The cenote is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. To get to it, you hike down a passage into a cavern, then wind your way down the side to get to water level. The water is a deep turquoise colour, and is absolutely crystal clear. In the shallow areas, you can easily see fallen stalactites lying 30 metres below on the bottom. In the deep parts, you won’t see the bottom — it’s more than 100 metres deep. The same little blind fish that are present in the cenote at Dzibilchaltún will nibble your toes in this cenote as well.
Above the cenote is a little zoo with spider monkeys, who spend most of their afternoon playing with toys, and getting fed potato chips by laughing groups of kids. What was more interesting, however, was that they had a raccoon in the zoo. You don’t see them in México at all, and most people we asked didn’t know what the Spanish word for it was, until an old man we ran into told us it was mapache.
The main plaza of the city is gorgeous. With ornate lamp posts, hanging baskets full of flowers, and beautiful hedges, it was the Yucatán’s answer to Victoria. The streets downtown are kept immaculately clean by a crew of street cleaners who run through the streets every morning at 5 am. The government of Spain has apparently deemed Valladolid to be one of the most Spanish cities in the Americas, and donates money to help in its preservation.
Valladolid is also famous for the cenote at Dzitnup, about 10 km out of town. While we never did make it there, we heard some amazing stories about it from Nick, an Irishman from Cork we met in San Cristóbal de las Casas. What is so incredible about it is that it’s at the bottom of a dark cavern, with a small opening in the roof. At the right time of day, the sun shines through this opening and into the turquoise waters of the cenote, making it apear as though you’re bathing in light. The actual name of the cenote is Kiken which is Yucatec Maya for pig, because the cenote was originally discovered by a farmer whose his pig had fallen in through the hole in the roof.
Valladolid is also famous for its uprisings. What transpired in Valladolid in June of 1910 helped to spark the Mexican Revolution that erupted in the rest of the country that November when Francisco Madero flew across the border into Piedras Negras, Coahuila. The revolution wasn’t over until 1920; but as they say, the opening chapters were written in blood, here in Valladolid.
At this point, there was no turning back for the insurgents. They now had the support of nearly the entire city, and within three days had amassed an army of no less than 1500 men, armed with guns and machetes. Most had no military training. Local landowners provided weapons, ammunition and food.
In Mérida, this uprising had not gone unnoticed. While the locals were preparing in Valladolid, the government had sent a column of 65 men eastward with 300 guns, recruiting villagers along the way. Under the command of Colonel Ignacio Lara, they marched easward to Tinum, 12 km outside of Valladolid, where they waited for reinforcements to arrive. The cannons of Morelos arrived in Valladolid on the 7th. On the 8th, Lara led his men to the outskirts of the city, where, at dawn on the 9th of June, they began the assault on Valladolid. A batallion of 600 federal troops arrived on the 10th. Poorly equiped, untrained, and out of ammunition, the rebels fell under the three ferocious onslaughts. The death tolls were high on both sides: more than 100 revolutionaries and over 30 government soldiers had been killed. This was the highest balance of deaths of any battle ever fought in México, and would remain so until the Revolution began that November.
The leaders of the revolt were eventually rounded up, tried and sentenced to death. In the courtyard of the Shrine of San Roque, Kantún, Albertos, and Bonilla faced the firing squad. That November, Francisco Madero launched the Mexican Revolution, and by the following April, 17000 people had taken up arms against Porfirio Diaz and his government. The rest is history.
The image that most people associate with Chichen Itzá is El Castillo. The pyramid rises more than 23m above the ground, with steep staircases up all four sides, leading to a small building at the top. What’s so spectacular about it is the fact that this pyramid is actually a huge Mayan calendar built of stone. The four staircases leading to the top have 91 steps each, which when added to the platform at the top, make 365. On the sides are 52 panels representing the 52 years of the traditional Mayan calendar round. The pyramid is composed of nine terraced platforms on either side of the two primary staircases, for a total of 18, the number of months in the Mayan calendar. If you’re still not convinced of the Mayans’ astronomical prowess, you can easily convince yourself by visiting on either the spring or the fall equinox when, as the sun rises over the jungle, the form of a giant serpent is projected onto the sides of the two primary staircases, each of which has a giant stone serpent head at its base. This illusion is created by the precise alignment of the terraces in relation to position of the sun.
In a corner in the shade of one of the giant staircases leading up the side of El Castillo is a door. Once or twice a day, the door is opened, and groups of 20 or so are allowed inside. A narrow passage leads to a steep staircase that runs up the side of another pyramid inside El Castillo. It’s narrow, cramped, hot and humid, not to mention dark, but the climb is worth it. Eventually, at the top of the staircase, if you’re lucky or pushy enough, you can catch a glimpse of a jewel-encrusted jaguar altar, used by the Maya for sacrifices.
The following excerpt, by one of the supervising archaeologists restoring the ruins, describes the acoustics:
Chi cheen Itsa’s famous “Ball-court” or Temple of the Maize cult offers the visitor besides its mystery and impressive architecture, its marvellous acoustics If a person standing under either ring claps his hands or yells, the sound produced will be repeated several times gradually losing its volume, A single revolver shot seems machine-gun fire. The sound waves travel with equal force to East or West, day or night. disregarding the wind’s direction. Anyone speaking in a normal voice from the “Forum” can be clearly heard in the “Sacred Tribune” five hundred feet away or vice-versa. If a short sentence, for example, “Do you hear me?” is pronounced it will be repeated word by word... Parties from one extreme to the other can hold a conversation without raising their voices.
This transmission of sound, as yet unexplained, has been discussed by architects and archaeologists ... Most of them used to consider it as fanciful due to the ruined conditions of the structure but, on the contrary, we who have engaged in its reconstruction know well that the sound volume, instead of disappearing, has become stronger and clearer... Undoubtedly we must consider this feat of acoustics as another noteworthy achievement of engineering realized millenniums ago by the Maya technicians.
—Chi Cheen Itza by Manuel Cirerol Sansores, 1947
The site was originally populated by the Itzáes around 500 AD, and slowly built up until 900 AD, at which point it was completely abandonned. No one knows why the Itzáes left so abruptly, but it appears that the city was re-populated about 100 years later, and then attacked by the Toltecs, a tribe known for its brutality at war. Structures from the period between 1000 and 1300 AD show marked Toltec influences, including numeral reliefs of Toltec gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. The city was abandonned once again around 1300, this time permanently.
The best time to see the ruins is, without a doubt, sunrise. The ruins at Tulúm, while not spectacular except for the two-metre rock wall surrounding the site on three sides, have one of the best views you could possibly hope for. The structures sit nestled amid the rolling green grass and white sandy beaches, hovering over the turquoise Caribbean. As the sun rises, the whole place is bathed in a warm orangey-red glow. Sitting on ruins watching the waves is pretty relaxing.
Since Tulúm is so close to Playa del Carmen and Cancún, the number of visitors is absoutely huge compared to a lot of other Mayan ruins, and especially given the small size of these ruins. Because of that, most of the structures are off-limits to the public, so you can’t climb up on them as you can at most sites. In the end, it’s nice to see that these ruins are being protected, but Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itzá are a lot more fun. That said, if you look hard enough, you will find a couple structures you can sit down on.
In town, we met a law student named Luís who took a group of us to the villages. In San Juan Chamula, we first visited the shaman’s hut for the village, where we learned about the mix of Catholicism and traditional beliefs practised in the village. We then continued on to the village church which was probably the highlight of the visit. Seeing the mix of beliefs being practised there was incredible: everything from prayers to the Catholic saints to burning incense to chicken sacrifices and ceremonial purgings. Photography isn’t allowed in the church and out of respect to the Chamulans, we won’t describe everything in detail on the web, but suffice to say that it was an incredibly worthwhile visit.
Zinacantán is only a few kilometres away, but the villagers speak an entirely different language (Tzeltal). Here, the church is much more traditional, although most villagers still maintain strong ties to traditional indigenous beliefs, such as worshipping the Earth Lord and placing a strong emphasis on the interpretation of dreams. For a more detailed look at the beliefs and culture of the people of Zinacantán, we’d suggest Dreams and Stories from the People of the Bat by Robert Laughlin. This book is a collection of dreams and their interpretations as told by the villagers of Zinacantán, as well as a series of short stories passed from generation to generation in the village.
The town also produces many traditional handicrafts typical of Chiapas: blankets, clothing, dolls, etc. The villagers take these to San Cristóbal to sell them at the markets and on the street. The textiles are all made from hand, from the thread, to hand-weaving and embroidering. Typically, a medium-sized blanket takes two to three weeks to produce.
The town of Palenque sits only a few minutes by bike, foot or bus from the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. The ruins themselves extend over a huge area and are composed of many smaller groups of structures situated around plazas. The most impressive of these are probably the main plaza — which is surrounded by the Temple of the Inscriptions and the palace/observatory tower — and the Sun Temple Plaza.
The Temple of the Inscriptions is well-known for housing the sarcophagus and jade death mask of Pakal, former ruler of the city. Unfortunately, it's no longer possible to visit the inside of the Temple of the Inscriptions without a research permit. In theory, that involves applications via your university and submissions of your research to the government; in practice it involves 150 pesos to the right people.