Sunday: Chichén Itzá.
We could not imagine visiting the Yucatán without a day trip to Chichén Itzá, the most famous of the Mayan archæological sites. Laura had contracted (with the same company who had provided our shuttle) for a guide who would drive about ten of us to Chichén Itzá, and then to a nearby cenote—a limestone sinkhole with a pond at the bottom, very picturesque and great for swimming—for a late lunch and a dip.
Javier, our guide, spent the entire trip, about three hours each way, talking nonstop. But he was well worth listening to, as he filled us in on all sorts of Mayan and contemporary Mexican lore, with some paleontology and geology thrown in as a kind of intellectual seasoning. Wished I could hear him better, but he was talking mostly to our companion riding shotgun. He kindly raised his voice, though, to tell us all the account of what it was like to live in Maya country during December 2012, when all the New Age folks in North America converged on Chichén Itzá to witness the end of the world from the officially sanctioned location. He said that the locals welcomed them at first, but changed their tune when they’d had a chance to observe how vast a quantity of illicit drugs was suddenly flowing into the region, and thence into thousands of insatiable hippie bloodstreams.
We crossed from Quintana Roo1 into Yucatán state and paid the heftiest toll I’ve ever seen on any highway, ever: a staggering 251 pesos (over 20 USD). How many dozen people in Mexico can afford to drive on this highway? We paid another toll (smaller, but still excessive, even compared to the Ohio Turnpike) on exiting at Chichén Itzá.
On the way in we stopped at a large shop selling Mayan jewelry and objets d’art. Javier informed us that we should stock up on souvenirs here, since the vendors on site at Chichén Itzá acquired their wares directly from China, whereas the stuff at the Mayan store was genuine. I had to wonder whether he had some sort of deal with the folks at this store, but he spoke truth about the vendor booths at the ruins: all their cheaper stuff looked exactly the same across all booths. Also, the variety was far greater at this store.
All around Chichén Itzá these trees were blooming a ridiculous flame orange. They’re aptly named “flamboyant trees.” Their blossoms are shaped a bit like ginkgo leaves (Plate 6; click on any photo to see a large version).
Plate 6. Flamboyant tree flowers, near Chichén Itzá.
It just wouldn’t be a travelogue about Chichén Itzá if I didn’t show you the most recognizable structure in the Yucatán—the Temple of Kukulcán (Plate 7). It’s as gigantic as it looks.
Plate 7. Temple of Kukulcán, from the northwest, Chichén Itzá.
If the Temple seems well preserved, that’s because the surface has been restored. The far side of the Temple provides a good “before/after” comparison (Plate 8). “Before” is on the left, of course; for best results, look at the large version.
Plate 8. Plate 8. Temple of Kukulcán, unfinished (east) side, Chichén Itzá.
After the Pyramid of Kukulcán was declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World in 2003, tourists were no longer allowed to climb the 91 steps and see the inner pyramid.2 What most people don’t know, including us until we heard about it, is that the structure we can see is hollow, and mostly filled with a smaller version of itself!
Chichén Itzá is a vast complex of ruins, radiating out in all directions from the Pyramid. The major structures occupy clearings connected by a network of paths, and every path is a “gauntlet” par excellence, lined with shoulder-to-shoulder vendors calling out, “Hey, big spender! Only a dollar!” The cheapest shit, presumably from China, had a prix fixe of 1 USD; whereas the genuine, really fancy stuff—full-sized wooden masks and other hand-carved items—was “price on request, with lots of haggling.” One item everyone was aggressively hawking was a hollow cube of what looked like dark stone, carved to look like a jaguar head, and open at one end. Blow into a small hole and cup your hand around the open end just right, and you could make a fairly convincing jaguar’s growl. Surprisingly, most of the vendors were really bad at it. Apparently it was something that took considerable skill to pull off realistically—skill the “Big Spender” folks had somehow never bothered to acquire. For every realistic jaguar growl that pierced the jungle’s stillness, we heard about 75 toilet-flushing and low-budget-explosion sounds. And there was nowhere in the entire park we could escape all this racket.
We next toured the obligatory Mayan ball court (Plate 9). I was not entirely surprised to hear that all the tales of cutting still-beating hearts out of people and sacrificing losers of ball games almost certainly have no historical basis. Javier kindly stuck to telling us factual history, as opposed to going for the cheap sensationalism with all the fantastical stories that have been floating around since the European conquest of the Americas. Not to say that everything he told us was accurate, however: Katheryne, who has a master’s in physical anthropology, took exception to a couple things he said. I later caught Javier in one outright error. He said that there are no mosquitoes near Chichén Itzá. From personal experience, I can say with certainty that he had undercounted by at least four.
Plate 9. There were very few slam dunks in the Mayan ball game.
I had a rough time with many Mayan names. The Mayans had a way of accenting the last syllable of words that goes against everything I’ve learned about Spanish. Here is the Tzompantlí, or Skull Platform, right out of an Indiana Jones movie (Plate 10):
Plate 10. Tzompantlí (Skull Platform), Chichén Itzá.
Our longest and most annoying gauntlet led out to a cenote. The Yucatán, a “big slab of limestone gently slanting into the sea,” is riddled with cenotes, which range from uninteresting, mud-filled holes to exquisitely beautiful underground pools. Cenote Sagrado (“Sacred Cenote”) at Chichén Itzá definitely falls nearer the mud-filled-hole end of the spectrum, but is more interesting than it looks: a dredging expedition revealed a bounty of trinkets and human bones, tossed into the cenote as sacrifices. I got the idea that such sacrifices were not performed with (until recently) live victims, but only with small portions of already dead ones, since nearly every bone recovered belonged to a different person.
What Cenote Sagrado looks like is an old, abandoned quarry, complete with vertical walls and murky pool, only cylindrical instead of all right angles. We encountered a rather handsome iguana nearby, whose coloration nicely matched its surroundings (Plate 11). We would see a lot more iguanas over the next several days, but none so nicely earth-toned.
Plate 11. Iguana, Cenote Sagrado, Chichén Itzá.
Javier pointed out a couple of prominent decorative/religious motifs. We saw snake heads everywhere—the most famous of which are the two at the base of the stairs leading up the side of the Temple of Kukulcán. At the equinoxes, sunlight falling past the temple’s edge forms a twisting snake descending along the staircase. More elusive were the reclining stone figures of Chac Mool, a Mayan god of uncertain significance. Laura and I embarked on a sacred quest to find all the Chac Mools at Chichén Itzá (perhaps for no other reason than because we liked saying “Chac Mool” so much). Alas, of the 13 scattered around the site, we spotted only two—and one was at La Tumba del Chac Mool, which on account of the name we could hardly miss. The better one lay atop El Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors; Plate 12).
Plate 12. Templo de los Guerreros, Chichén Itzá. Note the reclining figure of Chac Mool, top center.
La Plaza de las Mil Columnas circumscribed the largest gauntlet-free section of the park (Plate 13). The columns were the non-perishable portion of super-extended, open-air buildings. While we were walking past rows and rows of stone pillars, the sun finally peeked out from where it had been hiding behind the clouds all day, and the temperature and dew point instantly leapt to about 120 °F. (I quickly learned to appreciate the perpetual overcast over the Yucatán.) At the same time I found out something else odd about the tropics, which I’d never appreciated because I didn’t own a camera until quite recently. I kept trying to put the sun behind me when taking photos, but I never could, because the sun was directly overhead.
Plate 13. Plaza de las Mil Columnas, Chichén Itzá.
We took lunch at a nearby cenote called Ik-kal. This cenote was as lovely as Cenote Sagrado wasn’t: an underground pool, festooned with greenery, and an off-center skylight to let the sun in (Plate 14). And we were even allowed to swim in it.
Plate 14. Skylight, Cenote Ik-kil.
Roots from plants at the surface dangled some 20 m down to the water level. Several leaks in the roof constantly dripped water into the strikingly turquoise pool. (We learned later that the water was 155 ft (46 m) deep.) A stairway had been cut through the limestone down to the water level, with several galleries from which we could view the aquatic festivities below (Plate 15).
Plate 15. Cenote Ik-kil.
The lake had connections with an underground network of streams.3 Some sort of catfish had moved in ages ago. They didn’t seem at all afraid of the tourists (Plate 16).
Plate 16. Fish in Cenote Ik-kil. Swimmers climb out of the pool using the ladders at right.
Many of our group took turns jumping into the pool from a height of about 15 ft (4.5 m). Here are two of Laura’s friends making the leap (Plate 17). Out of respect for their privacy, I chose a shot in which they won’t easily be identified. (I also like how the splashes came out.)
Plate 17. Jumping into Cenote Ik-kil’s pool.
Dining at our resort was a monumental tug-of-war between the guests trying to get their money’s worth, and the staff trying to cope with the awful circumstances that cruel Fate had dealt them. A cynic would have guessed that the goal at the specialty restaurants was to test our perseverance, and secondarily, to convince as many people as possible to give up and eat at the buffet, which was uniformly fast, quite good, and sparsely populated by diners. But it became clear, on paying attention, that the many delays and reassignments were the result of very trying, unforeseen circumstances. Our dinners were on the whole, excellent, and—because of said unforeseen circumstances—epic, entire-evening-spanning affairs, made bearable by being with people we liked, plus a ready supply of free drinks.
Sunday night, we ate at the pan-Asian restaurant, “Spice”. The outside seating had been flooded out—not too surprisingly—so they were running at half capacity, trying to deal with a resort at full occupancy. Our party of fifteen occupied half the remaining tables. We got seated in stages, about an hour after our scheduled time. Can’t say I remember much about what I had for dinner, except for the dessert: something called “Krakatoa de Chocolate”.4 I must admit that I’ve never seen anything that reminds me as much of the island that exploded catastrophically in 1883 as this confection.
In Part 3 of this travelogue, we’ll defy the resort’s ridiculously overpriced package tours and go on a freestyle snorkeling trip, where the ocean was only slightly wetter than the air.
1I’d really like to know how the word Roo got into a Spanish name. It’s pronounced like the English word roe, but doesn’t follow the usual rules for spelling Spanish words; double vowels are really unusual. The state got its name from a Mexican politician, Andrés Quintana Roo. As it happens, roo is a possible first-person present singular conjugation of the verb roer, meaning to gnaw, chew or eat away at (as the surf does to a cliff at the ocean’s shore).
2Alas, we are always visiting historical monuments just after people are prohibited from climbing around on them. I feel lucky we happened to see the Statue of Liberty in April 2001.
3ICome to think of it, I don’t remember seeing any large aboveground rivers in the Yucatán. Perhaps the entire region is drained by a natural, subterranean sewer system, complete with its own ecology.
4Today it really should be called the Krakatau de Chocolate, but I’ll forgive the obsolete name.