I love to travel. To celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband and I were fortunate enough to take a Western Carribbean cruise. Strong believers in the mantra, “Work Hard, Play Hard,” we vacationed with gusto. We listened to live bands in Key West, savored local foods and water sports at a Cozumel beach resort, and ziplined through a Belizan rainforest. For our stop in Playa del Carmen, we were tempted to join many of our shipmates at Senor Frogs for a day of partying. Being a history buff, I had signed us up for a tour of a Mayan pyramid instead. I’m so happy I did!
We rise early for our tour. The tender ride to port is short and smooth. We are herded through the busy town to the waiting bus with forty other tourists. As we ride inland for three hours, our Mayan guide, Humberto, makes the time fly–entertaining us with interesting facts about the Yucatan Peninsula.
The grounds at Chichen Itza are tremendous. We only have enough time to focus on three sections of the ruins today, including the main pyramid, known as El Castillo. Humberto tells us the ninety-five foot tall El Castillo has ninety steps on each of four sides, equalling 364 days plus one platform for a total of 365. Nine bump-outs on two sides of it represent the eighteen months on the Mayan calendar and five statues on each of four sides equals twenty, representing the number of days in a Mayan month. There’s more, but all this math is making my head spin. If you want to learn other details about this feat of Mayan architecture, click here.
Humberto explains Chichen Itza’s pyramid is hollow, with a smaller pyramid inside the larger. Like Egyptian pyramids, one purpose of El Castillo was to serve as a burial site for their royalty. The adventurous side of me is disappointed we’re not allowed to see the crypts surrounded by protective stone figures or climb all those steps to the top.
The gruesome aspect of Chichen Itza’s history centers around the ball court, where Mayan teams competed using a rubber ball about the size of a softball. We learn that the “winning” team’s captain would be decapitated as a sign of honor to the Mayan gods. No wonder a game could last for days, no one wanted to win! The captain’s head would then be displayed on a low stone wall etched with skull heads across the many rocks. I’m not creeped out so much as interested in the heiroglyphs located at either end of the ball court walls. They include an etching of Quetzalcoatl, whom Humberto says the Mayan believe to be Jesus Christ.
We have some time to wander around on our own. I’m overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything here. When I approach the base of El Castillo, I realize how steep the steps are and why the rumor we heard about tourists accidentally falling to their deaths while attempting the climb may be true. The official reason Humberto has given us for no one being allowed to climb it is to “prevent the ruins from being ruined.”
The last area we explore is “The Building of One Thousand Columns.” There must be at least one hundred columns, if not more as its name suggests. I’m impressed by the architectural precision. Before we head back to the bus, we experience one of my favorite parts of the trip–bartering with the on-site vendors. We purchase silver items, an embroidered top, and carved figures. The shopping is fun, but chatting with these native people and getting a peek into their daily life is priceless.
On our relaxing bus ride back to port, we realize by traveling a little off the beaten path we experienced more than a place, we experienced its people. We hope to return to the Yucatan for a longer stay and learn more about the Mayan culture. Oh, and we may have to stop at Senor Frogs, too. I hear they make a heck of an ice blue margarita!
Have you ever explored a place, only to find what fascinated you most were the people? I’d love to hear about your experience.