Yucatán Road Trip: Balamkú

Traversing the distance between the city of Campeche and the hotels surrounding Calakmul takes about four hours, with little in the way of either gas stations or open archaeological sites in between. Over three hours and 150 miles after leaving our hotel we reached our first stop: the partially excavated site of Balamkú. Situated about 30 miles north of Calakmul in the southernmost part of the Maya lowlands, Balamkú was (re)discovered in 1990 and excavations began in 1994. Today, only the central and southern groups have been exposed. A stroll around the grounds reveals a series of attractive but relatively simple ruins picturesquely overgrown with slim, hardy trees and neatly kept by the groundskeeper.

To find Balamkú’s most impressive feature, however, visitors must search a little deeper. We wandered cluelessly for a while before the groundskeeper came up and indicated we should follow him. He led us up a narrow metal staircase alongside one of the site’s larger buildings (Structure 1 of the Central Group), unlocked the door, and ushered us inside. We found ourselves within a long, narrow chamber lit purely by the natural light filtering through a series of small, square holes in the ceiling. To out left stood one of the longest and oldest known painted stucco friezes of the Mayan world.

Stretching 55 ft across, the frieze once included four columns topped by rulers, separated by jaguars or jaguar-like creatures. According to the signage (or at least my questionable translation of the signage), the kingly uppermost figures—of which only one and a half of the original four remain—do not possess any uniquely identifying features and thus likely represented the concept of rulership rather than specific individuals. Each emerges from the jaws of an amphibian—again, according to the INAH sign—representing the fertile aspect of the world. The king’s birth from a creature that can move between water and earth suggests his ability to likewise move between worlds. Each “amphibian” sits upon a mask of the Earth Monster similarly representing the richness of the world while also evoking the four directions.

Jaguars—symbols of sacrifice, war, and death, as well as the risen and subterranean sun—and Jaguar hybrids fill the panels between the masks and provided the inspiration for the site’s current name (balam=jaguar, kú=temple, Balamkú=Temple of the the Jaguar). Taken as a whole, the frieze celebrates and glorifies Balamkú’s rulers and their intimate connection with a healthy and bountiful world.

The INAH website offers a slightly different iconographic summary, suggesting that composition equates the dynastic cycle with the solar cycle. In this view, the image of the ruler emerging from the jaws of the Earth Monster symbolizes his ascension to the throne just as the sun comes out of the earth at dawn, and the ruler’s death is shown at sunset, when he falls back into the Earth’s mouth.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 27, 2015.

Yucatán Road Trip: Museo Arqueológico de Campeche, Fuerte de San Miguel

The Archaeological Museum of Campeche (Museo Arqueológico de Campeche) is located in Fuerte de San Miguel, a short drive south of the city center. Begun in 1771, the colonial, sea-facing fortress is a major landmark in its own right, included in UNESCO’s designated World Heritage Site of the Historic Fortified Town of Campeche. Its barrel-shaped chambers and brightly painted courtyard create a dramatic frame for the museum’s excellent collection of Maya artifacts, including Jaina figurines, stelae and jade from Calakmul, as well as skulls exhibiting artificial cranial deformation. The presence of a friendly cat wandering the grounds also didn’t hurt our impression of the site.

Taken as a whole, the Museo Arqueológico was not only the largest museum we visited in Campeche, but also our favorite, rivaling even the monumental and more modern Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida for the most enjoyable museum of our trip.

Highly subjective personal rating: 8/10
[If you go to only one museum in Campeche, go here.]

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, 26 May 2015.

Yucatán Road Trip: Loltún

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Loltún (aka, Lol-tun or Grutas de Loltún) is an expansive network of caverns located in the northern Puuc region of the Yucatán Peninsula about 20 km (at least 30 minutes by car) northeast of Labná. The inhabitants of the Yucatán have used the caves here for thousands of years for both practical and sacred purposes: as a source of water, clay, and shelter; as a burial place; as a pilgrimage destination; and, more recently, as a defense during the Caste War (1847-1901).

Despite my initial enthusiasm for what promised to be a naturally and culturally fascinating site, as the day of our visit approached I found myself torn about embarking on another cave tour after our experience at Balankanché. On the one hand, I had been looking forward to seeing Loltún’s rock paintings and in-situ artifacts for months. On the other, I really did not enjoy the sensation of having my lungs squeezed or the subsequent panic attack that came with it. Therefore, the night before we were scheduled to head to Loltún, I decided to read some of the more recent descriptions on TripAdvisor to get a better sense of what we were in for.

That decision turned out to be a mixed blessing. While I didn’t find any signs we would experience the same level of discomfort we had at Balankanché, I did come across a few reviews by angry visitors stating that after paying the entrance fee and going on the tour, their guide had insisted upon tips of 500 pesos (between $25-$30) per person. Not only was this much higher than the going rate for guides at any other place we had encountered, but when taking the day’s expenses of hotel and gas into account, it was more cash than we had. In addition, ATMs—like gas stations—are fairly rare commodities in this area; the only one we knew of for certain was at Uxmal, but there was no way of getting to it without spending precious time and gas driving out of our way and then paying for parking again.

After some debate, we decided to take our chances and stick to our original plan of going to Loltún, put aside as much cash as we could, and just look for ATMs along the way. (We didn’t find any.) After all, we reasoned, if guides wanted to require high, unstated costs that most visitors couldn’t reasonably be expected to be prepared for, surely there must at least be an ATM at the site. (There wasn’t.)

By the time we finally reached Loltún, we were low on both cash and gas, leaving me high on anxiety. At the welcome center, we looked in vain for any indication of what the cost of the guide should be, but saw only the (also rather high) entrance fee. We swallowed hard and paid for our tickets, then waited.

The crowd grew considerably over the next 20 minutes, until eventually the guides approached and shuffled us into two, large groups of around 12 people each. Although tours were supposed to be available in English or Spanish, and although there were still several guides who did not accompany either group, both tours were in Spanish. I was disappointed until I realized that being handled like extra luggage rather than actual members of a tour relinquished us from the pressure of giving a particularly high tip. I was finally able to relax. A little.

Without the insight of a guide, we relied on the dual-language signs posted at some of the important stopping points along the path, as well as Andrew Coe’s guidebook, for information on the history of the cave. Mostly, though, we just focused on what we saw and tried not to fall as we slipped over slick, sometimes steep, and often dark paths that connected the caverns’ dramatically lit highlights, including the roughly carved “Head of Loltun;” hand paintings; and the giant “Room of Inscriptions,” which is naturally illuminated by two, large holes in its ceiling. Crucially, these openings let in air as well as light, and are thus partially responsible for the cave’s relatively cool—and breathable—climate. Even with the more pleasant temperatures, however, the caverns were still quite humid and some of the smaller spaces became less-than-comfortable when filled with people. The precariousness of the paths, too, make Loltún a destination that requires at least a moderate level of fitness and lack of fragility, not to mention a pair of good, grippy shoes.

Even though we couldn’t follow most of what was being said, the guide still enabled us to navigate the sometimes precarious terrain, in one spot acting as a physical anchor and pulling us up a particularly difficult incline. At the end of the tour, we handed him all the money we had set aside (minus a small amount held back for buying the gas we would need to get to Campeche that evening) and he accepted it with a thank you and without a second glance.

Would we go back? Probably not. Even a year later, a smog of stress still hangs over my memories of our visit. But much of what we saw was spectacular and unlike anything we encountered elsewhere. All-in-all, I’m glad we went and mostly wish I hadn’t worried so much along the way.

Highly subjective personal rating: 6.5/10 [Actual content of the caves: 8/10; experience leading up to and during the tour: 5/10]

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Low relief carving of the seated “Loltun Warrior” and column of glyphs at the entrance to the caves. According to Coe, the oversized figure is probably a portrait of a ruler from Izapa, a pre-Classic city in southern Chiapas, and may be evidence of Loltún’s role as a pilgrimage site.
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“Head of Loltun” positioned at the end of the spacious “Cathedral” chamber. The head was actually found elsewhere in 1960 and moved to its present, theatrical location.
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Positive and negative (silhouetted) paintings of hands on the walls of the “Child’s Room.” The chamber is named for the burial of a 10-year-old boy whose body is now in Mérida.
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The “Room of Inscriptions,” with person for scale.

Yucatán Road Trip: Xlapak

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Structure 1, Xlapak.

Departing from Sayil, we continued east for 5.5km until we reached another gravel drive branching off to the south, this time leading to Xlapak.

Unlike the other stops along the Puuc Route, little Xlapak is not officially inscribed by UNESCO within the Uxmal World Heritage Site. This is probably because the visitable area includes only one well-preserved building (Structure 1, aka, the “palace”), while the rest of the former city still lies in near-complete ruin. And yet, the singularity of this building, which seems to stand alone within an encroaching jungle, lends it a jewel-like quality unmatched by the larger and more elaborate structures elsewhere.

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From the parking area, we followed a stone-lined footpath under a canopy of slender but densely growing trees. After the open and expansive locations of Sayil, Kabah, and Uxmal, the trail through Xlapak felt unusually intimate—almost eerily so.

After about 200 meters, we arrived at the north façade of the palace. This is the best preserved part of the building, with its step-and-fret frieze bordered by three sets of long-nosed masks stacked in triplicate at the corners and above the central doorway.

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North façade of Structure 1, Xlapak

The frieze wraps all the way around the building (or did at one time, when the exterior walls were still fully intact), and it’s probable that the east and west sides were once identical. Likewise, the design of the south wall is similar to that of the north, in that both originally possessed three doors and a frieze divided into two equal sections.

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Southeast corner of Structure 1 with a faux-column and stack of long-nosed (Chaac) masks.

However, the southern façade boasts two large masks above its central doorway, just to the right of the pile of rubble that was once the structure’s southwest corner, that are unlike anything else on the building. With their long, hooked noses and modular construction, these faces bear some resemblance to other Puuc depictions of Chaac or Witz. And yet they also display unusually wide mouths, the upper jaws of which are filled with regular, serrated teeth. The noses, too, are turned in the opposite direction of most Chaac masks, curving upwards rather than down. It is unclear whether these differences are iconographically significant or simply a matter of style, but it is possible, as Andrew Coe has suggested, that the faces represent Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed rain god of central Mexico, rather than the Maya counterpart of Chaac (370).

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Two unusual versions of the long-nosed masks sit above the central doorway on the south façade of Structure 1.
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View of Structure 1 from the north-west. The heavily damaged side of the building gives a clear view of the interior structure of the walls and “Mayan arch” ceilings.

Continuing down the path leads to Group 2, but there is little to see here for the casual visitor. So little, in fact, that we have no photographs from this part of the site and I can no longer remember what it looked like. In another context, that might have been disappointing. At the time, however, we still had two more sites to visit that day before we needed to drive to Campeche and leave the Puuc behind. As a result, we were actually grateful to find the rest of the site undemanding and kept our time there brief.

Highly subjective personal rating: 7.5/10 [Although there is less to see here than at the other stops along the Puuc Route, Xlapak’s compact but scenic grounds offer a pleasant break from its more overwhelming neighbors. Also, it’s free to visit.]

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2o15.

Yucatán Road Trip: Sayil

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Detail of the Great Palace of Sayil. Along with Kabah and Labna, Sayil is one of three satellite sites included under the designated UNESCO World Heritage Site of Uxmal.

On day two of our Puuc Route adventure, we followed Highway 261 south for just under five km past Kabah, then turned left onto a narrow, unnamed road. After another five km of doubt, we came upon Sayil, our first destination of the day. Turning right (south) off the unnamed road, we drove beneath a canopy of bright orange and green foliage up to the parking lot.

Version 2After paying the modest entrance fee, visitors walk about 100 meters south to a clearing and the site’s most impressive structure, the Great Palace.

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Western façade of Sayil’s Great Palace. The staircase, which once led to the top of the structure, is no longer accessible to visitors.

According to the accompanying plaque, this monumental, three-story structure was built in several stages during the Late Classic period, mostly from 800–1000 AD. By the time of completion, it contained over 90 bedrooms and eight chultuns, and could have housed as many as 350 people. Its primary function was probably to serve as living quarters for the city’s governing elite, but some rooms were likely used for storage or administrative purposes.

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Plan of Sayil’s Great Palace. By HJPD.
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Frieze on the second level of Sayil’s Great Palace. The two upside-down “diving gods” are similar to those found at the coastal site of Tulum, and may represent the maize deity.
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Turquoise-browed motmot perched on the Great Palace, Sayil.

In addition to its palace and unusual trove of artifacts related to non-elite life, the sprawling grounds of Sayil are particularly valued for their avian diversity, attracting bird watchers and archaeology buffs alike. As we followed the sacbe through the rest of the visitable area, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of fauna we encountered. The only place we saw a more diverse range of wildlife was at Calakmul, the massive, isolated site and nature preserve located over 300 km to the south near the border of Guatemala.

Highly subjective personal rating: 7.5/10

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Great Kiskadee, Sayil.
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Butterfly at Sayil, tentatively identified as the “Gray Cracker” (Hamadryas februa).
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Stela with Yum Keep, the phallic god of male fertility. In comparison to other low-relief depictions of gods found on Maya stelae, the figure is unusual for its frontality and simplicity, as well as its lack of accompanying glyphs.
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Hooded oriole on the grounds of Sayil.
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Sayil’s Mirador Temple is in the early Puuc style, characterized by a high roof comb punctured with openings. The building was originally decorated on three sides, and support stones for now-vanished stucco work are still embedded on the south wall.
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Temple of the Hieroglyphic Jambs, Sayil. The building gets its name from the stone border around one of its doorways, seen here on the far right. Little of the original structure is left, and more than half of the remaining wall–along with its glyphs–is buried beneath the surrounding rubble.
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Detail of the visible glyphs on the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Jambs.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2015, unless otherwise indicated.

Yucatán Road Trip: Uxmal

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View of the “Magician’s Pyramid,” Uxmal. The curving edges of the pyramid are unique in Maya architecture, and may be the result of flawed restoration.

Of the many exceptional Maya ruins we visited in the Yucatán Peninsula, both Josh and I agree that Uxmal was our favorite. My notes from the half-day we spent at the site simply read, “Uxmal=Amazing,” and that still pretty well sums up our impression of the ancient city.

Like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal is an UNESCO World Heritage site located within day-trip distance of Mérida. However, its more southwesterly position off a less trafficked route means that it is not as convenient a destination for cruise travelers or those staying in Tulum, and thus receives fewer visitors than its slightly more famous cousin. This is good news for those who do put in the small amount of extra effort necessary to get there, as it not only means you will be sharing the grounds with fewer people, but also that those other people usually care about what they’re seeing (a characteristic we didn’t fully appreciate until later, when we found it lacking among too many of the tourists populating the Maya Riviera).

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Stacked Chaac masks decorating the roofline of the “Nunnery’s” north building. Although made up of modular stone units, each face is distinct. The “Venus Temple,” visible here in the lower register of the image, is named for the repeated “W,” or trident-shaped, designs on the façade that represent the planet Venus.

When traveling within the peninsula, moving south generally means moving back in time. Whereas the buildings at Chichén Itzá mostly date to the Post-Classic era (c. 11th-13th centuries CE), Uxmal is a Late Classic site, built primarily between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. It is the largest and most complex of the cities designed in the Puuc style, and one of the few Yucatan centers not near a cenote. Instead, the residents dug chultuns (deep, narrow cisterns) to capture rain water. The many masks that typify the stone latticework in Puuc architecture have long been thought to represent Chaac (Chac, Chaahk), god of rain, in part because rain would have been both relatively scarce and extremely important to the city’s survival.

[Note: According to a display at the Canton Palace Museum, some recent studies have suggested that these masks might be depictions of Witz, the sacred mountain, rather than the rain deity. However, another plaque located a few feet away in the same exhibition clearly takes the more traditional view that these are the faces of Chaac. Since the question is still contested, I am using the traditional identification of the masks as Chaac because it is both the more widespread view and the one most repeated at the site itself.]

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Broken Chaac masks look out from the Nunnery towards the Magician’s Pyramid. The great, open-mouthed face at the top of the pyramid’s stairs is similar to the serpent mask doorways common in the Chenes-style architecture of the southern Yucatán.

Although more difficult to capture in photographs, the layout of Uxmal is almost as striking as its highly decorated architecture. After visiting Chichén Itzá and Dzibilchaltún, where the major buildings are spread out and emphasized through man-made horizon lines, the relationships between buildings in Uxmal can feel layered and compact despite the substantial size of the site. This is particularly true of the area around the Magician’s Pyramid. Even though the structure is one of the largest and most conspicuous monuments in the ancient city, the courtyard (known as the “Quadrangle of the Birds”) separating it from the buildings of the “Nunnery” is quite small—so small, in fact, that it is impossible to capture the entire front of the pyramid in a single photograph. This means that there are few opportunities to view the face of the pyramid as a whole. And yet, the building’s upper portion is one of the most visible and eye-catching sights in the city, with a giant, open-mouthed mask looking out towards the Nunnery and marking the entrance of the temple located at the top of the central staircase. Instead of opening the space around the pyramid so it could be easily understood as a whole, the city’s builders created multiple opportunities for visually framing, and thus drawing specific attention to, this mask.

Case in point:

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No other single feature stands out so dramatically at the site, especially when seen from a distance, suggesting that it was this part of the pyramid, rather than the totality of the structure, that held the most significance for the city’s residents. The doorway is also unusual for Puuc architecture, and appears to be a blend of local Puuc and southern Chenes decorative styles. For instance, the use of stacked Chaac masks (seen here at the edges of the central face) is a typically Puuc (and Chenes) feature, while Chenes architects frequently incorporated open-mouthed serpent masks around the doorways of important buildings. In fact, the closest known parallel may be at Hormiguero, one of the most far-flung of the Chenes-style sites, located nearly 300 km away in the south of the Peninsula.

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Chenes-style structure at Hormiguero in southern Campeche. The masked doorway is similar to that on the Magician’s Pyramid in both style (including the border of stacked Chaac masks) and central placement at the top of a high staircase.

Unfortunately, no one now knows exactly what Uxmal’s structures, including the Magician’s Pyramid, were used for. The city had long been abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived and christened the buildings with names based on their own initial impressions of the site. However, modern scholars have noted that Uxmal’s layout appears to follow astrological features, particularly the movements of the sun and Venus. The cycles of both stars played definitive roles in Maya conceptions of time, but how that translated into the uses of these buildings is still largely a matter of speculation.

The unfortunately named Nunnery, located near the site’s entrance beside the Magician’s Pyramid, is a slightly asymmetrical complex with long, heavily ornamented buildings framing a large courtyard. The light show, held in the evenings just after dusk, takes place here, with the audience sitting in folding chairs near the top of the northern building.

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Northern building of Uxmal’s Nunnery with the Temple of Venus on the left.
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Western building of the Nunnery.
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The Nunnery’s eastern building.
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View from the Nunnery’s north building, looking out over the south building at the Governor’s Palace, House of the Turtles, and Great Pyramid.

Most scholars believe that both the layout and decorative façades of the Nunnery possess dense symbolism. The buildings themselves may have formed a mandala of the Maya universe, with the tall, north building embodying the Upper World; the short, southern building representing the Underworld; and the east and west buildings standing for the rising and setting aspects of the Middle World (Coe 360). If correct, the complex—built toward the end of Uxmal’s peak—was a physical declaration of the city’s place at the center of the universe.

In addition to the ubiquitous Chaac masks, the courtyard-facing imagery includes repeated depictions of double-headed or feathered serpents, Maya huts, jaguars, and even masks of Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed water deity associated with central Mexican cultures. The cross-hatching designs, common throughout Uxmal, depict mats, emblems of power.

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Stack of Chaac masks in Uxmal’s Nunnery, topped by the goggle-eyed image of Tlaloc.
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Relief of a Maya hut on the south building.
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God N, the elderly lord of the Underworld, appears above the central entrance of the west building of Uxmal’s Nunnery. He is depicted with the face of an old man and body of a turtle beneath a feather canopy.

From the Nunnery, we walked through the small ballcourt, past the stepped hill supporting the Governor’s Palace, over the Dovecote, and up the Great Pyramid.

Unlike the Magician’s Pyramid, the Great Pyramid’s 100 feet of steps are still open to those visitors who are willing to climb them. Which we did.

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Josh chasing his hat down the Great Pyramid (taken from below the halfway point), Uxmal.

In addition to offering a view of the city’s central buildings, the platform at the top of the pyramid supports a small temple decorated with macaws—perhaps representing an aspect of the sun god—and more long-snouted masks, some of which hold human heads in their mouths. Only one side of the pyramid has been reconstructed, and it is not possible to enter the temple proper.

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The northeast corner of the Great Pyramid abuts the man-made hill that forms the platform for the Governor’s Palace (or House of the Governor) and House of the Turtles. Walking around the narrow south end of the Palace leads to an open plaza that faces the front (east) side of the building.

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Approaching the Governor’s Palace from the southeast.

Near the center of the plaza, directly before the Palace’s staircase, stands an altar supporting Uxmal’s two-headed jaguar throne. Excavations revealed a large cache of over 900 objects, including pots, jade jewelry, and obsidian knives, buried beneath this altar (Coe 360). Although we were unaware of it at the time, Coe also notes that an invisible line corresponding “to an important point in the Venus-cycle” runs from the central doorway of the House of the Governor, through the throne, to the largest structure at the nearby site of Nohpat (361). This relationship between the two cities is further emphasized by the fact that they were once also directly connected by a sacbe (white road).

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From the plaza, it becomes clear that the Palace is in fact three separate buildings connected by spear-point arches and unifying visual features, including one of the most intricate friezes of the region. Altogether, the buildings run for over 100 meters, making the three-part unit one of the longest palace-style structures of any Maya city. Visitors can walk up yet another platform to approach and look into these buildings, but are not supposed to enter them. The rooms currently hold unassigned architectural fragments and serve as a cool-ish resting places for iguanas.

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The northern corners of the Palace have been dug out to reveal more Chaac masks sunk below the walkway. Their strange placement may indicate that the patio area around the structure represents a later building stage than the rest of the House of the Governor.

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Excavated corners of the Governor’s Palace, revealing Chaac masks.
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View from the north side of the Governor’s Palace, looking down at (from left to right) the House of the Turtles, ballcourt, Nunnery, and Magician’s Pyramid.

Descending from the Palace, we approached the House of the Turtles, located at the northeast corner of the hill-platform.

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Some scholars have proposed that the House of the Turtles, named for the row of 40-plus stone turtles encircling the upper portion of its roof, may have been dedicated to a rain “cult,” since turtles are associated with rain. If that is the case, however, it raises the questions of why no images of Chaac adorn the building, especially given the proliferation of the god elsewhere at the site (there are over 100 such masks on the Governor’s Palace alone), and why one of the only other depictions of turtles in the city is clearly attached to the god of the underworld (see image of God N relief at the Nunnery, above).

The relative austerity and small size of the building complements the ornate enormity of its neighbor. Its exterior is punctuated by 10 doors: three each on the east, west, and south walls and just one in the north. Another sight-line leads from the central doorway on the south wall, through the northern opening, across the ball court, to the central entrance of the Nunnery’s south building.

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Sight-line from the House of the Turtles to the Nunnery.
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View of the ballcourt, House of the Turtles, and Governor’s Palace.

For our last stop, we walked west to the “Cemetery Complex,” which, in keeping with the misnomers that abound at the site, is not an actual cemetery. Named for the numerous images of skulls and cross-bones carved on the low platforms dotting its main square, the Complex includes a heavily overgrown pyramid and temple platform. Much of the western area has yet to be reconstructed and is thus far less spectacular than the eastern side of the site. Even so, this quiet group offers the rare opportunity for close inspection of in situ, fairly well preserved reliefs that make it another not-to-be missed section of an already remarkable place.

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Highly subjective personal rating: 10/10 

 

Bonus pics:

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Back of the Magician’s Pyramid as seen from the path connecting the visitor center to the ruins. A bit of the Nunnery’s north building is visible on the right.
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One of the palace-style buildings in the Quadrangle of the Birds. The square gets its name from the bird reliefs decorating the stone roof of this structure.
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Turquoise-browed motmot.
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The narrow, colonnaded structure located to the southwest of the Magician’s Pyramid is neither on our maps nor mentioned in either guidebook. I have no idea what it is.
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One of Uxmal’s many photogenic iguanas.

Yucatán Road Trip: Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, Mérida

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Between Dzibilchaltún and Mérida’s city center sits the strikingly contemporary building of the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. Built in 2012 in the shape of an abstracted ceiba tree (which in Maya mythology unites the three levels of the world), the museum expertly combines a vast collection of artifacts with up-to-date technology and display techniques, including immersive, multi-channel animations.

The Gran Museo divides its gallery spaces into two physically separated sections. During our visit, the first held an exhibition that was both innovative and straight-up weird. We never did figure out exactly what the thesis of the show was supposed to be (something related to evolution or extinction or how different cultures interpret the natural world?), but it included information on meteors as well as living, imagined, and extinct animals using geological fragments, fossils, European Renaissance prints, replicas of Maya artifacts, and a life-size installation representing the extinction and evolution of dinosaurs. Despite the jumble of ideas apparent throughout this section, most of the actual objects were interesting, while the unusual juxtapositions between seemingly unrelated items kept us engaged as well as confused.

Even so, I will admit to being relieved when we entered the second section, dedicated to Maya history and the museum’s permanent collection of artifacts. These galleries alone are well worth a visit to the Gran Museo, as they include a plethora of fascinating objects, many of which diverge significantly from what you can find in textbooks or even specialist publications on Maya cultures. Also refreshing were the explanatory texts, many of which appear in Spanish, Mayan, and English and reflect a perspective that somehow feels both personal and scholarly.

Highly subjective personal rating: 8.5/10 [strongly recommended]

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 21, 2015.

Yucatán Road Trip: Dzibilchaltún

On the morning of our first full day in Mérida, we hopped back in the car and headed north of the city to Dzibilchaltún.

Located on a hot, dry plain about 22 km south of the coast, Dzibilchaltún has the honor of possessing the least picturesque ruins of the 20-plus Maya sites we visited. However, what the destination lacks in architectural or decorative splendor it makes up for in historical importance and, thanks to its cenote, natural beauty. The on-site museum—which consists of both indoor and outdoor displays of artifacts, stelae, and anthropological installations—is also quite good and added significantly to our appreciation of the site.

First occupied around 800 BCE, Dzibilchaltún was one of the earliest major settlements on the peninsula. As a result, some of the oldest known ceramics of the region come from here. The local economy was based on salt trade, and the relative strangeness of the city’s location—which is both inhospitable and fairly far from the sea—can be understood as a compromise between finding land that was capable of supporting a minimal amount of agricultural cultivation while simultaneously as close to the salt-producing coastal lagoons as possible. Of course, the presence of a cenote, offering fresh water in an otherwise arid environment, would have been a key factor in the choice of locale as well.

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At one end of the traversable ruins stands the site’s most iconic building, the Temple of the Dolls. Named for the seven, rough, ceramic figures once buried in front of its altar and now on display in the museum, the temple sits in near isolation at one end of a large, open plaza. Doors located at the center of each of the sanctuary’s four walls heighten the effect of the square building’s rather unusual radial symmetry, while skeletal remnants of Chaac masks sit above these entrances and at the roofline’s four corners. Like many surfaces at the site, the masks (and numerous nearby stelae) were once covered in sculptural, painted stucco. Archaeologists have discovered graffiti inside the temple as well, some of which may date to 1200–1520 CE, when Maya pilgrims reopened and restored the sanctuary. Unfortunately, the building itself is no longer accessible and must be appreciated from a distance.

Running east-west, a long, straight sacbe connects the Temple of the Dolls to Dzibilchaltún’s central square. Visitors can either follow this road to the rest of the site or walk along a parallel (and more shaded) path part of the way. Those who take the sacbe will also pass another, circular trail that leads to very little.

The central plaza consists of a few, spread-out structures, including a small pyramid, an open Franciscan chapel, stone bleachers, and a gateway. On the other side of the gateway lies the Xlacah Cenote, perhaps the site’s greatest highlight.

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Swimming is allowed, albeit “at your own risk,” but there is no changing room or shower on the grounds.

As an oasis in an otherwise parched landscape, the water here is teeming with life. During our visit, the pool seemed especially hospitable to lily pads and various fish, the latter of which struck us as a little too eager to swarm a bit of flesh and check it for possible food. We spent the majority of our time at Dzibilchaltún admiring the cenote and its surrounding flora and fauna, but left the swimming for another day.

Although I don’t imagine myself returning to Dzibilchaltún, the cenote and museum alone made it worth a visit. If you go, arrive early to beat the tourist groups bused in from Mérida. There is no escaping the sun, so having a hat, sunblock, and plenty of water is especially important here.

Highly subjective personal rating: 7/10 
[ruins: 5/10cenote: 8/10museum: 8/10]

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All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 21, 2015.

Yucatán Road Trip: Balankanché

Incensors around a naturally formed column representing the Ceiba, or World Tree, Balankanché. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 20, 2015.

Over the course of my various travels, there have been five moments when it occurred to me that I had put myself in a situation where I might die. The first took place in London, during a late night stroll along the bank of the Thames. The second was in Taiwan, sitting at the front of a bus making its way down the winding sliver of a cliffside road inside Taroko Gorge. The third and fourth were both in planes during storms, one while flying through the edge of a typhoon over the Pacific, the other in a much smaller aircraft over the Midwestern United States. And the fifth instance happened this spring, during a tour of Balankanché caves.

Located about 4.5 km southeast of Chichén Itzá off highway 180, the site of Balankanché had been used, off and on, since at least the Late Preclassic (300 BCE—250 CE) until the fall of Chichén. As a sacred site, the many clustered, in situ artifacts consist of implements for rituals. Incense burners—several of which possess semi-abstracted faces—are particularly, and unusually, abundant.

The cave itself is essentially T-shaped, with the central passage culminating in a chamber dominated by a naturally forming column and stalactites that together resemble the trunk and hanging branches of a great, subterranean tree. To the Maya, this formation represented the World Tree, or Ceiba, which connected the three layers of the universe: heaven, the middle (terrestrial) world, and the underworld. The raised ground around the bottom of the “tree” is heavily dotted with incensors and may have been used as an altar.

Having grown up in an area similarly situated on limestone, and thus similarly punctuated by caves and sinkholes, I was particularly excited by the possibility of visiting this site. However, my experiences with the cool environments of caverns in the US colored my expectations of what the Yucatán counterparts would actually be like. Despite having read that the air would be warm and humid, and that the “major danger” archaeologists faced “during the exploration was lack of oxygen,” my brain somehow never accepted what this had to mean for our own visit until we were actually in the tunnels themselves [Coe 2001, 399].

We arrived at the site after spending the morning and early afternoon in the sun at Chichén Itzá. Fortunately, the air conditioning in the car had already provided some much welcome relief from the heat and helped revive our energy for this next adventure. Upon our approach, though, we learned that we were the only people at the welcome center, and the next tour wasn’t scheduled for another 45 minutes. Waiting was a gamble, as the site’s policy is to only take groups of five or more into the caves; if no one else came, we would have wasted our limited time. Spurred on in my enthusiasm by wishful optimism, I assumed more people would show up closer to the time of an actual tour, and so we opted to wait. And then, when the tour time came and went and still no one else had arrived, we waited a little longer. Finally, after almost an hour and a half, we decided to leave and try to salvage the rest of our afternoon by visiting the nearby Ik Kil cenote. As we got up to leave, the man supervising the site stopped us and offered to let us go if we paid for two extra people. We agreed, albeit a little reluctantly, and he called over one of the guides to take us through.

At this point, I was a little annoyed. After all, there were three guys, including our own guide, who had been waiting the whole time we were there to lead people into the caves. Surely, I thought, it was better for them to take two people rather than no one at all. Making us wait and then pay extra felt a lot like getting fleeced. But we had already invested the time, and not going would have been the second major disappointment of the day. So we sucked it up and determined to make the most of the opportunity we had.

Our guide was perfectly pleasant, although he spoke very little and led us quickly through rising and falling tunnels. At first I wished he would slow down so we could better take-in the surroundings; 20 minutes later, I wished we could somehow go even faster. His job was not so much to provide information or guidance (the piped-in dramatic voices near the entrance and installed electrical lighting did that) as it was to occasionally draw our attention to the major points of interest within the caves. It was also, I soon understood, to make sure we didn’t somehow get lost or pass-out.

There is only one entrance into the caves, which means that there is only one source of fresh air. As we made our way further underground and further from this opening, the atmosphere became steadily hotter and more humid. Eventually, it felt as if we were walking through water, and I found myself unable to get enough oxygen into my lungs. Stopping did not help. The only way to get the O2 I so desperately wanted was simply to keep walking until conditions improved. The effect lessened somewhat—although not enough to breathe comfortably—when we reached the Ceiba, and we paused there (for as few minutes as possible) to take pictures. We then went a little further into one of the branches of the “T,” but my memories of what we saw are hazy at best. I do recall, however, my intense relief when I realized we were heading back and my even greater relief when we stumbled out into the open air. There were several moments, both going and coming, when I had to suppress waves of panic, and I was thankful to have both Josh and our guide there. Knowing that they, too, were having trouble breathing reassured me that the issue was environmental and not personal (ie, I was not having a heart attack) and that if we just kept going we would make it through.

Even so, it took several hours after leaving the site for the squeezing sensation in my lungs to go away and for my breathing to return to normal. I’m also embarrassed to say that although we finally appreciated the reasonableness of their five-person minimum policy, in our lightheaded, respiratory desperation and general desire to escape the site, we forgot to tip our guide. This was the worst tipping mistake of our trip, and the one thing I most wish we could go back and change.

Ultimately, although I am glad we went, I don’t foresee ever returning to Balankanché and would only recommend it to the physically sturdy with a strong interest in Maya culture and archaeology.

Highly subjective personal rating: 6/10

Yucatán Road Trip: Chichén Itzá

The Post-Classic Maya city of Chichén Itzá [“beside the well of the Itza”] is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but also, since 2007, one of the “new” seven wonders of the world. It is also a fairly easy day trip from either Cancún or Mérida, and is thus one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, if not the world.

Although popular descriptions often refer to the city as a Maya-Toltec settlement, the history of Chichén Itzá and its associated architecture is still contested. The more traditional view, and the one presented on the associated UNESCO webpage, is that the original Classic period settlement was conquered by the Toltecs, and that most of the major buildings now associated with the city represent a fusion of the two cultures. This narrative dovetails nicely with a Maya legend of the arrival of a king from Central Mexico, identified as Kukulkan (Feathered Serpent), and goes some way in explaining the predominance of plumed snakes in Chichén Itzá’s architecture, as well as the inclusion of other features more associated with central Mexican cultures, including images of death and sacrifice.

Detail of the relief along Chichén Itzá’s Great Ball Court. The kneeling figure on the left depicts the game’s decapitated loser; the snakes springing from his neck represent blood spurting from the wound. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 20, 2015.

There are, however, problems with this theory. The most significant issue is a matter of timing—namely, archaeologists now believe that the buildings once thought to represent Toltec features actually pre-date the civilization which supposedly influenced them [Drew 1999, 371]. If true, this might point to a reversal of influence, in which the Toltecs incorporated imagery from the Maya, not the other way around. Indeed, many of the supposedly “Toltec” aspects of Chichén Itzá are in fact present in other, earlier Maya settlements. The feathered serpent, for instance, was already a common motif in Maya culture centuries before the establishment of the great centers of the Yucatán, and can be traced to even earlier origins within the Olmec civilization. Likewise, clear evidence of the importance of war and the practice of human sacrifice at Classic period settlements, such as the murals of Bonampak, have long since forced archaeologists to set aside more romantic notions of the Maya as an idilic civilization of peaceful scholars corrupted by blood-thirsty outside conquerers.

360-panorama of the Temple of the Warriors and El Castillo, Chichén Itzá, by Joshua Albers, May 20, 2015.

Regardless of who was responsible, the great architecture of Chichén Itzá is both physically imposing and iconographically impressive. Since the site’s inclusion as one of the wonders of the world, however, access has become increasingly restricted. Visitors can no longer climb the stairs of El Castillo or enter its interior chambers, nor can they walk among the many columns of the Temple of the Warriors.

Back in 1999, I had the opportunity to climb the pyramid and chose not to. This time, I promised myself I would brave the heat and precarious steps in order to take a peek at the inner chamber. To this end, we arrived early and made a beeline from the entrance directly to El Castillo. After months of anticipation, it took me a while and multiple laps around the foot of the pyramid to accept the eventual realization that I had forever missed my chance to see the temple interior. Putting aside my personal disappointment, however, these new measures are clearly important precautions for preserving the heavily visited ruins, and ones the government has been wise to undertake.

That being said, missing this opportunity definitely increased the pressure to do everything we could at the subsequent, less regulated, sites we visited.

Artist Efrain Cetz beside his masks and other carvings, Chichén Itzá. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 20, 2015.

Another consequence of being a popular tourist destination is the inclusion of many artisans and souvenir sellers scattered amongst the shaded areas of the grounds. This feature is somewhat unique to Chichén Itzá, as other sites either require such stalls be outside of the grounds—as at Tulum—or simply don’t draw enough people to have more than one or two merchants present, if there are any at all.

The wares on offer vary greatly, from mass-produced or poorly made souvenirs to unique objects crafted by skilled artists. If you are interested in making a purchase, it’s probably best not to get the first thing that catches your eye, as many vendors will have similar—and possibly better-constructed—items for sale. But if, after looking around, you do find something you like, buy it. We ended up purchasing a mask by Efrain Cetz there, and although it took at least a half hour and the last of our energy to find him again, I’m glad we did. For while we later saw other, vaguely similar, masks elsewhere, they never appealed as much as the one we already had. In addition, buying directly from the artist allowed us to speak with him about his ideas and practice, which in turn gave us a better appreciation of not only what we were taking home, but of how traditional Maya stories and concepts are being reinterpreted by contemporary people.

Masks of the rain god, Chaac [Chac, Chaahk], adorning the Puuc-style “Church,” Chichén Itzá. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 20, 2015.
Finally, as a heavily visited, imminently photogenic location, Chichén Itzá is also one of the most photographed places on the planet. There is almost no angle of the extensive grounds that has not already been captured multiple times, and no shortage of images available in publications and on the web. Not that the futility of trying to take an original picture stopped us from spending hours snapping hundreds of our own photos. But because images of the major buildings are so common, we mostly focused on framing our own impressions, using our telephoto lenses to better see the details we couldn’t approach, and documenting the many iguanas chilling at the site like giant, scaly squirrels.

She knows she’s beautiful.

For more on the site’s layout, history, and visiting information, see the INAH website, which has text in both English and Spanish.

Highly subjective personal rating: 9/10 [Bucket-list worthy]