Chacchoben, a Mayan temple in Mexico
The sounds of the drums , the movement of the dancers and their monotone voices almost hypnotized me. I was in the middle of a small crowd of onlookers in Costa Maya in Mexico. Just a few days earlier we landed in Honduras where a similar group of dancers welcomed us with their chanting but this time it was different. These people dancing and chanting were true Mayan descendants. The way their faces where painted with , skulls, teeth and intimidating colours warned you of a much grimmer faith and was far from pleasant.
I was going to visit the ancient 3rd century Mayan temple ruin of Chacchoben ( “place of the red corn”) and seeing these dancers greeting us, the somewhat innocent and un-prepared cruise passengers, could predict a more gruesome visit to the temple than expected. I wondered why the corn was red. We all know about the cruelty of the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas, thanks to books like Aztec and movies like the Indiana Jones sequels. Once in the van which would take us ( a group of 9) down to Chacchoben, I allowed myself to take a good look at our guide Alejandro. He was without a shadow of a doubt absolutely more Mayan than Spanish. He did have however have, a friendly face, much friendlier than the dancers I described earlier. It was a comfortable ride to Chacchoben, close to an hour right across the countryside with not much more than just a lot of pineapple vendors along the way. Imagine , three for 50 pesos! One peso is the equivalent of 4cts Canadian, 3 for 2 dollars ! Unfortunately we could not take any fruit back aboard the ship so we had to leave the pineapples at the roadside.
Once arrived at Chacchoben we were told we would find a few temples and if lucky, we could also see some spider monkeys jumping from tree to tree. I was excited… jungle, animals and a possible encounter with some ancient artifacts or even remnants of offerings had me all fired up.
I walked the path which had been cut out of the jungle centuries ago and there it was….
Rising up in the middle of an open space, surrounded by trees, bushes and rubble was my first Mayan temple. It was exactly as described in the books, just as magnificent , intriguing and intimidating.
My eyes where immediately drawn to the top. A flat surface at the end of a large staircase where animal and human offerings took place. I envisioned a human being and a Mayan priest his face painted and dressed like the dancers I saw earlier, ripping out the still beating heart of the poor victim while holding it up towards the sun and the crowd asking for a good harvest. Later I learned that the sun wasn’t the only God the Mayans worshipped. Like the Vikings, they had many and the human sacrifices varied depending which God from whom you asked what. For example if you wanted rain you drowned a couple of poor beggars, and some more if the rain wasn’t coming fast enough. Hmm the place of the red corn. Of course I know its a genetic variant that colours corn red but there was a lot of bloodshed when the Mayans thrived. Unknown to a lot of people, the Mayans ruled over vast areas all the way from Honduras and Belize to most of Southern Mexico and in huge numbers. Once the Spanish came we all know what happened to most of the natives. Eventually they were massacred in huge numbers, enslaved and practically eliminated. What is little known is that the feisty Mayans where a tough group to subdue for the Spanish, in fact, at one point the Mayans almost captured the Spanish town of Merida. Unfortunately for them, the rains came early and they had to lift their siege to go home and plant crops before they were able to complete their attack and overthrow the enemy. However, they learned well from the Spanish and took many captives, enslaving the men and making Spanish senoritas their concubines.
Suddenly I heard a sound, the bushes started to move and yes! I saw a Spider monkey jumping from tree to tree. They eat the fruit from the trees but never come down. Maybe a left over survival tactic to avoid being eaten or sacrificed, nevertheless, pretty smart never to set foot on the ground. Knowing that they are a worldwide endangered species this doubled my excitement, i snapped a quick picture which unfortunately shows an orange brown blur in the middle of a tree.
Visiting a site like this almost always makes me feel humble. The craftsmanship, ingenuity, months, sometimes years of work with not much more than just hand tools under a scorching sun, made me leave Chacchoben with a feeling of great admiration and respect for a once powerful nation.
If you visit Costa Maya take a tour out to Chacchoben and say hello to Alejandro for me !
All Photo`s by Stella van der Lugt
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