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The Forgotten Mayan World

June 25, 2015
Country/Region:  Mexico
Category:  Culture

Even after thousands of years, we can still visit the places where Mayan communities were born, lived, and prayed. Their story is still heard in archaeological remains and abandoned cities they left behind. The Mayan culture has never been more alive or more willing to be heard. Mexico’s magical Yucatan peninsula offers a wonderful opportunity to explore this ancient culture’s history and beliefs.

The forgotten city of Calakmul
The forgotten city of  Calakmul

One of the first architectural styles of the pre-classic period is the site of Peten, which can be found in the dense humid forests of northern Guatemala and the southern Yucatan states of Campeche and Quintana Roo. Among the most representative Mayan cities of this style is Calakmul, a long forgotten city lost in the middle of a natural protected area. Here, we can rediscover the features belonging to Peten; rough stones joined with mortar and wedges, plus, the use of thick flattened stucco. The style is notable for the presence of large moulded stucco masks that decorate both sides of the steps of main building of Calakmul, one of the most take-breathing structures in the Mayan world. The stucco masks and patterns represent the visions of the world of this ancient culture. A great example of a stucco decoration is in Balam Ku, otherwise translated as the Sacred Jaguar or Jaguar Temple, constructed between 550 and 650. Inside the temple, an incredible illustration represents the order of the universe with figures of amphibians and jaguars where the dynastic cycle is matched with the solar cycle. The ascension to the throne is illustrated by the king, represented as the Sun, coming out of the jaws of the Earth deity. The king’s death is seen as a sunset when it falls into the mouth of the same deity.

During the late classic period, there was a development in building styles, which resulted in the beautiful architecture of Río Bec and Chenes. Chenes is identified by its entrance, which is constructed as the open jaws of the Earth deity including its teeth, fangs, eyes, prominent nose and big earrings. Río Bec uses rounded corners and twin towers at the ends and in front of buildings with an almost vertical staircase. Other special sites that use the Río Bec style are Xpuhil, meaning Cat’s Tail, and Ek Balam whose entrance to a cave reached the underworld.

In the second half of the tenth century, the Toltec and Mexica cultures arrived to the northern area of the península. The fusion of these two cultures, Mayan and Mexica, resulted in the birth of a flourishing culture that lasted three centuries. This hybrid style is found at its peak in Tulum, located in Quintana Roo. Today, we can still admire well-preserved structures as the Temple of the Frescoes and the Temple of the Diving God.

Finally, we cannot discuss Mayan architecture without mentioning the visually exciting Puuc style, which comes from an early period in time, 300-1000. To admire the Puuc style we can visit Edzna’s emblematic five-storey palace temple. However, Uxmal is where the Puuc style reached its maximum expression using masks with long hooked noses to depict Chaac, the God of Water, and where the Toltec culture introduced serpents on its wall decorations.

With thanks to Juan Cortina and Ricardo Pinzon, Go Barefoot Travel (Mexico)

About the Author

James Scipioni

James Scipioni

James Scipioni @thebarefootway is the founder of Go Barefoot an award winning sustainable travel operator. James is additionally involved in the climate change and conservation sector, plus, supports several social entrepreneurship initiatives.