Mayan Mystery

Ruins dot the Yucatan Peninsula and offer hints about an advanced ancient civilization
travel, lifestyle, culture, history, outdoors, nature
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Stephanie Lipscomb

Guillermo Cen Canche is proudly Mayan. He speaks the language. He embraces the customs that have endured since the civilization’s demise. He acknowledges that his ancestors lived in the thatched huts in the hills below the city centers, not in the palaces above.

Beyond that basic knowledge, though, Canche’s heritage is largely a mystery to him. Like many Mayan descendants and the scholars and experts who study them, Canche is left to interpret and speculate about one of man’s most advanced ancient cultures.

“We don’t know as much as we could, but we know the Mayans were very advanced,” Canche says.

Knowledge of Mayan culture continues to grow, as the archaeological record is expansive. The remains of hundreds of Maya city-states lay scattered around the Yucatan Peninsula. Many sites offer hints at the evolution of the society between its rise three millennia ago, its height around A.D. 500, its decline starting 400 years later and its fall with the arrival of the Spanish in the New World.

The ruins inspire awe in those who trek into the jungle highlands of Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The remoteness of the Yucatan, which sticks out like a hitchhiker’s thumb from the Central America isthmus, contributed to the preservation of the grand stone temples, palaces and plazas of the Mayans. Sites like Copan in Honduras, Ti’kal in Guatemala, Xunantunich and Altun Ha in Belize, and Coba, Chichen Itza and Tulum in Mexico mesmerize casual sightseers and adventurous explorers alike.

The highest points of land, the peaks, were sacred places. Hence, they always built their cities on top of mountains, and their temples at the highest points of the cities.

Canche shares his heritage with visitors to Coba, believed to once have been a Mayan metropolis of more than 55,000 residents. The expansive site is located 40 miles inland from Mexico’s Riviera Maya and overlooks four large lakes. Coba is thought to have been a commercial hub, linked to several other Mayan city-states by a network of stone roads that stretched up to 60 miles. The crumbling remains of one causeway still run through the site.

Canche’s affection for Mayan accomplishments—a written language, a sophisticated numbering and calendar system, underground reservoirs for irrigation and other agricultural innovations—shines brighter than the tropical sun.

“It’s like the pyramids of Egypt. You can’t visit the ruins and not be impressed,” Canche says. “And there are Mayan sites all over the region.”

Ancient Spectacles

Nohoch Mul is the hub of Coba, once a Mayan capital spread around four lakes.

Scaling Xunantunich’s El Castillo is not for the acrophobic. The stone staircases wind toward the heavens, crisscrossing the 130-foot pyramid on all four sides rather than rising straight to the temple on top as at other sites.

Halfway up, climbers can see above the surrounding foliage. The vista offers a peek across the Belizean border into Guatemala toward Ti’kal, thought to be an ancient Mayan capital and home to the spectacular Temple of the Great Jaguar. Yet despite the natural beauty flanking the site, the focus is on the face of the man-made structure itself.

Sculpted into two sides of the El Castillo façade are astronomical friezes. The carvings depict serpents, gods, numbers and letters. Chac, the rain god, sits at the friezes’ center. Other panels represent the sun god, Kinich Ahau.

The carvings tell a story, says Joe Awe, owner of Nine Belize, an ecotourism operator based in nearby San Ignacio. Scholars suspect it recounts the Mayan genesis, which involves godlike mortals separating a layer of primordial soup into sky and earth to create the world.

“The highest points of land, the peaks, were sacred places,” Awe says. “Hence, they always built their cities on top of mountains, and their temples at the highest points of the cities.”

The temples, while grand, are simple architecturally. No evidence exists that the Mayans used metal tools, the wheel or even beasts of burden in building construction. They also neglected to employ rounded arches or keystones in doorways and ceilings or interior support columns.

Round columns and prominent sculptures didn’t become tenets of Mayan architecture until well into the civilization’s history. Later settlements, like Tulum and Chichen Itza with their support columns and serpent-headed statuary, stand in sharp contrast to the more ancient sites.

Bustling Civilization

Tulum was a fortified port city guarded by the Caribbean Sea and high, thick walls with only a few, tucked away access points.

The wall that surrounds Tulum stands tall and thick, as high as 16 feet and as wide as 26—extreme, even for a prime piece of oceanfront real estate.

To pass through the stone perimeter and into the city center of the Mayan civilization’s main seaport is to understand that even a practical people like to express their extravagant side sometimes.

Several temples, including El Castillo and the Templo del Dios del Viento, hug the cliffside overlooking a pair of sandy coves and the Caribbean Sea. Several more, along with a stone palace and a house showcasing several exterior columns, flank a tiered courtyard at the heart of the site.

Two watchtowers, several shrines and a structure built over a cenote, a natural sinkhole filled with fresh water, are among the buildings near Tulum’s perimeter.

The walled city is a small site by Mayan city-state standards but is believed to have been a regional center for politics, religion, astronomy and the arts as well as a trading post.

“Anytime you see stone, think the elite of the civilization,” says Nine Belize’s Awe. “Places like Tulum are all stone.”

To the west at Coba, which spreads over 12 square miles around four lakes, life was believed to be more indicative of Mayan society as a whole. The Mayans employed a strict caste system composed of a working class at the bottom, a middle class of craftsmen, then the warrior class and political class. The aristocracy and royalty were at the top.

The sprawl of Coba’s ruins indicates it was densely populated with the inhabitants performing their specific functions: the laborers growing crops, carrying cargo on their backs along the trade road and assisting with building construction; the craftsmen creating goods and buildings; the warriors providing security; the politicians facilitating trade and operating public services; and the aristocracy and royalty ruling.

Touring the site requires a hiker’s spirit and endurance or the willingness to brave a “Mayan Lamborghini”—a tricycle taxi pedaled by a local teenager. The pedicab sticks to dirt paths that parallel Coba’s “white roads,” thought to be ceremonial pathways originating from Nohoch Mul, the site’s main temple, and connecting with the city’s many neighborhoods.

“This was a busy place,” says one of the trike operators, Orlando. “Very busy.”

Cultural Curiosity

The Spanish decimated, both by sword and disease, what was left of Coba and the other remaining Mayan city-states as they settled the Yucatan Peninsula in the 1500s. The conquistadors obliterated not just the population but also the culture, destroying much of the Mayans’ written history.

Only four codices—folding books made of bark cloth containing hieroglyphic script—remain. Mayan scholar Michael Coe summed up the dearth of a written archaeological record in his 1992 book, “Breaking the Maya Code,” writing, “Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture.” He compared it to studying American history with only three prayer books and the novel “The Pilgrim’s Progress” to go on.

Touring the site requires a hiker’s spirit and endurance or the willingness to brave a “Mayan Lamborghini”—a tricycle taxi pedaled by a local teenager.

Yet one form of Mayan communication survived. Carved monuments created as tributes to Mayan leaders, known as stelae, offer insights on the ritualistic nature of the civilization.

At Xunantunich, the ruins of a shrine flank the main plaza. A carved stone pillar stands near the center of the space, fronted by a stone altar. Several stelae depict bloodletting, and archaeologists and scholars have concluded the shrine was one of many where royal descendants would attempt to communicate with their dead ancestors through these rituals.

“They didn’t sacrifice virgins after all but they did cut themselves in some awkward places,” Awe says. “Some things are better left unlearned maybe.”

The quest for knowledge about Mayan culture continues, though. Excavations are ongoing at sites like Xunantunich and Coba, undertaken by university scholars and students, government archaeologists and hired laborers. Experts believe the remains of dozens more Mayan city-states lay hidden in the Yucatan jungle.

All subscribe to a Mayan proverb: “It is not good to look at the clouds or your work will not progress.”

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