When the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan friars first arrived on the Yucatán peninsula in 1517, they found a remarkable civilization there. The ancient Maya was one of the most sophisticated pre-Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica. As a civilization, they are renowned for developing sophisticated systems for hieroglyphic writing and calendar as well as acquiring advanced knowledge in areas such as mathematics and astronomy. The newcomers swiftly defeated the Maya, colonized their lands, and destroyed most of their historical records. The Spaniards, as undisputed rulers of the Yucatán Peninsula, founded cities such as Mérida, Campeche, and Valladolid. In 1847, after Mexico had achieved independence, civil war erupted on the peninsula. It began with the revolt of the much-exploited descendants of the ancient Maya against the settlers of European origin. This conflict, known as the Caste War, ended with the defeat for the Maya, followed by bloody retaliations.
The Yucatán Peninsula is a vast limestone platform covered with dryish subtropical broadleaf jungle. There are more than 7000 cenotes (limestone sinkholes) on the peninsula, which are common geological forms in limestone with little soil development. The ancient Maya believed that they were sacred gateways to Xibalbá [underworld]. The interior of the peninsula is speckled with indigenous Maya villages such as Los Tres Reyes. They lead a traditional way of life, as their ancestors did. They live in palm-leaf-roofed huts, and adhere to their own language, customs, and culture. The Maya Riviera, on the east coast of the peninsula, has some of best beaches in Mexico. The frequented tourist-destinations are Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. In addition, the coastal islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres are popular with divers because of the stunning coral formations of the Great Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest barrier reef in the world.
Some of the finest archaeological sites in Mesoamerica are situated on the Yucatán Peninsula. They include cities nestled among jungle vegetation such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Cobá and Ek’ Balam, or perched on coastal cliffs such as Tulum. The ancient Maya developed the first settlements about 2000 BC. Around 250 AD, the they entered what is now known as the Classic Period, an era in which they established flourishing city-states engaged in a complex network of alliances. They created monumental buildings with elaborate decorations. The principal buildings included pyramid-temples, ball courts, astronomical observatories and palaces. Different parts of a city were often connected by raised roads paved with limestone called Sacbé. Some longer roads between settlements have also been found. They developed highly sophisticated art forms and had exceptional talents in making portraits. The Maya recorded their history and ritual knowledge in folding books. Only three uncontested Maya codices survived, the rest was destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors. One-by-one, the major cities of the Classic Period were abandoned by the 15th century and largely forgotten until the 19th century.
Chichén Itzá [mouth of the well of the Itzáes] was one of the largest Maya cities. The date of the first settlement in the southern part of the site is not certain, but the northern section was built during a renaissance in the 11th century AD. In its heyday as a commercial, religious and military center, which lasted until about 13th century AD, this city supported over 35,000 people. Presumably, the city had a diverse population, which would explain the variety of architectural styles on the site. It is well worth visiting the site for its iconic structures and historical significance, despite the huge crowds of visitors.
The most iconic structure at Chichén Itzá is the grandiose step-pyramid known as El Castillo [The Castle]. The temple, built on top of an older structure sometime between the 8th and 12th century, is dedicated to Kukulcán – the plumed serpent deity of the Maya, closely related to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl. The pyramid consists of a series of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. At the base of the balustrades of the northern staircase are carved heads of Kukulcán. There is a second pyramid inside the Kukulcán pyramid. The temple at the top of the inner pyramid contains a red throne carved in a shape of a jaguar and encrusted with jade; also lying behind the screen is a Chacmool – a Maya sacrificial stone sculpture depicting a reclining figure with a dish on its stomach. The pyramid was designed to achieve a sophisticated acoustic effect: a hand clap in front of the staircase near the base of the pyramid is rewarded with the chirping echo, a message from the god Kukulcán. Climbing the pyramid and visiting the sanctuaries is not allowed.
The pyramid has a perfect astronomical design: the four sides of the pyramid face the cardinal directions, during the spring and autumn equinoxes an enthralling optical illusion occurs on the north staircase and various structural features of the pyramid correspond to aspects of the Maya calendar. The nine tiers on each side of the pyramid are divided by a staircase into 18 terraces, which symbolize the 18 20-day months of the Maya calendar. The four staircases are made up of 91 steps each, so together with the temple platform at the top make a total of 365 steps, which is the number of days in the year. The 52 panels on each of the pyramid’s faces represent the number of years in the Maya sacred circle. During the spring and autumn equinoxes (March 20 and September 22), the morning and afternoon sun creates a light-and-shadow illusion of the plumed serpent ascending or descending the side of the northern staircase. The illusion is almost as good in the week preceding and following each equinox.
The Gran Juego de Pelota [Great Ball Court], the largest and most impressive in Mesoamerica, is only one of the ancient city’s eight courts. The court is bounded by towering walls and flanked by temples at sides. The walls are lined with stone reliefs depicting players in protective gear and scenes of decapitation. Based on the reliefs, it is thought that they played a soccer-like game with a hard rubber ball. Two teams would compete against each other to manipulate the ball through a stone ring cemented high on the wall at the side of the court. The ball had to be kept off the ground using only knees, elbows or hips, and never the hands or feet. The losing captain, and perhaps his teammates as well, were often sacrificed after the game. However, this was considered an honorable way to die. Beyond being a sporting event, the ballgame had some ritual significance. A version of the game, called ulama, is still played today. The court exhibits some interesting acoustics: a conversation at one end can be heard 135 meters away at the other, and a clap produces multiple loud echoes.
The Plataforma de los Cráneos [Platform of Skulls] is a T-shaped platform adorned with carved skulls and eagles tearing open the chests of men to eat their hearts. Archaeologists believe it was used to display the heads of human sacrifice. The carvings on the adjacent Platforma de las Águilas y Jaguares [Temple of the Eagles and Jaguars] are similarly gruesome. They depict eagles and jaguars consuming human hearts. A bit further is the Platforma de Venus [Temple of Venus]. It is thought that the Maya used the platform to observe the planet Venus. They were able to measure the 584-day Venus cycle with just a two-hour error.
The Templo de los Guerreros [Temple of the Warriors], set on a small pyramid, is decorated with stucco and stone-carved animal deities. At the top of the stairs are the statues of the rain god Chac and the plumed serpent god Kukulcán. The entrance to the temple is guarded by a Chucmool statue and two columns carved as snakes. Stretching east and south at the base of the pyramid is a forest of pillars called the Grupo de las Mil Columnas [Group of the Thousand Columns]. Many of the columns are decorated with figures of warriors.
The Osario [Ossuary] is a step-pyramid, just like El Castillo, only smaller. It has four sides with staircases on each side leading to the top. There is a temple on the top of the pyramid, but unlike El Castillo, there is a square shaft at the center of the platform, which leads into a natural cave below. The cave was used as a burial chamber; several tombs with human remains and artifacts such as jade beads were discovered inside.
The building, called El Caracol [The Snail] by the Spanish conquistadors for its interior spiral staircase, was an astronomical observatory. The various slits in the observatory’s dome are aligned with the appearance of certain celestial bodies on key dates in the Maya calendar. The four external doors, facing the cardinal directions, are decorated with the masks of the rain god Chac.
A large structure, the so-called Edificio de las Monjas [Nunnery], is thought by archaeologists to have been a palace for Maya royalty. Its numerous small rooms reminded the conquistadors of European convent cells, hence their name for the building. A smaller adjoining building to the east, known as La Iglesia [The Church], is covered almost entirely with elaborately carved masks.
Only a small portion of Cobá has been excavated so far. Most of the huge area is still overgrown by lush jungle vegetation. Hence, many of the remains are still piles of root- and vine-covered rubble, for the untrained eye indistinguishable from a rocky mound. Built around a group of Lakes, the city flourished from about 300 to 1000 and up to 40,000 people are thought to have lived at this enormous site. It stood at the center of a sacbeob network – sacbé is a raised road paved with limestone. More of these roads have been found here than anywhere else. Most of the traffic along the road was done at night, at cooler temperatures. The white limestone helped navigate in the dark. Cobá is also known for its collection of stelae sculpted and carved by the ancient Maya, which provide insight into various aspects of ceremonial life and report on major historical events.
There are four principal groups of buildings to visit, the Cobá Group, Group D, Macanxoc Group, and Nohoch Mul Group. The most prominent structure of the Cobá Group is a huge pyramid known as La Iglesia [The Church]. In front of the staircase near the base of the structure is the upper fragment of a stela with a circular masonry altar in front and two square altars a few meters to the west. The site is still venerated by some local Mayas. They say that they see in the stela the representation of the virgin Colebí. They make offerings here, light candles, and pray for a good harvest and luck in the hunt. An impressive Juego de Pelota [Ball Court], one among the several found on the site, is also part of this group. It has two interesting ball court markers embedded in the playing field, one featuring a jaguar and the other a skull.
The Macanxoc Group can be reached by Sacbé 9, the widest road in Cobá, which indicates the importance of this area. The complex of structures, built on a large, rather overgrown platform, is most likely the ceremonial center of the site. The complex is known for the collection of eight stelae, five of which depict a female ruler who ascended the throne between 640 and 682, and the rest depict male rulers from the 7th century. According to local legend, stelae are ancient kings who are turned to stone during the day and come to life at night.
Group D contains the Conjunto Pinturas [Paintings Group] and the Xaibé [Crossroads], among other structures. The pyramidal Templo de los Frescos [Temple of the Frescoes] bears traces of glyphs and frescoes on its lintel and remnants of richly colored murals inside the building. The structure at the crossroads of four sacbeob is known as Xaibé. It has an unusual shape for Maya architecture; it is a four-tiered conical structure with two medial moldings. It was thought to be an observatory because of its rounded shape, although there is nothing to support such a claim.
About 1.5 km to the north is the most famous structure of the site, Nohoch Mul [Big Mound], also known as the Great Pyramid. With its 42 meters, it is the second tallest Maya structure on the Yucatán peninsula. It is a hard climb to the temple at the top, because of the steep ascent and the poor condition of the stones, but once reached, the view of the seemingly uninterrupted flat shrubby jungle is well worth the effort. A Descending God is carved over the doorway of the temple. In front of Structure 10 stands the best-preserved stela of the site. It depicts a richly dressed ruler holding a large scepter, standing imperiously over two kneeling captives with additional two captives flanking his feet.
Ek’ Balam [Black Jaguar] was an important Maya city and religious center, reaching its peak in the 8th century. Most of the archaeological site is still covered by lush jungle vegetation. The part that can be visited is the core ceremonial center of the city, which is surrounded by an unusual double perimeter wall for fortification. It is well worth visiting the site for its unusual stucco friezes. As the site is not so much frequented by tourist groups, it is most likely that you will have the place to yourself.
Within the walled enclosure, the structures are clustered around two plazas, the South Plaza and the North Plaza. Forming the south side of the South Plaza stands El Palacio Oval [The Oval Palace]. It is a multi-tiered structure, containing several oval structures built on top of each other on a rectangular base. It was thought to be an observatory because of its rounded shape. On the west side of the square is the structure known as Las Gemelas [The Twins], named after the two identical temples built side by side on a raised platform and accessed by individual stairways. Some archaeologists believe that these two monuments were used for the worship of ancestors. A Juego de Pelota [Ball Court] separates the southern square from its northern counterpart.
The most impressive structure of the North Plaza is the huge tiered pyramid known as the Acrópolis. This imposing edifice, enlarged over time, contains a number of structures superimposed over each other. It contains numerous temples, chambers, courtyards and passageways across six levels. At the base of the central stairway are two statues of serpent heads with Maya hieroglyphic texts. On the fourth level of the Acrópolis is the impressive Sak Xoc Nah [White House of Reading] chamber with intricately carved stucco facade. The entrance to the chamber features a huge open fanged mouth of a deity. The wall is decorated with winged human figures (some call them Maya angels), masks, skulls and geometric motifs. The excellent preservation of the facade is due to the fact that it was carefully covered with protective stone wall very early in the history of Ek’ Balam. The chamber served as a tomb to the ruler Ukit Kan Le’k Tok (770 – c.802). Archaeologists found a vast amount of funerary artifact in the chamber, among them more than 7000 pieces of jewelry. On both, the east and west sides of the North Plaza there are large overgrown mounds waiting for excavation.