Following in Mayan footsteps (carefully, to avoid snakes)


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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.

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