The Stuff of Legends
30 BEFORE 30 - Celine Novenario () - April 3, 2011 - 12:00am

One of my most cherished memories from childhood is of my Aunt Cristina and the stories she would tell about far-flung places and exotic civilizations.

To keep me from throwing tantrums during traffic-snarled drives, she would regale me with tales of pyramids and hanging gardens, the Amazon jungle and feisty piranhas.

Her stories did more than just distract me; it was her revelation of a greater world out there that planted that seed of exploration in me.

I felt a bit like that captivated child once again when I set foot on the ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization, Chichén Itzá.

I had long been intrigued by the ancient Mayans — from their elaborate art and architecture to their mystifying rituals and beliefs. Luckily, my good friend Zoe was willing to join me in flying four hours from New York to Cancun, and driving three hours through the Yucatan Peninsula to explore this Pre-Columbian archeological site in Mexico, named one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World.

During the spring and autumn equinox, the setting sun creates the shadow of a plumed serpent on the north staircase of the Temple of Kukulkan.

The most iconic structure in Chichén Itzá is the Temple of Kukulkan (also known as El Castillo), built for the ancient Mayan snake deity. This structure is best known for the spectacle it creates during the spring and autumn equinox.

On these days, the rising and setting sun produces a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent that appears to slither down the north stairs of the temple.

Mayan calendar year influences abound, with 91 steps on each side of the temple, adding up to the number of days in a Mayan calendar year. The faces of the terraces number 52 in total, corresponding to the 52-year cycle when both solar and religious calendars realign.

West of the Temple of Kukulkan stands the Temple of a Thousand Warriors, surrounded by a multitude of carved columns standing at attention.

The temple shows both Mayan and Toltec influences — a result of the Mayan practice of building over a structure that has fallen into ruin and using it as a foundation for the next.

The Cenote Sagrado is a chilling sight, both for its sheer cliffs and deep, murky waters and its history as a site for sacrificial rites.

The summit of the temple holds a Chac Mool — a stone statue of a human in a reclining position holding a tray, which according to some legends was used to hold excised hearts to be used in sacrificial rites.

On the far north end of Chichén Itzá, we found the Cenote Sagrado. The Yucatan Peninsula is dotted with cenotes or sinkholes as it is a limestone plain without rivers or streams on its surface.

Its rivers run underground and the cenotes expose the water table to the surface. To the ancient Mayans, some cenotes were treated simply as water sources while others were used for sacrifices.

With a diameter spanning 60 meters and surrounding sheer cliffs that drop 27 meters down to the water surface, Cenote Sagrado is an imposing sight. More chilling however, is the fact that it was once used for religious sacrifices, with archeologists discovering precious materials like gold and jade as well as remains of men and children from its depths.

South of Cenote Sagrado, I squinted at the carvings on rocks forming a platform only to realize with horror that each stone depicted a skull. We had found the Temple of Skulls, where the heads of those vanquished and sacrificed by the Mayans were prominently displayed thousands of years ago.

Today, the Temple of Skulls depicts hundreds of carved skulls. Thousands of years ago, it contained the actual skulls of those vanquished and sacrificed by the Mayans.

Mildly horrified, we scurried over to El Gran Juego de Pelota to scope out the ancient Mayan version of basketball. The precise rules of the game are unknown but one can surmise that passing a ball through the lofty stone hoops would be a cause for celebration. What can be ascertained from the carved panels decorating the sides of the court is that there was an element of human sacrifice involved in the game. It’s been said that the Mayans chose to sacrifice the winning team as only the best warriors were fit to meet the gods. The Toltecs, meanwhile, valued their most skilled soldiers and would sacrifice the losing team.

With the crowds growing thicker and the sun beating down relentlessly, we decided we’d had enough of sacrificial tales and sought refreshment the ancient Mayan way. For this we drove 2.5 miles from Chichén Itzá to nearby Il-Kil, where the Sagrado Cenote Azul can be found.

This ancient watering hole is a breathtaking sight, with its sheer limestone cliffs fringed with lush vegetation and dropping 40 meters below to the deepest turquoise blue waters I’ve ever seen.

Water trickles down from ancient tree roots relentlessly, creating a small rainbow where a patch of sun filters down into the cenote. Intimidated at first by the thought of swimming in a 25-meter deep sinkhole, I felt nothing but bliss once I plunged into those ink-blue waters. As I floated on my back, I felt enveloped by a feeling that comes far too rarely these days. It was a feeling of a child-like wonder at all that we had seen that day: one of the exotic worlds with elaborate temples, brave warriors, mysterious waters and beautiful rainbows that made up the daydreams of my youth.

Practical Matters

Do not miss taking a dip in the Sagrado Cenote Azul, a breathtakingly beautiful cenote located in Il-Kil, which served as a watering hole for the Mayans.

• Filipino citizens may now travel to Mexico without a Mexican visa if they possess a US visa and are traveling from and to the United States.

• There are two admission fees to enter Chichén Itzá: 116 pesos (approximately $10) charged by the federal government and 51 pesos (approximately $4.50) charged by the state. US dollars are widely accepted in Chichén Itzá, Cancun, Merida and Valladolid.

• Should you decide to drive, cars can be rented for as little as $26 per day. However, the toll roads (autopiste cuota) will set you back USD$31 to drive just one way from Cancun to Chichén Itzá. There are free roads that go through the Yucatan Peninsula, as well. While the libre roads were well-paved and in our experience, quite safe, the drive will take almost twice the time due to the ubiquitous topes or speedbumps.

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