The Palace of Government of the state of Yucatán is a stately building on the main square in Mérida. The neoclassical, pastel-green facade encloses an open courtyard lined by a two-story arched colonnade. The arches frame a series of 27 murals by a local artist that depict the history of the region. Most prominently, three murals hang over a grand staircase and depict the universe as understood by the ancient Maya.
In the center mural, you can see the creation of man as he emerges from a fiery yellow ear of corn while the gods look on. To the left, the god of death runs through the darkness in the form of a jaguar under a crescent moon and surrounded by demons. To the right, the sun casts a bright glow on the Maya people as they refine their intellectual pursuits and carve hieroglyphs to document their knowledge.
The Maya were a civilization that had advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics as well as a highly developed system of writing. They also practiced a polytheistic religion with dozens of gods representing various natural phenomena as well as the underworld and heaven. Priests played an important role in Maya society, and they used temples in the shape of pyramids as a way to get closer to the gods and to make offerings and human sacrifices.
The most well-known complex of Maya temples is at Chichén Itzá, a couple hours east of Mérida. Another significant site is at Uxmal (pronounced “oosh-mall”), an hour south of Mérida, where I took a day trip to explore the ruins. This UNESCO World Heritage Site reminded me strongly of another ancient religious site, the Temples of Angkor, ten thousand miles away in Cambodia. The most prominent structure at Uxmal is the Pyramid of the Magician. The steep steps leading to the top scatter sound in a way that produces a strange echo that reminded the Maya of the call of the highly-respected quetzal bird. A temple to the rain-god Chaac sits at the top of the steps in the shape of his face with an open mouth ready to pour out blessings on the cornfields.
Behind the pyramid, a sprawling royal palace makes up the “Quadrangle of the Nuns” – an obvious misnomer courtesy of the first Spanish conquistadors who stumbled across Uxmal! Further along, two raised platforms make up the royal ball court, where brave athletes competed for the opportunity to be sacrificed to the gods to bring good fortune to the community and gain immediate access to heaven (a game you get killed for winning – I’ll pass). Beyond the ball court, smaller pyramid and several other palaces and temples line a ridge with a view of the entire tract and out across the flat Yucatán plateau.
To cap off the day, I waited until nightfall for the light and sound show, during which the various ancient structures were illuminated in different colors in sync with a booming narration. Through my limited Spanish, I understood it to be an interpretation of life in ancient Maya civilization, including appeals to the rain-god Chaac as they struggled through a dry spell. At Uxmal, away from the city lights, the stars came out in full force and a meteor streaked overhead – it’s no wonder the Maya spent so much time studying the sky.
While the Maya may no longer constitute a modern civilization of their own, they continue to be an important part of the culture and traditions of Mérida and the Yucatán. It’s estimated that the Maya language is still spoken by around a third of the Yucatán peninsula’s population. Many villages in the countryside are predominately Maya, where the inhabitants speak Maya as their native language and Spanish as their second language. I had the opportunity to visit one such village, called Pixyá, where my Airbnb guide introduced me to a local Maya family who welcomed us into their home and served up an endless feast of salbutes on homemade tortillas.
The town of Pixyá was built up around the entrance to a hacienda that used to grow henequen and employed many Maya as laborers to harvest the valuable fiber. When henequen production fell into decline, many of the villagers found work in Mérida, where they now commute each day.
In a place like Pixyá, one major difference between the ancient and modern Maya becomes clear. Today, most Yucatec Maya adhere strongly to Roman Catholicism. The village church occupies a prominent place in town and is built in part from pieces of the former temples to the Maya gods – some hieroglyphs and symbols are even still visible on the reused stones in the church’s walls. Riding through the village, I also noticed that most people have painted Bible verses in large lettering across their homes and businesses.
Aside from taking jobs in Mérida, many Maya villagers work as part of collectives to generate income for the community. In this way, geographic features called cenotes remain important to the Maya today as they were in the past. A cenote is simply a water-filled sinkhole in the limestone surface of the Yucatán plateau. The word cenote comes from a Maya word meaning “abyss” or “sacred well”, as they served both as sources of water and as places of religious significance for the ancient Maya. In Pixyá, the local collectives have taken advantage of the nearby cenotes to welcome visitors. They have built basic restrooms and changing facilities near the centote entrances, as well as steps leading down to the water level, and they also work to maintain the cleanliness and environment of the cenotes.
Standing at the rim of a cenote, it’s easy to see why they were so important – each one is unique, and the size and depth is impressive. With thousands of cenotes scattered throughout the peninsula, it is impossible to visit or even know of them all. In fact, some are still being discovered, including one called the “Costco Cenote”, whose entrance was discovered during the construction of a Costco in Mérida.
The first cenote I visited was Cenote Suhem, an open cenote with tree roots stretching down from the overhanging rim to tap into the deep reservoir. The light filtering down through the trees into the water gives it a mystical greenish tint. Next, I went to Cenote Nayáh, a semi-open sinkhole with a completely different beauty. Having a smaller opening and higher walls than Suhem, Cenote Nayáh has no tree roots and less organic material in the water, which makes the water more translucent but also eerily dark in the shadows. When the sun hits it right, though, Cenote Nayáh puts on a spectacular show as rays of bright blue light scatter through the black water all the way to the bottom twenty-seven meters below. With scuba gear, you can go all the way down there and discover the remnants of ancient human sacrifices, but I contented myself with floating at the surface.