May 31, 2006

Mayan Ruin Cage Match: Ek-Balaam vs. Chitchen Itza

While still in Valladolid (baya doLEED), we took a late morning-early afternoon and went to Ek-Balaam, about 30 miles away. A lessor known Maya city, it doesn´t receive the same hype and word of mouth it deserves, and as a result, offers a better touristic experience.

Chitchen Itza (cheeCHEN eetSAH), on the other hand is the Taj Mahal of Mayan cities. It´s part of the Cancun weekday trip list and almost everyone I know whose heard of the Yucatan knows Chitzen. And with good reason, because it definitely knocks your socks off in size, variety and infrastructure. There´s food, lockers, a scale model and legions of guides who make the tour all the more interesting, even though truth be told, most of what we know about Maya culture is based on supposition and reading of gliphs. A Spanish priest burned hundreds of Mayan history books back in the 17th century, thereby saving Catholism from Who Knows What and depriving future societies with valuable knowledge about this amazing culture.

Ek-Balaam, on the other hand, has fewer buildings restored and minimal foot traffic (a guide said they get 400 visitors a day in high season--they must get that per hour at Chitchen), and so you can actually walk on the ruins to get a personal sense of the size and shape. We climbed the talest pyramid, which at over 100 feet in height(10 stories tall) makes for a tough trip up and an amazing view from the top. We could see several telltale green lumps nearby indicating ruins yet uncovered, and our view reached all the way south to Coba, another important ruin site. A recently discovered stucco, sculptured mural was also on display. 20 feet high, as smooth as the day it was finished, it portrays a monster´s mouth, the entry point to the underworld.

(Keep in mind that Ek-Balaam was built around the time of Christ through the appearance of Mohammed (the religious connection a coincidence I´m sure), so while most cultures were earthbound and living in semi-squalor--double that if you put Europe into the equation--the Maya were building 10-story structures, administering cities of over 50,000 people, and trading up and down what is now Central America. All without metal tools, the wheel and rivers to facilitate trade and building. Oh, and also, they discovered the zero and kept a calendar that looked back and ahead something like 5,000 years.

What shocked us the most about EB was how little had been done to really uncover the site and make it more interesting for tourists. In the US, I´m sure it would have a theme park by now, so it´s a good news/bad news situation. While you lose a deeper sense of the city, you gain in calm and freedom to climb around.

Chitchen Itza, on the other hand, is a tourist factory. But even with the sunburned crowds from Cancun and the constant hawking from the Mexican Souvenir Mafia, the sheer size, architectural skill and artistic/religious fervor make it stand out. Two quick facts before I go:

1. The walls today are rough-cut limestone, but in Mayan times they were covered by stucco and painted bright colors, much like the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals in Europe.

2. A building called the Observatory contains startling mathematical data. According to our guide, the foundation of the topmost portion face exactly north/south and east/west. What´s more, the windows in the top turret track the arc of certain stars in the sky. For example, one follows Venus, with the angle formed by the outer and inner frames of the window giving the stars exact position. Hard to explain in writing, all the same, they knew their astromomy and their math.

Nothing more to add to this, other than to say that if you get to the Yucatan take the time to check out some ruins. I always find it reassuring, humbling and sobering to realize that past civilizations made great strides in understand our physical universe, and developed well functioning systems of explaining the spiritual side of the equation. Makes me think that we´re not that unique, but instead part of a long, gradual progression toward higher development.

Next up, Merida, an absolutely fantastic city that used to be know as "Paris of the West".