We hit the sack by 9pm last night exhausted from yesterdays exercise in adrenaline depletion. But getting up this morning was shear pleasure for me because we have scheduled back-to-back private tours again with our same awesome guide from yesterday!
After grabbing a quick latte at the god-sent Starbucks around the corner, we were picked up again at 7am. Today was to be a longer day of travel. First scheduled stop was the smaller ruins of Ek Balam, then onto the more famous Chichen Itza. Today, Gudelio has a full van of 8 total people and it feels strange to share his knowledge and attention with other vacationers today! (Yes, by this time I have developed a small man-crush on Gudelio's life!) We were completely spoiled with his attention yesterday. But no worries since everyone on the tour today seems genuinely as excited and interested as we are.
We arrived at Ek Balam in the late morning after a good 2 hour trek straight through lush inland Yucatan. There are miles and miles of dense jungle occasionally dotted by desperately poor farm shacks and scattered corn and agave fields. We took a side road and drove right through an authentic Mayan village where WE were the main attraction! Cute little girls and boys often ran out to the dirt roadway just to wave at us and catch a glimpse of weird looking pale white people. What an experience! We are lucky to be born in America. These people have almost nothing and have been living the same rhythms of life for thousands and thousands of years. This scene is straight out of the Discovery Channel, no lie. Gudelio chats with a local and learns there is a new cenote the villagers have opened not too far away. Nervously, we all agree to park the van and do some real "Indiana Jones" style exploring. Again, some villagers follow and watch us just for entertainment. A man rides by on his bicycle while coming home from hunting in the jungle, shotgun laid across the handlebars, smiling ear to ear as he pedals by us... Umm, okaaaaaay then... After a long walk, we came to a beautiful open cenote.
This one is large. It's amazing to see jungle trees extend their roots 50 yards over the edge, straight down just to touch the clear water. Here we saw some black catfish and a small turtle enjoying a private swim. It was beautiful nature on display here. After looking around we thanked the smiling villagers and returned to our van. On to Ek Balam!
Ek Balam means black jaguar in Mayan. This is a small archeological site but to my delight almost everything is accessible and climbable here. Temples small and big are almost completely restored to their original beauty. It's quite something to just scatter and jump all around. Hidden entrances, beautiful stone archways, completely restored ball courts surround us as we laugh and snap pictures of each other here and there. Jungle birds filled the air with strange callings completing this scene of total surreality. We occasionally saw parrots and beautifully colored birds fly over us here too.
Mayans would often recycle their own temples periodically. They would just build right over top of an existing structures to create a bigger, larger temple. Here at Ek Balam, they have uncovered an entire layer of one of these pyramids just a few years ago revealing stunning stucco carvings in the underlayer. These carvings have been perfectly preserved encased by another layer of construction for over a thousand years. We stare at the artwork in awe as they look like they were literally carved just yesterday! Each hieroglyph tells a pointed story and it's nothing short of chilling to stand there and hear the explanation of what you are seeing! While exploring on our own, Alli and I found a small doorway at the base of the main temple of the black jaguar. Inside were piles and piles of labled and numbered pieces of stone hieroglyphs just waiting to be replaced and restored. Like a historical puzzle just waiting to be completed! The look on my face here says it all... This was a true Indiana Jones moment...Now where's my bullwhip?
After another wonderful local lunch feast, it was onto The Bucket List!
The ruins of Chichen Itza have been on my personal bucket list for many years. It is recognized as one of the natural wonders of the modern world. And for good reason. The entire site here is dotted with really well preserved buildings, carvings, murals and inscriptions. Chichen Itza was one of the latest cities to survive in Mayan culture. Therefore it is considered the apex of construction technique and artwork detail. Just the main Pyramid Of Kukulkan is amazing in itself. The many levels of complexity are stunning. Complex construction, artwork, forethought, astrological and acoustical mastery are all clearly on display here. The main pyramid has to be the oldest functioning clock & calendar in the world. Twice a year on the equinoxes a shadow of a snake (Kulkukan) descends the staircase to mark another season passing. Still today thousands of people flock here to watch this ancient phenomenon. The imposing structure has 365 steps, and 9 levels (the number of months in a mayan year). Kukulkan was a deity that is half bird, half snake. If you stand directly in front of the any of the staircases and clap loudly, you can hear the completely odd sound of the local quetzal bird call! Chills, chills, chills all over. Not only were Mayans masters of astrology and mathematics, acoustics too!
In Mayan, Chichen Itza means "mouth of the well". On the north end of the site there is a large open cenote which they used for sacred ceremonies. Bones of young women & children, jade necklaces, obsidian carvings and other offerings have been dredged from the bottom clearly indicating it's holy relevance. This cenote is unusual because it is almost perfectly round and very, very large.
The huge Mayan ballcourt here is mystifying as well. Nobody knows exactly how it was played but the carvings on the walls here clearly show a bloody sacrifice for somebody. But it's unclear whether the victors or losers were sacrificed as privilege or punishment. Perhaps this game was a sacred method to resolve political issues. In one corner of the court there are fascinating carvings showing bearded men. These carvings pre-date any foreign influence so it's really strange to see it. Why? Was this a prophecy of the arrival of Cortez? Erik the Great?, Jesus himself? We can only stand here and wonder in awe...
Gudelio knows most of the local vendors here since he see's them almost daily. We were lucky to listen to one man as he spoke the native mayan language to us for a bit. We were surprised to hear the tones and inflections being very similar to our own American Indians (Duh, they're from the same decent!). It sounded like Sioux, or Iroquois to us. To hear a language that was dead for hundreds of years now resurrected once again was another humbling moment. This man spoke with deep pride about how his children can now sing their national anthem in Mayan.
Leaving Chichen Itza's mysteries behind, we headed for yet another refreshing cenote swim. After that, we also stopped for coffee and a bodega snack at a beautiful colonial town called Valladolid. The entire center city square and church was built with carved stones taken from the local Mayan ruins. The Spanish were crude opportunists for sure. It's weird to see such beautiful buildings and a huge church here knowing just how they were erected. The town seemed charming and it was a fitting quick pit stop for our long ride back to Playa Del Carmen.
Giving hugs to our new amigo Gudelio at drop off was like leaving a good friend behind. We promised to return for another tour someday. Maybe YOU could join us next time??