My wife and I have been married for about a week, and now we’re kicking back on a beach in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. This vacation has been unlike anything we’ve ever done — mostly because it’s all so … well, turn-key and tourist-ready — far from the off-the-beaten-path adventures we typically seek. The area is dotted with hundreds of resorts, from Cancun in the north to the sleepy hippie town of Tulum, 80 miles to the south.
We decided to stay somewhere between the two, a massive resort called the Grand Bahia Principe. Activities around the area essentially come in a straightforward menu of tours that tend to begin with the letter ‘X’ for some reason: (e.g. Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Xplor …). It’s like going to an In-N-Out, where everything is as simple as the three main options on the burger menu, though surely so much more is available if you dig a little deeper into the “secret menu.” But it’s our honeymoon, and we have decision-fatigue after a year of intense wedding planning, so we stuck to the main options for this one.
For starters, that meant trying the obvious — one of the seven wonders of the world, nestled deep in the jungles about two and a half hours from our hotel and beyond the limits of the Riviera Maya region. The legendary, Chichen Itza.
Built more than 1,000 years ago, the archeological site is about the size of downtown Austin (740 acres, to be precise), and every section seems to revolve around the Maya’s spirituality. You have grandiose stone temples, a spectacular pyramid that aligns with the stars, an enormous ball court (sports counts as religion, right?), and a cenote (i.e. sinkhole) where offerings to the gods were thrown and swallowed into oblivion, some of which may have even included people. In its heyday, more than 30,000 inhabitants lived in the city, and then they mysteriously started abandoning the site around 950 AD, leaving it to the overgrowth of the jungle.
Our guide picked us up in a tour bus with some 40 other people at nine in the morning and began by telling stories that blended into myths to set a mysterious vibe for the ruins we were about to visit. Among them, was that of the Maya calendar, which begins more than five thousand years ago. Unlike most calendars, this one also had an end-date: December of 2012. Many New Age thinkers had anticipated the end of the world for this date, but the guide claimed that it simply marked the end of an astronomical cycle, which he said NASA astronomers had discovered through complex computer models that showed the stars were aligned in a certain position when the calendar began, and they were positioned once again in this same way when the calendar ended in 2012. This may also be legend-territory, but more than 2,000 books have been written on the subject along with hundreds of thousands of articles, and I’m just not ready to jump down that rabbit trail right now. So we’ll just leave this one to mystery.
One thing’s for sure: the Maya’s were pretty in touch with the cosmos, at least much more than you and I (unless you’re an astronomer). The main pyramid, El Castillo, was built with four sets of 91 stairs, each matching the number of days in a season and adding up to 365 when you include the final step atop these stairs. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late afternoon sun strikes the pyramid in a way that casts a shadow resembling a serpent crawling up the side. The site also includes an observatory tower called the Caracol, which has a window positioned for viewing the phases of the sun and Venus. The Mayas had many gods, which often encompassed various elements of nature, so it would make sense that they’d place more emphasis on understanding their greater context by looking to the heavens. That’s where they would see signs of war, death, and victory, and they followed the signs accordingly to launch what were referred to as “Star Wars,” or battles between the mightiest cities.
When we arrived, I was surprised to see that some areas near the ruins looked like a free-for-all for vendors to lay out their tables and sell crafts like wooden mask carvings, embroidered blankets with Maya designs, jewelry, and miniature stone sculptures. Everyone was calling for our attention, even using tactics like making loud jaguar growls with a little handheld device that seemed quite effective at luring in little kids and, consequently, parents and their wallets.
Looking around, I thought about Washington D.C. If our civilization someday becomes lost with the ages, perhaps parts of the National Mall will still stand even thousands of years later. But what about the homes? What about the everyday people? At Chichen Itza, you see these magnificent stone structures, and now modern earth-dwellers visit the site and impose our faulty imaginations on a time period that we’ll never know — and little do we know how little of ancient Maya civilization this actually represents. Think about those commoners who lived in the outskirts. Their homes have been eaten by erosion and swallowed by the jungle. Timeless stone structures, temples, and stadiums were reserved for gods and sports — a small fraction of society — and no one sees the commoner.
I also thought about how Chichen Itza was discovered. Our guide told us that when the Spaniards arrived, they would have missed the city entirely if it weren’t for local guides who brought them there. That’s when they saw the trees and overgrowth, spilling out of pyramids. It’s interesting to think what else from the past may be sleeping in the jungles of Latin America, buried beneath the sands of the Sahara, or even closer to home, like the prehistoric indigenous site of Poverty Point in Louisiana, which was discovered by a guy who was searching for led ore in the 1830s — almost lost to layers of soil in the Mississippi Valley. Lost cities are much more than Hollywood material; they’re just another part of the family tree of civilization itself, whose vast roots are sprawling beneath the surface.
Another example of this is the El Castillo pyramid itself. It’s a truly spectacular sight, but little do most people know, there’s another pyramid inside that pyramid. This isn’t so strange — after all, it was common practice for the Mayas to build pyramids on top of pyramids — but you would never know it without doing some digging.
And if you keep digging, some 20 meters below the pyramid-stack, you’ll run into an underground river, which was just discovered in 2015. This is what’s really going on beneath the surface.
Our next stop was a cenote called Hubiku. It’s just one of some 3,000 of these sinkholes in the area, and more continue to be discovered to this day. Our guide told us it’s not uncommon for a farmer to pick into the ground and lose his shovel into the belly of another sinkhole (which sounds awfully specific to be a “common” occurrence, but the point still stands — the ground is like Swiss cheese). Who knows how many are out there. The guide also told us that some scuba divers were exploring the Hubiku cenote and found a massive fracture at the bottom, so they swam through it and kept swimming for half a kilometer, until they popped out at another cenote. These things are connected, far more than most of us realize. Exploring the surface, you’d never know they’re even there.
So, if you go to the Riviera Maya, be sure to look around, and explore as much as possible. But don’t forget, there’s much, much more going on than what you see. Remember to consider the unseen. It can be far more fascinating, and it’s why we humans keep exploring.
Oh, and for the record, if you want to see some of the best of what’s hiding on that secret menu of In-N-Out — just ask for “the 4×4.” It’s wondrous.