220.127.116.11.2; 10 Kayab 5 Ik; 297 days left . . .
I’ve heard a lot of bad excuses from hotel receptionists, but up until now, nobody’s ever tried blaming weak Internet on a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“It’s the pyramid’s fault,” is what they told me at the front desk. I tried hard not to laugh and failed.
The woman at the front desk of my Chichén Itzá hotel was not laughing back at me.
“Really, sir. It’s the pyramid: El Castillo.” She went on to explain the inexplicable—how the strange energy of the pyramid interrupts internet signals for the entire area. Her tiny shoulders shrugged as she told me this. She then went on to blame the pyramid’s magic energy for slowing down recent road construction. This also made me laugh.
Part of Mexico’s charm is the reduced pace of life—this is exactly why millions of Americans flee south of the border: to escape their over-scheduled, high-pace, rush-around lifestyles in exchange for slow-the-heck-down Mexico. This is a country where the only rushing is the testosterone race of taxi drivers on skinny streets. Otherwise, Mexico is a place where you can measure time with margaritas.
My life as a digital nomad keeps me rushing around in search of strong and steady Wi-Fi Internet. Mexico has been easy, it’s incredibly wired—far better than most countries in the world. Chichén Itzá is the exception to that rule. I know because I tried three different hotels before I found one with a good Wi-Fi signal on the front porch.
I checked in with a smile that lasted a full five minutes—until I discovered that the Internet did not work. I patiently inquired of the man at the front desk, “Do you or do you not have Internet?”
“Yes we have Internet,” he smiled back at me, “. . . but not tonight, Sir.” He kept smiling as I began losing my patience. He assured me though, “It will be fixed—mañana.”
Nobody ever says “no” in Mexico. They only say, “Yes, but . . .” Such a positive attitude is infectious and fun and sometimes really annoying. But as a digital traveler, I have also learned that I must resign myself to technology’s limitations. Sometimes you just shrug your shoulders, blame the pyramid and accept that tonight, there will be no Internet.
I stepped out into the warm evening with its pink sky fading into glowing blue and black. My hotel was right next to the great ruins of Chichén Itzá and I admired the silhouette of the Caracol—the round-towered building thought to be an observatory for the Maya. As if someone had flipped a switch, the planet Venus appeared directly above the Caracol. The intense “evening star” shone so brightly and right above it was Jupiter, a lesser light but stationary and in line with both Venus and the Caracol. Within minutes, the rest of the sky filled in with a few thousand stars.
The ancient Maya called Venus Nohoch Ek’ (Great Star) or Chak Ek’ (Red Star) and they understood the planet’s movements better than any civilization prior. For example, the ancient Maya measured one Venus “year” (or solar orbit) as 584 days, which is less than two hours off its actual length of 583.92 days. What’s more, Maya mathematicians figured out that every five Venus years coincided with eight Earth years (2,920 days) in their respective rotations. One more cool thing: From Earth’s perspective, the rise and fall of Venus in the night sky lasts 263 days. As you recall from our earlier visit to Izapa, the Maya sacred calendar (Tzolk’in) was 260 days long, which is also the length of human gestation. The Maya saw a great symbolism in this, which might be why they viewed Venus and its cycle as a powerful force in human life.
Modern Mayanists have noticed that many historic events—especially wars—were planned on dates specific to the Venus cycle. Also, as the Maya civilization progressed, more and more of their cities were built in alignment to Venus. The governor’s palace at Uxmal lines up with the ascent of Venus in A.D. 750 and the Caracol of Chichén Itzá lines up with the path of Venus in A.D. 1000.
Visiting the ruins of Chichén Itzá today reveals the utter brilliance of Maya astronomy. Anticipating large crowds, I arrived at the gate first thing in the morning, so that when I entered the vast green plaza of the city center, I was totally alone.
Like an eager child, I ran up to the great pyramid El Castillo—by far the most iconic of any Maya sites in the world. In person, the giant temple is a tremendous sight: so geometric and perfect, so mathematical and imposing.
The temple is built with nine layers, a symbolic reference to the nine levels of Xibalba—the Maya underworld. Each of the pyramid’s four sides has 91 steps which, when added together (plus the temple platform on top) totals 365 steps (equal to the number of days of the Haab’, the Maya short count solar calendar). Indeed, the Temple of Kukulcan (the Maya name for El Castillo) is among many things, a giant, three-dimensional calendar. Like so many Maya structures, it is aligned perfectly with the cardinal points, so that I could watch the sun rising directly over the top of the temple. Perhaps the most remarkable and well-known aspect of this temple is how on the spring and fall equinox, the nine layers cast a serpent-shaped shadow down the steps, matching up with the snake-head statue at the base of the pyramid.
I wonder how many architecture firms today could actually pull that off today? To build a structure that created animal-shaped shadows on specific astronomical events. I doubt that very few could.
The serpent Kukulcan features prominently at Chichén Itzá—a deity directly associated with the planet Venus. The Maya believed that Venus was the Sun’s companion and at Chichén Itzá, the Temple of Venus lies directly across from the Temple of Kukulcan. For me, visiting Chichén Itzá offered a physical manifestation of Maya beliefs, especially the relationship between the sun and Venus. That same relationship is evident in their various calendars to which we are paying so much attention this year.
However, Chichén Itzá reveals another important fact about the Maya calendar. Although the 2012 doomsday soothsayers quote the very exacting Maya and their long count calendar as the definitive source specifying the end of the world, what many of them fail to realize that the Maya themselves stopped using that calendar around a thousand years ago. Whereas stela (stone posts) in some of the earlier sites we’ve visited use the long count, all the dates tapped into the rock at Chichén Itzá are short count, a cycle that ends every 52 years.
As a Maya city that peaked during the early Post-Classic period (A.D. 900 to 1200), Chichén Itzá exhibits how Maya society had started to change. For one, these ruins display strong Toltec tendencies—evidence that the Maya of the time were strongly influenced by another people from another part of Mexico. They also stopped using the long count calendar.
While the Maya lived with rich awareness of so many natural cycles (the Sun, the moon, the planets, human birth), they were also susceptible to another natural cycle—that of learning and forgetting. After (probably) more than a thousand years of using the long count calendar, the Maya stopped using it and it was forgotten. Eventually (aided by the very destructive 16th century Spanish invasion) even the ability to read the long count calendar was lost, as was the written language.
The Maya of today speak several derivative dialects of the classical Maya languages. These are among the oldest languages in the world, and yet today’s Maya cannot read the writing of their own ancestors. Yes, the Maya culture of modern Mexico is alive and strong, but it is vastly different from the Maya culture of the past.
Chichén Itzá shows the diversion from classical Maya culture into another age of mixed ideas, styles and politics. Most historians agree that it is not the most representative of Maya ruins. So then why is Chichén Itzá so famous? Well, because so many of the structures have been very well restored and the site is within driving distance from Cancún. Mexico’s number one tourist destination (welcoming 13 million air passengers last year) is an easy day trip to and from Chichén Itzá.
The resulting rush contributes to Chichén Itzá’s reputation for being overly commercial and suffering the ill effects of mass tourism. Starting around nine in the morning, I watched a never-ending parade of tour buses poured into the parking lot. To meet the invasion of camera-toting tourists is another army of Mexican vendors selling everything from obsidian knife blades to jaguar whistles and tacky “Maya” blankets woven by machine in China. And yet with all of the busy commotion of enterprise, the ruins emptied at closing time. It’s as if the great city of Chichén Itzá repopulates itself everyday, then returns to being a vast, empty ruin at sunset.
I was strangely comforted by the crowds of Chichén Itzá—at least we are paying attention here. I have visited so many other sites now in El Mundo Maya where I added my name to the visitor’s book and realized I was the first to come in a week. But the beaten path to Chichén Itzá may be to blame for the unbeaten paths to other ruins. Tourists tend to visit what others have visited before. Even the great and intrepid explorer John Lloyd Stephens, who wrote the definitive 19th century travel book about the Maya ruins, was following in the footsteps of a slightly more-eccentric Count Waldeck. Thus begun a cycle of exploration, study, and excavation that favored certain ruins over others. Hence Chichén Itzá receives some 1.5 million visitors a year compared to the ancient Maya cities that still lay buried in the jungle.
Coming to El Mundo Maya and only visiting Chichén Itzá is like going to New York City and only visiting Times Square. Yes, that one electrified corner may be huge and thrilling and filled with gawking crowds from all over the world, but it’s only one very tiny (albeit loud) fraction of the great metropolis of New York—New Yorkers will tell you not to forget about Hell’s Kitchen, Brooklyn, the Village, Harlem and Chinatown. All of these other places are New York, too.
I am so glad to have finally visited the great Chichén Itzá, but only because I can compare it to so many other sites of the ancient Maya. In the end I stayed two days, explored the vast Mesoamerican city and reveled in the beautiful artwork carved on so many of the temples. The ruins of Chichén Itzá taught me a great deal about the Maya and their calendar, but like so much in Mexico, it left me with more questions than answers.
I left not because I wanted to leave, but because I needed to get online and as we established, that was a problem in Chichén Itzá. You know, because of the pyramid.