An ancient language still in use, a huge astronomic knowledge, and a mysterious believe in nature as the divine. Somehow, I have always been mesmerized by the Mayans, and intrigued by their culture and beliefs which is why I decided to make a big part of my journey a walk in the footsteps of the Mayan people. In the article that follows, I have gathered my top 5 Mayan sites.
1 Chichén Itzá: One of the New Seven Wonders of the World
The first stop on my Mayan journey, is the impressive city of Chichén Itzá in the Mexican state Yucután. This city was proclaimed one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007 due to the huge pyramid in the middle of the city consisting of 91 steps on each side and an extra step on top of the pyramid. In total, 365 steps. A step for each day of the calendar year. In other words, the calendar we are using nowadays is calculated by the Mayans which most certainly shows the huge astronomic knowledge the Mayan possessed.
Standing in front of the pyramid, clapping your hands, will result in sounds similar to the sounds of quetzals which were sacred birds in the Mayan belief. As I discovered later, this is a feature you will find at almost all the Mayan sites which doesn’t make it less impressive.
As another amazing feature, a snake will appear on the pyramid twice a year at precisely 4pm when the sun is just right. This happens every year on 21st of March and 21st of September where big crowds of people gather to witness the phenomenon.
After a good, long stroll around the big Mayan city, I find my way down to Cenote Sagrado. All the cenotes were sacred to the Mayans, since they believed they were the gateway to the underworld. To keep it short, a cenote is a zinc hole, and at the Yucután Peninsula, you will find more than 6.000 cenotes. At Cenote Sagrado, the Mayans used to sacrifice objects and human beings, as a form of worship to the Gods. Divers have in recent years found bones and other offerings at the bottom of the cenote. Later on, I did a two-tank dive at a cenote called Dos Ojos near Tulum, and here I really got to feel the amazing energy that these cenotes possess. If you only want to go for a swim in one, Ik Kil near Chichén Itzá, or Azul near Tulum makes for a good options.
2 Tulum: The Mayan Port to Cobá
Besides diving deep into the Mayan underworld at the cenote Dos Ojos, Tulum in the Mexican state Quintana Roo, is the place where I get to visit the only Mayan site placed by the sea.
Tulum was actually a port serving the Mayan city Cobá nearby. It is surely the location of the place that makes it special. The ruins are to be found on steep cliffs within reach of the Caribbean Sea, and all its beautiful colours. At the site, there is even a stair leading down to the dreamiest beach where you can relax and have a swim in the gentle sea to cool down. Believe me, it can get really hot doing sightseeing at the place.
3 Tikal: The Lost City
It is in the middle of the night, when I get picked up at my hostel in Flores in the state El Petén in the Northern Guatemala to go to the old Mayan city Tikal in the middle of the rainforest. I decided to make this an early morning trip to watch the sunrise from the tallest pyramid in the city, and after walking for about an hour in the jungle in complete darkness with our flash lights as our only guidance, all the sudden big pyramids start showing up on each side of the path. It is such an incredible experience to witness these pyramids with the stars and moon as the only lighting.
As we make our way to the tallest pyramid, the jungle slowly starts to wake up. The roar from the howler monkeys replaces the silence of the jungle, and the sounds from thousands of birds fill the sky.
From the top of the pyramid, a small group has gathered and in complete silence, we watch the sun coming up over the jungle and the lost city, as Tikal is also called. Tikal got this name since it was a safe haven for the Mayans. This was the place to where they flee at the arrival of Spanish conquistadores. The city was never found by the Spaniards, and to this day, it still feels like a lost city, in the sense that only 20% of the city has been dug out, meaning that 80% remains undiscovered. If you really look hard, you can sense that different kinds of constructions are hiding underneath the layers of the jungle, like houses and pyramids, but for the untrained eye, it’s hard to see.
In many ways, Tikal ends up being my favourite Mayan site. I love how the city has been eaten up by the jungle, how you will visit the city in the company of howler monkeys, and how you really get the feeling of being in a lost city. The experience of visiting the site during sunrise definitely made the experience so much more thrilling, both to see the sunrise from the tallest pyramid, but also to have the whole site to yourself for a couple of hours, before it opens up to the rest of the world.
4 Palenque: Another Jungle City
My second Mayan jungle city, is Palenque in the Mexican state Chiapas. To get to Palenque, I do an all day tour from San Cristobal de Las Casas. It is a long journey but it is worth the trouble. What I really enjoy about Palenque is that you more or less can climb most of the pyramids and all the other constructions as you wish. There is not the same amount of restrictions as you will find in other places. In many ways, Palenque is similar to Tikal. Again, you got a big Mayan city tucked away in the jungle with incredible pyramids and wild life.
5 Teotihuacán: The Easiest Reachable
If you haven’t got the time to travel deep in to the jungle in the search of Mayan ruins, then the old city of Teotihuacán just 50 kilometres from Mexico City, makes for a perfect day-tour. Teotihuacán was contemporary with the early classic Maya, but was ruled by different Mesoamerican cultures, like the Aztecs. Teotihuacán makes for a great option, if you still want to experience the greatness of the Mesoamerican cultures and constructions. One thing you have to prepare yourself for, is that you will be sharing the site with thousands of visitors. Despite the huge amount of people showing up everyday at the site, Teotihuacán is still worth a visit. What makes the city special, is surely the huge avenue called Calzada de los Muertos. A walk down this avenue will surely take you back in time to a time when the land was ruled by Mesoamerican cultures. The name Teotihuacán comes from Aztec meaning “the place of the Gods”, and at the site you will find 2 huge pyramids called the pyramid of the sun and the pyramid of the moon, both of which you can climb.
A Journey through History
In all, my journey through the footsteps of the Mayan and Mesoamerican people, has been a journey through history, and a journey teaching me how the legacy, beliefs and language from the Mayan people still live on to this day. In Mexico, the Mayan people has been fighting for a long time to get their culture, religion and language acknowledged by the Mexican government. An acknowledgement given by UNESCO a long time ago, but it wasn’t before 2007 that the Mayans received the official acknowledgement from the Mexican government. A fact that’s hard to understand while visiting the amazing sites of the Mayans. My hope is that one day the Mexican government will realize the value of the country’s history and appreciate the grandness of it. Until then, I hope you will enjoy your journey, if you decide to make your next one a walk in the Mayan footsteps.
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