My much-awaited dream of one day standing next to the majestic Chichén Itzá pyramid in Yucatán Mexico finally came true this summer. After some thorough planning, and a bit of internal debate about which archeological pyramids were going to be the ones chosen, Chichén Itzá was the winner!
However, a trip to the ancient city of Chichén Itzá was not the highlight of my trip. What really made an impression was learning about the Mayan culture. Let me share with you the spirit of this magnificent culture and their people. I hope after reading about this journey you add the south of Mexico to your bucket list.
If you want to learn about the great Mayan civilization and culture, Mexico is not the only country where you can begin your journey. At its height, the Mayan Empire extended to what today we know as Belize, Guatemala, northwest Honduras and portions of El Salvador. I chose Mexico because I am always looking for an excuse to go back to my country.
My trip was to Playa del Carmen, which is a fairly new sun and beach destination located south of Cancún (about an hour drive). The trip to Chichén Itzá it’s about a two hour drive from Playa del Carmen. Most tour companies, which offer Chichén Itzá tours, include a visit to the ancient pyramids, a quick tour to a colonial city (Valladolid), a visit to a cenote (a natural pit where you can swim and dive) and lunch at a restaurant where you will eat ethnic food made by Mayas.
Just a word of advice, if you ever plan to visit this amazing Maya city please consider purchasing your tour from a Mexican company who will provide you with a Maya tour guide. Currently there are MANY, MANY tour companies throughout Cancún which offer tours to many Maya cities including Chichén Itzá and Tulum. Although most do have very professional tour guides who happen to have college degrees they don’t know the Maya culture as well as someone who was born into it. Touring the ancient Maya cities with a Maya tour guide will give you a unique experience and a fresh perspective. Additionally, doing so will ensure your money directly supports the Mayas that still live in those communities.
My tour guide, Beto, was a very professional, outspoken, and articulated man who in addition to fluently speaking his native language, Maya, was also fluent in Spanish, English, some German, and Italian as well. Add to that, he is a highly respected and active member of his Maya community as a fifth generation shaman (the equivalent of a Medicine Man), in line after his father. He is also next in line to be an elder of his community. Additionally, he is fluent in three or four other Maya languages, which he learned in order to communicate with members of other Maya communities (tribes).
In the past, I always used tour companies whenever I travel to places whose language I don’t speak. I chose to use a tour guide to visit the Maya territory in Mexico because even though I am Mexican, born and raised, there are some places in Mexico which are protected by the government and do not allow entry to Mexicans for protection of indigenous communities. In this case, Chichén Itzá is located in an indigenous territory in the state of Yucatán and you need special permission to enter the indigenous territory where Chichén Itzá is located. This is where my Maya tour guide was able to help me.
Mind you, due to my love of books and history and books about history, before embarking on any trip I make sure I read up on any and all topics about my future destination. However, after listening to Beto share his Maya history, I realized no book can take the place of having a one on one conversation about Maya culture with a Maya. My books, written by British and American anthropologists, architects, epigraphists, and even the History Channel, fall short on their coverage of the Ancient Mayas! As good as they may be, all of these fail to capture the real soul of Maya culture.
I kept telling the tour guide, “but I read this book that says that human sacrifices meant such and such to the Mayas.” Beto’s response was very simple and straightforward, “Do you want to hear what a Maya has to say about his culture or what these scholars have to say about my culture” After that I had no more to say, I just listened.
Chichén Itzá was one of the many main trade centers of the ancient Maya; other ancient Maya cities are Tikal (Guatemala), Copan (Honduras), Palenque, Uxmal, Coba, and Tulum. Chichén Itzá was once the most powerful city in the ancient Maya world. It is here where you will find the famous Kukulkán pyramid, aka El Castillo. This is the iconic picture of the Maya pyramid most often seen when the Maya are mentioned.
Amongst all the wonderful things I can say here about the Kukulkán pyramid one of the big highlights for me was “the clapping.” Our guide explained to us, and demonstrated, that if you stand on the north side of the four-sided pyramid and clap your hands you will hear a very unique echo. This echo sounds like the chirping of a quetzal, which is a sacred bird to the Maya and integral to their religious beliefs.
The other interesting design about this pyramid is the representation of the god Kukulkán, or Quetzalcoatl (a plumed serpent), depicted on the side of the main staircase. The buildings were designed in such a way that during the spring and fall equinoxes a play of light and shadow creates an image of the plumed serpent as it descends from heaven to earth down the north staircase.
The following is a picture of what the plumed serpent looks like as the fall equinox falls over the Kukulkán pyramid.
My dream of visiting the great ancient city of the Mayas; Chichén Itzá came true. In the process of going through this experience I learned that you can even be a foreigner in your own country when you don’t even know what lies deep within your own culture.
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