Saturday, April 28, 2012

R&R, Part 2: Chichen Itza

On April 11th, the Carnival Triumph docked in Progreso, Mexico, and TJ was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of seeing the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Well, I guess we both fulfilled that dream. Can any of you honestly recall studying history in middle school (or watching Nickelodeon's The Mysterious Cities of Gold) and NOT wanting to visit the ruins of Mexico's ancient civilizations?

Plus, having visited the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan (and what little we could see ofTenochtitlan) last May, it only seemed fitting that we bookend that adventure by making time for the Mayans as well.

Chichen Itza is about two hours south of Progreso by bus, and if you ever find yourself on a cruise with a Port of Call here (and, really, there's no other reason to find yourself in Progreso...most of our local friends have never even heard of the place) I would highly recommend booking an excursion to the ruins, which are categorized both as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1988) and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (2007).

Chichen Itza (or "Chicken Pizza," if you speak to any number of drunk 20-somethings we encountered on the boat) was one of the largest Mayan cities and enjoyed status as an economic power by way of its control of water-borne trade routes.

The tour got off to a good start, with a charismatic and engaging tour guide discussing some of the city's history during our bus ride. The tour included a box lunch that consisted of a sandwich, banana, and chips. Right before arriving at the archaeological site, we stopped at a rest area where TJ and I were able to watch our fellow travelers get suckered into buying overpriced souvenirs. One benefit of living in Mexico is that you quickly develop the ability to distinguish between quality goods and a pile of crap. You also know how much that stuff would cost outside of the tourist bubble. Poor saps.

When we arrived at the site, we were promised a one hour guided tour followed by one hour of free exploration before we needed to return to the bus. That's when the tour headed south.

We followed our guide around for an hour and fifteen minutes as he droned on and on, pointing at interesting things but never getting quite close enough to them for our group to take good photos. What this means is that, naturally, I wandered out of earshot to take those good photos and didn't hear much of what was said. That's what Wikipedia's for, anyway, right?

Highlights of that first hour and fifteen minutes include:

El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcán), the dominant structure in the northern sector of this ancient city. During the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the position of the sun causes a series of shadows on the north side of the pyramid that take on the appearance of a snake slithering down the staircase. Clapping your hands at the base of the pyramid results in an echo that mimics the call of the Quetzl bird, a sacred animal in Mayan culture. Were these things deliberate, or mere coincidence?

Temple de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), named for the rows of pillars displaying relief-carvings of Mayan warriors. Murals reflecting scenes of both war and daily life adorn the walls. Altar-tables and benches in this temple may have served as thrones for dignitaries.

El Gran Juego de Pelota (The Great Ball Court), the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, is formed by a long wall on each side, embedded with rings/hoops and carved images of plumed serpents. The walls are decorated with scenes of the sacrifice of ball players. That's right, folks. This game was a deathmatch.

We were standing at the far end of The Great Ball Court, when our guide suddenly pointed at a structure identified as The Temple of the Bearded Man. He explained that when archaeologists found this temple, they found a carving of a bearded man on the back wall. He presented this as evidence that the Mayans knew of, and worshipped, Jesus Christ. I couldn't tell you how long into the second hour the guided tour continued, because that was the point where I walked away. TJ and about 1/4 of the tour followed suit. Turned out to be a good choice. A) The Mayans worshipped a pantheon of deities. They did not subscribe to a monotheistic, let alone Christian, faith. B) No Google search on my part can find any evidence of this radical statement anywhere beyond what is said on certain Christian websites. C) By breaking away from the group and walking at a brisk pace, we were able to take in a 45 minute viewing of an entire side of the site that our peers missed out on.

El Caracol (The Observatory) got its English name thanks to its shape and some possible astral associations: Astronomical events concerning Venus and the setting of the sun during the equinoxes have been related to the three windows in the upper section. It's Spanish name translates into "conch" in English, and was derived from the spiral stairs that lead to the upper part of the building.

All in all, it was a good day. The guide on our bus was very entertaining. Although the guide at the ruins could have been more informative/engaging and less willing to share his kooky theories on Mayan religion, I wouldn't say that he necessarily detracted from our experience.

Booking this excursion required a strict six hour time commitment, and with a four hour round trip bus ride, this only allowed for two hours of enjoyment on-site. By comparison, our trip to Teotihuacan was free of such restrictions, mainly because we didn't have to worry about catching a boat. But that freedom did make for a more enjoyable day, even if the ruins of Chichen Itza are by far more interesting to look at.

My recommendation to would-be travelers is this: If you find yourself in a situation in which you have flexibility, rent a car or book your own bus ride so that you can enjoy the site at your leisure. If you find yourself needing to catch boat and only have two hours to see it all, book the excursion but ditch the tour guide.

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