Touring Temples: Mexico’s Indigenous History and the People Whose Feet Now Trod it
We get up at six and are slumped against windows and the bus seat in front of us by six-thirty. It’s an Oxxo breakfast: mango juice and Quaker Oat cookies for me. Not the most glamorous of Mexican mornings, but necessary, if we want to beat the Cancún crowd to Chichén Itzá.
We arrive at nine-thirty, and there is already a line to get in. We wait in a tiny plaza of gift shops for our tickets. The path into Chichén Itzá is dirt, and the sides are lined by vendors setting up shop, displaying hats and colorful tapestries and small Mayan pyramid figurines.
El Castillo – the Spanish name for the temple – looks like the famous pyramid from my Spanish textbooks, although considerably less grainy, and the textbooks never seem to have explained how actually big Chichén Itzá is, an entire city that to this day hasn’t been completely excavated. It’s easy to spend hours there. We have a lecture in the shade of the ball court’s walls, and then we’re free to explore. I wander back to El Castillo. We’ve just learned how closely the construction of the temple is tied with the Mayan calendar: there are four staircases on every side, each one containing 91 stairs – coinciding with the number of days between solstice and equinox – with a last ledge at the top to make a total of 365 steps to the temple – the total number of days in the year. There are 18 terraces, representing the 18 Mayan months. There is a stone snake head at the foot of one of the pyramid corners, representing the feathered serpent god Kukulcan. During an equinox, the pyramid is built just right so that the steps form a shadow in the shape of a snake’s body, trailing upwards towards the temple. I take a picture of myself in front of it.
El Castillo in the morning.
I travel towards the Temple of the Warriors, guarded by stone pillars that are supposed to tell the history of the Toltec conquest of the city. A vendor waves a fan at me and invites me to the shade of his stall. I thank him and continue on the well-trodden path through the trees, towards the cenote Xtoloc, guided by t-shirts hung on clotheslines and whose designs change color in the sun. Cenotes are thought to be the Mayans’ source of fresh water, but also the entrance into the underworld. They used to throw sacrifices into the water, and archaeologists have since found jewelry, pottery, skeletons, and even an entire canoe. This cenote has a flat black surface, dotted by specks of fallen leaves. The group is supposed to go to another cenote, later. Tourists are allowed to swim in it, and I hope I’ll only be doggy-paddling with lost go-pros. I’m less partial to the cavefish, but I’d take a blind eel over a skeleton.
On the way back, I look at a few stalls while I wait for my classmates to buy prettily painted mugs and a shirt with Frida Kahlo’s face on it.
The ball court. El Juego de Pelota is thought to be a sacred game, representing the forces of light over forces of dark – the game is even featured in the Popul Vuh, commonly referred to as the Mayan “bible”.
A lot of the tables seem similar. Towards the end, while I wait for the rest of the class to arrive, I watch a tourist haggle with a vendor for a wooden mask. The vendor asks for thirty, the tourist refuses. He walks towards the exit gates, and the vendor quickly bags the mask and runs after him.
“Thirty,” he repeats. “C’mon. It’s only thirty!”
The tourist takes the mask, shoves the $20 bill into the vendor’s hand, and leaves. The vendor looks down at the money in his hand, and then back at the vendors nearest to him. He shrugs like he’s lost a game, but smiles like he’s won it. He takes out his phone and sits back at his table, which looks like all the other tables near him, except he also has Spiderman and Dragonball Z action figures.
Chichén Itzá is one of the wonders of the world. It shows off the intelligence and power of the Mayan civilization, and the dedication they had to the stars and their gods. It’s 1,500 years old, one of the most important cities in the Mayan world – and so large that parts are still being excavated – a feat of construction and civil engineering in a civilization that had yet make use of the wheel.
I consider haggling for a plastic Super Saiyan Vegeta just a little ways from the Ossuary, where the bones of the dead were supposedly kept. Only a short walk away from the cenote that once was fed human sacrifices, and in the cool shadow of a pyramid that twice a year will form the ripples of a snake.
El Osario (the Ossuary). Built similarly to El Castillo, though on a smaller scale. Note the serpent heads guarding the foot of the pyramid.
After Chichén Itzá, we swim in a cenote (one obviously open to tourists), and while the only creatures I see are living (small blackfish that thankfully had as little interest in me as I did with them), I couldn’t stop thinking about how cenotes were supposed to be sacred, and I was swimming in the middle of one in a bikini and too-big green lifejacket. In the next two days, we visit three more cenotes, and at the last one I flip over on my back and ask one of the professors, “Am I swimming with dead people?”
He makes a mrrmm noise.
“They’re the entrances into the underworld, right?” I press. “I feel like I’m in that one Greek river. The one Achilles had a bath in, the one with all the souls?”
“The Styx,” a classmate suggests.
“Yeah, the Styx. Am I floating above the gates of hell?”
“No, it was different.” the professor says. “Life wasn’t linear to the Mayans. It was a cycle.”
I nod my head, but I’m still concerned about the dead people. It feels like I’m trespassing. People might not live at Chichén Itzá anymore, but the Mayans still exist. I can’t help but compare tourists taking selfies in front of Chac Mool and swimming in cenotes to someone making a duck face in front of a saint relic and letting pigeons use holy water for a birdbath.
Chichén Itza is an ancient marvel, but without any knowledge of the Mayans and the significance of the city, it could feel a little like a tourist playground, too. It’s difficult to reconcile the Chichén Itzá of today to the Chichén Itzá of the Mayans: the stones might have once been painted red and blue; now they’re gray. The two-square-mile city could have once been home to 50,000 Mayan people, and now hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Likewise, the state of Yucatán itself has one of the highest indigenous populations in Mexico – and also the second-highest volume of tourists: and for good reason. Chichén Itzá is named one of the new seven wonders of the world, which means its significance to human civilization is respected across the globe.
I can’t say if walking around in my tank top and cargo shorts with all of the other tourists is what the ancient Mayans would have wanted, but without my experience, I would have never thought about the question. I reminded myself to realize that the things the Mayans left behind: both cities and cenotes – were not necessarily left behind for me or for anyone. Swimming in a giant underground sinkhole is exhilarating – in a terrifying, wow-it’s-really-dark-down-here, so-when-is-the-monster-of-the-depths-going-to-pull-me-under kind of way – and posing for glamour shots in front of El Castillo is fun and definitely Insta-worthy, but it’s important to remember that their wondrousness is more than just incredible photos.
Sometimes you have to remember that an underworld sleeps beneath you.
KIIS Maya Mexico Winter 2021-2022
University Of Kentucky
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