Today’s guest author, Prime, is a Manila-based journalist, traveler and anthropologist. She blogs about her journeys as a woman traveling solo at The Gypsygals.
The Maya, I believe, are obsessed with numbers. The indigenous people of Central America and Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico are credited with having invented the concept of zero and developing their own solar calendar. They were also expert astronomers, and were able to monitor lunar and planetary movement using only their naked eyes.
Perhaps it was fitting that while traveling in Cancun I would also develop an obsession with numbers.
Numbers ruled the three weeks that I spent in Cancun. As one of the hundred or so journalists that were covering the U.N. climate talks, I was always looking at my watch, running to the next press briefing, the next interview, the next free shuttle that would take me from my hotel to the convention center. Later, when the conference was over and I had time for myself, I had to count every single minute waiting for the tour bus or following the schedule set by the tour guide. Exploring tourist sites, I had to count every dollar that I spent, Cancun being more expensive than I thought.
No shopaholic can survive in Cancun. I am a fairly disciplined shopper, but even I succumbed to temptation. One evening I was rushing to get to a restaurant, but I got derailed in the hotel lobby, lured by a stall selling colorful embroidered bags. After much haggling I managed to buy a fuschia bag for $20. It seemed like a bargain at the time, but I changed my mind when I got home to Manila and had a look at the dozen bags in my closet.
Another day I went to the renowned souvenir market, Mercado Veinte Ocho, in downtown Cancun. I swore to myself that I would only spend about $20 for gifts for my family and friends. But after bargaining for an hour, I left the famous souvenir market clutching a bag of t shirts and keychains, with zero money left in my wallet.
Chichen Itza: Discovering the Mayan Pyramid
Anyone visiting Cancun who has a smidgen of interest in the Mayan culture goes to Chichen Itza – a UNESCO World Heritage site, a five hour bus trip from downtown Cancun. The city was once the political capital of the Mayan highlands and is now home to some of the finest (and well-preserved) stone buildings built by the Maya people. Thousands of tourists visit here every day and numerous stalls and vendors offer everything from shawls to hats to replicas of the Mayan pyramids.
Yup, you read that right – pyramids. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Maya also built gigantic pyramids. Unlike the Egyptians, the Maya used the pyramids as a place for worship, not as royal tombs. The step pyramid that loomed over Chichen Itza is known as “El Castillo” or the Temple of Kukulkan, the Mayan Snake Deity.
The best time to visit is just before the sun rises or just before the sun sets. It is only during these times that the corner of El Castillo casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent. I enjoyed just wandering around the ruins – the El Castillo, the Great Ball Court used for the ritual ball game, a platform dedicated to the planet Venus, and the Sacred Cenotes – natural sinkholes which were once used for human sacrifice.
Tulum: Tracing the Obsidian Trade
I went to Tulum the next day and while this pre-Hispanic city pales in comparison to the grandeur of Chichen Itza, I still enjoyed wandering around this place if only because it gave me another opportunity to learn about the Maya people.
Tulum is located on the east coast, and since it had access to both land and sea trade routes, it was once renowned as a trading center for obsidian. The natural volcanic glass was important to the Mayan world as it was used to make spears and jewelry, and for ritual sacrifice.
One of the most visited temples here is the Temple of Frescoes. A testament to the Maya’s deep knowledge of astronomy, it was used as an observatory for solar rotation. Its stone walls were decorated with murals showing Itzamna, God of the Sky and the Moon Goddess Ix Chel. And then there are the remains of the temples dedicated to the Descending God, a Bee God and even a God of Wind.
But perhaps what attracted me most were the remains of El Castillo, once a step pyramid dedicated to the Descending God and which once served as a watchtower and a landmark for sailors. The El Castillo sits on a cliff, facing the azure Carribean Sea. I didn’t have the chance to swim and sunbathe but having the time to just sit, looking at the sea, was more than enough to soothe my mind and senses.