Monday, April 6, 2009

Palenque will ruin you

Some people think that once you’ve seen one ruin you’ve seen them all. That’s not quite true. They’re all different in some way. However, I will admit that once you’ve seen one that’s particularly beautiful or spectacular (like we’d seen in Palenque and Teotihuacan) the rest can suffer in comparison. But known for it’s pyramid that casts a shadow in the shape of a snake every equinox, Chichen Itza is one of those must-sees and we were looking forward to our tour.

After our past tour experience, we weren’t expecting much especially when our meeting point was a parking lot in front of the supermarket on the town limits. When a deluxe air-conditionned bus pulled up we were pleasantly surprised. When we were handed a packed breakfast we were doubly surprised even though we’d already grabbed stuff to eat from the supermarket. Something for later I guess.

The bus took us through the ugly jungle scrub which even the guide (yes an actual guide) admitted was nothing to look at. We had a pit stop at a souvenir stand (go figure) which gave Adrian and I plenty of time to try on huge sombreros. I don’t know who buys this stuff but someone must since you see it everywhere in Mexico. Then it was back on the bus.

In just over two hours we arrived at Chichen Itza where the bus was separated into groups based on language given free ice cold bottled water for the tour (pleasant surprise #3) and then taken around the site. By now it was after 11am and the sun was so hot that you could fry an egg on the sidewalk – if there had been sidewalks or eggs. There was very little shade but the excellent guide was great at finding trees where he would stop and gather us around while explaining stuff.

Chichen Itzen means people of the mouth of the water cave and was important for it’s location over huge cenotes or underground cave that contained fresh water – very important for this hot barren land. Water was so important that sacrifices were made to the water god to insure that there would always be enough for the people. And in Chichen Itza a lot of sacrifices were made, and I began to scan the crowd for someone to throw into one of the pits if it went relief from the sun.

Walking from shady spot to shady spot, the guide pointed out residences, observatories, tombs and sacrificial stones before taking us into the biggest ball court in the world where the Mayans played a game with very simple rules – get the ball through the ring and you win. But did you want to win? The prize was having your head cut off and your heart ripped out as a sacrifice to the gods. Frankly, that would have made me proud to be the Maple Leafs of the Mayan sports world.

The final stop on our tour was the famous pyramid, although we’d been able to see it for most of the tour. Here up to 50,000 have gathered on the equinox to witness the shadow. Really, the snake shadow is more impressive than it sounds. Why? Well, the pyramid is actually a super large and intricate calendar; each of the four sides was 91 steps that lead to a large platform. 4 sides for 4 season. 4x91+1=365 days of the year. And the pyramid was built on exactly the right access to catch the sun on the equinox. The steps cast the shadow and a large stone snake head marks the spot where it ends, twice a year, every year for the past 1000 years. And the acoustics are so precise that one person clapping at the bottom will have the sound echo through out the plaza. All this without calculators or the wheel. Told you it was impressive. After more than two hours, that’s were our tour ended. We were given 30 minutes to wander around at our leisure but Adrian and I (as well as many others from the bus) used the time to cool off in the shade.

Next stop was the promised lunch. It was the typical tourist buffet but with bottle dancers – dancers who did a soft she with bottles or full trays balanced perfectly on their heads. Unfortunately for them people were more interested in the food than the entertainment. We digested our food during the bus ride to a cenote – one of the thousands of underground caves full of fresh cool water. The Mayans had once revered them but now it was the tourists who flocked to them to cool off. It was about 100 feet underground through the limestone and into a giant cavern. The bottom was a small pond (photo above) and at the top a whole from which tree roots dangled all the way to the bottom. Adrian went jumping into the water but with only 30 minutes allowed here (and 15 used up waiting in line) I passed.

Finally, it was time to head back but there was one last quick stop in Valladolid, a pretty little colonial town. It’s claim to famed is something to do with the start of the Mexican Revolution. It’s felt like an underrated little town and probably much cheaper than the coastal towns. Unfortunately, we only stopped long enough to see the main plaza and church before herded back on the bus so I could be totally wrong.

An hour later we were dropped off at the supermarket parking lot where our day began. The tour was one of the better ones, if only for the air conditioned bus. Because in the end it was the heat that almost ruined us.


cheryl said...

i cant BELIEVE anyone would even play the game if there was a chance that their head would be chopped off for winning! wtf? lol

liz and adrian said...

supposedly it was an honour to be sacrificed but to that I say, I'd rather live in dishonour.