Tulúm is the site of a Pre-Columbian Maya walled city which served as a major port for Cobá (large ruined city of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization). The Maya site, formerly known by the name Zama (meaning City of Dawn), stands on a bluff 12-meters tall, along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea. Tulúm was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Mayas; reaching it’s peak between the 13th and 15th centuries and surviving about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. It appears diseases brought by the Spanish settlers were the cause of Tulúm’s demise. Today Tulúm is one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites and a popular location for tourists.
A few weeks ago, as guests of the Mexican Tourist Board, we traveled to the city of Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, to attend the 5th Annual Feria Turistica del Mundo Maya, Mayan World Tourism Fair, a trade show which featured tourism vendors from the area that once was the Mayan Empire. Now this rain forested terrain encompasses Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras and the Mexican states of Yucatán, Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Chiapas.
We met with regional tour operators, tourism boards, hoteliers and other vendors, and visited many sites where we had not previously explored.
New to us was the Mayan archaeological site of Dzibilchaltun, a lesser visited site not far from Merida which was inhabited since around 500 B.C. We climbed around its temple, plaza and other structures, and were quite impressed with its museum of artifacts from throughout the Mayan world.
We then traveled to the town of Palenque, in the state of Chiapas. After driving through the jungle we boated up the Usumacinta River to the ruins of Yaxchilan, capital of one of the most powerful Maya states in the region and a rival to Palenque and Tikal. The site contains many impressive ruins, with palaces and temples bordering a large plaza above the Usumacinta River. Throughout the ruins are impressive hieroglyphics depicting the history of the kingdom.
South of Yaxchilan, on the border of Guatemala, we explored the ruins of Bonampak, another Mayan city, noted for its vivid 8th century murals.
In the near future we will be offering these Mayan sites as add-on options to our Yucatan adventures.
We appreciate it when our guests share their stories with us and allow us to post them on our blog. Last month, Olga Muratova and her family members from New York and Los Angeles traveled with us to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and reported this:
My family took a California Native vacation in Yucatan between June 15 and 21, 2013. First of all, I want to thank your company for a wonderful trip that it organized for us. Secondly, I would like to take this opportunity to express my family’s admiration with Mr. Javier Sosa, our tour guide and care-taker in Mexico. Mr. Sosa’s high professionalism, vast knowledge of Mayan culture, engaging narrator’s qualities, impeccable manners, affable and personable attitude, and exceptionally agreeable nature made our trip very pleasant and memorable.
My first introduction to the Mayans was in a grammar school textbook where our fourth grade class read a story titled “The Sacred Well of Chichen Itza.” I was fascinated with the tale of the young maidens being thrown into the well to be sacrificed to the Rain God Chac. This was back in the 1940’s and more than 20 years passed before I first traveled to Chichen Itza and stood before that very same well—too late to rescue a maiden but a wonderful time to conjure up visions of a past when exotic civilizations populated the Americas.
The Yucatan Peninsula is the homeland of the Mayan people, whose mighty empire lasted over a thousand years. Throughout the peninsula are the amazing archaeological ruins of their great cities—Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Edzna and many more—a fantastic place to take a time-traveling vacation. In addition, there are lovely colonial cities, forts designed to protect against Caribbean pirates and beautiful beaches.
After leaving the sacred well, I climbed a passageway cut into the great pyramid called “El Castillo” into an older pyramid covered by “El Castillo.” Here in an inside chamber I gazed upon Kukilkan’s red jaguar throne, its eyes and spots glittering with jade and its fangs glowing with pyrite. After exiting with the tourists I wandered alone in the ruins where I found a little entrance in the side of a pyramid and entered a narrow passage. Gradually the outside light from the entrance grew dimmer and dimmer and then my little pocket flashlight stopped working. I found myself alone in the pitch-black. Very creepy. I felt my way back up the tunnel, imagining the possibility of getting lost in an underground labyrinth and was very happy when I emerged into the sunlight—Indiana Jones would have been proud.
Spring has sprung, Little League players are swinging their bats and baseball is in the air. Baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer (called football in the rest of the world), these are the games most North Americans think of when the subject of sports comes up. But team sports is not a concept which arrived in the Americas with the landing of Columbus. For almost 3000 years before the coming of the Europeans, teams in Mesoamerica, the region which extends from what is now Mexico south through Nicaragua, were playing ball in a game that was truly was a matter of life or death.
Today, when visiting the ruins of these ancient cultures, travelers can see the courts where these ballgames, considered to be the world’s oldest team sport, were played. Like modern superdomes, these ball courts were a major part of a city’s infrastructure and came to represent its wealth and power. Two high walls composed an alley with end zones making the court resemble the capital letter ‘I’.
Although not much is known about how the sport was enacted, it is speculated that two opposing teams attempted to have the rubber ball penetrate the defense’s end zone without using their hands. As the sport evolved, giant stone rings in the walls of the alley provided more obstacles to pass the ball through in hope of scoring. The balls varied in size from softball to beachball and could weigh up to eight pounds. Some relics of balls have been found with skulls in the middle and were thought to bounce even higher having a hollow core. The earliest rubber ball was found at the Olmec site of El Manati, in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz. It is estimated to be 3600 years old!
The stakes were high for the athletes in these games. Their belief systems were based on a balance of forces. These ancient people wanted to keep their gods happy in order to keep the sun rising in the east and rain pouring on their crops. And to keep this balance level, cities would often sacrifice members of the losing team, making the incentive to win greater than any trophy.
Two cultures that were significant in the development of the Ballgame were the Olmec and the Maya. The Olmec are generally thought to be the mother culture from which all other Mesoamerican cultures were derived. The name Olmec means “people of the land of rubber.” Their huge helmeted stone heads, weighing up to 40 tons, are speculated to be portraits of famous ball players.
Succeeding the Olmecs, the Mayan Civilization thrived from 250 AD to 1400 AD. Their zest for the ballgame is evident from the many ruins of their ball courts including the giant court at Chichen Itza, the largest of all the sites. The game was so popular that aspects of the sport are found in the Mayan Creation Story which tells the story of two hero twins who were players. The ballgame was so rooted in the culture that “ballplayer” is used as a ceremonial title of kings.
Like modern sports, the uniform was an essential part of the game. The athletes entered the court wearing their finest jewels, animal skins, and feathered headdresses. The players did not compete in this garb as the fast-paced nature of the game required agility and the aggressive action required protective equipment. Uniforms consisted mainly of a loincloth, sometimes with leather hip guards, a thick girdle made of wood or wicker covered in leather or fabric, and a decorative stone accessory worn on the girdle. Knee guards and helmets were also worn in some communities. A decorative carved stone was sometimes used to hit the ball like a bat or a stick. The balls were made of rubber, produced from plants indigenous to the area.
The rise of Christianity in the Mesoamerican world led to the end of the ballgame. The Spanish viewed the event as pagan ritual and outlawed the sport. Disease, forced labor and massacre, diminished the native populations, taking with them the world’s first team sport. The modern game of Ulamu, played in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, is thought to be its closest equivalent.
We invite you to come with us on a tour of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and visit these ancient sports stadiums and many other archaeological sites of these unique cultures. Can you hear the whispered call of the ancient Mesoamerican equivalent of “Play ball?”
When you travel with us on our Yucatan Explorer Trips, you now have the option of beginning and ending your vacation in either city, Cancun or Merida.
With the large number of airlines flying into Cancun daily, starting your Yucatan adventure in Cancun allows you to take advantage of the competitive airfares and direct flights from the U.S. and Canada.
Cancun is renowned for its beaches, restaurants and nightlife, with all the glitter of an upscale beach resort. Merida, on the other hand, is a cosmopolitan but at the same time tranquil and charming colonial city.
The Yucatan Peninsula is the homeland of the Mayan people, whose mighty empire lasted over a thousand years. Throughout the peninsula are the amazing archaeological ruins of their great cities. In addition, the Yucatan has lovely colonial cities and beautiful Caribbean beaches.
All of our Yucatan tours visit the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, El Balam and Edzna, as well as the city of Campeche—its fort was built by the Spaniards as defense against the Caribbean pirates.
The tours which begin in Cancun also visit the ruins of the Mayan port city of Tulum, built alongside a beautiful Caribbean beach. and the archaeological site of Coba.
If you are looking for more an even more extensive trip, you can include Chiapas and/or Copper Canyon in your Mexico vacation.
The Fall/Winter 2008 edition of The California Native newsletter is now in the mail. The newsletter, published by The California Native since 1984, has more than 10,000 readers (not counting those who download from the web). If you are not already a subscriber to this free newsletter you can signup now.
This issues feature stories include:
CALIFORNIA NATIVES FOLLOW THE TEA HORSE ROAD
“My grandfather dipped his silver bracelet into the water, to make sure it was not poisoned,” related Chen Dong Mei, her eyes sparkling as she related stories of her grandfather who drove horses along the historical Tea Horse Road. The tea horse road, leading from Jing Hong, China, to Llhasa in Tibet, has been a major trade route for almost 5000 years.
THE BOWMEN FROM BHUTAN
Dancing about and shouting sexual insults at the opposing team, Bhutanese sports fans enjoy their favorite pastime, which is, of all things, archery!
COPPER CANYON TRIPS FEATURED IN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PUBLICATION
A new book, published by National Geographic, features The California Native’s tours through Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
THE LADY OF GUADALUPE
Throughout Mexico, in churches, roadside shrines, restaurants, and automobile decals, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a sacred icon for both Catholic faith and nationalism.
TELL THEM TO “GO TO XIBALBA”
It is the darkest place in Mayan lore, the underworld, the Place of Fear. It is ruled by the spirits of disease and death. And archaeologists believe that it actually existed in a series of underground chambers and passages.
THE MISSING SOLDIERS OF ALBERMARLE ISLAND
“The day was overpoweringly hot, and the lake looked clear and blue; I hurried down the cindery slope, and choked with dust, eagerly tasted the water—but, to my sorrow, I found it salt as brine.” So wrote Charles Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle. Sixty-five years later, in 1904, eleven soldiers disappeared in the unforgiving landscape of Albermarle (Isabella) Island, the largest island in the Galapagos Archipelago.