Mayan Sites of the Yucatan Peninsula
Its magnificent pyramids and temples, many of which have been extensively restored, make it one of the grandest and most glorious of all Mayan sites.
At Chichen Itza, Mayan civilization reached its pinnacle. Art, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, architecture -- they all flourished here. Walking among the magnificently restored buildings and manicured grounds, visitors can experience the full flowering of this enormously advanced people.
The major structures include the Castillo, or Temple of Kukulcan; the Nunnery Complex; the Caracol, which was the center for astronomy; the Temple of the Warriors, with its magnificent colonnade of carved stelae; the ball-court and Temple of the Jaguar; and the marketplace. Two cenotes, or natural wells, were the primary reason the city was situated at this location. One provided water for the people and the crops; the other was the sacrificial well, where animal and often human victims were tossed into the dark waters in rituals of purification, celebration and renewal.
The Castillo is perhaps the best-known pyramid in the entire Mayan world. Exquisitely proportioned, every aspect of its architecture had religious meaning as well as functional purpose. Less well-known is the fact that the Castillo as it is seen today sits atop an earlier structure; and that a steep, dark stairway inside the building takes visitors to a secret chamber, where the brilliant red Throne of the Jaguar scowls at those brave enough to intrude on this powerfully sacred site.
Everywhere at Chichen Itza one encounters strong, silent testimony to the power and achievements of this remarkable civilization. The reflecting basins at the Caracol, each sculpted with a god-figure, allowed Mayan astronomers to chart the positions and movements of the planets and stars. The magnificent carvings on the walls of the ball-court tell the grisly yet enthralling story of the ritual version of the Mayan game of Pok-ta-Pok, and portray the losing captain being decapitated in the spring renewal ritual. The Temple of the Warriors celebrates the battlefield exploits of this mighty race, and pays hall of fame-like homage to its greatest fighters. Everywhere the carvings portray the supreme jaguar and feathered serpent gods, the morning star Venus, and the enigmatic lord Kukulcan.
No words nor even pictures can do justice to the splendor that is Chichen Itza. Only when a visitor has the personal experience of staring down into the cenote of sacrifice, or into the eyes of the red jaguar, is the full force of the past truly felt. Come, drink in the past, the glory of the Maya and Chichen Itza.
Less than two kilometers from the Hotel Mayaland sits the entrance to the long, winding Caves of Balancanche. A deeply sacred site to the ancient Maya, these caves were only discovered in 1959, and remain in the pristine condition in which they were found.
Sculpted out of the Yucatan limestone by underground rivers, the caves still contain ponds and streams. Sacred to the Mayan water god Chaac, ceremonial sites deep within the caves still contain literally hundreds of clay pots and other religious vessels. As one strolls through the dramatically lit chambers, surrounded by these beautifully carved and painted artifacts, it is easy to imagine a solemn religious procession proceeding by torchlight to the depths of the inner world.
For any visitors with more than a day to spend at CHICHEN ITZA, a visit to the Caves of Balancanche provides an insightful and awe-inspiring glimpse into ancient Mayan life, and a close-up look at some of the best-preserved pottery crafted by Mayan artisans. The hotel provides free transportation for its guests to the caves.
Three hundred years before the magnificent pyramids of CHICHEN ITZA began to rise towards the heavens, another city was built just over a mile away. Known today as Old Chichen, it survives now as ruins among the underbrush, accessible by foot and horse trails and whispering of an even more ancient time.
The number of structures makes it clear that Old Chichen was a city of importance in its time, approximately 600 to 850 AD. The tallest pyramid, though overgrown by plants and vines, clearly foreshadows the Castillo of the later city; and many other temples, palaces and undefined buildings hint at a vibrant people living lives of ritual and routine.
That even these earlier Mayans were a people of achievement is made clear by the ruins of an advanced aqueduct system, transporting precious water for agriculture and human consumption. Several other buildings in Old Chichen have unique and mysterious aspects to them; indeed, sitting as they do, defiant among the overgrowth, they inspire a visitor to imagine what the first explorers might have thought when they encountered these stark monuments to an ancient people.
Old Chichen is accessible by a foot trail that starts behind the Nunnery complex at CHICHEN ITZA. It is more easily reached -- and its story more fully told -- on a guided horseback tour from the stables of the HOTEL MAYALAND. What it lacks in grandeur, Old Chichen makes up for in mystery and antiquity; it has its own power, its own special feeling with which to reward the adventurous visitor.
Uxmal is acclaimed to be the architectural masterpiece of the Maya civilization. The Great Pyramid, the Palace of the Governors, the House of the Magician and the Nunnery Quadrangle are magnificent structures; and the extensive restoration work performed at this site gives visitors a spectacular experience of the scope and grandeur of this powerful city.
Uxmal achieved its greatest glory between 800 and 1000 AD, although its decline did not apparently come as a consequence of the rise of CHICHEN ITZA to the east.
The bulk of the structures we see today are multi-roomed, and are thought to be the homes of a large and powerful elite class. Archeologists can only guess at how many thousands of peasants, living in the surrounding countryside, were commanded by these warrior-nobles. Exquisite carving, mosaics and other decorations typify many of the structures, which represent some of the finest of achievements of what is known as the Puuc architectural style.
Some very fine carved stelae have been discovered here, and the study of their inscriptions and those found on the buildings themselves has played an important role in the ongoing decoding of Mayan writing. Most Mayan numbers, more than half of their alphabet, and many other important symbols, or glyphs, have now been deciphered by the experts, and the evidence from Uxmal has provided essential clues in solving this ancient mystery.
Paradoxically, not that much is known about the civilization here. Only one ruler, Lord Chac, has been specifically identified. The people may have been less war-like than some of their cousins in other Mayan city-states, as there are few of the monuments and inscriptions celebrating victory in battle that are so prevalent at other sites. Being reasonably close to the coast, Uxmal probably engaged in considerable trade; agriculture and perhaps salt production were other key industries. The large ball-court tells us that sports and recreation -- at least for the upper classes -- were also part of life in Uxmal.
The buildings are heroic in scope and majesty, yet are covered with gorgeous, finely detailed art. The entire site is imbued with a rare power, as if the spirits of the Mayan nobles remained on their land, whispering the epic secrets of their ancient world to the visitors of today.
South of UXMAL, and connected to the larger city by a sacbe, or Mayan road, sits Kabah. While almost certainly subordinate to its northern neighbor, Kabah was nonetheless an important location in its own right, and greets today's visitors with its own special ambiance.
The best-known structure here is the Palace of the Masks, an imposing building used for religious rituals and other state ceremonies. Its terrace contains extensive hieroglyphic texts behind an altar that may well have been used for human sacrifice. Carved panels, doorjambs and lintels make this a breathtaking example of the incredibly advanced and complex Mayan stone carving art.
The people of Kabah grew crops, participated in the great Mayan trade routes, and kept a wary eye to the north. The relationship between smaller cities and larger ones could change dramatically with the ascension of the new ruler in either location. A benevolent protector might be succeeded by a ruthless tyrant, eager to accrue greater glory by capturing slaves and increasing his dominance; a willing subject-king might be succeeded by an ambitious rebel, eager to gain fame by freeing his city from the dominance of a powerful neighbor. The succession of a new ruler was a major event in the Mayan world, and one can imagine that spies from many nearby city-states were among the throngs gathered to watch the rituals and pageantry that marked the beginning of a new reign.
Today, Kabah sits silently, its days of intrigue and influence faded into the depths of history. But the visitor willing to sit among the ruins, to cast an inquisitive eye over the glyphs and carvings and to picture the color and life of a past millennium will be well rewarded by this compelling reminder of an ancient age.
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