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Cobá: Our Final Maya Site

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Found forty minutes inland from Tulum, the Maya city of Cobá has become a popular destination for tours out of Cancún, and upon arriving, we were disheartened by the number of buses we saw in the lot. But the ruins are spread out across such a wide swath of jungle that the crowds never became overwhelming. This was the final archaeological zone we would be visiting during our 91 days in the Yucatán, and we greeted the milestone with sadness and a little relief.

Coba Maya Ruins

Cobá was established around AD 100, and reached its zenith seven hundred years later, becoming one of the most powerful kingdoms in the northern Yucatán. The city is centered around two large lagoons and occupies a vast area, only a fraction of which is open to tourists today. Cobá has only recently been linked to the highway, and for most of modern history, was inaccessible to all but the most intrepid visitors.

Cobá is split up into three main clusters of ruins connected by sacbeob, or Maya white roads. Bicycles can be rented to get around between the groups, but we decided to walk. This was a mistake. The sets of ruins are about a kilometer apart from one another, and a bike would have made our visit much quicker and easier.

Coba Maya Ruins

The first group of ruins had some buildings and a small ball court, and the second group had a few stelae (ceremonial columns carved with hieroglyphics), but neither were all that compelling. So far, we were rather disappointed. We had been hiking for a long time through the jungle, and were hot and miserable, but finally we arrived at the third set of ruins and laid our eyes upon the pyramid of Ixmoja. Cobá was about to be worth the effort, after all.

At 42 meters in height, this is the tallest pyramid on the entire peninsula, higher than Chichén Itzá’s or that of Ek Balam. The climb to the top was difficult, but the view was breathtaking, encompassing not just the jungle, but the lagoons around which Cobá is situated.

During our time in the Yucatán, we visited nearly twenty Maya archaeological zones. Each had something different to offer, and it would be difficult to pick a favorite. But climbing Cobá’s pyramid and looking out over the lush green jungles of the Yucatán felt like the perfect way to close our journey into the world of the ancient Maya.

Location on our Map

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February 9, 2014 at 5:01 pm Comments (3)

The Forgotten Ruins of Oxkintok

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Okay, so the ancient Maya site of Oxkintok is not “forgotten” in any true sense of the word. It appears on maps and in guidebooks, and there are people waiting at the entrance to collect your fee. But once you’re inside, wandering about ruins half-reclaimed by the jungle, so distant from the next town, Oxkintok feels forgotten. And you’re allowed to feel like the intrepid adventurer who discovered it.

We’ve learned that, in terms of quality, the place you’re visiting and the experience of visiting it are often completely distinct. I mean, Rome is essential, but visiting it can be excruciating. It’s tiring, dirty, crowded, overwhelming. In contrast, the tiny town of Sandpoint, Idaho has nothing specific to recommend it, but it’s so beautiful, peaceful and remote, that it’s hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with it. But if someone came to me and said, “I can spend a week in either Rome or Sandpoint, which should it be?” Obviously, the answer is Rome. There’s no doubt. But really, you’d probably enjoy yourself more in Sandpoint.

This is what I was thinking about while picking my way among the ruins of Oxkintok, found in the southeastern corner of Yucatán State. We were visiting soon after our trip to Chichén Itzá, and the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. To reach Oxkintok, we had embarked on a long trico ride along unpaved and increasingly bumpy roads from Maxcanú. Although the ruins here weren’t anywhere near as glorious as those we’ve seen elsewhere, they were far from unimpressive.

Oxkintok looks just like the crumbling Maya cities of my imagination. We were the only tourists here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn we were the first in a very long time. The place just feels abandoned, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word. We had a blast hiking from temple to temple, free to climb around many of them, occasionally spotting strange sculptures or statues sticking out of the jungle, often spooked by a loud rustle from some bit of undergrowth near our feet.

Unlike our visits to other Maya sites, I largely disregarded the information which was posted in front of the most important buildings. Here, I didn’t really care whether this was Structure B8 or A3, or in what year it was built. I simply enjoyed the sensation of adventure and discovery, unconcerned about committing dates and facts to memory. We appreciated Oxkintok not for what it used to be, but for what it’s become: the most atmospheric ruins we saw during our time in the Yucatán.

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February 3, 2014 at 11:17 pm Comments (0)

The Ruins of Aké

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On the way home to Mérida from Izamal, we swung by the small village and archaeological site of Aké. Requiring a long drive off the main highway, it’s a town which feels forgotten by the march of time.

Ake Yucatan

The ruins are not the most impressive that we saw during our time in the Yucatán, but are found so far off the beaten path that visiting them is quite fun. The site was completely empty, as I would venture is usually the case, and we had the run of it. We climbed to the top of the main structure, the Edificio de las Palastras, and walked along the walls which form the perimeter, all alone under the heavy sun.

Before leaving, we noticed a path leading into the jungle, and followed this for a couple hundred meters to yet another set of ruins. At the top, two deep caves were hollowed out into the rock. Alone in the woods and standing atop an ancient ruin which must have served as a dwelling for Maya holy men, it was hard not to feel the rush of adventure.

Next to the site is an old henequen factory, which we assumed had long been abandoned. But on our way out, we could hear the hum of machines emanating from within. Peering through the window, we saw that the old machinery of this factory was still in operation. Apparently, it’s possible to tour the plant, although this is something we unfortunately didn’t have time to do.

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Affordable Rental Car For Your Yucatan Trip

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February 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm Comments (0)

Izamal’s Pre- and Post-Columbian Wonders

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Izamal is a small city and you don’t need a lot of time to familiarize yourself with it, but you will need sturdy legs. Both of its main sights, the ancient Maya pyramid Kinich Kakmó and the somewhat-less-ancient Convent of San Antonio de Padua, involve a lot of stairs and climbing.

Izamal Convent

Kinich Kakmó is just one of the many pyramids which define the horizon of Izamal, but it’s by far the biggest. From the ground, it doesn’t look so intimidating, but this pile of rocks and grass just keeps going up, up, up until you can see well over the jungle which surrounds the city. Dedicated to the Sun God, the pyramid was a place of pilgrimage and worship, and was the nexus of the Maya city.

Just a couple blocks away is the Convento de San Antonio de Padua, erected by none other than the despicable Fray Diego de Landa, the Catholic crazy-man who perpetrated the auto-da-fe in Maní and destroyed the bulk of Mayan literature in one fell swoop. In Izamal, he cast his ruinous gaze upon the Maya acropolis, ordering it razed for the placement of a new Jesuit convent.

Izamal Convent
Note: This isn’t the whole pyramid, just the top section of it

It didn’t take long after the construction of the convent for a miracle to occur in Izamal. (Actually, let’s put that in quotes. A “miracle”.) During a trip to Guatemala, De Landa had picked up a statue of the Virgin, which he erected in the Convento de San Antonio de Padua. The jealous citizens of nearby Valladolid decided that the Virgin would look better in their city, and sent a crew to steal it. But on their way out of Izamal, just as they were passing under the city gate, the statue became ponderously heavy, and could not be lifted even by the combined strength of ten men.

It was a miracle! And a pretty trivial one, if you ask me. I mean, this is 1560 or something and there are thousands of impoverished Maya suffering under the boot of Spanish oppression. But God decides to make a statue heavy, so that one city’s gilded riches can’t be brought to another? It’s all about priorities, I suppose, and anyway it was enough to convince Pope John Paul II, who traveled to Izamal in 1993 to officially bless the miraculous Virgin.

After climbing the steps that lead to the convent, and hiking to the top of Kinich Kakmó, you’ll probably have had enough walking. Luckily, a fleet of finely outfitted horse wait in the plaza to take visitors on a carriage tour of Izamal, no exercise required. We didn’t have time for this, but it’s surprisingly affordable and perhaps the best way to see the town.

Locations on our Map: Kinich Kakmó | Convento de San Antonio de Padua

Great Place To Stay In Izamal

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February 2, 2014 at 10:03 pm Comments (0)

Ek Balam: The Home of Black Jaguar

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Just twenty minutes north of Valladolid are the ruins of Ek Balam, a fantastic archaeological site which boasts some of the peninsula’s best-preserved Maya sculptures.

Ek Balam Ruins

Mayan for “Black Jaguar”, Ek Balam was a powerful king who arrived in the area on April 7th, AD 770. The city which he founded would prosper for little more than a century, and was abandoned shortly after September 23rd, 896.

You might have noticed that the exactitude of these dates; in contrast to many other ancient cities around the peninsula, a lot is known about Ek Balam because of its wonderful state of preservation. Protected by the jungle and lost from knowledge for much of modern history, it was only excavated in the 1980s. The level of detail is astounding; we were sure that some of the sculptures must have been recently reconstructed, but that’s not the case.

There’s a lot to see here, but the highlight is undeniably the grand Acropolis, reaching 31 meters into the air, high above the jungle canopy. We climbed the difficult, irregularly-stepped staircase and surveyed the scene, pausing at a terrace halfway up, where white stucco decorates the structure’s facade. In almost perfect condition despite an age of over 1200 years, the sculptures depict a monstrous mask with jaw agape, symbolizing the gate to the underworld. In the monster’s eyes and atop its nose sit full-size human figures in strikingly lifelike poses.

We loved Ek Balam. The details on its ruins are simply amazing, and the site itself is so compact that it’s easy to see in just an hour or two. Definitely worth the short drive from Valladolid.

Location on Our Map

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January 31, 2014 at 11:25 pm Comments (4)

The Incredible, Horrible Chichén Itzá

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On a visit to Chichén Itzá, you’re going to oscillate violently between love and hate for your fellow man. The mathematics, artistry and astrology involved in constructing these ancient buildings… people did this? People are awesome! But still, there’s no way around it: people are terrible. Today, the site is overrun with money-grubbing locals, megaphone-wielding guides and sheep-herd tour groups. On leaving, I said to Jürgen, “The ingenuity and ambition of humanity is truly inspiring.” And then: “I wish everyone was dead.”

Chichen Itza

We knew in advance that Chichén Itzá was going to be crowded and annoying, so we had a game plan: oblivious enjoyment. Just put the other people out of our minds, ignore the pushy guys hawking cigars, and concentrate on the wonders. There’s so much to love, we reasoned, let’s stash the hate.

That noble mindset lasted about fifteen minutes. It’s hard, though. It really is. You’re standing there admiring something like the Tzompantli, a massive pedestal decorated with hundreds of carved skulls, reflecting on how it must have looked when it was used to actually display the severed heads of enemies, and behind you this guy just will not stop selling you a jaguar whistle. ROWARR! Over and over again, blowing this whistle into your ear, ROWARR, regardless of how many times you turn to him and say, “No gracias”. ROWARR! “No, señor, mil disculpas pero no tengo ningún interés”. ROWARR! “¡Que te vayas, malidita p***!”

Nice one, Zen Boy. Way to rise above.

Chichen Itza

Now shake it off and get back into the zone. Jaguar Whistle defeated you, but over there: the Holy Cenote. Just have to get past… shove by… shoulder-check our way through these bikini-clad girls making pouty faces for their selfies. Look, girls, I get it. Seriously, I understand. Taking pictures of yourself is fun and easy, and smartphones and Instagram and youth, I get it. I can even understand why you might think your pouty-face is sexy, although I do not concur. But why do you have to do this here? Why not, say, at home in your room, on a bed with fresh white sheets and pillows of feathery down? That is the place for pouty-face selfies. Not in front of Chichén Itzá’s Holy Cenote. Seriously!

“Stop it”, I say to myself. “These girls are just enjoying themselves. Step down off the ‘Perfect Tourist’ pedestal and start concentrating on your own experience instead of theirs. Just look at this gorgeous, almost perfectly circular sinkhole, surrounded by the jungle.” I pick up my guide book and read about how the ancient Maya would throw trinkets and valuables into this cenote as sacrifices to the gods. And I read how, in the later years of Chichén Itzá, it was also used for human sacrifices. Ever so briefly, my eyes flit over to the pouty-face-selfie-girls. Just one little shove… Ah Puch would be so pleased!

Moving on. There’s the fascinating Ball Court, still in fabulous condition. The Platform of Eagles and Jaguars, decorated with the animals feasting on human hearts. The Temple of Warriors, with its famous chac mool: a reclined figure on whose stomach the hearts of sacrificial victims were thought to be placed. The Plaza of 1000 Columns. The Ossuary. The massive group of sweating, safari-hat zombies whose guide is shouting at the top of his lungs so that everyone on Planet Earth can hear him.

Chichen Itza

The wealth of treasures at Chichén Itzá is mind-blowing. It’s unreal. Just being able to see El Caracol, an ancient astrological observatory aligned with the cycles of Venus, was worth the price of entrance. Everywhere you turn, there’s another incredible ruin.

The Castillo! I almost didn’t mention El Castillo, the most famous Maya construction of all. This giant pyramid is the ancient world’s most incredible calendar. Four monumental staircases ascend its four sides, each of which has 91 stairs. Together with the large step which makes up the top platform, these represent the 365 days of the year. (It’s the same math which led us to the concept of For 91 Days).

And on the spring and autumn solstices, something remarkable happens. The shadows cast along the sides of the principal staircases undulate from the top of the pyramid to the bottom, attaching to giant snake heads on the ground. And Kulkulcan, the serpent god, comes to life. The level of knowledge required to devise such a building, and the will and strength to pull it off, it’s hard to conceive that an ancient people who lived in the jungle were capable of it.

Despite the number of visitors and the awfulness of the people selling junky trinkets, we loved Chichén Itzá. It’s absolutely understandable why the place is so popular. And even if it degrades the experience, ultimately it’s a good thing that so many people get to see it.

Location on our Yucatan Map

Hotels Near Chichen Itza

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January 29, 2014 at 9:07 pm Comments (8)

The Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón

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Not only is the Palacio Cantón one of the loveliest buildings on Merida’s Paseo de Montejo, but it’s also home to one of the city’s best museums: the Museo Regional de Antropología de Yucatán.

Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón

The palace’s original owner was Francisco Cantón Rosado, one of the most important men in Yucatecan history. Having distinguished himself as a general in the Caste Wars against the Maya, the arch-conservative Cantón earned riches as a railroad baron, and was elected governor of the state. After retiring, he moved into the palace which he had constructed with materials imported from Europe. Decades after his death, the Palacio Cantón was sold to the state and, in 1950, transformed into a museum.

Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón

Having already admired its Beaux-Arts facade, we suspected that that palace’s interior would be stunning, but the Anthropology Museum it hosts was a real surprise. We had recently visited the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, dedicated to the same field, but the Palacio Cantón offered the superior experience. It’s smaller and less comprehensive, to be sure, but the displays are more thoughtfully selected and presented. There’s not as much space, so each piece has to be compelling.

The first floor of the Palacio Cantón is dedicated to the pre-hispanic Maya society, bringing together rare carvings, masks, fabrics and detailed information about their society. Temporary exhibits are presented on the second floor. We saw an excellent collection which fused modern photography with Maya myths, in a way meant to bring the tales to life.

Even if it didn’t host an incredible museum, the palace would be worth visiting just to see its interior. Italian marble, Doric columns, a spiral staircase… the splendor just accentuates the delicious irony in hosting the Anthropology Museum here. What would General Cantón think, after all, if he knew his retirement palace was being used to celebrate the very people he built his career fighting?

Location on our Map

Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón
Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón
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Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón
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January 28, 2014 at 10:16 pm Comments (2)

The Maya Ruins of Edzná

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Found 50 kilometers inland from Campeche, the Maya site of Edzná is best known for its five-level pyramid-palace structure. Without our own transportation, Edzná was difficult to reach, but the opportunity to see its compact and beautiful ruins made the effort worthwhile.

Edzna Maya Ruins

We had to depend on public transportation to get from Campeche to Edzná, and finding the bus wasn’t a simple task. The tourist office had been of no help, so we went to the market and started asking around. Everyone had a different idea on where to find the appropriate colectivo (mini-bus), but none of their advice panned out. Eventually, a scraggly, sketchy guy selling ice-pops out of a cooler approached us, claiming to know where to find the bus. We followed him apprehensively into a dilapidated building, out the back courtyard, and into an alley where, indeed, there were colectivos bound for Edzná. “Haha,” I said, clapping our hero on the shoulder, “and here I thought you were planning to kill us.”

The crowded, sweaty bus ride took an hour, but soon enough we were walking into the ruins. Edzná is an extremely old site. Originally settled around 400 BC, it reached its peak during the terminal classic period, in about AD 900, at which point it was home to 25,000 people. After a long decline, the city was abandoned by 1500. Edzná’s name means “House of the Itza”, indicating a strong connection to Chichén Itzá. It’s possible that the powerful Itzá clan settled here first before moving farther north.

Edzná is famous for a five-tiered structure that marries elements of a pyramid and a palace. When we first arrived, I figured that this was the somewhat large pyramid at the end of the plaza. Pretty cool, but not mind-blowing, and I couldn’t see any palace-type features on it. However, upon climbing to the top of a sub-structure, my mind was blown after all. Turns out that Ednzá’s famous five-story pyramid is completely obscured from view at the entrance, and suddenly seeing it after cresting the steps was quite a shock.

This structure, which you unfortunately can no longer climb, has multiple doorways on each floor that led to the private quarters of Edzná society. The more important you were, the higher up on the pyramid you lived. Considering that it wasn’t just ceremonial, but home to the upper echelon of Edzná society, it seems safe to assume that the pyramid must have been full of treasures. And it still might be. Incredibly, it’s never been fully excavated.

Edzná is compact, so you don’t need a lot of time to see the entire site; we were done in about an hour, and then had to wait for the colectivo back to Campeche. To pass the time, we ate tacos made by a woman at a makeshift stand on the side of the road, and chatted with her about the Mennonites who kept driving past. Jürgen and I don’t necessarily have a lot in common with rural taco ladies, but if there’s one thing that can bring even the most disparate groups of people together, it’s laughing about weird, white Mexican Mennonites.

Location of Edzná on our Map

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January 26, 2014 at 7:21 pm Comment (1)

Mayapan – The Final Capital of the Maya

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Mayapan was the final major capital of the Maya civilization, with a period of preeminence that lasted from 1200 to 1400, postdating the fall of Chichén Itzá. Thanks to its relatively recent age, many of the ruins have survived in good condition, making it easier to imagine how the city must have looked during its prime.

Mayapan

With over 4000 structures packed into a small site, Mayapan is nothing if not compact. Check out this detailed map from archaeologist Dr. Bradley Russell, who spent years studying the site. We were shocked by the density of the pyramids and temples, houses and platforms, towers and altars, and even a cenote. Mayapan’s growth was kept in check by a set of defensive walls, which are a rare feature in normally sprawling, spread-out Maya cities.

For years, Mayapan was the focus of excavations by multiple teams of archaeologists, and so a lot is known about the people who lived here, from their social structure to their diet. A lot of material about the city is available online. The University of New York at Albany’s Mayapán Archaeology is an excellent resource to start with, as is Dr. Russell’s Mayapan Periphery Project.

According to those well-versed in the archaeology of the Maya, the ruins of Mayapan aren’t as important as those at other sites. The culture was already in the throes of its final decline, and Mayapan isn’t as elegant or interesting as the cities which preceded it. I don’t know, though; we were amazed by the city’s ruins. We’re laymen, of course, but this was one of the most visually impressive sites we visited, and Mayapan ended up as one of our very favorites.

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January 15, 2014 at 9:31 pm Comment (1)

Acanceh

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After swimming in Chunkanán’s three cenotes, we felt energized enough to stop at nearby Acanceh before our return to Mérida. This small town is one of the oldest Maya sites in the Yucatán, and one of the few to retain its original name, which approximately means “Cry of the Deer”.

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Archaeologists date the ruins of Acanceh to AD 300 and the dawn of the Classic Era. At this stage in Maya history, the great cities were much farther south in Guatemala and the Chiapas region of Mexico. There’s reason to suspect that Acanceh wasn’t even founded by the Maya: its oldest carvings are evocative of Teotihuacan, a powerful empire from northern Mexico.

In a rare juxtaposition of the pre- and post-Columbian religions, Acanceh’s central pyramid is found right across from the town cathedral. The Spanish must have been in an unusually good mood when subjugating Acanceh; Maya structures in populated towns were almost always demolished, so that their stones could be used as material for the new churches, but Acanceh’s pyramid was allowed to survive.

Archaeologists eventually discovered a secondary structure hiding underneath the outer layer of the pyramid: a sub-pyramid, crowned by eight enormous masks which look out over the town, two facing in each cardinal direction. You can climb the scaffolding for an up-close look at the sculptures, of which only a couple have survived relatively intact.

Nearby, another pyramid can be climbed for a view over the jungle canopy, and Acanceh boasts a third structure called the Palace of the Stucco, which we completely missed. Frustratingly, we didn’t even know of the palace’s existence until a few days after our visit. If there’s one thing Yucatán’s Maya sites are lacking, it’s information for the visitor; it’s always a good idea to bring your own guidebooks or brochures when exploring the peninsula, and to research a specific spot rigorously before visiting it.

We really enjoyed our short time in Acanceh. More than just a set of forgotten ruins, it’s a town which is very much alive. Before grabbing the bus back home, we walked around the central plaza, which was buzzing with activity. The pyramid is an odd sight on the edge of the plaza, but a refreshing one. In Acanceh, more than in other places, you can really sense the pride which locals have for their wondrous Maya heritage.

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January 15, 2014 at 7:10 pm Comments (0)

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Cob: Our Final Maya Site Found forty minutes inland from Tulum, the Maya city of Cobá has become a popular destination for tours out of Cancún, and upon arriving, we were disheartened by the number of buses we saw in the lot. But the ruins are spread out across such a wide swath of jungle that the crowds never became overwhelming. This was the final archaeological zone we would be visiting during our 91 days in the Yucatán, and we greeted the milestone with sadness and a little relief.
For 91 Days