Every time I travel, I always get a tip to visit the country’s beautiful beaches, little do they know that we, New Yorkers, are blessed with multiple daily 3-hour non-stop flights to Cancun. Once you’ve experienced the beauty of the Riviera Maya, dove the underground rivers (cenotes) of the Yucatán, visited and learnt about the grandeur of the Maya archeological sites (Chichen Itza, Tulum, Uxmal, Calakmul, Xpujil), danced at one of the BMP Festival events in Playa del Carmen, you realize that you found your perfect “beach” destination. So, skip Goa or Brighton, come to the Mexican peninsula!
First time I came to the Yucatán was in September 2008 to do an underwater photoshoot and this place instantly became one of my favorites, not only for the reasons mentioned above, but also because of food, laissez-faire attitude and an abundance of things to do/see/experience. Since then, I have visited the Riviera Maya half a dozen times, witnessing its demise in late 2008 (when recession in the US halted new developments and wiped out tourists), its resurrection in 2011-2012 and its boom in 2015. During all my visits, I stayed in Playa del Carmen (except for one 4 days/3 nights all-inclusive resort wedding stay in Cancun), so I’ve got the last glimpse of it as a tiny fishing village before it grew into a massive shopping mall. Nevertheless, a small hotel I always stay at, Aventura Mexicana, was still there and thriving, the scuba center I dove with for 8 years, Phocea Mexico, as well as its owners Didier and Martine, were expanding and doing better than ever, my favorite jewelry and leather shops were still there too, so I accepted the changes as a part of the natural course of the world’s development.
Books I’ve read:
- Frommer’s Cancun, Cozumel and the Yucatan 2009
- Insight Guides “Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan”
- Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas
- History of the Conquest of Mexico by William H. Prescott
- A short account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de las Casas
- Yucatan before and after the Conquest by Diego de Landa, William Gates
- A Forest of Kings: The untold story of the Ancient Maya by Linda Schele and David Freidel
I usually start my blogs with the historical background of the country, but I won’t talk about the history of Mexico, as presently the Yucatán comprises of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. In addition, it was not until 1848 that 3 Mexican districts (Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo) fully became part of the United Mexican States (or Mexico). However, I will try to cover the history of the peninsula in as many interesting details as possible.
History. There are many theories or rather anecdotes of the etymology of “Yucatán”, the most popular one is when Hernandez de Cordova arrived to the coast of the Yucatán, he asked the inhabitants the name of this land and they answered him in native language:”Tetec dtan. Ma t natic a dtan”, which meant:”You speak very rapidly. We don’t understand your language”. What else could they say?! The Spaniards understood that the locals were telling them the name of their land, however, unable to repeat the words verbatim, they corrupted the sentence into “Yucatán”. Another version explains that when conquerors landed in Yucatán, they met native men holding female necklaces in their hands. Asked the name of the land, locals assumed the visitors were curious about the jewelry, so they replied:” U yu c-atan” which meant “these are the necklaces of our wives”. Those are just two of many theories, and even though it is hard to establish what story is true, all of them are hilarious!
According to the History channel, one of the most advanced indigenous cultures of the ancient Americas, the Mayans began as hunter gatherers and migrated into the Yucatán around 2500 B.C. During the pre-classic period (500 B.C.- A.D. 250) they appeared in Quintana Roo, which became the gateway to the Mayan world, where they established ceremonial centers at Coba, Dzibanche and Kohunlich. Between A.D. 300 – A.D. 900, the Mayans built several cities in the region, which gradually expanded and flourished, forming a loosely-connected network of city states, centered around groups of temple-pyramids, decorated with fine murals and carved stelae. The ruins at Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Palenque, Copan, Tikal, Calakmul and El Mirador are some of the most impressive archeological remains in the Americas, built by, whom most experts consider to be, the most advanced people the continent has known. The Maya studied the stars, and developed several interconnecting calendrical systems that rival today’s technology for their precision and complexity. They developed a hieroglyphic form of writing, producing paper codices, which related every last detail of their sacred rituals in meticulous mathematical order. They were highly skilled artists and craftsmen, producing a treasure-trove in ceramics, precious stone and materials, and breathtakingly beautiful weavings. Above all, though, the Maya were the worshippers of Time. Every day and every daily routine, from the birth of a child to the planting of a crop, had its sacred procedure laid down in the Chilam Balam, the Maya Bible. In fact, even royal marriages and wars would be planned around the calendar, each according to the propitious date and time.
In 987, the Toltec people, believing they were following their feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl, arrived in the region. They were originally one of the barbarous hordes of Indians that periodically migrated from the north. At some stage of their development, the Toltec were influenced by remnants of Teotihuacan culture and adopted their god Quetzalcóatl as their own. They also revered a deity known as Tezcatlipoca, or “smoking mirror”, who later became a god of the Aztecs. The Toltec maintained a large military class divided into orders symbolized by animals. At its height, Tula (Toltec capital) may have had 40,000 people, and it spread its influence across Mesoamerica. According to Toltec mythology, Quetzalcóatl demanded human hearts as sacrifice, and the people obeyed by conducting mass human sacrifices. Although the Toltecs mixed with the Mayans and other groups, their culture dominated and influenced the area, which is evident in the architectural style of Chichén-Itzá where the most important temple, the so-called El Castillo (Kukulcan), was built in honor of Quetzalcóatl and clearly in the style of the Toltec Maya.
During the 12th century, the Mayan city-state of Mayapán waged war against and defeated the citizens of Chichén Itzá. Mayapán expanded its influence over the region, and the Mayan Cocom dynasty ruled until the mid-13th century. Mayapan had little of the splendor of Chichen, and its rule was limited to the northwestern corner of the peninsula. The political organization at the time seems to have been less hierarchical, resembling a federation with many different centers. When the post-classic Mayan period ended around 1250, most cities were abandoned and those that remained continued to engage in inter-city military conflicts. In 1441, Mayapan, the last of the major Maya centers, itself was apparently overrun by its enemies. The disappearance of all great Mayan civilizations remains a mystery; however, Maya people didn’t vanish, as of today, more than 1.2 million of Yucatec people identify themselves as Maya.
On his expedition to Florida in 1513, Juan Ponce de León sailed near Yucatán but never landed there. In 1517, while on a trip to procure slaves, a Spanish conquistador named Francisco Hernández de Córdova arrived on the Peninsula (he is the one who gave it its name) and two years later, in February 1519, Hernán Cortés briefly stopped at Cozumel to rescue Jerónimo de Aguilar, a shipwrecked Franciscan priest. Cortes inquired about the gold and riches of the interior, and the coastal Maya were happy to describe the wealth and splendor of the Aztec empire in central Mexico. Cortes promptly disobeyed all orders from his superior, the governor of Cuba, and sailed to Veracruz in search of his El Dorado. Needless to say that the silver and gold that Cortes looted from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan made Spain the richest country in Europe.
In 1527, Francisco de Montejo, one of Cortes’ lieutenants, set out to conquer Yucatán but was routed by the natives. Three years later, he returned with his son Francisco de Montejo y León but again failed to overpower the indigenous population. Finally, a third attempt in 1537 was successful, and de Montejo founded the cities of Campeche in 1540 and Mérida, the present capital, in 1542. From their base in newly-established towns, the Spaniards spread their control in several ways. They defeated and killed the leaders of the Maya; they took their lands, and forced the Maya to work for them; they imposed their own system of local government and set up their own authorities. They forbade the native religions and in an effort to convert the indigenous people to the Catholic faith, Franciscan priests built more than 30 convents in Yucatán and tried to replace Mayan culture with Christianity. In 1562, Franciscan monk Fray Diego De Landa ordered that all handmade Mayan books and statues be destroyed. Few of these rare and important cultural artifacts survived. As a result, Spanish oppression and diseases (measles and smallpox to which Maya had no resistance) dramatically reduced the native population from an estimated 5 million in 1500 to 3.5 million a century later. Nevertheless, the Maya of Yucatán never accepted Spanish rule entirely, and rose against it on many occasion (a story of Jacinto Canek, a convent-educated Mayan, is one of the examples). For more than two centuries after the Spanish conquest, the efforts to preserve Maya traditions and the relative isolation of much of the Maya world from the centers of Spanish interest helped to protect the native population from the worst ravages found elsewhere in the empire. But the Maya’s position worsened during the second half of the 19th century, when the Bourbon monarchy in Spain attempted to regain effective control of its rebellious colonies. The provinces were subdivided and re-organized, the indigenous officials were removed all together and replaced with criollos (Spaniards born in Mexico), Maya communal land was seized and native people were employed as laborers often in conditions of near slavery.
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in February 1821, Yucatán became part of the Independent Mexican Empire but remained a remote province until 1824 when it was divided into three states: Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán. However, from 1835-1847 the Yucatán was and at the same time wasn’t the part of Mexico, as the peninsular’s oligarchy couldn’t decide whether they want to be independent (declaration of January 1, 1846) or be part of the Mexican States.
During the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848), Yucatán, which, at that time, considered itself an independent nation, declared its neutrality. However, in 1847, the Caste War (Guerra de Castas) broke out on the peninsula. It was a major revolt by the Mayan people against the Hispanic population in political and economic control. By 1848, the revolt had driven all Hispanic Yucatecans out of the peninsula except for those in the walled cities of Mérida and Campeche. Hoping to suppress the revolt, Governor Méndez sent letters to Britain, Spain and the United States, offering sovereignty over Yucatán to whichever nation could help stop the Mayans. The proposal received serious attention in Washington, D.C., where the matter was debated in Congress. However, the only action taken by the United States was to warn European powers not to interfere in the peninsula. At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, Mexican president agreed to help suppress the revolt, and Yucatán again recognized the Mexican government’s authority, reuniting with Mexico on August 17, 1848. Fighting continued between the forces of the Yucatecan government and the independent Mayans through 1901 when the Mexican army occupied the Maya capital of Chán Santa Cruz. Some Mayan communities in Quintana Roo refused to acknowledge Ladino (Jews of Spanish origin) or Mexican sovereignty into the next decade.
Until the mid-1900s, Yucatán’s only contact with the outside world was by sea. As a result, its trade with the United States, Europe and Caribbean islands was far more lucrative and its culture remained unique from that of all other Mexican states. In the 1980s, international airports were built in Cozumel and Cancún, bringing significant tourist income to the region. Uniquely, the Yucatán peninsula, which supports one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, also accommodates the state’s largest tourist volume.
Since I’ve been to the Yucatán many times, instead of my usual chronological style, I use the topical one, covering Cancun (briefly), Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Valladolid, Chichen Itza and some diving sites.
Cancun. Well, I have to admit that technically, I’ve never been to Cancun. My husband and I spent a weekend (4 days/3 nights) at Moon Palace Golf and Spa Resort located (not really) in Cancun, and since we haven’t even left the resort, we didn’t see anything.
The resort itself is an all-inclusive 5 star in-room jacuzzi accommodation with a 5-km long coastline, 7 pools and multiple all-you-can-eat restaurants. It was a perfect place to host a wedding (which was a reason of our visit) and to drink/eat yourself to death (which some of the wedding guests did). Neither my husband nor I are into mass-travels, so we didn’t appreciated the resort as much as other people would but we definitely liked the “no wallet” concept. It was also a great way to spend time with the friends who also stayed at the property.
In the early 1840s, US writer and explorer John Lloyd Stephens noted:”In the afternoon we steered for the mainland, passing the island of Kancune, a barren strip of land with sand hills and stone buildings visible upon it.” The buildings were some Maya sites which, against all odds, have survived: the major one, El Rey, now stands on the golf course of the Hilton Cancun Beach and Golf Resort. Believed to date from the 13th century, El Rey owes its Spanish name to the belief that it was a burial place for the nobility. Today, as I can imagined, it is more frequented by the foreign golf players than Mayans. The development of the area started in 1974 when a group of Mexican government analysts targeted Cancun (which means “golden” or “enchanted snake” in Mayan) as a tourist destination, transforming it from a deserted beach to a continuous 5 star resort in less than 30 years. Their bet paid off due to the ideal mix of elements – turquoise sea, powdery sandy beaches, close proximity to the US and immense potential for growth. All I know about Cancun is that the city is more American than Mexican in spirit, it hosts yearly spring-break parties for the American college students and just this fact is enough to make me run in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, it is home to one of the most beautiful Caribbean destination and a main gateway to the rest of the Yucatán.
Playa del Carmen. Once landed at Cancun International Airport (CUN), there are several ways to get to Playa (55 km south). Take a taxi ($60-80) or an ADO bus ($13 per person). Unless you have a ton of diving equipment, it is totally worth taking a bus as it is cheap, clean, fast and it runs every 30 minutes straight to the Playa’s central bus terminal. The airport’s bus depot is located near Terminal 3, so once you exit the international arrival terminal 2, turn right and walk for 2-3 minutes.
Playa del Carmen lies in the heart of the Riviera Maya. Prior to Spanish conquest, Playa was a Mayan city named Xaman Ha, which translates as “waters of the north”. During the pre-Columbian times, Xaman Ha was a stop-over point for Mayan pilgrims traveling from all over the Maya world to the sanctuary of Ixchel, on the island of Cozumel. The Spaniards named the city “Playa del Carmen” in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patron saint of Cancun. According to some historical accounts, during a hurricane many years ago, a gigantic wave flooded a small church by the beach and washed away a picture of the Virgin of Carmen. Many years later, another wave “returned” the same picture to its original church. This church still stands on the beach of Playa del Carmen and is open for visits.
In the 1990s, Playa del Carmen was the fastest growing city in Mexico. It became popular with the international community and La Quinta Avenida (the 5th Avenue), Playa’s main street, quickly filled up with shops and restaurants for every taste and wallet. While no longer a fishing village, it still provides that rare combination of simplicity and variety. When I first arrived to Playa in 2008, many of its buildings had native elements – rustic clapboard walls, stucco, thatched roofs, rough-hewn wood and a ramshackle, unplanned look to many structures. Half of the town was literally boarded behind the scarily quiet construction walls; as the economy in the US just plunged into recession it killed the demand for secondary vacation apartments and more hotel rooms. With time, it all will change, new glitzy hotels, discos and restaurants would open, the streets would bustle again and the town would expand way beyond its former borders. Pedestrian La Quinta Avenida is the first avenue off the beach, followed respectively by 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th avenues; the cross streets are even and numbered as Calle 2, 4, 6, 8 etc. Looking at the map of Playa in the 2009 travel guide, I realized that it doesn’t show any calle (street) beyond 14, as if the area above didn’t exist. I always stay at Aventura Mexicana hotel, which is at La Quinta Avenida and Calle 24. In 2008, it was way outside the city “walls” (10 minutes walk to the center aka Calle 8). By 2015, Calle 24 became a new city center, as 5th avenue expanded north as far as the eye can see or the legs can walk (as of May 2015 – till Calle 40).
Before the city’s fast development disadvantages eventually become evident, its advantages were looking me straight in the face – the hotel started offering daily “donation based” yoga classes and competitively priced ($30-40) yet excellent massages, serving the best ceviche in town and … they also adopted a cat. Martine and Didier, the owners of the best dive shop in Playa – Phocea Mexico (and I’ve been loyal to them), despite working with hundreds of people each day, always recognize and welcome me as a part of the family (I also suspect they undercharge me). Those little things, including an Aventura Mexicana’s reception manager who, during our last visit, remembered me and upgraded our room immediately, make me feel as if i’ve come home when I come to Playa.
The best way to explore the city is by strolling along Quinta Avenida from south to north (or in the opposite direction). The avenue is lined with hundreds of bars, restaurants, boutique hotels, massage parlors, silver and souvenir shops, dressed and undressed people, animals and birds, etc.
My all-time favorite jewelry store is the Rodriguez Naranjo, located on the 5th avenue, between Calle 8 and 10. I doubt I ever visited Playa without buying anything from Fernando Rodriguez’ collection. The cowboy boots lovers can be easily pleased too, as the main street has at least a few shops specializing in exotic leather boots and bags made of crocodile, ostrich, snake, etc., and most of them are under $500! Of course, majority of the stores are typical to those of any American city with a boardwalk – Quicksilver, H&M, Nike, Sunglass Island and others – but look in between, and you will definitely find a few local gems!
If you feel spiritual, you can visit the simple but gorgeous Catholic Church of Nuestra Senora del Carmen, located on 5th avenue (between calle 1 and 2). Right behind it, there is a small Parque Fundadores and if you are lucky, you can witness the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers), performed by 5 dancers. Named an Intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, Danza de los Voladores is an ancient ceremony/ritual created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. It has originated with the Nahua, Huastec and Otomi people in central Mexico, and then spread throughout most of Mesoamerica. The ritual consists of dance and the climbing of a 30-meter pole from which four of the five participants then launch themselves tied with ropes to the ground. The fifth remains on top of the pole, dancing and playing a flute and drum. It is not longer a ritual dance but it is beautiful, unsafe and definitely tip-worthy.
As for dining and night entertainment, Playa doesn’t disappoint either. Remember, official statistics identified French, Italians and Brazilians as the largest demographic groups living in or visiting Playa. You can easily find a restaurant for your taste (within reasonable boundaries), budget and level of adventure (mariachi band, beach fire-dancers, shisha (hooka) lounges, all-you-can-drink bars etc).
My all-time favorite seafood restaurant in Playa is Tarraya (Calle 2, between the 5th avenue and the beach). Each time it is different, sometimes it is quiet and relaxing, but sometimes, when locals throw a party there, they make all diners dance with them on the beach. It is hit or hit! But the best ceviche is still served at Mayan Bistro at Aventura Mexicana hotel, which is another reason to stay there.
Diving. There are many things to do in Playa, such as sunbathing, visiting spas, doing water-sports, shopping, partying, but it is (forget about Cozumel for a moment) the second dive capital of the world after Cairns in Australia. The Yucatán’s coastal reef, part of the planet’s second largest reef system, is the major attraction and a destination in its own right. Everywhere you go in Playa, you will run into divers either boarding a boat or getting off the dive boat. And personally, diving was the thing that brought me to Playa in the first place, except that my photographer and I were diving the mystical and dangerous subterranean rivers, called cenotes.
I never skip a dive when I am in Playa, even if i have only one spare day. This is just how great this place is! In May 2015, I was two months into cancer remission, slowly recovering from a 6-month long intensive chemotherapy treatment, but I came to Phocea Mexico where Didier and Martine (with an approval from my oncologist in NYC) were happy to assist me with my first post-cancer dive. First of all, they scheduled a one-on-one reef dive with a dive-master, to make sure I was “ok” underwater, before sending me off to cenotes. The open water dive was very nice and we got to see green Moray eels and Southern stingray baby, as well as plenty of fish (including one with suicidal tendencies).
Technically, cenote is a natural sinkhole, resulted from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater (subterranean rivers) underneath. It is especially associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, where the ancient Maya used cenotes for sacrificial offerings. Cenote can be as wide as tens of meters in diameter or as small as a city’s manhole. The Yucatán, home to hundreds if not thousands of sinkholes, is the best place in the world to swim or dive in the cenotes. Usually, privately owned, they have more or less developed infrastructure (maps, toilets, showers, man-made descend/ascend platforms, tank tables, cafes), but my dive guide and I visited some cenotes that didn’t have anything at all but a hole in the ground and a sleepy Mexican man who came to open the gates. It is nice to be able to have a shower, but I prefer the rustic, natural way, surrounded by wild animals.
Diving in cenotes requires some preparation and additional knowledge. First of all, before going into cenote, the dive center would advise you to have an open water dive, in order to check your buoyancy. It is very critical to be perfectly buoyant in the cenote (after all, you are diving in long narrow channels), otherwise, much harm can be made to the environment. It is technically a cavern dive (not cave, as many assume), so special certification is recommended, but not required. All cenotes used by dive centers have clearly marked rope-paths, meaning that you will dive just above the rope, following your instructor. It is forbidden to venture on your own to any unmarked cave or tunnel, no matter how alluring they could be. You are diving in cold (+18-24C) fresh water (alter your weight belt), never descending to more than 10 meters (think of constant equalization), hopefully wearing a 7mm wetsuit (or better 7mm and 5mm on top) and a hoodie. Due to shallowness, the dive can last from 30-60 minutes so prepare to freeze, but….. you can never prepare yourself to the beauty of cenote. No pictures or words can describe the surreal world of the underground rivers, it is something out of this universe! No, you won’t see any marine life (maybe very small fish), or crocodiles (though, there was one at the Angelita Cenote) or reefs, but, while trying to avoid the stalagmites and stalactites, you find fossils, halo-clines, the most amazing display of lights and something new around every corner. One thing is guaranteed and that is your return!
As I mentioned, there are over a few dozen cenotes that are equipped for diving and some are even for snorkeling and swimming. Angelita cenote was my first and remained my favorite throughout the years. It is an unusual cenote for many reasons. First of all, it is a true 57m deep sinkhole unconnected to any other bodies of water. Secondly, it is both – fresh (upper 27m) and salt water (lower 26m) – separated by a 4m-wide mystical layer of hydrogen sulfate. At first, it is a very straightforward descend until you realize that you are floating above the fuzzy cloud with ghostly tree brunches and mud-hills rising from that cloud. If you are good, the dive-instructor would let you descend into the hydrogen sulfate (feels like being inside the washing machine) and then into the salt water which is pitch black! The experience is beyond any imagination, you have to feel it to believe it!
Chichen Itza. If diving isn’t consuming all your time and money, make a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site, the second-most visited archaeological site in Mexico (after Teotihuacan near Mexico City) and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza. From the Riviera Maya, the trip will take a whole day and you can either go with a travel company or on your own (assuming you have a car). I optioned to do an organized tour with an agency (booked by my hotel in Playa) and even though it was not as thorough as I’d liked it to be, I still loved every moment of it.
Founded around the 5th century, Chichen Itza became the next great center after the Uxmal and Sayil Maya settlements have exceeded the capacity of the land to support them, making people to leave in favor of smaller places in the end of the 9th century. As the name indicated, Chichen Itsa was the main center of the Itzaes, who worshiped the god Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl. Itzaes arrived from central Mexico by way of the Gulf Coast and they might have been a mix of highland Toltec Indians (who built the city of Tula in central Mexico) and lowland Putun Maya, who were a commercial people thriving on trade between the different regions of the area. Legend says that in pre-Columbian central Mexico a fight broke out between the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, which resulted in the expulsion of Quetzalcoatl from his homeland and his venture east. This legend might be an “authentic” way to record a civil war among different religious fractions that happened in Tula, forcing some of its citizens to flee to Yucatan. Chichen Itza already flourished when it was conquered by the Toltec leader Topilzin. He took the name of the deity Quetzalcoatl – god of the arts and the wind – and added it to his own. Most archeologists agree that the Itzaes were more warlike than the Maya at Uxmal. They used the central position of their city in the north of the Yucatán Peninsula to control the areas from the north coast to the Puuc hills in the south and to dominate trade of important commodities such as salt, honey, cotton, jade and obsidian. In the following centuries the city saw its greatest growth, most of the grand architecture was built in a style that is clearly Toltec influenced. Itzaes are thought to have been responsible for the introduction of the cult of human sacrifice, and the “platforms of skulls” or tzompantli, as well as the importance of Venus for astronomical calculations. According to Maya chronicles (e.g., the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel), Hunac Ceel, ruler of Mayapan, conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century and even though the city was already in decline, it was not abandoned. So great was the importance of Itzae’s capital from the 10th century onwards that when the Spaniards conquered the region six centuries later, they thought of founding their own regional capital there, as Hernan Cortes had done in Mexico City. The name Chichen Itza in fact means “beside the pool of the Itzae” and the sacred cenote around which it was built was a place of pilgrimage and sacrifice for several hundred years. In the 16th century, Bishop Landa related how the local Maya of his time still spoke of this pool:”It was the custom to throw live persons into this pool at times of drought; these people were thought not to die, although they were never seen again. They also threw in many valuable objects and things they valued highly.” This and other centoes provided Chichen Itza with enough water to support almost 15,000 people living in the area of 30 sq. km.
The site was first brought to the attention of the outside world by the US explorer Benjamin Norman in 1839 and John Lloyd Stephens in 1840. Their accounts and detailed sketches prompted further exploration. In 1894 the United States Consul to Yucatán, who also happened to be a Harvard professor, Edward Herbert Thompson purchased the Hacienda Chichén, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city. He described Chichen Itza as having “scattered carved and square stones in countless thousands and fallen columns by the hundreds…. Facades, though gray and haggard with age and seamed by time, sustain the claim that Chichen Itza is one of the world’s greatest monuments of antiquity.” Thompson is most famous for dredging the Cenote Sagrado -“Sacred Cenote” (60m in diameter and 35m deep) from 1904 to 1910, which yield a vast collection of offerings: incense statues, jade, amber, gold, engraved metal discs and sacrificed human skeletons of adults (both male and female) and children. It also contained the first-ever examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Maya cloth and wooden weapons. Most of the artifacts are now located at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
Archeological site of Chichen Itza represents one of the largest Maya cities, with the relatively densely clustered architecture of the site core covering an area of at least 5 sq. km. Smaller scale residential architecture extends for an unknown distance beyond this. The buildings of Chichen Itza are grouped in a series of architectonic sets:
- the Great North Platform, which includes the monuments of Kukulcan (El Castillo), Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court;
- The Osario Group, which includes the pyramid of the same name as well as the Temple of Xtoloc;
- the Central Group, which includes the Caracol, Las Monjas, and Akab Dzib.
- Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén) – only open to archaeologists, and
- several other complexes, such as the Group of the Initial Series, Group of the Lintels, and Group of the Old Castle.
* map is taken from Internet search
As you enter from the Tourist Center, the magnificent 25m tall Kukulcan pyramid (also known as El Castillo) will be straight ahead across a large open area. It is, perhaps, the best known Maya structure in the world. Pyramid of Kukulcan, built sometimes between the 9th and 12th centuries, represents the Maya calendar, with four 91 step staircases plus a single step at the main entrance adding up to 365. Eighteen terraces divide nine levels which represent the eighteen 20-day months. The nine terraces symbolize the nine underground worlds. Each side has 52 panels representing the 52-year cosmic cycle, the point at which their two calendars, the religious and the secular, coincided. The carved snakes’ heads and tails are joined at sunset during the spring equinox (March 21) by undulating shadows, interpreted as a time to sow the crops just as the snake’s apparent ascension of the pyramid at the fall equinox (September 22) signified harvest time. Kukulcan was built over an earlier structure (discovered in 1935), in inner sanctuary of which is an altar or throne in the shape of a bright red jaguar with jade spots and eyes and real jaguar teeth. There is also a reclining statue of Chac-Mool holding up a shallow sacrificial bowl, which held the hearts of many human victims. Also, according to my guide, the pyramid was built with a great precision to resonate and echo the sound. The priests, preaching from the top of the pyramid, had to be heard in every corner of the city and surely, the great builders of Kukulcan achieved this goal (which modern science can’t explain till now). A few days after my visit, Placido Domingo was visiting Chichen Itza with a mic/amplifier-free performance, he was going to sing without anything but the original ancient Maya technology. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to neither enter the inner shrine nor to climb the pyramid.
By the middle of the 20th century, decipherment of Maya scripts has revealed more about the race’s warlike tendencies, a society in which dynastic rulers waged war with their neighbors, apparently with the main purpose of capturing victims who would then be tortured and mutilated before being sacrificed. There were specialized duties for these bloody rituals: the chacs held the victim’s arms and legs while the nacoms split open the breast and the chilan interpreted the sacred books possibly under the influence of hallucinogens. It was believed that the gods could be appeased or nourished by these sanguinary gifts, supplemented by personal blood offerings obtained by jabbing manta ray spines through the ear or genitals, or by drawing a thorn-studded cord through the tongue. Paper used to soak up the blood was burned and tossed into the sky.
The enormous Juego de Pelota (Great Ball Court) is 146m long/36m wide and the biggest of 13 ball courts around the site. Carved on both walls of the court are scenes showing Maya figures dressed as ball players and decked out in heavy protective padding. Players on two teams tried to knock a hard rubber ball through one of the two stone rings placed high on either wall, using only their elbows, knees and hips. According to legend, the losing players paid for defeat with their lives, however, some experts say that the victors were the only appropriate sacrifices for the gods. They claim that the winning Capitan would present his own head to the losing Capitan, who then would decapitate him. While this may seem as a very strange reward, the Mayans believed it to be the ultimate honor as it offered a direct ticket to heaven instead of going through the 13 high steps in order to reach it. In any case, the carved scene also shows a headless player kneeling with blood shooting from his neck, while another player, holding the head, looks on. Another thing that my guide pointed at was a fact that a whisper from one end could be clearly heard at the other end and through the length and breath of the court. The sound waves were unaffected by neither wind direction nor time of day.
At one end of the Great Ball Court is the North Temple, also known as the Temple of the Bearded Man (Templo del Hombre Barbado). This small masonry building has sculptured pillars and more sculptures inside, as well as detailed bas relief carving on the inner walls, including a center figure that has carving under his chin that resembles facial hair (Mayans didn’t have facial hair). At the south end is another, much bigger temple, but in ruins.
Near the southeastern corner of the Ball Court is a small Temple of the Jaguar with serpent columns and carved panels showing warriors and jaguars. Up the steps and inside the temple, there are mural chronicles depicting a battle in a Maya village. In the lower entrance to the Temple of the Jaguar, which opens behind the ball court, is another Jaguar throne, similar to the one in the inner temple of Kukulcan, except that it is well-worn and missing paint and other decoration. The outer columns and the walls inside the temple are covered with elaborate bas-relief carvings.
To the right of the Ball Court is the Tzompantli, or Temple of the Skulls (Plataforma de los Craneos), an obvious borrowing from the post-Classic cities of central Mexico. Notice the rows of skulls carved into the stone platform. When a sacrificial victim’s head was cut off, it was impaled on a pole and displayed in a tidy row with others (unlike the tzompantli of the highlands, where, the skulls were impaled vertically). “The shocking custom”, says a sign, “was derived from the need to create lasting memorials to acts of war and sacrifices as well as to act as an effective psychological deterrent for quarrelsome neighbors and would-be rebellious subjects”. Also carved into the stone are pictures of eagles tearing hearts from human victims.
The Platform of the Eagles and the Jaguars (Plataforma de Aguilas y Jaguares) is immediately to the east of the Ball Court. It was built in a combination of Maya and Toltec styles, with a staircase ascending each of its four sides. The sides are decorated with panels depicting eagles and jaguars consuming human hearts (both jaguar and eagle are symbols of Toltec warrior whose duties were to capture sacrificial victims), as well as human head emerging from the mouth of a serpent.
East of the Tzompantli and north of Kukulcan, near the road to the Sacred Cenote, is the Platform of Venus. In Maya and Toltec lore, a feathered monster or a feathered serpent with a human head in its mouth represented Venus and its relief can be found in the corner of one of the platform’s panels. Towards the stairway, one can observe the matting, which symbolizes power, and in the corners can be seen what has been interpreted as the Knotting of the Years alongside the Venus planet. The platform was originally painted in ochre, blue, red, green, and black. An offering, consisting of a skull of a decapitated man, was found in the stairway on east. The Round Platform, one of a few round buildings in Chichen Itza, held a small stone-paved area and a container with offerings. These buildings probably served as podiums for rites, ceremonies or dances but it is also called the tomb of Chac-Mool because a Chac-Mool figure was discovered “buried” within the structure.
The Temple of the Tables is the northernmost of a series of buildings to the east of Kukulcan. Its name comes from a series of altars at the top of the structure that are supported by small carved figures of men with upraised arms, called “atlantes.” The Steam Bath is a unique building with three parts: a waiting gallery, a water bath, and a steam chamber that operated by means of heated stones. Sacbe Number One, a causeway that leads to the Cenote Sagrado, is the largest and most elaborate at Chichen Itza. This “white road” is 270m long with an average width of 9m. It begins at a low wall a few meters from the Platform of Venus. According to archaeologists there once was an extensive building with columns at the beginning of the road.
Due east of Kukulcan is one of the most impressive structures at Chichen Itza – The Temple of the Warriors, named for the carvings of warriors marching along its walls. It is also called the Group of the Thousand Columns for the rows of broken pillars that flank it. This complex is analogous to one at Tula, but was constructed on a larger scale. At the top of the stairway on the pyramid’s summit (and leading towards the entrance of the pyramid’s temple) sits Chac-Mool, surrounded by impressive columns carved in relief to look like enormous feathered serpents. This temple encases or entombs a former structure called The Temple of the Chac-Mool.
Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of what are today exposed columns, although when the city was inhabited these would have supported an extensive roof system. A northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors, contains a rectangular decorated with carvings of people or gods, as well as animals and serpents. The northeast column temple also covers a small marvel of engineering, a channel that funnels all the rainwater from the complex some 40m away to a former cenote.
To the south of the Group of a Thousand Columns is a group of three, smaller, interconnected buildings. The Temple of the Carved Columns is a small elegant building that consists of a front gallery with an inner corridor that leads to an altar with a Chac-Mool. There are also numerous columns with rich, bas-relief carvings of some 40 personages. South of the temple was a square building that archeologist call El Mercado (The Market), but its precise function is under debate. It is a very large, colonnaded building with a spacious interior court. The interior gallery space is not partitioned and open, a large patio lies in front of the only entrance, accessed by a broad stairway.
There were three hearths and grinding stones found in this market, which scholars normally interpret as evidence of domestic activities, but because the building offers no privacy, scholars believe it was likely a council house or ceremonial function. This building clearly is a Toltec construction.
The Osario Group, located south of the North Group, is a smaller platform that has many important structures, several of which appear to be oriented toward the second largest cenote at Chichen Itza, Xtoloc. The Osario itself, like Kukulcan, is a step-pyramid temple dominating its platform, only on a smaller scale. Like its larger neighbor, it has four sides with staircases on each side. There is a temple on top, but unlike Kukulcan, at the center there is an opening into the pyramid which leads to a natural cave 12m below. Edward H. Thompson excavated this cave in the late 19th century, and because he found several skeletons and artifacts such as jade beads, he named the structure The High Priests’ Temple. Archaeologists today believe the structure was neither a tomb nor that the people buried in it were priests.
A recently restored Temple of Xtoloc, located outside the Osario Platform, overlooks the other large cenote at Chichen Itza, named after the Maya word for iguana, “Xtoloc.” The temple contains a series of pilasters carved with images of people, as well as representations of plants, birds and mythological scenes. Between the Xtoloc temple and the Osario are several aligned structures: The Platform of Venus (which is similar in design to the structure of the same name next to Kukulcan), the Platform of the Tombs, and a small, round structure that is unnamed. These three structures were constructed in a row extending from the Osario. South of the Osario, at the boundary of the platform, there are two small buildings that archaeologists believe to be the residences of the important people. These have been named as the House of the Metates and the House of the Mestizas.
South of the Osario Group is another small platform, Casa Colorada Group, that has several structures that are among the oldest in the Chichen Itza archaeological site. The Casa Colorada (“Red House”) is one of the oldest best preserved buildings at Chichen Itza built in Puuc style. Its Maya name is Chichanchob, which means “small holes” and it has a roof comb with little holes. The Casa Colorada contains three masks of the Chac-Mool and three rooms. In one chamber there are extensive carved hieroglyphs that mention rulers of Chichen Itza and possibly of the nearby city of Ek Balam, and contain a Maya date which correlates to A.D. 869, one of the oldest dates found in all of Chichen Itza. A small ball court adjoins the back wall of the Casa Colorada.
While the Casa Colorada is in a good state of preservation, other buildings in the group, with one exception, are decrepit mounds. One half-standing building is named Casa del Venado (“House of the Deer”). The origin of the name is unknown, as no representations of deer or other animals were found on the building.
Las Monjas (The Nuns or The Nunnery) is one of the most notable structures at Chichen Itza representing a governmental palace. Built in a late Classic Period, the new edifice was constructed over the old one. Suspecting that this was the case, Le Plongeon, an archeologist working in the early 20th century, put dynamite between the two and blew away part of the exterior, revealing the older structure within. Just to the east is a small temple, La Iglesia (The Church”) decorated with elaborate masks of Chac-Mool. Look closely, and you will see other pagan symbols among the crowd: an armadillo, a crab, a snail and a tortoise. These represent the Maya gods, called bacan, whose job was to hold up the sky. The Las Monjas group is distinguished by its concentration of hieroglyphic texts dating to the Late to Terminal Classic. These texts frequently mention a ruler by the name of Kakupakal.
El Caracol (“The Snail” or “the Observatory”), located to the north of Las Monjas, is a round building on a large square platform. It gets its name from the stone spiral staircase inside. The structure, with its unusual placement on the platform and its round shape (the others are rectangular, in keeping with Maya practice), is theorized to have been a proto-observatory with doors and windows aligned to astronomical events, specifically around the path of Venus as it traverses the heavens. Its construction was carried out over centuries (A.D. 800-1200), reflecting the Maya’s careful observation of celestial movements and their need for increasingly exact measurements.
Akab Dzib is located to the east of El Caracol. The name means, in Yucatec Mayan, “Obscure Writing”, in the sense of “mysterious”. An earlier name of the building, according to a translation of glyphs in the Casa Colorada, is Wa(k)wak Puh Ak Na, “the flat house with the excessive number of chambers,” and it was the home of the administrator of Chichén Itzá, Kokom Yahawal Cho’ K’ak’. The building is 6m high, 50m long and 15m wide. The long, western-facing façade has seven doorways. The eastern façade has only four doorways, broken by a large staircase that leads to the roof. This apparently was the front of the structure, and looks out over what is today a steep, dry, cenote. The southern end of the building has one entrance. The door opens into a small chamber and on the opposite wall is another doorway, above which on the lintel are intricately carved glyphs—the “mysterious” (or “obscure”) writing that gives the building its name today. Under the lintel in the doorjamb is another carved panel of a seated figure surrounded by more glyphs. Inside one of the chambers, near the ceiling, is a painted hand print.
Chichén Viejo (Old Chichen) is the name given to a group of structures to the south of the central site, where most of the Puuc-style architecture of the city is concentrated. It includes the Initial Series Group, the Phallic Temple, the Platform of the Great Turtle, the Temple of the Owls, and the Temple of the Monkeys.
As you can see, one day might not be enough to explore everything in details. I guess I have to plan another visit soon, and perhaps even stay overnight at one of the hotels to witness a famous Light Show at Chichen Itza. On a way back to Playa del Carmen, we stopped by another breathtaking place – Samula cenote – a sinkhole located inside a massive cave. Unimaginable! Too bad we were rushed in and out in 20 minutes!
On the way to Playa del Carmen, we made another stop and this time in a small colonial town of Valladolid. Named after a town in Spain, Valladolid was established by Spaniards on May 27, 1543 at some distance from its current location, at a lagoon called Chouac-Ha, however mosquitos and humidity drove settlers further inland. On March 24, 1545, Valladolid was relocated to its current location, where it was built atop a Maya ceremonial center called Zaci or Zaci-Val (“white hawk”). Maya buildings were dismantled and stone was re-used to build the town, causing revolt among local Mayans. Important to mention that there is a cenote in town, just steps away from the city center (intersection of calle 39 and 36), called Cenote Zaci, which can be visited and explored.
This attractive city was the scene of the historic massacre of its white citizens during the Caste War – an uprising by the Maya inhabitants who had been discriminated for centuries. It started in January 1847 when the native Mayans rioted, killing 80 whites and sacking their houses. After a Mayan noble was executed by firing squad, the riot grew into general uprising. The city and the surrounding region were the scene of intense battles and the Spaniards (precisely, Creoles) were forced to abandon Valladolid on March 14, 1848 for Merida (only half of them would reach the city alive). After months of violence and most of the region falling into the hands of rebels (except for fortified cities of Merida and Campeche), the war abruptly ended at planting time when the Maya – reminded of their rural obligations by the annual sighting of the winged ant – returned to their fields to plant the year’s corn. The federal government sent troops to help Creoles regain control and after re-taking Valladolid, the whites, over the next few years, partially wiped out the local Maya population.
The city’s colonial atmosphere is evident by its many well-preserved churches and mansions. Valladolid has a chessboard-like street grid with a main park-plaza located in the middle. Plaza is the town’s social center, a thriving market for Yucatecan souvenirs and dresses and a great place to explore. On the south side of the square is the principal church, La Parroquia de San Servacio, which was originally built in 1545, but rebuilt in 1706. On the east side of the plaza is the municipal building, El Ayuntamiento. Get a look at the dramatic paintings outlining the peninsula’s history (one of them depicts a horrified Maya priest foreseeing the arrival of Spanish galleons).
The church San Bernardino de Siena, next to the fortified Convento de Sisal (calle 41), is one of the oldest churches in the Yucatán (1552) and has some interesting murals. Most of the compound was built in the early 1600s; a large underground river is believed to pass under the convent and surrounding neighborhood, which is called Barrio Sisal (“sisal” in this case, is a corruption of the Mayan phrase “sis-ha”, meaning “cold water”). There are more than 20 sites to see in town, but don’t forget to visit the San Roque City Museum, the Mercado de Artesanias (calle 39, cross calle 42/44) and admire the houses along Calzada de los Frailes (Street of the Friars).
Tulum. When I talk about Tulum, I don’t mean the popular exclusive rustic resorts that popped up in the area in the last 10 years, but a cliff-perched glorious Maya city and one of the most beautiful places in all of the Yucatán. Situated 53 km south of Playa del Carmen, it can easily be reached by car or local bus (collectivo). I took a bus, so I could spend the entire day there without feeling rushed. It dropped me off on the main road which was 7-10 mins walk to the main entrance to the Archeological Park. At the gates, I hired a guide ($20 for 45 mins) and we started an educated exploration. Note: camera permits must be purchased in addition to the tickets; pictures are allowed anywhere, but none of the site’s buildings are accessible to visitors.
By A.D. 900, the end of the Classic period, Maya civilization had began to decline, and the large cities to the south were abandoned. Several groups moved to the coastal areas, founding the most impressive center of this late period – Tulum. Formerly known as Zama, meaning “City of Dawn”, Tulum faces east toward the Caribbean Sea, witnessing daily sunsets. However, “Tulúm” is also the Yucatán Mayan word for “fence”, “wall” or “trench”, which makes sense as the walls surrounding the site allowed the Tulum fort to be defended against invasions. Built upon a scrap rising from the Caribbean, Tulum was an important trading center (both – by land and sea) for the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, and a link to the other Maya settlements further south in what is now Belize and Guatemala. Its ruins, which stretch along the coast for almost 6 kms, paintings and inscriptions show a mixture of styles and influences from these places and from further north in Mexico, yet its social organization and domination in the region remain a mystery. “Long distance trade provided the nobility with the products of great variety, quality and rarity,” observed one museum curator, “all symbols of rank”. One of the patron deities of Tulum was Ek Chauh, the god of trade, and cacao beans served as currency.
Much of what we know of Tulum at the time of the Spanish Conquest comes from the writings of Diego de Landa, third bishop of the Yucatán. He wrote that Tulum was a small city inhabited by about 600 people who lived in platform dwellings along a street and supervised the trade traffic from Honduras to the Yucatán. Though it was a walled city, most of the inhabitants lived outside the walls, leaving the interior (6.5 ha) for the residences of noble classes and priests and ceremonial structures. The only time commoners were allowed inside the walled city were to see governmental officials or to attend religious ceremonies. It was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Conquest when Old World diseases brought by the Spanish settlers resulted in very high fatalities, disrupting the society and eventually causing the Maya to abandon their city for good.
The first modern time description of the ruins was published by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in 1843 in the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. As they arrived from the sea, Stephens and Catherwood first saw a tall building that impressed them greatly, most likely El Castillo; they made accurate maps of the site’s walls, and Catherwood made sketches of the site’s buildings.
Two things that make Tulum very unique are its coastal location and level of fortification, none of which is typical for Maya settlements. Tulum was protected by steep sea cliffs on one side and by a wall (3-5m high, 8m thick and 740m long) on its landward side. Constructing this massive wall would have taken an enormous amount of energy and time, which shows how important defense was to the Maya when they chose this site. There are five narrow gateways in the wall and two small structures that have been identified as watch towers. Near the northern side of the wall a small cenote provided the city with fresh water.
The largest building in the complex is a 7.5m tall cliff-perched Pyramid El Castillo (The Castle), fronted by serpent columns, which was built on top of two earlier pyramids. The construction of El Castillo appears to have taken place in stages. A small shrine was used as a beacon for incoming canoes, marking a break in the barrier reef that is opposite the site. A cove and landing beach in a break in the sea cliffs would have been perfect for arriving trading canoes. This characteristic of the site may be one of the reasons the Maya founded the city of Tulum exactly were it is. Most likely, it was from here that defenders saw the Spaniards sailed in. John Lloyd Stephens and his companion Mr. Catherwood, spent a night in the Castillo, at first lamenting the lack of a sea view but then concluding that the experience had “wrought a great change in our feelings. As easterly storm came on, and the rain beat heavily against the sea wall. We were obliged to stop up the oblong openings, and congratulated ourselves upon the wisdom of the ancient builders. The darkness, the howling of the winds, the cracking of branches in the forest, and the dashing of angry waves against the cliff, gave a romantic interest, almost a sublimity to our occupation of this desolate building, but we were rather too hackneyed travellers to enjoy it, and were much annoyed by moschetoes“.
The Temple of the Frescoes, directly in front of the El Castillo, is a two story structure with columns on the bottom level and a much smaller room on top. It contains interesting 13th century wall paintings representing Chac-Mool (god of rain) and Ixchel (goddess of weaving, women, moon and medicine). One of the frescos of human figures is clearly made in Toltec style. Masks of Chac-Mool extend around the corners of the facade and if you pause a slight distance from the building, you will see the eyes, nose, mouth and chin. Notice the remains of the red-painted stucco – at one time all the buildings in Tulum were painted bright red. The Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. The “diving god”, one of the main deities of Maya in Tulum is depicted in the Temple of the Diving God in the central precinct of the site. Above the entrance in the western wall a stucco figure of the “diving god” is still preserved, giving the temple its name. A mural can be seen on the eastern wall that resembles that of a style that originated in highland Mexico.
There are other magnificent buildings in different states of preservation, however, many people come to the Tulum Archeological site to browse around for a bit before coming down to the beach where they stay for the rest of the day. After spending 1.5 hours among the ruins, I followed their suit and happened to find the most beautiful place in the world. Judge for yourself as words are useless here.
Those are just few places to visit in the Yucatán, but when I finished writing this blog, I realized just how much I am yet to see! Buen viaje, mis amigos. Bienvenidos a México!