Mayan Magic in Yucatan, Mexico: Chichen Itza and Beyond

DIY Yucatan escapade! From Mayan skeletons in water-filled caves to unevenly distributed charm of Magic Towns, Yucatan is eye-opening at every step
statue in chichen itza

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Not far from where we stood, a giant space rock, taller than Mt Everest, once slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Mega-tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires, and dust-chocked air covered much of the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs along with 75% of all animals and plants.

If there hadn’t been women we’d still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girlfriends.

-Orson Welles

Yucatan: From Dinosaur Killer to Mayan Marvel

Fast-forward 66 million years and shift 37 miles (60km) to the south of Yucatan’s Chicxulub crater, and there we were, backpacks on, strolling through the Merida airport. Instead of the usual barrage of duty-free shops, we were greeted by a photo exhibit. Moments of everyday Yucatan, from an old man shucking corn, to the intensity of a young woman straining in childbirth, humanity’s raw beauty hung on the walls.

These intimate glimpses into the local life, a backdrop to the noisy hustle of a busy airport, felt like a wink from the Universe, a silent “Hey, this is going to be glorious!”

Having flown in on separate planes, the Three Musketeers reunited. The hubby, our friend Paul, and I walked to the big, blue bus waiting smack in front of the airport entryway. For 135 pesos ($8 USD at the time I’m writing this), it takes you to the center of town. The 40-minute ride was a blur of lush greenery and dusty streets whizzing by the window.

Yucatan peninsula is like a soggy sponge, or a giant block of Swiss cheese. The ancient Chicxulub blast fractured the limestone below, creating a vast labyrinth of underground rivers, sinkholes, and caverns. These “cenotes”, as they’re called, became the cradle where life was reborn. Except for the dinosaurs – those were mostly toast. I say mostly, because, fun fact: All birds are actually the last surviving dinosaurs!

Mexican Tap Water, Anyone?

The bus dropped us off a stone’s throw from the pretty Courtyard Marriott. I try to drink tap water everywhere I travel. It’s not like I expect Evian in every faucet, I carry my trusty Sawyer water filter (not sure if you need a handy water filter, but if you do, the above affiliate link is here for your convenience. And mine). I’ve been using it for 8 years now, including all over Asia (see pic below), and it has not let me down yet. It’s built to filter 100,000 gallons (378541 liters) of water so I’m set close to forever.

A note to hotels, hostels, BnBs, campsites, and rental tree houses – if at all possible, install drinking water stations, free or paid. They are an amazing addition and a huge plus for any traveler (and for your country, since plastic waste is neither attractive nor good for anyone).

Sadly, this time I screwed up and I left my filter at home. So, when I asked the receptionist about drinking the tap water in Merida, his eyes grew wide as if I’d suggested to whip up a sewage margarita. He gave me a shocked “No!”, But hey, he remembered, there might be a water cooler at the gym. It could even inspire me to work out. (spoiler alert – it didn’t).

This trip isn’t about margaritas by the pool (although, let’s be honest, those would be delightful). It’s about stepping into both well-trodden the off-the-beaten-path places where ancient Mayan footprints brush up against modern Mexican life. And to see all we came to see, we needed a chariot.

Renting a car in Merida: Shift Happens

Weeks of researching car rentals in Mexico (let alone Yucatan) left us utterly befuddled and frustrated. Most bloggers sang, in unison: “Definitely rent through Discover Cars!” and no wonder, Discover pays a very generous referral bonus. But the reviews painted a less glamorous picture of huge hidden fees and credit card scams.

We finally decided to skip the online chaos altogether and found Yucatan Vacations, a local car rental company. But that deserves its own blog post: Renting a Car in Merida, Mexico: Find a Local Gem.

Bright and early the next morning, we set off for Chichen Itza – the crown jewel of the Yucatan, an ancient settlement with magnificent pyramids, one of the greatest mythical cities of the Maya from 600 to 1200 AD.

Chichen Itza was home to about 35,000 people at its peak, a place of religion, army, politics, and commerce. Easy access to water was crucial to survival in this arid region, and the local cenotes, sinkholes in limestone filled with water, made it the perfect spot to build a city. In our times, it’s one of the biggest tourist attractions of the Yucatan peninsula.

We felt more like “hapless tourists lost in translation” than intrepid adventurers. Wrong turns, unexpected tolls, and patches of 20km/h speed limit (which feels more like a brisk walk) plagued our way. Hordes of “helpful” locals materialized out of thin air at each turn, offering tours and “special deals” with questionable sincerity.

Finally, after a relentless gauntlet of hustlers jumping in front of the car frantically waving their arms in the direction of their own parking lots, we reach the site and park with a hint of paranoia and an 80-peso ticket in hand. I beg our car to please be there when we return.

Chichen Itza: An Ancient Mayan City Emerges from the Jungle

Chichen Itza buildings used to be ornate and colorful 1500 years ago. Check out artists’ rendering:

The pyramids are… right there. Once devoured by the jungle, now they stand, cleaned up and gleaming, scattered over grassy fields. There’s no apparent reason to them. The facts and theories are frustratingly fuzzy.

Archeologists speculate that they might have served as temples (but where’d everyone sit? There are only narrow passageways and small chambers inside), archeological observatories (but why would they go to the trouble of building a hill instead of finding one?), or burial sites (talk about overkill). They look more like artfully stacked mountains than any building we know.

As you walk around, the clash of ancient sacredness and modern-day absurdity is startling. You dodge selfie-stick-wielding tourists barking orders at their families while souvenir vendors hawk kazoos: “Everything for a dollar! Almost free!” echoes off the stone walls. And just to put a cherry on top, a blond dog pisses on El Castillo pyramid, history be damned.

The site is steeped in symbolism. 91 steps on each side of El Castillo lead to the one final step to the temple on top, for a total of 365. In the days around the equinox, a shadow hits the pyramid just right to create an illusion of a serpent crawling down it.

We walk along the Temple of the Jaguar and the Eagle, and stop, mesmerized, by an iguana perched in the very bottom step in all its glory. I’m convinced that it’s an ancient stone statue. I stare at it for a long while. It’s perfectly still. Then, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, the lizard flicked out its tongue. Well, that’s one mystery solved.

VIP Executions of El Castillo

A narrow passage leads into the bowels of El Castillo and into a small, royal chamber, with humans bones embedded in the walls. Here, archaeologists believe, gruesome rituals unfolded. Sacrificial victims would kneel before an nearby altar, watched by the king himself, sitting on his jade-decorated, jaguar-shaped throne. In contrast to public executions, these rituals were intimate, for king’s eyes only.

Peek inside the king’s chamber in the heart of El Castillo pyramid where human sacrifice took place

The Holtun cenote nearby hides an underwater tunnel that is rumored to lead to El Castillo pyramid. No diver has made the journey yet, but a small robot with a camera went quite a few meters in. Jade and human skeletons found on the bottom suggest that the royals may have sacrificed their most precious treasures to Chaac, God of rain.

We saw many severed human skulls (victims of battles or rituals) also during our visit to Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, and at another astonishing ancient site – Teotihuacan.

How Big are the Pyramids, really?

As far as world’s pyramids go, what El Castillo lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty and mystery. Surprisingly, the Vegas imposter is way up there, have a look.

How to Kill a House

Human sacrifice wasn’t the only “decommissioning” ceremony in town. When a building was built, the Maya imbued it with spirit, gave it life of its own. When, however, it reached the end of its usefulness, the Maya didn’t convert it into storage or a trendy co-working space. What took place instead (so the theory goes), was a “termination rite”, the act of killing a structure to release the spirit energy housed within. It closed off the building to the living and also to the dead.

The Maya smashed and scattered pieces of pottery associated with the structure and buried other precious artifacts. They blocked all entryways and exits with large boulders. Finally, the entire structure, or at least a part of it, would have been buried beneath a layer of rubble. Many of Chichen Itza’s pyramids have been terminated this way.

So, while the Maya didn’t destroy their buildings, they did have rituals to acknowledge the end of a structure’s purpose and returned its spirit to the natural world.

By the 11th century, the city collapsed due to an epic drought that lasted over 15 years. It was lights out for the temples and lights out for another grand civilization.

Scattered Magic of Yucatan’s Valladolid

Valladolid, 40 minutes by car from Chichen Itza, is a “Pueblo Magico” (Magical Town), one of 177 in Mexico.

The “suburbs,” were, well, rough around the edges. Dilapidated houses huddled together in downtrodden solidarity, a stark contrast to the storybook charm of the town center – humble reminder that magic is not evenly distributed.

The central park exploded in birdsong. Birds put on a show that rivaled the loudest evening chorus we’ve heard to date – in Malacca, Malaysia. It was a sensory overload in the best way possible. An elderly woman shuffled by, her rustic huipil embroidered with intricate floral patterns, carrying a woven basket brimming with fresh fruit.

The central plaza was also a stage for a bizarre procession. Dozens of police cars, lights flashing, horns blasting, led a group of townspeople, some holding framed posters of saints aloft, like pilgrims on a quest.

Cenote Fail

The Valladolid cenote – a natural sinkhole revered by the Maya – turned out to be a bit of a bust. We climbed the steps, eager for a glimpse of this legendary waterhole when we heard a sound of stomping feet hurtling towards us. A grumpy guard, arms flailing in the air, yelled as if either we or the cenote were in some kind of imminent danger. You don’t need to speak the language to know that you’re being unceremoniously booted out.

Apparently, there’s a time and a place for cenote appreciation, and 5:01 pm on a Tuesday falls firmly outside that window. I did manage to snap a picture though.

Food Makes Me Happy

At the end of the day, we found solace where we often do – in food. Looking for a place to eat, we glimpsed a lovely courtyard at the back of the Elegancca restaurant. We walked in. Lush greenery cascaded down the walls, a tree standing in the center.

We sunk into our chairs and asked the friendly waiter about local specialties. His finger pointed to every dish with “Valladolid” in the name. Well, duh! So that’s what we ordered, and happily devoured.

It was definitely a touristy restaurant with matching prices but what can you do when you’re hungry, tired, and fresh from a cenote eviction? Sometimes, a little tourist magic is the perfect antidote (just as we learned during our Cabo shenanigans).

With full bellies and lighter wallets, we weaved our way back to the car. We felt completely safe even after dark, both in town and on the 2 hour journey back to Merida. The horror stories of crooked road police checks that are ricocheting around travel forums never materialized.

Back at the hotel, we refilled our water bottles at the water cooler in the swanky gym and headed for the room.

The guys went out like matches in the wind the second their heads touched their pillows. Meanwhile, I’m sitting in the bathroom, bathed in the light of my screen, trying to channel my inner Hemingway.

Tomorrow, at the crack of dawn, we’re off on an adventure that’s five Mayan sites deep – mysterious pyramids and ancient plazas along the fabled Ruta Puuc, practically begging to be explored with nary a vendor or tourist in sight.

So for now, I’ll clumsily seal this chronicle and stagger towards slumberland. Catch you on the flip side!

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