The Spirit of the Maya – Chichén Itzá, Mexico

We embarked on a dusty, hot bus for a two-hour trip from the heart of Cancun to the jungles surrounding the ancient ruins of Chichén Itzá. The roads were broken here and there by small villages that only seemed native to unknowing eyes. To those who had studied the region, they were only clever facades created by the locals to draw in tourist shoppers eager to spend cold, hard cash. The real homes and lives of the population were kept hidden from the prying eyes of wandering visitors.

The entrance to the jungles of the Yucatan on the way to Chichén Itzá
The entrance to the jungles of the
Yucatan on the way to Chichén Itzá

It was on this hot, uncomfortable journey that I experienced my first true taste of the spirit of the Maya. Our tour guide, a rather ordinary man native to the area, began to speak shortly after we left the grand accommodations of Moon Palace. His thick accent folded around his words, sometimes spattered with an occasional Spanish phrase. At first he gave us the standard spiel – commenting on the scenery, the local villages and giving us a brief rundown of the area's history.

After about a half an hour, a dark look came into his eyes as he surveyed the tourists with their bright clothes and sunscreen white faces. A mischievous smile played across his full mouth and I felt his gaze passing over me. He paused in his speech, took a deep breath and slowly, in perfect English, said, "Corn."

Suddenly, he was transformed from a simple tour operator into a glowing guide from ancient Maya itself. He began to tell us of the true legends of the Maya, passed down from generation to generation. He spoke of the legend of the corn – the only food plant that cannot reproduce itself – given to the Mayan people directly from the hands of their gods.

"Corn," he said, "must be sowed into the Earth by the hand of man. This precious food cannot grow by itself, cannot reproduce." Still speaking in perfect, almost unaccented English, he continued, "Only by our nurturing can we continue the cycle of its life. This is the lesson that our gods gave to us along with their gift of the corn. That we must nurture the Earth as it nurtures us, continuing the cycle of its life along with our own."

On this dirty, tattered bus, I experienced a golden moment of connection to the past. For an instant, as I continued to listen to our guide spin tales of his ancient ancestors, I felt as if I had traveled backward in time. If I closed my eyes, I could almost see a man like him, adorned in bright silver and bronzed skin, standing on the painted steps of a temple. Below him, Mayan children in brightly colored tunics listened in wonder to tales of gods and heroes as real to them as their own mothers and fathers.

A hard jerk broke the vision as the bus stuttered to a halt in front of the gates to Chichén Itzá. Our guide was once more only a simple tour operator, hawking cold sodas to the passengers as they disembarked. I touched his arm as I passed, meeting his sudden smile with one of my own. "Thank you," I said quietly. "You are most welcome," he replied as he took my arm to help me down the steps of the bus, "I always know when there is someone truly listening."

Mysteries of Chichén Itzá
Two hours after leaving the plush accommodations of our resort in Cancun, our dusty, battered bus pulled up to the gates of Chichén Itzá. It was a shock to suddenly re-enter the modern world after driving through miles of untamed South American jungle. The entrance to Chichén Itzá was surrounded by a bevy of hotels, restaurants and tourist shops. A ticket taker waited to make sure we had our tour vouchers and a string of exhausted trail horses huddled into the shade of a nearby tree. I wanted to scream.

I was in a place reverberating with the spiritual energy of an ancient culture and I still could not escape the fiends of profiteering and modern civilization. Created around 514 A.D., this impressive remnant of a beautiful and powerful people has always graced my top ten list of places to see before I die. Now I felt an aching disappointment that this sacred place had been converted to a den of tourist fleecing. I wanted to erase the buildings, rub out the shops and vendors – let the jungle reclaim all of it. But I knew I could not.

After all, my suite at Moon Palace, one of the largest resorts in Cancun, was hardly an old tent thrown amid the snakes and jaguars of the steamy jungle. Most of us share a weakness for familiar comforts and modern amenities. Somehow though, I had hoped this magical place I had spent much of my young life studying would have escaped progress's irrevocable march.

Almost in disgust, I handed over my ticket and entered the violated grounds of Chichén Itzá. Immediately, the sun overhead became more intense and I stripped off my T-shirt to the tank top underneath. My sister and I followed the on-site guide briefly, but quickly decided to take off on our own. We were not here to listen to other people's impressions of the ancient ruins. We were here to experience our own.

As we moved along the path, weaving between fallen walls and columns, I sighed in realization of my own hypocrisy. My presence here was just as intrusive and destructive as those I raged against. Even as I touched the carved stone blocks littering the walkway and took pictures of half-hidden carvings, I was contributing to the decay of this glorious monument. But still, I could not resist the lure of the ancient temples and forbidding wonders of the Mayan City.

A little saddened, I paused to examine what seemed to be an oddly shaped opening in a hill somewhat off the beaten path. My sister and I were drawn inexplicably to step into the dark crevasse. At first we could make out little more than a bed of gravel crunching under our boots and a sense of a vast space above us. I pulled a lighter from my pocket, flicking it hard and holding it high above my head.

The burst of flame from the lighter revealed a large, natural cavern with several smaller openings leading off into the darkness. By the dim light I could see touches of the hand of man here and there in the worn floor of the cave and the smoothed walls. I was eager to explore this intriguing mystery more, clicking photos rapidly to light up the cavern with my flash. None of what I had read so far about Chichén Itzá had mentioned this feature. My sister tugged at my arm insistently, motioning for us to leave.

"Come on, this is not a place for us. I don't feel right taking pictures in here," she said. Even as she started moving toward the entrance, a strange breeze blew past us in the darkness. My camera, dangling from my wrist, started making insane noises, flashing brilliant bursts of light into the cave completely independently. I got the point. We exited almost at a run, blinking rapidly as we emerged into the blinding sunlight.

My camera was shot. For two years the little Advantix had been my constant companion, capturing amazing photos from the grandeur of Niagara Falls to the gentle splendor of the Tennessee mountains. Suddenly, it had become a crazed machine, only quieted after I removed the batteries. The spirit of the Maya had made its presence known. I shoved the camera deep into my backpack as an act of submission. If Chichén Itzá did not want its picture taken today, I would comply.

I consulted my mental map of the ruins, trying to decide where to go next. Chichén Itzá covers over a square mile. We had only two hours to see as much as we could before the bus left back to Cancun. I could have spent years studying one small section, but I didn't have time.

After leaving the forbidding darkness of the cave, we decided to travel onward to the ruins of The Observatory – one of the most impressive structures still standing at Chichén Itzá. The Observatory, or El Caracol, is striking in how modern it appears, even in its degraded state. A building dedicated to the science of deciphering the stars, it could be perched on the grounds of any university. Its pure size is impressive. I had to stop in wonderment at how an ancient people could build such a large and scientifically-designed building. Though it was constructed in two separate parts over two different time periods, it blended seamlessly into one impressive structure.

The Observatory was roped off, so we could only walk around the perimeter in awe – longing to climb the ancient spiral staircase of stone to its peak. But what was bad for us was good for the building, as the wear and tear of thousands of tourists had obviously done damage to the exterior.

While exploring the southern part of the ruins, we stopped to examine the Nunnery. The building got its name from the mistaken impression by conquering Spaniards that it was a Mayan nunnery. In addition to being architecturally delightful, some of the walls in the second building of the Nunnery still hold fresh, bright red paint. The idea of paintings surviving for so many years in such an exposed environment is almost more impressive than the buildings themselves. In our modern-day environment, who can imagine anything we have built or painted surviving so long?

The area was scattered with many ruins, both intact buildings and chipped, broken pieces standing alone. Even in these sad lost remnants of a once-glorious city, there was detail and beauty carved into every stone. Some of the carvings had worn to nothingness, but here and there they seemed like they had only been created the previous day.

Before heading off for the main part of the city, we stopped at The Church. This smaller building is rumored to be filled with strange, ghostly music on Good Friday every year. Only the locals are able to hear it, however, as no tourist has captured the sound. It was not Good Friday – so the rumor would have to stay a rumor.

The main part of the complex is enormous dominated in the center by The Castle – a large pyramid shaped temple with small, shallow steps leading up each of its four sides. The Castle was my primary objective, but I took a few minutes to scan the other ruins. I couldn't pass up a visit to the famous Ball Court where Mayan warriors had competed to see who would lose their heads in sacrifice to the gods.

I had heard that one could stand at one end of the Ball Court and whisper, and a person at the other end could hear them. However, actually being present and hearing the acoustics in the court was almost shocking. It astounds me that such ancient peoples as the Mayans could create something so perfectly constructed as to carry the slightest sound over such a distance. Surely we have a lot to learn from these lost techniques of construction.

Stonework in Chichén Itzá
Stonework in Chichén Itzá

The Temple of the Jaguar near the Ball Court hosted some of the most detailed carvings we had seen at the site. We found small pieces of paint, still bright, splashed among the stones in blues, reds and yellows. The Plaza of a Thousand Columns was decorated in these bright painted carvings. I longed to touch them, to feel in that instant a connection to the hands that had ground the pigments so long ago. But I could see how the columns had been worn down by tourist hands. The columns that were hard to reach still seemed fresh, their carvings deep and easy to decipher. But wherever a human hand could touch, the lines had blurred and some carvings had faded entirely.

Finally, knowing how short time was, I had to turn to The Castle. Since I was a little girl, I had waited to stand atop its stone steps and look out over the land of the Maya – to feel for one moment that I had stepped into the past. I wanted to look at the jungle, imagine the city as it once was beneath all the vines and green. The Castle, or Pyramid of Kukulcén, is like nothing you have ever experienced. Though it is worn and the steps on several sides have crumbled, it still breathes a sense of perfection that even modern buildings cannot duplicate. This building too was composed of two entirely different structures in two different time periods, but you couldn't tell.

The Castle is built so precisely that each year on the Equinox, the pyramid casts a shadow down the center of one side. This shadow is composed of interlocking triangles to mimic the movement and shape of a serpent crawling down the temple. This amazing sight is proof the Mayans had a deep understanding and comprehension of astronomy, science and construction that even now we find difficult to reproduce.

Smiling at my sister and motioning for her to go in front of me, I began the climb up the 180 feet to the small temple at the top of the pyramid. The ascent was not easy, even for someone in decent shape. The steps were incredibly narrow, like they were made for the feet of children. The angle of mount was so sharp, it felt as though you were trying to walk up a wall. This created a disturbing optical illusion if you looked down because you felt you were standing parallel to the ground.

I was breathing hard by the time I reached the top both from exertion and a little fright. But it was worth it. I felt I had reached the top of the world. Laid out below me were miles of untamed jungle. I could see the entire complex of Chichén Itzá around me. I could even make out small, irregular mounds of jungle and earth that hinted of even more mysterious ruins waiting to be discovered.

I felt truly alive. I had done what I had wanted to do since I was a little girl. I had crossed something from my top ten list of things to do before I die. I had begun a journey.

Eventually, we had to climb down – even less fun than climbing up. Thankfully, there was a rope embedded in the center of the stairs we could grab when vertigo became overwhelming.

We managed to make our way to the Sacred Cenote – our last stop before heading back to the bus. Seven fathoms deep, cold and almost black in appearance, it was a place that was chilling in more ways than one. At the same time as I felt a sense of horror imagining the sacrificial victims plunging over the edge, I still felt a sense of peace. I wanted to touch the waters where men, women and children had given their lives for their beliefs. I threw a flower I had found down into the waters, offering my own gift to the ancient spirit I had felt so many times walking through the city.

Feeling somewhat sad, wishing we could stay longer to commune with the broken city, we made our way back to the bus. Time is a strange thing. Chichén Itzá has existed for an incredible expanse of time, and somehow it seems that no amount of time would be enough to explore its mysteries.

Exhausted, weary and hot, we sat in our sticky green seats. The trip back to Cancun would be two hours of extreme unpleasantness. But that one moment, standing on the height of the Castle, made it feel like heaven.

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