Maya Trail article – Cancun Riviera Maya article
On the Maya Trail – adventure in Cancun Riviera Maya
Written by Travel Writer Solange Hando
My Maya trail adventure starts with a loud roar. ‘What was that?”
A jaguar, lady, God of War and Night Sun, listen…’
Another roar, closer this time, then another, I peer into the jungle, stumble on the stones but I see no Maya god. Only eager stallholders pretending to be jaguars to attract business.
I guess you have to expect this in Chichen Itza, the ‘mouth of the Itza’s sacred well’ and number one site for Cancun day trippers. But ignoring the Mexican hats and multicoloured rugs, I look up at Kukulcan, the awesome pyramid where at the spring equinox, an eerie zigzag shadow creeps down the steps as the Snake God visits the earth. I imagine the high priest at the top haranguing the 20,000 people assembled below, the offerings being prepared, the human sacrifice that might follow to bring back the god of rain.
Someone claps under the trees and it sounds like the squeak of a quetzal, the sacred bird. The echo sends shivers down my spine. Then we head for the mysterious sinkhole, the ‘womb of mother earth’ where 100 skeletons were discovered, and the game court where warriors had to throw a 3kg rubber ball through a high stone ring, without using hands or arms. In times of need, the lucky winner would be sacrificed, the ultimate privilege to appease the all-powerful deities. I can barely look at the frieze depicting the victorious scene.
‘No, culture’, says my guide,’ and they were such wonderful architects, astrologers, artists, traders. Like to buy something?’I glance at the ritual masks but I’m not tempted. A hammock perhaps? A gust of wind sends dust swirling through the air and I leave empty-handed. The cruise ship passengers have just arrived and it’s their turn to discover the largest archaeological site in Yucatan and the daunting mix of ancient Maya and more recent Toltec monuments.
Continuing on the Maya Trail
We overnight in Merida, a colourful town which flourished under the Spanish as they traded fibre from sisal plants, ‘the green gold of Yucatan’. Next morning we are off to Uxmal, an hour or so to the south, one of the Maya capitals until around 950 AD.
We learn that the Maya never had an empire, only isolated kingdoms which were often at war. But after Chichen, I find Uxmal truly refreshing with few visitors, no souvenirs beyond the gate and an unusual slightly rounded two-sided pyramid. It was built three times, as the name implies, by a Magician who tricked the king and usurped the throne.
The bright colours have long gone but we find a phallic stone, the God Chac, the turtle king, the birds’ quadrangle dedicated to red macaws symbolising the power of the sun. I prefer the lovely golden oriole perched on a branch but before I leave, I must clamber up the 70 steps to the top of the temple.
Up there the view extends right across the site and beyond but now…, how do you get down? Climbing is easy, just keep looking up, but if you suffer from vertigo, the only way down is backwards, from one high step to the next, fumbling for invisible footholds. Far from graceful, but safe.
I could have spent all day in Uxmal, soaking in the atmosphere, picnicking under the trees, but there are other sites to tick off the list. We stop briefly in Kabah, a small deserted place set among the orange trees where 260 masks glare at us along the wall, then it’s Edzna which claims the longest history span, from 200 BC to 1400 AD.
Rarely visited, it’s an inspiring place with its broad grassy avenue which served as a trade route, its temple on five levels and its Maya petroglyphs, only deciphered at the end of World War WII when copies were found in Germany.
After several days driving, exploring ancient sites and climbing lots of steps, Campeche is the perfect spot to relax on the Gulf of Mexico. Pelicans swoop overhead as you stroll along the promenade lined with thatched restaurants.
Sunsets are spectacular and there are ramparts and gates, cobbled lanes in pastel colours and grand buildings and arcades beautifully lit after dark. We stop for two nights, barely enough to do justice to this charming UNESCO town.
Then we follow the coast for a while before turning inland through glowing teak plantations, sugar cane and mango trees. The first mountains appear as we enter the Chiapas state which, we are told, has only two seasons, wet and wettest.
In the namesake National Park, we reach Palenque, a UNESCO site like Chichen and Uxmal, with a superb museum and ruins dating back to the Maya golden age, around 600-700 AD. The site was discovered in modern times, stifled in jungle, and according to archaeologists, there may be some 5,000 monuments waiting to be revealed.
It is an extensive place, in the middle of nowhere, and as storm clouds pile up across the sky, it is the most unnerving we have seen so far. If there are any ghosts, this is where they will be, maybe in the palace or the temples looming on the slopes, Jaguar, Sun, Fertility or Number XIII where the tomb of the Red
Queen was found by workers looking for an escape route when excavations
collapsed. That night we sleep near the Nutuntun river, listening to crickets and howler monkeys.
Next morning we set off for Cristobal de la Casas right up in the mountains where proud descendants of the Maya still live in isolation, following their own laws and firmly turning their backs on intruders.
We reach our hotel after dark but we did stop at the beautiful Agua Azul waterfall and in Tonina, the enemy of Palenque, to see the biggest single construction, a multi-purpose Acropolis on an artificial hill.
The Maya trail meanders into Guatemala & Honduras
Two days later, we would continue on the Maya trail into Guatemala and Honduras before ending our journey in Tulum on the east coast of Yucatan. Decimated by famine and war, the ancient Maya finally took refuge on the shores of the Caribbean where they built a Temple to the God of the Wind. From there it’s just a two hour drive to Cancun with its high-rise hotels, fine beaches and not a jaguar in sight.
About the author of this Maya trail article:
Solange Hando is a freelance travel journalist and photographer with a keen interest in Asia, and an in-depth knowledge of Nepal and Bhutan. Solange writes for publications worldwide, contributes to National Geographic books and has gained a number of awards – including ‘Best St Lucia Travel Writer’.
Chichen Itza main pyramid
Chichen Itza carvings
Uxmal 2-sided pyramid
Palenque fertility temple
Images on this Maya Trail article page are copyright of Travel Writer Solange Hando (main image Edzna 5-level temple)