Chacchoben, Costa Maya, Mexico (February 21, 2012)
There was no sleeping in the day we docked at Costa Maya. We were scheduled for an organized tour of Chacchoben which departed at 7:30 am. This type of crack of dawn awakening should be banned from leisurely travel! For numerous reasons I won’t discuss because it would take too long and would only embarrass me, we almost didn’t make the departure time for the tour. The resulting sprint down the long dock to meet our tour group was not appreciated by the other members of my family. When several more people leisurely showed up after us, I received several dirty looks from my own clan. Finally, we were escorted to the coach that would transport us to the ruins. Other than the awkward dip in the aisle in the middle of bus to accommodate a second exit that everyone stumbled through, I thought it was quite satisfactory transportation. Lovey, on the other hand, was quick to point out that several seat numbers were ripped off, the curtains were only half attached, and many of the table trays were missing. I believe the word “ghetto” was mentioned as well – as in “this bus is so ghetto”. All said with a big smile on her face. As we left the gates, we noticed police, or federalis as Hubby called them when he was in Nicaragua, patrolling the area with heavy-duty firepower. Wandering around outside the gate of the port without a purpose might not be the best idea. There is nothing in the immediate vicinity anyway and Majahual, which is about three miles away, is accessible by cab.
Our tour guide was a short, round man named Jesus Rivero, who drove two hours from the nearest city to call us friends and educate us about his ancestors. He was an excellent source of information about the area and the ruins. His talk, which he called “the blah, blah, blah,” nicely filled the hour bus ride. While he talked, I watched miles of wild mangrove slip by my window. According to Jesus, crocodiles and jaguars still live in this habitat. I, however, saw nothing more exciting than birds. It’s a flat, rather desolate place but extremely important to the survival of the peninsula. Without the mangroves, the interior of the Yucatan would be decimated by the hurricanes that occasionally hit the coast. Our entertaining guide also talked about the Mayans, their numerical system, and their calendar, assuring us all that the world was not going to end December 21, 2012. What a relief!
Once the mangroves gave way to farmland and jungle, he discussed the small towns we passed through and the livelihoods of the people living there. Most houses were small and single level, sometimes little more than a lean-to of plywood. All, regardless of size, maintained the ubiquitous satellite dish firmly attached to the roof. Pineapples and bananas tempted from roadside stands. A small above-ground cemetery contained sarcophagi painted turquoise and Pepto-Bismol pink and was decorated with a profusion of artificial flowers. We drove through a town with a large population of American Mormons and I couldn’t help wondering what brought them to this particular patch of earth. Were they evangelizing Mexicans or running away from American culture? Maybe both.
As we neared the ruins, the tallest temple could be seen through the top of the jungle. The surrounding farmland was filled with large mounds covered with grass, bushes and small trees. Jesus explained the mounds were unexcavated Mayan farm residences and buildings. The bus parked in the empty lot fronting an open air, thatched-roof building housing the Welcome Center and gift shop. For the first part of the morning, at least, we would have the site to ourselves. As we walked along the path to the first temple, a man from the gift shop began to play a flute-like instrument. The eery sound created a sense of past and present mingling together. It was almost spooky.
As we approached the first temple, we came across some very industrious leaf cutter ants. They had a well-worn path through the grass that was scattered with a trail of semi-circular, spring green leaf cuttings.
Chacchoben means “the place of the red corn”, a name taken from a nearby village. Nothing has been found on the site to indicate the original name of the place, but it is believed to have been built around 300 AD and remodeled several times afterward. The temples are several layers thick. Each new royal priest would build on top of the existing temple, growing the temple with each generation of Mayans. In their prime, their surfaces were plastered and painted red. There are beautiful frescoes inside the temples but they’re no longer visible for public viewing because of issues with vandalism. There are three main temples excavated at this point, which constitute only about 30% of the entire site. No excavation or archeological exploration is taking place at this time.
The first temple we saw was covered in moss and had plants growing on different levels of the top sections. The vegetation gave the temple a lush, velvety appearance.
The Cieba tree is sacred to the Mayans. They believed that it connected the terrestrial world to the spirit world. In Mayan art it is often portrayed as the foundation of the universe. These impressive trees were growing all over the ruins – literally.
To enter the main temple area, we climbed a steep set of steps to a flat, grassy area. The largest temple, to the right, was all imposing majesty. The remnants of stone tables for human sacrifices lay crumbled in front of the grand stairs. From what I understand, only royal blood was sacrificed to the gods. It was the habit of Mayan cities to invade one another, stealing the enemy’s royal priests and sacrificing them in place of their own priests on the alters. Jesus showed us the nettles Mayans used to make the poison darts employed in this warfare.
To the left of the largest temple was the smallest temple on the grounds. Part of this structure has remained protected enough that some of the red plaster is still visible.
We spent a good amount of time wandering around the temple area and taking photos. The rest of the tour took place on a trail through the partially excavated royal family dwellings. The trail ended at the back side of the first temple. The vegetation is quite lush and is growing directly on top of the ruins. I can understand how unearthing the rest of Chacchoben would be a major undertaking, requiring years of time and a great deal of money. In its present state, Chacchoben is a serene, beautifully maintained historic site. It whetted our appetites for experiencing the more impressive Mayan ruins found throughout the Yucatan and Central America. My only disappointment of the day was not hearing or seeing any howler monkeys. After purchasing a few souvenirs and indulging in one last Mexican Coke, we boarded the bus and headed back to port at Costa Maya.
(The tree above is an oil coconut. Our guide, Jesus, is also a nationally acclaimed folk artist who polishes the husks of the coconuts until they are smooth and shiny and then makes animals such as monkeys and elephants out of them.)
The port at Costa Maya is owned by the cruise line. There are shops, a huge swimming pool, and a bar among other entertainments. We chose to skip all that and just head back to the ship where we could enjoy an air-conditioned lunch and a relaxed afternoon. We ate too much at the Windjammer (as usual) and spent the rest of the day loafing around playing ping-pong, shuffleboard, and cards, and lying on a deck chair, reading and soaking up the sun (my personal favorite). Of course, nature was putting on quite a show – the scenery was breath-taking. Isn’t the water gorgeous?
A small luxury of ice cold wash cloths. Greatly appreciated after a hot morning of ruins touring.
Because we ate so late every night, we were able to witness some gorgeous sunsets. We had to force ourselves to leave the deck and prepare for dinner in the dining room. The meal was wonderful once again. Jerome and Arnel were entertaining and attentive. It was Lobster night so Hubby and Ace enjoyed a particularly nice meal. When we returned to our rooms, we found adorable little towel bunnies greeting us. Roland had been busy helping to make a our cruise a memorable one. The ship was already headed back to Tampa. It was hard to believe that our first cruise would soon be coming to an end.
The Centrum at night.