Following in Mayan footsteps (carefully, to avoid snakes)


Cox News Service

The ancient Mayans played a soccer-like sport with great ferocity, according to our guide, Victor. So seriously did the Mayans take this game, Victor said, that when it was over, the winning team’s captain was beheaded.

Wait. The winning team’s captain?

Yes, Victor said, and it was a great honor, because the captain was being dispatched straight to heaven.

Our tour group was left speechless. There were more than a few soccer moms on this daylong cruise ship excursion to the Dzibilchaltun ruins, and I could tell they were relieved that the game had evolved since Mayan times.

We’d never heard of Dzibilchaltun and selected it primarily because it was a cheaper trip than the better-known Chichen Itza (Dzibilchaltun was $62.99 per adult, $57.99 child; Chichen Itza was $22 more) and also much closer to the port of Progreso, where our ship was docked. Chichen Itza, considered one of the most important archeological sites in the Americas, requires a two-hour bus trip each way; Dzibilchaltun is reachable in just more than half an hour. Less bus, more outdoors.

Dzibilchaltun, as it turned out, offers darn good starter ruins. There are dozens of edifices dating back as far as 600 A.D. — and you’re allowed to climb on them (all but one, which we were told was filled with snakes), something you can’t do at Chichen Itza. Because of the short bus ride, we had three hours to clamber over the site, where 40,000 Mayans lived at some point.

Right off the bat, Victor started talking about snakes. Mayans worshiped snakes, he said, adding that if we looked around, we’d see snake holes. I was glad I’d worn closed-toed shoes. The limestone Mayan structures tend to be pyramid-shaped, and shadows on the stairstep-style exteriors mimic the shape of slithering snakes, Victor said happily.

A Mayan himself, Victor proudly told us about his native language, far more colorful than Spanish or English. Instead of “How are you?” a Mayan, Victor explained, asks, “How is your road?” If all is well, your answer is, “My road is straight.”

One of the most compelling Dzibilchaltun structures is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, called that because seven figures were found outside when it was excavated in the ‘50s. We were told that during spring and fall equinoxes, the sun peeks though the window in the structure.

Victor pointed out one structure vastly different from the rest: a 16th century Spanish church. (No fans of snakes, the Spanish ran off the Mayans, whom they considered Satan-worshipers.) At the edge of the ruins, there’s a museum with artifacts from both the Mayans (including a smiling snake sculpture) and the Spanish. The museum is air conditioned, and we found it a nice break from the tropical heat.

Also because of the heat, we were thrilled with the final feature Victor showed us: a sinkhole, 140 feet deep at one point. It served as a water source for the people who lived there, but on our visit, it was simply a good place to cool down by splashing amid the lily pads. (We were told in advance to wear swimsuits under our clothes.)

At its entrance, Dzibilchaltun also has a restroom and a gift shop with snacks and water, which we also needed badly by the time we’d spent three hours at the ruins.

As we left on the bus back to the port — seeing a few iguanas lounging lazily on stone walls along the way — we agreed we’d had a delightful first encounter with ruins and that, in the metaphor of the Mayan language, our roads were straight.

•  Information:

Read more Latin American & Caribbean Travel stories from the Miami Herald

A detail of the carving on one of the ancient temples at Palenque.


    At last, a soaring look at Palenque’s Mayan ruins

    From seat 7A, I look down to see miles of dense rain forest blanketing the ground below me. I’m 10,000 feet above the Mexican state of Chiapas, coming in for a landing at Palenque, where an ancient Mesoamerican city flourished for five centuries, until its Mayan inhabitants mysteriously abandoned it, leaving their temples, homes and palaces to be reclaimed by the encroaching forest, not to be rediscovered for nearly 900 years.

Beaches in Puerto Rico are a little cheaper with off-season deals later summer and fall.


    It’s deal time in the Caribbean

    Summer is winding down, and autumn soon will be upon us, with kids back to school and people who take their vacations in summer back to work. In the Caribbean, that means good deals in the offing as the islands vie to attract travelers in the off-season.

A vendor serves a selection of pan-sauteed grasshoppers at the Mercado San Juan in Mexico City.

    Quick trips: Mexico

    The culinary magic of Mexico City

    How integral is food to Mexico City’s culture? My taxi driver from the airport offered me a plate of her chicken tinga tacos. From a covered platter she kept inside her cab. She didn’t try to sell them to me. She wanted to give them to me, to welcome me with a taste of her native Mexico City. And maybe to show off a little for the food writer.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category