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Considering how essential they were to the Mayan civilization, the underground water sources called cenotes are very modest entities, hiding themselves away within wells and caves. Cenotes are subterranean water sources formed by the seepage of rainwater underground. Since Yucatan province  in Mexico does not have natural rivers, the Maya relied largely on the cenotes for fresh water, and therefore for survival.

 

The Mayan settlement of Chichen Itza developed around the cenote known as the Sacred Well.

 

Many of the cenotes have stalactites and stalagmites. These are calcium carbonate formations that evolve when rain water drips down the limestone cave walls.

 

 

Cenote visits are a must-do for visitors to the Yucatan. One descends steep steps to get to the subterranean caves with the fresh water and beautiful stalactites and stalagmite columns. Sometimes sunlight peeps down into the caves and bounces off the stalactites, making for a pretty spectacular experience.

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If you happen to be a guy with a sharp nose, a portly figure and an evident awareness of your own importance in the scheme of things, you might consider auditioning for Mayan bas-reliefs. But it would help to also have achieved something grand, such as defeating enemy kingdoms and making your land the most powerful force in the Maya world, etcetera, etcetera.

Palenquehas the loveliest bas-reliefs, but the other Mayan structures also have a few, although they’re not as intricate or well preserved as the ones in Palenque.

Panel with carvings in Chichen-Itza

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Imagine that you are an explorer in the 18th or 19th centuries trekking through the lush jungles of Chiapas in Mexico. Suddenly you see ruins sticking out through all the foliage. You investigate, and voila, find that you are in what promises to be a very spectacular Mayan site. If your name is Count Waldeck, you camp out there a couple of years and come up with fanciful theories connecting the Mayans of Palenque with Atlantis and Egypt. Or if you are connected with the Spanish government, you could organize military expeditions to investigate the ruins. In any case, you definitely need to make drawings and blueprints  and excavate foliage accumulated over several hundred years.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years. To get to Palenque these days, it is not strictly necessary to trek through jungles or organize military expeditions. You simply hop onto an overnight bus from Cancun and try to wake up early enough in the morning. Otherwise you might find yourself a few hours later near the Guatemalen border still on the bus waiting expectantly for Palenque, which of course has already passed while you were blissfully asleep. It could so happen that the bus suddenly screeches to a halt and is invaded by half a dozen banana vendors who have forced their way in by the simple but effective technique of standing on the road in the bus’ path not letting it drive forward. Declining the aggressive sales pitch of the banana vendors, you ask your co-passengers whether this bus will ever get to Palenque, only to be met with a ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ look that transcends language barriers and are informed that Palenque was passed about 4 hours earlier. You are told to get off and wait for the bus heading back in the opposite direction. At last in the evening, you reach journey’s end at a ramshackle bus stand in a ramshackle town.

Like I said, it isn’t too hard to get to Palenque these days.

 

Unlike the ramshackle town and its bus stand, the Mayan ruins that have put Palenque on the map are pretty impressive. Pakal, the ruler responsible for Palenque’s greatness was not the sort of guy to have put up with a ramshackle anything and so all the Palenque structures are well….extraordinary, even though they have been worn out by time and were covered by foliage for several centuries. Painstakingly clawed back from the jungle, the ruins have been lovingly restored. The structures that are visible are said to be only a fraction of those still buried inside the jungle foliage waiting for archaeological rescue.

The Temple of Inscriptions

The Palace

The Temple of the Count

The Cross Group Temples


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What would you achieve if you had no significant rivers but had to rely on underground streams for water supply? If you had no pack animals to do all the pulling and carrying? If you knew of the wheel but that knowledge didn’t do you much good because you had no pack animals? What would you really be able to come up with?

The Mayans achieved this, the pyramid at Chichen Itza. And the ones at Coba and Palenque. And they managed to do quite well in mathematics and astronomy too, thank you for asking.

The Mayans carved their obsession for astronomy and mathematics into the pyramids they built. Each of the 4 sides of the pyramid at Chichen Itza has 91 steps, adding to 364. Count the top platform as another step and it adds up to 365. The pyramid seems to have moonlighted as some sort of massive calendar.

This is the El Caracol, thought to be an astronomical observatory.

Chichen Itza is dedicated to the feathered serpent God Kukulkan. During the Spring and Fall equinoxes, the light and shadow effects on the steps create an effect where it looks as though a serpent is descending down the pyramid. We did not visit during the equinoxes, so had to rely on photographs and our imaginations to tell us how the Descent of the Kukulkan actually looked like.

Like Chichen Itza, the pyramid of Coba is accessible from Cancun in a day trip. But unlike Chichen Itza, people are allowed to climb the structure at Coba.  The steps are steep and have been broken and worn out by time. Here is the view from somewhere in the middle of the climb. It is best to keep climbing and not look down behind you. But the descent is usually scarier since you do have to look down.

The underground water sources are called Cenotes and were the chief source of water for the Mayan settlements.

The Mayan palaces and pyramids were centers for the royal family, the city elite and for religious rituals.   The common people, as has been the fate of commoners through most of history, lived in huts outside the main city.

Chichen Itza and Coba are accessible in day trips from Cancun in Mexico.

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