Equinox at Chichen Itza, one of the new 7 wonders of the world
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Serpent of Light and Shadow, Spring Equinox at Chichen Itza, March 20-21

adfasdfasdfchichenAs the sun sets in the west and the shadows lengthen in the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, a collective sigh of amazement goes up from thousands of people standing at the foot of the Pyramid of Kukulcan on March 20-21, the spring equinox. They gather to witness an amazing spectacle, the mysterious shadow of a serpent rippling across the stone, the powerful symbol of an ancient god returning to earth.

Dominating the Great Plaza, the 25-meter-high El Castillo or Pyramid of Kukulcan is a feat of ancient engineering and a solar clock, aligned so precisely by its creators to catch the rays of the setting sun on the days of the spring and fall equinoxes in March and September. Isosceles triangles of light and shadow form along the side of the north staircase and the figure of a snake appears, merging with the head of a stone serpent at the foot of the building. The illusion is created of a gigantic snake slithering down from the heavens and across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote.

The snake symbolizes Kukulcan, a great leader and ruler of Chichen Itza associated with the feathered serpent god (known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), who is said to return to earth to give hope to his followers. It also heralds the spring planting and fall harvest seasons for the Maya.

In ancient times, the city’s rulers, priests and astronomers would scan the heavens for portents, recording the movements of the stars and charting the passage of the seasons. They could predict the Equinoxes and on this day, they would have summoned their subjects to the main square for a ceremony invoking Kukulcan with prayers, rites and offerings. Imagine the awe of the populace as the shadow of the serpent appeared before them.

Experts believe that Kukulcan, the leader who gave his name to the pyramid, may have come from the west and that he resided at Chichen Itza some time in the 10th century. This coincided with the period when the city was ruled by the Itzae, a group of seafaring warrior traders or Putun from Chontal Maya territory in Tabasco and Campeche who had political and commercial ties with central Mexican cultures.

Built some time between A.D. 650 and 800 using only stone tools and with later modifications, possibly from 1000 to 1150, the pyramid is also a symbol of the Mayan calendar. Sitting on a square base measuring 55.5 meters on all sides, the pyramid has nine terraces, divided by two stairways. The number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the ancient year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases (91), in addition to the top platform, the entrance to the temple, equals 365, the days in the year.

This year, the Spring Equinox falls on March 20 but it is traditionally observed on March 21 at Chichen Itza as it coincides with an official Mexican holiday, the birthday of Benito Juarez, a 19th-century reformist president and national hero. The light and shadow snake is visible the day before and after the equinox, cloud cover permitting.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan is just one of the marvels awaiting discovery at Chichen Itza. This huge Mayan metropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a global online poll in 2007.

Dawn at Dzibilchaltun on the Equinox

Chichen Itza is not the only Mayan ceremonial center in the Yucatán to have temples with solar, lunar or planetary alignments. The doorway of the Temple of The Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltun (13 miles north of Mérida) makes a perfect frame for the rising sun on the day of the Equinox.

 

Chichen Itza and Valladolid

If you would prefer to explore Chichen Itza at your own pace, why not arrange a private guided tour or rent a car and stop off in the colonial city of Valladolid on the way? This peaceful pueblo magico is steeped in history and tradition and is the perfect spot to spend a few hours before making your way to Chichen Itza.

Start with the spectacular Zaci Cenote and then stroll through the main square to the Cathedral. On Calle 40, just a short walk from the main square is Casa de Los Venados, a 17th-century restored mansion that is a private home and a museum with an impressive collection of more than 3,000 pieces of Mexican folk art. Guided tours of the property are available at 10 a.m. and are recommended. Admission is a $60 peso donation for local charities.

Then walk along Calzada de Los Frailes, the street leading to San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent. You’ll pass more restored mansions, craft shops, a workshop where cacao is transformed into chocolate using traditional techniques, and the Coqui Coqui perfumery where native flowers and fruits are transformed into soaps, candles, essences and fragrances.

To the north of Valladolid, a side trip to the Mayapan artisanal distillery gives you a glimpse of the world of the blue agave, the plant that gives us tequila. Native to the state of Jalisco, the plant has adapted to the climate and soils of the Yucatan and is thriving in the fields surrounding the distillery.

When the plants are seven years old they are harvested for their root stem or piña, which is then roasted. The sugary liquid crushed from the cooked piña is fermented, distilled and stored in wooden barrels until ready to be bottled as blanco, reposado or añejado varieties of Mayapan.

Mayapan is not the only spirit produced in Valladolid, the town is also famous for Xtabentun, the fragrant anise-flavored liqueur of the Yucatan, which is made from honey and a native flower.

More impressive cenotes await you en route to Chichen Itza; Dzitnup and Samula are in villages on the outskirts of Valladolid (via Highway 180) and Balancanche Caves and Ik-Kil Cenote are located a short drive from the archaeological site.

 

Planning your Chichen Itza Trip

Thomas More Travel www.thomasmoretravel.com offers a variety of trips to Chichen Itza and you can also arrange a private tour to take you to the places mentioned in this post. An alternative is to rent a car and explore on your own.

The new evening Light & Sound Show in Chichen Itza is highly recommended if you decide to enjoy cocktails and an early dinner at one of the nearby hotels and then return to the site for the multimedia event.

Chichen Itza is located in the eastern Yucatan, 200 kilometers/125 miles from Cancun via the toll road (take the exit at Piste). An alternative route that takes longer is Highway 180 via Valladolid.

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Día de Muertos Altars


Celebrated on November 1 and November 2, Día de Muertos or the Day of the Dead, is one of Mexico’s most colorful and rich traditions. It is a blend of pre-Hispanic rituals thousands of years old and customs introduced by missionaries in the 16th century in the wake of the Spanish Conquest. In recognition of its importance, UNESCO included it in the World Heritage list in the Intangible Culture category.

Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead return to earth at this time of year and they welcome them back with joy tinged with sadness and nostalgia. All over the country, masses and graveside vigils are held and special altars or ofrendas are erected to honor the departed.

This is a time for memories; Mexicans fete their loved ones, preparing food and drink that the person enjoyed and decorating the altars with treasured personal belongings and photos.

 

Day of the Dead Altars and Offerings

Laden with flowers, candles, photos, offerings of food and drink, altars vary in size, some having two, three or seven tiers, the lowest symbolizing the earth and the uppermost heaven. As altars are a tribute to beloved relatives, no one altar is alike, however they do all share certain symbolic elements:

 

  • A cross crowning the altar
  • An arch decorated with flowers symbolizing the journey to the hereafter and the door through which souls pass
  • Candles, traditionally there should be at least 12 of them, four of which mark the cardinal points
  • Flowers, principally cempasúchitl or marigolds
  • A rosary and the image of a saint or the Virgin of Guadalupe
  • Photos of the deceased
  • Personal belongings of the deceased
  • An altar cloth, the color may vary depdening on the region, white ones may have embroidered designs
  • Colorful tissue paper with cutouts of skulls and skeletons, said to represent the wind and the happiness of the celebration
  • Pumpkin stewed in sugar or honey
  • Offerings of the deceased’s favorite foods such as tamales
  • Alcohol, such as tequila, mezcal and other drinks the person enjoyed in life
  • Aromatic copal incense for purification. The fragrance of copal is also said to attract the dead and guide them to the offering.
  • Water, a symbol of the purity of the soul, life, rebirth, served in a glass for thirsty souls
  • Offerings of fruit such as oranges, tangerines and sugar cane, corn, salt, chocolate, candies, atole or corn gruel
  • Sugar candy skulls with the name of the deceased. Skulls are a symbol of life, death and rebirth
  • Pan de muerto, this sweet bread is a symbol of the Eucharist and is often topped with a crossbone design
  • Toys and candies decorate the altars of children, music lovers are remembered with serenades and cigarettes might even feature on the altar of a former smoker.
  • Colorful carpets of sawdust, seeds, beans, rice or flowers with designs of skulls, skeletons or other symbolic images are often laid at the foot of the altar.

 

A Sea of Flowers

Bright orange cempasúchitl or marigold flowers are used to decorate the altar and are a symbol of the sun, the origin of all life. With their color and scent they are said to attract the departed. Other flowers include red cockscomb, lilies, gladioli, calla lilies, gypsophila and rue. Purple flowers are a symbol of mourning. A trail of marigold petals and candles is laid to show the way home and to the altar. A smaller offering may be placed outside the home to welcome lost souls.

 

Timeless Tradition

The Día de Muertos tradition is a blend of pre-Hispanic ritual and Christian ceremony. The ancient civilizations of Mexico such as the Maya, Aztecs, Totonacs and Purepecha venerated their ancestors and believed that death was a journey to the afterlife. The dead were buried with offerings of food, jade and other goods to sustain them on their way.

With the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century and the coming of Christianity, missionaries incorporated indigenous ceremonies into their own All Saints and All Souls Day customs and the Day of the Dead tradition we witness today in Mexico is the syncretism of two cultures.

According to tradition, the souls of children, the angelitos, return to earth on November 1 (All Saints Day), and adults on November 2 (All Souls Day).

 

Day of the Dead Altars at Royal Resorts

Many Royal Resorts departments erect their own Day of the Dead altars and you’ll see them in The Royal Market, some of the restaurants and at The Royal Sands and The Royal Haciendas.

Members and guests staying at The Royal Sands are invited to join the tribute to loved ones who have gone before us. If you have someone who was dear to you and who you wish to remember, place a photo of them on the altar made by the Media department. You’ll find it in the main lobby, at the foot of the stairs next to the revolving door leading out o the pool area.

 

 

La Catrina

The Aztec goddess of death was called Mictecacíhuatl or the “lady of death,” she was the wife of Mictlantecuhtli, the lord of Mictlan, the underworld. To this day Mexicans refer to Death as a woman, la Muerte, giving her nicknames such as La Catrina, La Flaca, la Calaca or La Huesuda (the skinny or bony one). They compose calaveras or humorous verses about her on Día de Muertos and some even dress up or paint their faces to show the duality of life and death.

The engravings of 19th century artist, José Guadalupe Posada, show Death in different costumes and settings, as an elegant lady with feathers in her hat, a bride and a dancer.

Craftsmen make clay, papier-mâché and wooden Catrinas, elaborate trees of life showing life and death, skulls and skeletons, including miniatures depicting weddings, charros or cowboys and mariachi bands.

 

 

Hanal Pixán, Mayan Day of the Dead Celebrations

The Mayan Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, which means “feast of souls.” Throughout the Yucatán, families make the pilgrimage to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones and erect altars to honor the souls of children and adults.

As night falls on November 1, the Maya bekieve that the dead draw near to dine and they prepare a feast for them. Tables laden with offerings of mucbilpollo, large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit and gourds of tan-chucua, a thick corn drink flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed are set up under the trees outside the house. Pumpkins, squash, corn, bread, fruit, sweets, honey cakes and flowers are added to the altar, candles are lit and incense burns. The family spends the night in prayer and vigil. The next day they eat the mucbilpollo, washing it down with gruel, chocolate or balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and the bark of a tree.

The Maya believe that the souls of the dead return to earth for eight days. During this time they abstain from certain tasks such as hunting with guns or sewing so as not to injure one of the wandering souls. Newborn children wear a black thread around their wrists to protect them from any evil spirits that may have also near. On the eighth day or ochavario, the dead prepare to depart this earth for another year and new offerings are placed on their tombs to bid them farewell.

Traditional Mayan altars are on display at the Cancun Maya Museum and Las Palapas Park in Cancun, in Playa del Carmen, Valladolid, Izamal and in the main square in Mérida.

A visit to Xcaret for the Festival of Life and Death is highly recommended. This annual event is a poignant celebration of all the traditions associated with Dia de Muertos, including a visit to the colorful Mexican cemetery, processions, altars, cuisine, music and dance, theater and concerts. This year, guest state Michoacán joins Mayan communities from the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán to share their customs with visitors.

 

Contact Thomas More Travel for trips to Xcaret.

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Green Guidelines, Be a Sustainable Traveler in the Maya World

_D206336Have you heard the saying “take nothing but photos and leave only footprints?” Faced with mounting evidence of climate change and the human impact on the environment, understandably you may have concerns about your ecological footprint as you explore the Maya World. Do not fear. You can be a sustainable traveler by following these green travel guidelines.

Keeping the Beaches Clean

  • Take your garbage with you when you leave the beach. Ring pulls, plastic packaging and bags and discarded fishing lines and hooks are harmful to seabirds and a variety of marine creatures, including the sea turtle. Some turtles feed on jellyfish and mistake plastic bags for their prey, with fatal consequences.
  • If you are a smoker, don’t stub your cigarette out in the sand. Cigarette butts are not biodegradable and the beach isn’t an ashtray.
  • During the summer, sea turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs in the sand on beaches throughout the Mexican Caribbean and along the Gulf coast. If you see a nesting turtle, be quiet and keep a distance of five meters. Do not attempt to touch or disturb her. Do not shine torches in its direction and please, no flash photography.
  • Beach cleaning campaigns are regularly organized along the Mexican Caribbean coast by the local authorities, community and conservation groups. Volunteers are always welcome if you would like to take part.

The Underwater World

  • Always use environmentally friendly, biodegradable sunscreens. The chemicals and oils in standard sun products contaminate the water and are harmful to corals and other marine life. Better still, as an alternative to sun creams, wearing a t-shirt while swimming or snorkeling helps protect you from the sun’s rays.
  • Keep your distance from coral reefs when snorkeling and diving. Corals grow very slowly and the slightest touch or the sand stirred up by your fins causes damage that may take the reef hundreds of years to recover from.
  • However appealing they may be, do not remove shells or any other creature living or dead from rock pools or coral reefs.
  • When snorkeling and diving keep your distance from sea turtles, whale sharks and other marine life. Admire them from a distance. They may be feeding when you see them and by disturbing their routine you will stress them and certainly interrupt their lunch!

Respect Local Wildlife

  • Watch area wildlife from a distance; do not approach or attempt to touch native creatures and don’t feed them.
  • Poaching and the illegal trade in wild animals is a global problem and still occurs in the Maya World. Never buy endangered animals and birds such as parrots and macaws, monkeys, wild cats or iguanas. Likewise, avoid jewelry, crafts, clothing, footwear, or other products derived from rare animals, birds, reptiles, insects (skins, feathers, wings, bones, teeth and claws, or tortoiseshell and natural oils in the case of sea turtles) or plant species.
  • Dispose of your litter in garbage bins, including cigarette butts and chewing gum, which should be wrapped in a tissue and not thrown away into the grass or forest where they may harm birds and animals.
  • If you are a smoker, make sure that your cigarettes are extinguished before disposing of them. Thousands of hectares of forest and grassland are destroyed each year by fire, all too often caused by a spark from a cigarette or match.
  • Keep the bugs away with locally made herbal repellents or commercial eco brands containing basil, eucalyptus, neem and citronella extracts, they are just as effective and much better for the environment.
  • Abide by the rules published by federal authorities when visiting national parks, biosphere reserves and underwater parks.

Protecting Ancient Monuments

  • Mayan temples and pyramids may have withstood the elements for centuries, but the passage of thousands of feet is accelerating erosion. We recommend that you admire these impressive monuments from the ground and do not climb them. By doing so, you will help protect them for future generations. Above all, respect areas that are cordoned off and do not climb buildings that are crumbling and where stones are loose and unsafe.
  • Please respect signs prohibiting flash photography in Mayan temples and colonial monuments. Fragile murals and frescos may be damaged.
  • Do not remove stones, ceramics or other artifacts from the archaeological sites; they should be left in situ for archaeologists to study. By collecting them you are taking part of Mexico’s heritage and destroying the context of the site, making it more difficult for experts to piece together a history of the ancient city.
  • Temple walls are all the more beautiful without graffiti. • Don’t purchase ancient Mayan pottery or other artifacts that may be offered to you. There are thousands of archaeological sites in the Maya World awaiting excavation or restoration, and looting and the illegal trade in precious artifacts are serious problems. • Similarly, do not purchase antiques that have been taken from colonial churches, monasteries, mansions and haciendas.

Discover a Different Culture

  • Travel gives you the opportunity to discover other cultures and it promotes understanding and friendship. Learn about Mayan history and traditions during your vacation. Meet local people and practice a few words of Spanish and Mayan; you’ll soon make new friends. If you are taking a longer vacation, local language schools offer Spanish classes.
  • Be sensitive when taking photos and respect people’s privacy and beliefs. The taking of pictures is frowned upon in some remote Mayan communities. Always ask for permission to take pictures and if the inhabitants refuse to give it, please refrain from doing so.
  • Be respectful when visiting communities, always request permission to enter churches and other sacred places.
  • Find out about clothing conventions in the area you are exploring and dress appropriately when visiting churches and communities. Long-sleeved blouses for women and shirts for men are appropriate.
  • Sample locally grown fruit and vegetables during your vacation and be sure to try Yucatecan and Mexican dishes. Mexican cuisine is on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its diversity and the traditions associated with it. If you’d like to learn more about it, why not sign up for a morning at a cooking school in Cancún, Puerto Morelos or even Mérida.
  • Purchase sustainably produced handicrafts and organic produce such as honey, coffee, vanilla, cacao, handmade preserves, spicy sauces, and even sustainably fished lobster from Sian Ka’an, by doing so you are supporting the regional economy and helping improve the livelihood of many communities. At the Royal Resorts you can buy bracelets made by Mayan craftsmen who belong to the Ak Kuxtal community development network. They gather fallen wood and seeds for their art, making sustainable use of their forest home. With your purchase you are helping villages in the Zona Maya in central Quintana Roo. Back home look for products with the Rainforest Alliance logo (look for the green frog), Forestry Stewardship Council, or similar organizations, buy organic produce and sustainably harvested seafood.

At Your Resort or Hotel

  • Help us protect the environment during your stay at Royal Resorts or wherever you vacation in the Mexican Caribbean, here’s how:
  • Reduce energy consumption, help cut fossil fuel emissions and combat global warming. Turn lights and appliances off when you leave your room.
  • Make sure that all the windows and doors are closed when the air-conditioning is on.
  • Help save water by making sure that faucets are closed when you leave your room.
  • Recycle your trash. At Royal Resorts, guests separate plastic, glass, aluminum, paper and cardboard waste and deposit it in the special bins in their rooms and around the resort. All waste suitable for recycling is collected and sold as “trash for cash” by the Royal Resorts Foundation. The proceeds are donated to fund conservation projects in the Mexican Caribbean. A special collection bag is also available in the rooms for the disposal of toxic waste such as used batteries.
  • Help save water, electricity and reduce the use of laundry products. Choose not to change your towels or bed linens on a daily basis, use them for several days instead.
  • Use eco friendly cloth shopping bags.
  • Do you really need that plastic water bottle or plastic bag? Invest in a reusable water bottle and help reduce the amount plastics we consume.
  • Only ask for a straw in your drink if you really need one. Cut down on straws and reduce litter.
  • Add your support to conservation and sustainable development projects in the Mexican Caribbean. The Royal Resorts Foundation has made conservation of the Mayan Jungle one of its key causes. It is participating in a regional initiative launched by Amigos de Sian Ka’an and the Mexican National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) to safeguard four million hectares of tropical forest in the state of Quintana Roo that are not currently protected by reserves. By making a donation to the Royal Resorts Foundation, you will be helping to protect the forest and the wildlife that inhabits it, and increase carbon capture to offset the effects of climate change. Visit www.royalresortsfoundation.org for more information.

A New Beginning in the Maya World, December 21, 2012

December 21, 2012 marks the winter solstice, an auspicious day for the ancient Maya and one associated with the end of a cycle in the Mayan calendar, a complex system of interlocking calendar wheels or periods, which recorded time as far back as a year equivalent to 3114 B.C. in the Gregorian calendar, and stretches many thousands of years into the future. Mayan scholars tell us that the day that the thirteenth b’aktun or 394-year cycle in the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar ends and a new one begins is actually December 23.

Let us put aside once and for all the prophecies of cataclysms that many doomsayers have touted on the Internet, the end of this period is not the end of all things, far from it. It is the dawn of a new era – a chance for a fresh beginning, a time for reflection and renewal. It is a time for heightened consciousness about the fragility of our planet and for us to come together to protect and cherish it and work for peace and positive change in our lives and the world during the fourteenth b’aktun.

It is also a time to visit the treasures of the Maya World and to marvel at the art, architecture and astronomical achievements of the civilization that once dominated southeast Mexico and Central America from 1,800 B.C. until the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century. The Maya are still a thriving population today, six million strong–one million of them in the Yucatan, keepers of the old ways and proud of their heritage.

Here is a short guide to some of the major archaeological sites in the states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo to get you started and there are many more. What are you waiting for? Start exploring!

Yucatán

Chichén Itzá


Two and a half hours from Cancun, the ancient capital of the Itzae Maya, Chichén Itzá is the most famous city in the Yucatán. It was once a major power and a sacred center where rulers and astronomers once watched the heavens for portents. A masterpiece of architecture and art, the city still has an aura of power and mystery.

Archaeologists have found fragments of pottery in Chichén Itzá indicating that there was a settlement at the site as far back as 300 B.C., although it wasn’t until the Late Classic period A.D. 750-900 that the first stone temples and palaces were built and the city began to expand. At the height of its glory A.D. 800-1150, Chichén Itzá controlled the Yucatán politically, commercially and militarily. Its power began to wane around 1150 and by 1250 the city had been abandoned.

The principal buildings are the Pyramid of Kukulcán (El Castillo), the Observatory, Temple of the Warriors, Ball Court, Temple of the Jaguars, Tzompantli and the Las Monjas complex. A short walk from the central square is the Sacred Well, a huge cenote, which was the site of sacrifices to Chaac, the rain god.

The Pyramid of Kukulcán is a solar clock. It is so precisely aligned that during the Spring and Fall Equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the north face of the pyramid catches the rays of the setting sun and triangles of light and shadow form along the staircase, creating the illusion of a gigantic serpent, Kukulcán (the feathered serpent god) returning to earth to rejoin his followers.

The magnificent buildings we see today have earned Chichén Itza a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.

Ek Balam


A 30-minute drive north of Valladolid is the ancient city of Ek Balam, “black jaguar or star jaguar” in Maya. The city flourished between A.D. 250-1200 and its crowning glory is the façade on the upper level of the Acropolis, the principal building, which features the magnificent stucco figure of an ancient lord thought to be the first ruler of the city and founder of a powerful dynasty. The figure’s ornate feathered headdress resembles wings and led many people to refer to him as “el angel” or the angel.

Uxmal


An hour’s drive from Mérida, Uxmal is one of the loveliest ancient cities in the Maya World. During the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900), it was a regional capital, controlling southwest Yucatán and a chain of smaller cities referred to as the Puuc Route: Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná.

Apart from location, these sites share a unique architectural and artistic style called Puuc. In recognition of their outstanding cultural worth, UNESCO declared them a World Heritage area in 1996.

Highlights at Uxmal are the Magician’s Pyramid, the Nuns’ Quadrangle, a gracious courtyard surrounded by four palace-like buildings with magnificent friezes, the Temple of the Birds, Palace of the Governor and the adjoining Great Pyramid, The House of the Turtles and El Palomar. “Uxmal” means “thrice built” in Maya.

Kabah
Thirty minutes south of Uxmal, Kabah is the second largest site in the Puuc hills and was one of its vassals. It is famous for the Codz Poop, or the Palace of the Masks, a name that does justice to its magnificent façade consisting of 250 masks depicting Chaac, the Mayan rain god.

Sayil
Seven kilometers south of Kabah is Sayil, which means

“place of the ants” in Maya. The principal building on site is the three-tiered Palace, a long building containing 94 chambers, porticos, columns, Chaac masks and sculptures of the descending or diving god, also seen in Tulum on the Caribbean coast.

Xlapak
The smallest of the Puuc Route sites, Xlapak is best known for the Palace, a tiny building covered with intricate carvings and masks depicting Chaac the rain god, in a forest clearing.

Labna
Ten kilometers to the east of Sayil, Labna is famous for its huge arch, which was the gateway between the ceremonial plaza and a courtyard surrounded by palaces in ancient times. The arch has an open work roof comb and its finely carved façade features Chaac masks, Mayan huts, nobles and geometric motifs.

Mayapan
Located 30 miles south of Merida, Mayapan was the last capital of the Maya in the Yucatan. Founded around A.D. 1250 during the post-Classic period of Mayan civilization, it was abandoned in 1450. Several of Mayapan’s most important buildings show similarities to those at Chichen Itza, leading archaeologists to speculate that it was settled by Maya from Chichen, which was abandoned around 1250.

Quintana Roo

Tulum


Perched on a rock bluff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, Tulum is one of the Maya World’s most spectacular sites. “Tulum” means “wall” in Maya, a reference to the sturdy stone barrier that protects it on three sides, the fourth being the sea, but in ancient times the city was known as Zama or Dawn.

An inscription on a stela or standing stone found at the site reveals that Tulum was inhabited as far back as A.D. 564 although it reached its peak during the Post-Classic period (1250–1521) as a port on the sea and land trade routes.

The principal building at Tulum is a temple known as El Castillo; other important groupings are the Temple of the Descending God, Temple of the Frescos and the House of the Columns.

Coba


From Tulum, visitors can head inland to the ancient city of Coba (25 miles/41 km from the coast), one of the Maya World’s largest archaeological sites.

Coba means “waters ruffled by the wind” in Maya and the pyramids and temples at this jungle site are clustered around four shallow lakes. The city reached its peak during the Mayan Classic period, A.D. 250-900, when it was an important trade center. Archaeologists believe that it may have had links with Tikal in Guatemala.

The principal buildings or groups at Coba are Nohoch Mul, at 42 meters, the tallest pyramid in the northern Yucatán, the Cobá group, La Iglesia (another pyramid), Las Pinturas, the Ball Court, Xaibe and the Macanxoc group which has nine circular altars and eight stelae.

Cobá is also famous for the sacbes or ceremonial Mayan roads that radiate from the heart of the city. The longest sacbe in the Maya World links the city with the site of Yaxuná, near Chichén Itzá and is 101 kilometers long.

Muyil
A 20-minute drive south of Tulum, Muyil (also known as Chunyaxche) is located on the shores of a lagoon with the same name and is the largest of the 23 archaeological sites found to date in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

In ancient times Muyil was a trade enclave with links to cities deep in the Yucatan and ports along the Caribbean coast and in Central America. The Maya dredged and widened a natural canal running through the wetlands between the city and the sea to create a trade route for their canoes.

Climb the waterfront observation tower for a spectacular view of the jungle and the lagoons of northern Sian Ka’an.

Chacchoben
Continue along Highway 307 and Chacchoben is the next archaeological site, look for the turn-off marked “Chacchoben” near the village of Limones.

Chacchoben, which means “red corn” in Maya, is the largest archaeological site found to date in central Quintana Roo. The buildings known as the Great Acropolis, the Vias and Group II have been restored and work is continuing at the site. Ceramic incense burners and traces of glyphs associated with time keeping, planets and the equinoxes and solstices point to its importance as a ceremonial center.

Archaeologists have discovered that Chacchoben was inhabited from around A.D. 200 and reached its peak in A.D. 700. It was abandoned and later resettled during the Post-Classic period. By studying the architectural style they deduced that it had links with cities in the Peten region of northern Guatemala.

Oxtankah
Located on the shores of Chetumal Bay, 16 kilometers to the north of the state capital, the archaeological site of Oxtankah has temples dating from A.D 200-600 and much simpler later buildings built around AD 1000. The ruins of a Spanish chapel built some time during the 16th or 17th century, also lie on the site.

Kohunlich
The most famous archaeological site in southern Quintana Roo, 60 kilometers to the west of Chetumal via Highway 186, Kohunlich was first reported in 1912 by Raymond Merwin. The name “Kohunlich” is derived from the English words “cohune,” a native palm tree, and “ridge.”

Excavation work has revealed that the city was founded around 200 B.C. and reached its peak during the Classic period of Mayan history (A.D. 200 – 1000). Building work appears to have ceased around 1200.

Kohunlich is famous for the huge stucco masks that flank the staircase of the Temple of the Masks. Archaeologists believe that they depict the city’s rulers who chose to identify themselves with the sun god, Kinich Ahau, to legitimize their rule. Other important groups of buildings are the Acropolis, the Courtyard of the Stelae, the Palace of the King, Merwin Plaza and the elite residential areas known as the 27 Steps Complex and Pixa’an.

Dzibanche
Located in the jungle 81 kilometers northwest of Chetumal via Highway 186, Dzibanche is an ancient city that is still revealing its secrets. Discovered in 1927 by Thomas Gann, Dzibanche means “writing on wood” in Maya, a reference to the calendar inscriptions found on the carved lintel of zapote wood above the doorway to Temple VI.

Experts believe that Dzibanche was the largest and most important city in southern Quintana Roo in ancient times and may have been involved in a power struggle with other city-states in the region such as Calakmul in Campeche. The city reached its peak between A.D. 300 and 1200.

The most important groups of buildings are the Temple of the Lintels; the Gann Plaza, which is flanked by the Temples of the Cormorants, Captives and Toucans; Xibalba Plaza, the site of the Temple of the Owl and the North and South Palaces.
An outlying district of the city, Kinichna (“House of the Sun” in Maya) is located about two kilometers north of Dzibanche and is dominated by a temple called the Acropolis.

More Maya World Highlights
If you are planning a longer vacation why not venture further afield in the Maya World? Not to be missed are the archaeological sites of Edzná and Calakmul in Campeche. Calakmul is a huge ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the biosphere reserve of the same name, close to the Guatemalan border, that dominated a chain of lesser sites such as Xpuhil, Becan, Chicanna and Balamku, and struck fear into the hearts of rival rulers throughout the region.

The Gulf coast state of Tabasco is famous for Comalcalco, the only Mayan city built with clay bricks instead of stone, Pomoná and Tortuguero, where the fragment of a stela or standing stone with a carved inscription referring to December 21, 2012 and a vague reference to the return of a god – the only one found to date – was recovered.

Chiapas boasts some of the most beautiful and important Mayan cities that flourished during the Classic period or Golden Age of Mayan culture. The white city of Palenque, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is nestled in the forest-covered foothills of the Sierra Norte de Chiapas; Yaxchilán is on the shores of the Usumacinta River deep in the Lacandon Jungle and Bonampak is famous for the vivid murals showing scenes of courtly life, war, prisoners, rituals and sacrifice, that adorn three chambers in an ancient temple. Other archaeological sites in Chiapas include Toniná, Izapa, Chiapa de Corzo, Tenam Puente and Chinkultik.

Palenque – Photo by Ryan McFarland

Crossing international borders, more Mayan masterpieces await in Central America. Visit Lamanai, Altun Ha, Xunantunich and Caracol in Belize. The Petén region of northern Guatemala is peppered with archaeological sites, headed by Tikal, the largest city of them all. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famous for its soaring twin temples topped with roof crests, and for the powerful dynasty that ruled it in ancient times. Other major Petén sites include El Mirador, Uaxactún, Yaxhá, Topoxte, Zotz, Ceibal, Dos Pilas, Altar de Sacrificios and Piedras Negras. Further south, Quiriguá is another UNESCO World Heritage Site with immense stelae (one of which is 33 feet high) that was at war with the nearby city of Copán in Honduras. Copán is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and through the patient study of the hieroglyphic inscriptions on stelae, temple walls and staircases, archaeologists have managed to identify long-lost rulers and chart their fortunes.

And of course, ancient pyramids, palaces and temples are only the beginning of the Maya World’s many attractions. Take the opportunity to meet the modern-day descendents of the temple builders by visiting their rural communities and learning about their daily lives and timeless traditions. Explore colonial cities such as Mérida, Valladolid, Izamal, Campeche and San Cristóbal de Las Casas and finally, revel in nature, as wonders are all around you. Visitors to the Maya World can dive the world’s second longest coral reef, the Mesoamerican Reef, cruise to offshore islands, relax on powder-white beaches, swim with whale sharks, turtles and rays and snorkel in crystal-clear cenotes or sinkholes. In Chiapas and Guatemala they can climb mountains and volcanoes and visit spectacular waterfalls and lakes. Wherever they are, they can go in search of some of the colorful animals and birds that make their home in the area’s jungles, cloud forests and wetlands.
You’ll find additional posts on the archaeological sites and colonial cities of the Yucatán Peninsula in the History section of this blog.

Chichén Itzá – Wonder of the World

Pyramid of Kukulcan, Chichén Itzá

Discover Chichén Itzá, the ancient capital of the Itzae Maya, declared a World Heritage Site in 1988 and voted one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in a 2007 global poll. The name of this impressive city means “mouth of the well of the Itzae” in Maya and may refer to the two huge cenotes at the site.

Chichén’s Early History
Archaeologists have found fragments of pottery in Chichén Itzá indicating that there was a settlement at the site as far back as 300 B.C., although it wasn’t until the Late Classic period A.D. 750 -900 that the first stone temples and palaces were built and the city began to expand. Archaeologists have recently deciphered hieroglyphic inscriptions found at a temple called the Casa Colorada which reveal the names of long-lost rulers of the city and rival center Ek Balam and give the date of A.D. 869, the earliest found to date at the site.
Chichén Itzá’s earliest architects and artists followed the Puuc architectural and artistic style then in vogue in the Yucatán and most closely identified with the rival city of Uxmal. Friezes profusely decorated with masks of the rain god, Chaac, serpents, columns and fretwork characterize this ornate style.

Invasions & Empire Building
At some point during the 10th century, Chichén was invaded and colonized by the Itzae, a Chontal or Putun Maya tribe from the Gulf coast of Campeche and Tabasco. The Itzae were warriors and traders and had close ties with other Mesoamerican cultures in the highlands of central Mexico. Archaeologists studying the similarities between buildings in Chichén Itzá and Tula in Hidalgo long speculated on the possibility of a second wave of invaders of Toltec origin, although in recent years this theory has now been replaced by the concept of the Itzae as “Mexicanized Maya” in reference to the cultural influences they brought with them. Whatever their origin, the Itzae transformed Chichén into a major power using a combination of warfare, alliances and commerce.

The Itzae initiated a second building boom and the influence of highland Mexico is tangible in the monuments they left. The architectural style featured platforms, columns and wide doorways, round buildings, terraced pyramids, temascales or steam baths, and talud tablero platforms with sloping walls decorated with carved panels. Their art was somewhat sinister and very warlike: knights, ball players being sacrificed, skulls, eagles, jaguars devouring hearts, and the feathered serpent. They also erected columns carved in the likeness of warriors called Atlantes and Chac Mools, reclining figures with hands cupped to receive the heart of a sacrificial victim.

At the height of its glory (A.D. 800 – 1150), Chichén Itzá controlled the Yucatán politically, commercially and militarily. The great metropolis extended for 30 square kilometers with all the major buildings clustered in a core area of six square kilometers. A wall protected the ceremonial heart of the city and a network of 70 sacbes or roads linked different temple complexes, ten ball courts, markets, residential areas and nearby settlements.

The city was cosmopolitan and outward looking and it is quite possible that several groups of different origin could have lived there at one time in distinct neighborhoods. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people inhabited the hinterland, eking out a living on the stony terrain by growing corn, tending orchards, hunting wild game and bee keeping. Cash crops such as cacao, cotton and tobacco were grown in pockets of deeper soil known as rejolladas, and were probably controlled by the elite.

Decline & Discoveries
Chichén Itzá’s power began to wane around 1150 and by 1250 the city had been abandoned. The Itzae migrated south and founded a new city called Tayasal on the shores of Lake Petén Itza in Guatemala. With the coming of the Spaniards, Tayasal was the last city to succumb to the invaders, holding out until 1697.

Mayan pilgrims continued to visit Chichén Itzá to worship at the Sacred Cenote, a tradition that endured after the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. Spanish chronicles relate that such was the majesty of the site that Francisco de Montejo, the military leader who conquered the Yucatán, considered making it his capital.

Friar Diego de Landa described Chichén Itzá in his account of Yucatán before the Spanish Conquest, but it wasn’t until the 19th century when news of the city reached the outside world. John L Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited the site in 1841, and you can read about their adventures and see Catherwood’s drawings in the books Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (1843). Other explorers followed in their wake, including Augustus Le Plongeon (1873), an eccentric who found the first Chac Mool statue at the site and sought to link Chichén Itza with Atlantis and the ancient Egyptians; Desire Charnay (1880), who remarked upon the similarities between Chichén Itzá and the Toltec city of Tula in central Mexico; Alfred P. Maudslay (1888) who produced maps and drawings of some of the buildings; Teobert Maler (1884) who photographed the site and Edward H. Thompson, the American Consul in the Yucatán and an amateur archaeologist who became one of the most controversial figures in Mayan archaeology.

Large-scale excavation projects at Chichén Itzá began with a joint Mexico-Carnegie Institute project in 1924, initially led by American archaeologist, Sylvanus Morley. Since 1993, the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has been excavating and restoring buildings at the site.

Exploring Chichén Itzá

Pyramid of Kukulcán
Dominating the Great Plaza, the 25-meter-high El Castillo or the Pyramid of Kukulcán was built between 1000 to 1150 on top of older temples dating from A.D. 650 -800. The earlier buildings are inside the pyramid we see today and can be visited via a dark, narrow staircase. A chac mool statue guards the entrance to the inner sanctum where there is a magnificent throne in the form of a red jaguar with jade spots and eyes. The jaguar was discovered with an offering of coral, sacrificial flint knives and a turquoise mosiac disc.

The pyramid is a solar clock, aligned to catch the rays of the sun. As it sets on the spring and fall equinoxes in March and September, triangles of light and shadow form along the side of the north staircase and the figure of a snake appears, merging with the stone serpent head at the foot of the building, creating the illusion of a gigantic serpent slithering down from the heavens and across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote.

The snake symbolizes Kukulcán (also known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), the feathered serpent god, returning to earth to give hope to his followers and heralding the harvest season for the Maya.

The pyramid also represents the ancient Mayan calendar as the number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases, including the top platform, equals 365, the days in the year.

The Ball Court
The Ball Court in the Great Plaza is the largest in the Maya World. It was here that the Maya played a fast-moving ball game in which teams of warriors had to get a rubber ball through a stone ring high up on the wall of the court with their elbows, wrists and hips without kicking it or using their hands. Priests and nobles would watch the game from the viewing platform in the South Temple.

The ball game had religious and mythological overtones and was linked to the eternal battle between light and darkness, good and evil, death and rebirth. The carved panels on the court walls show warriors, ball players in full regalia and the ritual decapitation of one of the team captains.

The North Temple is also called the Temple of the Bearded Man after a personage that appears in one of the carvings. Bas-reliefs and mural paintings depict Kukulcán, serpents and trees sprouting from the heads of earth monsters. The Temple of the Jaguars is also part of the complex, and the lower temple is accessible from the Great Plaza.

The acoustics in the ball court are incredible – you can literally stand at one end and clap and be heard by someone standing at the other end, 146 meters away.

The Temple of the Jaguars
The jaguar or balam was a sacred animal for the Maya; it was the bearer of the sun on its nightly journey through the Underworld and was associated with war on account of its ferocity and strength. It comes as no surprise that the jaguar was venerated in the warlike city of the Itzae and that it even has a temple to honor it.

Jaguars, Mayan and “Toltec” warriors, feathered serpents and even a battle scene appear in the friezes in the upper and lower temples. The lower temple also has a jaguar throne.

Tzompantli
This low platform in the Great Plaza was a skull rack upon which the heads of sacrificial victims or captives were displayed. The wall carvings have a military theme and show skulls, warriors, serpents and eagles devouring hearts.

Eagles and Jaguars Platform
This low platform has four staircases and balustrades carved in the likeness of feathered serpents. The wall panels feature eagles and jaguars eating hearts and a reclining warrior who is thought to be Kukulcán holding a lance.

Venus Platform
Also flanking the plaza, this platform has staircases and feathered serpent balustrades. Kukulcán appears in the wall panels as the planet Venus emerging from a jaws of a serpent and the woven mat symbol of kingship is also visible. It was here that Augustus Le Plongeon unearthed the first chac mool statue to be found at the site

Temple of the Mesas
Excavated and restored several years ago, this temple has an altar supported by warriors and yielded offerings of a jade breastplate and figurines, mortars, pestles and obsidian mirror holders. Friezes and murals in the temples are still being reconstructed and feature jaguars, feathered serpents, trees and warriors.

Temple of the Warriors
Built on top of an earlier temple called Chac Mool, the massive Temple of the Warriors is famous for its columns covered with carvings of warriors and priests; panels featuring Kukulcán emerging from the jaws of a snake, jaguars and eagles devouring hearts, a mural showing an attack on a coastal village by seagoing warriors in canoes, Atlantes figures, standard bearers, and a Chac Mool statue on the upper level surrounded by feathered serpent pillars that once supported the temple roof. The architecture is a blend of Mayan and central Mexican elements.

The Court of a Thousand Columns
The colonnades in front of and to the south of the Temple of the Warriors were originally covered with a wooden roof and may have been halls that were used during ceremonies or for gatherings during which nobles discussed city policy. The colonnade extending from the front of the Temple of the Warriors to the northwest consists of 221 pillars, each one carved with a unique portrait of a warrior, priest, noble and captives. The courtyard formed by these walkways housed ball courts, temples, steam baths and the Mercado or Market, also thought to have been the site of the Popol Nah or council chamber.

The Sacred Well
A short walk from the Great Plaza along a sacbe is the Sacred Cenote, a deep sinkhole that was once the site of sacrificial ceremonies to appease Chaac, the rain god. The Maya believed that cenotes and caves were entrances to the Underworld, the home of the gods and therefore holy places.

The well was first dredged in 1904-7 by Edward H. Thompson, who destroyed many artifacts in the process and then even more controversially smuggled the valuable finds out of the country to the Peabody Museum where many of them remain to this day. Later exploration took place under the auspices of INAH in 1960-61 and 1967-8. Over 30,000 artifacts have been recovered from the murky depths of the cenote including golden discs, figurines and jewelry, jade, copper, turquoise, obsidian, copal incense, rubber balls, wooden lances and staffs, pottery, the bones of animals and around 200 people, mostly children and old men who had the misfortune to be selected as sacrificial victims.

Turquoise originated in the American southwest, obsidian is from the Mexican highlands and the gold is thought to have come from northern Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, proof of Chichén Itzá´s vast trade network.

The Sacred Well is one of two large cenotes on the site, the other, Cenote Xtoloc, supplied the city with drinking water.

The Ossuary
Also known as the Tomb of the High Priest in reference to the burials found in a cave under the pyramid, the Ossuary was built some time during the 9th century. The wall carvings feature serpents, birds with the face of Itzamna, the chief god in the Mayan pantheon, cacao, fruit, Chaac masks and images of Kukulcan.

En route to the Observatory you see the House of the Deer and the Chichanchob or Colored House, two of the site’s earlier buildings. Archaeologists are currently studying hieroglyphic inscriptions found at the Colored House.

Ancient Observatory
El Caracol, also known as the Observatory, is a round tower on a square platform that was used by ancient Mayan priests and astronomers to study the heavens. It has a viewing platform and wells to mirror starlight, and was aligned to catch sunsets and moonsets on both equinoxes and to mark the course of Venus. Round towers are rare in the Maya World and are a central Mexican innovation. Archaeologists have discovered that the Observatory had at least six building phases.

The Puuc buildings
The group of buildings located to the south of the Observatory was built during the period A.D. 600-900 in the Puuc architectural style typical of southwestern Yucatan and characterized by elaborate friezes featuring curl snouted masks of Chaac, the rain god. The largest building is Las Monjas, which had seven building phases and was christened “The Nunnery” by Diego de Landa because it resembled the convents of Spain. The East Annex and La Iglesia (the Church) are smaller buildings with magnificent upper friezes.

Chichén Viejo
South of Las Monjas, a sacbe leads through the forest to a cluster of buildings known as Old Chichen, a 25-minute walk away. Archaeologists are still working in this area, excavating and restoring the ruined temples that were built between the 7th and 10th centuries. The buildings include the Temple of the Initial Series, the Temple of the Owls, the Temple of the Phallus and the Temple of the Three Lintels.

Chichén Itzá Light & Sound Show
The evening Chichen Itzá Light and Sound Show in the archaeological site is highly recommended.

Balancanche Cave
A labyrinth of caves and underground rivers lies deep in the heart of the limestone landscape of the Yucatán. In ancient times, cenotes or sinkholes, which form when cave roofs weaken and subside, were the only source of fresh water for area inhabitants and settlements were located near these natural wells.

Cenotes and caves were also sacred sites for the ancient Maya who believed that they were the entrances to Xibalbá, the underworld, and the realm of the gods. Priests would visit them in secret to perform rites in honor of their deities.

Located six kilometers to the east of Chichén Itzá on Highway 180 and considered by many archaeologists to be part of the site, Balancanché or “throne of the jaguar” in Maya is one such cave. Incense burners, statues of Chaac, the Mayan rain god and his central Mexican counterpart, Tlaloc, and other offerings ¬were found at the foot of a huge stalagmite which resembles the ceiba or sacred tree of the Maya, when the caves were first explored. They were left in situ and you can see them during your visit to the caves.

You can listen to a guided tour in English, Spanish or French as you explore the caves. Be warned, the narrow path is not for the claustrophobic. There is a tiny museum and a botanical garden at the site.

Getting to Chichén Itzá
Thomas More Travel offers a variety of day trips to Chichén Itzá & Chichen Itza Tours , for information contact tourdesk@royalresorts.com If you would like to explore at your own pace, Chichén Itzá is 200 km/125 miles from Cancún; take the toll road to Pisté or Highway 180 via Valladolid.

Chaac, the Mayan Rain God

Chaac Mask - Kabah, Yucatan

Photo by: Emmanuel H (Flickr)

In the Yucatán, a limestone landscape with no surface rivers, where cenotes or sinkholes and a labyrinth of underground waterways are the only source of fresh water, and tropical heat bakes the vegetation, it comes as no surprise that the Mayan rain god Chaac or Chac was especially revered in ancient times. Indeed, the distant rumble of thunder, dark clouds on the horizon and the coming of the life-giving rains in May is still a reason to celebrate and for farmers to breathe a sigh of relief after the long dry season.

Chaac is associated with precious life-giving water, fertility, birth, growth and plenty. Creatures believed to be creatures of Chaac included frogs, toads and turtles. Throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, priests worshipped the god in the depths of caves and on the banks of cenotes, and offerings to Chaac and ceramic effigies of the god have been recovered in Balancanche Cave near Chichén Itzá and at other sites in the area.

Chaac Mask at Chichen Itza, Yucatan

Photo by: Bernard D (Flickr)

There was a Chaac god for the cardinal points, each with a different color: Sac Xib Chac, White Chac of the North, Chac Xib Chac, Red Chac of the East, Kan Xib Chac, Yellow Chac of the South and Ek Xib Chac, Black Chac of

the West, all of which were heralded by lightning and thunder.

Elaborate friezes featuring curl snouted masks of Chaac with fangs and reptilian eyes adorn the facades of temples in Chichén Itzá and ancient cities along the Puuc Route in southwest Yucatán. Water was scarce in the Puuc Hills and unlike the plain there are no cenotes to tide communities over the dry season, so understandably the benevolence of Chaac was even more important. Chaac masks and the carved likenesses of frogs and turtles crop up at sites throughout the area. At Uxmal, Sayil and Labná, the Maya also built chultunes or reservoirs to store the precious rainfall during the dry season.

Another Puuc Route site, Kabah is famous for the Codz Pop, or the Palace of the Masks, a name that does justice to its magnificent façade consisting of 250 Chaac masks.

Chaac masks at the Codz Pop Temple, Kabah, Yucatan

Photo by: M Rondana (Flickr)

To this day, Mayan hmen or priests perform the Cha Chaac ceremony, a plea to the ancient god to send rainfall to the milpas or cornfields.

San Bernardino de Sisal Convent Valladolid Yucatan, Mexico
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Valladolid, a Magical Community in the Yucatan

San Servasio Cathedral, Valladolid, Yucatan

Traditionally a popular stop en route to the Mayan metropolis of Chichen Itza, Merida or the Gulf Coast biosphere reserve of Rio Lagartos, the Yucatan’s second largest city, Valladolid, is a fascinating travel destination in its own right. A civic program has restored many of the city’s colonial buildings to their former glory and the central square bustles with life. On August 30, 2012 it was declared one of the “Pueblos Magicos” by the Mexico Tourism Board and now joins another Yucatecan colonial treasure Izamal in the Pueblos Magicos listing, a collection of magical communities scattered throughout the country that are rich in history, traditions, their craft or culinary heritage, festivals or natural beauty and that no visitor should miss.

Affectionately referred to as the “Sultana of the East” by local people, Valladolid is steeped in history. Attracted by a huge cenote (sinkhole), which was the only source of fresh water in the area, the Maya first settled here during the Post-Classic period (900 – 1521 A.D.), calling the site Zaci or Saci in honor of one of their leaders. Also called Zaci, the cenote still exists and is accessible from Calle 36. With sheer rock walls festooned with jungle creepers and swallows skimming the surface of the green water to scoop up insects, the cenote is reminiscent of the much larger Sacred Well at Chichen Itza. There is a rustic restaurant overlooking the cenote and the view at the full moon is breathtaking.

cenote zaci yucatan

Cenote Zaci – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

Photo by bryandkeith

The Coming of the Spaniards
In 1543, despite fierce resistance from the Maya, Francisco de Montejo El Mozo and his followers overran Zaci, destroyed the temples and founded their own city, laying the streets out around the main square in a grid. During the Colonial Period, Valladolid was the commercial center of the eastern Yucatan and was dominated by a handful of Spanish families.

In 1847, centuries of exploitation and social injustice came to a head and the bloody uprising known as the Caste War exploded in Tepich, a Mayan community to the south, and quickly spread to Valladolid. The Maya attacked the city with such fury that the citizens who survived the initial raid were forced to beat a retreat to Merida.
Strolling through the park in the tranquil central square, it is hard to imagine that Valladolid had such a violent past, yet the paintings by Marco Lizama, which line the balcony at City Hall, depict the Spanish Conquest and Caste War, in addition to Valladolid’s most important native sons. Behind City Hall, the tiny San Roque Museum features displays on city history, including La Chispa, a 1910 uprising against social injustice that was the spark that ignited the Mexican Revolution.

The San Servasio Cathedral (built in 1705 on the site of an earlier church dating from 1545) dominates the main square and the Valladolid skyline, its twin towers visible from every part of the city. As night falls, the bells summon worshippers to evening mass and visitors can sometimes witness the arrival of local brides. Seven other barrios or neighborhoods such as Santa Lucia and La Candelaria have their own smaller colonial chapels and a stroll through the streets and squares to visit them is highly recommended.

San Servasio Cathedral - Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

San Servasio Cathedral – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

The city’s other major landmark is the imposing San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent, 1.5 kilometers to the southwest of the square along Calle 41 and 41-A. Founded by the Franciscans in 1552, the San Bernardino complex was the center of missionary work with Mayan communities in the eastern Yucatán. Another cenote lies under the floor of the convent and there is also a network of tunnels from the mission leading across the city. History tells us that they were used in times of strife.

San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent - Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

The convent is now the site of many cultural and community events during the year and the lawn in front of the building is a popular meeting place for local people.

En route to the church and convent, visitors can stroll along the Calzada de los Frailes and see some of the colonial houses that have been renovated as part of the city’s Heritage program. Other Valladolid landmarks include the exhibition of Mayan ceramics in Los Portales on the main square, a perfumery creating fragrances from native flowers and herbs, jewelry and textile workshops. You can even watch chocolate being made using traditional Mexican techniques and cacao grown in the Maya World.

Located at Calle 40, a short walk from the main square is Casa de los Venados or the “House of the Deer.” Built between 1600 and 1620, this impressive casona or hacienda-style house was once the home of the Alcalde or Mayor during the Colonial period. Abandoned since 1964 and crumbling into ruin, it was purchased by American couple John and Dorianne Venator ten years ago and has been lovingly restored. Merida-based architect William Ramirez has blended contemporary architecture with the original colonial features and facade in a way that has won the house awards in architectural competitions in Yucatan, Mexico and in Costa Rica.

In addition to being a private home, Casa de los Venados also houses a collection of Mexican folk and contemporary art, the reflection of a lifelong passion for Mexico. More than 3,000 pieces ranging from giant trees of life, ceramic jaguars and carved wooden masks to Day of the Dead art, Frida Kahlo-inspired tiles and murals by local artists are exhibited throughout the house in what is one of the extensive collections of folk art in private hands, and a joyous celebration of the creativity, color and humor of the country’s artisans. Tours of Casa de los Venados and its collection can be arranged with an advance reservation and visitors are asked to give a 60-peso donation to the owners’ charitable foundation to support local causes such as a clinic and community health programs, education and the arts in Valladolid.

Sightseeing over, spend some time sitting on a park bench or stroll through the main square for a glimpse of life in the Yucatan. Visit the market and the Craft Center to shop for locally made embroidered dresses, hammocks, straw hats, leather, gold filigree jewelry and honey. You’ll also find a good selection of crafts from other parts of the country in La Casona, another colonial mansion restored by the Xcaret Group that is now a restaurant serving delicious Yucatecan cuisine. Be sure to sample some of the city’s culinary specialties: lomitos de Valladolid (roast pork) and longaniza (spicy chorizo-style sausage).

Main Square - Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

Main Square – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

Getting to Valladolid
Valladolid is 160 km/100 miles from Cancun via the toll road and Highway 180. Thomas More Travel offers trips to the town and also to Valladolid and Ek Balam on Thursdays. Contact tourdesk@thomasmoretravel.com for more information. If you would like to explore at your own pace, side trips to Dzitnup Cenote, five minutes to the west of town, Ik-Kil Cenote, 30 minutes away en route to Chichen Itza, and the ancient Mayan site of Ek Balam, 20 minutes to the north on the highway to Tizimin and the Gulf Coast are recommended.

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Mexican Heritage: Day of the Dead Festival

Garlands of bright orange marigolds, calaveras or sugar skulls, flickering candles, pan de muerto bread and above all, altars laden with offerings to the dearly departed, these are the symbols of one of Mexico’s most important and colorful festivals, Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead, which takes place on November 1 and 2. Given the importance of this timeless fiesta, which has its roots in pre-Hispanic Mexico, UNESCO granted it World Heritage status in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity category in 2008.

day of the dead mexico

Maya women in traditional dresses or hipiles next to a Day of the Dead altar, Festival de Vida y Muerte, Xcaret. Photo courtesy of Xcaret.

Ancient Beliefs
For the ancient cultures of Mexico, including the Maya and the Aztecs, death was the beginning of an eternal journey to the Underworld and the realm of the death gods. When people died, ground corn was placed in their mouth to sustain them and the body was surrounded by offerings befitting his/her rank, trade or sex, food and their treasured belongings. Nobles were buried with jade jewelry and beads, ornate funeral masks, polychrome pottery, conch and spiny oyster shells, weapons and cinnabar. Servants and dogs and other animals would be killed and buried with their masters to serve and guide them in the afterlife.

Whether the soul traveled to the heavens to be with the gods or the darkest and most distant reaches of the Underworld reserved for those in purgatory depended on conduct during life. Warriors, women who died in childbirth, sacrificial victims, suicides, priests and rulers were destined to dwell in the heavens.

day of the dead mexico

Puente al Paraíso, replica of a traditional Mexican cemetery at Xcaret. Photo courtesy of Xcaret.

The Mayan gods associated with death were Ah Puch, Yum Kíimil, Kisin and Xtab, the goddess associated with suicide. The Aztec goddess of death was called Mictecacihuatl or the “lady of death.”

With the coming of the Spanish friars in the 16th century, ancient beliefs deemed pagan and barbaric were outlawed by the Church. Yet the custom of honoring the dead and one’s ancestors continued and was transformed, becoming a syncretism of pre-Hispanic customs and Catholic ritual. For example, before the Spanish Conquest, Aztec rites in honor of the dead took place at the beginning of August and lasted for a month; with the advent of Christianity, the festival was moved to coincide with All Saints’ and All Souls Day at the beginning of November.

A Journey Through Time
To this day, Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead are permitted to return to earth at this time of year and they welcome them back with joy tinged with sadness. All over the country tombstones are cleaned and given a fresh lick of paint and are bedecked with flower garlands. Masses and graveside vigils are held and special altars are erected to honor the departed.

Altars are intensely personal and although some objects are indispensable, no one altar is alike. Photos and the treasured personal belongings of the deceased, a cross, rosary and the image of a patron saint or the Virgin of Guadalupe are arranged upon the altar against a backdrop of orange marigolds or cempasuchil, red cockscomb, other flowers, and the herb rue, papel picado or tissue paper cutout banners and candles. Aromatic copal incense burns to attract the spirits. Gourds and clay vessels contain offerings of the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages, fruit, honey, chocolate, atole or corn gruel, tequila, mescal or pulque. Salt and water are always present in case the spirits are thirsty. Toys and candies decorate the altars of children, music lovers are remembered with mariachi serenades and cigarettes or cigars might even feature on the altar of a former smoker.

day of the dead mexico

Traditional Day of the Dead Altar, Valladolid, Yucatán

Candles and a trail of petals mark the way home and a smaller offering with food and water is placed outside the house to welcome lost souls. According to tradition, the souls of children or angelitos, return to earth on October 31, the adults on All Saints’ Day, and the family is reunited on All Souls’ Day.

After visiting the tombs of loved ones, families will consume the offerings of food, which often includes tamales, mole, candied pumpkin and pan de muerto, a sugar coated bread flavored with orange water and served with hot chocolate or gruel.

Pan de Muerto and diverse offerings

day of the dead mexico

Traditional Pan de Muerto

Hanal Pixan, Day of the Dead in Yucatan
The Mayan Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixan, which signifies “feast of souls.” Throughout the Yucatan, families make the pilgrimage to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones and erect altars to honor the souls of children and adults. If the deceased was a happy person who liked to party, the altar will be erected in the yard so that he or she can celebrate without disturbing the living.

Tables laden with offerings of mucbilpollo, large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit and gourds of tan-chucua, a thick corn drink flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed are set up under the trees outside the house. Pumpkins, squash, corn, bread, fruit, sweets, honey cakes and flowers are added and the candles are lit. Incense burns, prayers are said and as night falls on November 1, the Maya believe that the dead draw near to dine. The next day it is the turn of the living; they eat the mucbilpollo, washing it down with gruel, chocolate or balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and the bark of a tree.

Mucbilpollo

Photo: Roving Gastronome – Flickr

During the eight days that the dead return to earth, the Maya abstain from certain tasks such as hunting with guns or sewing so as not to injure one of the wandering souls. Newborn children wear a black thread around their wrists to protect them from any evil spirits that may be near. On the eighth day or ochavario, the dead prepare to depart this earth for another year and new offerings are placed on their tombs to bid them farewell.

La Catrina
Mexicans refer to Death or la Muerte as a woman, giving her nicknames such as La Catrina, La Flaca or La Huesuda (the skinny or bony one). They joke and even write humorous poems called Calaveras about her on the Day of the Dead. The engravings of 19th century artist, José Guadalupe Posada, show Death in different costumes and settings, as an elegant lady with feathers in her hat, a bride or a dancer. Ingenious craftsmen make clay, papier-mâché and wooden Catrinas, skulls and skeletons, including miniatures depicting weddings and mariachi bands. There are even Trees of Life depicting skeletons and Death.

day of the dead mexico

La Catrina

Where to witness the Day of the Dead Festival
Altars are erected in stores, restaurants, schools, government offices and town squares throughout Mexico. And wherever you go, markets and stores are full of flowers, candles, sugar skulls, candies, pumpkins, pan de muerto and other traditional goodies associated with the season.

Visitors to Cancun and Playa del Carmen should visit Xcaret for the Festival de Vida y Muerte (Festival of Life and Death), a poignant celebration of all the traditions associated with this annual event. Held on November 1-2, from 4 p.m., activities include processions, exhibitions of altars, cuisine, music, dance, art, theater, concerts and a visit to the colorful Mexican cemetery. Mayan communities from the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan will be sharing their customs with visitors, through altars, cuisine, crafts and performing arts, including theater. Each year a different state is invited to participate in the festival and this year it is the turn of Tabasco. A delegation of more than 100 dancers, musicians, artisans and other performers will be celebrating the heritage of this Gulf coast state.

Watered by Mexico’s most important rivers, the fertile lowland plains of Tabasco were settled as early as 1700 B.C. by the Olmec culture. The Chontal Maya followed and developed strong trading and cultural ties to central Mexico. The oil-rich state is also the cradle of cacao, a gift from Mexico to the world, and is a major producer of bananas, pineapples, mangos, sugar and seafood. The famous tamborileros, bands of drummers and flautists, will be representing their state at the festival.

Cancun is also staging a Day of the Dead Festival with altars being erected in the square in front of City Hall and in Las Palapas Park. The organizers have invited schools, colleges, hotels and residents who moved here from other parts of Mexico to showcase their Day of the Dead traditions. Groups from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz are expected to participate.

In neighboring Yucatan, students from schools and colleges in Valladolid erect altars in the main square or outside San Bernardino de Siena Convent. In Merida, local people and visitors stroll along the Corredor de las Animas (the path of the souls), which follows a route along Calle 66 between La Ermita Church and the City Cemetery, and admire hundreds of altars by the light of candles.

Elsewhere in Mexico
Further afield, Mexico’s most famous Day of the Dead celebrations take place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Oaxaca, the highlands of Veracruz and at Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Keeping up with Tradition
Guests staying at Royal Resorts can see altars on display at The Royal Market and in other parts of the resorts and can sample the traditional pan de muerto and chocolate or café de olla, steaming hot coffee made with piloncillo or unrefined sugar and cinnamon.

day of the dead mexico royal resorts

Altar at The Royal Market, Royal Resorts

Thomas More Travel offers tours to Xcaret, and may be able to assist visitors with tickets for the Festival de Vida y Muerte. Trips to Valladolid and Merida are also available.

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Mariachis, the Heart and Soul of any Mexican Fiesta

Meet Mexico’s most famous musicians

Silence falls as the sombrero-clad musicians take to the stage and in the distance comes the sound of a lone trumpet playing a haunting melody called El Niño Perdido, “the lost child.” Another musician strikes up in response as the mother calls her child. Gradually, the first musician moves closer until the musicians are reunited, at which time all the members of the band join in a rousing and joyous refrain. Meet the mariachis, Mexico’s most famous musicians, now designated UNESCO World Heritage in the intangible culture category. They are the heart of soul of any fiesta, and some of the country’s best-loved cultural ambassadors.

 

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

The Mariachi band at Hacienda Sisal

 

The origin of the mariachi

There are many theories about the origin of the word “mariachi”. Although now refuted, the most popular version for many years was that “mariachi” had its roots in the French word mariage or wedding and that these famous musicians played at weddings during the French occupation of Mexico (1862 – 67). The association of ideas is easy to understand, but the reality is that this theory may have in fact originated as a joke. Today’s linguists and historians suggest that “mariachi” actually comes from the ancient word for the stage or platform upon which dancers and musicians performed during fiestas in the village of Cocula in the state of Jalisco, long before the French set foot in Mexico. In fact, early European visitors to the area reported that the Coca Indian inhabitants of Cocula were talented musicians. During the Colonial period, they adopted musical instruments introduced by the Europeans and began to play in groups, composing songs which often talked about real events and people, and can therefore be identified in historical records. We may never know everything about the origin of the word “mariachi” or the early players, but there is one thing we all agree on: Mariachi is synonymous with fiesta, joy, and above all with a love of Mexico.

You mark the rhythm, and I’ll play the tune…

 

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

A typical Mexican Mariachi

 

A traditional Mexican fiesta just isn’t complete without the music of the mariachis, the songs performed while the audience drinks a toast with a glass of tequila. The musicians make their entrance and as they play the first rousing bars, the party erupts in an outpouring of passion and happiness; some people shout “Viva Mexico”, others do the traditional zapateado or tap dance to the fast rhythm of the guitarrones while the remaining partygoers sing, dance or simply enjoy the celebration. Famous melodies such as La Negra, Las Olas or La Culebra are fiesta favorites and the audience joins the mariachis in song, although these strolling showmen often change the lyrics making them funny or even suggestive.

The original mariachi ensemble was comprised of two violins, a guitar, and the guitarrón and vihuela, two other guitar-like instruments. The trumpet was added later and nowadays mariachi groups without trumpet players are almost impossible to find. Practically all mariachi instruments are made from the wood of the guásima, a tree native to Jalisco. Harps are made from cedar, and the guitarrón is 100 percent Mexican and played only by mariachis. You’ll have no difficulty picking it out – it is the stoutest of the instruments, a characteristic often shared by the man who plays it!

It’s not a question of arriving first; making an entrance is what counts…

The first Cocula mariachis traveled to Mexico City in 1905 to take part in the Mexican Independence festivities, which also conveniently coincided with the birthday of President Porfirio Diaz. In those days, the musicians looked nothing like they do today; they wore the white cotton shirts and trousers and straw hats traditionally worn by Mexican peasant farmers, and not even the more formal garb of the charros or cowboys. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s that mariachis spread throughout Mexico and acquired the look we know today. They owe their fame to the Golden Age of Mexican film and movies starring national idols such as Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. These two actors played the classic Mexican charro: a man who is a loyal, good friend and a gifted singer; and they made their screen appearance in the elegant sombreros and clothing worn by these horsemen on festive occasions. These ornate suits are now and forever associated with mariachis, the very special musicians who have become a symbol of Mexican pride.

 

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

Pedro Infante & Jorge Negrete, Mexican legends

 

From Cocula, mariachis spread throughout the country…

And have conquered the world! Nowhere is their immense popularity more evident than in the International Gathering of Mariachis, which takes place every year in the Teatro Degollado, a beautiful theater in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. Inaugurated in 1994, the event has been growing ever since and now attracts performers from all over Mexico and abroad. Apart from the world’s best mariachi ensembles such as the Mariachi Vargas of America, musicians from Italy, Chile, Australia, Canada and the United States have also taken part.

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

Mariachi Vargas in concert

Mariachis, tequila and tears…

We cannot finish our tale of mariachis without mentioning legendary cantinas or bars such as El Tenampa and El Rincon del Mariachi in Plaza Garibaldi, a famous square in the historic heart of Mexico City, which is now the site of a new museum dedicated to Tequila and Mescal. More than 50 years ago, mariachi musicians and singers based in Plaza Garibaldi began offering their services for parties, serenades and other events, and there are now 3,000 of them working in the area.

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

Plaza Garibaldi, Mexico

The busiest times of year for mariachis are the days when the entire country is celebrating something, such as Mother’s Day when families hire them to serenade Mom. On this day in restaurants all over Mexico, women sit at the head of a table clutching bouquets and shedding tears of happiness as they listen to mariachis playing their favorite song. Another festive occasion is November 22, Saint Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of musicians. A statue of the saint is carried from Santa Maria la Redonda, a church overlooking Plaza Garibaldi, to the Basilica de Guadalupe for a special mass. Even more important is December 12, when mariachis accompany hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to serenade the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Basilica in a celebration that kicks off the day before in the early hours of the morning and draws to a close late the day after. And of course, Mexican Independence in September when songs such as Son de la Negra and el Jarabe Tapatio echo throughout the country.

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

Mariachis in Plaza Garibaldi

Mariachis also have an interesting role in daily life as the messengers of love. Young men still hire them to serenade their fiancées or to win over girls who have caught their eye; while the mariachis perform romantic songs in the street outside the girl’s house, the suitor hides in the shadows gazing up at his beloved’s window. Those unlucky in love seek solace in the cantina, drowning their sorrows in a bottle of tequila and listening to a mariachi patiently play Ella, a classic song about unrequited love and the fickleness of women, by the famous Mexican singer songwriter José Alfredo Jimenez. And when it’s your birthday, the mariachis can always be counted on to strike up another Jimenez song guaranteed to make you feel like a king, El Rey.

 

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

Jose Alfredo Jimenez, "El Rey"

 

Mariachis perform traditional melodies from all over the country, classic ballads and today’s hits, and they can be found everywhere, at weddings, serenades, national fiestas, and churches, on the street and even in graveyards. Mexicans often say, “When I die, I don’t want sad music, bring on the mariachis to play at my funeral.”  In casting out the melancholy, they embrace the vibrant and joyful sound of Mexico’s master musicians.

If you are staying at Royal Resorts in Cancun you can see the Mariachis perform as part of the popular Dinner Shows staged twice a week at Hacienda Sisal restaurant next to The Royal Sands. Don’t miss them and check out our list of Mariachi Favorites.

 

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

Mariachi outside Hacienda Sisal

 

Another excellent place to see mariachis is Xcaret, where they perform in the incredible, colorful and moving evening show called Xcaret de Noche. If you haven’t been to Xcaret yet, Thomas More Travel can help you book your trip to the Riviera Maya’s famous park.

 

Mariachi Mexico | Royal Resorts News Blog

Mariachi band at "Xcaret de Noche" show

 

50 Mariachi Favorites

We did a poll among Royal Resorts staff and came up with the following Mariachi Playlist, songs are not listed in order of preference and the name of the composer is given. If you ever decide to hire these strolling musicians for a tableside serenade, here are some of our favorites for starters, but ask any of your Mexican friends and they’ll come up with many more!

Why not drop us a line and tell us your favorite Mariachi tune?

• El niño perdido (Luis Pérez Meza)
• Las golondrinas (Zamacois-Serradel)
• Cielito lindo (Elpidio Rámirez)
• Mexico lindo y querido (Jesus “Chucho” Monge)
• Guadalajara (José Guizar Morfín)
• La Malaguéña (Elpidio Rámirez)
• El Sinaloense (Severiano Briseño)
• El son de la negra (Silvestre Vargas & Ruben Fuentes)
• Paloma negra (Tomás Méndez)
• Cucurrucucú paloma (Tomás Méndez)
• Caminos de Michoacán (Bulmaro Bermúdez)
• La bikina (Rúben Fuentes)
• Qué bonito es mi tierra (Rúben Fuentes)
• La Bamba (traditional)
• Granada (Agústin Lara)
• El Rey (José Alfredo Jimenez)
• Ella (José Alfredo Jimenez)
• Si nos dejan (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Media vuelta (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Caminos de Guanajuato (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* El siete mares (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Cuando los años pasen (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Deja que salga la luna (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* El último trago (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Me equivoqué contigo (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Paloma querida (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Que se me acabe la vida (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Que te vaya bonito (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Serenata huasteca (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Un mundo raro (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* El jinete (José Alfredo Jimenez)
• Cielo rojo (Juan Záizar)
• Cruz de olvido ((Juan Záizar)
• Maldito corazón (Chucho Navarro)
• Pobre corazón (Chucho Monge)
• El Pastor (traditional Huapango melody)
• Mujeres divinas (Martin Urieta)
• El mariachi loco (Román Palomar Arreola)
• Sabes una cosa (Rúben Fuentes)
* Serenata tapatía (Manuel Esperón)
* Ay Jalisco no te rajes (Manuel Esperón)
* Amorcito corazón ((Manuel Esperón)
* Cocula (Manuel Esperón)
* Esos Altos de Jalisco (Manuel Esperón)
* El topetón (Manuel Esperón)
* El charro mexicano (Manuel Esperón)
* Hasta que perdió Jalisco (Manuel Esperón)
* Tequila con limón (Manuel Esperón)
* Me he de comer esa tuna (Manuel Esperón)
• Noche plateada (Manuel Esperón)

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The Xtabay, Legendary Mayan Temptress

One of the most intriguing characters in Mayan folklore is the Xtabay, a lovely temptress who ensnares men and leads them to their doom, a prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold or the vengeful spirit of a cold-hearted woman, depending on the story or the story teller. There are many versions of the Xtabay legend, some clearly influenced by the Christian values introduced by Colonial friars, others embellished by later writers. Here are three of the most popular versions.

With dread, chicle harvesters, hunters and farmers tell stories of a slim and beautiful woman dressed in white who appears at night combing her long hair and sitting next to a young green ceiba, the Mayan sacred tree. She lures unwary men deeper into the forest and bewitches them. Once they are completely lost and have forgotten their families and everything they ever knew, she shows herself in her true colors as a snake-like demon, a daughter of Ceibam. She sends her victims mad or kills them on the spot with savage blows, bites and scratches, tearing their chests open. Others are dragged off to hell, never to be seen again.

xtabay | royal resorts

Young Ceiba tree

In some Mayan communities in Quintana Roo, the inhabitants believe that the Xtabay is actually the guardian of morals rather than a mysterious siren, who mercilessly punishes drunkards, thieves and those who commit violent crimes.

Another version paints a much more forgiving picture of the Xtabay. The story goes that two very different women lived in a village. The first woman, Xkeban (prostitute or loose woman in Maya), was always in and out of love. The villagers said that love and passion were her sickness and that she gave herself to every man that strayed across her path. Her real name was Xtabay. The second woman, who was the darling of the village, lived near her in a neat little house. Her name was Utz-Colel, which means good, clean and decent woman, and she was virtuous and honest.

Despite her reputation, the Xtabay was as good-hearted as she was beautiful. She was generous to the poor and to those in need, cared for animals that had been abandoned and even traveled to distant villages to help the sick.

In contrast, the garments of Utz-Colel hid a terrible secret: the scaly skin of a snake; she was cold and proud, a hard-hearted woman who never helped the sick and despised the poor.

Several days passed and no one saw the Xkeban come out of her house. The villagers assumed that she had gone off on a spree to the villages and thought no more of it until the scent of flowers began to spread through the community, an intoxicating and seductive fragrance that led them to the home of the Xkeban. They went inside and found her lying there dead, alone and forgotten by all.

When Utz-Colel learned what had happened, she exclaimed that there was no way that such a heavenly perfume could have come from the Xkeban’s corrupt body. She said that it must have been the work of evil spirits leading men on. She assured the villagers that when she died, the fragrance would be even more delightful.

Out of pity, the villagers buried the Xkeban and the next day her grave was covered with a beautiful and sweet-smelling flower previously unknown in the Mayab. There were so many flowers that it looked like a heavenly cascade.

Utz-Colel died shortly after and the entire village turned out for her funeral. The grief-stricken mourners extolled her virtues, saying that she was pure-hearted and had died a virgin. Contrary to Utz-Colel’s claims about her perfume, she was not long in the grave when a foul stench began to creep from the earth.

Mayan storytellers declare that the flower that sprang from the grave of the sinner Xkeban was none other than Xtabentun, a wild flower that grows in hedges, along paths and in henequen fields that is used to make the liqueur of the same name. Utz-Colel’s soul was trapped for all eternity in a spiny cactus with a unpleasant smelling flower called the tzacam.

xtabay | royal resorts

Xtabentun flowers

In this version of the tale, it is not the Xtabay that leads men to their doom in the shade of the ceiba, it is the evil spirit of hard-hearted Utz-Colel, who seduces them with soft words but is as incapable of love now as she was when she was alive.

If you liked this article, read our article about the Aluxes, the spirits that are the guardians of the Mayan milpa or corn field.

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