I suppose just about everyone has a bucket list, a selection of places in the world they’ve always wanted to visit. Prime among mine was to visit as many of the Mayan pyramids of Mexico as I could particularly after gazing in awe at their Egyptian counterparts at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, back in 2009.
So off we flew with trusty Qantas in mid-September to Mexico City, via a transit stop at Los Angeles. After an orientation day or two in the frenetic capital city it was time to trundle out to two of the best known pyramids at Teotihuacan: the Temples of the Sun and the Moon.
The area containing the huge Sun temple is the only one of the three sites we visited where climbing is allowed. And even though we were there on a Saturday there were swarms of tourists everywhere, clambering up the steep steps to the top. Walking around one side of the Sun structure it was fascinating to observe where the Mayan architects and builders had installed major run-off channels. These were buttressed by enormous sandstone rocks on both sides of the wide channels to prevent serious water erosion.
The pyramids themselves were constructed using limestone or sandstone bricks held together by burnt lime cement and mortar. There were no steel or iron implements for the builders – only sharpened stone adzes and axes were available. I heard two Americans discussing the building techniques saying to each other that the Mayans had mastered the art of ‘leverage’.
Next up was Uxmal which not only had a unique Pyramid of The Magician made with a finish of smooth rounded walls, but also the remains of a Mayan city, Governor’s Palace and all. The palace was a long, low building sitting stop an enormous platform.
In all three areas – and indeed in all Mayan sites in Mexico and central America – only the sandstone structures remain. The thatched huts inhabited by the poor people are long gone. And the structures aren’t anywhere near as old as their Egyptian counterparts. Most were constructed between 600-900 AD. The rounded wall pyramid was about 60km south of the city of Merida, our second stop in Mexico where our hotel had been converted from a 16th century Catholic monastery.
Third up was perhaps the best site of all: Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula. We reached the spot after being driven through torrential rain by a careful driver who went by the name, funnily enough in a Spanish speaking country, of Walter. He deposited us at the entrance area which was again clogged with more clamouring tourists all ready to see the beautifully curated grounds. Fascinating for this sports writer was to come upon not only another rectilinear pyramid but also a sports arena including what was described in the literature as ‘a ball court’. There was a running arena adjacent to a ball court where hoops had been built into the wall. But the hoops stuck out from the walls to which they were attached at right angles meaning the athletes had to spin the hard balls made from animal skins through the hoops rather than doing lay-ups like our modern basketballers perform regularly.
Most sinister structure by far was the sacred Cenote: the human sacrifice well. We’d heard that the Mayans used to sacrifice their own disabled and mentally distressed citizens but we were also told that captured warriors from neighbouring tribes were also dispatched to appease the gods.
We left Mexico from Caribbean coast city Cancun to fly to Vancouver after an eight-day stay well satisfied with what we’d managed to see.
Next: north to Alaska and over the Canadian Rockies by train.