My life was a vast gleaming empty page and I could do anything I wanted.
I grab my faded blue Chuck Taylors and hop in a rental van with my husband and three-year-old son to pick up my two brothers in Cancun. Our intention is to explore ruins in central Yucatán.
We spend the night in Valladolid where the streets are lined with mighty wooden doors and flat, pastel colored buildings with rounded adobe edges you are almost certain snatched out of a vintage photograph. Indigenous woman in dazzling Mayan dresses with ancient laugh lines pass me on the sidewalk. The town reminds me of the Old Barrio in my hometown of Tucson where businesses, hotels and houses are hidden behind great high walls. From a distance streets appear abandoned but the energy came from within.
The front of hotel Casa Tia Micha displays a modest open door leading into an entry way where faded black and white photos of people who have long past hang upon the old adobe wall. The floor is tiled, varies shades of brown and light reflecting off dark wood displays warm undertones. Antique lighting hangs from tall ceilings as we walk through a hallway with walls adorned with succulents, flowers, plants and colorful doors which lead to a stairway up to the rooms.
Our room was through a double door the color of a green Andes mint where two rod iron bed frames with black iron swirl design sit side by side. The coffee cups in the room are tiny, old and magnificent.
Dinner at La Colzada was served on mismatched plates under historic tile with tile designed ages ago and a pixilated antique rose leading into the dining room. When our entrees arrive I’m presented with bland looking but an ever so succulent shrimp fettuccini bathed in a puddle of spiced garlic butter and my son quickly pops shrimp in his mouth.
After dinner we stop into a bakery showcasing eye-candy pastries under warm light and buy a baggy of heart shaped spiced cookies from the remaining pesos in my pocket. From the shadows I look down to see my child looking around captivated as he clings to one of his uncle’s hand.
San Servacio, a towering church built in 1545, looms in the night sky over the town’s main plaza with lit structural bends highlighted with an orange glow. A woman walks out of a smaller door within the giant church door and from behind iron bars a man prays on his knees in front of an alter as headstones line the walls around him.
We eat cookies as we walk through the expansive square. Two lovers kiss in front of an endless archway backdrop paying attention to nothing but their embrace. Two-seated benches painted white are scattered across the pristine plaza and fade in the night.
In Valladolid I was home.
That night I slept fully clothed in anticipation for Chichen Itza.
During their civilization The Mayans roughly built 7,000 cities, however, Chichen Itza is one of the most amazing.
Chichen was built around 435 A.D. with a booming population of 60,000 people that later declined near 1250 A.D.
For 700 years Chichen Itza sat like an abandoned void as the earth reclaimed it and iguanas climbed serenely over the warm rock structures before the Spanish discovered it.
Guillermo (William), our tour guide, led us to the front of the ruin entrance as we stood next to a Mayan cotton tree. Its thick swollen trunk held layered branches covered with wart-like thorns. Green water balloons of cotton seed hung from the branches like a chandelier. To the Mayans, the branches represent the different stages of heaven. Its roots are the underworld.
The main pyramid Kukulcán, or Castillo, a name given by the Spanish in 1527, was more beautiful than I could have imagined. I’m sure everyone says that, but it is true! The four-sided newly renowned man made 7th wonder of the world demands your attention like a feisty woman in a skin tight one-piece leather suit cracking a whip. Feeling insignificant is a marvelous thing.
Kukulcan was built between 550-900 AD.
Years ago travelers walked on ruins of Castillo but today are merely allowed to gawk at the beast from afar. The colossal sundial in all its glory once appeared plastered smooth in white and painted with red stripes. It is a collaboration of the Toltec and Mayan solar calendars but history has transformed Kukulan into art.
What’s so amazing about this gargantuan pile of rocks?
The four steep stairways represent the four seasons and the four phases of the annual solar cycle: winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and fall equinox with each stairway having 91 steps.
Multiply the four sides of the pyramid by 91 you get 364. Add the top platform and the total becomes 365: The days in the solar calendar.
The pyramid’s 52 panels within the nine terraces signify the number of years in the Toltec cycle. Each of the nine terraced steps is divided in two: 18 for the months in the yearly Maya calendar.
During the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, (March 21 and September 22) the sun shines on the platform edges forming shadows on the balustrades of the north face that look like a writhing rattle snake with the massive stone carvings of snake heads at the base of the stairs, suggesting a massive serpent snaking down the structure.
For the ancient Mayans the snake was a scared symbol that represented mother earth.
“The sun fertilizes the snake,” smiled Guillermo.
Within Kukulcán is another pyramid. It was common for the Mayans to use preexisting structures to reinforce the newer temple. Inside the temple chamber is a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of a Jaguar, painted red with spots made of inlaid jade but today viewings are limited to the elite.
Witnessing the decay of a fascinating culture is emotional and at times gulps left me with a pebble in my throat to think that all of this was gone.
We stood in front of Castillo and clapped our hands causing a high pitched chirp sound to echo through the doorway at the top of the pyramid. The ancient Mayans played drums in the same spot we stood many moons ago before playing soul shaking rhythms.
Jaguar noise makers echoed throughout the crumbled city site making a few unaware tourists leap at the raspy growl. Mayan vendors sold hand carved wooden masks, clothes, tapestries, pipes, and ashtrays just to name a few.
Towards the end, I could no longer keep up with the tour guide, and instead snapped pictures of the crumbled art in front of me.
I accepted a handkerchief with blue roses embroidered on it from a tiny Mayan woman after handing her a 10 peso coin. I held it to my nose and breathed in to whiff the ancient Mayan culture and it smelled stale and musty like I had guessed it would.
Artwork throughout temples displayed gods wearing feathers signifying the sky or heavens. One relief depicts an eagle grasping the heart of the world. Other images of Mesoamerican ball players hold headless opponents in their hands. People have their own interpretation as to the violence depicted on the Mayan ruins.
In Mayan ball the rubber game ball represented the sun. The equinox shines through doorways on top of the arena and a great podium where Mayan dictators shouted at the people was mounted at the front of the stadium echoing through the great walls.
It always feels like a dream when I leave the ruins. When I try and recollect I can never grasp the mystical element of the design that stood before me. I relive the experience through photographs.
That’s what ruins are like. Old photographs.
Next stop: Ek Balam.