UP TO THIS POINT in our trip my girlfriend and I had been applying for jobs online. It was an odious chore because it reminded us, in the middle of our vacation, that we had to get back to the mundane task of earning a living. But one morning in Merida the both of us received job offers from a place where we’d applied months earlier. It was a mixed blessing because while it provided us with a firm return date and eased our minds about our finances, it was just another service industry gig.
By the time we’d filled out all the obligatory pre-employment forms it was well after lunchtime, but we decided to make the trip to Dzibilchaltun anyway. It was a nearby site that had been occupied for two millennia, reaching its maximum population and splendor in the Terminal Classic. It was located just nine miles north of Merida and we could get there by city bus. Once we found the right bus we quickly left behind the charming historic district and were soon chugging through the nondescript terrain of an urban everytown. We were stuck in traffic for an hour, enduring bad smells and bad air. The heat and the noise fouled my mood, and when I saw clouds moving over the blue sky I almost decided to cut my losses and turn back. But we broke free of the congestion and accelerated out of town, sending a welcome breeze through the bus and arriving at the ruins soon after.
Dzibilchaltun continued the trend of remarkable minor sites. Although it once boasted a population of 40,000, there was not much left of the place today. The pyramids here were small and truncated, and the Spanish had plunked down a church in the middle of the site. But these were not the main attractions, that honor belonged to the Temple of the Seven Dolls. We approached this temple via a long sacbé, a Maya road, that at one time had been covered in white limestone. Halfway along this path there was a low platform with steps leading up to a tall stela. It was pockmarked, but no glyphs were discernable. The sun reappeared and the obelisk threw a shadow on the smooth surface of its pedestal, like a sundial. Prior to reaching the main temple we passed the remains of three smaller buildings, most likely they were part of what is known to archaeoastronomists – a fairly new branch of archaeology – as an “E” group. To an observer standing in the middle of the main temple it would be possible to see the sun set directly behind the middle structure at both the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, while during the Summer or Winter solstice the sun would set behind one of the side structures.
The Temple of the Seven Dolls, so named because seven small clay figurines were found here during excavation, was discovered beneath a pyramid which had been built over it around 800 CE. It’s an unusually shaped building, which is perhaps why archaeologists chose to unearth it instead of restoring the pyramid that succeeded it. There are eight stucco masks of the rain god Chaac on the upper tier of the building, which sits upon a stepped platform 15 to 20 feet in height. On the roof of the building is a chimney-like addition which might have served as an astronomical observatory of sorts. Two large doorways on the east and west of the building open upon a central shrine within, now reduced to dust. Originally there must have been an altar or a stela which received the rays of the setting sun on the solstice. These rays would no doubt have triggered an optical effect, ricocheting off the stone to reveal the location of hidden Maya treasure.
I couldn’t complete this trip without at least one Indiana Jones reference.
It was here in Dzibilchaltun that I saw my first cenote as well. These were underground aquifers that had been exposed because their limestone roofs had caved in, often leaving a sinkhole with a precipitous drop to lakes of cool, clear water. The Maya considered them sacred and would sometimes throw sacrificial victims into the larger ones, especially during times of drought, in order to appease Chaac and bring rain. They were also considered to be gateways to Xibalba, the underworld. The cenote at Dzibilchaltun however, had no menace about it. The water came to within a few feet of the crater’s rim and its surface was graced with attractive lilies. There were even some locals swimming at the far end.
When my girlfriend visited Mexico a couple of years ago she’d gone to see a few of the larger cenotes, and the experience had apparently made her a bit of a cenote snob.
“This one is okay,” she said. “But the ones I saw with Rochelle were huge, and you had to go underground to see them.”
That was all it took to put a cenote tour on our itinerary. The following day found us on another bus heading south of Merida to a small town where they offered tours of some of the more impressive cenotes. We were told that these had not been sacrificial cenotes, but it was an assurance that seemed calculated to ease the minds of tourists who would be swimming there. After all, the cenote at Dzibilchaltun had been explored at depth and many artifacts had been brought up, including human bones.
Upon arrival we were obliged to take a motorcycle taxi to the jump-off point for tours. The contraption consisted of a moped with a wheeled bench welded to its front. There was nothing to keep us in our seats so if the driver hit the brakes we would be pitched forward out of the taxi and then he would run us over. We held on during the ride and were deposited at a cul-de-sac where several men and donkeys awaited us. If I thought the motorcycle taxi was an odd form of transport, the bar was about to be reset. We were led to a kind of buckboard with metal wheels that was positioned on a narrow railroad track. One of the men hopped on the bench at the front of the wagon and was handed the reigns to a donkey. He gave the rope a crack and the donkey started off at a trot alongside the track. Our wagon lurched forward and the flimsy rails threatened to come apart under our weight as we bounced along on hard seats. It was like a carnival ride: a carnival ride that gets shut down by the Health & Safety department.
There were other truckeros on this route, and since there was only one track it meant that if someone was coming the other way then one of the teams had to stop and haul their wagon off the rails so that the other could pass. Consequently there was a lot of wagon-heaving going on. We caught up to one truckero who had a dead rooster dangling off the back of his wagon. Its lifeless body jerked with the motion of the vehicle as if it were still trying to escape its fate. I wanted a picture, but it was impossible to focus my camera with the jolting ride. Eventually we came to a stop next to some scaffolding that was positioned over a hole in the ground. We grabbed our towels and stepped off the wagon so our driver could wrestle it to the side. At the top of the ladder we stared down into a large cavern of blue water. As we descended the rickety steps the air became cooler. The cavern, especially its far reaches, was dimly lit. Wavering reflections from the water played over the ceiling while stalactites and tree roots reached down towards the water like skeletal fingers. There were tiny fish in the water and they darted in and out of the sunlight while we eased into the refreshing underground lake.
We visited two more cenotes, one of which required us to lower ourselves down a hole that was barely wider than our bodies. At the bottom of the ladder we found ourselves in a large cavern that was dark except for where the sun shone through a small opening above and illuminated the middle of an aquamarine lagoon. It was easy to see how the Maya considered these openings in the earth to be portals to the underworld: they were dark, silent, and alien. Yet these cenotes also provided the Maya with the essential substance of life, which is perhaps one of the reasons why they made sacrifices here: life-giving water was taken from these nether regions, and life had to be returned to it.