TRAVEL THERE: IMPRESSIONS OF CHICHEN ITZA
Is Chichen Itza filled with vendors hawking junk and and tourists taking selfies. Yep, it is, but if you let that stop you from visiting then you aren’t a true traveler. UNESCO has named it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. My TV friends visit here often – Josh Gates, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, Don Wildman and more. They come looking for everything from new discoveries beneath the pyramid to evidence of ancient aliens. It is a magnet for the curious and the bored. You must visit.
If you let it, Chichen Itza can turn you off before you’ve seen a single structure. The parking lots are a maze of tour buses. Pouring off of the buses en masse are all your least favorite tourists. You enter the park through the official obligatory shopping experience and for the rest of your visit you are avoiding the offers of the unofficial vendors hawking their wares on all the pathways through the park. It’s distracting and I wish they would go away, but that’s just Mexico.
Our guide led us quickly through the crowds, passed up the pyramid and took us to a shady spot just outside the infamous ball fields. There he began an education related to the rigorous castes of Mayan society. If you were born a noble, you remained a noble, living off the burdensome taxes charged to the rest of society. If you weren’t a noble, you weren’t going to become one, but you might become a human sacrifice or a slave. This is an aspect of Mayan society I had learned of previously, but this reminder colored the rest of my thoughts as I experienced what the Mayans had built.
The Marvelous and Malevolent
You learn quickly that the Mayans built all their wonderful cities without the wheel. What our guide, a Mayan himself, pointed out, was that Mayans knew all about the wheel. The evidence is everywhere from their calendar to the ball hoops, but the wheel was sacred, because it represented life. The wheel was there and could have made life easier, but from reverence they labored without it and their labors are magnificent.
In the famous ball court we learned the traditional game had to be modified to be played in such a huge stadium. They had pads and clubs not usually part of the game, but needed to reach the goals and cover the distances. The entertainment was for nobles only. Unlike the Colosseum in Rome, where everyone was welcome, in Mayan society only the priests and the royals observed the national past time, which would end in human sacrifice.
For the common man, just outside the ball courts were a series of open air altars. During some ceremonies, thousands upon thousands would be sacrificed to the odd stone man, laying on his back, holding a bowl for the still warm hearts of the sacrificial victims.
From these auxiliary altars, between the ball field and the main plaza, our guide took us to stand before the main pyramid, but my mind was still back on the thousands and thousands of victims who would have their hearts ripped out, not over a century or a decade, not even over a year or a month, but in a matter of days.
I’d always known the Mayans were pretty brutal. I’ve read about them, seen TV shows about them and even visited some of their other archaeological sites, but this was different. Somehow, standing there in the shade of a tree, watching an iguana traipse around where once life upon life was snuffed out, it all became very real. This excursion was not going to be a casual adventure to tick another item off my wish list. It was going to impact my world view.
It was then the amusement park atmosphere of the main plaza began to grate on my nerves. Scantily clad young women with piercings and tattoos performed acrobatic moves, like cartwheels and splits. Young men performed their own antics to get the attention of the girls. People took selfies of themselves, kissing before the altar, where bodies once stacked up during sacrificial ceremonies. Guides were making jokes. The activity was incongruous to the site.
A part of me listened attentively to what the guide was saying, but in my mind I was an ancient Mayan. What would I have felt about the horrors I watched. Would I have been sickened or entertained? Did the Mayans behave as the tourists were behaving. Then unwillingly I thought of our modern day killing sprees and realized we weren’t all that different than the Mayans. My thoughts grew darker and darker.
I’ve used up all my words for today and I wish I could tell you next week would be more fun, but just as I share the good meals as well as the bad meals, I will tell you what it was like for me at Chichen Itza. Please come back then to visit the rest of the site with me.