Experiencing the Maya

Chichén Itzá, the famed Mayan ruins in Mexico's Yucatán, one of the modern "Seven Wonders of the World"
When we hear about the “Mayan civilization”, many of us think of an ancient “lost” culture that flourished hundreds of years ago and then mysteriously disappeared.  That’s not completely true, as I learned recently on a tour of Mayan sites in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, and Guatemala.  Many descendants of the original Maya still live and worship to various extents traditionally and are eager to share their ways with visitors.
Traditional weaving demonstration in Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico

“Maya” is a modern term given by the 16th century Spanish colonizers to collectively name the multiple indigenous (or “Indian”) populations of the Yucatán, Guatemala and Belize, as well as farther south in Central America.  While there are signs of agricultural activity from as early as 2000 BCE (Before the Common Era), the first Mayan cities were built around 750 BCE, which is considered the start of the so-called “Classical period” that ended as the civilization drastically decreased around 950 CE (Common Era).  More on what happened to them, a bit later.

Buried in jungle foliage for centuries, the excavated Mayan ruins with their life figures and hieroglyphics that have been laboriously interpreted, reveal a sophisticated civilization in which architecture, astronomy, and mathematics flourished alongside agriculture and city life.  One of the most celebrated of these ruins is Chichén Itzá, one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World and a marvel to behold.  

This building is believed to have been an observatory.

Nicknamed "the nunnery", this building has one of the most complex sets of hieroglyphics at this site. 
The site is dominated by the “castle” pyramid, constructed to not only produce echoes (as demonstrated relentlessly by clapping tourists) and solstice and equinox light changes, but also to symbolize Mayan spiritual beliefs, such as the number 9, referencing the number of days it takes corn to germinate, or the feathered serpent.  
Chichén Itzá pyramid:  The buildings are constructed of sturdy stucco, which is made by heating the ubiquitous limestone to a powder and then mixing it with water and mud. 

The revered feathered serpent symbol.
The Yucatán water sources are underground and the ancient people worshiped the rain god. 
During the dry season, the leaders -- who of course were educated enough to know when it actually would rain -- would sacrifice a "chosen one", presenting it as a great honor to be chosen, by drowning him (her?)in one of the community's two "cenotes" (large underground water-fed pools),  as an offering to the rain god.
Of course, it rained shortly thereafter. This worked for a few hundred years...until the people caught on and then violently rebelled overthrew their leaders. 
Corn (maize) is still a staple in the Yucatán diet; in fact, the dough for the tortillas served with every meal still contains a bit of limestone powder to give it robustness.  Despite a limited number of basic ingredients, though, the cuisine is extraordinarily versatile.
Pox :   The Mayan menu includes a number of non-alcoholic, plant-based juices, such as chaya,
made from the leaves of a spinach-like vegetable, but the traditional liquor is “pox” (pronounced “posh”),
made from fermented corn and a variety of flavors.  To me, it tasted like cough medicine.

More serene and less touristy than Chichén Itzá, are the ruins of Palenque, originally discovered in 1773 and set in a lush jungle that was originally part of Guatemala, but now is in the Mexican state of Chiapas.  Here, lack of rain has never been a problem.  In fact, it is estimated that only two percent of the once great Mayan city has been excavated because of the extensive and fast-growing vegetation. 

Palenque:  "Temple of the Inscriptions", first view on approach.

Palenque interior walls:  The Maya did not use arches; instead, they stacked thick stone walls to create
narrow corridors and then topped them with inverted-V capstones.  Interestingly, they didn’t have wheels,
so devised a log-and-pulley system to move large boulders.  
Palenque palace courtyard:  In the 1830s with the help of locals, explorers cleared the foliage to reveal
the temple courtyards in which extraordinary nine,  six foot-tall and elaborately adorned figures
carved into the walls, can still be seen.

The ancient Maya built aqueducts in the jungle to redirect the water and actually had toilet facilities; in fact, a drainage canal system discovered at the bottom of the ruins contained traces of charcoal, suggesting there was even a filtering system.

Even more interesting to me than their architecture, is the Mayan belief system and traditional customs.   
Typically decorated Mayan Catholic church, Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico...but the church below is NOT typical!

Chamula Catholic Church:  Built as a Catholic church by the Spanish in the 16th century, this church in San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico, is unique in its extreme Mayan religious practices.  No photos (or sunglasses) are allowed inside, but tourists can pay to visit.  It’s an extraordinary sight, with encased, large doll-like stylized Catholic saints lining the sides of the interior, while  the floor space is is covered in pine needles and lit candles that also are arrayed on tables.  The faithful offer chickens, the liquor pox and Coca-Cola (they believe when one burps when drinking the carbonated beverage, evil spirits are released), while traditional shamans incant ancient rituals to bless, protect or cure the families who must be believers to participate.  And if you’re not an indigenous believer, you can’t live in the town (which ironically also is home to great wealth acquired through drug trafficking, and a polygamous patriarchy). 
Chamula cemetery; note there are no stones, just mounds.

Chamula women wear skirts made of black sheep wool.

The white wool long vest is typical male attire here; the shamans in the church wear black.
Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, rimmed by volcanoes, is a popular vacation and tourist spot.

In the town of San Juan la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán, the eco-tourism center Rupalaj K’Istalin offers traditional Mayan cultural presentations and overnight homestays.  

Sorting and husking coffee "cherries

Best way to do the hills in San Juan -- by tuk-tuk!

Fascinating presentation on medicinal land herbal plants.  We also had presentations on honey and chocolate-making.
The electric light kept going off, which distracted the presenter.
My overnight homestay was hosted by Lucy, mother of three whose husband works in the coffee fields while she takes care of everything in her modest, three-room living quarters, including weaving and sewing to bring in money for her children’s school expenses. She has no refrigerator and cooks on a wood-burning stove in addition to these gas burners.

When the Spanish Catholic missionaries came in the 1500s, their brutal, forced conversion of the natives included burning some one million Mayan documents, so the written records of that astonishing civilization are few.   Nevertheless, we know that the Maya appreciated and even worshiped the “different”, the opposite of what we today would consider “beauty”.  They thought demons and monsters represented the power of the underworld; they admired the unnatural in a natural world and thought the deformed and the crippled were special. To them, albinos (often the result of incest), cross-eyed women and flat-headed faces were beautiful. 

So, with all this knowledge and ability, why did the Mayan civilization die out in around the 10th century?  There have been many theories, but the current predominant one is that their success as a sophisticated culture was also their undoing.  It is now believed that through deforestation – by using wood to make the fires to heat the limestone to make the stucco – the Maya created an environmental disaster that left them without the means to survive.  A cautionary tale, indeed.

Until next time...


  1. Very interesting and informative - makes me want to learn more, Thank you! Kj


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