.

In 1705 part of the original church was demolished by order of the Benedictine bishop of Yucatán, Pedro Reyes de los Ríos de Lamadrid (1657-1714). The bishop ordered this partial demolition following the desecration of the sacred building during a political battle in July 1703 known as the “Crime of Mayors.”

San Servacio, founded 1545, Valladolid, Mexico.

After Captain Hipólito de Osorno lost political favor in Valladolid he decided, together with his lawyer Pedro Gabriel de Covarrubias, to take refuge in the church of San Servacio.

But the political excitement of the time had reached an uncontrollable situation. In the pre-dawn hours of July 1703, a frenzied mob, led by Valladolid’s newly-elected mayors, Señors Avuso and Tovar, broke into the sacred enclosure.

The lawyer De Covarrubias was killed in the church after being driven through by a spear. His blood spilled upon and stained the altar. The captain was also mortally wounded when the mob found him hidden behind the organ. The ruckus in no way benefitted the two new mayors. Both Señors Ayuso and Tovar were found guilty of murder and hanged.

Catholic cathedral in Valladolid demolished and rebuilt after being profaned by a mob during the hot summer of 1703

Due to this murder in the cathedral the bishop had it rebuilt in 1706 as it is seen today. The altar’s position was moved to face north and west towards Rome. The church building is located on Valladolid’s main square named after Francisco Cantón Rosado (1833-1917), a conservative governor of Yucatán (1898-1902).

The church building’s main façade has a coat of arms carved on stone with arabesques, a royal crown, and a Franciscan cord. There are images of an eagle and a palm that were frequently used in the decoration of Franciscan churches in the Yucatán. Two square-shaped towers rise on either side of the central façade.

Near downtown Valladolid.

The Ancient Mayans — from the Bronze Age (2600 BCE) to Classic period (1200 CE)

The Mayan civilization is shrouded in the mists of history. Archeologists, anthropologists and historians have speculated that they originated in about in 2600 BCE in the middle of the Bronze Age (3300 BCE to 1300 BCE). The origins of the Mayans therefore predate the oldest books of the Bible by 1,000 years.

Mayan culture made remarkable advances in mathematics and astronomy. Mayans are also known for their impressive urban planning, farming methods, and architectural achievements, all of which are on view at Chichén-Itzá in its pyramids, temples, ball courts, palaces, and observatories.

Mayan technical skill extended to complex calendar systems and hieroglyphic writing whose images are in evidence at Chichén-Itzá. Mayan artisans were skillful weavers and potters and artifacts have been found in vast quantities at the site. The ancient Mayans also cleared routes for trade. Their main source of fresh water was from cenotes (sink-holes) and they stored rainwater in reservoirs called chultun.

Complex, evolving social structures.

By 300 BCE Mayan society had evolved into a hierarchical social structure where kings and priests ruled. Stretching from Cancún through the Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, Mayan civilization was a highly structured society. It consisted of several independent states, each possessed of several classes—a ruling class, warrior class, and agricultural class. The society reached its apex in the Classic period from about 200 CE to 900 CE.

The stone monuments at Chichén-Itzá were built as a ceremonial center during the Classic period. As it continues to impress visitors today, it accomplished the same thing for ancient Mayans over 1,000 years ago.

The decline of ancient Mayan civilization started around 900 CE as they began to surrender their independence to the Toltecs who absorbed them. Though Chichén-Itzá as a ceremonial center would not die for another 250 years, the city became a vestige of itself whose remnants alone of a great civilization survived when conquered by the Spanish colonists in the 15th century.

Arriving to Chichén-Itzá

It was hot and humid when we arrived into Chichén-Itzá. Discovered by explorers as early as the 1830’s—and opened to the public in 1922—it was today an impressive and expansive series of ancient stone monuments on a grassy 1200-acre campus carved out of jungle. Do people live further into the jungle? Raúl said about one mile from the road there are small communities of two or three hundred people who live in farther from the main road.

The pyramids and temples of Chichén-Itzá are the Yucatán’s best known monuments. The Mayan city was absorbed by the Toltecs in 987 CE. According to legend, a man named Kukulcan—who is the same figure as Quetzalcoatl from the Toltec capital of Tula —arrived from the west “for the redemption of his people.” In Chichén-Itzá, Kukulcan built this magnificent city which combined the Puuc style of the Mayans and the motifs of the Toltecs, namely, the feathered serpent, warriors, eagles and jaguars.

Modern Mayan explorers

Starting in the midnineteenth century and then again at the end of the century, there was a range of scientists and explorers associated with the discovery and excavation of the archeological site of Chichén-Itzá that we see today.

As its great natural water well (or cenote) likely gave Chichén-Itzá its name, one major figure worth considering is the early American explorer Edward Thompson (1857-1935). For most of his adult life Edward Thompson lived and worked at Chichén-Itzá including famously dredging and diving into the sacred well in search of treasure and human remains for evidence of legends of human sacrifices.

A diplomat by profession and an amateur archeologist, Thompson had an indefatigable curiosity about the ancient Mayan ceremonial city and did important work here.

As a young scholar Thompson was inspired by the writings of American explorer and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852). Together with English artist Frederick Catherwood (1799-1845) they were pivotal figures in the rediscovery of Maya civilization in Central America.

Catherwood’s detailed drawings of the ruins of the Maya civilization explored by Stephens led to best-selling books published in the early 1840s such as Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. These were illustrated works that introduced Europe and the United States to the civilization of the ancient Maya.

Portrait of John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán published in 1854.

Lithograph of a maize god by Frederick Catherwood in Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán published in 1844.

Stephens and Catherwood in turn had been inspired by earlier pioneers of scientists and explorers. Two figures who influenced them were Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Juan Galindo (1802–1840).

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph K. Stieler (1843). Charlottenhof.

Juan Galindo before 1839. From the book Ancient Maya Cities: The Hidden Wonders in the Forest.

Von Humboldt was a Prussian geographer, naturalist, and explorer whose work in botanical geography led to the development of the field of biogeography. Galindo was an Anglo-Irish military and administrative officer in the short-lived liberal Federal Republic of Central America (1823-1841) and who was actively engaged in Maya archeology.

In 1847 the Caste War of Yucatán broke out limiting access to the Yucatán’s unexcavated ruins. The Caste War restricted the borders of Yucatán and Quintana Roo to all but indigenous Maya for nearly 60 years, making travel to the area dangerous. When the United States appointed Edward Thompson archaeological consul to the Yucatán in 1895 he became one of the first to explore the land since the Caste War.

Edward Thompson, before 1920. Thompson famously dredged and dived the sacred well at Chichén-Itzá and brought up a fortune of gold and jade as well as human skeletons providing evidence for legends of ancient human sacrifice.

Edward Thompson arrived in the Yucatán at Mérida in 1895. He had purchased land in 1894 that included the unexcavated site of Chichén-Itzá. For the next 30 years Thompson dedicated his life to exploring the site.

In 1904 Thompson started to explore the bottom of the sacred well— the cenote sagrado. Thompson used divers (including himself) and dredges. Over six years he brought up a fortune in gold, copper and jade as well as a wealth of vases, obsidian glass knives and the Maya incense called copal. Thompson did some of his explorations for major American museums such as The Field in Chicago and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, among others.

From his arrival, the sacred well attracted Thompson’s intense interest. In his 1932 book, People of the Serpent, Thompson stated he became intrigued with the murky waters of the great well as soon as he first saw it from the top of El Castillo.

Though most ancient Maya artifacts as well as its codice books with its written language were destroyed by the local Catholic Church authorities in the 16th century, Thompson read the colonial Spanish accounts of Mayan history.

Spanish Franciscan Fray Diego de Landa (1524-1579), colonial bishop of Yucatán. De Landa later regretted destroying the Maya civilization’s cultural treasures and wrote a history of the Mayas (Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, c. 1566) to make up for his thoughtless, wholesale destruction. Edward Thompson read the bishop’s account of the “cenote,” where Fray Diego detailed the pilgrimages of ancient Maya priests and farmers to the sacred well to “appease the gods.” These pilgrimages included throwing gold and ornaments into the waters. The bishop’s history also told of human sacrifices there as well.

To implement his plan to explore the cenote, Thompson returned to his hometown of Boston where he raised money, took diving lessons, and constructed a specialized diving mechanism. Thompson sent the dredging bucket, winch, tackles, steel cables, derrick and 30-foot boom to Chichén-Itzá.

The dredge buckets brought up ornaments and objects of daily life. Thompson’s and another diver’s plunges discovered more precious treasures, including human skeletons. These discoveries were controversial. The fact that this ancient site was being disturbed brought critics. Further, Thompson was neither a scientist nor academic but simply an enthusiastic amateur. He published his Maya civilization studies in Popular Science Magazine. But these critiques aside, Thompson’s field work virtually single-handedly put Chichén-Itzá on every world explorer’s own bucket list.

Edward Thompson dredged the sacred well at Chichén-Itzá between 1904 and 1910.

The cenote in May 1988 from the platform of El Castillo. This is the view Edward Thompson had when he first became fascinated with the sacred well in the late 1890’s. Author’s collection.

Thompson also excavated graves at the Ossario (High Priest’s Temple), the mid-sized step-style pyramid within the Ossario Group complex of Mayan temples found just south of the Kukulkan pyramid series. Thompson’s discoveries there offered an outcome not unlike the cenote. In the Ossario pyramid and its cave Thompson found more jade, pottery, human bones, and various other ancient Mayan artifacts.

How the pyramids at Chichén-Itzá were built

Close to Chichén-Itzá Thompson discovered pits with quarried veins of lime gravel that the Mayan’s used for mortar. Nearby he found stones of calcite (to hammer), flint (to pick) and smooth stones used to produce flat surfaces on walls. Ancient Mayan craftsmen had no metal tools, but these stone implements helped scientists to reconstruct how the monumental buildings could be constructed. Thompson also uncovered shards of nephrite (a type of jade) as well as the so-called Mayan “date” stone, known later as the Tablet of the Initial Series. This stone let iconographers decipher the dates of Chichén-Itzá’s Classic period.

In 1926 Thompson’s land was seized by authorities of Mexico’s new nationalist government and Thompson was charged with removing artifacts illegally. It was only in 1944, almost a decade after Thompson’s death, that the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in the North American explorer’s favor.

Major sites at Chichén-Itzá

Visitors climb El Castillo’s steps to the top in May 1988. A visit to the pyramid (Temple of Kukulkan), is a highlight at Chichén-Itzá.

It is thrilling to see the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican step pyramid that, at almost 80 feet tall, dominates the center of the archaeological site of Chichén-Itzá. It was built between 700 CE and 1100 CE.

Chichén-Itzá relief carving depicting a Mayan warrior in elaborate headdress and jewelry. Warriors were one of the major classes in Mayan society in the Classic period.

El Castillo served as a temple to the god Kukulkan. Each side of the pyramid has 91 steps for a total of 364 steps. With the platform at the top, it equals the 365 days of the year. There are 52 smooth stone panels on each side of the pyramid which coordinates with the ancient Mayan calendar’s 52-year cycle. The nine terraces on each side of the pyramid represent the 18-month solar calendar.

Twice during Spring Equinox (March 21) at sunrise and sunset, the sunlight is observed to move down stair by stair from the top stair of the northern stairway until it touches the famous serpent head stone carving at the base of the pyramid. In a marvel of nature, sunlight and shadow work to form a “serpent” that appears to descend into the earth. The cosmological phenomenon was an important fertility symbol for the Mayans whose society was agricultural. It signaled that the golden sun had entered the earth in the form of a serpent and that it was time to plant corn.

Serpent head at the base of El Castillo

Unexcavated El Castillo in 1882 in a photograph by Teobert Maler

El Castillo dominates the Great North Platform Series. Known as the Kukulkan Pyramid and the Temple of Kukulkan, the 8-story 1,500-year-old stone structure is a masterpiece of ancient Mayan Cosmovision. Author at Chichén-Itzá in May 1988.

Snakehead sculpture at Chichén-Itzá in Mexico. There are smaller pyramids inside the Chichén-Itzá ruins with “snakehead” statues scattered around.

Walking towards the Nunnery complex with the stone steps of its north side in the distance.

El Palacio in the complex of buildings called the Nunnery. Edward Thompson used these buildings as his headquarters during his first explorations of Chichén-Itzá.

Teobert Maler (1842–1917) was another pioneer of ancient Maya research. Maler’s expeditions in the Yucatán began furtively in the 1870s and he explored over 150 ruins. This 1892 photograph of El Palacio (Templo de tres Cuerpos) of the building complex called the Nunnery at Chichén-Itzá gives record to one such expedition. Several ruins Maler described and photographed had been discovered by him, and his photographs of its architecture and inscriptions aided further research in ancient Maya civilization. Many sites Maler photographed were not visited by scientists until decades later—and as the ruins were often further damaged by climate events or human impact—the photographs remain often the best record of known Maya ruins. Because of Maler’s work at Chichén-Itzá and elsewhere, the German explorer is regarded as one of the most important research photographers of the 19th century.

At Chichén-Itzá, the buildings of the Nunnery (Las Monjas) –including La Iglesia (partial view, left) – are Mayan-temple structures in the Puuc style. These buildings at Chichén-Itzá shared similar designs with the ruins at Kabah and Uxmal about 100 miles to the southwest of Chichén-Itzá.

Chichén-Itzá serpent head sculptures guard a staircase.

In the day’s heat and humidity, the profligate flora delights the visitor’s senses at Chichén-Itzá. On the site’s 1200 acres, the blooms of jungle growth offer a feast of fragrances, colors and living forms. From the Temple of Warriors, the visitor can see nestled beyond a field of red flowers the Grupo de las Mil Columnas (“The Forest of 1,000 Columns”). These stone columns may once have had a thatched ceiling to enclose an expansive space.

In the landscape of Chichén-Itzá there are a variety of mammals, hundreds of species of birds and many reptiles. On the Yucatán peninsula there are almost 150 varieties of snakes, many of which, including at the archeological site, are highly venomous. This is a shot of the jungle from the air in May 1988.

One visitor climbs atop the Nunnery, the Mayan temple complex built in the Puuc style during the Classic period of 600-1200 CE at Chichén-Itzá.

The El Caracol observatory temple at Chichén-Itzá. The Mayas built the observatory over an extended period of time to coincide its construction with their increasing knowledge of day-time and night-time skies. The Mayas’ objective was to acquire more exact measurements of cosmic bodies. We visited the dark recesses of El Caracol’s central circular tower. The highly sophisticated Maya calendar system was based on their study of the movements of the sun, moon, and planets, particularly Venus’s orbit. The position of El Caracol’s front staircase aligns with Venus’s most northern position while the building‘s corners are affixed to the sun’s position at sunrise of summer solstice (June 21) and sunset of winter solstice (December 21).

The “Venus” staircase of the observatory at Chichén-Itzá.

The Observatory temple at Chichén-Itzá in a photograph by Teobert Maler. When explorers first viewed the ruin in the late 19th century, it was buried in centuries of natural debris.

Maya Calendar System. Ancient Maya time-keepers designed highly accurate methods to measure time that interwove calendars as space/time cycles. Mayan calendars formed an understanding of the interrelationships of cosmic bodies—the moon orbiting the Earth; the Earth orbiting the sun; and the sun as it travels in the galaxy.

The Great Ball Court at Chichén-Itzá from El Castillo. Almost two football fields in length (181 yards), it is enclosed by 13-foot high stone walls and is the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. Sports arenas like this were a staple in the sacred complexes of ancient Mayan cities. Some archeological anthropologists believe the nature of play in the ball courts had a purely sporting purpose, though the games may have had high-stakes cosmological and mythological dimensions.

Grand Ballcourt—field of play.

Temple of Warriors. The Chac-Mool sits atop the platform of this temple dedicated to the Mayan warrior class.

OTHER PHOTOGRAPH CREDITS:
YUCHATAN JAYS – Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic  license. Tony Hisgett – originally posted to Flickr as Yucatan Jays – immature
IGUANA – CC BY-SA 2.0 view terms.