Learning About the Maya in Northern Yucatán

“Malu-KEEN”, I said to the Maya guard at Uxmal. He repeated the “good morning” greeting in Yucatec with a smile. I had learned that 30% of people living in the Mayab (known today by many as the Yucatán Peninsula) speak one of 32 Maya languages, all derived from Yucatec. With such a high percentage, I was behoved to learn a few local phrases and this effort was quite well-received.

My favorite aspect of traveling around the northern part of the Yucatán was learning about the Maya. From trying new foods, reading about the history and exploring the Mayab, I left Mexico with an entirely new appreciation for, and understanding of, the area.

Cancun

I came across my first Maya lesson only moments after being picked up from the Cancun airport. Just outside Quintana Roo’s most frequently used airport stands a small pyramid topped with a tiny house. Apparently, in the 1990s advances on the construction of the bridge, under which the structure is housed, were inexplicably destroyed several times. Local Maya believed this was the result of angering the aluxes.

Pyramid under a bridge just outside the Cancun airport

I learned that aluxes are mythical beings of the Yucatán peninsula. The more I read about them, they reminded me of Norwegian trolls or the hobbits I learned about when visiting the village of Batad in the Philippines. Like the trolls and hobbits, the aluxes are mischievous. In addition, and pertinent to the story involving the pyramid, they are possessive of their territory and will stop at nothing to protect what they believe it theirs.

With no forward movement on the construction of the bridge, the engineers took the advice of the locals and called a Mayan priest, who performed a ritual contacting the aluxes. A pact was formed as a result: the small pyramid and house was an offering to the aluxes and in turn the bridge construction could continue with no further complications.

What a great way to start my adventure across northern Yucatán! My interest in the Maya was certainly piqued and I was eager to learn more.

Valladolid

The small town of Valladolid was the perfect place to stop along the way to the bustling city of Mérida. Valladolid is the jumping off point for several cenotes and the famous Mayan site of Chichén Itzá. The most difficult aspect of navigating the cenotes in this area is deciding which one(s) to explore as they are seemingly ubiquitous. Yet, each cenote is unique in its own way.

Scientifically, a cenote is the result of the collapse of the limestone bedrock which exposes the groundwater. It’s often compared to a sinkhole, but the big difference between the two is that while a sinkhole is made in the ground, a cenote is made in the rock, specifically limestone.

Culturally, however, a cenote is much more than simply a pool at the bottom of caved in bedrock. Cenotes are the gateway to the underworld (Xibalba) where the God of Rain (Chaac) lives. Not only did the cenotes provide fresh water for the ancient Maya, they also were used as places for rituals, ceremonies and offerings. Cenotes were the perfect place to ask Chaac for rain and good crops. Maya ceremonies are still performed today in sacred cenotes.

Suytun Cenote

I won’t lie; it was the photo on the Suytun Cenote website that lured me in. A covered cave, except for a small opening in the roof that let in a stream of sunlight that shone onto the gorgeous crystal blue water and complete with a large stalactite in the middle? I simply couldn’t resist this inviting scene. Thankfully, the others in my party, my girlfriend Chrissy and my best friend Erick, agreed.

After climbing down the steep and uneven stairs into the underworld, the view opened up to reveal exactly what the website had promised – such a beautiful out-of-this-world kind of environment. After taking a few pictures, we walked down the many steps to the bottom to go for a swim. I had brought my mask and snorkel, but quickly realized this didn’t heighten my experience at all, so I set them aside and simply enjoyed becoming a part of the refreshing pool of crystal blue water.

Chrissy and I in Suytun Cenote near Valladolid, Mexico

It is mandatory to take a shower before you go swimming in the cenote. The reason for this is to limit the amount of artificial products, such as sunscreen, perfumes or lotions, that get introduced into the water. Showers are provided and are located directly across from where you pick up your life jacket, which is also mandatory. There is a short walk to the stop of the stairs leading down to the cenote.

My best friend Erick and I swimming in Cenote Suytun.

There is a second cenote on the Suytun premises called Cenote Káapeh. I think it is just as photo-worthy and it’s included in the 130 peso ticket. This cenote had significantly fewer people in it and the top of the cave was open, which I found very much highlighted the idea of the underworld.

Taken from Cenote Káapeh

Vegan Maya Cuisine

Ix Cat Ik Traditional Maya Kitchen in Valladolid, Yucatan

It was time for lunch. Dining at Ix Cat Ik was quite the immersive experience! They grow plants right there in the front of the restaurant that are used in the food and they are happy to give patrons a little tour to educate visitors about some of the traditional Mayan ingredients.

Chrissy and Erick inside the traditional Maya house

Erick requested that we eat outside and I’m so glad he did. We were ushered to a table inside an outdoor wooden room. I waited for the appetizers from the hammock next to the table. My pre-culinary experience with the restaurant gave me high expectations of the food. I was not disappointed!

Chaya plant growing in Ix Cat Ik Cuisina Maya in Valladolid, Mexico

We ordered all three appetizers that were vegan or could easily be made vegan. The first was the empanada de chaya (without cheese). Chaya is a local plant that was growing only a few feet from our table. The second appetizer was the polok waaj which included a corn tortilla, beans, ixcatik, chaya, onion and tomato. Ixcatik, the restaurant’s namesake, it a local pepper common in Maya cuisine. We also asked for T’zotobichay (without the egg). This consisted of tamal de chaya with powder pumpkin seeds, tomatoes and sauce. I very much enjoyed all three appetizers, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the polok waaj. The combination of flavors was fantastic!

For the main course, I ordered the k’úum. This dish had a base of pumpkin topped with perfectly sauteed vegetables, pepitas and pickled onions. I loved this dish so much that I even commented to the others that I might need to spend some time alone with it. LOL

K’úum: steamed local pumpkin, sauteed local vegetables, pepitas from Ix Ct Ik Cusina Maya in Valladolid

Chrissy ordered the other vegan option on the menu: mak’ulan. This dish came beautifully layered with a thick corn tortilla with mak’ulan (a local plant) at the base followed by layers of black beans, rice, sauteed local pumpkin and tomatoes. Not only was Chissy’s choice nice to look at, it also tasted great!

Mak’ulan: corn tortilla with local plant mak’ulan, sauteed local pumpkin, black beans from Ix Ct Ik Cusina Maya in Valladolid

With full bellies we accepted the offer for a tour. Our guide first showed us the altar for the rain god. He explained that the vegetable offerings were to ask Chaak for rain and a successful harvest.

Alter to the Maya God of Rain Chaak at Ix Cat Ik in Valladolid, Mexico

Next, we stopped by the small hut where a Maya woman was preparing corn tortillas by hand over a fire. This certainly explained the delicious flavor of the tortillas and why I couldn’t help but eat every single one even though I was full. It was nice to be able to thank her in person.

The corn tortillas are prepared by hand at Ix Cat Ik Cuisina Maya.

We were shown a variety of plants that were used in the dishes, from chaya to ixcatik to epazote and so much more. The guide also demonstrated how they made some of their condiments using a traditional metate, which is a flat slab of stone.

Two metates for making various spice combinations. The long light green peppers in the basket are ixcatik, the restaurant’s namesake

I can not imagine visiting Valladolid without enjoying a meal at Ix Cat Ik. With full bellies, we continued on our journey to Mérida.

Mérida

Known for the “you and me” chairs (one of which I would love to have in my backyard), Mérida is about 4 hours west of Cancun and two hours west of Valladolid. We arrived to this sizeable city with an agenda: visiting the Grand Museum of the Maya World, trying pox, and searching for Maya clothing.

“You and me” chairs on Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, Yucatan

Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (The Grand Museum of the Maya World)

Without a doubt, the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is where I learned the most about the Maya. The museum was so well-laid out and included an incredible amount of information on all aspects of Maya culture from religion to the origins of life to language, societal structures, astrology, food and so much more.

Vasija fitomorfa from 600-900 AD: The inscription on this vessel records its function for drinking a specific type of cacao and the name and place of residence of its owner, Tzakal u K’ahk’ Hutal Ek’, lord of Acanceh.

One aspect of the ancient Maya that I enjoyed learning about is their consumption of chocolate beverages. I read that some of these drinks were consumed cold, while others were served hot and that they were spiced with chilli, annatto or vanilla. I would love to try these!

A hoop from the traditional Maya game called Pok-a-tok from the Grand Museum of the Maya World in Mérida, Mexico

I also enjoyed learning about pok-a-tok, a traditional Maya sport that is still played by locals in Mérida. I was hoping to catch a game, but they are played every Wednesday and we only had to weekend to visit. But, I plan to go back to Mérida, for several reasons, one of which is to witness a game of pok-a-tok.

The way ancient Mayas recorded time

The Mayan calendar has always intrigued me. The museum explained that the system was built on the observation of astronomical cycles, which became linked to both the origin and fate of the world. These cycles were also linked to farming practices as well as ways for the ruling class to ideologically control the population (by using it to prophesize about future events). Interestingly, the idea that each katun (7200 day period) is the recurrence of the previous one suggests that history does indeed repeat itself.

I very much enjoyed the personal stories about specific Maya individuals. They were able to piece together quite a bit from bones that were found in the Mayab. This is the plaque that was posted next to the recreated face of a Maya woman above:

This  woman lived in northern Yucatán, where Yucatec Maya was spoken. She devoted her time to household tasks and processing products from the cornfield. She must have been strong in life and with a slightly flat forehead, she was less than 150 cm (5 ft.) in height and was the mother of several children. She died before the age of 40, prematurely aged and suffering from joint pain.

The image of the Deity of Suicide in the Grand Museum of the Maya World in Mérida, Mexico

I enjoyed looking at the images of the plethora of Maya deities. I was very surprised, however, to see a deity of suicide. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the purpose of such a deity. The following day, I came across a local artisan who made replicas of various deities for sale and I asked him what he knew about the suicide deity. He told me that suicide is a part of life sometimes. He also said that the largest number of suicides in all of Mexico occur in the Yucatán. The most common method is by hanging and I couldn’t help but notice that the above image shows a hanging, which I hadn’t previously seen. Apparently, when someone leaves a note, it is common for the deity of suicide to be mentioned.

I did a lot of thinking about this deity in particular, wondering if he brings comfort to those in such a desperate situation. I also remembered from my Indigenous Knowledge and Knowing course in grad school that many Indigenous groups don’t view death with the same finality as the culture I grew up in. I aim to learn more on the subject.

Traditional Maya clothing at the Grand Museum of the Maya World in Mérida, Mexico

Another aspect of any culture that I enjoy is the clothing. This has lead me on more than one occasion to add a piece of clothing to my multi-cultural wardrobe, which bodes well for my classes filled with students from all over the world. The pictured garment is a three-piece set including a jubón (upper part), hipil, (tunic) and a fustán (underskirt). Before leaving Mérida, I managed to find a nice Mayan top as well as a white lace dress, hand made by a local Maya woman.

While it was impossible to retain all that I had learned at the museum, I left with a wealth of new knowledge. In addition, it inspired me to learn more and delve into certain aspects of the Maya cultures that intrigued me the most.

Trying Pox

One of the activities that came up in my “Things to do in Mérida” google search was pox tasting at a poshería. Most popular in the Chiapas area of Mexico, pox (pronounced “posh”) is an alcoholic drink used for ceremonial purposes by the Maya in Mexico and other parts of Central America. I read online that pox has also become a popular drink outside of religious intentions. The more I learned, the more interested I became in trying this drink.

My first shot of Mayan Pox – Salud!

Interestingly, the word “pox” means “medicine, cane liquor, cure” in Tzotzil (Indigenous Maya language in the state of Chiapas). It’s made of corn, sugar cane and wheat.

With the large variety of flavored pox, it was hard to choose.

I tried a non-flavored pox first so I could simply taste the drink in its original form. And I liked it! It reminded me of good moonshine, which I had enjoyed tasting for the first time in Nashville only a few years prior. I subsequently tried three flavored pox varieties: coffee, plantain and mango. I loved them all so much that I bought a bottle of each.

The three bottle of Mayan Pox that I brought home

Be sure to pace yourself as the alcohol content in pox is very high. In addition, there are so many different flavors to choose from that it’s not difficult to end up walking back to your accommodations a little tipsy.

Uxmal

Just over an hour south of Mérida, a visit to Uxmal makes the perfect day trip. We were unsure, however, if we really wanted to add another two hours (one hour there and one back) to our long journey back to Cancun on our final day. But, a local woman advised us that Uxmal was not to be missed. She continued that she liked it there much better than at the popular Chichén Itzá because it “has a calming feminine energy about it”. We were convinced to make the trip and I was so happy that we did!

The first structure you see when arriving to the Uxmal complex

A lot is still unknown or disputed about the origins of Uxmal, some saying it was founded in 500 AD and others somewhere between 850 and 900 AD. Even the meaning of the name is contested; some believe it to translate to “three times built” and others to “what is to come, the future”. I walked in to the complex in a very cerebral headspace and I could have continued reading about the dimensions of each building and more about how each location might have been used, et cetera.

But, I decided to put the brain away and instead focus on the feeling of the place. I took joy in the bright blue sky of the day, the movement of the many big trees, and the large iguanas all over the grass and structures, perhaps completely unaware of the significance of their location to humans.

Wanting to connect, I spoke to a man guarding one of the complexes and asked him about the deity of rain. He pointed out the many carvings of him in the stone on the corners of each building.

View taken from the House of the Turtles in Uxmal, Yucatán

The path to the Grand Pyramid lead me through a bit of the jungle with mature trees. Eventually, I made my way up the back of the House of the Turtles, which offered beautiful views.

It was here that I felt a strong feminine energy.

I continued around the corner to the front of what was named Governor’s Palace. It was here that a peaceful calm came over me; I noticed the feminine energy my new local friend told me about. Had we not been pressed for time, I would have gladly stayed longer to simply sit and enjoy the serenity.

During the 5 hour drive back to Cancun, the three of us discussed thoughts on our shared experiences, as well as talked about locations we’d like to explore on our next Yucatán adventure.

3 thoughts on “Learning About the Maya in Northern Yucatán

  1. This is fantastic! Thank you for writing all of this. I’m glad I got to meet you when you were here hopefully you will come back and we can explore together. Rebecca

    Liked by 1 person

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