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?