Mayan Territory

Exploring the Yucatan Peninsula: A Traveler on the Trail of the Gods

To talk about Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is like allowing the reader to taste Grandma’s marmalade with the tip of a finger. Home to the mythical archeological ruins of the Maya, it is a territory of splendor, filled with images, smells, colors, lights, poetry and legends. For the lovers of folklore, there is a constant whirl of dances and shows all year long. And everyone, visitor or foreigner, joins in the village fiestas, enjoying the grace and joy of young people dressed in extravagant colorful regional customs, where the shared heritage of all social classes has been best preserved.

The first stop I decided to make happened to be Izamal; not because I had seen the village’s profile in my tourist guide, but simply because of the name. And I was right: No sooner had I penetrated the quiet streets of this “city of the three cultures,” I was immediately charmed by the yellow and white facades of the territory’s most ancient city. For more than a thousand years, Izamal was an important ceremonial center of the Mayans. Zamna, the founder of the ancient Maya Empire settled his court here, leaving behind many memorials of a glorious era. The village remains today the best-preserved urban complex of Yucatán’s colonial period, which began after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in 1521.

Before I took off again, I followed the advice of an old lady selling colorful handmade cotton candy to eat lunch in one of the haciendas on my way. A comfortable room with faded brick red walls and rough wooden tables, and a tangle of overgrown wines and shrubbery that had slowly started to invade the space — all without a tourist in sight!   Just time for a siesta in one of the hammocks overlooking the exotic flora and I was now gone to the faraway kingdom of the symbolic world of the Mayan’s.

Life was dedicated to the gods, believed to help people with their lives and work in return for offerings, such as human sacrifices. A Mayan ritual consisted of two steps: purification – sexual abstinence, baths and fasting –as a way to prepare the encounter with the sacred. The second step was a positive one: songs, dances and performances to ask the gods for good health and rain.

My first stop was Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-mahl), believed to mean “Built Three Times.” Archeologists rate this pre-Columbian site as the finest, because the ruins appear to rise from the jungle.   At night, the site is ablaze with a palette of colored illuminations flooding each of the temples while music and an offside voice tell tales of Mayan gods.

The Mayans lived in a sacred world, searching for the symbolic, the mystery in things you could not see but were real nonetheless. My guide in Uxmal warned about the human sacrifices Mayans were ready to perform to please their gods, instructing me to follow him closely, as even today, this was Mayan territory. Just the day before, an American tourist had disappeared and panic had settled over Uxmal.

The police decided the man probably used the opportunity to vanish into a better life. But my guide said the Mayans took possession of him and offered his body to the gods. I never found out what had actually happened, but that day, the mysterious disappearance haunted the visitors while they continued their tour around the archeological ruins.

The Mayan civilisation is known for its temples, erected on colossal pyramids, decorated outside with sophisticated stucco adornments (called the Puuc style) and indoor murals.

The pyramid of Chichen Itza, which means “at the mouth of the well of Itza” because of the turquoise-water natural sink-holes (called cenotes) and underground rivers, is one of the most popular sites on the peninsula. It is grandiose in its own way because its architecture and style diversity breath out the vibrations of this lost civilization.  Yet, it is somehow less impressive as it lacks the elusive loneliness of Uxmal.

On my way down the Riviera Maya, I passed by some sailors’ villages that seemed untouched by the pressure forces of time. As I saw their facial traits- which could not betray their Mayan origins-  I imagined the boats of their ancestors docking at the harbors and people exchanging goods.

My last stop was the famous site of Tulum, overlooking the Caribbean shores. While smaller than Uxmal and Chichen Itza, it is exciting to walk up and down the steep paths, each offering a better view than the last of the astonishing contradiction between ancient vestiges and turquoise waters.

Whether Mayans are extinct as some claim or their descendants survived in throughout more than centuries in the Mexican states of Chiapas, Yucatán, Quintana Roo and in the countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, their civilization will continue to fascinate historians for a long time to come. At their height, they survived all assaults of weather and disease, proving to be strong and independent, forging a myth that lives on in the fascination of archeologists, scholars and visitors to this day.

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