Maya Ruins of Mexico

If there’s one other thing I’ve been doing in Mexico, apart from cooling off in the lovely cenotes, it’s working up a sweat wandering round the many Maya ruins. I thought Belize was well-represented in that department, having been to six of them (including the two biggest, Caracol and Lamanai). But Mexico has about ten major ruins, and tens of smaller sites.

Even I, with my OCD and love of all things Mayan, didn’t visit all of them. But a trip to these places not only gets you up close and personal with some amazing architecture and incredible sculpture, it’s also the perfect excuse to get out of the towns and explore some of the countryside (and maybe even spot an exotic animal or two in the forest).

Having begun my travels in Tulum, what better place to start than with what must be the best-located ruin you could ever visit. Tulum may have been a small town in its day (acting as the port for the much bigger city of Cobá), and it may be a small site today (with about ten buildings covering less than half a square kilometre); but you couldn’t ask for a better view. Dramatically perched atop cliffs overlooking white powdery beaches and the turquoise Caribbean Sea, this property would’ve had the Maya estate agents falling over themselves to sell it. It’s such a picturesque (and famous) site, that if you pick up (or download) virtually any guide to the Yucatán, it’ll probably have a photo of the ruins on its front cover.

The only downside is that its popularity (and proximity to tourist centres like Cancún and Playa del Carmen) means that it’s constantly heaving with people. The car park is as big as the ruin itself, and takes as long to walk through. And before you get to the ticket booth, you have to run the gauntlet past an army of vendors selling every kind of souvenir, from the quite nice (wood carvings, ceramics, painted Dia de los Muertos skulls), to the I’m-not-sure-how-I’m-going-to-get-that-through-customs (conch shells, turtle shells, jade knives), to the truly tacky (tequila shot glasses emblazoned with pictures of various sexual positions, a T-shirt that says ‘Keep Calm and Hablo Spanglish’, and a sombrero-wearing furry donkey that plays ‘La Cucaracha’ when you press its belly). There are a few guys outside their shops enticing punters in by having cute animals on chains, including some sad-looking monkeys and, bizarrely, a baby tiger. I could understand if it was a baby jaguar – at least it’s an animal from this continent. But where’d they get a creature whose nearest wild relative lives in India?

From Tulum, it’s an easy day-trip to the bigger ruins of Cobá. Although it’s an abandoned site in the jungle, overlooking two croc-filled lagoons, a large network of Maya-built ‘roads’ fanning out from the site and covering several hundred kilometres testifies to the city’s importance in its heyday.

Like Tulum, it’s a popular stop for tour buses, and there are a few stalls around the car park selling handicrafts. But fortunately, it’s nowhere as busy. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as well-signposted, either. Apart from one basic-looking map at the entrance, and a few signs pointing the way to the different groups of buildings, there’s nothing to tell you where you are, or show you the location of where you might want to go to. And my guidebook isn’t with me (it’s in digital form, and saved on a hulking laptop with a busted battery, as opposed to on a portable e-book reader) – so I have to rely on my crudely-drawn map-on-the-back-of-an-envelope. And judging from the numbers of other tourists asking me directions, I’m not the only one who’s a little lost…

But the ruins are in various photogenic states of decay, the thick forest provides plenty of shade, and from the top of the tallest pyramid (the creatively-monikered ‘Big Hill’), you get a panoramic view of scrubby jungle and blue sky.

And from Quintana Roo state to Yucatán state, and the Ground Zero of Mexican tourism – Chichén Itzá. How can one visit Mexico without stopping at one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’? 1 million people a year can’t be wrong, surely.

And it turns out they’re not. After deciding to stay in the nearest town (Valladolid), and forcing myself to get up early, I manage to be at the site by 9, an hour or two before the tourist hordes arrive. And after passing through the ticket booth, the restaurants and snack bars, the bookshop, the museum, and the touting tour guides, I find myself in front of El Castillo (The Castle), the famous pyramid, sitting in the middle of a large grassy plaza. You can’t climb it (too many hapless tourists were falling down the stone steps and injuring themselves), and it’s quite a simple structure. But it’s still impressive (although not according to Karl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad – he called it “a pyramid with a bungalow on top”). El Castillo is also famous for its light-and-shadow illusion of a snake descending the stairs that occurs every equinox, which makes the site even more popular (another reason I’m glad to be visiting in July).

Chichén Itzá covers a large area, and there are many buildings to see (although you can’t climb any of them, either). There’s the Maya world’s largest ball court, where they’d play a game that was a cross between basketball and murder. There are more sacrificial platforms covered in carvings of skulls and bas-reliefs of eagles and jaguars clawing out hearts, and the Sacred Cenote, which was found to be full of the remains of sacrificial victims.

The manicured and restored site doesn’t have the lost-in-the-jungle feel of some other ruins, and the tourist throngs mean that you never get to wander round alone. But it has some of the most impressive structures and interesting architecture of any site. And if you’re in the mood to buy some handicrafts, Chichén Itzá has the most vendors I’ve ever seen in one place. One of the things they seem keen on advertising is a wooden carving shaped like a jaguar’s head and dotted with holes, which the vendors blow through (like an ocarina) to make a noise that presumably is like the roar of a jaguar. This spectacularly annoying sound follows me everywhere I go, and makes me wish for the return of the ancient Maya and their sacrifices…

Some of the most elaborate architecture at Chichén Itzá was created by the Maya of the Puuc region, south of Mérida. And going from Mérida to Campeche the long way takes you right past the Puuc’s biggest ruin, Uxmal.

At the entrance is a huge pyramid called the Magician’s House, in an unusual oval shape that I’ve not seen in any other Maya site (and according to the guide, originally built in one night by a magic dwarf). Like many Maya temples, successive groups built new pyramids on top of old ones, and this is the fifth temple (and consequently the largest) on this foundation.

What make Uxmal different is not in its size (it’s by no means the biggest), and not in its plan (there are the usual buildings and ball courts), but in its detail. Many of the buildings have intricate geometric patterns all over the facades, interlocking lattice-like mosaics that cover the whole structure. There are masks of the rain god Chac protruding from every cornice, sculptures of serpents (like the ones all over Chichén Itzá) and turtles (associated with water in Maya mythology) above the windows, and doorways shaped like huge mouths. And, er, a collection of stone penises.

South of Mérida, Campeche state has numerous ruins, including the biggest one in Mexico – Calakmul. The southern part of the state borders northern Guatemala’s Petén province, and this area was the earliest established, longest inhabited, and most densely populated region in the Maya world. A paved highway runs parallel to the border, and the only town of any size for 200 kilometres is Xpujil (and with a handful of hotels, a petrol station, a supermarket, and a few taco stands straddling the highway, ‘town’ may be stretching the definition). This is the closest place to Calakmul, and it’s still two hours’ drive from here. The ruin (and many others), and the town (and surrounding villages) lie inside the vast Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul – 7,000 square kilometres of mostly uninhabited jungle. This reserve joins up with the three-times-as-big Reserva de la Biosfera Maya across the border, to form the second-largest forested area in the Americas, after the Amazon. So basically, it’s really big and there are lots of trees and animals.

Getting to Calakmul isn’t cheap, if you don’t have your own wheels. In Xpujil, I wander round the town looking for other tourists to share a taxi with (there aren’t any), until the owner of the hotel calls his ex-wife (who used to be a tour guide and, more importantly, has a car), and she drives me to the ruin. It’s an hour down the highway to the park entrance, and then another hour on a paved road through the jungle to the site. Lucilla is a lovely lady, but she drives like a demon (perhaps this was the reason for the divorce?), and she slows down for nothing and nobody. The jungle is full of wildlife, but all I see is a blur of green and brown, and the occasional small, unidentified animal in the road running for its life into the trees.

About half-way along the jungle road is Calakmul’s museum, and for a building that’s in the middle of nowhere and sees few tourists, it’s impressive. From geology to history to wildlife, the modern exhibits are well-designed and informative. There’s a model of the jaws of a Megalodon, the world’s biggest shark (the teeth of which have been found in cenotes, probably causing the discoverers to swim quickly out); the fossilised shell of a 1-ton armadillo (which, like many large and slow animals, went extinct immediately after humans arrived); a garden containing the many edible and medicinal plants the Maya used to survive in the jungle; and a comprehensive display of scat (animal poop) – so I know if I’m stepping in something left by a jaguar or by somebody’s pet dog.

Chichén Itzá and Tulum were known to the Spanish in the 16th century, but Calakmul was so deep in the jungle that it wasn’t seen by foreigners until 1931. And until the access road was built in the 1990s, it used to take archaeologists three days to get here. This isolation makes it the most remote ancient Maya site that’s accessible to visitors, and that’s part of what makes it special (I saw less than ten other tourists all day). You can drive right up to the manicured grounds of Uxmal, and even Guatemala’s Tikal is an easy day trip from the nearest city. But here wannabe Indiana Jones can have the whole place pretty much to themselves.

And after a sweaty climb up some of the Maya world’s biggest pyramids, the view is of nothing but jungle stretching endlessly in every direction, with the tops of the other massive temples poking through the cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla trees, and the sound of toucans squawking in the distance – the perfect spot to cool off and eat that melted chocolate bar and squashed banana.

In Chiapas state, Palenque is another ruin in the jungle. Like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Calakmul, it’s one of Mexico’s 32 UNESCO World Heritage sites (more than any other country in the Americas). Palenque’s surroundings of jungle-covered hills makes a change from the flat landscape of the rest of the Yucatán Peninsula. And it has has one unique feature – you can go inside some of the buildings, and see the tunnels the Maya dug into the temples, and the sarcophagi that they buried their various rulers in.

Like Calakmul, Palenque also has an excellent museum containing many of the archaeologists’ finds, from jade jewellery to death masks to stone sculptures. A climate-controlled room contains the intricately-carved stone sarcophagus lid of Palenque’s greatest ruler, Pakal the Great. And it has air conditioning :-).

And the surrounding jungle has its animals – while wandering round the museum, I hear a noise outside that’s somewhere between the roar of a lion and that of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. It’s a howler monkey, the loudest land animal in the world – and as it’s late afternoon, the noisy simian is vocalising its presence in a nearby tree (and being responded to by another howler that sounds like it’s next door, but could be miles away).

Finally, near Pakenque is another ruin with a unique selling point – Bonampak. A paved road runs from Palenque town parallel to the Mexico-Guatemala border on the Usmacinta River, all the way to the Lacandón Jungle and the ruin. The road was paved only in the year 2000, to help delineate the border, and has numerous army checkpoints along the way (apparently, it’s a popular area for illegal immigrants and drug-smugglers).

The ruin is small and not architecturally impressive. But in one building, the modest-looking Temple of the Paintings, are three rooms of vivid murals, the likes of which don’t exist anywhere else in the Maya world. The colourful frescoes are all over the walls and ceilings, and depict everything from the king in his jaguar-skin robes and quetzal-feather headdress, to the queen poking a needle through her tongue and collecting the blood in a pot (a way of communicating with their ancestor-gods), to prisoners having their fingers ripped off and their heads cut off. The paucity of written records left by the Maya (the Spanish burned most of them) means that Bonampak’s paintings have given historians an insight to pre-Hispanic society (for a long time, scholars thought the Maya were a peaceful, mystical culture – until they saw the bleeding fingers and decapitated heads). And considering they’re over 1000 years old, they’re in remarkably good nick (or maybe they’ve been tastefully restored?).

This remote part of Chiapas is home to the Lacandón Maya, an indigenous group who retreated into the forest when the Spanish arrived, and shunned all outside contact until the 1950s, becoming the last unknown tribe in North America. There are no more than 1000 of them, and they’re the most isolated of all of Mexico’s 15 million indigenous peoples. A few of them are in business around the ruin, guiding tourists or selling handicrafts, like the bows and arrows that they still hunt with. And with their white flowing smocks and long black hair cut into a severe fringe, they look a bit like the ghost from the film The Ring. These quiet, unassuming people are the only Maya group to have survived the Spanish colonisation, although they now have to deal with the Church and its proselytising missionaries. The lack of other tourists, the jungle setting, and the local Lacandóns give Bonampak an exotic feel that you definitely don’t get at Tulum or Chichén Itzá.

So, if you can drag yourself away from the beach, Mexico has more ruins than you can shake a Maya shaking stick at. I think even I may have seen enough now…

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