The Power of the Past – Look Closely.. Please

By Lisa Coleman 

Chichen Itza - El Castillo

Okay, okay… I’m blogging again… if David Simmonds sends me one more email suggesting I have shirked my responsibilities… well, I won’t let him vote for Chichén Itzá on the “New 7 Wonders” site. Haven’t heard of that? Not surprising. 

Here’s the scoop. There is this fairly interesting site called Take a look, but essentially you can go on, join up, and vote for one of their new proposed “Wonders of the World.”  Interesting concept for one, and there is some pretty cool info on the site. However, the creators of this endeavor assume people are more interested in Mexico’s archeology than they are in a multi-colored wrist band and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Hummm…

Okay, so now you’ve clicked over to the site and you know that Chichén Itzá makes the cut. That’s cool… but I don’t agree. For sure Chichén gets the most traffic from tourists who book the excursion at their local Cancun concierge desk (and think they have infused themselves with some culture), but for me, places like Uxmal and Palenque are easily superior choices.

While tromping up and down the increasing fragile pyramids of Chichén, most tourists see it as great photo op and never look any deeper. (Sort of my complaint about most visitors to Mexico, by the way.) Anyway… there are 30 centuries of human cultural evolution in Mexico and there are few places on earth that contain as rich and as powerful a past.

From the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, modern man has been mesmerized by the complex cities left behind by Mexico’s indigenous cultures. Magnificent temples and astonishing pyramids are at the center of some the most profound archeological ruins in the world. 

Thousands of years ago, the Maya created one of the most prolific and fascinating civilizations the world has ever known. Their brilliant creativity and design prospered  and lasted for around 600 years. Then, for reasons unknown to historians and scholars, their culture went into decline, the cities were abandoned and the inhabitants disappeared.  Maya ruins are scattered throughout the dense jungles and lush rolling hillsides of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and the five Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo. This entire is collectively referred to as the “Mundo Maya” or Maya World.

I am recapping one of my articles on the site, but this is well worth repeating. Chichén Itzá is undoubtedly the best-known Maya site in all of Mexico.  About two hours by bus west of Cancun in the state of Yucatan, this is one of masterpieces of the Maya civilization. It’s a combination of two cities: one under Maya rule from the sixth to the tenth century; the other, a Toltec-Maya city that emerged around the year 1000 AD. Under the Toltec rule, the buildings were developed and the city came to life.

At the center of Chichén Itzá is the pyramid knows as the Castillo. This structure is known for its cosmological symbolism. As seen in many photographs, its four sides contain 365 steps (one for each day of the solar year), 52 panels (for each year in the Maya century), and 18 terraces (for the eighteen months in the religious year). There is also a temple inside the Castillo, which is accessible via a narrow stairway.

Uxmal, located 58 miles south of Mérida, is architecturally speaking said to be one of the most significant sites in the ancient world. Founded around 600 A.D., Uxmal (meaning “three times built”) was created in various stages of complex façades and arches, majestic columns, and massive terraces facing broad plazas. The centerpiece of Uxmal is the 100- foot tall Pyramid of the Magician.” Deep in the jungle and well worth the additional couple hours beyond Chichen, there is so much life still amongst the ruins. You can just feel the people of the past. In the same area, it’s worth checking out the ruins of Kabáh, Labná, and Sayil.

Everyone is terrified of Chiapas… get over it… that’s for another blog. The state of Chiapas boasts the ruins of the city of Palenque, believed to have been an ancient burial ground. Deep in a jungle setting, it’s more airy and delicate than other sites. At one time, Palenque was said to be a sprawling religious center that spanned nearly 25 square miles. Its 75-foot high “Temple of Inscriptions” contains one of the only crypts found inside a pyramid in Mexico. If you are willing to wait until late afternoon, you can most likely flip the guard a $20 and you’ll get your own personal tour… well worth it.

South of Cancun, in the state of Quintana Roo, the cliff top fortress of Tulum stands alone as the only walled city the Maya built. It’s also the only known Maya city to be constructed on the edge of the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. If you get up with the chickens and beat the masses in tour buses, you will be mesmerized.

In central Mexico, you’ll find the remnants of the Aztecs. The very heart of today’s Mexico City served as the center of Tenochitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. Here the Aztecs built palaces, pyramids and temples, including the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple. When it was complete in 1487, the Templo Mayor consisted of seven perimposed structures, each making the temple more magnificent. The remains of the lower levels are oreserved today (just as they stood) adjacent to Mexico City’s main square.

Approximately 31 miles northeast of Mexico City, in the state of Mexico, the pyramids of Teotihuacán remain one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions and its first true city. The monuments were built as flat-topped bases for ceremonial temples that reached towards the sky to be close to the gods. They have closed off a lot of the main temples because of deterioration, but not to be missed.

In the neighboring state of Hidalgo (about 60 miles north of Mexico City), are the ruins of Tula. This Toltec city is known for its giant 15-foot stone warriors (called “alantes”) that stand atop the main Pyramid of the Morning Star. Tula was founded around 1000 AD, after the fall of Teotihuacán and before the advent of Tenochitlan.

Also outside of Mexico City, near Cuernavaca, the impressive mountainside archeological site of Xochicalco ties together the styles of cultures from central Mexico, the gulf coast,  the Maya region, and the Mixtec-Zapotec area in the state of Oaxaca. Also near Cuernavaca (about 25 minutes outside the city) is the city of Tepoztlan where ruins of a temple dating from the late 1400s are located north of town atop a majestic mountain.

In southern Mexico, the parallel cultures of the Zapotec and Mixtec developed and
 flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca from about 500 AD to the 16th century. The ceremonial centers of Monte Alban (white hill) and Mitla stand as testament their skill and artistry.

All of these ruins and hundreds of others like them are an integral part of understanding Mexico and history in general. Making them a part of your personal discovery of this country will be both captivating and rewarding.  Don’t sell yourself short and not do your research. Even if it’s just part of the tour… dig deep! Look closely, here lies a culture and a history you might not see again.