Yucatan – Mexico’s Mysterious Outback – Yucatan, Mexico

Yucatan – Mexico’s Mysterious Outback

Yucatan, Mexico

Old arch on the grounds of Hacienda Chichen
It is unbearably hot as we drive on the cuota toll road from Cancun to the interior of the Yucatan peninsula toward Chichen Itza. The lush greenness of the coast gradually gives way to stunted, dry, khaki-colored brush. The road before us is blistering hot and arrow straight with no exits, no crossroads, no gas stations, and no other cars in sight. The air conditioning in the rental car puts out only a trickle of cool air that barely affects the laser like assault of the sun and we plaster the car’s side windows with maps to give some tiny bit of shade.

Suddenly movement just to the right of the front fender catches my eye. It is a roadrunner, looking exactly like the cartoon character, topknot and all, running along side the car at what must be at least 50 miles an hour, and with this surprise I remember what draws me back to this place like a wonderful recurrent dream. I remember the small Maya villages with old women dressed in white huipils, ancient and mysterious temples rising out of the jungle, lazy iguanas sunning on the rocks, iridescent birds calling from the tree tops, and the history and magic that are a tangible force in the air.

My plan for this trip is to introduce my future husband, Thom, to my favorite part of Mexico. To him Europe is the center of the universe but as a history buff I know there will be many things to intrigue him in the Yucatan. We will stay in a historic hacienda, visit the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, explore the Maya underworld in the Balancanche Caves, swim in cold, crystal clear cenotes and enjoy the colonial city of Merida.

We exit the toll road at Piste, a small village located just outside the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza where there are hotels, open air restaurants, and market stalls along the main and only paved road. We are staying at Hacienda Chichen off the highway on the other side of the ruins. The Hacienda was built in the 16th century of stones taken from the Maya ruins. You can still see the carvings on some of them. Originally it was a cattle ranch, in the 19th century became a sisal plantation, and beginning in 1923 and lasting for more than 20 years, the hacienda served as the archaeological camp for the Carnegie Institute’s Maya archaeological expedition. Eighteen cottages were built for the staff of archaeologists and now serve as guestrooms.

We drive inside the gates and up to the main house. In front is a gigantic banyon tree that seems to grow down from the sky rather than up. An iguana curiously peeks out of a hole in the tree, watching us as we walk up to the house. A feeling of quiet, calm, peacefulness, almost sacredness permeates the shady gardens. We check in and are shown to our cottage, a little yellow casita with a tiled roof and a big front terrace. The lush grounds are ablaze with bougainvillea blossoms of day-glow purple and pink. There are towering royal palms and trees with serpentine roots growing out of, over, and around old walls and ruined archways. Our room is simple but clean and comfortable with a light smell of insecticide which is comforting as the jungle setting stirs my arachnophobia.

jul06_yucatan2.jpgView from the top of the pyramid
We quickly change clothes and decide to explore the shady grounds of the hacienda, saving the ruins for later. We climb over walls and stones, past an old well until we come to an archway, which leads to a little stone chapel, topped with three bells and a simple white cross. The church is locked but we make our way to the back, which is overgrown with vines. From this side you can see that the chapel is built atop an unexcavated Maya temple mound. We see bullet holes in the stone and later learn they were from the Caste Wars of 1846 when a group of Mayans took refuge in the chapel and actually made it their headquarters during the uprising. Everything here has layer upon layer of history.

After dinner we walk down the road to the back entrance of Chichen Itza for the light and sound show that is given each evening. It happens to be Sunday when entrance to most parks and museums in Mexico is free. We sit down on the grass in the wide open space in front of the main pyramid and look up at the stars that so entranced the Maya. The sky is covered with stars, not little pin points of light, but huge, brilliant stars, and I think about how the Maya, while Europe was still in the dark ages, charted the paths of the planets with as much accuracy almost as we have today. As I sit in the dark in the midst of this mysterious and powerful place I feel what it once was. Drums beat with the rhythm of a heart as one by one the structures are illuminated. I can imagine a procession of ancient Maya dressed in their quilted, white, cotton armor and magnificent eagle and jaguar headdresses as the sound system plays their ceremonial chants. A laser spotlight simulates the strange solar phenomenon that occurs twice each year on the vernal and autumnal equinox. A shadowed profile of Kulkulkan, the feathered serpent, appears at the top of the pyramid and slowly undulates down the front of the pyramid until his giant, scaly head emerges at the bottom as if the stone serpent has come alive.

The next morning we are awakened by a flock of squawking parrots in a tree right outside our window. I step outside to get a better view of the parrots and walk right into a Russeau painting. A pair of yellow eyes watch me from the edge of the jungle. It is a cat, about the size of an ocelot and he quietly lopes off into the bush as I approach. Heading off to the ruins early while it is still cool and uncrowded, we climb to the top of the pyramid. Coming down is even harder than going up and visions come to mind of stories I have read of Maya captives, who were fortunate enough not to have their hearts torn out, being bound into a ball and thrown down these same steps to their death.

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza was built over an earlier and more elaborate pyramid. There is a narrow passageway on the north side where you can enter and see parts of the earlier structure. The interior stairway is narrow, barely more than shoulder width and the stairs are steep, just as they are on the outside. The walls are slimy and the air is heavy with moisture, almost too thick to breathe. As we look up we can see what use to be the outside of the original structure. It is ornately decorated with fantastic, carved, twisting serpents, their bodies intertwined up the face of the pyramid. At the top of the stairway is a chamber with a spotlight on a bright, red jaguar throne made of stone, painted a deep blood red color and inlaid with jade spots and huge, staring, turquoise eyes.

Temple of Chac, the rain god
Temple of Chac, the rain god
We spend the rest of the day exploring and climbing over all the ruins, photographing the cruelly grinning Chac-Mul, holding a bowl on his belly, ready to receive freshly torn-out hearts. We find jungle paths lined with unexcavated mounds and one ruin we nickname the palace of the phallus and other less lofty names for the explicit, anatomically correct carvings decorating it. We walk the ceremonial road to the sacred cenote, a 60-meter wide sinkhole with inky black water where many offerings were found when it was dredged during excavations, offerings like jade, turquoise, gold, the skeletons of children, and a conquistador or two.

At the day’s end with still many paths left to explore we make our way back to the hacienda. Tomorrow we plan to see another sacred site of the Maya, the Balankanche caves, just a couple of miles away and then on to Merida. But we are not ready to leave the peaceful hacienda and want the night to last. We have dinner in the garden by the pool and are serenaded by two guitar players as we gorge ourselves on course after course of traditional Yucatan dishes — tamales, panuchos, pollo pibil, poc chuc. When we can eat no more the waiter returns with a Maya drink called Xtabentun. It is a sweet, amber colored liqueur made of honey and anise. It is said that it was given to those about to be sacrificed in order to calm them. It’s also said to be an aphrodisiac. With the sweet taste of honey on our lips we trudge back to our room to pack for tomorrow’s departure and we vow to return to this magical place. The following year we do – but that’s another story…

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