Chicen Itza, a couple hours into the interior from Playa del Carmen, is one of the major Mayan ruins sites and was privately owned for many years – an American entrepreneur planned to build a major hotel here in the 1800s when the area was still very remote. The Mexican government bought the site in the ‘70s and it is now a well managed archeological location and part of Mexico’s patrimony.
Mayan culture developed around 2000 BCE and flourished in the mid 1200s CE, and was arguably in decline when the Spanish arrived and steadily crushed it. The ½ a dozen diseases Europeans brought with them aided in this task.
Maya stretched from current day Guatemala to a few hundred miles of Mexico City (Mexico City was the heart of the Aztec empire which the Spanish conquistadors, looking for gold, vanquished in the 1500s), and was comprised of several, often warring kingdoms. It was highly sophisticated with 100s of miles of causeways between sites, government and religious buildings that survive as ruins today and a sophisticated agrarian economy. Society was run by a high level warrior and priestly class and used slaves, often captured in battle, extensively. The Mayans farmed irrigated land extensively and their diet was semi vegetarian.
Chichen Itza is dominated by a 30 meter high ziggurat / temple – called “el Castillo” by the Spanish – which was constructed over an earlier pyramid and has a number of associated structures, whose connecting paths are now populated with locals selling souvenirs. The ruins have the partial remains of administrative buildings, housing for priests and ball courts. The ruins show sophisticated carving, detailed bas relief and archeologists have figured out that buildings were painted / dyed in bright colors, now faded.
We got to the site just before the gates were to open – there was already a lineup growing and as we walked around the site, souvenir sellers were setting up their stalls. By the time we left a few hours later, the entry area was humming and the tropical heat of the day was building. Selfies, Instagram poses and souvenir vendors ready for another day of transactions.
When we toured the site it was quiet and still cool. Vendors were setting up, working in a relaxed and steady fashion, chatting with one another as we might at the office when getting coffee. I would love to know the pecking order and how they originally got access to the site (Other sites we have been to were quite intentional about keeping vendors 1 or more KM away from the actual ruins).
The structures on the site made me think about how fleeting our existence is – this is all that remains of a culture that flourished for 3,500 years. What physical traces would ours leave?
The Mayans viewed blood as suitable and necessary nourishment for the gods and would regularly sacrifice individuals – often senior leaders from defeated armies – through a ritual decapitation in which draining the victim’s blood and “feeding” it to the gods via temple fire was part of their worship, having disemboweled and skinned him first.
Additionally, the priests might remove the victims fingers, nose and penis and extract his / her heart while he was still alive – they did this with surgical precision, using razor sharp obsidian tools. Several Spanish captors fell victims to this fate during their conquest of Mexico.
The Aztecs, located in Mexico City basin, would flay a man alive and dress a priest in the victim’s skin as part of the sacrifice ritual. They sacrificed thousands of individuals – often children – to placate the sun god.
Hundreds of human skulls have been found, along with gold, jade and crafted objects in the bottom of a Cenote (A freshwater sinkhole) near Chichen Itza that archeologists think indicate sacrifices made to appease the gods during times of drought.
Humans sacrifice is a common thread running through many early cultures, along with slavery, war, famine and a short life (e.g. the early Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Asante) and one can find references to sacrifice (often child sacrifice) in the Old Testament, sometimes with the proviso that a first born animal could substitute for a first born child. The story in the book of Genesis about God instructing Abraham to get his only son Isaac ready for sacrifice, in which Abraham expresses no surprise or confusion and in which God spares Isaac only at the last minute, suggests that child sacrifice was an idea that Abraham had at least passing familiarity with.
Abraham and his peers would have been inured to death and loss through the incredibly high infant mortality rates they suffered – 30% of babies would not survive their first year – and low life expectancy (35 – 45 years) so the value of a life was not what it is now back then. Additionally, food was scarce and famines were common, so providing a key source of protein to the temple as a burnt offering would be very costly, a significant sacrifice.
Blood sacrifice was at the core of both the Jewish faith, through animal sacrifices in the temple, and its follow-on Christianity, through Christ’s crucifixion, now memorialized by the bread (Christ’s body) and wine (His blood) used in the Eucharist.
I am on my way home now and have spent two days driving about 1,000 miles West before making any progress going North – the Yucatán protrudes into the Caribbean a long way. I am staying in the river town of Tuxpan in a slightly tired and half occupied low rise hotel with a pleasing brick facade, a good sized pool, and surrounded by greenery and cobbled pavement. The indifferent internet access and an earnest staff are a good fit; the housekeeping lady, with gold teeth and a white smock proudly demonstrated the AC for me and tuned the flat screen TV to wildlife show. The African Savanna in the Mexican tropics in Spanish. I am content.
The start of my return drive has taken me through wetlands, along miles of sandy beaches, by banana and coconut plantations and through the dozens of towns and villages that feel languid, poor and steady. Occasional views of oil platforms a few miles offshore (Pemex has extensive offshore oil reserves). A different feel / sensibility than the Yucatán or the Pacific coast around Puerto Vallarta. Warehouses, trucks, factories, juice processing plants. The working tropics.
The last couple of hundred miles through hilly uplands with large orange groves, along carretera libres – local roads – with scrums of full size semi trailers high tailing it down a narrow and difficult asphalt strip, pockmarked, and runneled by the heavy traffic. A toll taker called out my California plates and asked me if I was from San Francisco, she said she has always wanted to visit the city. Hustlers by the roadside pitching stacks of oranges, pineapples, sweet coconuts, and nearer saltwater flats, large fresh shrimp. In a couple of towns, a dozen guys holding sticks with several colorful parrots nonchalantly perched on each, the birds looking calm and perhaps a little perplexed – it felt like they were part of a circus act and this was all in a day’s work.
On the highway, clusters of pilgrims wearing Virgin of Guadalupe t shirts and flying banners with her visage, either cycling on their own, some with a chase car, and others crowded into the back of pickup trucks. And fellows pedaling with what looked like ⅓ scale models of the Virgin herself, shrink wrapped, perhaps with offerings, tottering precariously in small backpacks they each carried. Today, I saw a garbage truck with a big banner of the virgin on its side, acting as a chase car for several cyclists. I am sure the Virgin would approve.
The Virgin showed herself the Juan Diego (a campesino) 5 times in December of 1531. She spoke to him in Nahuatl, the language of local indigenous folks and, when the local bishop insisted on a sign to validate Juan’s vision, made the Castilian roses on a nearby hill bloom. Her basilica in Mexico City is the most visited shrine in the world and her appearance is considered one of the three most important visions in the history of the church. It is not an overstatement to say that the Virgin of Guadalupe is Mexico’s patron saint – she was followed with messianic fervor in the country’s founding and war of independence. Her feast day is December 12th, hence the pilgrimage. You feel her presence here and it is quite humbling seeing people express their faith through the simple (and physically demanding) act of pilgrimage.
The Subaru, with 150,000 miles and 10 years on her frame has, like me, creaks and groans and joints that do not work as well as they used to. Random pieces of interior trim have cracked or disappeared. The seats are stained from wayward cups of tea. A few dings and scrapes and shake downs from many Mexican speed bumps. Her beverage of choice is 20w50 motor oil which she sips steadily through the day. I have a gallon that I purchased in Playa del Carmen and I top her up every morning. My beverage of choice is strong tea – so strong it could strip paint – with which I fill a thermos every morning and sip throughout the day. Were we able to, the Subaru and I would toast one another – as it is our mutual respect remains silent and unwavering.