It is a mystery why the great Mayan civilization, with its comprehensive calendar, and advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, would abruptly scatter and retreat into the thick and knotted jungle. To try to disentangle this paradox, we visited the three most popular Mayan ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulum.
Chichén Itzá is the largest and most visited archeological site on the Yucatán Peninsula. It was established in 300 AD, flourished between 800 and 925 AD, and is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The well-preserved structures on the site reveal the Maya understanding of calendars and mathematics. The iconic centerpiece, El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcán), is a giant calendar rendered in stone. The 91 stairs on each of its four sides plus the top level adds up to 365, one step for each day of the year.
At Chichén Itzá, the Maya expanded their knowledge to astronomy and its connection to the seasons. The circular domed tower El Caracol looks like a modern observatory with roof slits aligned with points of astronomical significance. Even though they excelled at science, the Maya also followed strong religious traditions.
To appease their gods, especially Chaac the god of rain, the Maya faithfully practiced human sacrifice. The bodies of the sacrificed where thrown into their sacred cenote (deep freshwater sinkhole), considered a portal to the underworld. The skulls were displayed in a nearby rack platform called a Tzompantli.
The Maya also played a brutal ball game where both teams lost. Shaped like a large capital letter “I” with target rings on both sides, the 300-foot (90 m) long court at Chichén Itzá is the largest in the Mayan world. Panels depicting the game show one player holding a knife and the severed head of his opponent. Archeologists poignantly postulate that it was the winning team that lost their scalps.
Moving on to Uxmal, the Mayans demonstrated their finest architectural skills in the decorated Puuc style. A prime example is the steeply-angled Pyramid of the Magician (Adivino), a remarkable Mexican pyramid, constructed on a uniquely oval base.
What is most appealing at Uxmal is the meticulous ornamentation on the ancient buildings. The Palacio del Gobernador, called “Mesoamerican architecture’s finest moment”, includes a broad band of mosaic Chaac adornments alternating with highly stylized snakes.
The splendor of the structures at Uxmal is stunning, but the coastal location of Tulum is downright magnificent. Perched on a cliff overlooking a white sand beach on the blue-green Caribbean Sea, a visit to Tulum is all about beating the crowds to get the best photographs.
Rising early, we were third in line when the site opened. Like Black Friday shoppers, we hustled through the cliff-side site to the best camera angles. After an hour of relatively undisturbed scenery, we exited the site to find an arriving stream of unloading tour busses.
After visiting the three most famous Mayan sites on the Yucatán Peninsula, we still can’t decide if natural or political factors caused the sudden disappearance of their civilization. More clues might still be hidden in their architecture, in the unexplored ruins of the deep jungle, or in the faces of the Maya people of modern-day Yucatán.
Blogger’s Note: After our month-long, 750 mile (1,200 km) circumnavigation of the Yucatán Peninsula, Esther has returned home to Reno, Nevada to attend to some business, while I have continued on to the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca for the month of March. In three weeks, Esther will be rejoining me in Oaxaca to continue together on our month-at-a-time adventure.
Featured Image: A Mayan Arch and Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal