I'll show you my Chacmool if you show me yours

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North America » Mexico » Yucatán » Chichén Itzá
March 11th 2017
Published: March 12th 2017
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My first full day in the Yucatan actually took me to the state of Yucatan. That may sound weird, but Cancun is part of the Yucatan peninsula, whereas Yucatan is also a state in Mexico. Cancun is not in the state of Yucatan, but Quintana Roo. Geography lesson complete.

On paper, my professional tours for today and tomorrow were a great idea - "exclusive early access" to Chichen Itza (where I was today) and Tulum (tomorrow). I practice, however, I may have overdone it. First off, they pick you up at your hotel at 5AM. Which means you have to be ready to go by then; or up by at least 4:30AM. I am not a morning person, but I normally have no problem getting up early if I need to. But this isn't early. It's still the previous day, in my book. I can deal, if it means I get to go to fascinating places without all the crowds or the brutal heat. But I didn't really factor in doing it two days in a row, plus having to do the same thing on Monday morning because my flight leaves at 8:15AM. Oh, and I had a flight on Friday morning, so I had to get up way early for that, too. I'm not really complaining - more like offering advice to my readers and to myself in case such an opportunity comes up. Make sure to take these details into consideration!

Anyway, I was glad that they came to pick my up at my hotel instead of having to take a taxi to the resort area. Remember, my hotel is NOT in the Zona Hotelera, and this is where the website said that they would be leaving from. So I was happy to discover that I wouldn't need to make any additional plans. I've taken tours through this website before, in Spain, and they had people meet at a point a few blocks away, so that they wouldn't have to spend more time and leave any earlier. But I guess 5AM is early enough.

Chichen Itza is about 2.5 hours away from Cancun by bus. And the roads are pretty good - I'm guessing that since this is a more touristy area, the government is willing to spend more money to make it better. We took a bus, with a/c but not toilet, and every seat was occupied. I was toward the back, and there was a row of 4 Aussie guys in the row behind me, at the very back of the bus. I didn't really talk to them or anyone else, mainly because I slept for the first hour or so. Marco, our tour guide, said he would start talking to us about an hour before we got to the site, so we were actually given permission to sleep. It's surprising how quickly the time will pass when you're asleep.

Chichen Itza itself was recently listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, so there's that. It opens at 8AM, and we were there about 5 minutes early. It was well worth it. When we got our tickets, we were ushered into the park by the guy who would be leading the Spanish-language tour, and he led us straight to the Castillo, what many would call a pyramid. There were probably 10 or 12 people in total in the area when we got there, so apparently we were meant to take pictures of it, with it, before the crowds got there. Sure. I took a few goofy ones, thanks to one of the other guys on my tour group (and I returned the favor). Always good to have those people when you're a solo traveler. Then after about 10 minutes of that foolishness, Marco arrived and said he would be leading the English tour. I don't think he was a professional archaeologist (as the website claimed), but he was a good guide.

We were informed about how the pyramid was really a calendar, about its history, and then how you could hear the "sound" of the quetzal bird (the one that Kukulkan, the winged serpent god who was patron to the place, was said to embody) if you clapped your hands really hard. The echo from the top of the pyramid sound just like the sound that bird makes! It was wild. The Mayans had all sorts of places around the site where you could clap your hands and hear certain sounds (like a rattlesnake), and the king himself had set up the ball court so that he could hear the conversations of his "guests" at the other end without them being able to hear him. Sneaky and impressive. Speaking of sounds, when we first arrived at the Castillo, I heard what I thought were howler monkeys in the nearby trees. I got excited, only to find out that it was one of the many vendors (they're set up all around the main road around the Castillo and the path down to the cenote/water hole) blowing on a ceramic toy that many of them sell. Needless to say, I was annoyed, and I made a point to avoid any vendors who continued that practice.

After the demonstration about the Castillo really being a calendar (the numerology is fascinating considering the limited resources that the Mayans possessed), we moved to the ball court. We got to see some interesting carvings along the base as well as an in-person demonstration of the king being able to overhear his “guests” without them being able to hear him. Marco explained how the game was played, too. I’ve been to several Maya sites now, and they hardly agree on all the rules, and some even say that nobody knows. But those who do “know” typically say that it was played with a hard rubber ball, that the goal was to get the ball through one of the hoops up on the sides of the court, and that you could only use your knees, hips, elbows, and shoulders to strike the ball. Sure. I’d be dead. Or probably alive, since it seems that in most of these stories, they killed the winners (because they were more pleasing to the gods).

After that, we walked to an altar that had been set up with many skulls depicted along the sides. I mean a LOT of skulls. This was apparently where captives were sacrificed to the gods. And maybe even the winners of the ball game? Lastly, Marco took us to another small altar that had a great representation of Kukulkan himself on all four sides. A snakes head with a man’s face inside its mouth, but the snake was covered in feathers. Pretty impressive iconography. He then pointed out the Temple of the Thousand Warriors, which has the Chacmool at the top center. It’s one of the more recognizable images around Chichen Itza, and really around the Yucatan peninsula itself. There are many 2-D versions in Cancun.

At this point, Marco left us to our own devices. He recommended visiting the Cenote, which is a ceremonial well for the Mayans. That’s a bit simplistic,
My very own ChacmoolMy very own ChacmoolMy very own Chacmool

Probably my one and only physical souvenir from this trip
but the limestone around the Yucatan has many of these sinkholes that have filled with water, and in times of drought, they retain much of their water because of their depth and proximity to the water table. (This is my own research prior to this trip, mind you.) So these places were sacred to the Mayans. It was a short walk – maybe 5 minutes – to the Cenote, but each side was lined with vendors, selling all kinds of cheap sh… goods. I wasn’t really going to buy anything, but I had sort of wanted to take a little Chacmool home with me. So when I got back to the start of the path to the Cenote, I noticed a vendor had some in blue – the special Maya blue. And they were small enough to put in a plastic container that I just happened to bring with me on this trip. He said 150 pesos (about $7.50), but I didn’t really want to spend that much. Then he brought out a couple more, and I found one that I liked more than the all-blue Chacmool. He extolled their individual craftsmanship and painting techniques, some with mineral paints and others not. Finally, he said, “I’m gonna make you a good deal, because I want to make my first sale of the day. 100 pesos ($5) for either of these two.” I was sold. I really wasn’t looking to haggle, but I figured it was a pretty good deal. So I gave a home to a cute little Chacmool. I hope he makes it home in one piece.

What is a Chacmool, you ask? It’s this statue where new warriors had to approach at the top of the Temple of the Warriors and offer blood (from a couple of places you probably don’t want to know), as a rite of passage. It’s the figure of a man, reclining, with knees up and a plate on his belly, looking at you and waiting for you to offer something on that plate. Check out my picture. I’m pretty proud of it. And I NEVER get souvenirs for myself aside from coins or postcards or pictures.

After that, I made my way around the plaza area again, trying to see if there was anything that I had missed that I might want to see more closely or photograph. There were a few things, but it was getting hot, and the crowds were getting larger. We were due to meet back at the “meeting point” at 12:10, so I headed to the exit. In the ticket area, there are several more vendors, but of the brick-and-mortar variety: a few small cafes and the obligatory gift shop. I did stop by in the center of this plaza for a cup of ice cream – it felt so good as the sun blazed overhead. And then it was time to get back on the bus and head to Cancun.

We made a scheduled pit stop about 1 hour into the drive, and then right as we got to Cancun, we stopped and separated into smaller vans, like those that had picked us up at our individual hotels for the morning. Of course, my van driver took me to the wrong hotel, as had my airport shuttle driver yesterday. But that wrong hotel is only a block away, so it’s never that big of a deal. Just odd that they always see the wrong name instead of what’s really on the paper.

So I’ve spend the rest of the day recuperating. Air conditioning is nice, and this is meant to be a holiday, isn’t it? After all, I’ve got to be ready to go at 5AM again tomorrow morning! And then 5:45AM the next morning! Happy day. At least Mexico doesn’t start Daylight Savings Time tonight, as the US does. I’d be completely wrecked tomorrow.

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