It was six in the morning and we were already out the door with five hours of sleep under our belts. Since we were staying in an AirBnb and not a hotel, our tour guide sent us a list of places to meet the bus in the morning along with the times it would be at those spots. At the bottom of the list read,
Do not be late. The bus will only wait at each spot for five minutes in order to stay on schedule.
We arrived at 6:39AM, one minute before schedule, at a frenzy of a bus stop. Three busses were parked in a line and people speaking all sorts of languages were gathered up front, trying to figure out who was supposed to be with who.
“Amigo Tours?” I quizzed the first guy with a clipboard I found.
“No, not us. Lo siento,” he said as I made my way to the next clipboard.
“You’re with me!” Shouted a man that came out of nowhere, shoving us on the bus as it peeled out of the lot before we even found a seat. I looked down to check the time, reading 6:40AM. If we’d been ten seconds later, we would have completely missed our ride; these guys weren’t messing around. Lying my head against the window, I decided to get back some hours of beauty sleep during the commute.
“Shhhhhhh……This is your conscious speaking…….” the tour guide whispered into the microphone, slowly awakening me from my peaceful slumber, “We are getting close to our first destination….Wake aahhhhhhhhhp.”
We had already crossed the state border from Quita Roo to Yucatan sometime during my nap and were almost to the city of Valladolid. Our guide began to give the compulsory informative speech before releasing a bunch of tourists in the middle of nowhere. This is the third largest city in Yucatan and it has a lot of history to prove it.
Time seemed to stop still in Valladolid a hundred years ago, as it still boasted the same olden day charm as I stepped off of the bus. Walking down the colorful cobblestone streets, a man selling ice cream from a wooden cart in the plaza was there to tempt us. Lining the green grass were pairs of Confidentes (Confidents) or De Los Enamorados (For Those In Love). Long ago, these chairs were used for couples to have an intimate conversation in. They were gifted ten minutes each week to sit in these S-shaped chairs and look at each other without touching.
We followed the path from the plaza across to the church, where a service was happening as the choirs echoed off of the tall ceilings. It was another peaceful Sunday in the city. We strolled the cobblestone streets until realizing our guide didn’t care much for liabilities and never did a head count before we left. Zooming back to the beginning of our route, we hopped back on the magic school bus, anticipating the next adventure to come. But, until then…zzzzzzzzzz…
“Okay! Listen up!” he woke me in a startling manner, leaving me wishing my conscious was back here speaking to me, “We’re gonna get off here. At 3 o’ clock, meet me over there…and DON’T be late. I will leave you. I am not kidding. This is the area over here for taxis and it will be the most expensive ride of your life if you miss me…..Okay. Follow me, we’re going inside and then I will split you off into smaller groups with local guides to explore the sacred grounds. Leggo,” he hollered, turning around and essentially beginning a 400-meter-dash into the crowds.
“Where is he?” we spun around, losing him amongst the continuous line of stragglers. We didn’t find him, but we did find the beer stand and with thirty minutes of waiting before heading inside, this seemed like a perfect way to fuel our scavenger hunt.
“Dos Tecates, por favor,” we informed the cashier just as our guide poked his head around the corner.
Well, that was easy.
He began to sort our group into smaller sections and dismissed each of them into the school of fish with a young, animated local who knew more about Chichén itzá than Google itself. We were in no rush, standing near the outskirts with our cool drinks until, alas, our turn finally came.
“Okay and you–three, four, five–will be with Howard.”
I peeked around the shoulder of the tall guy standing in front of me to see which knowledge pool we ended up with. A man shorter than I with large, round glasses and white tufts of hair sitting atop his head squinted up.
“This way,” he croaked, as we followed his cane through security, “Okay, before we get into it, go and take your pictures,” he said, as we all let out a collective ‘Wow’ at our first sighting of Chichén itzá.
“Not too far, young lady!” he lectured, collapsing his two-in-one cane into a small stool to sit while he waited for us.
As he began to speak, we realized this guide wasn’t who he originally portrayed himself as. This is the man we’d heard so much about before. This is the man that dedicated his life to learning about the Mayan culture and language. This man earned the title of professor, gathering lots of animated guides’ respect as he hobbled by.
Walking through the Great Ball Court, he challenged us to a game of pok-a-tok. When a Mayan is born, the date and time and moon cycle will decide their fate. They can be a leader, a follower, a warrior, an athlete, etc. If you were an athlete, you’d play pok-a-tok. Essentially, you’ve got a rubber ball and you need to make it through a stone hoop as high as twenty feet up on the wall in order to score. However… you cannot use your hands, nor your feet to do this.
Note: Drag the center line left and right to see the captain beheaded and the captain holding a head. These drawings were carved on the Great Ball Court’s walls.
These games were like football in America, highly anticipated, except, there was this one thing. The stakes were higher. The captain of the winning team would be beheaded and sacrificed to the gods as being the ultimate offering. You can see these gruesome game rules displayed in carvings along the walls throughout the Great Ball Court.
Next to this yard was the Platform of Skulls. Don’t worry, these weren’t actual bones, just the carvings of various sacrifices: Pok-a-tok captains, prisoners and enemies. They believe this wall was used to scare off new enemies by displaying their wins and I’m not going to lie, I’m sure that tactic would have worked on me.
Our time was dwindling and we still had the biggest platform left to view in Chichén itzá: El Castillo. With four sets of 91-step staircases and a 20-foot temple atop, the site was unmatched. During equinoxes, a bright glow lines the jagged edges perfectly, connecting to the giant serpent head at the foot of the temple and creating the illusion of a slithering snake.
I learned more within that hour and a half with Howard than I had learned during an entire social studies unit in grade school. I never was very good at Geography and didn’t care much for History. However, seeing these places and learning about their past creates a whole new meaning and teaches you more than you would ever think to know about the soil you’re standing on wherever you end up. To me, this feeling was like what Paul Theroux once said, “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going.” And I can’t wait to see where I end up next.