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Mayan legacies

There are some gems that don’t attract hordes of tourists

Posted: 01/26/2013 10:16 AM | Comments: 0

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The mysterious Mayan civilization flourished on Mexico’s Yucat!n Peninsula between 300-900 AD. Abandoned in dense jungle and forgotten for centuries, their rediscovered stone cities reveal extraordinary architecture, artwork and technology … and attract visitors like us.

Settled again in Cancun’s resort zone, we reacquaint ourselves with the Maya, this time starting with two lesser-known sites.

A budding archeology student himself, our concierge suggests Ruinas del Rey. "Not so dramatic as others," he grins, "but biggest on Isla Cancun! A sculptured human face decorating the regalia of Mayan rulers, as well as embellished skeletons found there, suggest it was once a royal burial ground."

Curiosity sparked and up for new adventure, we pedal resort bicycles nine kilometres to this local archeological area, despite a blistering morning sun.

Though set amid sparkling modern developments, this small gem from 600 AD proves surprisingly tranquil. From greenery edging the grounds, soothing bird choruses sweetly greet us. Fat iguana families occupy the scattered remnants of 47 time-worn structures. As we watch, these docile residents bask along limestone steps, skitter under weathered walls and even pose with haughty royal attitudes!

Unlike at prominent locations, these ruins are not roped off. Easily climbing the low-rise pyramid, we walk within stone foundations and stroll unhurriedly throughout the ancient grounds. Storyboards interpret the platforms, helping us visualize customs long past.

Most striking, a small palace stands alongside one of two plazas forming the ceremonial centre. Topped with a vault thought to be an astronomy lookout, faded wall paintings inside depict ordinary daily life.

Recovered fishing implements reflect the basic economy; basalt grinding stones, flint knives, arrowheads, obsidian blades and jade jewelry imply an extensive coastal trade. Leaving later, we notice others feeding bread to gathering iguanas.

I muse, "No wonder they’re so plump, so unafraid!" The ticket guy mutters, "Tortillas’d be better!"

Joining fellow history buffs another day, we head off the tourist track to Ek Balam, an influential city for 1,000 years. Along the way, guide Daniel shows us early black and white photos while explaining, "In the beginning, explorers noticed unusual clusters of hills overgrown by dense rainforest and tangled vegetation. Excavating those mounds, archeologists later unearthed majestic Ek Balam."

Once there, a well-worn sacbe leads us to an arched gateway. Daniel pauses, "Imagine! More than 1,300 years ago, miles of such white limestone roadways ran throughout the jungles, vital links to distant communities."

Through a narrow passage inside low walls, we sight immense structures restored from rubble. Countless doorways lead into chambers where we suspect elite residents found cool relief from the burning sun. Slab stellae under thatched shelters outline dynastic history, telling us that the buildings here were constructed around 800 AD during Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok’s reign.

Over at the ball court, Daniel points out that every Mayan city had at least one and tells us how players competed ferociously, manoeuvring a heavy ball through brass rings on the stone walls. However, scholars still disagree on whether it was winners or losers who were beheaded!

Rising ahead of us, a colossal pyramid nicknamed the ‘Acropolis’ entombs the powerful Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok. Thatched canopies protect elaborate hieroglyphs and friezes on lower tiers. Using our hands, we balance on steep steps and climb up halfway to investigate an exquisite stucco wall forming his tomb’s doorway.

In this spectacular stucco facade, we pick out seven chiefs with classic royal profiles, their fashionably flat heads developed by binding them with boards when infants. Hair in braids, sculpted warriors wear decorated loincloths, skulls tied to their belts.

After more rigorous climbing, we cool off in breezes atop the pyramid. Sweeping views across the immense site and luxuriant jungle landscapes beyond reward our efforts. Daniel sighs, "Undiscovered by many, Ek Balam boasts some of the wonders of our other world-renowned attractions … but without crowds!"

It’s true that most visitors flock to the principal archeological sites lying within three hours of Cancun. With our interest newly inspired, we too revisit three magnificent stone cities.

A ceremonial centre perched high above the Caribbean to the south, Tulum flourished from commerce and sacred ceremonies, Of its many temples, including a fertility altar, the ornately columned, two-tiered Temple of the Frescoes celebrates rain god Chac, Tulum’s premier god. Inside, murals illustrate the underworld, living middle world and Chac’s skyward home.

Temple of the Descending God features a winged figure over a doorsill. Like a headfirst diver in sting position, honeybee god Ah Muzencab is revered for producing honey for food and trade. A lighted shrine inside El Castillo provided a beacon for ships, marking a break in the barrier reef. From here, we can gaze across turquoise waters to white sandy beaches where early sailors launched ships. Tulum served as the major port for Coba, the Yucatan’s oldest Mayan city located 45 kilometres northwest.

Once a dominant power, Coba is now one of three regional UNESCO Heritage Sites.
Ascending 120 steps, we rest in the shade of its topside temple. Sprawling below amid low-lying rainforest, Coba’s 173-square kilometres encompasses five surrounding lakes. Since much here remains unexcavated, we can only imagine this large ancient city with outlying plots of corn, beans, squash, cacao, chilies and bananas that fed 50,000 people at the height of its influence.

Farther along hard-packed pathways we sight a domed observatory where astronomers accurately calculated orbits of planets and the moon, determined eclipses and star positions and even developed a 365-day calendar more advanced than European contemporaries.

West of Cancun, Chichen Itza attracts thousands. Its central iconic pyramid conjures seasonal magic during the spring and fall equinox. Solar alignment enables an astonishing phenomenon. Sunlight focusing on the steps creates a shadow shaped like Kukulcan, the plumed serpent. At dawn and sunset, Kukulcan slithers down the staircase, once heralding plantings and harvests to superstitious populations.

The Great Ball Court here features a carved player holding a knife and a victim’s head. Towering beside the court, Temple of Jaguars features a jaguar frieze and chamber displaying a battle scene between hundreds of warriors. And at Temple of Warriors, we marvel at elaborate bas-reliefs created on hundreds of columns. Its sacred cenote, a large limestone sinkhole, once provided fresh water … but we can visualize residents throwing in offerings to their gods, including human sacrifices!

And though each site visited brings us renewed understanding of the Mayan civilization, it’s our encounters with Ruinas del Rey and Ek Balam that add the special magic to our Mexican getaway!

— Postmedia News

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