Late last year, I had the pleasure of visiting my first Mayan ruins at Chacchoben in the forests of Mexico’s coastal state of Quintana Roo. My tour group set out in the morning from Costa Maya on an hour-long trip by van inland to the ruin site itself. Our tour guide was a gentleman by the name of Gabriel, or Gabo for short.
Gabo is an interesting guy for a number of reasons. First, he is the answer to the question he gets a lot from tourists: “Where did the Mayans go?”
“We’re still here,” is his usual answer. Gabo is himself of Mayan descent. In fact, Gabo came from a place in Mexico where the Mayan language is spoken primarily. He learned Spanish as a second language as a kid in school. En route to the ruins, he gave us a bit of history on the Mayan culture, his heritage, and even the Mayan counting system, which used lines and dots with dividing lines to represent escalating multiples of 20, 400, and 8,000.
We arrived at Chacchoben, which means “The Place of Red Corn.” It is located next to a brightly colored traditional Mexican cemetery. I’ll come back to that in a moment. The ruins were rediscovered in 1972 and subsequently excavated in 1994. The area still has places that have not yet been excavated. Occasionally you could see this with an otherwise ordinary hill revealing a fragment of a stone wall peeking through gaps in the dirt.
Chacchoben is not nearly the largest set of Mayan ruins in Mexico, but they are in remarkable shape considering their age. They date back to the Classic Period of Mayan civilization from about 250 to 900 CE. I’ve heard different estimates of when these ruins were built, but it is likely around 500–700 CE. It can be hard to wrap your mind around just how long ago that was. I had to remind my young son that the buildings there were the oldest that he had ever seen, by quite a large margin.
We toured through plazas and temple complexes in a large loop that goes around the entire site, up and down stone staircases that are narrow enough that it’s easier (and safer) to traverse them sideways. Next to the main temple, there’s even an ancient cieba tree. The branches that grow straight out from the trunk were thought to represent the levels of the heavens, earth, and underworld.
Oh, one other thing that Gabo mentioned, something he was very passionate about: Ancient aliens didn’t build Chacchoben, the Mayans did. None of us had asked him that particular question, but he said it early on in our conversation, almost as if to get it out of the way. I can definitely see why this might be a point of contention for him, especially since there are so many History channel specials out there that talk about ancient aliens.
One place I found of particular interest was one of its most mundane. There was a market square with rows of open stone bleachers that formed a perimeter around a large open space. Gabo explained that this would have been used for town meetings and ceremonies, as well as a farmers market. What struck me most about them was that they still could be used as a market today. Much like the Agora in many Greek cities, this was the beating heart of the community. Almost every citizen would have interacted with it at some point in their daily lives.
Gabo further explained that most of the stone would have been covered in a type of bright white paint. This would allow tradesmen to bring in goods at night when it was cool using only a tiny bit of moonlight.
Speaking of paint, the ruins would have been covered in plaster and painted all sorts of vibrant, almost neon colors. As magnificent as the ruins are as they stand today, we are just seeing the dull under layer. There was one place, at the back of one of the temples, where there is still a tiny bit of the original pigment and plaster. Here it is:
Even in that state, however, there is a definite sense of wonder that you get standing there. These buildings aren’t just for ceremony. No, this is where thousands of people made their home. The echo of their lives still resonates through that place.
Remember the cemetery I mentioned earlier? It’s possible that bright colors we see there are an echo of this tradition. Many of the paints used there are made from natural pigments, so it gives us a potentially tantalizing clue as to the amazing palate the Mayans might have used to paint their buildings.
It certainly makes you wonder why the Mayans might have abandoned this place if they had taken such pains to build them in exacting alignment with the sun and stars. I asked Gabo that very question. He was of the belief that it might have been something as simple as an extended dry period. A crop failure of just one year could have been devastating enough, but if it had gone two or three years in a row, the Mayans might have been forced to find a new place to live just to survive.
Sooner than I would have liked, it was time for us to load up in the van and head back out to the port. I have to tell you that seeing these ruins has really reignited my interest in Mesoamerican cultures, something I’ve had since I was a kid. At some point in the future, I would dearly love to take a tour of the Mayan and Aztec ruins throughout Mexico and Central America.
I don’t know if I will ever again have the chance to visit the Place of Red Corn, but I can tell you that I am incredibly grateful to have visited it this once, and walk in the footsteps of the ancients.