The Maya believe the higher your elevation, the closer you are to the gods.
Standing atop the Maya’s second tallest temple in Cobá, I could see their point: I truly did feel closer to the gods — if the sensation that you are standing on the brink of death-by-falling qualifies.
Whether you subscribe to the theory that the culmination of the Maya calendar this December signals the end of the world or the beginning of a new era, all the debate and apprehension may have piqued your interest in the Maya culture.
Mine was, and that’s how I ended up in Mexico’s Riviera Maya in pursuit of all things Maya.
ROADS TO RUINS
Although resorts and restaurants have created special packages, menus, and even spa treatments to take advantage of the media-hyped interest in Maya culture, the first and foremost way to “get your Maya on” is by exploring the wealth of ruins around the Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Cozumel region loosely marketed as Riviera Maya.
Chichén Itzá, though the farthest to reach from resort areas, demands the highest respect. On my tour with Experiencias Xcaret, we heard a two-hour introduction to the Maya culture. Sounds long-winded, but I found myself fascinated by “one of the most important civilizations in America,” according to our tour guide, Pedro, a Maya descendant.
He underwent four years of training to become qualified by Mexico’s archaeological agency to speak authoritatively on Maya culture. It’s totally worthwhile to join such a tour if you want to sift fact from fantastical where Maya lore is concerned.
At Chichén, he told us about the ball court where the Maya played their legendary game of pok-ta-pok, or juego de pelota as Mexicans today call it. This city is highly regarded among Maya scholars for its stadium, where inter-kingdom tournaments perhaps took place.
Believed to be more ritualistic than sporting, the game’s controversy lies in the final outcome: decapitation. Was the game’s loser beheaded? Or was it the winner?
Carefully studying limestone etchings on stadium walls, many come to the conclusion that upper-class men actually strived to win the game for the privilege of being sacrificed to the gods, who would only be appeased by the best of the best.
It begs the question, why wouldn’t a person throw the game? But that just shows our lack of understanding of the culture, Pedro pointed out. I’ll give him that.
Chichén, as one of the most popular in the surviving kingdom of ruins, is also one of the most commercial sites. Huge artisan markets and dozens of artisan stands clutter the entrance and grounds.
The most-photographed structure, the 79-foot-high temple, is no longer accessible for climbing because of graffiti problems. However, a dozen or so other structures make this worth at least a three-hour visit, even when touring on your own without narration.
TULUM AND BEYOND
After a long day in the sun and on the bus to and from Chichén, I was beginning to doubt my desire to see four more regional ruin sites, but it turned out each possesses its own singular, worthwhile magnetism.
At Tulum, for instance, the view of the sea cinches it. Second most famous in the region, its coastal position made the city important for trading and navigation.
As in most ancient cities, the temples command the most attention. One sits upon a 39-foot cliff overlooking the gem-toned waters of the Caribbean Sea. Who could help but worship that?
From its high point, visitors overlook the entire breadth of the fortressed city, where the upper class lived within the walls among the limestone, magnificently engineered buildings. The working class that built the city and provided it with food occupied thatched-roof structures on the perimeter.
Today garden-like and well-groomed, Tulum provides transportation to one of four wall gateways via Eltrencito (train tram). At the exit gate are the usual clusters of retail ventures, including folkloric shows and costumed Maya who make money posing with you for photos.
My favorite of the major ruin sites, Cobá still allows you to climb the dizzying 138-foot temple. I also liked that admission includes use of a bicycle to reach the far-flung buildings. If you cannot pedal, “Maya limos” (pedi-taxis) await for an extra fee.
Another plus for Cobá: You have access to one of the temple’s inner sanctums and passageways. Maya expanded their temples every calendar cycle by building another around the original, and this is the only one I visited where I could make it into the interior, where the king lived.
The site is also known for its intact stelae, carved stone slabs. Cobá’s deal specifically with the significance of 2012 on the calendar.
New to the ruins pilgrimage, Muyil straddles the edge of the 1.25 million-acre Sian Ka’an (translation: Where the Sky Was Born) Biosphere Reserve. Not officially opened to tourism, Muyil is a bit of a secret. Here you can visit on your own or through Community Tours Sian Ka’an, a co-op of Maya people who have taken the touristification of the site into their own hands.
Small, scattered, and a work in progress, this site is as ecological as archaeological. The tour ends with a dip in a freshwater lagoon and cenote, a Mexican sinkhole. Its specific interest lies in its feel of an archaeological lab, where return visitors can witness the progress of turning rubble into walls.
The relatively low-rising temple here is unique in that it combines two of the most important structures found in a Maya city. Besides its function as a place of worship, it has a rotund formation at its top that suggests an observatory. The Maya, known for their advanced astronomical knowledge, would collect rain in the round structures and use it as a mirror for the heavens.
You will find other small sites at Cozumel’s humble San Gervasio ruins, and — off the coast of Cancun — at Isla Mujeres, whose temple once paid homage to the important deity Ix Chel, goddess of fertility.
Built on the site of one of the ancient kingdoms, which date back to 1200 B.C., Xcaret theme park spoon-feeds visitors a taste of Maya lite. Recreating various architectural elements of Maya and Mexican culture, plus beaches and animal habitat, one of its greatest attractions is its evening cultural show.
Similar to the Arabian Nights and Medieval Times-style dinner theater arenas in the Orlando area, it presents a worthwhile and dramatically colorful two-hour pageant that includes a pok-ta-pok game and performance art from different Mexican regions.
Perhaps a more meaningful way to experience Maya culture is by getting to know some of the surviving 10 million Maya people who live throughout the region. A visit to a major Maya city such as Valladolid allows visitors to interact with the short, slant-eyed Mayan-speaking ladies in their flower-embroidered blouses and dresses and to sample their cuisine in restaurants such as La Casona.
“For Mayas, the obsession was time and space,” said Pedro.
The hoopla about the end of the world, oddly enough, stemmed originally from one calendar at one ruin in Guatemala that mentions 2012. Another reference has recently been found.
Because of unusual astronomical phenomena this year, including the close encounter with Venus, the surviving Maya population has embraced the occasion as the end of one of their complex but accurate calendar’s cycles and the beginning of another.
Mexico tourism has embraced it as a vehicle for boosting tourism numbers, especially in recent times when drug-related crime has made Americans think more than twice about visiting.
However, if the recent Maya spotlight is drawing you to a pilgrimage between now and Dec. 21, 2012, when the era turns over a new page, you’re not alone.
“Tourism officials in Mexico are expecting a surge of visitors — both foreign and domestic — to the Maya region as the time draws closer,” said Joshua Berman, author of Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras.