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24 Dec 2016-13 Jan 2017. From Don: I have to admit that I’m generally lazy when it comes to researching the history of the places that Alison and I visit all over the world. I usually prefer to go and see the sights first and then do the research afterwards. Much like Chance the Gardener in the movie Being There: I like to watch. So I knew next to nothing about the Olmec or the Maya before visiting some of the remains of their remarkable civilizations.

The Olmec were the precursors of the later great civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Aztec and the Maya. The Olmec civilization dates from around 1200 BCE until about 400 BCE and very little is known about how it evolved, although there’s some speculation about extraterrestrials . . . . . . .

The Olmec invented the rubber ball game that was subsequently played by all the later Mesoamerican civilizations. They also invented the forerunner of the Mayan calendar. The great stone heads carved by Olmec artists are the best-known remnants of what was once a great civilization, and I’ve always wanted to see original examples of these heads. When I read that there was an outdoor museum in the city of Villahermosa dedicated to the art of the Olmec, Parque-Museo La Venta, we just had to visit it as we made our way around the Yucatan peninsula. There’s really no other good reason to visit Villahermosa. It’s a gritty dusty Mexican city with little else to recommend it. The twenty-eight carvings in the museum were moved from the Olmec city of La Venta after oil was discovered in the region. The heads are enormous, up to three meters (10 ft) high and weighing up to 25,000 kg (28 tons).

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They have a gravitas about them, despite their slightly crossed eyes, these being an inherited trait that can still be seen in some present-day inhabitants of the region: I saw a young man in the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas who could have been a model for one of the heads, right down to the slightly crossed eyes!

We visited four of the many ancient Mayan cities on the Yucatan peninsula: Ek’ Balam, Chichén Itzá, Edzna, and Palenque. Each of these cities has a magic all its own.

The Maya are the indigenous people who have continuously inhabited the lands now comprising southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. The ancient Maya civilization dates from around 1200 BCE to 950 CE. The Maya never had an empire in the way that the Romans, and the Inca had empires, with an all-powerful central government. The Maya civilization consisted of various city-states that arose and fell in prominence over the centuries. The city-states had a complex trade network that connected them. They were also sometimes at war with each other. As these ancient cities were deserted, sometimes because of war, sometimes for unknown reasons, they gradually became overgrown. Those that we saw have only a small percentage of the buildings excavated. The rest have been lost to the jungle.

We went first to the little-visited Ek’ Balam, which is 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of the city of Valladolid. We decided to take a colectivo to the site, but finding one was a challenge. Both Lonely Planet and the tourist information office gave incorrect different locations, but we persevered, asking people on the street in our halting Spanish, and eventually we were directed to the right place.

Ek’ Balam, the city of the “Dark Jaguar” was inhabited for more than 1000 years, from 100 BCE to 900 CE. The tallest structure there, El Torre, contains the tomb of the city’s most powerful ruler, Ukit-Kan-Lek-Tok, along with some well-preserved carvings.

Ek' Balam with El Torre in the distance

Ek’ Balam with El Torre in the distance



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From the top of El Torre we could see the other buildings almost engulfed by the jungle. More than a thousand years ago it was a thriving city covering about twelve square kilometres, and for about three hundred years, from 600-900 CE it was the largest regional centre. There is speculation that it was abandoned due to war. These days it’s a quiet peaceful place with few visitors. 

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We knew we needed to get to Chichén Itzá early before the tour buses started arriving at around 11am. We were there by about eight, and when we were ready to leave at eleven the crowds had arrived. It was really worth the early start.

The great pyramid of Kukulcan, the serpent god, is the most iconic structure at Chichén Itzá. It was used for religious ceremonies including human sacrifice. The Maya believed that the sacrificial victim would bypass the dark and treacherous underworld and thus be able to go directly to Tamoanchan, a place of misty sky and beautiful flowers. The pyramid is magnificent, and dominates the site,

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but I also loved seeing El Caracol, the building that looks so much like a modern-day astronomical observatory,

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read

and the “Church” with it’s intricate carvings, and images of Chaak, the rain god, represented as a toothless old man with sunken cheeks and a big curled nose.

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read

There are wonderful examples of carved jaguar heads all over the site, the jaguar being one of the principal gods of the Maya,

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and many typical relief carvings.

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There’s a very large ball court at Chichén Itzá, the largest in Mesoamerica. The game, called Poc-a-Toc, was played with a small rubber ball. The goal of the game was to get the ball through one of the large stone rings attached to the walls on each side of the court. The rings are at a height of seven metres (23 ft). Players were not permitted to touch the ball with their hands or feet, so a game could go on for hours before a winning goal was scored. One legend has it that the captain of the winning team would present himself to the captain of the losing team who would then behead him! Apparently this was the fast track way to Mayan heaven. Makes me wonder just how many teams threw the game in order to save their necks. There are however, relief carvings showing teams facing each other and the captain of the winning team decapitating the captain of the losing team. Either way it was not a game to be taken lightly.

There’s a long wall of carved bas-relief skulls known as Tzompantli near the ball court, which is thought to be the base of a sacrificial platform on which the heads of the executed were displayed.

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Edzna is another of the less well-known sites, and once again we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was inhabited from even earlier than 400 BCE, and by 200 BCE it had developed into a major city. The Pyramid of Five Stories (El Pirámide de los Cinco Pisos), a temple built on a platform forty metres (130 ft) high, is the most outstanding structure, now empty and silent except for numerous vultures.

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Low to the ground in one of the other structures are large relief carvings again showing gods with crossed eyes.

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The last site we visited was Palenque, a Mayan city-state that flourished in the 7th century. It is estimated that less that ten percent has been uncovered. The rest has been consumed by the jungle.

Once again we arrived early before the crowds. There’s a long drive up to the main entrance leading to many buildings spread all over the huge site,

Temple of the Inscriptions, containing the tomb and sarcophagus of Lord Pakal the Great.

Temple of the Inscriptions, containing the tomb and sarcophagus of Lord Pakal the Great.



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including the magnificent “Palace”

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with its unique astronomical observation tower.

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There is also a ball court at Palenque. A very different legend about the players in the rubber ball game is described here: that they were prisoners and the members of the losing team were all executed. Now that’s motivation for you!

There’s a mysterious long walk down many steps and stairs through the jungle

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to a secondary exit that is very close to the Museo de Sitio de Palenque. This museum is a gem: the exquisite jade masks, relief carvings, and ceramic effigies are beautifully displayed in glass cases.

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There is also a full-sized replica of the enormous stone sarcophagus from the tomb of Lord Pakal The Great.



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Overall this relatively small museum is much better curated than the far bigger Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Merida.

I experienced a deep silence at each of these sites. Each of these cities was inhabited for a thousand years or more, and it seemed to me as if the spirits of the former inhabitants were still peacefully present, despite, or perhaps because of, the history of human sacrifice.



Maya Civilization: https://www.ancient.eu/Maya_Civilization/



Next post: Yeah Campeche! – one of our favourite towns, and oh well . . . . . Villahermosa.

Tomorrow we go to Guatemala for two weeks and then to Cuba for two weeks. Internet access may be erratic.





All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.