Jamila and I have been the team’s designated "ruin-hoppers" for the past week and we’re not done yet! A few days ago we went to see the Yucatán’s most famous ruins, Chichén Itzá, which Jamila wrote about in Wednesday’s update. Today, we set out at 8 am for a marathon day of ruin exploration. We headed south from Mérida, the capital of Mexico’s Yucatán state where we just missed the Carnaval celebrations The first area we headed into, called the Puuc Route, is a gold mine for ancient Mayan sites and we were able to visit five different ruins in this region alone, before going on the next day to visit the famous ruins by the sea, Tulum.
The highlight of the first day was our final stop. Uxmal, the Mayan word for "thrice built" or "place of abundant harvest," was inhabited for two thousand years from 800 BC to 1200 AD. And in fact, Uxmal surpassed its name and was rebuilt five times! Uxmal was the primary center of power for an empire that reigned supreme in the southeast Yucatán.
The highest and most interesting building at Uxmal is the 115-foot high Pyramid of the Soothsayer. Legend has it that a dwarf magician and his sorcerer mother built the skyscraper in a single night. Do you believe in Mayan magic? Archeologists have discovered that this pyramid consists of five buildings constructed one atop the other over a period of three centuries, the first building dated 569 AD. This is the first Mayan pyramid we’ve seen with a circular rather than the common, rectangular base.
Like most of the sites we’ve visited, this one contains a ball court on which the Mayans played a game that appears to be a cross between basketball and soccer. Opposing teams tried to propel a rubber ball through a stone ring on the center wall of either side of the stadium using only their elbows, knees and hips. The first team to score won. The other team was ritually killed. If any of you would be willing to play in a game with these kinds of odds, please let me know!
From the Puuc Route, Jamila and I hopped on a westbound bus to the Caribbean Sea and the ruins at Tulum (Mayan for "fortification", though originally thought to have been named Zama, Mayan for "dawn"). This is the closest major Mayan ruin site to the beach resort town of Cancun. As a result, Tulum was crawling with tourists and the prices were sky-high! Everything from crafts to cola cost nearly double what they did at less-visited ruins. The glut of tourists also meant that the stampeding feet of visitors were not allowed in the main buildings. We had hiked many kilometers into other sites, but at Tulum, little trams carried tourists to and from the ruins along a paved road for a fee. These trams looked a lot like the ones I’d seen at Disneyland as a child. Perhaps they were the very same ones, sold to Mexico when Disney updated its equipment. I pray that I never return to find mascots named "Tulum Toucan" and "Mayan Mouse" waving to the Cancun tourists as the trams go by.
These ruins are special for many reasons, not the least of which is their striking location. They sit atop a cliff rising above a white sandy beach bordering the aqua waters of the Caribbean Sea. Also, special is their compactness. A stone wall encloses the area that measures only 416 yards from north to south and 181 yards from east to west.
The largest building at the site is also the most impressive. Called El Castillo (the castle), this watchtower fortress sits on the eastern edge of the cliff overlooking the surf below. It is comprised of two rooms and was built during three separate periods. In front of the temple is a huge stone slab, probably once an altar used for human sacrifices. For archeologists, the most important building at the site is the Temple of the Frescoes. The building contains many masks, stucco sculptures and murals (codex-like paintings) that with study are unveiling some of the ancient secrets about Mayan culture and history.
After visiting so many ruins the novelty begins to wear off. Some of the simpler structures begin to look alike. Yet, certain buildings project such awesome beauty that they remain fixed in my mind like many great works of art: The Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan; The Temple of the Inscriptions and the Temple of the Exfoliated Cross at Palenque; El Castillo and the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza; The Arch of Lubna; the Palace at Sayil; the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, the Nun’s Quadrangle, and the Great Pyramid at Uxmal; and El Castillo at Tulum. The novelty may be lost, but it has been replaced by a profound respect for Mayan builders and Mayan culture that will remain with me for life.
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