Mayan Masterpiece

Chichén-Itzá – not to be confused with chicken at Itsu.

How can you say that you have been to the Yucatán peninsula if you’ve not visited the archaeological site of Chichén-Itzá? Drag yourself away from the white powdery beaches of the Mayan Riviera   and you will be blessed with an education about the classical and post classical periods of world history. It provides answers to a curiosity about the rise and fall of the Mayan, Toltec and the Mesoamerica civilisations and cultures.

I’m struggling to learn and understand the history of my own homeland, let alone delve into the history of another country, but isn’t this what travelling does to us? We get opportunities to learn and explore different cultures that have evolved and then shaped the world in which we live today. I confess that prior to this trip that the Mesoamerican era meant absolutely nothing to me, which is surprising as I had visited this place before. This trip fed that inquisitive instinct to learn about new places. To my way of thinking I feel like the explorers and pirates of yesteryear who set off not knowing what was over the horizon. The French, British and Spanish discovered much of the east coast of the Northern and central America, but it was the Spanish who arrived, explored and conquered the Yucatán peninsula.

When the name Chichén-Itzá is mentioned or searched then the Temple of Kukulkan immediately comes to mind. The temple that everyone is obsessed with is in the heart of the Chichén-Itzá site. Chichén-Itzá provides an obscure look into the history of Mayan. The site is still an active archaeological site with discoveries being made continually. Speaking to locals and reading different sources of information will provide the enquirer with many myths and mysteries of the site. Carlos, our guide on this trip, seemed to have his own versions and theories of what might have happened here, so it is very hard to understand what is true or not. He would always refer to his ‘beautiful picture’. A phrase to which he would continually return when he wanted to show a picture to support his theory.

The Temple of Kukulkan is undoubtedly the showpiece to the whole site. Steeped in much history, it’s the one thing that everyone comes to see, and why not? I’ve not seen the pyramids in Egypt so I cannot compare. The temple has an ability to cause some to stand in open mouthed awe. It is also known as El Castillo (the castle). It rises imperiously to a height of 94 feet. The gloriously steep pyramid displays the accuracy and importance of astronomyto the Maya. The perfect astrological design includes 4 staircases each with 91 steps that face the cardinal points. At the top platform you’ll find one platform (a final step) add that to the simple maths of 4 times 91 and you get 365. This combined with other features give you the Mayan calendar. You were once allowed to walk to the top, that privilege was taken away as the result of spring break misdemeanours. Twice a year an optical illusion takes place at sunrise when the sun casts a shadow on the northern side, which looks like a snake is slithering down the steps. This equinox happens twice a year in the spring and autumn. Those pesky American college kids mean that climbing to the top and inside is now prohibited, a great shame as there are rumours that a smaller pyramid lies inside.

If you can drag yourself away from the one thing everyone has come to see, in the main area you will notice to behind it what looks more like a temple known as the Temple of Warriors. This rectangular building has steps in the middle up to an area where a sculpture rests in between pillars. Again, access is denied, but at the bottom of the steps are several pillars. It is rumoured that there is a pillar for each one of 450 warriors, but our trip was short so we didn’t have time to prove if this true. My guess is that this number is purely mythical.

At the opposite end to the Temple of Warriors, lies the ball court. It is said that this is the largest ball court in the Mesoamerica area. Upon entering the theatre, you will be immediately drawn to the two rings situated in the walls on either side. How the game worked I still can’t understand but I believe the idea was to get the ‘ball’ through the ring on the wall. I think I’m right in thinking that the rules meant that no arms or legs were allowed to move the ball and was also played in the dark. Very strange especially when it is realised that the losers became a sacrificial offering. Can’t imagine too many wanting to take up that sport. Glad that we have moved on from those times.

My two visits have shown me what everyone comes to see. Longer time would be needed to explore the full site and see why this became a significant centre of political and economic power. Suburbs were built around the site, with connecting stone roads. Sadly, I leave this place, one of the seven new wonders of the modern world. I wish I had longer to explore the site and delve into the dark underground world of the Mayabut as I was a tourist, I was caught in the rat trap of tour agendas. Had I been in traveling mode I perhaps would have learnt so much more. So, I say, “Adios, Chichen-Itza”, and look forward to visiting another wonder of the world in the near future.

Where time stood still!

In what is rapidly becoming a depressing era in which to live, how refreshing it was to visit Havana. This escape from my real world was so magical that I wish I’d stayed longer. There was history at every corner. I was able to enjoy the city’s famous rum and cigars, and its music and dance entertainment.

Havana stole my heart!

Of course I had images of what to expect, but I hope never to have these again on all future trips as they often leave you disappointed. Havana itself didn’t disappoint; it blew my mind and it is without doubt the best city I have visited so far on my travels. It had always been a dream of mine to get there; I had heard so much about it that I was intrigued to go to experience it and prove that dreams can come true.

After visiting this capital, it is my opinion that everyone should visit Havana at least once in their lifetime, and visit it as soon as possible. I’m torn as the place needs some TLC (probably more now after the recent hurricanes that affected the area), but a huge part of me hopes that modernisation doesn’t destroy the unique beauty of this place. Time has almost stopped on this city and as the rest of the world develops and loses it soul and identity, Havana has retained its own. The spirit of the city lives on. Unlike the rest of the world nothing is fake. It is real; it lives and breathes as you admire and experience this iconic city. Havana is Havana; it doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be something it is not and if there are other cities around the world like this then I want to see them.

As I continue to blog, you will learn that I like to walk. I experience everything that a place has to offer by foot. I reckon that I see so much more than one does on the open top bus tours. I get to experience the real city; I get lost; I stumble upon those unexpected views, unearth those gems, discover those fascinating people, plus the health and environmental benefits are incredible. The everyday hustle and bustle isn’t there, you can relax and enjoy yourself, the sound of music galvanises and entertains. The non-existence of iconic designer shops, coffee and food outlets that have proliferated so many cities around the world adds to Havana’s unique charm. Walking the streets of this famous city, I’m not having to fight with people for my piece of pavement; it is so refreshing to be ​​able to enjoy the city by foot, to look at people and see the twinkle in their eyes, the smiles on their faces as they enjoy life, everyone is polite and friendly, smiles greet you wherever you look, nobody is distracted, people mingle and enjoy each other’s company, there are no tears or sadness around.

One cannot ignore Cuba’s history or present situation, I did try to understand its fascinating history, but I feel I just scratched the surface. There is much to learn of its relationship with America and Western Europe, its revolution, the Castro family etc. The former presidential palace is now a museum (Museo de la Revolucion) and displays some evidence of Cuba’s intriguing past. It is constantly guarded by the nation’s soldiers and is worth the entrance fee. I cannot forget to mention its relationship with America – the rest of the world can’t seem to live without America – Cuba seems to have managed without one!! When I arrived the the Americans had just got their embassy, situated on the famous Malecon. I have never seen a building so well fortified, so much so that I felt a little scared as I wandered by.

The Malecon, the 8km road that stretches around the north of the city, is probably one of those ‘famous drives’. By day nothing is going on apart from some locals fishing off the sea wall’s edge as it is battered by the Atlantic. Stare out towards the sea and see nothing but ocean. The lack of boats and freight ships creates a unique sense of calm. Only one big ship making a delivery was seen in 3 days and a harbour doesn’t really exist apart from 1 or 2 boats moored in an inlet. The Malecon by night is the hub of activity as people flock to meet likeminded people in search of love and romance. What a contrast to the digital dating that now has changed our world. Sit here and enjoy some local rum and lookout almost into a black abyss.

Leave here and head towards some of its squares, each one a complete contrast to the other. Plaza de Armas, peaceful and quiet, is dominated by a local market or book sale. Plaza de la Catedral is dominated by the Catedral de San Cristobal, and the others, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Veija, are lively being filled with bars and restaurants. Everyone flocks to these places and enjoys companionship. One cannot ignore the Revolutionary square either though it is more than a little walk away. It is worth the visit – walk through Vedado district to get there. It is home to the Cuban government, and has various monuments to key revolutionaries with their images wired on the tall buildings almost signalling their importance to its history. I was hoping to be able to get to the top of Memorial Jose Marti but I was sadly rebuffed by soldiers.

My time here was all too brief. It should have been a longer visit, and hopefully I will return one day, or find another city that offers an escape from this so called digital world. For now, I will live in this farcical digital era, with accusations and confessions and wonder what on earth will happen next.

Havana, La Habana, Cuba