Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Mayan Meanderings…

on August 23, 2013

My first stop in the land of the mighty Maya was San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Chiapas is in the southeast of Mexico and borders with Guatemala. San Cristóbal is a favourite hangout of many travellers, a beautiful colonial town set in the midst of mountainous terrain, and a cultural capital for the state.

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The state is famous for its locally grown coffee and also traditional weaving. In Chiapas the weaving is done by the women usually using the backstrap loom (in contrast to Oaxaca where the men are the weavers and typically use a standing loom). Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state and has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, most of whom are descended from the Maya.

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So who are the Maya? Well, they were one of the largest ancient civilisations of Mesoamerica, known for their written language, art, architecture, and astronomy. Have you seen Apocalypto? That’s them… Their domain stretched all the way from south-eastern México, through Belize and Guatemala, even to Honduras and El Salvador. They were also into human sacrifice like the Aztecs…

Anyway, in this part of the world, there are plenty of Maya archaeological sites, museums and the like and I was very keen to learn more. While in San Cristóbal, I decided to visit the Mayan Medicine Museum – all about the traditional remedies and healing methods practiced (and still in practice) by the Mayan people. To get there, you have to walk up the main street past the market, and keep walking. When you start to get out of the city centre into dusty streets and run down barrios, and think you’ve walked too far- then you are almost there.

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The museum was very interesting, but to someone trained in western evidence-based medicine many of the rituals and healing methods seem quite bizarre! The Midwife is one of the specialised Mayan practitioners who deals with child and maternal health and the actual birthing process. For a quick birth, a machete is waved over the mother’s stomach 3 times and soft drinks and live chickens are used in the ritual to pray for the baby’s soul. When the baby is born it is washed in egg to prevent bad health, and if it is a boy, the mother is not allowed to eat avocado or onions for 3 months, as this will apparently inflame the baby’s penis. The placenta is later buried under the house- face down if the parents want their next baby to be a boy, and face down for a girl.  The Bone-healer was another practitioner who had some interesting methods- they use whistling to frighten away bad spirits and ‘blowing’ to send the bad spirit away.

Interestingly, the reason soft drinks are used in the rituals now is mostly a matter of availability- traditionally healers spat a liquor called pox (pronounced ‘posh’) all over an unwell patient to ‘scare away bad spirits and bad winds and purify the person’, but now they use soft drinks as they are easier to obtain. The gas is also supposed to ‘help release evil by inducing belching’ (though how it induces belching when it is spat on you, I’m not so sure!).

There is of course a herbalist in Mayan medicine too, who knows all about the healing properties of various plants and where to find them. There is a big garden at the museum with examples of many of these. I guess with plant-based natural remedies which anecdotally work wonders, some probably do have a genuine effect but again there’s not the scientific evidence to support it. The list of conditions that were able to be treated was quite extensive however, ranging from diabetes, parasites and amoebas to hypertension, high cholesterol and ‘weakness’!

One guy I met in there actually bought the treatment for ‘Weakness’, admitting he was expecting an Incredible Hulk kind of effect, but was instead told to take 10 drops of ‘with exercise and a lot of fruit and vegetables’. Sound advice, though probably effective even without the mystery herbal liquid! If it does work though, he’ll have no idea what did the trick, as the label just lists ‘varias plantas’ (‘various plants’) as the ingredients!

Another interesting museum in San Cristóbal was Na Bolom, an indigenous culture museum that was the home of archaeologist Franz Blom and his wife Gertrude Duby, who was a photo journalist. Both were heavily involved with the indigenous population in Chiapas, seeking to preserve their history and traditional culture. Na Bolom is now a non-profit organisation which continues to run environmental and cultural projects with volunteers, despite Franz and Trudy both passing on. In this museum I learned that the boys in the rainforest learn to make their own (giant!) cigars and smoke tobacco from a super young age (like 5 or so)! Apparently it protects them from snakebites…

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In San Cristóbal, I also discovered I was wrong about Mexico City having the most slippery footpaths in the world… San Cristóbal definitely takes the cake! Cobbled streets with stones so worn they are shiny like marble mean even when it is dry, you can slip and then trip all in one highly ungraceful, arm-flailing moment. Despite this fact, the city was lovely to walk around, with its beautiful buildings, pedestrianised streets and café culture- the Chiapan coffee was the best yet of my whole time in Mexico!  You could also take a bit of a climb up to two churches perched on the top of two hills on the outskirts of town- Iglesia Guadalupe and Iglesia San Cristóbal- and enjoy the views over the top of the city and out to the mountains.

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Other highlights in San Cristóbal included finding the biggest bag of Cheetos I’ve ever seen, seeing the biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen at El Chiflon, checking out the beautiful Lagos de Montebello on a day trip, getting into the Santo Domingo museum for free on Sunday (the nice lady just telling me to write that I was Mexican in the log book… ‘Amanda Hill, Mexicana’ is not obvious is it?!), and visiting Las Grutas (some nearby caves) with Rich and Carla, a lovely couple from the US, and their grandson Zane.

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My next stop in Chiapas was Palenque, a town named after the nearby Mayan ruins. The 6 hour ride from San Cristóbal was a bit of an adventure- the road the whole way was so windy you’d get thrown from side to side and then every couple of minutes hit a speed hump and be jerked up and down. I have never been to a place with so many speed bumps! The road is dotted with signs warning ‘Tope’ (‘Bump’), but there is really nothing you can do to lessen the impact. These bumps are pretty intense, not the kind of soft, wide rise and fall we are used to in Australia, but more like a 20cm bar built straight up in the middle of the road!

Anyway, I eventually arrived in Palenque town, feeling as though I’d been thoroughly shaken. There is not much in the town itself, so I stayed in a spot in the jungle between there and the ruins called El Panchan. My cabaña was in a little joint called Jungle Palace. Palace probably gives you the wrong idea entirely, but it was fine for a few nights!

I had read mixed reviews for the place, most using the words ‘basic’, ‘rudimentary’ or ‘rustic’, but others complaining of their room flooding when the river rose with the rains, or their roof leaking in heavy rain… on inspection the palapa roof looked pretty thick and the flywire didn’t have any gaping holes, so I decided to take a chance as the only place that had unfailingly good reviews was out of my price range. At 100 pesos for my own room, Jungle Palace was a steal! It was nice to be by the bubbling brook in amongst the trees. I did take the precautions of keeping all of my things off the floor in case of flooding though…

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On my first full day, I had booked a tour out to Bonampak and Yaxchilan, two Mayan archaeological sites out towards the Guatemalan border. Yaxchilan actually looks like it should be in Guatemala, but the river claims it as Mexican… It was a few hours by minibus to Yaxchilan, with a stop on the way for breakfast at a mad little buffet restaurant packed with tourists from a stack of minibuses out front. On the bus I met Juan from Barcelona who was my buddy for the day. We were dropped at a dock next, as Yaxchilan is only accessible by boat. It was a nice cool half hour ride up river surrounded by dense jungle.

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Yaxchilan is buried amongst greenery on the riverside and was a beautiful site to visit. You wound through small trails to get to the buildings and there weren’t too many people there. The first building we came to was aptly named ‘The Labrinth’- you had to find your way through dark tunnels to the other side. Luckily I had brought my head torch (thanks for the tip Lonely Planet!) so we could have a bit more of a poke around in the tunnels. There were mostly dead ends, but we did see some bats and a huge spider. I have no idea what the function of a building like that would have been!

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Out on the other side you could see more residential area of the site around the square. Weirdly, the whole area smelled like chicken soup to me! Like the fake kind, the flavouring you’d get in your maggi noodles… I came to the conclusion it was a funny Mayan plant or I was hallucinating, but Juan smelled it to, so I’m going with plant!

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From the Gran Plaza we climbed the big acropolis which was incredible, and on our way out tackled the small acropolis, which turned out to be up a not-so-small hill! But both were worth the climb and had great views as they were so high up.

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Later we arrived at Bonampak, a much smaller site, but famous for its Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Paintings)- a small building with three rooms, each with its interior covered in frescoes. The paintings are still in remarkable condition considering their age, and you can still make out the scenes depicted (including a war scene, torture of prisoners by removing their fingernails, ritual bloodletting by tongue piercing and other interesting snippets of Mayan history).

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It was amazing, and well worth the trip. There I ran into Rich, Carla and Zane again from San Cristobal and we decided to meet up for dinner. Rich and Carla treated me to some tasty wood-fired pizza and we enjoyed some live music and after our long day. After dinner we had to say our goodbyes, but I’m hoping to go and visit them one day and see the beautiful properties they’ve built up in Washington state! They run a B&B up there, so if anyone is headed that direction in future, definitely take a look: http://www.wessonbarnloft.com/ or http://www.wessonbunkhouse.com/ 🙂

Whilst in Palenque, it’s often recommended to visit the nearby waterfalls, Agua Azul and Misol Ha, so I obliged. Our bus ride was accompanied by a Spanglish version of ‘Stand By Me’, that is, until it broke down… After the sound of something falling off the bus, the driver pulled over, had a walk around the van and told us the bus was broken and we had to wait for another one to come from Palenque. We surprisingly didn’t have to wait too long, and soon were off again to Misol Ha. We had a short stop there, just to have a walk around, but it was really cool. You can walk behind the waterfall which tumbles over a tall cliff into a deep pool below. This means you get really drenched, but probably worth it…

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It was a short drive from there to Agua Azul, where we had a couple of hours to play. Agua Azul means ‘blue water’, a reference to the blue-tinged pools. You can wander up alongside the stream to see a series of pools and falls as you go up. It’s really pretty. I jumped in for a quick dip in the cold water up the top, as the clouds were gathering, the thunder rumbling, and the local vendors packing up their wares which were all ominous signs! And sure enough, it started bucketing down, so I spent the last hour of my time there chatting in a café with two Danish girls.

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I was slightly nervous to see what awaited me in my cabaña after the torrential downpour, but was relieved to find it non-flooded! My bed could’ve had a few drops of water sneak through the palapa on it, but I couldn’t really tell since everything felt slightly damp from the thick humidity anyway! I classified this as a success. Not so successful was retrieving my backpack from the lockers and discovering some sneaky little critter had eaten right through the pack to get my snacks! It was picky however, as it only ate the apple and cinnamon bar- the entire thing was gone from its packet, with not a crumb left, while the strawberry and pineapple bars and a bag of raisins were left untouched in the same bag! Random…

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That night Juan got back from the Lancandon Jungle so we met up and watched a Mayan fire dance at one of the bars, accompanied by a Maya band. Not sure how traditional it was, but the music was really cool (I actually bought their CD) and the dancing with all the costumes and fire was great to watch. Afterwards they did some sort of Maya blessing to whoever wanted it so I went up and got copal scented smoke blown and wafted over my whole body (well I think it was a blessing…).

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On my last day in Palenque, I finally went to see the ruins that give the town its name. After sharing a bottle of wine the night before, Juan and I didn’t get started quite as early as we should have, so by the time we’d walked the few kilometres to the park entrance, we were bang on time to coincide with the hundreds of tour buses that flood the site with tourists. We had to wait in line at the entrance, and battle the hoardes when we first entered which was giving me some angst, but by the time we went up to explore El Palacio (The Palace), people had spread out and I relaxed and started to appreciate it more.

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Palenque is a huge site, but has some really beautiful buildings. The palace was incredible to poke around and the Grupo de las Cruces (Group of the Crosses) was great- a little cluster of temples built up on hills facing each other. There were great views from the tops.

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Some of the other residential groups tucked away in the jungle a bit further from the centre were also lovely- you had to walk down some small trails, cross the river and pass some pretty waterfalls to get to them. These were the areas that you could see how the jungle claims back the buildings with huge trees growing out of the stonework- really beautiful to see. In these parts the chicken soup smell was around too, strengthening my theory that it is from a plant!

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We spent several hours roaming around, and finally got to the museum which was a great accompaniment to the site visit. Here you can enter a replica of Pakal’s tomb- one of the most prominent kings of Palenque who was responsible for constructing many of the grand buildings. His sarcophagus is probably one of the most famous images in Chipas- an incredibly detailed representation of Pakal as the God of Maize, in the foetal position above a monster of the underworld (symbolising rebirth) supporting the sacred tree and surrounded by cosmological signs. A highlight was seeing the reconstruction of Pakal’s death mask, which is meant to be a very accurate representation of the king, delicately mosaicked in jade.

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On our walk back to El Panchan, we narrowly avoided being killed by a falling coconut (those things pack some serious force when they fall!) and heard the call of howler monkeys- they sound like a jaguar or a dinosaur or some other vicious beast, but are actually quite cute little black monkeys! Back at Jungle Palace, we changed and grabbed some food before heading to town on a packed-to-the-rafters collectivo (I couldn’t even move enough to get my wallet from my bag so had to borrow money from Juan for my fare!). Juan had a bus to Mexico City, and I had about 4 hours to kill before my night bus to Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán.

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Mérida was to be my base for exploring the nearby wonder of the world, Chichen Itza. I arrived there at about 5am, and successfully navigated my way from the bus station to my hostel on the Zócalo (main plaza). It helps that Mérida’s streets are logically numbered, with odd numbers running east-west and even numbers running north-south, those clever Spaniards!

I had a small siesta before heading out to see some of the city. Mérida is quite big, not as easy to traverse in entirety on foot as in San Cristobal but still nice to walk around. As it was Sunday, the Zócalo was buzzing, full of market stalls and locals walking, chatting and eating. There are also many smaller plazas dotted around the city, each with an associated church which were also very pretty, and again popular hangouts for the locals.

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Mérida has lots of free museums, so first I went to the city museum, about the pre-hispanic and then colonial eras of Mérida’s history, the Contemporary Art Museum, which had lots of great pieces from local artists, and the Anthropology Museum, which unfortunately was smaller and less exciting than I’d expected (and was the only place I had to pay to enter!). They had an exhibit on Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, as well as a really nice piece on traditional dances from all over Mexico represented by elaborate dolls. But that was pretty much it…

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The highlight of my day was visiting the Palacio del Gobierno (Governor’s Palace) which features many amazing murals by the local artist, Fernando Castro Pacheco. Most of these depict important historic events or people in the Caste War- the revolt of the Maya against the Spanish, and their subsequent half-century of struggle in the 1800s.

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The next day, I took a day tour to Chichen Itza. Unfortunately I was not feeling on top of the world- I think the salbutes I’d eaten the night before on the Zócalo weren’t quite right. The bus to Chichen Itza was entirely Spanish speaking, but to my relief, our driver spoke a lovely clear Spanish, and I was able to understand pretty much everything he told us on the way. We arrived at the site after a couple of hours, along with what seemed like half of Mexico and representatives from each country across the globe- the entrance hall was PACKED with people!

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Our guide asked me if I wanted an English tour, and I said I’d prefer this if possible, as I’d probably get a bit more out of it (and wouldn’t have to concentrate so much considering I wasn’t feeling very well…) My Spanish vocab doesn’t quite stretch to much about ancient civilisations… So I joined a tour with his buddy Hugo and a bunch of other white tourists and was told where to meet the others later.

First up was the most famous image of Chichen Itza- the huge El Castillo (The Castle), a pyramidal temple dedicated to Kukulkan (the feathered serpent- called Kukulkan by the Mayans, but the Aztecs called it Quetzalcoatl). If you face any side of the pyramid front on and clap, it returns a sound like the call of a quetzal- a bird worshipped by the Maya as a god of the air, and a symbol of goodness. It’s bright green feathers were highly valued and used to adorn the headdresses of Maya nobility. Anyway, the sound thing is pretty amazing, but because everyone knows about it and is intrigued by it, your visit to Chichen Itza is inevitably accompanied by incessant clapping!

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Other cool buildings on the gran plaza were the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), which has rows of columns decorated with carvings of important warriors, the Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of a Thousand Columns), thought to be a place of trade back in the day and the Plataforma de los Cráneos (Platform of the Skulls), decorated with many skull carvings and the place where skulls of enemies and sacrificed prisoners were displayed to frighten potential rebels.

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Chichen Itza also has a Gran Juego de Pelota (Great Ball Court), the largest court of any site in Mesoamerica which was really impressive. Unfortunately, it was around this point on the tour that I felt like I was about to faint and I realised it was pretty hot and I hadn’t eaten or drank much at all for the day. I had to excuse myself- poor Hugo was like, ‘But I’m almost finished!’ and I had to explain- it’s not that I’m over the tour, I am just going to pass out if I continue! So I proceeded to sit on the ground, force down two cookies and sip at my water until I stopped seeing stars.

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Feeling a little better, I walked out to a side group of buildings with what is thought to have been an observatory, named El Caracol (The Snail) after the spiral stairs inside the round building, and other buildings dubbed Las Monjas (The Nunnery) and La Iglesia (The Church) by the Spanish because of their structures and elaborate decoration- they weren’t actually used for this purpose. I was glad I made it there to have a look- the buildings were beautiful, but sadly I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate Chichen Itza as much as some other sites I’ve visited because much of my attention was focussed on staying upright and not being sick in public! I didn’t get time to go out to the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote), but apparently it is covered in algae and not very picturesque these days.

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I guess I should explain what a cenote is (pronounced sen-o-tee) at this point… Cenotes are basically are sinkholes in limestone which are filled with fresh water- the name comes from the Mayan word for ‘well’. They can be incredibly deep, and there are over 2000 in the Yucatan Peninsula! They are unique to this area because it is a limestone plain, so caves and caverns form where the water collects and creates these holes which either fill with rain water or expose the water table to the surface if deep enough. The Maya believed cenotes were the gateway to the underworld, and in some of them, sacrificial items/ people/ animals have been found.

After Chichen Itza, we visited a nearby cenote called Ik Kil which was incredible. Such a beautiful little place. The stone walls rise vertically from the crystal clear blue water which is apparently ~50m deep! I decided to go for a swim, and I think the water must have healing properties because I felt infinitely better! I even had enough energy to go for a couple of jumps of the tall ledges surrounding the cenote!

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So cured of my ailments by Mayan magic, I was ready to continue my adventures. From Mérida, it was off to the coast to rack up a bit more beach time… but there will surely be more Mayan meanderings to come as I visit other regions of their vast empire!

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