Palenque, Edzná, Uxmal, Kabah and Chichén Itzá
Mayan ruins featured on our ‘must see’ list. My husband’s fascination for archaeology, the cradles of civilisation and UNESCO heritage listed sites were rekindled by our recent adventure in Greece, its ruins and antiquities. So when a visit to family in California eventuated, there was no question about including a trip to Mexico, this time to have a look at the Aztec and Mayan (*Mesoamerican) ruins, the latter being unearthed in areas from northern Mexico all the way down to Central America.
Eclipse Travel organised a very flexible itinerary, allowing us to start from Mexico City to journey all the way down to the Yucatán Peninsula, a combination of air and land travel. It was a great way to see Mexico’s diverse countryside. We were anticipating a stress free holiday but what we didn’t expect were the knowledgeable Mayan civilisation experts who would be our guides. They told us that in Mexico, it is a requirement for guides to study archaeology before they earn their certificates. We were thrilled that these ‘experts’ were going to share their knowledge with us. After all, at the heart of this adventure was to learn about the Mayan civilisation and what is left of it. This trip was all about a ‘close encounter’ with the ruins of Palenque, Edzná, Uxmal, Kabah and Chichén Itzá.
Reluctantly we left Mexico City for the state of Tabasco, where, Mina our guide and her driver met us at the airport of Villahermosa. We proceeded straight to Palenque situated in the state of Chiapas, about 141 kms and a 2-hour drive in the air-conditioned car.
The ruins that greeted us were a sight to behold and certainly worth the long trip. Set in a tropical jungle, Palenque although considered a medium sized site by archaeologists, was so exotic and fascinating. Despite the humidity, we somehow managed to climb the 200 plus steps of the Temple of the Inscriptions where the tomb of Pacal the Great was discovered.
The Mayan civilisation is noted for its writing system, the Mayan script, also known as Mayan glyphs or Mayan hieroglyphs. These glyphs adorned the pillars and walls of the temples, a defining feature of these shrines in Palenque. One of the interesting rooms shown to us was the chamber where Pacal meditated and where he was assisted and prepared to perform his blood letting (by piercing). Being the great leader, his potent blood offered to the gods was one of the reasons for his ‘being’. A lance made from the spiny stingray bones was used to pierce his tongue and other body parts including his genitalia (ouch!) He did so with the help of hallucinogens, a mixture of herbs and perhaps also a brew of ayuhuasca (a tropical vine of the Amazon region, noted for its hallucinogenic properties)
Palenque was once a city-state that dated from approximately 226BC to 779 AD and for various reasons the kingdom declined, the Mayan people dispersed and the city was abandoned. Mina said that it is false to assume that the Mayan people have disappeared because they haven’t. They have intermarried with other ethnic groups and have settled in various places in and around the Yucatán. We had our fill of the site, climbing, walking and going through the jungle like forest and fortunately 3 hours later (as my weary legs were about to give in), it was time to be taken to our hotel.
The hotel was another delightful surprise like the ruins. The boutique hotel Quinta Chanabnal, a lovely 8-suite hotel designed by the owner to look like a Mayan palace complex of the Classic period was totally unexpected. Set in a lush tropical garden, the pool and surrounds were a sight for sore eyes and had a very calming effect on hot and weary guests like us. We naturally enjoyed a dip in the pool before relaxing in the suite and then dinner at the hotel restaurant where the owner, an Italian- German who has a keen interest in glyphs graced us with his presence and shared his knowledge about the Mayan civilisation. He in fact designed the hotel as well as the glyphs on the walls that tell a story about him and his family life.
The menu offered a variety of local and international dishes and what we had were just absolutely delicious. The staff were friendly and unobtrusive but much to my disappointment, they too spoke perfect English so there was not much chance for me to utilise my ‘passable Spanish’.
We were warned that we might hear the cry of howler monkeys that inhabited the distant jungle trees. We did hear them but it wasn’t frightening and we slept like babies. Must have been all the walking and climbing that day.
Much to our regret, the next day, right after breakfast, we were picked up by Mina to proceed to our next destination. We were so enchanted by the hotel Quinta Chanabnal that leaving so soon was probably the only regret we had on this trip so far.
The long drive from Palenque to Isla Aguada in Campeche (about 3 and half hours travel time for the 285 kms distance) was very interesting because of the changing landscape and the little stalls selling food and craft that occasionally littered the side of the road. We were on the lookout for the stalls selling piñatas, specifically one with a Donald Trump head. My family in California heard a rumour that enterprising Mexicans were making them as souvenirs. So far, we didn’t see Donald’s piñata.
Isla Aguada is a fishing village and not an island. Our guide took us straight to muelle turístico (tourist dock) to catch the little fishing boat that would take us to Isla de Pájaros (Island of Birds) and to catch glimpses of dolphins, which in fact were gracefully jumping in and out of the water as our boat glided towards the island. We didn’t need to be on Isla de Pájaros to see the abundant birdlife. Even on the dock, we saw pelicans and gulls. The water was clear and lovely and in some of the mangrove trees we saw the frigate birds, noted for the mysterious phenomenon known in Jatinga, India of “committing suicide”. On arrival at Isla de Pájaros, we saw hundreds more of herons, frigates, pelicans and gulls.
The boat trip over, we proceeded to the ruins of Edzná, a drive that took about 2 and half hours from Isla Aguada and noticed that the land was progressively getting drier and not as lush as tropical Palenque we just left behind. Mina our guide told us that we would also perhaps notice a difference in the designs and style of architecture of temples between Palenque, Edzná and Uxmal.
On arrival at the archaeological ruins of Edzná, located north of Campeche, the building that immediately stood out was the Pirámide de los Cinco Pisos (Pyramid of the Five Storeys) in the great plaza. Our guide said that archaeologists think that the Itza Mayans may have influenced the ruins here, way before they settled south in Chichén Itzá also because the name Edzná comes from ‘House of the Itzaes’. The city was inhabited in 400 BC and abandoned around 1500 AD for reasons unknown. Although the hills of Puuc are not really close to Edzná, the style of architecture and some designs are attributed to the ‘Puuc style’.
Soon, it was time to drive down to the coastal and colonial town of Campeche, a drive that took about an hour (52 kms). Mina and our driver showed us around the quaint colonial port city of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico and its charming little streets and colourful houses. The old buildings and ‘colonial’ atmosphere within the walls of the fortress enchanted us no end. Campeche’s history is associated with the Spanish conquistadores who founded the city in 1540.
Unfortunately, it was soon time to say hasta luego (see you later) to Mina and driver who said they didn’t want to say adios because adios-goodbye sounds so final. We promised we would inform friends about the wonderful time we had with them and hope to encourage tourists to visit Mexico.
Our hotel, the Casa Don Gustavo is a restored 18th century mansion located in the heart of the historic centre of Campeche. It was a pretty awesome building with a lovely restaurant in the courtyard and where, after exploring the restaurant scene in the city centre in the early evening, we decided to return to the hotel to have our meal there with my obligatory apéritif cocktail of the classic Margarita. It was an indulgent way to end our tour taking in the wonders of Edzná and Campech
As it was in this ‘Icons of Mexico adventure’, all our guides didn’t muck around; they were never late, were efficient, very polite and good fun to be with. Promptly after breakfast, our next guide arrived to show us the Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. A very interesting man of Mayan, Lebanese and Mexican heritage, he was the quintessential Mayan ruin expert who had the same degree of enthusiasm as our two previous guides. He took us first to Kabah (south of the Uxmal ruins in the Puuc region in Yucatán) and then to Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered to be one of the most important Mayan archaeological sites. The trip from Campeche to Kabah was very comfortable even though it took us 3 hours to get there. As advised by Mina while with her at Edzna the day before, we duly took notice of the various designs and styles of the remnants of these buildings, distinct from those of Palenque. Of note in Kabah is the Palace of the Masks, named for the hundreds of stone masks of the long-nosed rain Mayan god Chaak in its façade. In this region, there are no rivers and water holes (cenotes) so rain was very important for the Mayan’s survival. It is believed that the lack of water was the main reason why the city was abandoned later on. Also among the ruins in Kabah are Temple of the Columns, the House of the Witch and the Arch of Kabah.
Uxmal ruins, which cover a larger area than Kabah show interesting examples of Puuc architecture influences. The very first ruin we encountered as we entered the site was The Pyramid of the Magician. What I remember most about this building is a charming legend associated to its name. It is said that on a dare, a dwarf boy was asked to build this pyramid in one evening and magically, he did. Also two structures that are highly visible are the Palace of the Governor considered to be one of the best examples of Puuc architecture discovered in the region and next to it is the Casa de las Tortugas (House of the Turtles) because of the frieze of turtles carved around its cornice. The legend also says that turtles prayed to the rain god for abundant rain because they suffered as much as the Mayans did during periods of drought. There was so much to explore and learn about this site but after a couple of hours and with the scorching mid- afternoon sun, it was really getting uncomfortable. Despite the semi-forest around the area, there wasn’t enough shade unlike ‘leafy Palenque’. A late lunch at the resort within walking distance from the site seemed like a good idea.
As soon as our lunch was over, our guide drove us to the town of Mérida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán and approximately 85 kms form Uxmal.
At Mérida, once again, we felt indulged upon checking in the boutique hotel chosen for us by Eclipse Travel. The Casa Lecanda is a mansion typical of Mérida’s golden age of the Sisal barons and was converted to a 7 bedroom intimate hotel while retaining its European ambience. The beautifully landscaped patio, pool and kitchen were, for me, the more interesting features of the hotel. Although centrally located within walking distance to the historic town centre the hotel was very quiet and the staff were solicitous.
That evening, we wandered around the town fascinated by the numerous old houses that looked abandoned, the town’s plaza and churches reminiscent of Old Spanish towns. We ended up having a meal at a courtyard full of different little stalls and restaurants for the ambience and also because right in the middle of the patio was a big TV screen with the Super bowl on show. Glad we chose to dine here as we had a great time with other tourists and witnessed the awesome Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots (American National Football League) magnificently turning their losing streak around to win his 5th Super Bowl ring. What a game! Needless to say, it was a fun night where we indulged in mojitos, chorizos and pizza topped with huitlacoche (Pronounced whee-tla-KO-cheh and is made from corn fungus).
We wanted an extra day in Mérida as we heard so much about this town from friends and the Eclipse Travel website. Wandering around the old city centre, it seemed that time stood still. Would Cuba look like this? We wondered. We felt as if we were in a time warp with the very old houses and buildings circa, 16th century, the public buses that looked like it came from a 1950’s catalogue and some big houses and mansions that would have looked grand during the city’s heyday but now somehow looked sad and abandoned.
Beyond exploring the structures around the Plaza Grande and the Catedral de San Ildefonso, which included the Casa de Montejo and the Palacio de Gobierno, we decided to see more of the city on a hop- on, hop – off bus, which went around the places of interest along the Paseo de Montejo lined this time with prettier colonial houses, some restored as hotels, restaurants or commercial buildings. That evening, we were tempted to try the Oliva Enoteca (Italian cuisine), highly recommended by our guide and only a few steps away from our hotel but since it was to be our last evening in the Yucatán region, we decided to have another meal of traditional Yucatán dishes. We went to El Pórtico del Peregrino for an alfresco meal at the restaurant’s courtyard and had the pollo pibil (chicken cooked with achiote paste, the spice that is commonly used in Yucatán dishes from the seeds of the annatto tree- and then wrapped in banana leaves).
Finally the last ruin to explore; we were picked up early, right after breakfast to join a small group of tourists and visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed Chichén Itzá, about 120 kms east from Mérida. (Chichén Itzá means “At the mouth of the well of the Itza”)
Much has been said about Chichén Itzá. Recently, Chichén Itzá was given the accolade of ‘one of the New 7 Wonders of the World’. This famous Mayan archaeological site receives a large number of visitors because of its accessibility and probably because it is the best restored Mayan ruin in the Yucatán peninsula. The complex was certainly the biggest we’ve seen with more buildings, such as the Temple of the Warriors, Temple of the Jaguars, the High Priest’s Temple, the Great Ballcourt and the Sacred Cenote (a natural well or waterhole that became the burial place of humans sacrificed during the Mayan days).
What was easily recognisable was the towering and imposing El Castillo step pyramid also known as the Temple of Kukulcan (Kukulcan-the plumed Mayan serpent deity). Famous for its astronomic symbols, it speaks of the Mayan civilisation’s sophisticated understanding of the skies and the universe. The 4-sided pyramid has 365 steps representing the days of the year (91 steps on each side plus 1 on the very top makes 365), 52 panels for the weeks of the year as well as each Mayan year in the century and 18 terraces for the 18 moths of the Mayan religious year. Our guide pointed to the steps, which, according to him, during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rising and setting sun casts a shadow on the pyramid and a form in the outline of a serpent or snake (Kukulcan) is seen on these steps.
We walked around to admire this iconic symbol that showcased the prowess of the Mayan civilisation and my husband and I could actually see the shape of the serpent coming down the steps- shadow or no shadow! Unfortunately (or fortunately in our case as we didn’t think we could climb the steep steps) visitors are no longer allowed to climb El Castillo.
Climbing aspirations aside, we asked our guide about the ‘doomsday’ prophesy associated to the Mayan calendar. He explained that the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012 didn’t mean the end of the world but rather, the end of the long cycle and the beginning of a new one. One has to delve into the study and understanding of the Mayan calendar to appreciate this comment but our group was getting impatient to move on to the next structures being shown to us so we never discussed the logic of this theory.
In fact, I now recall a National Geographic documentary that discussed a recent discovery of hieroglyphs in various staircase steps of the ruins at the ancient Mayan city of La Corona in Guatemala. According to archaeologists, the text discredited the end of the world theory inasmuch as the reference of December 21, 2012 had more to do with ancient Mayan politics and kingship and its cosmological dimensions and not the end of the world.
Despite the fact that it was considered low season when we were there, there were busloads of tourists and it was quite difficult to get a really close look or take good photos of El Castillo and various temples spread out around the site. It was also a very hot, windy day and the gust of wind blew a lot of dust our way. It wasn’t as pleasant as our day at Palenque but we persevered.
The other building that impressed was the Great Ball Court, the largest ball court in Mesoamerica* with an area measuring 166 by 68 meters (545 by 232 feet). In Mesoamerica, there is an estimated 1300 ballcourts where a popular game played by 2 teams with a rubber ball is called Pok- Ta- Pok, named for the sound of the ball bouncing. It was also considered a religious, political and highly complex competition. The aim is to put the solid ball through the ring. The rules are complicated but to simplify, the players are allowed to use only their forehead, shoulders, elbows, thighs and knees to handle the ball and aim to put it through the ring in the centre of the long walls. Difficult in this Great Ballcourt , considering the walls here are 12 meters high (39 feet). In the centre of the high wall measuring 95 meters (312 ft) long and 8 meters (26 ft) high, is a ring where the ball is aimed to go through.
I found this YouTube that illustrates the Mayan game
In the Great Ball Court, one could see that the rings were adorned with intertwining serpents carved on the stones and in one wall; there was a depiction of the captain of the winning team being beheaded as sacrifice. Yes, the winner and not the loser was beheaded. According to our guide, it was a privilege to be sacrificed to the gods and the winner gets this honour. I was wondering about this because all the articles I read about the game said that the losers were sacrificed (?) Nevertheless, someone was beheaded at the conclusion of the game. And as drought escalated, so did the number of human sacrifices.
(*a region and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica)
The Sacred Cenote also tells a story of human sacrifice to please Chaak, the god of life-giving rain. The natural well is directly northwest of the main staircase of El Castillo and archaeologists believe that there is significance in the town planning that has to do with the underworld and belief in the rain god. Archaeologists have unearthed bones of over 50 warriors in the bottom of the well. No one is allowed to swim in this particular cenote but some of the younger tourists wanted to see a waterhole nearby and our guide obliged. A 10-minute ride later, we arrived at an eco-park that surrounded Cenote Yokdzonot. The day was hot so it was not a surprise that the park was swarming with visitors. We had a chance to cool down in the lovely shade and watched the other guests plunge in the deep water hole.
It was time to go back to Chichén Itzá for a late lunch and later to head off to Cancún where we were to end this fabulous experience. Noted for its beautiful and glamorous resorts, white beaches and nightspots, we were looking forward to transition from the past to the present. We were dropped off at the Westin Resort and Spa. The scene was very Gold Coast (Queensland, Australia) and somewhat reminded us also of Florida. Unabashedly, we can claim ourselves as ‘beach snobs’. Being Queenslanders, we are really spoilt for choice as far as resorts and beaches, fishing grounds and eco- marine spots for whale and dolphin spotting are concerned, so this side of Mexico while appreciated was not the highlight.
There is no doubt we will do our bit to help promote visitors to Mexico. We think the current sentiment from the USA regarding safety in Mexico while prudent to keep in mind, shouldn’t deter a trip to Mexico City and the Yucatán Peninsula. History, art, culture, lovely people and great food (don’t forget the very inexpensive Margaritas) Mexico has it all. What’s there not to love?