Valladolid: The Mayans recognised two distinct types of natural wells in their parch-dry Yucatán lands. One, which they called a dzonot (bastardised into ‘cenote’ by the Spanish) are the round sinkholes made from collapsed limestone caves fed by underground rivers; a ch’e’en, however, is a steep-sided well made during the 65 million years ago meteorite impact here, when large rocks were flung out from the central crater creating an arc of ch’e’ens.
Cenotes usually have the remnants of a former cave system over the well, while ch’e’ens are entirely open -additionally, the water in a ch’e’en contains higher levels of iridium. To the Mayans, all water sources were sacred, and they revered (or defiled) them by throwing in offerings including precious metals, pottery and their human sacrifices.
There are plenty of both types of well around the charming colonial city of Valladolid, where we base ourselves for a brief exploration of the area. It being a scorching day, we head first to a local underground cenote at Dzitnup.
Tree roots descend hopefully from the ground above, through 40 metres of air in the cave, until those tenacious enough reach the clear pool of water below. Continual drips of rainwater soak through the cenote roof and follow the roots down, evaporating to leave salt crystals in a kind of living stalactite.
Black catfish swim in the aqua pool, eating the regular supply of bat poo that drops from above.
For some 30 minutes, we’re alone at the cenote, in the gloom made atmospheric by coloured mood lights. Nick and Michelle swim in the cool water, and we explore a small grotto further up.
Once the heat of the afternoon has muted, we take a bus to the ruins of an ancient Mayan city built around a sacred ch’e’en: Chichén Itza (from the Mayan, meaning “at the edge of a magic ch’e’en).
I have high hopes for Chichén Itza – in 2007, after a worldwide vote, the site was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – and it doesn’t disappoint.
Cleverly, we have arrived at 5pm, when the gates shut for the day. We watch as streams of tourists pour out of the turnstiles and board their coaches home. Once they have all left, we purchase special ‘late tickets’ that allow us to visit the site until 6.30. It’s a brief amount of time for a large complex, but we three are the only visitors wandering around the entire site.
This ancient city rose to prominence far later than the cities further south, like Tikal. It was occupied from 600-1000 AD, becoming the region’s economic and political capital, and its grand buildings testify to this importance. The main temple, ‘El Castillo’, is 32 metres high and represents the complicated Mayan calendar.
Enormous temples tower over the flat landscape, stone alters and religious buildings bearing gruesome images of skulls and decapitations, jaguars and eagles ripping men’s hearts out, compete with floral designs and the feathered-serpent motif, a symbolic deity that linked the heavens with the underworld.
When the Spanish first encountered the Mayans, many of whom worked as slave labourers to build monuments to their living gods (their rulers) or their invented gods, one Spaniard said: “The Mayans must be the most stupid people alive because they work so hard but always smiling.” The Spanish also classed the Mayans as subhumans, though.
In the giant ball court, that measures 168 x 70 metres, with walls that are 12 metres high, we examine the detailed carvings showing men wearing knee pads and wielding bats. The Mayans used rubber balls that were vulcanised some thousand years before Mr Goodyear’s attempts.
We stroll around the grounds – provoking murmurs of surprise in the stall holders who are packing up their tourist tat for the day – admiring each incredible building as we happen upon it, while the sun slowly sets. The huge, ‘supermoon’ rises in the lilac sky, hovering behind the curiously round-shaped observatory that the Mayan astronomers used to plot the sky.
At 7 o’clock, the sound and light show begins. This heavily billed event brings the return of coach loads and we sit in the roped-off area with anticipation. We are visiting Chichén Itza just days away from the spring equinox, an event that illuminates the main temple in such a way that a serpent can be seen slithering down the corner of the structure. We couldn’t make out this effect ourselves, but the sound and light show promises to display it.
In this respect, the show is a success, but in every other way, it is a disappointing 45 minutes that threatens to mar our great enjoyment of the ruins themselves. But, nothing could take away from the incredible architecture of such a vast city, carried out by people using stone age tools, who smiled as they worked.