Editor’s Note: These photographs may look old-fashioned now, but when we first started posting photos most images were scanned in from film negatives, and the resolution on the internet was very poor. Images needed to be only a few kilobytes so that you could download them with a phone modem; now they are thousands of times bigger.
For many Americans, our sunny neighbor to the south is simply one big vacation package destination, to which we depart for 1- to 2-week getaways from our 9-to-5 jobs. Simply select the dates, decide on a budget and pick a beach. Upon arrival, we lie by the hotel pool and drink cheap margaritas, believing that we are experiencing Mexico. For some, “Mex” begins and ends with the seedy, drunken-American-college-student-infested bars of Tijuana. However, in spite of the fact that many of our friends are traveling to Mexico and completely missing out on the place, for the Argonaut, there is a land rich in culture and interest, evidence of which is usually not far from even the most heavily trafficked tourist haunts.
Take Cancun for instance with its crammed, commercial hotel row interspersed with the likes of Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, etc., and occasionally host to such evils as MTV Spring Break. Within a day’s drive from Cancun is almost the entirety of the Yucatan Peninsula: a large, impossibly flat, tropical wilderness bathed in natural beauty and dotted with the remains of one of Earth’s greatest former civilizations – that of the Maya – all under a deep blue Caribbean sky.
An infinitely more laid-back alternative to Cancun is the beach town of Playa del Carmen, less than an hour drive south of the world-famous mega-resort, where you can still rent a hammock between two palm trees for the night.
Chichen Itza (a.k.a. Chicken Pizza) is known to be the most impressive and well-preserved architectural legacy of the Maya. The ancient city is about a 3-hour drive from Cancun into the interior of the Yucatan, from where Mayan civilization originally spread throughout Central America.
The 78-foot-tall Pyramid of Kukulcan, named El Castillo by the Spanish, was built around 1200 AD, and functions as a solar calendar. There are 91 steps on each of the four sides and 1 for the roof/altar, totaling 365. Each day’s shadows fall upon a different step, thus indicating the day of the year. With Kukulcan, the Mayans knew exactly when to plant their crops.
This structure is known as The Church because, at one time, there was a local legend that music could be heard from within the small room on Good Friday of each year. It is a well-preserved example of “Puuc” ornamentation and architectural style, which apparently suggests an enormous roof on a tiny building. The facade is adorned with elaborately carved images of Chaac, the Mayan rain god.
Scoring ring in the Ball Court at Chichen-Itza. This arena was used for a game similar to basketball, where a small rubber ball was passed by players through either of two scoring rings positioned on opposite walls of the court. It is currently believed that the captain of the winning team would be decapitated, and his head presented as a quality offering to the Mayan gods.
Stone relief carving of a ball player overlooking the Ball Court.
Chac-Mool, who is thought to have acted as a messenger to the gods, perched atop the Temple of the Warriors. Offerings – such as loose human heads – were placed on the stomach of this reclining figure, where they would await acceptance from Chaac.
This is the dome capping the Observatory at Chichen-Itza. The Mayans used their command of astronomy and calendars for scheduling crops and other important activities, though their exact methods of observation remain a mystery. It is not believed that the Mayans possessed telescopes, yet they were able to map stars which cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Crumbling portion of the Nunnery (name originating from an early Spanish misconception of the building’s purpose), a structure most likely used for civic ceremonies. Even Indiana Jones would probably think twice before going in there now.
The first Mayans, a seafaring people, settled Cozumel approximately 2,000 years ago. The small island rests a short distance offshore from Playa del Carmen and has become a popular SCUBA diving destination. This temple is one of the very few extant reminders of the Maya on Cozumel. Around 1519 AD, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés and his crew ran amok on the island, destroying most of the Mayan temples and originating an outbreak of smallpox which killed most of the local people.
Tulum, a picturesque Mayan temple situated on the Caribbean coast about 78 miles south of Cancun. No photograph can do this site justice. It must have been amazing during the city’s heyday.
Xel-ha, an incredibly beautiful natural lagoon that was once sacred to the Mayans, is currently a national underwater park featuring an aquarium and facilities for public swimming and snorkeling.