Today, as a change of pace from the (albeit delightful) cycle of eat/pool/beach/repeat, I signed us up for an excursion. When arranging our Mexico getaway those many months ago, I had made it clear that we needed to visit some Mayan ruins, or my trip just wouldn’t be complete. As it turns out, the closest site to our resort is called Tulum, which lies less than an hour’s drive away. I met with a Tour Scheduler to figure out if this was something we could do by ourselves, or if we would be better off with a formal-group-kind-of-thing. He explained that if you go on your own, you’d be basically looking at “piles of rocks”, since there aren’t really any explanatory plaques there to tell you the background or describe the significance of what you’re observing. (Which made me realize how very spoiled we are by National Parks in the U.S., where you begin your exploration at a full-service Visitor’s Center, pick up colorfully-printed map and reading material, ask questions of the Rangers, and stop every 10 yards or so to read paragraphs of information on the helpful signs.) At Tulum, the consultant stressed, we would require a guide, in order to get the most well-rounded, meaningful experience. Okey-dokey, then, reserve us 4 seats on that bus!
Of course, this meant that for the first time on our vacation, we had to bounce ourselves out of bed to an alarm (horrors!)…in order to fit in breakfast before leaving (ahhh, motivation). At the appointed time, we settled into the air-conditioned coach to listen to our Orientation during the ride. Our Guide, Roberto, discoursed at length on the Mayan culture—their skill as navigators, their knowledge of plants and cultivation, their class structure and religious beliefs. He made a valiant attempt to teach us a few words in one of the Mayan dialects. (No, I don’t remember any of it—too early for that sort of processing). When we arrived at Tulum, he continued the educational portion of our day by describing the layout of the city and some of the structures we’d see when we entered. One thing I found especially intriguing: 3 walls surrounding Tulum are man-made, using large stones. Since the city is situated along the shoreline, the fourth, natural “wall” is actually a reef. The Mayans paddled their canoes along this barrier and noted where the breaks in the rocks occurred, which allowed them to safely enter and exit the shallower water. They then built their temples directly opposite these environmental landmarks, to mark the “doorways”. However, other sailors—who may or may not be friendly—lacked this important information, and often crashed. Excellent use of nature’s protection, yeah?
We also spent time at the temple to the Wind God, which happens to be the highest point on the entire Yucatan peninsula. It was crucial to keep this god happy, as this part of Mexico sits firmly in a high-hurricane path. Therefore the Mayans made human sacrifices periodically, to encourage the god’s continued favor. (I know: ewwww. Stay tuned, it gets worse.) Children under 13 were chosen for this “honor”, fitted with a ceremonial cape made of jade-et (a heavy, precious stone, ensuring that the garment weighed more than the child did)…and tossed into a holy well to drown. Simply…charming. When we all made outraged noises, our guide quickly pointed out that at least they were better than the Aztecs, who sacrificed EVERY DAY, because according to their religious beliefs, the sun actually died when it left the sky. Thus the only way to ensure that it would reappear the next day…was apparently to kill someone and offer them to the Sun God. Yikes. (Which just goes to show you, sometimes learning can be downright frightening!)