Sounds of the jungle were as thick as the humidity. Birds chirped and trilled. A deep hoot added a bass note. An almost mechanical staccato clicking joined in. I was following a Mayan guide, Juan Gualberto Tun Pat, down a garden path on the grounds of my hotel, where life is so insistent that young trees sprout in the middle of the gravel walkway.

At a wrought iron gate, two guys sat at a weathered Formica-topped table. They paused to check my entrance ticket (about $11.25 for foreign visitors), exchanged greetings with Juan in their language, Yucatec Maya, and waved us on our way.

I felt like I’d just slipped through the secret back door to Chichen Itza, the Mayan archaeological wonder in the interior of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

The collection of pre-Columbian architectural masterpieces — pyramids, temples, columns — represent an ancient Mesoamerican culture steeped in art and science. The former urban center covers more than 4 square miles and two distinct periods — one collection of buildings was constructed by the early Mayans, while others date to a time after the Toltecs arrived. Its size and breadth make it one of the most formidable of the Mayan sites that dot Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Chichen Itza was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. According to UNESCO, which lists the treasure as a World Heritage Site, at least 3,500 people pour in each day. Most are day-trippers from Mérida, Cancún and other coastal resorts who arrive midmorning and tour under a withering sun.

At 8:30 in the morning, Juan and I saw none of them.


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Our shaded path led to the crumbling remains of a vaulted room nearly hidden by lush foliage, a tumble of moss-covered stones heaped at its base. It was the backside of Akab Dzib, or House of the Dark Writing, named for its still undeciphered hieroglyphs and one of the oldest ruins of Chichen Itza.

In a nearby grassy lawn, the only buzz came from a colony of bees hovering among clover just above the morning dew. We’d stopped there to view a collection of stunning white stone structures with fanciful carvings of human faces and geometric friezes. Among them was El Caracol, the remains of an observatory where early Mayans tracked the movement of Venus.

The guide, himself a Mayan, explained that the ancient Mayans were not violent, despite their reputation and the human remains found in the Sacred Cenote, a limestone sinkhole that made a natural well, on the Chichen Itza grounds. Human sacrifice, he said, came to the area with the Toltecs, the northern tribe that joined the Mayans as the city was ascending in the 10th century.

The Mayans, instead, were students of the earth, whose gods came from the natural world. They were advanced enough to understand the cycle of the sun; their year, like ours, held 365 days, except for leap years, which they, too, observed. They were great mathematicians and astronomers.

At a bend in the walkway, a vast stretch of lawn appeared. Rising from the grass was the majestic pyramid known as El Castillo, the centerpiece of Chichen Itza.

Steep staircases on all four sides culminate at a temple, perched like a crown. The Mayans included a step for each day of the year; each side has 91 and the temple counts as the 365th. Fantastical sculptures of feathered serpents run down its sides, representing the god Kukulcan, a name derived from the words for feather and snake. I stood amazed by the architectural chops of a civilization that could create such a structure, in the middle of the jungle, more than 1,000 years ago.

The fact that Juan and I were alone? That was astonishing, too.


I took the same tranquil garden path back to my hotel, Hacienda Chichen (rooms from $179; Spaniards built the gracious stone home in 1528, using whatever materials they could find. That meant Mayan stones — some with ancient carvings — because, by then, Chichen Itza had been abandoned to the jungle. For much of its history, the hacienda was a cattle ranch.

In the 1920s, when Carnegie Institution archaeologists began to disentangle Chichen Itza ruins from plants that had overtaken them, the hacienda became their home base. Cottages were built for the scientists; now they house hotel guests. Eric Thompson, an expert in Mayan script, lived and worked in the room where I stayed, bringing clarity to some Mayan history. The hotel, an eco-lodge, has its own fruit and vegetable gardens for the kitchen, a jungle reserve and a spa that offers Mayan-inspired treatments.

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The next morning, before breakfast, I took a nature hike in the jungle reserve with Bibiano Uh Tum, a Mayan guide and medicine man. A dainty cinnamon hummingbird flitted high in a flowering tree. Yucatán parrots screeched by, a flurry of red and green and loud caws. A Central American pygmy owl sat nestled among leaves, given away by his occasional hoot. When Bibiano heard the sound, he stopped, raised his eyebrows with a look of anticipation, and spied it almost immediately.


When the hike ended, I left the hotel, drove a few minutes down the road, and floated in Ik Kil, a cenote 85 feet below ground level like the ones the Mayans used — and still do — as a water source. Strange black fish darted in the aqua water below me. Far above, flowers and trees rimmed the circular opening. Water trickled down, making miniature waterfalls, and roots of plants hung down like thick ropes.

When I came, I had parked in the shade next to two cars, the only others in the lot; when I left, six tour buses flanked the entrance.

That afternoon, at a visit to the Hacienda Chichen spa, my female attendant — a budding Mayan healer, I was told — circled a bowl with earthy incense before me, praying in her native tongue. She washed my hands in sacred cenote water, wrapped me in mud, scrubbed me down and massaged my body.

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I am not sure what her prayers said, but I know what I was thinking. In the midst of such a foreign ritual, I recalled what Juan, my Chichen Itza guide, had told me. “People say the Mayan civilization passed away,” he said. “No, we have always been here.”

I felt fortunate to have seen their world so intimately, past and present.