Saturday 3 March 2012

Cess in Ruins

Dan wanted to call this website Cess in Ruins. He cracked himself up with the hilarious double entendre – even when I pointed out we’d have to spend our entire trip checking out ancient sites (not a problem for me, more so for him: “they’re just old rocks.”)

But it seemed like a particularly apt title when we turned up at one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Mexico’s ruins of Chichen Itza, to discover I’d forgotten to bring any of our cash. We’d woken up at 6am, and travelled for an hour, to arrive bang on opening time to avoid the crowds. And now we couldn’t pay for our collectivo taxi, let alone the entry fee. Woops.  

But the thing I love most about travelling is that in times of (moderate) crisis, someone always comes to the rescue. Peter, a kindly 50-something Englishman who was also in our van, was trusting enough to lend us some money. It saved the day, but it did mean we couldn’t afford the guide we’d planned to take, so we were slightly less informed about said Wonder than we’d hoped. And it took a little bit of time for Dan to forgive me…

Regardless, Chichen Itza was quite something.  I have a thing for ruins: I love trying to imagine what they looked like in their heyday (when the rulers had awesome names like Kan Balam –“Snake Jaguar” and Ahkal Mo Nahb  – “Lake of the Turtle and the Macaw”), and I love trying to get my head around what people managed to construct, a millennia before anyone even thought about building a dirt hut in little ol’ New Zealand.

We walked in almost alone, the grass still wet with dew, to be greeted by El Castillo, an enormous stone pyramid. At its height around 900AD Chichen Itza was one of the largest, most powerful Mayan cities, and this temple to the serpent-god Kukulcan was the centre of their world. 

At its foot I met a local guide, who despite knowing I had no money to pay him, was passionate enough about the genius of the Maya to spend a long time telling me about the site. He explained they were brilliant mathematicians and astronomers. On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the sun produces a series of shadows on the staircases which look like a serpent moving down them. What they understood about the way the planet works is quite phenomenal.

But the thing which set Mexico’s pyramids apart from any other ruins I’ve visited was the obsession with human sacrifice. The enormous Ball Court was reminiscent of the Quidditch pitch from Harry Potter, with viewing platforms high up in the air, and stone hoops fixed on the walls. But this was no place for innocent games. Two teams would battle it out, and the losing captain, or the whole team, was sacrificed to the sun god. Carvings around the side showed their demise, and the Platform of Skulls held the heads of the victims. Nice.

Things were no less macabre at Palenque, despite the sublimely peaceful setting in lush jungle.  We arrived to the sound of howler monkeys crying out from the hills around a series of spectacular palaces, temples and tombs.  Here our guide Raul, who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a hippie commune (he told me I was sucking his Mayan soul out by taking his photo), told us about the practise of cranial deformation. The skulls of children who would be future rulers were flattened out using wood, probably in secret, to make them appear of a higher social status. The Maya also practised blood-letting to communicate with gods. Using sting ray spines, they extracted their own blood, and burned it with copal incense. It released smoke curls like snakes, from whose mouths their ancestors were said to emerge – a link to the gods.

Despite the subject matter, Palenque was my favourite site.  It was overgrown by jungle until the 1800s, and is still being uncovered.  It is a beautifully peaceful place to wander, with waterfalls, little glades, and gorgeous jungle.  As we left, we saw howler monkeys up close, springing through the trees (We thought one was throwing rocks at us, until we realised he was just taking a bathroom break…)

The little museum nearby gave an insight into how it would have looked at its height: with incredible carvings on every surface, and in every room. I liked the sense of humour in the clay pots they used which they quirkily decorated with animals and men.

We went to two other Mayan ruins in Mexico. Tulum, picturesquely perched on a cliff-edge on Mexico’s east coast, didn’t live up to the others in stature or detail. But they’re probably the only ruins I’ll ever visit where I could swim in the sea as a spectacular storm rolled in, and iguanas pose for photos.

Ek Balam - "Black Jaguar" - was more off the beaten path, and the better for it, without the throngs of tour groups at the other sites.  We climbed the steepest steps in Mexico to reach the top of the Acropolis, for incredible views over the jungle.  It was pretty amazing looking out at a series of other hills, knowing unexcavated temples lay underneath them. There’s so much more to be discovered here.

And with those four, Dan got well and truly “ruined out”.  And so it transpires it was a wise decision not to listen to him when naming the blog… 


  1. Wahoooo Cessil and Dan... these ruins are beautifully conveyed by your supurb account Cessil. Keep your travel stories coming my love - they are a welcome reprieve from a grey, wet, flooded NSW. XXX