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17 August 2015


Another early morning in a summer of early mornings. It’s a good habit. The kitchen door is locked, preventing me from accessing both my breakfast and my lunch. Fortunately, I find an open window and vault myself through it, glad that nobody is up yet to see me do this. Breakfast consumed and lunch acquired, I meet the Germans and we hit the highway toward Chichen Itza. The kilometers roll by as the sun rises behind us, dissolving the darkness of night in the soft morning glow. New forest growth borders both sides of the road and the milpas are few and far between, a notable difference from the roads in Chiapas. The road track lies flat and straight, straight to the heart of the Mundo Maya: Chichen Itza. We slow to creep over topes (speed bumps) signaling towns on the roadside), where Mexican men and women invariably press their faces to your window, offering to sell you snacks for the trip. “Poor bastards.” I think. I must remember to never complain about my job and recall these souls, melting into heat puddles on the road, selling food that has sat in the sun all day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually buy anything from them. I wave politely and stare ahead before we shoot off westward.

Chichen Itza was a major city for the Maya in the region and was an economic, political, and military stronghold throughout the late Classic period. At its height, the city was home to some 150,000 Maya. Now, it annually hosts 1.2 million sunscreen-slathered, sweating tourists that swarm to the site on day trips from Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun.

As planned, we arrive right at 8, just as the doors are being opened. Regardless, a line has already formed at the ticket office, though it is probably significantly shorter than it will be in the next few hours. We walk through the gate and into the central plaza. The Castillo, or Castle, Temple, towered over a grassy field. Its imposing figure was about 30 meters high and consists of nine square terraces constructed of mammoth grey limestone blocks leading to a temple at the apex. The staircases leading to said temple on the north side of the pyramid are bordered by banisters that flow down from the peak to the ground, capped by a carved snake head. The Maya, skilled astronomers who calculated astronomic cycles with extraordinary accuracy, constructed these banisters at such angles so that the banisters remain the only unshaded, sunlit features at midday on the Spring and fall equinoxes. Thus, the giant snake, the god Kukulkan, wriggles down from the temple on those days.

El Castillo

El Castillo

Immediately to our left lies the Great Ball Court. This is the largest of its kind in all of Mesoamerica, measuring in at 168 by 70 m. Tall, 8m high walls, each adorned with several small stone discs, tower above the court and are emblazoned with feathered serpents. The rules and purpose of the ballgame are largely speculative, but given their prevalence at multiple Maya sites, it was clearly culturally important. A modern version of the game, ulama, which is still played by indigenous communities in Sinaloa, serves as a source for many potential rules, which combined with bas relief sculptures depicting the gameplay provide some semblance of an idea as to how it was played. A solid rubber ball made from the sap of the Castilla elastic, was probably struck with the hips, though this was probably not the only way the ball was played. Two teams of 2-4 players played at a given time. The game was quite physical given that it may have been a contact sport, and even if it wasn’t, the 4kg rubber ball could severely bruise the players. The ball was probably hit back and forth between the teams until a team could no longer return the ball into play, similar to racquetball. However, a 16th century monk wrote that while this was how points were accrued, a victory could also be attained if a team managed to hit the ball through one of the rings atop the wall, which was probably rare given their size and height. The ball game was an extremely important aspect of the Maya culture that transcended that of a mere sport. First, it was a proxy for warfare. Sometimes, conflicts were not decided through combat, but through playing the ballgame. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could solve our problems with a game of soccer or baseball rather than killing one another? However, the game was not always completely innocuous. Captive soldiers may have been forced to play a rigged game and then executed after their loss. Finally, the ballgame is an important thread in the Popl Vuh, the Maya creation myth. According to the legend, the hero twins Xbalanque and Hunahpu were summoned by the lords of Xibalba, the Underworld, to play a ballgame, which they lost, resulting in their execution. The twins were resurrected and then returned to Xibalba and defeated the lords of the Underworld. As we walk through the ballcourt, I imagine the game being played. Did the spectators cheer when a point was scored? Was it a family event when parents would bring their children, who in turn hoped to become ballplayers themselves? But the crowds no longer roar and the ball no longer bounces off of these walls, so we walk on.

We continue to the Sacred Cenote. The pit is 60 meters in diameter and 22 m deep. Sheer 27m walls dropped to the soupy green water surface below. This was one of three possible entryways to Xibalba for the Maya, so they regularly dumped jade, gold, and other sacrifices into its depths. This may have been the primary reason for building Chichen Itza where it is. The city was constructed during the Late Classic in the 600s. It rose to prominence in the late Classic (800-900AD) and became a powerhouse that dominated the Yucatec Maya lowlands. However, it only retained its glory for a few hundred years, declining in population and importance in the mid-1200s. However, it was never fully abandoned like many other Classic Maya cities. In fact, the Spanish arrived and took over a still-active Maya population in the city. The site remained an important religious center and the destination of Maya pilgrimage until very recently.

Just behind the ball court stood the Temple of the Skulls, so named for the hundreds of sculls etched into the walls of the structure. Again, the serpent was an important figure in the site, and dozens of snake carved in bas-relief wriggled at the base of the temple. Snake heads with large fangs capped the corners of the buildings. Might this be the site where the losers of the ballgame were sacrificed before being brought to the Sacred Cenote?

Columns

Columns

The Temple of Warriors stood in the corner of the site, bordered by thousands of 2 m high columns, each carved with representations of soldiers, as though they stood in formation, guarding the site through the ages. A stone army, unblinking, always ready to defend the city should the need arise. I wonder if they slept when the city was depopulated and covered by jungle, and were reawakened by the excavations of the site in the 1920s.

Caracol

Caracol

The final area of the site had a number of buildings, the most notable of which were El Caracol, las Monjas, and La Iglesia. El Caracol, which literally translates as, the snail, was possibly an observatory given its unusual shape (a circular domed chamber) and orientation (certain windows aligned with particular astronomic events, especially those associated with the orbit of Venus. Admittedly, the purpose of the building is not entirely certain, but Maya astronomers were keen observers of the movements of celestial bodies. They were able to make accurate naked-eye observations to inform their complex calendar system, which corresponded to the movements of the stars and planets. The calendar itself deserves some explanation. It consists of several cycles, or counts, each with different lengths. The Tzolkin count was a 260 day cycle that combined with a 365 day solar year known as a Haab. 52 Haab formed a full cycle of the calendar. Imagine two nested gears. The smaller one, representing the Tzolkin, moves inside the larger, outside gear, which also rotates and represents the Haab. The Maya also had a Long Count of days since a mythological creation day. This may not make much sense in our eyes, but the Maya number system was base 20, so this combination of cycles worked in perfect synchrony given their counting system. You may recall the craziness associated with 2012, which was supposedly marked the end of the world. Of course, any Maya could tell you that this was nonsense, and that it only marked the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Many indigenous cultures have a cyclic concept of time, which conflicts and confounds the linear passage of time in Western cultures. Las Monjas and la Iglesia, the Nunnery and the Church, respectively, were some of the most impressive features of the site. The stonework is among the most ornate and intricate I have seen at any Maya ruin. The delicate bas-relief sculptures and elaborate stone masks remain well-preserved and would be enviable features for any building, demonstrating the skill of Maya craftsmen. This was the highlight of the trip, as Chichen Itza may be my favorite Maya ruin (so long as one arrives early, before the bulk of the tourists and the merchants.

The Church (left) and Nunnery (right)

The Church (left) and Nunnery (right)

We leave the site as hordes of tourists and the heat begin to arrive at the site. The chaos is magnified by throngs of merchants peddling cheap tcholtchke souvenirs. “Hey buddy. One dollar.” They all cry, shoving painted balsa masks at me. One stand is identical to the next. They unwrap their wares from old newspaper and place them in orderly rows on benches near every major temple and structure at the site. For one dollar, one can purchase an authentic Maya mask emblazoned with the logo of your favorite NFL team, or a 2 foot tall Predator sculpture. The speed at which they overtake the site is astonishing. In the two and a half hours that we wandered the ruins, the area transformed from a tranquil park to a crowded mall. It’s all rather excessive and a sure sign that we should leave. We eat lunch beneath the Castle temple and depart the site for a cenote we were recommended. Cenote Ik-kil is only about 10 minutes away from Chichen Itza and a popular stopover for returning tours. It was a perfect place for reflection and relief after our trip to Chichen Itza. The cenote itself is 60 meters in diameter and 40 m deep, where the water surface drops another 50m to the bottom of the pit. We descend by a spiral stone staircase to the water below. A blue sapphire amongst the jade forest, one can stare up at the sky, framed by tall trees rising above the cenote edge and the fringe of vines which droop over and into the water. Small waterfalls trickle down, forming natural showers. Shafts of light pierce through small holes in the vaulted cave ceiling far above like spotlights through the mist. A platform located some 10 m above the surface allows me to dive into the icy waters. I rest my toes on the edge and falter in a moment of doubt, before taking a step and plunging into the cenote, its cobalt waters embracing me in a cool embrace before I float to the surface. I, like the Maya consider this place, sacred. Swallows flutter in a swirling vortex in the chamber as they fly out into the open. One feels so small in floating 50m above the bottom and 40 m from the ground surface. Once again, we have timed the trip perfectly and just as we depart, three coach tour buses pull into the parking lot. The cenote soon fills like a public pool in the heat of the heart of summer.

We return to Tulum and I part way with the Germans, happy to have spent what is functionally my last day in Mexico visiting these wonderful places on my terms. Tomorrow I am traveling to Cancun, where I cannot spend any money (I managed to budget exactly enough money for my stay. I have a whole 4 pesos remaining to my name after I buy food and pay for the hostel there. I am far too proud of this accomplishment.). Even if I did have money to spend, Cancun, with its swarms of party-crazy coeds and bros does not excite me in the least. I already have a sunburn to nurse and the decaying Sargasso accumulating on the beach does not entice me there either. I depart for the airport at 4:30 tomorrow and will be in Buffalo for a late lunch. This summer has been at times trying, but provided with a wealth of experiences that I will never forget. I have logged some 3200 km in buses and collectivos, in 3 countries over the past 2 months. I look forward to taking a nap on my couch after all of it.

15 August 2015


I didn’t get much sleep last night. I do feel much better, in that I don’t think I’m going to pass out, but my back is still tender to the touch. Putting on a shirt is torture as needles stab at me. Oh well. That’s what I get for not wearing a shirt while snorkeling.

I leave first thing in the morning and rent a bicycle so I can get around town easily and quickly. I am at the Tulum ruins by 9AM, but the site is already filling up with tour groups. The ruins themselves are not particularly large or impressive. They are in a striking location atop a 10m cliff overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. White limestone blocks glint in the sun like the water below. Waves crash into the cliff sending sea spray up toward the ruins. White edifices reach toward the sky, as though aspiring to be clouds. Palms drift in the breeze that does little to cool me or wick the moisture from my sweat-drenched shirt.

Mexican highways are more bicycle friendly than American streets...

Mexican highways are more bicycle friendly than American streets…

Tulum was a port city and a commercial hub for the Maya city state of Coba. It was one of the last cities to be constructed by the Maya during the Classic period and one of the last to fall, as it survived until the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. Whereas the depopulation of other major Maya city states is uncertain, few would argue with the hypothesis that the local people were decimated by diseases brought by Spanish settlers.

Dramatic cliffside location of Tulum

Dramatic cliffside location of Tulum

It is but 10 AM and the heat is already oppressive. I soak through my shirt and move between patches of shade. I only stay for about an hour due to the site’s small size. It probably only supported between 1000 and 1500 inhabitants, who were probably primarily merchants protected by a wall toward the land and the sea itself to the east. The tourists from nearby Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum already outnumber the number of structures on the site and there is no time to be alone and reflect on the beauty.

After the ruins, I hop on the bike and ride another 7 km to a cenote called “El Gran Cenote.” Cenotes are natural formations where limestone bedrock is dissolved and collapses to expose groundwater that lay beneath. They are fairly common given the limestone-dominated karst topography of the Yucatan. Given that the region has almost no rivers and few lakes, the cenotes were incredibly important for Maya city states which developed in the region. Many were constructed near cenotes because they offered a ready supply of potable water. They also were important culturally, as they represented gateways to the afterlife. As such, the Maya were known to throw sacrifices into the cenotes, including gold, precious stones, and even human sacrifices.

I descend a set of stairs into the cenote itself. A number of small trees and vines drop their roots from above into the water like fishing lines, forming a living candelabra around the rim of the cenote. I step in. The water is cold and refreshing given both the heat, the bike ride here, and my sunburn. It is crystal clear, allowing me to peer down. Small groups of fish swim amongst the stalactites and stalagmites, which extend to the cenote floor. Below the surface, I see that the walls do not extend to the limestone floor, but instead dip back to form dark caves to who knows where. This is the realm of long-barbelled catfish and scuba divers. The aquamarine waters near the surface transition to turquoise, cerulean, Aegean, and navy blue, and finally to inky black nothingness, where no light filters through. I surface, take a breath, and dive down again, sinking down to look into the caves, but am met by nothingness. There is no light, no sound, just a void. A gateway to the afterlife indeed. I dare not explore these areas, instead opting to enjoy the blue of sky and sun and the cool, calm waters of the surface.

I also meet two German tourists with whom I chatted as we waited for a combi from Akumal. We both want to go to Chichen Itza, but want to avoid the heat and throngs of tourists in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the first bus leaves Tulum at 9AM, which is the same time that most of the tours depart the city. However, a rental car would not be any more expensive than a bus between the three of us, so we decide to join forced and travel there together tomorrow. I head to sleep early, or rather try to, given the pain from my sunburn has not abated after the dip in the cenote and that my fellow hostel guests seem to want to party every night, so that I can prepare for the early morning tomorrow. We will depart at 6 to arrive at the site when they open the doors at 8.

IMG_8617

Damn it’s hot. I wake up, shirt soaked in sweat, glistening like Rocky mid-fight. The humidity is high and it feels like I’m breathing through a wet sock shoved down my throat. My sunburn radiates heat. I lay staring at the bunk above me. Eventually I manage to drift off…

14 August 2015


I have decided to use today as a rest day. I don’t feel up to biking to the cenotes or hiking to any ruins today. It is all the better that I have an extra day in Tulum to accommodate this. The pain has subsided, but the backs of my legs are still quite sore. Hopefully I can recuperate more fully and continue my trip tomorrow.

13 August 2015


I decide to head to go to Akumal to snorkel today. I rent some snorkel gear and board a north-bound collectivo. I find myself on the beach after a 1 km walk. The sargassum is not nearly as noticeable here, though it appears that it is a growing problem all along the Atlantic Coast. I can only imagine the fuss raised by rich suburban gringo tourists trying to sunbathe in Cancun. Unlike those hellholes further north, Akumal seems to be frequented by European, American, and Mexican tourists. Although there are a fair number of tourists, the beach is far from crowded.

I hop into the bathtub warm water and swim out to the reef. If I had this experience earlier, I may very well have become a marine biologist. I am immersed in a world of bright neon colors. An impossibly purple sea fan coral waves listlessly with the current, like a tree in a strong breeze. Towering sea plumes and sturdy brain corals shelter a multitude of fish, including petite needlefish; gorgeous species with beguiling names like French angels, sergeant majors, and four-eye butterflies; and stoplight parrotfish which eat the coral, grinding it into sand. A lionfish guards his lair beneath the coral atoll. I back away given that its flowing fins contain venom that can be extremely painful. The lionfish is native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, but were released from aquariums into the Carribean in the 1990s. They are now an invasive pest that poses a major threat to coral reef ecosystems, as it is a voracious predator that consume juvenile reef fish and can reproduce at incredible rates. A single adult female can lay some 30,000 eggs and can mate every 55 days. Large-eye bream stare back stupidly as I descend to the coral. It is a silent alien world beneath the waves. The quiet is only interrupted occasionally by the crunch of parrotfish chewing on coral and the faint ripple of the waves above. An hourglass or Argus moray eel grins at me from its rocky crevice. A huge bumphead parrotfish, probably 2 feet tall by three feet long swam away from me with surprising haste given its heft. The highlight of the trip was swimming with green marine turtles. I met my first of these beautiful creatures eating sea grass on a sandy patch of the reef. I could hear it ripping at the grass as I hovered over it as I ate. I tried to keep my distance so as not to disturb them, but they seemed completely oblivious to snorkelers. After a few minutes of feeding, it swam upwards, inches away from me and took two gulps of air at the surface before descending to eat again. One feels a special sort of connection to these gentle giants when you look them in the eye, soft and black like a fawn’s. I saw a total of three turtles during my time floating gently out on the reef and enjoyed every second. It is beyond my comprehension how they could be so violently and aggressively hunted to the point that their populations require strict protection. I spent about 4 hours exploring the reef before retiring to the shade of the palms on the white sand beach to rest.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was terribly sunburned on my dorsal side. My back and the backs of my legs were red and tender despite regular applications of sunscreen. The night was difficult. Every move radiated a pulse of pain throughout my body. My back baked as though it was being held over a spit while my front was chilled. My head ached and I could hear my heart beating in my temples. I started sweating uncontrollably after a cold shower. My vision dimmed and my ears began to ring. I grasped the back of a chair before almost collapsing. I curled up in my bed and tried to wait out the worst of the pain, which was probably exacerbated by dehydration. I guzzled water to try to alleviate some of the symptoms, but the pain continued long into the night. I only had moments of fitful sleep, punctuated by torturous electrical agony.

Akumal Beach

Akumal Beach

12 August 2015


I initially planned on heading to Caye Caulker, but a number of individuals informed me that it would be very expensive to snorkel and stay there and that it was extremely touristy, so I decide to push north all the way to Tulum in one day. The journey begins at 8AM. Unfortunately, I missed the bus direct to Dangringa, so I start walking the 4 or 5 km to the highway junction. I attempt to catch a hitch there, but am initially unsuccessful. After about a kilometer, a truck stops for me. I throw my bags in the back and jump in the front seat. Dave moved to Hopkins three years ago for the fishing. We chat about the changes in Hopkins, fishing, and the NFL. He is a Broncos fan and doesn’t have much love for the Bills, but I suspect that he is just happy to shoot the shit with somebody who knows anything about the league. He lets me off at the junction to Dangringa, where I catch the James bus to Belize City. There, I catch a northbound bus to Corozal, town right on the Belizean side of the Belize-Mexico border. Surprisingly, it is a coach bus, rather than a Blue Bird school bus. The ride lasts about 4 hours to the border. I get out and pass through the Belizean emigration office and change my Belizean dollars for pesos. Hopefully it will sustain me until my departure, as I was left with far more than I anticipated given that I did not go to Caye Caulker. I walk into the “free zone” in between the Mexico and Belezean borders: an area dominated by casinos and booze shops. A city of sin whose only function is to provide miserable people a brief respite to forget the despair of their pedestrian lives at the bottom of a tequila bottle and a spin of the roulette table. I board a taxi, alongside a cook, an old Mexican woman scolding her daughter, and a man dressed in black with skull and cross bone rings, to the Mexican border. I walk over the bridge and through customs on the Mexican side of the border. A short collective ride later, I arrive in Chetumal where I catch a bus to Tulum. After almost 13 hours, I arrive in Tulum. This is the last big northward push. I will still need to travel to Cancun, but that leg should only last about another hour. I am glad that it is over. A cold beer later, I collapse in my bed and fall asleep beneath an impotent, lethargic ceiling fan.

Mexico-Belize Border

Mexico-Belize Border

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