There comes that mysterious meeting in life when someone acknowledges
who we are and what we can be, igniting the circuits of our highest potential.
The Mayan name “Chich’en Itza” translates as “at the mouth of the well of the Itza” with the word itz meaning “magic.” The Mayan Chichen Itza is a major ceremonial site in the northern center of the Yucatán Peninsula 1,400 years ago. If my experience is any indication, the enchantment those early people sensed here in 600 A.D. is still alive and well.
After absorbing the images of everyday life along Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue–master cigar-rollers lighting a parejo for an aficiando, young women bent over embroidery hoops outside small clothing shops, sad-eyed musicians strumming ballads–I had come to Chichen Itza to behold the iconic sights of the Yucatan’s ancient past.
I toured the vast archeaological park with my guide Julian, who educated me on the wonders of El Castillo and the Temple of Warriors. We stood on the Great Ball Court, the largest in ancient Mesoamerica, where I learned the team sport represented the game of life and peoples’ place in the cosmic order.
We then headed toward Cenote Sagrado on Sacbe Number One. The term sacbe is Mayan for “white road”—these routes were originally coated with limestone stucco, making them visible at night. Cenote is Spanish but derived from the Mayan word dzonot, meaning
“well.” The Yucatan is a flat plain of limestone with thousands of miles of below-ground, water-filled caves interconnected by subterranean rivers. When the roof of one of these underground caverns collapses, the result is a deep, water-filled sinkhole known
as a cenote.
It was easy to see why the cenote here was sacred to the ancient Maya, inspiring pilgrimages—and human offerings. Two hundred feet in diameter, the “Well of Sacrifice,” as it is also known, is a perfectly round circle of jade waters, from which flaky cream-colored walls rise, their crest enclosed with a ring of luxuriant plants in emerald hues.
Julian told me that virgins–both boys and girls–were sacrificed here as offerings to the rain gods, or chaacs, during times of drought. These youngsters were chosen for this honor from birth, based on the day of the year they were born. Parents actually tried to bring their children into the world on the five specific days of the year important in this regard in the Mayan calendar—August 6 – 10. Julian said the sacrifice needed to occur before the children reached the age of 13, when they became adults in the eyes of the community. When a sacrifice was required, priests would test the children to see which ones were “ready,” with successful memorization of a certain song or lesson indicating their time had come.
From the Cenote Sagrado, Julian and I headed to a complex on the other side of the site, nicknamed Las Monjas, or “The Nunnery,” by the Spanish, although in fact the structure was actually a governmental palace. In the heat of the afternoon, we paused to sit under the shade of one of the few trees. The conversation faltered, with an awkward pause between two strangers whose lives had randomly intersected briefly for the span of a couple of hours.
In one of those small acts of courage required to stretch beyond polite chit-chat, Julian shared something personal about himself. I ventured to do the same and in an extraordinary coincidence, as the conversation gently unfolded, we discovered that we shared a similar stretch of painful personal history. The striking similarities of what had ultimately been a powerfully transforming experience for each of us produced a profound connection. Despite the thick, humid air, I felt goose bumps. Tears sprang to my eyes, and I saw his fill up too. It was hard to know which was more incredible, the likelihood of he and I having had such a common past, or that we came to speak of it.
As we parted company on a stretch of sacbe, Julian and I exchanged a heart-felt hug, and he said to me “Now it is time for joy.”
The magic of that meeting has made me look anew at commonplace encounters, and the possibility of itz in everyday interactions, if I am open.
Today’s blog is an excerpt from the Compass Rose article “Cenotes: Mayan Waters of Life.”
For more on the mystery and beauty of the Yucatan here.
For more images of the Yucatan, see my Travel Photos.