Chichen Itza is an eerie abode of history. While the sheer girth of the main pyramid of Kukulkan dwarfs the average sized person (and doubly dwarfs me, a 5’3″ Vietnamese girl) and the astronomical accuracy with which it was built qualifies it as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the last thing I felt while walking around these Mayan ruins today was spellbound. Honestly, I was a little creeped out.
This is a cenote, pronounced “say-NO-tay.” Cenotes are reservoirs often used by the Mayans as a source of fresh water. There are thousands of cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, 90% of which are connected underground. This network of underwater caves was the reason why the Mayans were able to establish permanent settlements. The one pictured below is not just any cenote — it’s “el Cenote Sagrado,” the sacred cenote, the site of ancient rituals for human sacrifice. Because the Mayans relied heavily on farming to survive, consistent rain and substantial sunlight were their livelihood. In order to ensure these two things, the Mayans would sacrifice grown men and children by killing them, then dumping their bodies in “el Cenote Sagrado,” which they believed was the portal to the next life.
Archaeologists who began excavating Chichen Itza in the early 20th century extracted human skeletons, gold, obsidian, jade, and other valuable stones from this cenote. The stones were gifts that the Mayans wanted to pass on with their sacrifices into the next life.
Today was my second time visiting Chichen Itza, but I had somehow missed this detail the first time around. Cursed with an unharnessed fascination for things that scare me, I stood entranced by this cenote — equally profound in physical depth and historical significance. I found a sign that said, “DO NOT HIKE BEYOND THIS POINT” and decided to ignore it. The tourist viewpoint was underwhelming, so I sought out another perspective. The road behind the sign was a mud path that led further around the edge of the cenote. The trees growing over the path were much denser, and it quickly grew darker. This ominous ambience, coupled with the forbidden nature of my hike and the nature of the cenote chilled me enough to turn around after only a few minutes. However, I didn’t leave without taking a picture.
To give you an idea of how large the cenote is, since my photos alone won’t give you an accurate idea of its depth, here is a photo of it from above. Note the size of the cenote relative to the size of the main pyramid south of the cenote.
The Pyramid of Kukulkan (pictured below) is perfect in design in so many ways. Each part of the pyramid’s design was deliberate and indicative of how intellectually advanced the Mayans were. For example, there are 91 steps up to the top on all four sides.
91 x 4 = 364 + 1 extra step at the top = 365 days of the year
I’ve mentioned in a previous entry that the Mayans were consummate watchers of the sky. To illustrate another great example of this, the Kukulkan pyramid’s design was based largely on the position of the sun. During each equinox, the sun aligns with the pyramid so that the 9 platforms of the pyramid cast a shadow resembling a snake descending down the steps. The snake “ends” at the head, which is a statue situated at the bottom of the pyramid. This is called the descent of Kukulkan (or Quetzalcoatl, as he is also known), the Mayan god.
No matter where you go and what you see, you always end up thinking about yourself (whether you admit it or not). While walking around, I wondered, how do I relate to these ruins? What connection do I have to this ancient place, these ancient people?
I wondered even further: why bother preserving ruins at all? What’s the point of restoring these relics to photograph and look at? What good do they do for us?
I am a prolific diarist and blogger, in case that wasn’t obvious. As someone who has documented the most trivial things to the most important things in her life, I have an undeniable relationship with my past. Every so often, I read old journals and uncover a perspective I forgot I once had.
Like some of our deepest memories, we hold onto ruins because they remind us of what once was. They may be overgrown, dusty, or concealed, but they are still part of our landscape. Although Chichen Itza’s past is haunted by malign human sacrifices and mystery, we still cannot let go of something we consider so beautiful. Coming to places like Chichen Itza, we’re reminded to accept even the most damaged parts of ourselves – to reflect on them with fondness and pride instead of sadness or shame. We find a comfortable space to hold onto the past.
For a natural nostalgic like me, that’s wonderful.