Sounds of the jungle were as thick as the humidity. Birds chirped and trilled. A deep hoot added a bass note. An almost mechanical staccato clicking joined in. I was following a Mayan guide, Juan Gualberto Tun Pat, down a garden path on the grounds of my hotel, where life is so insistent that young trees sprout in the middle of the gravel walkway.
At a wrought iron gate, two guys sat at a weathered Formica-topped table, the young one working math problems, the older one tuning a radio. They paused to check my entrance ticket, exchanged greetings with Juan in their language, Yucatec Maya, and waved us on our way.
I felt like I’d just slipped through the secret back door to Chichen Itza, the Mayan archaeological wonder in the interior of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
The collection of pre-Columbian architectural masterpieces — pyramids, temples, columns — represent an ancient Mesoamerican culture steeped in art and science. The former urban center covers more than four square miles and two distinct periods — one collection of buildings was constructed by the early Mayans, while others date to a time after the Toltecs arrived and merged cultures with the existing community, Juan said. Its size and breadth make it one of the most formidable of the Mayan sites that dot Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Chichen Itza was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, reinforcing its status as a full-blown tourist attraction. According to UNESCO, which lists the treasure as a World Heritage Site, at least 3,500 people pour in each day. Most are day-trippers from Merida, Cancun and other coastal resorts who arrive midmorning and tour under a withering sun.
At 8:30 in the morning, Juan and I saw none of them.
Not long after we greeted the guards, our shaded path led to the crumbling remains of a vaulted room nearly hidden by lush foliage, a tumble of moss-covered stones heaped at its base. It was the backside of Akab Dzib, or House of the Dark Writing, named for its still undeciphered hieroglyphs and one of the oldest ruins of Chichen Itza.
In a nearby grassy lawn, the only buzz came from a colony of bees hovering among clover just above the morning dew. We’d stopped there to view a collection of stunning white stone structures with fanciful carvings of human faces and geometric friezes. Among them was El Caracol, the remains of an observatory where early Mayans tracked the movement of Venus.
I puzzled over a man who stepped over a fence and scaled its exterior staircase.
“He’s clearing away plants,” Juan told me. “Every day they work to keep the jungle from taking over.”
The guide, himself a Mayan, used our pause to set the record straight about his people.
The ancient Mayans were not violent, despite their reputation and the human remains found in the Sacred Cenote, a limestone sinkhole that made a natural well, on the Chichen Itza grounds. Human sacrifice, he said, came to the area with the Toltecs, the northern tribe that joined the Mayans as the city was ascending in the 10th century.
The Mayans, instead, were students of the Earth, whose gods came from the natural world. They were advanced enough to understand the cycle of the sun; their year, like ours, held 365 days, except for leap years, which they, too, observed. They were great mathematicians and astronomers.
Juan pointed to a piece of timber topping a door frame in a building more than 1,000 years old. It looked hardly worn. Then he told a story of his own family. When his cousin was engaged to be married and planned to build his own home on the family’s land, his grandfather said that they should cut down the trees for construction only when he said it was time. “Each night, my grandfather went to look at the sky,” he said. When the moon was full, the axes came out. Just as the moon affects the tides, Juan explained, it draws up sap in sapodilla trees, the choice for lumber. Chop a tree when the sap is thick, and sap becomes part of the lumber, protecting against weather and bugs.
“My grandfather is an astronomer, like his ancestors, but he doesn’t even know it,” Juan said.
A great pyramid
We walked down tree-lined paths where souvenir vendors were setting up tables, making our way to a collection of larger structures built in later years.
At a bend in the walkway, a vast stretch of lawn appeared. Rising from the grass, one of the world’s great pyramids defied gravity and age; it was the ancient skyscraper known as El Castillo.
The pyramid’s sharp angles and imposing symmetry set off a cloudless blue sky. Steep staircases on all four sides culminate at a temple, perched like a crown. The Mayans included a step for each day of the year; each side has 91 and the temple counts as the 365th. Fantastical sculptures of feathered serpents run down its sides, representing the god Kukulcan, a name derived from the words for feather and snake.
I stood before it, the centerpiece of Chichen Itza, with my head thrown back, taking in its majesty.
“Listen,” Juan warned before striking his hands together. A moment later, the clap reverberated in the temple chamber high atop the pyramid, sounding like the call of a bird.
He explained that centuries ago, the people of the city would gather on this lawn for ceremonies. A high priest would step from the temple, decked out in regalia, and someone would strike a drum, unnoticed, to create that eerie sound.
“Imagine how amazed the farmers, the uneducated people, must have been,” he told me. “They would have believed it was the voice of their god.”
I was amazed, too — not at the voice of a god, but at the architectural chops of a civilization that could create such a structure, in the middle of the jungle, more than 1,000 years ago.
The fact that Juan and I were alone? That was astonishing, too.
“In a few hours,” Juan warned, “this place will be busy with people, like ants crawling to a piece of bread.”
Juan departed; he was headed to Merida to renew his guide license.
I wandered the grounds for a while, but left when the ants arrived in full force.
Hacienda turned eco-lodge
I took the same tranquil garden path back to my hotel, Hacienda Chichen, to dwell in its own rich history.
Spaniards built the gracious stone home in 1528, using whatever materials they could find. That meant Mayan stones — some with ancient carvings — because, by then, Chichen Itza had been abandoned to the jungle. For much of its history, the hacienda was a cattle ranch.
In the 1920s, when Carnegie Institution archaeologists began to disentangle Chichen Itza ruins from plants that had overtaken them, the hacienda became their home base. Cottages were built for the scientists; now they house hotel guests. Eric Thompson, an expert in Mayan script, lived and worked in the room where I stayed, bringing clarity to some Mayan history. It was a nice legacy to ponder as I lounged in the hammock hung under a portico at his, and now my, door.
The hotel, an eco-lodge, has its own fruit and vegetable gardens for the kitchen, a jungle reserve and a spa that offers Mayan-inspired treatments. On the night of my arrival, the manager, Iolanda Lourdes Coutinho, gave me a brief tour. The swimming pool, casting a blue glow at dusk, caught my eye, and she told me that salt, rather than chlorine, keeps the water clean.
“It is for the birds,” Iolanda said, “so they can sip and be OK.”
To refresh myself after Chichen Itza, I headed there.
I was alone, except for the swallows. A great swirl of them circled the pool, skimming the water and dipping down to quench their thirst before rounding skyward again.
I left the pool to the birds, knowing that they needed their own reprieve from the Yucatán heat — it was 85 degrees with 100 percent humidity. But, finally, I slipped in, hoping the swallows wouldn’t mind sharing. They continued to circle above, but only a brave few joined me at water level.
I saw even more birds the next morning. Before breakfast, I took a nature hike in the jungle reserve with Bibiano Uh Tum, a Mayan guide and medicine man.
As we made our way down a cleared path lined with trees, he broke off a leaf and said, “Mayan Brillo pad; we use it to clean everything.” One side was waxy smooth, good for gripping. The other had coarse hairs for scouring. Bibiano told me about medicinal plants. He shared a tamale his wife had made, prepared with leaves from a local plant that is good for heart health.
All of these delights were mere asides, secondary to our search for birds. A dainty cinnamon hummingbird flitted high in a flowering tree. Yucatán parrots screeched by, a flurry of red and green and loud caws. A Central American pygmy owl sat nestled among leaves, given away by his occasional hoot. When Bibiano heard the sound, he stopped, raised his eyebrows with a look of anticipation, and spied it almost immediately.
When the hike ended, I left the hotel, drove a few minutes down the road, and floated in Ik Kil, a cenote 85 feet below ground level, like the ones the Mayan used — and still do — as a water source. Strange black fish darted in the aqua water below me. Far above, flowers and trees rimmed the circular opening. Water trickled down, making miniature waterfalls, and roots of plants hung down like thick ropes.
I relished the strangely beautiful swimming hole, exchanging looks of awe with the others in the water, a couple from Los Angeles, a woman speaking German.
After half an hour, I climbed the stairway carved into the earth as a steady stream of people in flip-flops and bright orange life vests flowed downward. When I came, I had parked in the shade next to two cars, the only others in the lot; when I left, six tour buses flanked the entrance. Once again, I felt happy that I was staying nearby, so I could enjoy the cenote in relative calm.
That afternoon, I knew again that I’d made the right call by booking a hotel near Chichen Itza.
I was standing in the spa and my female attendant — a budding Maya healer, I was told — circled a bowl with earthy incense before me, praying in her native tongue. She washed my hands in sacred cenote water, wrapped me in mud, scrubbed me down, and massaged my body.
I am not sure what her prayers said, but I know what I was thinking. In the midst of such a foreign ritual, I recalled what Juan, my Chichen Itza guide, had told me. “People say the Mayan civilization passed away,” he said. “No, we have always been here.”
I felt fortunate to have seen their world so intimately, past and present.