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A journey back in time

Rich in culture, heritage and history, a trip across Mexico is a portal to another world

Floating across the sky in a hot-air balloon, with the sun rising over the horizon, I had my first view of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan.

Having arrived past midnight at the quaint restored hacienda, and waking up way before sunrise, there was a euphoric realisation that this was going to be a wonderful vacation.

My wife and I were on a 10 -day journey to visit the ancient sites of the Olmecs, Mayans and Toltecs in Mexico.

Once back on ground, we were met at the gates to the complex by Gorilla, a Toltec descendant who comes from a long line of shamans. The Pyramid of the Moon is the other major structure in the township of Teotihuacan. We walked among the ageless stone buildings with Gorilla telling us about the culture and practices of the past.

He invited us to be part of a ceremony: he had three small earthen chalices with ornate handles, in which he burnt small pieces of a tree called palo santo. We then moved to an underground chamber that used to house a priest and performed another ceremony, where Gorilla chanted and also played his extra-long bamboo flute.

Back at the inn, we experienced a cleansing during Temazcal (ceremonial Aztec sweat bath). The small igloo-shaped clay hut, which can accommodate three to four people at a time, is filled with steam generated from water poured over red-hot granite stones.

Our next stop was Villahermosa. After visiting the La Venta Museum Park and seeing the giant Olmec heads,we reached our resort tucked into the jungle of Chiapas. Just before dawn, the sound of the gentle stream flowing past our cottage was broken by a combination of screeching and howling; it was the howler monkeys.

After breakfast, we reached Palenque, one of the greatest Mayan cities. When you stand in front of the awe-inspiring Temple of the Inscriptions, one cannot help feel reverence for the people who built such grand structures.

A short flight from Villahermosa got us to Merida, a UNESCO-protected heritage town. We were there on a weekend, when the town square and crossroads are closed to motor vehicles and everyone celebrates life through music, dance and good food.

We soaked it all in, walking the streets, chatting with the shopkeepers and indulging in a good meal. Afterwards, we retired to our room in a high-ceilinged 300-year-old building that used to house a seminary.

We reached Uxmal in the Yucatan Province by road, where we had a native Mayan guide accompany us on a tour of a pyramid complex which looked like it had smooth, almost conical, sides.

The centre of the Pyramid of the Soothsayer is dominated by sculptures depicting Chaac, the god of rain. Possibly due to water shortage in those days, this site has hundreds of stone masks of this long-nosed deity. Chichén Itzá, one of the seven wonders of the world, was the next destination. This well-preserved fusion of Mayan and Toltec architecture was where people wanted to be at the end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar (December 2012).

The step pyramids, temples, columned arcades, and other stone structures were sacred to the Mayans, and was the sophisticated urban centre of their empire. The buildings also showed their advance knowledge of astronomy.

The most recognisable structure, the Temple of Kulkulkan, has 365 steps, representing the days of the year. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadow that falls on the steps looks like a snake moving down.

Coba, inhabited during 600-900 A.D, is set amongst the woods with beautiful birds and small wildlife. The effort of climbing a very steep 130 metres on crumbling stone steps paid off, thanks to the magnificent view.

We continued to Tulum, a picturesque historical site, with the Castillo perched on a hillside looking down at the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.

An expansive walkway extends around the ruins and a wooden staircase leads down to the white sandy beach. One cannot leave this place without at least dipping your feet in the crystal-clear blue waters.

We did not wade into the water, as our next stop was the beach vacation capital of Mexico – Cancun. Kilometres of beach resorts make this a favourite destination for many from North America and even Europe, looking for sun, sand and the sea.

Later, under the starlit sky, we decided that the highlight was an unscheduled stop, when the driver suggested we visit Balankanche, a network of underground caves with stalactite and stalagmite formations.

We were fortunate to be the only people there that early and had a guide take us through the passageways that sometimes opened out to large ‘chambers’ showing signs of ceremonial activities.

The 23-ft-tall Ceiba Tree or The Sacred Tree inside Earth formation was overshadowed by the crystal-clear and tasty waters of the underground stream.

Even though historians are debating how and why a flourishing civilisation such as the Mayans disappeared, some believe that they all walked down into these caves and carried on through a portal into another dimension.

As we took off from Mexico City, the setting sun seemed to caress the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon; we sent a silent note of gratitude while saying goodbye to this ancient land.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 10:14:00 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/A-journey-back-in-time/article16436580.ece

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