Chichen Itza’s Most Breathtaking Sights

June 17, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Mayan cities, and for good reason. For many hundreds of years after its founding around 600 AD, it was an epicenter of Mayan culture, religion, and power. During its peak period, the city supported an unusually diverse population, which in part accounts for the myriad architectural styles drawn upon to construct the large number of ancient structures still visible within its boundaries. Building this city was truly an enormous undertaking, especially for a pre-modern culture; today, just the task of viewing their creation is so overwhelming that a map and compass are essential tools. This guide will help you get a bead on some of the most visually and historically magnificent buildings at Chichen Itza, so that you can more effectively plan an excursion that will leave you awe-struck and breathless at the skill and creativity of the city’s inhabitants ” and not just because you’ve been walking in circles all day!

Though there are seven ball courts at Chichen Itza, where the ancient Maya held their tlatchtli matches, one court in particular dwarfs them all. At the northwest corner of the city, the Great Ball Court measures over 150 meters in length, with huge audience stands and ornately carved goal hoops set high above the playing field. Though the exact rules of the games hosted here have been lost to history, the size and scale of the Great Court leads archaeologists to believe that only the most famed and skilled athletes were able to compete there ” and records show that human sacrifice was a penalty suffered by at least some of the losers.

The Warrior Temple

Built in the form of an enormous stepped pyramid, the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) takes its name from the rows of statues depicting fierce combatants that flank and front the structure. The Temple was actually constructed around another, earlier temple called the Temple of Chac Mool; a Chac Mool statue, featuring a reclining human with a sideways-looking head, rests atop the pyramid, and is thought to have been used as a platform for ritual sacrifices. The Temple is currently undergoing restoration, which prevents visitors from climbing its stairs, but not from appreciating its grandeur.

El Caracol

Meaning “The Snail” in Spanish, El Caracol is a circular building set upon a large square platform, and is named for the spiral staircase contained within its dome. Building such structures out of stone takes a significant mastery of architecture and materials, and displays the Mayans genius and proficiency for building. More than that, it puts the Mayan predilection for science front and center; the shape and the placement of its doors and windows leads archaeologists to speculate that this was used as an astronomical observatory, specifically designed to align with the movements of the heavens (such as the pat of Venus across the night sky), and as such is one of the first known in the western hemisphere and one the earliest that still exists today.

The Balanckanche Caverns

Close by to the city proper is the entryway to a particularly ancient network of caves, known as the Caves of Balanckanche. They are one of Chichn Itz’s most incredible features, in part because of their size and shape, but mostly due to the wealth of artifacts contained within. Hundreds of statues, idols, carvings, pottery, and other items litter the cave floors, spanning nearly the entire history of Mayan civilization from the Pre-Classic times until well after the Spanish invasion of the Yucatn. Most of the artifacts have not been removed, but rather studied while in the same position as when first discovered, in order to afford visitors to the caverns a unique glimpse of a one-of-a-kind archaeological find unspoiled by later human activity. The layout of the caves is also extremely significant. Consisting of a central column made of limestone, which branches out into an unmistakable series of limb-like patterns, the overall structure of the caves looks like nothing so much as an enormous tree ” important because the World-Tree is one of the central concepts of Mayan mythology and religion.

Light Show Extravaganza

You should be aware that if you purchase a daytime ticket to visit Chichen Itza, you’re also allowed to stay or return to the site after sundown, when a spectacular light and sound show takes place near the giant pyramid El Castillo, featuring laser strobe displays and a heart-pounding musical score. With a duration of about an hour, the colorful and entrancing show is narrated in Spanish, but you can obtain headsets which provide the soundtrack in a variety of other languages.

The Descent of Kukulcan

Occurring in late March, the Spring Equinox is a special time for Chichen Itza, and its passing is marked by a three-day festival of singing, dancing, music, and theater. The high point of the Spring festival is the so-called “Descent of Kukulcan” which happens at the El Castillo pyramid. During the late afternoon, you can see a series of triangular shadows appear on the western face of the pyramid (caused by the sun shining over the northwest corner); the shadows then appear to actually crawl down the side of El Castillo in a manner quite reminiscent of a large snake. Though no archaeologists have been able to confirm this was the intention of the builders, given that the pyramid itself was built in tribute of the feathered serpent god Kukulcan, many believe that the ingenious and astronomically-inclined Maya designed the structure to create this phenomenon on an especially significant day of the year.

Looking to travel to Mexico? Check out the Mexico Travel Blogs at the travel community. In case you’re looking for a way to enjoy the majestic Mayan ruins, you can see the Chichen Itza Tour.

Did Corts Absolutely Fool the Aztecs into Considering He Was Their God?

June 9, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

God of the Morning Star

The Aztecs wrote many stories about the god Quetzalcoatl. One legend describes his death by self-immolation; after drunkenly seducing a virgin priestess, he became wracked with guilt, and set his own body alight. The only part of the god that did not burn to ash was his heart, which ascended to the heavens to become the morning star.

Though popular culture holds that the Aztecs prophesied Quetzalcoatl’s return, an event which would lead a revolution of human consciousness and the dawn of an age of global peace, there is actually scant evidence that those who worshiped the feathered serpent god ever actually held this belief. Primary sources deciphered by archaeologists do not suggests that the Aztecs ever believed Quetzalcoatl would return; in fact, the claim only appears in later texts written by their conquerors, the Spanish.

A Problem of Sources

The supposed prophecy may in fact have been invented by the man responsible for the downfall of the Aztecs :the Conquistador Hernn Corts . In his reports to the court at Milan, the conquering Spaniard did his best to degrade the Aztecs, emphasizing his impression of their childlike naivete and ignorance. It would not be surprising, then, if Corts had been unable to resist painting himself not just as a victorious warrior, but as a divine figure, and embellished or invented a tale of being received by King Montezuma II a god returned to the mortal plain, instead of simply a strange-looking fellow human being.

Fifty years later, the Florentine Codex, an ethnographic research text written by a Spanish friar who visited Mesoamerica, repeated the speculation in grander and more certain language, which became largely responsible for its propagation in the sphere of popular thought. The following passage is attributed to the Aztec ruler: “You have graciously come on earth, approached your water, your high place of Mexico; you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you.” Certainly, this is deferential language, especially coming from the ruler of a mighty civilization, but the accuracy of these words is by no means universally accepted. Montezuma was further credited with commenting that the Conquistadors had “known pain [and] weariness,” and invited them to “come on earth, take your rest, enter into your palace, rest your limbs; may our lords come on earth.”

Whether it was hubris, an error of translation, or a simple misreading of kindness shown to the strange and unknown force which had suddenly appeared on their land, the ultimate source of this mistake may be lost to history. However, mistake it appears to have been; on the face of it, one would not expect a true believe in the return of a divine host to be concerned with an immortal being knowing pain or needing to rest weary limbs. Whatever their intentions, by the time the Aztecs had divined the Spaniards’ thirst for land and treasure, it was too late; their empire had been doomed from the first cannon shot, and the great city of Tenochtitlan fell before the might of Spanish steel and gunpowder.

Though he reaped the worldly benefits of his conquests, in his lifetime, the fame and power that Corts sought most proved eventually elusive. His riches could not compensate for the Spanish monarchy’s progressive disinterest and alienation of Corts , the fact of which left him bitter and resentful to the end. By the time the rumor of his reception as a living god reached their height, the man himself had passed from history, dying of an internal illness in 1547.

Duende Tours is a tour operator for trips to Mayan Ruins. Find out more and their Mayan Ruins and Nature Tours in Mexico.

Find Out Chichn Itz’s Sacred Cenote Well of Sacrifice

June 6, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

One of the most important Maya cities ever constructed, Chichn Itz was a center of culture, power, diversity, and religious practice for much of their civilization’s reign over the Yucatn peninsula. Established around 600 AD and active through the majority of Mayan history through the early Post-Classic period, its diverse population and fascinating architecture stood as a testament to Mayan ingenuity and capability. Within its area of influence, however, the practice of human sacrifice thrived for at least a part of the city’s lifespan. On the northern edges of Chichn Itz lies a cenote, which is a round depression left by the collapse of an underground cave’s roof that often then fills with water. This cenote, called the Sacred Cenote (or Cenote Sagrando in Spanish) was used exclusively to send untold numbers of sacrificial victims to their deaths.

The Yucatn peninsula consists mainly of limestone rock, which means that above-ground watercourses such as rivers and streams run in short supply. A civilization as expansive as the Mayans needed a prodigious amount of fresh water for irrigation, drinking, bathing, and the like, and so relied on the abundance of these cenotes to support the building of their numerous and enormous cities. The Cenote Sagrando is a prime example of the type found throughout the Yucatn, being unusually large and pure, and perfectly suited to provide the city with fresh water for a multitude of purposes ” except that its use was strictly reserved for ritual sacrifices. Histories culled from Mayan sources, as well as the writings and journals of Spanish clergy like Bishop Landa, have indicated to archaeologists that a hidden chamber was most likely located within the boundaries of Chichn Itz, where the intended victims were kept confined until the appointed time of their demise.

Those who met their end in these bloody rituals were often slaves or captives of war, or young and presumably virgin girls, but records show that the pool of victims could easily have included any common citizen of Chichn Itz. The Cenote Sagrando was connected to the city interior by a raised and paved walkway measuring almost 300 meters. The cenote itself is 60 meters wide and nearly 27 meters deep. Human sacrifices were lead to the edge of the well, then pushed over the sheer walls headfirst, landing in the water below with intense destructive force.

Scientists have been attempting to recover artifacts from the bottom of the well since the early 1900s. In the beginning, methods were generally crude, utilizing steel buckets and claws to dredge the floor, which didn’t contribute positively to the structural integrity of the well. Modern research methods are gentler, and archaeologists take care to repair the damage caused by earlier expeditions while they sift for new objects, including the use of scuba gear to manually examine the contents in situ. The purity of the cenote’s water is one of its most striking features; materials normally apt to decay in a short time, like wood, can last for centuries and are regularly recovered, along with gold, jade, incense, weapons, pottery, tools, statues, and human bones. From this wide collection of recovered objects, we can deduce that the Mayan nobility (and perhaps regular citizens as well) took up the practice of offering valuables to the gods by tossing them into the cenote in addition to sacrificial captives. Many of the items bear the marks of intentional damage, which is thought to have been a method of symbolically ‘killing’ the items so that they could find their way to their intended recipients in Xibalba.

According to Mayan belief, the pathway to Xibalba, the land of the dead, could be reached via the Sacred Cenote, through other entrances to underground cave systems, or by competition in Tlatchtli, the ancient Mesoamerican Ball Game famously played on the Great Court at Chichn Itz. In the Mayan tongue, the Sacred Cenote was known as Chen Kul ” literally, the Well of the Gods. The sacrifices at the Cenote Sagrando were chiefly to Chac, the Mayan god of rain, meant to ask for relief from droughts or for a good year of plentiful rain and rich harvests. A Spanish report written in the late 16th century gives a harrowing (if somewhat dubious) account of the origins and progression of a sacrificial event.

The report claims that the site of Chichn Itz was named for a Mayan named Ah Kin Itz (Ah Kin being a traditional honorific for priests of high rank; the name Chichn Itz actually translates to “At the Mouth of the Well of Itz”). It was the custom, the report says, for the nobility of the region to undergo a 60-day fast, during which they avoided eye contact with all other people, including the wives and servants who brought them what little food intake they were allowed during this period.

When the fast had been completed, these nobles took a personal hand in selecting and administering the sacrifice, by leading a procession to the cenote and then actually throwing the victims (usually young women) into the void themselves. They would direct the women to make, as they fell, all necessary prayers for a fruitful and prosperous year, so that their request might be received in the underworld. If the gods were pleased with the nobles and their offering, the report holds that at least one woman would be spared, alive but dazed floating in the waters of the cenote. Once extracted and revived with incense, she would tell the assembled of her meeting with the lords of Xibalba. If the nobles had done something to anger the gods, however, none of the victims would return from the portal, and the city would be condemned to a difficult year full of trials and misfortune.

At Onejungle you’ll find great info and trips on traveling Mexico and Guatemala. For special Sian Ka’an tours have look at the 3 days Sian Kaan adventure. Just looking for more info on Mexico and it’s nature? Check the Mexico travel articles for more.

Take Your Friends and family on a Tropical Mexican Vacation

May 23, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

A tropical sunset is like no other on earth. Though the brilliant display comes and goes most quickly in the lower latitudes, it is, as they say, the candle that burns brightest which lasts half as long. For that matter, a sunrise near the Tropic of Capricorn is a sight equally incredible to behold. The luminous clouds soak up the waxing or waning sunlight, and the rays of the orb dance over the horizon, playing across treetops, wave caps, or apartment blocks, setting the world alight with an unforgettable and dazzling display. On your visit to tropical Mexico, you’ll experience this twice a day for the duration of your stay, though our money is on you being so distracted with the fun you’re having that you’ll forget to look most of the time!

A Land of Pleasure, Full of History

There’s little you, your spouse, or your children ” whatever age they may be ” could wish to experience on a tropical holiday that isn’t available nearly anywhere you travel in sunny Mexico. Those who love to live and travel in style will find all their whims catered to and all their pampered expectations met and exceeded, especially during a stay at the world-class resorts that line the famous and fabulous Riviera Maya. Lovers of the urban life will be hard-pressed to find a larger and more bustling metropolis anywhere on earth than Mexico City ” and if you prefer your cities ancient and uninhabited, you’ll thrill at the multitude of historic Maya ruins, such as majestic Tikal, scattered across the Yucatn peninsula.

Tulum: Mystery and Majesty

In fact, one of the most amazing Maya sites is right next door to the popular resorts of Cancun, Cozumel, and the Riviera Maya. The ancient port city of Tulum stands guard like a silent watchtower on the rocky coast; it was one of the longest-lived Maya cities, fully operational for almost fifty years beyond the Spanish conquest, until a plague finally ended its long reign and left it barren and abandoned. You’ll walk in the shadow of the huge stone pyramid El Castillo (“The Castle”), and along the massive sea wall which stood as a protective barrier against invasion from the ocean. Tulum is also one of the world’s oldest known lighthouses; there is a series of small windows in the barrier wall which act to focus the rays of the sun at certain times of day. These light beams shining out onto the water helped to guide trading ships around the dangerous shoals and coral reefs offshore. If you stay on the Riviera Maya, consider taking a walking or bicycle tour of this incredible historical treasure.

The Endless Adventures of Central America

Southern Mexico is the gateway to Central America, a region similarly rich in historical treasures and unmatched natural beauty. Just a short trip south to Belize opens the door to a wide variety of adventures such as nature tours and bird-watching, activities best undertaken with an experienced guide who can lead the way and point out the multitude of rare and colorful birds and animals not to be found in any other biome on the planet. If animals are not your passion, you can simply meander amidst the thick foliage and marvel at the limitless variety of tropical flowers, trees, and ferns, walking under towering waterfalls, and taking in a sunset as it sinks beneath the jungle canopy. Or, you could climb down a cenote to experience the thrill of underground cave tubing. A particularly popular destination for this is the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, where you can descend deep into the ancient Mayan underworld and view the glittering, calcified remains of the Crystal Maiden.

The Central American tropics of Mexico and Belize are ready for you and your family to come and sample their unlimited delights. Regardless of how long you stay, you can experience ancient culture, outdoor adventure, relaxing resorts and beautiful beaches by the crystalline sea. What are you waiting for?

Duende Tours Adventure Travel has plenty of great trips to and from the Riviera Maya. See their Riviera Maya Tours. More articles and travel information at the Adventure Travel Articles.

What Are The Beliefs And Religion Of The Maya?

May 19, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

Until now, the religion of the Maya is not known , simply because the conquistadors of Spain eliminated as much of the “heathen” culture as they can prior to trying to win over the folks to Catholicism. Then again, much has actually been discovered their faith as archeologists find out about things including age old books, pottery with text or paintings on them, mural paintings, carvings, and also other various treasures which are left untouched.

Because of these items, we currently know a little with what these folks believed, who they worshiped, and how they carried out their spiritual ceremonies.

Religion Of The Maya

The religion of the Maya is remarkably complicated, with a spider web of beliefs, worshiped beings as well as ceremonies. The majority of cities furthermore worshiped their own specific heroes, deities, as well as forefathers, not unlike the European Catholics as well as their saints. The priests are made as instruments in carrying out their spiritual rites and communicating to spirits and deities. With a huge belief in nature, mythology, and also the afterlife, the Mayan belief system is certainly among the most complicated religions in both ancient as well as present times.

The Gods and priests

The Mayans worshiped a number of groups of figures: the forefathers, heroes (a special group from the forefathers which carried out very good deeds throughout their life), deities, animal persons (animals which act as humans as well as serve the deities), spooks (ghosts), demons, bush spirits, goblins (thought to be produced by the priests to help the farmers), dwarfs, as well as hunchbacks. Each and every group was worshiped as well as looked after via traditions, retelling of tales, sacrifices, along with other spiritual ceremonies. They also assign rivers, mountains, caves to specific deities or ancestors. Other different forms of worship incorporated purification (confession, bloodletting and fasting), prayer, pilgrimages, as well as remarkable performances.

The structure of the Priesthood was wide-ranging, yet is not well recognized. Nearly all of what is identified was figured out by the one-sided perspective of the Spanish which conquered them. We do understand that lots of the different deities had their own priesthood, and that each level of the hierarchy had their own duties and also responsibilities. Many even held a title, like oracle, astrologer, or being in control of sacrificing humans. Priests were also research workers, professionals of arithmetic and astronomy. They were the people for the most part in charge of studying the heavens and also writing the charts. This led the right way to astrology and all the other sciences of fortune reading.

What Are Their Offerings And Sacrifices

Both offerings and sacrifices portrayed a tremendous role to keep the deities and several other worldly creatures content. There are various forms of offering, nonetheless they were also accurate, with highly accurate numbers, quantity, quality, preparations, and also arrangement of things. Nearly all ceremonial rites entail the sprinking of blookd, which, on the other hand, means sacrifices. Turkeys were specifically used, but in certain instances, many other animals, such as fish, deer and dogs were also used, while exceptional occasions required a human. Bloodletting by the priests along with royal family seemed to be fairly common. Though fantasized in horror films, cannibalism during these rituals was exceedingly rare.

There is so far more to discover with regards to their religion, yet, archeologists are still finding new facts. Certainly we will never know to what extent their beliefs get to. What exactly is known is that their entire lives targeted around what they believed plus who they worshiped.

The original article is from The Architectural Gifts of the Maya. Read more on Mayan History.

What to see in Pompeii, Italy

April 17, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

Pompeii offers 3.5 million visitors each year the ability to walk into the world of the ancient Romans. The vast archeological park touts streets, villas, bath houses, gardens, shops, and more. So what to see and not feel overwhelmed?

Here are my picks of top ten sights to see in Pompeii.

The Forum: Walk from the ticket entrance through the Sea Gate and you reach the Forum. Mt. Vesuvius is in the distance. In 79A.D. this active volcano spewed pumice into the sky and created the frozen city we see today. The Forum is surrounded by public buildings, including the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Apollo, a storehouse with pottery and plaster casts, as well as a market where the woolen cloth guilds once sold their wares. The Temple of Apollo is the oldest in Pompeii, dating back to the 6th century B.C. The largest edifice in the Forum, the Building of Eumachia, was sponsored by a wealthy female priestess of Venus.

Via dell’Abbondanza: Follow this street to see the dolia (terracotta receptacles) in shops that sold all manner of food. The citizens of Pompeii always ate lunch outside the home. Oil lamps within the restaurants and bars here hint that they had customers all day and all night, which makes sense considering most people lived in cramped quarters, so they likely lived most of their lives either outside or in these establishments.

Via dell’Abbondanza: The liveliest street in Pompeii, the name was made up by archeologists along with every other street name in the city. We don’t actually know what the Romans called these roads. Follow this street to see the dolia (terracotta receptacles) in shops that sold all manner of food. Pompeii was most famous for its garum, or fish sauce.

The Brothel: Along a side street of Via dell’Abbondanza, the brothel has a small hallway with several bedrooms on each side. It’s believed that prostitutes could be slaves or free women. Their customers would have ranged from actors and gladiators, seamen from the port to wealthy Roman citizens. Graffiti left by customers indicate that most Pompeiians were literate, but prostitutes wouldn’t have necessarily known Latin or have known how to read and write. (Pompeii, interestingly, was a multi-lingual city with Oscan used just as often as Latin.)

The Amphitheater: At the far end of Pompeii, the earliest stone amphitheater in the ancient world could hold up to 20,000 spectators. Adjacent to it was the training space for gladiators, surrounded by porches, and a swimming pool in its center. Gladiators were often slaves or condemned criminals. A lanista or a troupe manager controlled when the gladiators performed. He also scouted for new recruits and acquired animals from distant parts of the empire. Behind the Amphitheater, the Via dei Sepolcri was lined with tombs. Marble statues of families can still be seen above their tombs along with Latin inscriptions. The priestess Eumachia’s tomb is the largest.

Garden of the Fugitives: A vast number of plaster casts lie next to these vineyards in a large glass case. Giuseppe Fiorelli, director of the Pompeii digs in the late 19th century, invented the plaster cast method. He poured liquid plaster into a cavity left in the bed of ashes by the gradual decomposition of the victim’s body. As the plaster solidified, it reproduced the body’s shape.

Via dei Sepolcri: The main road leaving Pompeii was lined with tombs. Many Pompeiians took this road as they fled the city, carrying their valuables with them. One man carried a sword, another woman carried a figurine of the goddess Fortuna. Children kept up with parents, but these people didn’t make it past this road and succumbed to the ash.

Garden of the Fugitives: A vast number of plaster casts lie in a large glass case. Giuseppe Fiorelli, director of the Pompeii digs in the late 19th century, invented the plaster cast method. He poured liquid plaster into a cavity left in the bed of ashes by the gradual decomposition of the victim’s body. As the plaster solidified, it reproduced the body’s shape.

The Forum Baths: The Forum Baths, one of three bath complexes in Pompeii, are larger than the Forum itself. Since most people didn’t have indoor plumbing, this was where they came to wash. The baths had several rooms, including a changing room (apodyterium), a room for a cold bath (frigidarium), lukewarm bath (tepidarium), and a hot bath (caladium). Across the street from the Forum bath exit you can find the charming House of the Tragic Poet, which has an impressive mosaic of a barking dog with the words Cave Canum – “Beware of Dog.”

Villa of the Mysteries: Although this villa has deep red colors, which depict Dionysian or Orphic initiation rites, recent research at La Sapienza University in Rome has revealed that many of the reds we see in Pompeii were once yellow and turned dark red as a result of exposure to hot gases during the eruption. The images lead archeologists to believe that a priestess of the Dionysian cult owned this villa.

House of the Faun: The largest of all the villas and the most famous, this wealthy dwelling had airy rooms and some indications of indoor baths, toilets, and kitchen areas. Visitors can see an accurate copy of a 2nd century B.C. dancing faun in bronze. Most impressive is the mosaic – using somewhere between 1.5 and 5 million tiny stones or tesserae – depicting a battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian King Darius. This house is also the oldest, built in the late 2nd century B.C.

Learn more about the Campania region of Italy. Stop by Barbara Zaragoza’s site where you can find out all about the ancient Roman ruins of the region.

Scientists Find the Mayan Road to the Land of the Dead

March 24, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

Many, if not most, religions ” both modern and ancient ” share the concept of an underworld. The Greeks had Hades; the Japanese Shinto have Yomi; some might argue the Christian Heaven is incomplete without its corresponding Hell. The Mayans were no different, except that they apparently took the idea a step further and physically constructed portals into their own mythical subterranean domain. The caves and depths of the world provoke a sense of unease and trepidation by their very nature, and the natural features of the Yucatn were utilized by the Maya as literal entrances to Xibalba, their land of the dead.

It is in the Yucatn that one of the largest such entrances has been found. Archaeologists have uncovered a surprisingly vast network of subterranean passages, temples, and caves used by the ancient peoples who once dwelt on the surface. These caverns are largely covered by water today, and some archaeologists believe they also were during the time of the Maya. The scientists who explored these caves needed scuba gear and modern diving equipment to complete the survey, and so one can only imagine the hardships endured by those who first built these chambers many hundreds of years ago.

The Mayan Historical Record

Stone tablets recovered from Mayan excavation sites outline a dual function for these underground caves. In addition to their ceremonial role, they were apparently also a barrier to isolate floodwater from reaching the cities above ground. Since many of these cavern complexes were constructed near or under large population centers, it’s clear that this second duty was no less important than their religious significance. To the Maya, death was less a cessation of life and more of a transformative event. The caves and rivers that wind through these underground spaces were, to their ancient builders and explorers, a literal road by which the souls of the deceased would depart this realm and make passage to the land of the dead.

The Remains of the Dead

Usually, scientists uncover more than just rocks and pottery shards in these underground caverns. Lying buried within the sediment, or crouched by the rim of a glistening obsidian pool, human skeletons can often be seen in these caves, the remains of those dead the Maya laid to rest in hopes of starting them on their journey to the next world. That human remains are so regularly found in Mayan cave passages has indicated to archaeologists the literal meaning that the Maya ascribed to this concept of a road or path that the dead must walk to reach Xibalba.

Throughout southern Mexico and Central America (mainly Belize and Guatemala), scientists have located at least 14 cave complexes of this kind. For the most part, they share the same features, including massive and ornately carved columns made from solid rock, as well as being filled with pottery, sculpture, and other trappings of ritual activity. The pots themselves are clearly identified as ceremonial by the addition of “kill holes,” small openings in the bottom through which spirits were believed to escape.

According to Mayan legend, the path to Xibalba was fraught with danger, and the dead souls would have to be led down these dark corridors on their way to the underworld by helpful spirits, such as a mythical dog with powerful night-vision. The spirits of the departed would endure many tests and trials before being admitted to the land of the dead.

Descending into the Depths

Climbing down into one of these cave sites is an eerie and unforgettable experience. To stand at the edge of a silent pool, its surface black and smooth as volcanic glass, and stare up at massive stone pillars covered in Maya pictographs is an experience not soon forgotten by any who’ve had it. Once you’ve been, it’s easy to understand why they were chosen as places of reverence ” the thrill of fear at the abundance of human bones mixes with the deathly silence and coolness of the caves, and leaves one feeling a sense of awe and wonderment at their very existence.

The Mayans’ above-ground achievements, like the famous pyramids of Tikal and Calakmul, may be more well known; however, their subterranean construction work is neither less impressive nor less important from an historical perspective. In fact, archaeologists consider the two as halves of the same whole; the caves and their cenote entrances served as important sources of fresh water, without which the cities themselves could never have flourished, as the Yucatan is a region remarkable devoid of rivers or conventional fresh water sources. The Mayans wisely chose to build near the few areas of potable water available to them, and likely thereafter found that the caves were as valuable from a religious and spiritual point of view as they were from a practical one.

Many of these sites can be visited today by anyone who can manage a moderately taxing hike. One of the most famous, Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) in Belize, contains some truly unusual artifacts; perhaps best-known is the Crystal Maiden, the skeleton of a young girl that many scientists suppose was the victim of human sacrifice. Over the centuries, her bones (as well as much of the surrounding cave floor) have become calcified, and they now glitter in the dark recesses with an unearthly light. Any trip to Central America would be incomplete without an attempt to sample this once-in-a-lifetime experience ” an actual descent into the underworld of Mayan lore!

If you enjoy traveling to ancient Ruins, learning about the local culture and people along the way Duende Tours can help. We are adventure travel specialists for Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

Among The Most Frequently Neglected Wonders of Chichn Itz

March 21, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

If you’re planning a visit to Chichn Itz, chances are you’ve already got a long list of sights to check out. No doubt, between researching on your own and taking the advice of friends or acquaintances who’ve been themselves, you’ll have found you need a notepad to record all the features, buildings, sculptures, and courtyards with some special historical significance, like the great pyramid El Castillo or the stunning Great Ballcourt. The wonders of Chichn Itz are many and multifaceted, so much so that even travelers who’ve made multiple trips often overlook the diminutive but fascinating features on this list.

One such location is the Casa Colorada, or Red House, named for the flakes of red paint that scientists discovered lying inside the structure. Known as Chichancob in the Nahuatl tongue, it is one of the most well-preserved buildings at Chichn Itz, and filled with magnificent carvings and hieroglyphs that tell of the city’s kings and rulers dating back to to 869 AD.

Consisting of four rooms, including an antechamber and adjacent ball court in the rear, the hieroglyphs that exensively cover the walls seem to be the most important feature of the building, and the most probable purpose for its construction. Chichancob’s most likely translation is small holes, probably a reference to its pitted lime-comb roof.

Temple of the Three Lintels

The Temple of the Three Lintels was, in all likelihood, not a temple at all, but rather a residence for Chichn Itz’s royals or nobility. It takes it name from the elaborate hieroglyphs that rest above the structure’s three entrances. Otherwise, however, the building is quite plain and modest; the outer walls lack ornamentation other than a lattice-like pattern of crosses on the cornice, making it a surprisingly unassuming place for royalty to dwell.

Because archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Mayan Fire Rituals taking place at the temple, we can deduce that the priests or residents of Chichn Itz often made offerings there, probably under the watchful gaze of the Chac mask figures that peer out over the doorways. Their long noses were a common feature of Classic-period Mayan architecture, and are believed to have been a tribute to the Mayan god of rain.

Temple of the Bearded Man

Another site worth investigating, which is often overshadowed by a nearby famous structure, is the North Temple, or Temple of the Bearded Man. Lying as it does at one end of the Great Ballcourt, many visitors pass by this interesting building without taking much notice. However, the intricate carvings and bas relief artwork that cover the interior walls are certainly worth a look. Most notable is the temple’s namesake, a central figure with carvings under his chin that give the impression of facial hair.

Active travel is a great way to explore the Mayan Ruins from Playa del Carmen. Duende Tours offers amazing packages including Mayan ruins and activities like snorkeling, zip lining. See the Mexico ruins tours for more information.