After a first meeting our group went out to a local restaurant frequented by our guide. The food was excellent – the best fish soft tacos I have ever had, complemented by happy hour 2 for one margaritas which came in beer steins filled to the brim. The group is a good one. 13 ladies and three guys. Most of the women in the 45 -65 year old range of varying nationalities include Scottish, Polish, Australian, 5 Canadians, a Brit and several Germans. We have lucked out with this group. It has become cohesive immediately, our CEO is very professional and knowledgable and it is going to be a good trip.
Chichen Itza – a UNESCO world heritage site was our first stop today. This city became dominant in what is referred to as the 900-1200 AD Post Classic period of Mayan civilization, following which it collapsed. Chichen Itza ( like many other Mayan cities) waxed and waned according to the Mayan calendar . 52 years was the cycle of the calender which predicted that every 52 years the world would end, with inhabitants deserting centres like Chichen Itza every 52 years in anticipation of that. It seemed the Mayans took their apocalypse theories seriously – a theme which has continued in some modern day groups and religions. When it became obvious nothing was going to happen 😏 people returned to the cities and building began anew. The result being that many temples were built on the outside of existing temples – a prime example of this being the famous Castille temple which was built to represent the Mayan calendar. The fact that the Mayans built these incredible structures without draft animals or the wheel or metal tools of any kind is a testament to their ingenuity.
G adventures lived up to its excellent reputation of hiring first rate local guides. Our guide took us all around the site for almost three hours sharing his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of the ancient city and the Mayan people. Warfare, drought, the Spanish and the small pox they brought with them are thought to have completed the desertion of Chichen Itza by the end of the 13th century.
Other highlights of the tour included the famous sacred cenote scene of many human sacrifices . Subjects were drugged, loaded with jade and other precious objects and thrown in. As they couldn’t swim – that was all she wrote so to speak. The ball court, the observatory and the temple of warriors rounded out the day.
Ritual human sacrifices were a large part of Mayan culture with many being made to appease the rain God – a VIP in this arid ecosystem. The immense ball court at Chichen Itza and its link to ritual human sacrifices was especially interesting. The game was played in teams of 7. Opinions vary but an idea that appears to be gaining consensus is that the captain of the losing team was beheaded by the captain of the winning team as an offering to the rain gods. Players were kitted out in a similar fashion to a lacrosse player in terms on padding ( albeit much more ornately) and a similar throwing tool was used, hands could not touch the ball. The ball had to be put through a small stone ring high on the side of the court. The first team who scored won the game. The ending for the team captain of the losing team was I imagine an extra incentive to play hard.
Another magnificent structure was El Caracol or the observatory was used by astronomers who were all among the Mayan elite.
By using their knowledge of astronomical data to claim contact with the gods this group,was able to control the large number of uneducated working class Mayan people. The division of Mayan culture into a ruling elite and a much larger working class was very evident as we explored this site and I imagine was a contributing factor to the collapse of the society. History is full of cultures where the so called exploited worker classes get fed up eventually and using whatever weapon at hand tend to level the “playing field”.
Spanish reported wealthy coastal cities and thriving inland cities when they arrived in the mid 1500’s . Within a few decades war and disease, particularly small pox had decimated a once thriving society. The vendetta pursued against Mayan culture by the Spanish Catholic Church resulted in most of the scientific and other writings of the Mayans being destroyed – what we know has been pieced together have from three remaining manuscripts and knowledge of the Aztecs and some of their rituals, as well, as ironically enough to – the writings of the Spaniards who were instrumental in destroying the records of Mayan culture and scientific achievements.
The 38 degree heat was thankfully moderated by a stiff breeze and some cloud cover by the middle of the day. The three hours at the site passed far too quickly before we boarded our transport to continue our trip to Merida.
2 hours of travel through the arid limestone based ecosystem of the Yucatan brought us to the capital city Merida. There are absolutely no surface rivers here, nothing. All the water runs underground, occasionally the rivers intersecting in areas that form the famous cenotes or deep round wells of the region. Merida is a city of around 800,000 people with a charming colonial center. We are staying in a lovely old hotel in the centre of the historical district.
The Spaniards founded the city in the early 16th century on the site of an earlier Mayan settlement T’ho which had been in place for centuries. The debris from the temples destroyed by the Spaniards when they arrived was used to build the Merida cathedral – very much like a crusader castle complete with arrow slits – and the Iglesias de la Tercera Orden a beautiful limestone church. These both border on the Plaza de la Independencia. It was carnival night in Merida and the square was full of street food vendors, colour, music, people, children dancing and cafes set up right in the middle of the road. Our evening was completed with a meal of salbutes a traditional yucatan dish of soft corn tortillas piled high with turkey, avocados, tomatoes, lettuce and cucumber plus a mystery sauce that elevated the whole thing to wow status! The green Chili sauce here is beyond my palate so a few extra dollops of fresh salsa completed the meal.
The area was an important centre for the manufacture of hemp or sisal until the invention of plastic knocked the bottom out of that market. Many fortunes were made on hemp and some of the huge haciendas built by the families that made these fortunes are still standing. Our second day in Merdia will be spent exploring some of these haciendas as well as swimming in some of the crystal clear cenotes on the outskirts of the city.