My bicycle seat was set a little too low and my legs wouldn’t straighten out completely when I pedaled, giving one the impression that I was just borrowing some kid’s bike for an errand. This seven kilometer ride was no errand though, as I was on my way, under a 95 degree sun at 10:30AM, to the Yucatecan version of the local swimming hole. The slightly paved bike path followed the road that led out of Valladolid to two of the town’s cenotes, Cenote Dzitnup and Cenote Samulá. The road next to me was incredibly flat, made even seemingly more so by the many little mounds on the bike path that I had to climb up and down as I went along.
At about the third kilometer I stopped for a swig of water from a bottle that, when I started out on this ride, was cool and refreshing, but, sadly, was now quite warm. As I stood straddling the bike, I looked at the landscape around me, sparse vegetation growing out of the dust. Not my idea of what a jungle should look like. I then began to wonder what had gotten into me when I rented this bike.
After about forty-five minutes and more than a few sensations along the way that I just might collapse while I was pedaling, I arrived at the entrance to Dzitnup. Walking down the cool stairs that were cut out of the limestone, and out of the intense heat, my brain felt like it might return to normal, someday. At the moment though, I could only think of reaching shade and coolness.
The cenotes of the Yucatan are underground limestone caverns that are fed either by underground rivers or via rainwater during the rainy season, or both. Each one that exists underground is uniquely different, although the common characteristics seem to be clean, clear, water with an incredible blue tint to it, as well as deep entryways via steep stairs or ladders, and stalactite formations and/or tree roots reaching for a drink from the ceiling.
The name cenote comes from the Maya word ts’onot which means sinkhole. The ancient Maya considered them to be the entrance into the spiritual underworld. They were also considered to be sacred because they were the only real source of water on the peninsula.
The cenote at Chichen-Itza is probably the most famous because of its usage as a place of sacred sacrificial offerings, including the legends of virgin sacrifices and the many offerings of personal items such as jade beads, balls of copal resin, carvings of snake heads and rattles, sandals, and things made from gold and copper that were found when its bottom was explored several times between 1892 and 1968.
Many people believe that all the cenotes were used this way, but that was not the case. There are too many of them for every one to be used as a sacrificial lake. There are over 3000 cenotes in the area and only 1400 have actually been studied and registered.
Reaching into the water of Dzitnup, my fingers cooled off. It was decided then and there in my head that the bike was going into the back of a taxi for the trip back to town. But not before I was talked into buying postcards from the young girls working at the top of the stairs, or before I visited Cenote Samulá across the road.
Using the words Maya and Mayan and knowing the difference between the two is not a simple concept for an English speaking brain. These two words are not interchangeable, nor are they singular words describing a broad culture, like the more familiar word French that means *anything* of French culture or of France.
Where did the confusion come from? Probably from a long list of English speaking scholars.
In the Yucatan, the Maya that I have met are fairly picky about their cultural name, so when traveling there I try to respect their culture of language.
When talking about the area or the culture, English speakers naturally want to call everything Mayan. Mayan food, Mayan language, Mayan this, Mayan that. When traveling in the Yucatan it was not uncommon to be corrected when using the word Mayan instead of Maya. *Taxi drivers were more than happy to explain the difference between the words. But even after having it explained, it’s still confusing even though there is only one real instance of where the word Mayan is used!
If you search the web you will find English speakers/writers incorrectly using the two interchangeably within a sentence of each other. This site has been guilty of it too.
So, for clarification …
It is not the Mayan Riviera, it is the Riviera Maya.
The culture is not Mayan, it is Maya, or The Maya.
The civilization is not Mayan, it is Maya civilization.
The people are not Mayan, they are Maya or The Maya.
The ruins are not Mayan, they are the Maya ruins.
The writing is Maya script.
The Confusing Example:
The language is Mayan, although when speaking about the modern language of the Yucatan it is called Yucatec Maya. But the Maya in the Yucatan just refer to it as Mayan.
The easy way to remember this is that the only time the word Mayan is used is when talking about the language!
*tsikbal = respectful conversation
*Taxi drivers are a wealth of information, and not just information about getting from Point A to Point B!
‘Why would I want to see Ek Balam?’, I asked one of the guys who was staying at the hostel in Merida. This ancient Maya archaeological site is barely mentioned in even the latest up to date information on The Yucatan and I had missed it back when I was in Valladolid. Already in Merida, it was my intention to move in a forward circular motion on the peninsula, counting my losses on a trip that was too short and moving much too fast for me.
‘The Maya Angel’, was his reply. ‘The only example of of one found so far is in Ek Balam on The Acropolis.’, he continued.
His words stuck in the back of my brain as I made my way from Merida to Tulum. After seeing the Tulum ruins and Coba, I still had a bit of time on my hands. One morning I woke up and thought, ‘I could lay around on the beach all day today, or I could go on an adventure and make it to Ek Balam.’
I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about getting to Ek Balam from Tulum, but I knew how to get to Valladolid.
The local bus was a two hour ride to Valladolid from Tulum Pueblo, and from Valladolid I had heard that it was possible to take a colectivo or a taxi to and from Ek Balam. A family riding on the same bus as I were making the same journey, so we joined forces on finding a taxi to split the cost. Since I had been to Valladolid before, I knew where we might find a car with a driver, and with my new family in tow, we went looking. It took quite a few tries, asking up and down the street for a colectivo or taxi to Ek Balam. Everyone sent us somewhere else in a different direction going up and down the street, or pricing outrageous fees for a one-way trip. We finally found a man named David, a Maya taxi driver, who would not only take us there, but he would wait for us to walk the site and bring us back to town, for a very reasonable price.
In 2005, Ek Balam is a well-kept secret but its name is becoming increasingly known. Uncovered only in the last eight years, the site is remarkably well put together. Because the archeologists started working on the site in 1997, I was not expecting so many buildings to be rebuilt or to see so many people working as we walked around, discovering things for ourselves. Gardeners taking a break from the heat, sat under the trees with their lunches. Archaeology students dug clay pottery shards out of a carefully made hole as I watched.
Because there was no real printed documentation on the site made available yet, we walked around blindly, guessing at what the buildings had been used for. The beautiful arched entryway was obvious, as was the thick wall that looked like it surrounded the city. They were there for security. The Ball Court was there. The Acropolis was the largest building, one of the very few that I actually climbed while I was hunting down ancient Maya antiquities – because up there was where I would find the Maya Angel.
I looked at the steps of The Acropolis with trepidation. They were designed for small feet which meant they were narrow, and made of limestone, which meant they were slippery. My shoes had a good tread, but that didn’t make me any less cautious. I began my climb, my water bottle thunking at each step that I gained. As the steps narrowed even further, I made the decision to climb up the stairs like a cat, on all fours. It actually felt safer to climb this way and I felt more steady and balanced. As I climbed, I gained a cheering section of one – one of the Maya excavators sat on a ledge and urged me to climb. I’m sure he was calling me the Maya equivalent of ‘sissy’ and encouraging me with Maya taunts, but they got me up there, right where I wanted to be.
When I got to the level of The Acropolis that holds the Maya Angel, I took one look at the wall of sculpture and immediately my heart sank. It was spectacular, but I was sure it was a fake – how could it not be? It was too perfect. It was also like nothing I had seen previously at any of the other sites. The angel didn’t look to be sculpted from stone. It looked as if it had been sculpted out of plaster then sandblasted. I let my disappointment show and the man who had goaded me up the stairs then told me that the wall was in its original state, as it had been found. It was modeled stucco, and it was hundreds of years old. Suddenly what I was viewing went from questionable to spectacular!
Behind this modeled stucco facade sat the tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, Ek Balam’s most venerated ancestor. From reading some of what little has been written about this archaeological site, it sounds like the skeleton of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’ was found in the burial chamber behind this facade, complete with offerings and human sacrifices.
The central motif of the facade is an open jawed monster with large teeth. The facade is covered with life size Maya figures, one of them being The Angel, animals, and geometric designs. One figure is sitting in the lotus position. Another sitting figure is headless, with his head sitting in his lap.
My new found family and I descended The Acropolis and made our way around the rest of the site. I stopped to talk to the student archaeologist digging in front of The Oval Palace. We talked a little bit about the site. She didn’t speak English so we made do with my Spanish, such as it is. I asked her when she thought the large, as-of-yet-unexcavated mound might be worked on and she replied that the only thing that was holding up excavation at Ek Balam was financial support. She showed me a few pottery shards that they had just dug up that morning. A man joined our conversation and he decided that it might be helpful for me if he translated what she said about their digging. Except that he translated from Spanish, into Spanish, basically repeating what she was saying. After a few translations, we all had a good laugh. Especially so because the man didn’t realize what he was doing.
When we left the site, our driver David was waiting for us. He asked us if we found Ek Balam interesting and we all replied ‘Yes!’ We asked him what he thought of the site and he replied with a surprising ‘I’ve never seen it!’. The man drives to Ek Balam countless times a week and he has never seen this site, a site from the history of his own culture. Facepalming ourselves, we then said in unison, ‘We should have taken you with us!’. David chuckled showing his shiny gold teeth. ‘I’d rather have my siesta …’