Made Up of Time

Mayan Mexico
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The most traditional Maya communities on the Yucatan peninsula are concentrated in the Zona Maya, an isolated area of central Quintana Roo. Punta Laguna, a small village in Quintana Roo, is a great place to stop for an afternoon and learn directly from the Mayan farmers about traditional Mayan life and agricultural methods. Tabasco's Maya live in the Chontalpa, the fertile floodplain of the Grijalva and Usumacinta rivers. In Chiapas, the Maya are scattered in many small mountain village, with San Cristsbal de las Casas being their market center. Chiapas is currently the center of an impassioned struggle for indigenous rights. At this writing, it seems like a safe enough place to visit, but you should check with local authorities.

The two most famous sites in Mexico are Palenque and Chichen Itza. But there are many other sites, with their own unique fascinations to explore.

Beloved by many who declare it to be the most beautiful Mayan ruin, Palenque sits proudly in Palenque National Park in the state of Chiapas. The region around Palenque has the highest average rainfall in Mexico, watering a chokingly dense rainforest. The site covers 15 square miles. Set against a hill, the city was built in such a way that it could be seen for days as one ventured through the rain forest from the coast, which in those days was a journey that could only be taken by foot, since the Mayan did not use the wheel or beasts of burden for transport. Of course this effect has diminished, both because you get there bouncing along in the seat of a car or bus, and also because the rainforest has retreated due to development and cattle grazing.

Palenque features many decorative motifs not found anywhere else. Some of these motifs seem almost Chinese, giving rise to imaginative speculation about Mayan contact with East Asia. This is very unlikely, but there is something about Palenque that gives rise to flights of fancy, mystery—and confusion.

Cortes passed within 30 miles of the city, and never knew it was there. The first European to visit this place in 1773, a Spanish monk, wrote a book claiming it to be an Atlantean outpost. The next European to describe the place,a Spanish royal official in 1784, wrote a description that was lost in the Royal Archives back home for a century. The next guy to come along, Captain Antonia Del Rio in 1786, wrote a report that was again lost until an unexpected copy turned up and was published in 1822.

Meanwhile, a Mexican expedition had been there in 1807. They wrote a report, gave it to their government, who lost it for 30 years. Then in 1831, Count de Waldeck, an eccentric scion from a family who had seen much, much better days arrived and set up housekeeping on top of a pyramid that is still called the Temple of the Count. He spent two years drawing and writing about the place. His work was. . . fanciful. The count lived to be 109, which maybe does, or maybe doesn't, have anything to do with Palenque.

Finally in 1837, a full-fledged expedition arrived with a competent illustrator, and the first accurate study was done. The report didn't get buried in anybody's in box this time, and Palenque has since been the subject of more sober and systematic study. So far, only 34 out of 500 ruins have been excavated. But the studies have revealed a lot about ancient Mayan culture.

Temple of Inscriptions is perhaps the most interesting pyramid at Palenque. Besides being the tallest, it also housed the crypt of Pa Kal, a powerful Mayan priest, discovered in 1952. The crypt had been untouched for a millennium. Archeologists took out many fine objects which have been carted away to other museums for display and study. The most famous piece, Pa Kal's jade mosaic death mask, has been stolen from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. But visitors to Palenque can still admire the structure with its especially fine stucco reliefs. And the non-superstitious and the Indiana Jones wanna-bes can explore subterranean passages, and get a sense of the hidden power and mystery of Palenque.

The Temple of the Sun dates from 642. It has one of the best-preserved roof combs of any Mayan sites. Roof combs were richly decorated false fronts that added to the grandeur of Mayan buildings. Airy and comparatively delicate, they generally haven't survived the years of abandonment and jungle growth as well as the stouter pyramids. In their time, the roof combs were colorfully painted, and still serve as an inspiration for much contemporary Mexican art and architecture.

The Temple of the Jaguar is perhaps the most intriguing example of similarities to Asiatic art. The temple displays a Foliated Cross motif that is almost identical to one found at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and some of the bas-reliefs have motifs very similar to those used in Hindu art.

Ever the beautiful eccentric, unlike most Mayan cities that depended on cenotes, Palenque is actually near a dependable water source, the Otulum River, and a number of smaller rivulets cross the site. The Mayans constructed an aqueduct to carry water from the river to the city.

The modern town of Palenque has many travel options to get to the ruins, and a full range of accomodations.

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza translates to mean"mouth of the well of Itza." Chichen is the best known, best restored, and arguably most impressive Mayan ruin. It's also not entirely Mayan. Chichen got off the ground around 550 AD. Like most Mayan cities, Chichen was abandoned in the 10th century, then resettled around 1000 AD. Abandoned again in the 14th century, but it remained the site for pilgrimages for many years.

At some point around 800 the city was invaded by Toltec people from the north, who exerted a strong influence of the subsequent building styles. The Toltecs are the people who built Teotihuacan near Mexico City. Besides using round buildings and pillars, the Toltecs were more warlike than the Mayan and seemed to have a stronger propensity to employ human sacrifice. This fierceness and ritual difference speaks through the art and architecture of Chichen.

Chichen had two principal wells, or cenote: one sacred and the other profane. The profane well was used for everyday needs. The sacred well, a largish 195 feet across by 120 feet deep, was used in worship, and offerings were continually made to it. Divers have retrieved skeletons and many ritual objects from its depths.

El Castillo is a time temple that sheds light on the Mayan astronomical system It was built in 800 just before the Toltec invasion. An impressive 78 feet tall, the temple's name means castle in Spanish. El Castillo was actually a huge solar calendar. If you did the math, you would find that the 91 steps on each side, times 4 for each side and each season, plus 1 for the crowning platform adds up to 365—one step for each day of the solar year. During the equinoxes, the shadow pattern of the pyramid's steps seems to show a serpent climbing up the steps in March, and down the steps in September.

Chichen's Ball Court is the largest and finest in Mexico. At 272 feet by 199 feet, it's about as long as a football field and little bit wider. On the south side is the tribune, a raised platform that may have been used for dance performances. Maybe even half-time entertainment.

El Caracol means giant conch shell, which is apt given its circular, spiraling design. The windows in observatory dome are aligned with certain stars on specific dates. This is where the priests decreed the dates for rituals, celebrations, corn planting, harvests. This building especially displays the brilliance and precision of Mayan astronomy.

Merida is the nearest town to Chichen. Many people fly to Chichen, either from Cancun or Merida. A full range of accomodations are available near the ruins sites.

Other Sites in Mexico
Two very impressive ruins are reachable from Palenque, either by an overnight camping trek or by aircraft. Uxmal, is set in the Puuc hills, which give their name to the distinctive architectural style of Uxmal, which was very influenced by highland Mexico cultures of the Toltecs. The ruins are magnificent and dignified, commanding good views of the low-lying regions around the site. You can take a bus or drive to Uxmal from the town of Mirida.

Bonampak is famous for its brilliant murals depicting 8th century Mayan courtlife, ritual and battle. The murals were preserved for centuries by a coating of calcite, or dissolved limestone washed down from the ceiling. The murals were badly damaged by early explorers who cleaned away the calcite with kerosene. Computer-assisted reproductions are on display in museums in Mexico City and Villahermosa. Yaxchilan was a large city, in ancient times rivaling the magnificence of Palenque and Chichen Itza. Today, even the major monuments are mostly covered in trees, but there are many amazing carvings to see, plus the chance to get a feel of what the major Mayan archeological sites were like before restoration.

Tulum, in Quintana Roo near the town of El Crucero, is the place to go for ruins on the beach. The ruins are from the post-classic era of Mayan civilization, and are not as fine as those at Chichen or Palenque. The ruins are also fortified, which is uncharacteristic of classical Maya sites, and speak to Tulum's Toltec influences. The other big plus is that Tulum is right next to Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sian Ka'an is prime trekking ground for those who want to experience jungle wildlife living amidst pristine rain forest and unrestored Mayan ruins.

Coba, north of Tulum in Quintana Roo, is largely unrestored despite the fact that it was the largest classical Mayan city. In its heyday, 40,000 people lived within its confines. Coba's Great Pyramid is the highest Mayan structure in the Yucatan. The architectural style is closer to the grand ruins of Tikal in Guatamela, rather than the Mexican ruins of Chichen. Mysterious ancient roads through the jungle radiate out from Coba leading, it seems, to nowhere in particular.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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