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Under a Mayan Spell

Brown, who lives in Alexandria, Va., was editor of Time Life's Lost Civilizations book series

The sound-and-light show in the ruins of this ancient Mayan city was about to begin when the plaza lights suddenly dimmed and the stars came out--and I do mean out. I have looked into the night sky in countless corners of the world, and I have never seen as many stars as over Chichen Itza.

Directly in front of us, against the glimmering backdrop of the Yucatan sky, hulked the jagged silhouette of the great stepped pyramid, the 80-foot-high ceremonial edifice that the Spanish called El Castillo, “the castle.” (The Spanish, who conquered Yucatan in 1542, named many Mayan buildings without knowing their original functions.) In that dazzling, starry moment, we could just discern the edge of one of four staircases that ascend each side to the squat, rectangular temple at the pyramid’s peak. There the Maya conducted blood sacrifices, often using captives from enemy city-states. Sometimes the beating heart was ripped from the victim’s chest. The thought of that was chilling.

My wife, Liet, and I were part of a group touring Mayan sites last January. It was led by Robert Lindley Vann, an archeologist and architectural historian at the University of Maryland with whom we had traveled in Turkey a few years before. We liked his easygoing manner and his enthusiasm. We were particularly lucky this time to find ourselves in the company of his wife, Lollie, also an archeologist. The group of 24 included some of Vann’s architect friends and colleagues, who proved amiable, knowledgeable travel companions, interested in people as well as buildings. And like us, they were satisfied with humble but clean accommodations that Vann chose in order to put us within striking distance of the best ruins.

Our focus for the two weeks was entirely on the Maya, the richly cultured civilization that flourished in today’s southern Mexico and much of Central America from the 7th century BC through the 9th century. The journey, in three air-conditioned vans, began at Cancun, the high-rise resort on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast. We were happy not to linger there but to head immediately for the countryside where the Maya remain a living presence, many still inhabiting small thatched houses almost exactly like those of their ancestors.

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We made our first stop at a cave,

Xkeken, one of the thousands that riddle the soft limestone underlying the Yucatan. The Maya regarded such caves as entrances to Xibalba, “the Place of Awe"--the Mayan hell. This one, which lay just outside the colonial city of Valladolid, dripped with stalactites and long, hairy roots that hung down to a mirror-smooth pool under the ceiling, where a hole like an eye admitted a greenish light. It was easy to see how such an eerie place could have inspired fear in the Maya.

Perhaps it was only fitting, then, that we had our initial experience of Chichen Itza at night--when, according to Mayan belief, the sun was held temporarily captive in Xibalba. With considerable drama, the sound-and-light show underscored the supremacy of the Maya as mathematicians, as well as astronomers and architects. I was fascinated to learn that they had oriented El Castillo to the sun so precisely that at the spring equinox and the autumn solstice, the sun strikes the northwest edge of the pyramid and causes a serrated shadow that suggests a diamondback snake slowly gliding down the balustrade. Apparently the Maya regarded this phenomenon as a manifestation of their god, Kukulcan, the feathered serpent.

No one can fail to be impressed by Chichen Itza, the most fully restored of the ancient Mayan cities. In the company of a Mayan guide, our group roamed there for much of the next morning, too absorbed by the architecture to take much notice of the heat. But if you want to experience it the way the Mayan nobles and priests did, you must steel yourself and climb to the temple atop El Castillo--up all 91 steps, laid at such an extreme angle you will be grateful for the chain strung from the top to the bottom as a kind of loose handgrip. The sight of the wobbly chain was enough to discourage Liet from joining me and the others who dared make the climb. Even I with my long legs had a hard time negotiating the steps, which were much higher and narrower than I had gauged from below.

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My reward for reaching the uppermost terrace was a gusting wind and the startling realization that there was no railing around the edge. Below, waving at me as though to offer encouragement, was Liet. Catching my breath, I entered the dark temple and stood in the cool dimness, awed to think that it was probably here that the lords of the city routinely let their own blood flow from self-inflicted wounds to ensure the gods’ benevolence. (Noblewomen, in a variation on the rite, drew barbed ropes through their tongues.) The blood thus shed fell on sheets of bark paper, which the priests set on fire. The participants, weak from their ordeal and probably high on hallucinogens, were expected to see visions in the smoke.

Leaving the inner sanctum, I came out into the blinding light for a panoramic view of Chichen Itza, or at least as much of it as the archeologists have yet retrieved from the jungle. Once a city of thousands, it flourished for centuries before its mysterious abandonment 700 years ago. My eye was caught first by its broad ceremonial plazas. Beyond the largest of these I could see the long, narrow field of the ball court, bordered on two sides by high walls, where once a ritual game played with a large, heavy rubber sphere could have a disastrous outcome for the losers: decapitation. The sober reminder of the sport’s ferocity is the rack of sculpted skulls, beside the field, on which heads were displayed.

After taking in the panorama, I discovered that it is one thing to climb to the windy top of El Castillo, quite another to get down. Peering over the edge, I felt suddenly timid. The staircase appeared almost vertical. I did the ignoble but wise thing and worked my way down the 91 steps on my behind, relieved to find friends doing the same.

We strolled now to the round observatory behind the Temple of the Warriors. Not only did the priests’ stargazing enable them to keep track of time and create a 365-day annual calendar; they also predicted eclipses. I asked our Mayan guide if children learned about such Mayan accomplishments in school. With real bitterness in his voice, he replied, “Mexican history begins with 1910, the Revolution.”

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Chastened, we proceeded to the Well of Sacrifices, a cenote, or sinkhole, formed when the ceiling of a cave collapses. Here, to honor the rain god, Chac, priests tossed offerings into the water dozens of feet below: precious gold and jade, along with human sacrifices--men, women and children.

Uxmal, our next stop, lies in arid shrub country. Because it never was buried by the rampant vegetation that covered so many of the deserted Mayan cities, it was spared much of the damage that wrenching roots inflicted on the buildings.

We entered Uxmal around 4 p.m., when its golden stone structures were glowing in the intense, late afternoon light.

While some of our group rose to the challenge of scaling the Temple of the Magician pyramid, Liet and I wandered off to take in the Nunnery Quadrangle and the Governor’s Palace. Across the upper half of both buildings run wide bands of breathtakingly complex carved blocks--20,000 on the palace alone. Most impressively, the Maya managed all these feats of monumental architecture without benefit of metal tools, the wheel, or pack or draft animals.

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Palenque, in the lowlands of Chiapas, proved a vivid contrast to Uxmal and Chichen Itza. (We saw no evidence of the civil unrest that has racked the interior highlands of Chiapas for several years. And Liet and I never felt concerned about our personal safety.)

We came to Palenque in a thick morning mist. Nestled among hills, its center is all but surrounded by tall jungle growth, which conceals the rest of the 6-square-mile city.

Defying better judgment, I climbed Palenque’s tallest building, the 75-foot-high Temple of the Inscriptions, named for the hieroglyphics that cover the walls of the shrine at its summit. Deep inside, reached by a narrow staircase, is the massive, richly carved tomb of the king who had the temple built as his funeral monument. The discovery of the crypt, by Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhullier in 1951-52, counts as one of the 20th century’s greatest archeological finds.

From on high, I could barely see Liet and one of our travel companions as they stood in the milky mist outside the palace. Before I could catch up with them, they had disappeared into the fog like apparitions, leaving me to wander alone through Palenque’s haunting ruins and into the forest, where waterfalls cascading off the hillside leaped from pool to pool.

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Discovery is part of the enjoyment of traveling in the Yucatan. There are numerous sites that relatively few tourists reach. We were fortunate, thanks to Vann, to see several of the finest--Xpuhil, Becan, Chicanna and Kohunlich, which lie west of the modern Caribbean coast city of Chetumal.

At Xpuhil, a temple with three tapered towers revealed a bit of trickery at work: The towers were just for show, inaccessible, with false doorways in their uppermost reaches and staircases angled so steeply, with treads so short, no one could ever have climbed them.

At Becan and at Chicanna we had the somewhat unsettling experience of stepping through temple portals that were the mouths of monsters, rimmed by giant pointed teeth. But Becan also offered us a moment of levity when one of the younger members of our group began tossing a football on the ball court field where players once lost their heads.

Kohunlich, hidden in a palm forest, proved so peaceful, despite some sinister stucco masks attached to a temple facade, that Liet likened it to a resort, with its green, freshly mowed lawns and patches of blood-red hibiscus.

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At Edzna we had a glimpse of how archeologists go about restoring ruins, in this case a five-story pyramid palace. Trees and turf still cling to the rear slope, but where strips of the vegetation have been removed, the diggers have assembled the flat stones that once formed the pyramid’s facing into some order and are reattaching them to the building’s rubble core.

And at Dzibilchaltun, close to the coast north of Merida, Liet and I had the pleasure of seeing a cenote put to modern use. Two of our number could not resist the water’s temptation and jumped in, undeterred by the knowledge that at a depth of 90 feet the cenote widens into a cave under the limestone ledge and ends no one knows where.

But the site that excited our imaginations most was Balamku, which we visited on our way to Palenque. Discovered only in 1990, it puts in mind those romantic 19th century lithographs of overgrown Mayan sites as they were stumbled upon by explorers hacking their way through the jungle. We were awestruck by the 1,500-year-old stucco frieze that spanned the width of the pyramid temple. It was alive with the faces of wild-eyed gods.

Our group did not spend all its time searching for Mayan monuments. We made a point of stopping in villages and cities along the way to look at churches and visit colorful markets, made more vivid still by Mayan women in richly embroidered white cotton dresses. And we eagerly sampled the local dishes, growing particularly fond of sopa de lima, a lime-flavored soup made with chicken, cilantro and toasted tortilla bits; and fried pork chops, smothered in sweet peppers and onions and drizzled with lime juice.

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And wherever we traveled, we fell under the spell of the Maya, a gentle, friendly people coming back into their own after centuries of dispossession.

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GUIDEBOOK

Mayan Mapping

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Getting there: United Airlines and Mexicana have nonstop service from LAX to Cancun. Round-trip air fares start at $312.

Getting around: A guided tour is best to get the most out of a visit to the Mayan world. University of Maryland Professor Robert Lindley Vann plans Yucatan tours Jan. 2-17 and March 10-20. Cost: $1,100 plus air fare and meals. Vann, now on sabbatical, can be contacted through the School of Architecture, College Park, MD 20742; home telephone (301) 495-8818, fax (301) 495-0103, e-mail: rv6@umail.umd.edu.

UCLA Extension, tel. (310) 825-2272, has a study tour of Mayan sites in Guatemala Dec. 18-26. Most of the in-country travel will be by plane. Cost: $2,296, including air from L.A.

Smithsonian [Institution] Associates Study Tours, tel. (202) 357-4700, has a tour of Mayan Guatemala and Belize, Jan. 14-24. Cost: $3,590 plus air fare.

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The hotels we stayed in ranged from the upscale Casa del Balam in Merida, tel. (800) 624-8451, where a room for two is $85, to the Hotel Marlon in Chetumal, tel. (011 52) 983-29411; doubles, $18.

For more information: Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, CA 90057; tel. (213) 351-2069, Web, https://www.mexico- travel.com.

A Taste of the Yucatan

* Sampling classic Mayan dishes in Merida and environs. L25.

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