Chichen Itza

Day 8

On the final full day of our Caravan tour, we headed out to another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the second most visited archaeological site in Mexico, Chichén Itzá.  On July 7, 2007 (7/7/07) this site was named one of the 7 man-made wonders of the world.   Since 1923 restoration has been taking place at this great ceremonial site and is far from complete.

Chichén Itzá, whose name means “mouth of the well of the Itza (native people)”, was inhabited, it is believed, from 800 – 1200AD.  As there were no above-ground rivers in this area, the Mayans relied on the underground lakes and rivers for their survival. Cenotes (sinkholes) within the city, created by the collapsing of the limestone roofs of some of these underground waters, took on great import for the Mayans and historians believe became sacrificial sites as a form of worship to the rain god Chac.  The most significant of the cenotes in this area, Cenote Segrado, meaning “Sacred Well” or “Well of Sacrifice”, was dredged by Edward Herbert Thompson from 1904 – 1910. Artifacts of jade, pottery, gold, and human remains were discovered.  Studies of the human remains found wounds that were consistent with that of human sacrifice.

Cenote Segrado (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The pyramid of El Castillo, also known as the Pyramid of Kukulcan, a Maya snake deity, is the centerpiece of this archaeological site.  Standing 98 feet tall and 181 feet across, it was originally discovered in 1523 and was built in 9 platforms, corresponding with the Mayan belief of a 9-stage underworld.  91 steps on each of the four staircases and one additional step to the temple makes for a total of 365 steps, the number of days in a year. This was no accident, as the Maya were astronomers, mathematicians and architects.

El Castillo

The serpent Kukulcan frames each of the staircases.

Kukulcan

Each March 20th (Spring Equinox), as the sun strikes the stepped corners of the 9 platforms, a shadow is cast on the sides of the staircases that slope at a 45° angle, from the temple down to the heads of Kukulcan at the bottom.  The serpent’s shadow appears to slither its way down the side of the pyramid.

Archaeologists are currently digging around the base of this grand pyramid.  The grass surface on which the pyramid sits actually covers another platform that extends from the base of El Castillo.

Ongoing Excavation of El Castillo

Archaeologists, digging from the top, found another temple buried below the current one. Inside was a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of a jaguar, with inlaid jade and painted red.  No one knows the significance of this statue.  It now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Another structure of great importance at Chichén Itzá is El Juego de Pelota, the Ball Court.  The ball court here is purported to be the largest in Mesoamerica, measuring 120 feet across and 480 feet wide.  Historians believe that priests played in these “high stakes” games.  The object of the game was to propel a hard, very heavy, rubber ball through a stone ring, located on each of the opposite walls.  This game was played somewhat like soccer, in that one could not use their hands.  The ball could not be kicked either, but must be moved by way of the forearms, waist, or legs.  When the ball was projected through the hoop, it is believed that the priest responsible for this was offered up to the rain god Chac, which was alleged to be quite an honor.

Wall Depicting Stone Ring at the Ball Court

There are many carvings of priests and human offerings on the walls surrounding the ball court.  The elite were allowed to view these games and entered the court through the rear of the Temple of the Jaguar.

High Priest's Throne

This is believed to be the throne used by a high priest when viewing games taking place in the Ball Court.  It sits in the entryway to the Temple of the Jaguar.

Another chilling platform is that of the Tzompantli (The Wall of Skulls).  It is an Aztec name and a Toltec structure where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed.  Some believe that those sacrificed at the Ball Court, winners or losers, however one chooses to look at it, found their skulls among those displayed here.  This platform was used exclusively for this purpose.

The platform walls illustrate the skull rack, as well as scenes of human sacrifice.

Skull Rack at Tzompantli

The Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars is a powerful platform that was believed to be used for military purposes by the combination of Maya and Toltec who ruled Chichén Itzá collectively.  There was not one single ruler in this city, as there were in many other cities of this time period.  Carvings on the platform walls depict jaguars (Maya) and eagles (Toltec) consuming human hearts.

Serpent Heads

A pair of serpent heads adorn the staircases on each end of this platform, another symbol of the power associated with this structure.

The Templo de Los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) is a complex consisting of a large stepped platform and bordered by rows of columns with illustrations of warriors.

Templo de Los Guerreros

This large complex, like many other structures within Chichén Itzá, glorify warriors and were involved in human sacrifice.

Kukulcan Atop the Temple of the Warriors

At the top of a grand staircase sits a pair of serpents baring their fangs, portraying Kukulcan, also known as Quezalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent.  On top of the serpent heads stand Toltec warriors.

On the south end of the Temple of the Warriors is the Court of a Thousand Columns, which was believed to be where the market area once stood.  Although there are not a thousand columns, this area does contain several hundred, which made for a substantial market area.  Historians believe that merchants from as far away as Tikal in Guatemala came here to sell their wares.  The roof system has long ago collapsed.

Court of a Thousand Columns

Columns of both round and square construction are displayed here.  Those that are round are believed to be Mayan and those that are square of Toltec design.

Toltec Warrior Carving

Note the Toltec warrior carving in full headdress on this column outside the Temple of the Warriors.

While heading to the south end of the city, we discovered the Ossuary (High Priest’s Grave).

Although not near as grand as El Castillo, it too has 9 levels that correspond to the 9 levels of the Maya underworld.  The temple that once resided on the top no longer exists.

This is a photo of the High Priest’s Grave prior to its restoration.

The next structure that we came upon was El Caracol, nicknamed “The Snail” because of its stone spiral staircase inside.  Built in 906 AD, historians believe this building was a Mayan observatory, built to study celestial bodies.

El Caracol

Many of the openings in the upper cylindrical portion of this observatory align with the sun, Venus, and other celestial objects.  Mayans were great astronomers and studied the stars for both practical purposes (when to plant crops) and mystical reasons.

In the oldest part of the city sits Las Monjas (The Nunnery Complex), named this by the Spaniards as it reminded them of the convents that existed in Spain.  The architecture style of this complex is Puuc, signified by the latticework upper section, very popular with the Puuc-style.  This complex has undergone 7 construction cycles since its inception.

La Iglesia

This structure that is part of the Nunnery Complex was named La Iglesia, the Church.  No one knows for certain why the Spaniards named it this, as it was actually a governmental palace.  Note the rain god Chac carvings on the upper section cornices, with the trunk-like nose.

This is just a small portion of the structures that have been excavated at Chichén Itzá. We could have spent an entire day or two studying all the structures that were available to us.

After leaving Chichén Itzá we stopped to have lunch at Hacienda Chichen, a stunning old hacienda with beautiful grounds, archways and chapel.  Some of the structures were constructed with stone taken from Chichén Itzá.

Hacienda Chichen
Beautiful Stone Archway in the Gardens of Hacienda Chichen
Chapel on Grounds of Hacienda Chichen

Many in our group felt that the best part of Hacienda Chichen was the dessert that was served after lunch, homemade coconut ice cream – yum!

This concluded our trip with Caravan Tours.  The next day we headed to Cancun to drop some off at hotels and some at the airport.  We had an amazing 8 days, visiting 10 of the 31 states in Mexico, traveling 1400 miles, and meeting some very interesting people.  We would recommend this tour to anyone wanting to learn more about ancient and present-day Mexico.

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Uxmal

Day 7

Early morning on day 7 we hopped on our bus  and traveled through the Puuc Hills to visit the ancient Mayan site of Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-Mahl), in the state of Yucatan, dating back to 600 AD.  Many believe that its name means “thrice built city” as there is evidence that the Maya built temples over existing structures. Uxmal has some of the most authentic examples of regional Puuc-style architecture, matched only by that of Palenque in elegance and beauty.

Estimates are that 25,000 Mayans inhabited the area between 600 – 900 AD, when it was abandoned for unknown reasons.

The Sorceror’s Pyramid (or Magician’s Pyramid) is an elliptical structure, unlike most others that are rectangular in shape.  What one sees is the last of five pyramids, built on top of each other, each larger than the last.  It stands 117 feet tall, which gives it a commanding presence at Uxmal.  Mayan legend has it that this pyramid was built overnight by a dwarf, hatched from an egg and raised by a witch, so many refer to this building as the Pyramid of the Dwarf also.

This pyramid has 92 steps on one side and 120 steps on another.  Legend has it that human sacrifices occurred at the highest portion of the temple.  With the victim still alive, the priest would carve the heart out of his chest and throw the body down the steep steps.

Puuc architecture has many notable features, typically a plain lower section with a highly adorned top section.  Carvings found on the top of the structure most often include latticework, serpents, and masks of the god Chac, the god of rain.  A giant Chac mask marks the entrance to the Sorceror’s Pyramid , with the door being his mouth.

Chac was greatly revered by the Uxmal Mayans due to lack of natural water supplies in the city.  Quite often the Maya used cenotes (sinkholes) to access underground water, as the Yucatan has few surface rivers.  Uxmal had no cenotes so it was necessary to collect water in cisterns, built into the ground.

The Nunnery Quadrangle is a set of four buildings around a central courtyard.  It was named Casa de las Monjas (The Nunnery) by the Spanish as the 74 small rooms within this complex reminded them of a Spanish convent.  Ceremonies were most likely held in this large open area.

The Nunnery

One of the buildings within this quadrangle depicted a plumed serpent on the top section, with feathers on his tail and his body woven around the latticework.  A corner of another building was adorned with stacked faces of the rain god Chac.

Plumed Serpent
Stacked Chac Faces

The Palace of the Governor is regarded by many as one of the best examples of Puuc architecture in existence today.  It was the final building constructed at Uxmal and was probably the administrative center within the city.  It actually is comprised of three buildings, connected together.  Its grand staircase consists of 52 steps, which is a significant number in Maya mythology.  This structure was very difficult to build due to the platform on which it sits.

Palace of the Governor

The House of the Turtles, next to the Palace of the Governor, was named for the molding of turtles carved around its cornice.  The turtle was closely associated with water, which was sacred to the Maya.

House of the Turtles

Virtually all Mayan cities contained a ball court and Uxmal is no exception.  Two vertical walls within the ball court, opposite to one another, each reflected a large stone ring in the middle of the wall.  The object of the game was to propel a hard, very heavy, rubber ball through the ring.  This game was played somewhat like soccer, in that one could not use their hands.  The ball could not be kicked either, but must be moved by way of the forearms, waist, or legs.  The game held deep religious significance for the Maya and was played with seven priests on each side.  When the ball was projected through the hoop, the priest responsible for this was offered up to the rain god Chac.

Ball Court
Stone Ring within the Ball Court

Although we thoroughly enjoyed our time at Uxmal, it was a warm, humid day, so we were pleased to move on to a leisurely lunch on the grounds.

From here we headed to the beautiful city of Merida.

Palenque

Days 4 & 5

Palenque is a city in the state of Chiapas, which is an area rich in natural resources.  The Mayan archaeological site of the same name sits approximately one mile outside of the city.

We settled into our room at Mision Palenque, where we all enjoyed a typical Mexican dinner.  Bordering the jungle, the grounds were lush and we were pleased to hear the deep-throated sounds of a howler monkey in the tree right next to the hotel.  The next morning, an iguana decided to join our group poolside.  It was enchanting but we had little time to marvel at this creature, as we were headed to the Mayan site of Palenque.

Francisco, a very knowledgeable young man in Mayan history, was our guide for the day.

Palenque is one of the most important archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, housing some of the finest architecture, sculptures and bas-relief carvings that the Maya produced.  It was also influential because Palenque was where royalty lived.  As expansive and fascinating as this site is, archaeologists believe that only about 5% of the total city has been excavated, with 95% still buried under the jungle floor!  It was one of the largest Mayan cities during its time (100 BC – 800 AD), with a population of 25,000 – 30,000.  It is estimated that there were 1453 buildings constructed, so approximately 1400 still remain underground.

The first European to visit the site was Priest Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada in 1567.  Due to the strong construction of the buildings that he encountered, he named the site Palenque, meaning “fortification”.

The Great Palace was one of the first structures that we saw upon entering the grounds. It is actually a complex of several connected buildings and courtyards, housing many fine sculptures and bas-relief carvings, in addition to the unique 4-story observation tower.

Great Palace

A typical bed seen inside the Palace would not have rated high on our comfort scale!

Palace Bed

The archway in this structure, with a capstone, was built in such a way that should one wall fall, the remaining structure would remain intact.  Can we say the same for our modern architecture?  This construction style was much more advanced than that of Rome.

Palace Archway

The Palace was also the building where Pakal the Great’s coronation took place at age 12, overseen by his mother.

The Temple of the Inscriptions may be the most significant of all the structures unearthed to date as it houses the sarcophagus and funerary effects of Pakal the Great, the king who reigned during 600 AD for approximately 70 years.  This tomb, which no longer can be viewed by the public, weighs 18 tons and was forged from limestone.  The construction of this stately temple, with its 69 steps leading up to his tomb, commenced the last decade of Pakal’s life.  He did not live long enough to see its completion; however, his son and successor to the throne, Cham-Balum, fulfilled his dream.

Temple of the Inscriptions

Pakal the Great’s sarcophagus was discovered in 1949 and it took until 1952 to fully unearth it.  It holds the richest collection of jade seen in a Mayan tomb.  Jade was very important to the Maya, as it represented Mother Earth, so Pakal was buried with many jade objects.  His mortuary mask was encrusted with more than 200 tiny carved and polished jade stones, perfectly assembled and was purported to represent the Sun God.

Pakal the Great Jade Funerary Mask

Inside the Temple of the Inscriptions is the Temple of the Red Queen, which was not located until 1994.  Archaeologists speculate that she may have been a relative to Pakal the Great to garner such a burial tomb.

Another temple that provided us some exercise was the Templo de la Calavera, (Temple of the Skull), perhaps named for a skull-shaped relief that can be seen on one of the porticos.  Historians believe that this temple likely operated as a sanctuary.

Templo de la Calavera

Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun) is a 3-tier pyramidal structure depicting a sun panel, which commemorates the birth and ascension of Cham-Balum to the king’s throne.

Templo del Sol

Another temple that paid homage to Pakal’s son, Cham-Balum, was that of the Templo de la Cruz (Temple of the Cross), which is the loftiest structure at Palenque.

Templo de la Cruz

Temple of the Cross afforded many of us some exercise that day.

Terry Atop Templo de la Cruz
Me Atop Templo de la Cruz with Templo del Sol in the Background

The last of the three pyramids we climbed that day that honored the gods was the Templo de la Cruz Foliada (Temple of the Foliated Cross).

Templo de la Cruz Foliada

Palenque is truly a mystical place, an amazing archaeological site that we are thankful we were able to experience.  From here we head to the Yucatan Peninsula, on to Campeche.

Villahermosa

Day 4

Day 4 of our Caravan tour took us to the capital city and financial center of Tabasco, Villahermosa, which was founded in 1596.   It is a bustling city of 750,000 and is home to Parque Museo La Venta, the Olmec Archaeological Park.

The Olmec were the ancient ancestors to the Maya and this is the place where the 12 foot tall Olmec head statues were found.  There are 28 Olmec carvings at this outdoor museum, along with an interesting zoo, lake and indoor museum.   The carvings are a stunning example of the sophisticated artistry employed by the ancient Olmec.

Olmec Head

There is evidence that the Olmec were on the North American continent more than 10,000 years ago.  The first documentation of shamanistic practices occurred during the period of the Olmec, when the shaman was purported to be transformed into the shape of the jaguar.  Many believe that the Olmec were the cradle civilization for the gene pool of Mesoamerica and were referred to as the “mother culture of Mesoamerica”.

Shaman Transformation ~ The Magnificent Jaguar

Beyond the zoo and at the entrance to the outdoor museum is the stately ceiba tree, which is the holy tree of the Maya, a very important source that allowed them access between their nine worlds.

Many fascinating carvings are found throughout the park, the first of which was La Abuela, the Grandmother.  She is kneeling and holding a plate as an offering.  She corresponds to the period from 700 – 400 BC.

La Abuela

The Quadrangular Altar is probably one of the first stylistic expressions of an Olmec altar in which a character emerging from a cave is seen.  The idea of life emerging from a cave and its function as a connection between the exterior world and the interior of the earth is central to the believe of the Olmec culture.

Quadrangular Altar

The Altar of the Children was an interesting structure that shows a central figure in headdress, once again emerging from a cave or the entrance to the underworld, carrying a child, possibly dead, in his arms.  On the sides of the monument are carvings of four men in unusual headdresses, each carrying a child with a deformed head.

Altar of the Children

Probably one of the more unusual monuments was entitled Monkey Looking at the Sky, but is actually thought to be a depiction of a woman giving birth.

Monkey Looking at the Sky

One of the most preserved altars and having the most illustrative meaning is that of the Triumphal Altar.  In the central part of the cornice of this monument is a figure with a human face and jaguar paws, a symbol of power.  From the niche, a full-body figure emerges from a cave, richly clothed, with a headdress representing the head of an eagle. He is seated cross-legged, leaning slightly forward and holding onto a rope, which is also being held by another figure depicted on the right side of the altar.

Triumphal Altar

The next monument, entitled Young Goddess, depicts a woman wearing a short skirt and helmet, with medallion and earflaps.  She has passed on to the next world and is probably displayed in her coffin.

Young Goddess

An inquisitive little mammal, seen throughout the park, was the white-nosed coatimundi. He seemed to be very accustomed to visitors.

From here, we traveled on to magical Palenque.