Maya ruins and Mayan Temples – Chichen Itza, Coba, Tulum

Saturday, July 30, 2016 Sightseeing and Landmarks by Elina Pedersen

One of the first thoughts that come to mind immediately when you think about Mexico is the amusing culture of Mayans, Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilisations that flourished between 250 and 900 AD, starting to develop as early as 1800 BC.

Maya ruins and temples fascinate many of us since childhood: vivid images of strolling through the entangled jungle surrounded by iguanas, anacondas and deadly jaguars expecting a sudden attack at any moment.

Imagine finding an abandoned ancient town covered in creepers, cutting your way through the overgrowth of the jungle.

The jungle so old and dense you can’t see even a meter in front of you. Finally discovering a pyramid reaching high to the sky, well above all the ancient trees surrounding you.

Maya ruins

You risk your life to climb to the top of this time-worn Mayan temple; you stumble, but manage to grab one of the creepers and pull yourself up. After hours and hours of struggle, you reach the top and find an entrance to the undiscovered chamber full of emeralds, gold, religious figurines and skulls of human sacrifice left by once thriving civilisation. You are puzzled; the objects are foreign to you and seem deadly, but your mind is absent. All you can think of is a drink of water. You reach deep into your rucksack to find an old flask warm from the unbearable heat of the day but still very inviting. You take a sip and feel the life flowing back into your body.

You start wondering: what made the people who once lived here abandon this amazing now ghostly site? Where did they go? You decide to search for the answers and dig deeper into this distant, yet irresistibly fascinating culture.

This is how I imagined my first encounter with the Mayan civilisation. Although, many Maya ruins are nowadays well commercialised, some of the less touristic locations still provide an ancient and abandoned feel, foreign and brutal yet captivating.

Excavations at various Maya sites have revealed temples, palaces, football fields, observatories and courts that all played a significant role in Mayan culture, religion and politics. To understand why Mayans built pyramids it is first important to learn more about the ancient Mayan culture, customs, religious rituals and social classes.

About the ancient Mayans

The Mayan civilisation spanned for over 2500 years through pre-Columbian America and most significantly developed through the areas of Southern Mexico (Yucatan, Chiapas and Tabasco) as well as Guatemala and Belize. Mayan trade routes ran all over the Yucatan Peninsula not far from Punta Zacatal in Campeche, Mexico, to Guatemala. Mayans used sea trade routes as well as built incredibly elevated roads also known as “sacbe” to connect the major cities. Ancient Mayans exchanged goods with each other and other Mesoamerican civilisations. Mayans didn’t have currency and mostly traded through barter. Archaeologists revealed more than 28 pyramids throughout Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve which was one of the longest sea trade routes. Nowadays, the reserve is open to the public for an Eco tour to see wild dolphins, green and loggerhead sea turtles, crocodiles and alligators.

Crocodile Sian Ka'an

The golden age of the Mayan Empire started in 250 AD, which is also called the Classic Period, at its peak the Mayan population was as large as 2’000’000 people.

The severe exploration of the Mayan cities started in 1830 and lasted all the way through to the 20th century. When the archaeologists finally deciphered a portion of Mayan hieroglyphic system, we began to understand more about Mayan culture and history. Unfortunately, all the knowledge we have about ancient Mayans comes from the texts inscribed on buildings, steles, artefacts and the remaining four Mayan books. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they forced Maya to convert to Christianity going as far as to destroying all the Mayan books they could find.

Social Classes, Hierarchy and Politics

The Mayan society was sharply divided between the elite and the commoners. In the later years Mayan class system, and politics had become even more complex and the middle class of artisans, lower priests and warriors emerged. The elites included kings who were believed to be semi-divine, the aristocracy, including warrior aristocracy, and the priesthoods. All of the elites held significant functions in the Mayan court system. Interestingly, there was no typical structure in the Mayan royal court, and each polity developed its system suitable to its particular needs.

Interesting fact: Mayan elites kept Chihuahuas as pets. Excavations at Chichen Itza and other locations revealed small dog remains as well as wheeled dog toys that date back to 100 AD.

chihuahua

The last and the biggest social class were commoners who comprised more than 90% of all Mayan population. Commoners lived outside of the cities and consisted of everyone who wasn’t nobly born – from farmers to wealthy craftsmen, merchants and commoners who held bureaucratic positions. Very little is known about commoners, as they lived in villages built from materials that left little to no archaeological trace. The only way for commoners to climb the social ladder was by participating in warfare. All of the commoners paid taxes to the elites and unfortunately it was very unlikely that they could have become influential members of the Mayan society.

Religion, Astronomy and Mayan Science

Mayans were deeply religious and believed that the heaven had thirteen layers, and the underworld had nine layers. Powerful deities resided in the sky. Mayans worshipped deceased ancestors believing they can lobby for their living relatives in the supernatural realm. The mortal world was located between the heaven and the underworld taking a central position of the Mayan universe. Each layer had four directions (east, west, south and north) and each direction was colour-coded for hieroglyphic purposes. Guided by those religious beliefs Mayans made significant advancements in both mathematics and astronomy.

Interesting fact: “Bone-washing” is the Day of the Dead tradition that dates back to ancient Mayans. In honour of the departed loved ones to nowadays Mayans retrieve the bones and skulls of their dead ancestors kept at the cemeteries or in some villages under the floor of the family houses. Mayans clean the bones to invite their deceased relatives to commune with the living.

Lunar and Solar cycles, eclipses and planet movements played a crucial role in worshiping gods. Mayans built great observatories and developed a complex calendar system based on 365 days helping them to track those cosmic events. Mayan also had a second calendar to track religious events. This calendar was called the Tzolkin calendar. The Tzolkin calendar had 20 cycles represented by dayglyphs and each dayglyph lasted for thirteen days.

Maya dayglyps

The Mayan week had thirteen days, and it was represented by the “wave of time”. The “wave of time” was shaped like a pyramid. Mayans believed that on the first day the energy was weak, thus expressed by number one, then the power of the wave grew each day until it would reach the seventh day at the top of the pyramid. The seventh day was the day of the balance, thus the most important and the best day for religious rituals. Further, the “surge” of the “wave of time” becomes more and more powerful and violent, hence not suitable for any religious rituals or celebrations until it finally crashes to the “shore” when the next week of the next dayglyph begins.

Wave of time

The head of the Mayan pantheon was God Itzamna or Itzamnaaj – the creator. Little is known about him. However, it is believed that he was the Lord of the opposing universes, light and dark, life and death, day and night, earth and sky.

Mayan god Itzamna

Human Sacrifice

Human sacrifice played a crucial role in Mayan culture and religious rituals. Mayans believe that blood has nourishing powers; hence spilt it brought new life. Mayans only sacrificed strongest high-status war prisoners. The status of the prisoner also defined in which ritual he would be sacrificed. For example enemy overlords could be sacrificed to welcome a new king, while a very agile warrior could be sacrificed to bring rain, good harvest or help at war.

Most tour guides will be reluctant to explain how the sacrifices were staged, as some of the rituals were truly gruesome. Decapitation (earlier period) and heart extraction (the Classic Period and up until the Spanish conquest in the 17th century) were the most common methods used by ancient Mayas.

Decapitation

Decapitation was mostly used for rituals connected to the royal family, for the enthronement of a new ruler or when the new member of the family was born. The higher the social status of the human sacrifice was, the more favourable the Gods would be to the new ruler and his subject. Decapitation of the enemy king, for example, would be offered in a form of a ritual reenactment of the killing of the Mayan maize god by the Mayan death gods, therefore reinforcing the king’s semi-divine status.

Interesting fact: In a different ritual to ask for rain, a young man and woman were thrown into cenotes (underwater lakes) and left to drown there. Mayans believed that they would enter the supernatural realm and escort the rain deities to the living realm.

Cenote

Heart Extraction

Heart Extraction, borrowed from Aztecs became the most common form of human sacrifice between 900-1524 BC. This sacrifice would take place in the courtyard of a Mayan temple or on the top of the pyramid-temple. Before the ceremony, the sacrifice was painted blue and given a peaked headdress. The sacrifice would then be stretched across the sacrifice stone, held in place by four attendants. The attendants would also be painted blue representing the god Chaac – the rain deity. Chaac was seen to have one and many forms symbolising the four directions of the world.

One of the officials would then use a flint knife to cut into the victim’s ribs, just below the left breast and pull out a still beating heart. The heart would then be given to the priest who would use it to smear blood across the image of the temple’s deity. Depending on the purpose of the ritual the body could then be thrown down the steps of the Mayan temple and even skinned. The priest would wear the victim’s skin and perform a ritual dance that signified the rebirth of life. If the sacrificed was a notable brave warrior his body would then be cut into pieces and eaten by other warriors who would like to possess his strengths. The priest could later wear some of the leftover bones as trophies.

Interesting fact: Caves and underwater lakes (cenutes) played a sacred role in Mayan religion. They were seen as the gates to the underworld. Priests would enter caves to seek wisdom. Without light, they would navigate through the underground maze using their “third eye” or the sixth sense as we call it today. Some young priests never came back, “consumed by the underworld”.

heart extraction sacrifice

Mesoamerican ritual ball game Ōllamaliztli or Juego de Pelota

Almost all Mesoamerican civilisations played Ōllamaliztli or a hip ball game. The modern version of the game is still played by some indigenous people and is now called ulama. The first evidence of the ulama dates back to 1400 BC. Although the rules might have been slightly different, the game altogether closely resembles volleyball without a net. Two teams played the game with two to four players in each team. Ōllamaliztli was played using a heavy rubber ball, which could sometimes weight as much as four kilos. The players could only use their hips to pass the ball to each other. The game was incredibly violent thus very often players would end up with severe injuries and even disabilities.

 

ulama ball and a player

The game was played on a masonry ball court that significantly varied in size, however, resembled an “I” shaped structure when viewed from above. Each side of a court had a wall with a stone ring. The players would pass the ball from team to team, and the points were lost if the ball bounced more than twice before returning to the other team, if the ball would go outside of the court boundaries or if the team tried and failed to pass the ball through one of the stone rings. A decisive victory would be reserved if one of the team managed to put the ball through the ring. It was considered to be a rare but spectacular event.

Ulama ballcourt maya

The game was imperative to both Mayan politics and religion. Recent evidence reveals that the game was played not only during the important religious and cultural events but also to resolve conflicts without having to go to war. Mayan kings could have decided to settle disputes without a battle.

Ulama itself had symbolic meaning – the bouncing ball represented the sun and the ball passing through the stone ring signified sunrise and sunset, as well as the struggle between day and night and the battle between life and death.

The ball game was very often associated with events and rituals evolving human sacrifice by decapitation, although it is unclear if the winning or the losing team members were killed.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities ever existing and was more than 300 hectares (720 acres) in size. Nowadays Chichen Itza is the largest Maya ruins that can be visited by tourists. Old inscriptions tell a story about a deity and a man named Kukulkan – the feathered serpent, who came from the west and founded Chichen Itza. Through Mayan writings the distinction between the two blurred, some archaeologists believe that he was never a person, but a God royals saw through visions that guided them to establish the city.

Map of Chichen Itza

El Castillo or the temple of Kukulkan

In the centre of the city stands El Castillo – the four-sided pyramid with a temple at its top. It is also known as the Mayan temple of Kukulkan. The pyramid is thirty meters high with each side being fifty-five meters long and having ninety-one steps making it 364 steps in total, however, if you add one more step located at the temple entrance the count comes to a total of 365 – the number of days in a Mayan year.

chichen itza el castillo, kukulkan temple

In the temple of the pyramid, archaeologists found a stone throne in the shape of a jaguar painted red. The status had jade eyes. The throne was in fact found in the earlier Mayan temple above which El Castillo was built. The throne is now exhibited in the Canadian Museum of History.

Jaguar throne

El Castillo is one of the two structures at Chichen Itza that display unusual sound properties. If you stand in front of the pyramid and clap your hands, the echo comes back as a chirp of a quetzal bird, which is sacred in the old Mayan religion.

Another interesting property of El Castillo lies in its ability to produce a shadow silhouette of a snake at the Equinox also known as the “descent of the feathered serpent”. Equinoxes are the days of the year when the night and the day are equal. There are two each year – one in March and one in September. At the day, late in the afternoon, the sun projects a shadow from the edges of the pyramid steps simulating a dark body of a snake that gradually descends to the stone head at the lower part of the pyramid.

Temple of the Warriors

Just to the east of El Castillo stands the Temple of the Warriors – an impressive structure. Its design is more Toltec (another Mesoamerican culture present in Mexico at the same time as Mayas) than Mayan.

Temple of the worriors - Chichen Itza

At the top of the temple, one can find two statues of Kulkulkan and a statue of Chacmool. Chacmool is a typical Mesoamerican sculpture found in many cultures around Mexico and Central America. Chacmools were the messengers of the gods that connected the living and the supernatural realm. The Chacmools statue at the Temple of Warriors has a flat stomach. Many believe that the sculpture was used for the heart extraction rituals.

Chacmool

Tzompantli

Northwest from the Kulkulkan temple lays the Mesoamerican structure called Tzompantli or skull platform and skull rack. The platform was used to display skulls of the sacrificed victims. The poles with heads were placed on the top of the rack after the victims were sacrificed by decapitation often after winning a ritual ballgame. According to the legend at Chichen Itza the captain of the winning team would offer his head for sacrifice to the captain of the losing team. Although such reward seems questionable to modern civilisations, Mayan believed that by winning the game and being sacrificed the person is getting a direct ticket to heaven and doesn’t need to prove he is worthy of the heavenly realms any longer.

Tzompantli

The Great Ballcourt

The Great Ballcourt used for Ōllamaliztli is located just behind the Tzompantli.The Great Ballcourt is the largest Mesoamerican ballcourt of the world, measuring ninety-six and a half meters long and thirty meters wide. Each end of the ballcourt has a temple. One of the Mayan temples at the northern side of the court portray Tzompantli and one of the scenes shows a player from one of the teams being decapitated with his blood turning into snakes as it flows out of his dead body.

Temple at the Great Ballcourt - Maya ruins

The Great Ballcourt is the second construction at Chichen Itza that is engineered to produce interesting sound effects. One of them is a “whispering gallery”. If you stand at one end of the ballcourt and whisper, your words will be heard very clearly ninety-five meters away at the other end. The sound wave that the ballcourt is designed to produce is unaffected by the time of the day or the wind direction. The wave moves through the length of the court north to south or south to north. The British conductor Leopold Stokowski spent weeks to learn the acoustic properties of the site, as he wanted to use it for an open-air theatre he was building at the time. How the sound wave is transferred through the site without losing sound quality is still a mystery.

The second impressive acoustic property of the Great Ballcourt lies in its ability to echo sounds through the width of the court from west to east or east to west. If you clap your hands at one of the walls, you will hear your claps echoing exactly seven times back and forth. Seven the number of the balance and the day of the week ideal for religious rituals.

The Sacred Cenote

Far north from El Castillo, you can find the Sacred Cenote – a 274-meter well used for human and physical items sacrifice and sacred rituals related to the rain deities.

Sacred Cenote

Caracol

Lastly, to the south of the Kukulkan temple, you will discover Caracol – a snail-shaped observatory. The observatory is aligned to Venus, and it helped Mayans track the important cosmic events used for religious rituals and sacrifices.

Caracol

It is unclear why and when Chichen Itza was abandoned, but it was way before the Spanish conquest. Chichen Itza is easy to get to from Merida, Cancun or Tulum. A ticket to Chichen Itza costs 232 pesos (twelve dollars) and for approximately 700 pesos (forty dollars) you can hire a Mayan guide who will give you a two-hour tour around the site. All the information is available at Chichen Itza official website. The best thing you can do after an excursion is to have a pint of Corona, which you can buy at the exit for 120 pesos (six dollars). Expensive, but totally worth it.

Beer at Chichen Itza

Coba

Coba is a fascinated Maya ruins site, which translates as “water stirred by the wind”, the name is very appropriate, as Coba is located between two lagoons, Coba Lagoon and Macamxoc Lagoon. Archaeologists first found Coba ruins in the 1800’s; however, the site was covered with dense jungle, and there was no funding available. Hence the exploration only began 1920’s.

Coba was a large city spread over thirty square miles or eighty square kilometres. Between the 900 AD, and 1000 AD Coba and Chichen Itza were the major opposing powers of the region. Chichen Itza won the dispute and became the largest and the most influential city of Yucatan.

Coba ruins are very famous for its roads (sacbes), as well as the highest Mayan pyramid in Yucatan called the Nohoch Mul. The tourists can still climb the pyramid. Nohoch Mul has 120 steps, while the second largest pyramid of El Castillo at Chichen Itza only has 91 steps.

Interesting fact: up until January 2006 the visitors were allowed to climb El Castillo at Chichen Itza. After various tourist accidents at other sites, the INAH (the governing body of Chichen Itza) closed the pyramid for both preservation and visitor safety.

Coba ruins are a lot less commercial than Chichen Itza and at large parts still unexcavated. Visitors can still walk through the old Mayan roads called “sacbe” (white road) shaded by the surrounding jungle. The day at Coba is less physically demanding than a day at Chichen Itza, as visitors are covered from the rays of the scorching sun.

Coba has a somewhat hipster feel to it; visitors can rent bicycles to cycle around the area or tricycle taxis for the lazy ones. Exploring Coba ruins shouldn’t take longer than two hours, especially if you are renting a bike. Both bicycles and tricycles are inexpensive and are easily available. A bike costs 125 pesos (six dollars) and a tricycle taxi costs 250 (twelve dollars) pesos and can easily fit two to three people.

Coba Tricycles

There are more than 6’000 structure groups at Coba. However, only three of them are open for public. Those groups are the Nohoch Mul, the Conjunto Pinturas and Macanxoc. The most significant construction at Coba are the sacbes, two ball courts (much smaller in size than The Great Ballcourt) and Nohoch Mul – the highest pyramid in Yucatan.

Map of Coba

Sacbes (white roads) of Coba

Coba ruins are surrounded by more than sixty sacbes (white roads). All of them start at the main pyramid-temple of Nohoch Mul and stretch into four different directions: north, south, east and west. The longest sacbe originating at Coba is hundred kilometres (sixty-two miles long) and runs all the way to Yaxuna near Chichen Itza.

Sacbe Coba

Sacbes were elevated, and wide roads ranging from ten feet (three meters) to thirty feet (ten meters) that were constructed primarily for commerce. Archaeologists estimated that the effort required to build sacbes was far greater than that of the temples and other stone structures. Mayans were aware of the wheel. However, they chose to transport their goods by foot. They carried the goods predominantly at night, as the temperature was more tolerable than during the day. Coba traded heavily with to other Mayan towns as far away as Honduras. At its peak, Coba had a population of 50’000 citizens and was only abandoned in the 16th century at the arrival of the Spanish conquest.

Nohoch Mul Pyramid

Nohoch Mul translated from Mayan as the “large hill” is the only Mayan pyramid in Yucatan that visitors are allowed to climb. The pyramid is forty-two meters tall (137 feet). The visitors should prepare for a demanding climb especially on a hot day. The view from the top is astonishing. The entire area of Coba including all the 6000 structures as well as the two lagoons lay open before its spectators.

View from Nohoch Mul Pyramid

The chamber at the top of Nohoch Mul is in poor conditions and is not open for viewing. Since the steps of the pyramid are steep and at times damaged, getting down is more demanding than climbing up. Thus some visitors prefer to slide down on their bottoms. Since Nohoch Mul is the most impressive and the furthest away construction at the site, it is best explored last.

Going down Nohoch Mul Pyramid

Conjunto de Pinturas

Conjunto de Pinturas is a small pyramid at the entrance to Coba. The pyramid can not be climbed, and the temple at the top is severely damaged. The site still gets a lot of visitors attention thanks to the beautiful painting standing at the base of the pyramid.

Conjunto de Pinturas

Macanxoc Group

Macanxoc group was the spiritual centre of Coba. The area has eight steles and a couple of altars. The steles display drawings and ancient glyphs that were used to record the major events that happened in the City. Some of the steles are very damaged, and it is almost impossible to decrypt the information on them. Nonetheless, all these are the exact steles that helped Archeologists to decipher everything we know about Coba ruins today.

Coba cenotes Choo-Ha, Tamcach-Ha, and Multun-Ha

Not far from Coba ruins, about six kilometres away you can find three amazing Cenotes (underground lakes) that are perfect for a refreshing dive after on a hot day after you have finished exploring the maya ruins. The cenotes are fifty-five pesos (three dollars) each. Choo-Ha the first cenote is the shallowest one and is ideal for a swim with the kids. Tomcacha-Ha is the most fascinating of the three, as its quite deep at parts and has two wooden platforms (five and ten meters high) from which you can at your own risk jump into the water and get an adrenaline rush. Multun-Ha is the furthest cenote. However it has the clearest water and is fantastic for snorkelling.

Tulum

Tulum are the only Maya ruins located on the Caribbean beach. The name Tulum translates as “wall” from the Yucatan language. The original name of the city was Zama meaning “dawn” in the Mayan language. The Tulum ruins are in fact surrounded by a large barricade, which is rather uncommon for the Mayan architecture.

Tulum ruins

The earliest mention of Tulum is in 564 AD. However, the cities economic and cultural peak happened between 1200 – 1521 AD. Tulum was located right in between the Maya’s extensive trade network of both land and sea trade routes. In comparison to other Maya ruins, Tulum remained inhabited for more than seventy years after the conquest until it was finally abandoned. Before Tulum maya ruins became a tourist attraction, some local Mayans still visited the site and continued to pray and burn incents next to the temples.

Tulum ruins map

The maya ruins are situated on the twelve-meter limestone cliffs along the Caribbean coast. In comparison to other Yucatan ancient cities, Tulum was rather small with a total population of about a 1000 – 1600 inhabitants at its highest.

El Castillo of Tulum

The main pyramid called El Castillo or the lighthouse is the tallest construction within the maya ruins of Tulum. It is seven and a half meters tall and was built in stages. At the base of the cliff below El Castillo lies a tiny cave where trade men parked their canoes.

El Castello Tulum

Temple of the Descending God

The Temple of the Descending God or the Temple of the Diving God is located in the centre of Tulum. The fascinating paintings of the diving god are very well preserved on the walls of the temple. Tulum was the centre of this god’s cult. The visitors are not permitted to enter the temple. Nonetheless the carvings are massive, thus can easily be seen from the distance from far away.

Other structures at Tulum are secondary and include a series of smaller temples most of which have murals and steles with ancient Mayan carvings, very similar to the ones at the Temple of the Descending God.

Tulum Ruins

The Beach at the Tulum ruins

Right below the Maya ruins, there is a beach that was used to dock the bigger ships at the Mayan time. Today the maya ruins visitors may use it to go for a swim, snorkel or just rest in the sun. The beach, as well as the whole site, are breathtaking with its crystal clear emerald waters and high palm trees.

Beach at the Tulum Ruins

Tulum is the closest site to River Maya – a popular tourist destination with a lot of hotels. Therefor Tulum is the most frequently visited Maya ruins in Yucatan, which makes it crowded at times. The views and the area are astonishing. You can find all the information about this Mayan site on the official website of Tulum ruins. However, if you are looking for impressive architecture or a truly memorable experience visit Coba or Chichen Itza instead.

It gets boiling in the afternoon. So if you decide to visit Tulum you ought to bring an umbrella and plenty of water. Tulum is very commercial with a lot of shops and people who are trying to sell you something you don’t need. Get ready to dodge all the street sellers. There will also be a lot of tour guides who will try to convince you to buy a tour from them. The entrance tickets are fifty-nine pesos per person, but you might also want to purchase a tractor-train ride which is twenty pesos for a return journey.