A Yucatan shaman wafted incense around me and blessed me with crystal water before I set foot at Chichen Itza, the Mayan Mouth of the Sorcerer.
My local guide insisted on it, given all the enraged ghosts inhabiting the temples and sinkholes of the complex.
From the top of the terraced pyramid, the Temple of Kukulkan (El Castillo), Mayan priests tore out still-beating hearts from countless humans they sacrificed to summon the rains.
Others they beheaded – noble enemy warriors, innocent children and men, as well as losing (or winning) players in their ball games (up to now, archaeologists don’t know which), before tossing their carcasses in the sacred cenotes – one hidden below the temple and another close to it.
During the spring and the summer solstice, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts triangular shadows on the balustrades, creating the semblance of a giant serpent wriggling down the steps – the feathered-serpent god Kukulkan himself.
And when you clap your hands in front of the staircase, the cry of the Quetzal – the bird sacred to the Mayas, whose feathers adorned the headdresses of their kings, echoes back.
You wonder how the ancients had such sharp ears for acoustics that the place still attracted the world’s best singers, like Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, even after two thousand years.
Sadly, El Castillo has been cordoned off for 11 years now, after an American visitor fell on the steps to the top and died. Inside the temple are two more temples and a chamber with a Chac Mool statue, associated with Tlaloc, the rain god, alongside a Jaguar throne, painted red and studded with jade.
Chacmools were used as techcatl, or sacrificial stone. Mayan priests stretched their victims over them so their hearts could be cut from their chests. So far, archaeologists have found 14 chacmools at Chichen Itza.
Not too far away from El Castillo stood the Temple of the Jaguar, overlooking the Great Ball Court with a couple of stone hoops where players shoot a hard rubber ball using their limbs or their hips, the Mayans’ ancient version of basketball.
The difference is, stakes are much higher here. The reward or punishment (archaelogists can’t say) for winning or losing the game is the player’s head.
The bas relief panels on the walls, confirms this, showing one player whose head has been lopped off, with blood spurting from his neck.
Other bas reliefs are just as fascinating and as grisly. The Tzompantli, or Skull Platform shows impaled skulls while the Platform of the Eagles and the Jaguars depict eagles and jaguars devouring human hearts.
On the other hand, the Temple of the Warriors contain a thousand columns with bas relief of warriors. The columns once supported the extensive roof.
My one regret? I should have taken a bus and toured Chichen Itza on my own without a guide. And My Mexican seat mate agreed.
My guided day tour lasted from 7AM to 9PM although my total time in Chichen Itza itself was just two and a half hours, max, which for me, was not enough.
The call time for my day tour was 6:55 AM at the Oasis Smart Hotel in Tulum Ave., Cancun, where I was picked up and transferred near La Isla Shopping Village where my assigned tour bus was parked.
I paid 300 Mexican dollars (around P870 at 1MX:3PHP) to cover the transfers, 2 hours travel each way to Chichen Itza, lunch, plus 45 minutes at the Ikkil Cenote and half an hour’s visit to Valladolid, part of the country’s “Magical Villages Programme”.
Not bad, considering that my Mexican seat mate paid double and identical tours online go for nearly 2,000 Mexican pesos.
But I got my tour from a hotel marketer in La Isla and was lucky I wasn’t scammed.
New hotels hire marketing guys to promote their packages and dangle “almost free” day trips to tourist attractions in exchange for a “warm body” willing to pay a token fee and listen to the hotel’s sales pitch, which lasts for about an hour.
The marketers promise free transfers from your hotel, free breakfast plus a “free” tour of Tulum for the rest of the first day and a “free” tour of Chichen Itza on the second day.
Because I was on a shoestring travel budget, I took my chance. On the day of my trip, the marketing guy cancelled at the last minute due to bad weather. On the second day, he told me I can’t do Tulum because I have no credit card – a prerequisite. (He conveniently forgot I told him about that earlier.) On the third day, I finally got on the bus!
Our guide says we’re lucky to get him because he’s been in the business 30 years and learned from archaeologists who worked at Chichen Itza, one of 10 elite guides of the 300 accredited in Cancun with deep knowledge of the site and the “Mayan secrets” handed down from his forebears.
Yet he complained his “liar of a boss” coerced him to guide a “few tourists” on his day off when there’s a bus full of us, 65 total. (How can such an elite guide be so gullible?)
Then he passed around a replica of a Mayan god in onyx, a couple of obsidian and the Mayan calendar in papyrus (all for sale, we’d learn later). He recounted how his grandpa revealed before dying that he was born in the full moon of the Mayan calendar and that he has to use the energy of his moon phase to harness the energies of the universe.
He cited a guide-friend who studied French and mustered it in 7 days because it was the week of his Mayan moon.
And we can all accomplish feats of greatness if we’ll cough up 400 Mexican pesos for our very own Mayan birth certificate in papyrus. The papyrus, in very limited supply, is pounded into paper and hand-painted by poor villagers to fund the schooling of their kids – curse be to those who don’t buy them.
My Mexican seatmate sighed and shook his head. “They’ll do anything for tourist money,” he muttered.
I googled the phase of the moon in the Mayan calendar on my birthday and got it for free.
Everything else after the temples was anticlimactic.
I did like the lunch buffet which featured dishes cooked the traditional way, in a pit with a fire at the bottom, particularly the “Cochinita (baby pig) Pibil” with red pickled onion. It’s pork marinated in citrus juice, seasoned with annatto seeds and wrapped in banana leaf before being buried in the pit and slowly roasted.
We visited a cenote at Ikkil but with less than an hour, I decided not to take a dip in the dark cold waters.
“A friend of mine nearly drowned in a cenote,” my new Mexican friend confided. “He thinks it’s the ghosts of those sacrificed. They want vengeance.”