Eagles devouring hearts, skeletons with satanic smiles and sacrificial Chac Mools; this is the site that greeted us at the devilish digs of Mexico’s most famous Meso-American spot, Chichen Itza. ‘This was the way of the Mayan people’, our short and stocky tour guide said, smiling through her pearly white teeth…
…And she wasn’t wrong. Settling all over the Yucatan peninsula as early as 2,000 B.C. the Mayan people had some beliefs that seemed to us, well, frankly barbaric. Strikingly sophisticated in their building technique, mathematical law, medicinal and theological belief they may have been, but as a civilized society they failed at the first hurdle (namely, not killing one another).
Wandering around this UNESCO world heritage site, jaws firmly clamped open in awe, Veronica recounted tales of the Mayans’ beliefs and daily practice in true tour guide style. With animated arms and wide-eyed excitement she led us around the pyramids, temples and ancient ruins as we marched behind her like obedient ants.
Beginning at the heart of this historical site, we stood before Chichen Itza’s most prized pyramid- El Castillo. Known by the Mayans as the temple of Kukulkan, dedicated to their plumed serpent God, this soaring stone structure has been deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the World. However, rather than leave us wondering (apologies, it had to be done), our dutiful and dedicated guide explained that twice yearly, during the Spring and Autumn Equinox, a snake-like shadow slithers down the side the pyramid from the tip to the base, (where the head of the serpent sits.) Now, I don’t know much about mythical plumed deities but I do know that this is a sight I would like to see. Unfortunately we didn’t, it being neither equinox however, as far as amazing ancient temples go Kukulkan left a lasting impression.
After resolving a mini-crisis (my camera suffered a temporary cataclysmic melt down in the near 40 degree heat), we staggered on towards the Mayan stadium. An endless expanse of vast open space, the kind you expect tumble weed to casually blow across, encased by two parallel walls each fitted with a jutting circular basket. Basketball fans should take note because this game played by the Mayans, known as Teotlachco, bears strong similarities to this sport, with one considerable difference of course- the winning captain has his head cut off. No silver cups or golden medals just delirious decapitation on the smooth surface of a sacrificial Chac Mool, (a reclining stone sculpture dedicated to the God of rain.)
Don’t all leap from your seat to sign up at once ….For those crazy Mayans however, this was the ultimate sacrifice believing that their blood would flow into the soil, nourish the land and boost the regenerative circle of life, (ever heard of water Mayans?!). And, the icing on the cake, at the end of it all their severed heads would be beautifully showcased on a nearby wall known as Tzompantli, covered in carvings of satanic skulls and eagles devouring human hearts. Still not convinced? No, nor was I.
This sacrificial tour had not come to an end however. Delivering us to the mouth of a Cenote, an underground sinkhole filled with freshwater and found dotted around the Yucatan peninsula, we were taken to the famous Cenote Sagrado; supposedly a sacred sacrificial spot containing the bodies of both women and children.…I didn’t hang around to find out.
On the way home we stopped off to swim in one of the most stunning sinkholes I have ever seen. True, I have only ever seen two (Sagrado included) but this beautiful limestone cavern, known as the Xkecken Cenote, was the stuff of legends. Covered in jungle undergrowth, dripping in stalactites and filled with sparklingly clear water, I felt firmly in touch with the mythical powers of the Mayan ruins.
Luckily, there were no bodies beneath this time. Well, that I know of anyway…..
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