Tulum Mayan Ruins, Mexico (3 of 7)

I strongly believe that one of the best ways to spend your money is on international travel. You get the opportunity to experience new cultures, attempt new languages, and eat new food. It also means you get to absorb history, rather than simply reading about it in a book or watching a documentary on it on TV.

Last week, I gave you a quick tour of my Cancun resort room. As much as I enjoyed the all-inclusiveness, the real highlight of my trip was being able to visit some Ancient Mayan ruins. I took two trips: one to Chichen Itza and another to Tulum.

Chichen Itza and El Castillo

El Castillo at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (stylized as the “New7Wonders of the World”), along with other great monuments like the Great Wall of China and Christ the Redeemer. While it is best known for El Castillo (the “pyramid” shown above), Chichen Itza really refers to the entire ancient city. This wasn’t really a city for average folk, though, reserved mostly for religious purposes and special occasions, as well as the high-ranking officials who would be involved in these events.

El Castillo wasn’t just for ornamental purposes either. It was aligned in such a way that the steps could be used as a calendar, specifically lining up with the sun a certain way to indicate the solstices and equinoxes. What’s more, you could stand in front of one of the staircases, clap your hands, and hear what sounded like a bird call echo back at you. We tried to capture this on video, but the audio didn’t quite work out.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza Observatory

Does that dome-like structure look familiar? That’s because this is an early observatory, used to gaze into the night sky and gain a better understanding of celestial bodies. The Mayans were very knowledgeable about our solar system and beyond, well before the advent of telescopes and more advanced technology.

El Gran Juego de Pelota

Chichen Itza Ball Court

Also located in Chichen Itza is the Great Ball Court. While the exact rules of the game have been lost, it appears that you’d have two teams of seven and the goal was to get a ball through one of the hoops on the side.

According to one of the placards on the site:

This is the largest ball court in Mesoamerica. It is formed by a long wall on each side, with embedded rings or hoops carved with images of plumed serpents. The slightly sloping walls are decorated with scenes of the sacrifice of ball players.

Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza

Yes, the game proved fatal. If you look closely at the carving above, you’ll see one player kneeling on the right. He has been decapitated and blood is spewing from his neck. In the center is a circle with a skull and there are snakes (serpents) emerging from its mouth, possibly indicating the escape of the soul. On the left is an opposing player, holding the decapitated head.


Tulum Mayan Ruins, Mexico (4 of 7)

Whereas Chichen Itza is located in the middle of an inland jungle, Tulum is a seaside city. It’s fortified on one side with a rather substantial stone wall and it’s protected on the other side by steep sea cliffs. The beach is safe, because there is a barrier reef preventing ships from entering. The setting is incredibly picturesque. It also helps that the site isn’t overrun by merchants like Chichen Itza.

Tulum Mayan Ruins, Mexico (5 of 7)

Tulum Mayan Ruins, Mexico (2 of 7)

The relatively small beach at Tulum is rated as one of the most beautiful in the world and you can see why. Even though they are visiting a historic archaeological site, many tourists also don their bathing suits to take a dip in the water.

Iguana Lost Its Tail

There are iguanas everywhere and they’ve all grown very accustomed to having people around. It is illegal to kill the iguanas there, but that doesn’t mean the local population doesn’t eat iguana; they simply chop off the tails, which the iguanas eventually grow back.

While I wish I had more time to simply relax on the beach at my Cancun resort, I have no regrets about taking these two day trips to visit the Maya ruins. This was one of the world’s greatest and most advanced civilizations, far ahead of their time.

The Mayan Calendar and the End of the World

Mayan Calendar

Despite what Mel Gibson may lead you to believe, no, the world isn’t going to end in December 2012. The Mayan calendar ends on that date simply because they didn’t create a calendar for the next cycle; after all, the last major Mayan states weren’t overtaken until the late 17th century. They figured they had a few more hundred years before they’d have to make a new calendar.

Check out my Flickr photostream for more pictures from Cancun, Chichen Itza, Tulum, and the rest of my trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.