Near Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula stands this Mayan Treasure
By Mari S. Gold
Some years ago I led a tour called Before Cortez at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Researching the artifacts sparked my fascination with all things Mayan so it was a special thrill to stand in the actual ball court at Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about an hour’s drive south of Merida, Mexico.
Brief History of Uxmal
Uxmal flourished about 1300 years ago when it was an important Mayan city and the center of the area’s economic power. To me, the 150-acre site seemed in amazingly good condition, perhaps because it has fewer visitors than the area’s other show-stopper, Chichen Itza.
As a bonus, no vendors are allowed on-site so you can look, climb and marvel unbothered.
Many local guides, including Jorge who led the day trip I joined, suggest that ‘Uxmal’ is derived from the word “Oxmal,” meaning built three times, i.e., the site was rebuilt over itself repeatedly. Uxmal has a lot of buildings, many of which have several parts as well as some structures that are yet to be fully excavated.
For anyone deeply into archeology or Mayan culture, a visit could last all day or longer. I felt that being there two-and-a-half hours was ample especially as it was extremely hot, almost 100 degrees at 1 PM in late February.
Entering the Site
After paying the entrance fee (not included in the tour price) we went first to the Pyramid of the Magician, (aka the Pyramid of the Dwarf), the tallest structure at Uxmal with ninety steep steps leading to the top. (Visitors are allowed to climb it but I passed.).
Then we visited the Nunnery Quadrangle, so-called because the four palaces set around a courtyard reminded 16th century Spaniards of a convent.
Some facades are adorned with carved birds, many of them parrots which the Mayans associated with the sun because of their brilliant feathers.
Shaping Baby Heads
As we walked from one structure to another Jorge recounted factoids of Mayan social history including how the Mayan women shaped their babies’ heads by putting a board under the chin and against the forehead and tying it in place.
As a result, the baby’s forehead was permanently flattened, possibly to make it resemble the ancient Mayan maize god.
He also talked about stories of virgins being thrown into cenotes (natural water-filled pits) as sacrifices. Jorge said that bones of people of different ages and genders have been found, meaning sacrifices crossed many lines.
The Pok-ta-Pok Ball Court
The real thing is far more interesting than any pictures I had seen with the stone ball rings set high into the wall on the side of a long, narrow alley. (Full disclosure: these rings are reproductions as the originals were removed to avoid further deterioration from the elements.)
According to experts and eyewitnesses like the Spaniards who saw the games in the 1500s and wrote about them, players had to keep the ball in the air without using their hands or feet.
Instead, they hit the ball with their upper arms, thighs or hips.
Scholars think the balls were rubber and may have weighed seven pounds or more. The game was hard on the body and could inflict serious injury both from contact with the heavy ball and hitting the ground for a “save.”
The game is known in modern English as Pok-ta-Pok. Ball courts similar to the one at Uxmal have been found from central Mexico as far south as Guatemala, scattered throughout the area where pre-Columbian civilizations existed.
First Team Sport in History
Pok-ta-Pok is thought to have been the first team sport in history and was highly competitive, possibly played to avoid being killed although no one is sure if the sacrifice of heads was made by the winning or losing team members.
The game also had a ceremonial role that tied into the Mayan belief that human sacrifice was necessary for the continued success of the peoples’ agriculture, trade, and overall health.
Time for a Break
Hot and in need of a pit stop, we broke for lunch at a nearby restaurant serving typical Yucatan food.
The meal, included in the tour price, had three courses: a soup, a main dish, and a dessert, all preceded by chips and several salsas, a standard in almost every Mexican restaurant here.
Revived, we drove to Kabah about eleven kilometers south. By now it was close to 4 PM and even hotter than before which may explain why the site was empty. Per Jorge, restoration stopped here in 2006 due to a lack of funding.
Kabah’s Palaces and Carvings
Although the site is flatter and therefore less dramatic than Uxmal, Kabah has even more palaces and temples, many with well-preserved carvings, some now fallen to the ground and others requiring a climb to view up close.
Besides the elaborate stonework, Kabah is known as a bird sanctuary, thrilling the bird-watcher in our group who spotted doves, hummingbirds, and a Yucatan jay. Between the heat and scrambling around, when our van dropped me back at my Merida lodgings about 6 PM I was tired.
Pok-Ta-Pok Played Today in Merida
After a very brief rest, I went off to the Plaza Grande in front of Merida’s Cathedral to see Pok-ta-Pok which takes place on Saturday nights at 8 PM.
As one of the city’s many free evening events it attracts a large crowd so getting there a good half-hour early is smart.
On my way to Plaza Grande, about a seven-minute walk from Villa Tievoli, my B & B, I stopped to chat with several adorable kids whose mothers were happy to have me take their picture.
Folk Dance Interlude
Before the game, we were treated to a folk dance performance featuring women in brightly embroidered dresses and men in white shirts and trousers with red neckerchiefs and straw hats.
The dancing, accompanied by live, mostly guitar music, is a weekly event usually performed by the same local troupe although sometimes groups from other parts of the Yucatan appear.
As the sun set people who were wandering took their seats—hard metal and plastic folding chairs– for the start of the game. ‘Dignitaries’ in elaborate headdresses were the first to enter followed by the players, young men in recreations of Mayan athletic dress (meaning mostly bare torsos) with face paint and feathers.
Each player was introduced to loud whoops from the audience. The game commentary was boomed in Spanish which I don’t speak well but it didn’t matter as it was clear that the goal was to score by passing the ball through the ‘hoop,’ a wooden structure like an upright basketball hoop. At particularly spectacular moves, such as when a man slid to the ground to hit the ball off his hip, there was enthusiastic cheering.
Lights, Fire, Drama
About three-quarters of the way through the game there was a break while people performed the Meridian equivalent of the ‘seventh-inning stretch’ and the players took what I hoped was a water break. When the players returned, red lights came on to magnify the drama as the ball was set on fire.
I thought the men were dealing with a super- hot sphere but was told that only the top half of the ball is flaming so the bottom is relatively cool.
The ball game lasted about an hour, ending with the players marching and bowing in front of the crowd. The audience—locals and tourists from all over—clapped in appreciation. If not totally authentic, this ball game was a good approximation played with verve and intensity.
On my way back to my lodgings I had the urge for something sweet so I ducked into Mina Kim, where I bought a sticky nut and sugar bar for the walk home. Back at Villa Tievoli I thought about the day. It was a great blend of historical past and contemporary, even if tourist-driven, interpretation. Olé Merida, Uxmal, and the Mayans!
If you go:
Lodging: The Villa Tievoli, B&B with three guest rooms each with a private bath. Exceptionally helpful hosts. Just under $100 a night. www.thevillatievoli.com
Local tour company for Uxmal/Kabah day trip: Mayan Heritage: $70 including pickup and drop off at hotel, van, guide and lunch. Drinks, tips, and entrance fees to sites not included. www.mayanheritage.com.mx
The fee to enter Uxmal is now $413 (Mexican, or about $27US), of which 338 pesos goes to Yucatan and 75 pesos to the federal government. This fee is for foreigners; for Mexicans, the entrance ticket price is now. $176; for residents of Yucatan state, there is no charge by the state, but they are required to pay the 75 pesos federal fee.
Site admission Kabah: $3.50
Beer: about $1
Nut bar: under $1