Day 7: Uxmal and the Chocolate Museum

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“House of the Nuns” at Uxmal, where no nuns ever lived.

 

After a peculiarly tasteless breakfast amid the imposing splendor of Hacienda Uxmal, we headed out to the ruins on foot. It really was a short walk, for once. There is a visitor’s center with shops featuring books, pottery, etc., very upscale. There was a short line for tickets, so I sat down to wait in the shade until they were purchased. While I was waiting, the gentleman sitting near me said he was a guide and could speak English. We hired him to show us the site, and I’m delighted we did. He was a Maya Indian named Dimitro.

This is the pyramid that answers with a quetzal's cry when you clap your hands in front of it.

This is the pyramid that answers with a quetzal’s cry when you clap your hands in front of it.

As we walked out to the site, I asked Dimitro what he knew of aluxes. He said they were mischievous, small beings. Some were good, some bad, but the bad ones just play tricks–they aren’t truly harmful. They will bother you at night, pulling on your ear or your clothing to prevent you from sleeping. You can stop them by putting a piece of chocolate and a glass of water on the table before you go to bed and announcing, “This is for everyone. Anyone can have it.” You will sleep in peace that night. In the morning, the chocolate and water will still be there, but they will be tasteless: the essence is what the aluxes take. (Maybe that was the problem at Hacienda Uxmal: an alux infestation.) It’s the same with the gods–they don’t consume the sacrifices physically, but partake of the essence, which is why they burned the sacrifices, whether of blood or food. I asked him if he had ever seen an alux, and he said only children and animals can see them (confirming what Roberto had told me), but they had sometimes bothered him at night or misled him in the forest.

Detail of the Temple of Chaak at Uxmal. Chaak's noses are all pointing down, which is a prayer for rain.

Detail of the Temple of Chaak at Uxmal. Chaak’s noses are all pointing down, which is a prayer for rain.

Dimitro said the Mayan view of the life and death cycle was this; when you are born, you carry with you the knowledge of your ancestors in your blood. You add to this store of wisdom in life, and in death you are consumed by the jaguar and pass through the tree of life back up to your ancestors to be reborn later with added wisdom. As you were in past lives, you will be forever. It’s a rather nice scheme for kings, priests, etc., but not so great for the slaves and peasants. I forgot to ask what if you were a great warrior, but were captured and enslaved. Do you come back as a slave or a warrior?

One of Chaak's noses, not yet restored to its proper place.

One of Chaak’s noses, not yet restored to its proper place.

The buildings at Uxmal are much larger than in the classical Mayan cities we saw in the south, and they are beautifully adorned with carvings. The Chaak mask is everywhere, including at the corners of the temples. Chaak has a long nose because he has the face of a caiman, a symbol of both water and the underworld. When Chaak’s nose points upward, it is a prayer for rain. When the nose points down, it is thanks for the rain.

Dimitro, standing near a fallen Chaak nose.

Dimitro, standing near a fallen Chaak nose.

As we approached the first pyramid, Dimitro clapped his hands sharply together. The noise echoed off the pyramid with a high-pitched cry that he said was the cry of the quetzal bird, highly prized in ancient times for its brilliant blue-green feathers, symbolizing the sky, and now endangered. I have no idea if this sound was intentionally engineered by the builders, but it could have been. People are very clever creatures, and have built other monuments that do strange things, like track the solstices or create “whispering stones.”

The so-called House of Nuns is an enormous complex of temples and long, low buildings built around a vast rectangular courtyard. Dimitro said this had been a school, but didn’t seem to know what they might have taught there. Not priests, he said, because priestly knowledge was inherited in the blood. There were, of course, no nuns, but the building reminded the Spanish of the walled convents back home. The acoustics within this enclosure are spectacular–a priest could have addressed a crowd of hundreds from the steps of the temple and been heard clearly by everyone.

The pillars at Uxmal resemble Doric columns, but without the fluting along the sides.

The pillars at Uxmal resemble Doric columns, but without the fluting along the sides.

The stone motifs on the buildings were lovely. There were many round columns, rather like unadorned Doric columns, which we had seen at Tulum but not in the south. There were lattice-like insets, and others that looked like many half-columns arranged in rows that Dimitro said were representative of bamboo. There were no carved stele on the site. There are no cenotes in the area, but instead of the open catchments used in Calakmul, they used chultuns; jar-shaped subterranean water storage pits. The areas around the pits are angled to direct rainwater into this underground storage. This was a big improvement over the earlier method, as evaporation would have been much less.

The buildings at Uxmal are decorated with gorgeous bas-relief sculptures. You can see a plumed snake here, with a head emerging from its open mouth. This is the "spirit snake" incarnation of Kulkulcan, enabling the spirit of an ancestor to communicate with the living.

The buildings at Uxmal are decorated with gorgeous bas-relief sculptures. You can see a plumed snake here, with a head emerging from its open mouth. This is the “spirit snake” incarnation of Kulkulcan, enabling the spirit of an ancestor to communicate with the living.

Uxmal is a pleasant place to walk around, with fewer trees than Calakmul, but still enough shade, and it was also a cooler day (not cool; cooler). We visited the ball court, slightly larger than the one at Becán, with one stone goal ring still protruding from a wall. (There never were stone rings at Becán). Then we came to the “governor’s palace,” which involved scaling a rather steep and long set of stairs. I decided to give my knee a break and sat in the shade, trying to take notes on my phone.

The "Governor's Palace" at Uxmal. Again, probably no governors, but it looked like a governor's palace to the Spanish.

The “Governor’s Palace” at Uxmal. Again, probably no governors, but it looked like a governor’s palace to the Spanish.

After perhaps 20 minutes, Dimitro came back alone and sat with me. He said the tour was over and the others would come find me, but he wanted to say goodbye. He asked for my hand and held it between his two hands. We both closed our eyes for a few beats. Then he touched my hand on the back and the palm. I thanked him and we talked another minute until I felt a sudden rush of coolness despite the heat. He said he had given me energy because I needed it, and said goodbye. Whether it was real or not isn’t the question; I was both touched by this and felt refreshed.

After doing a bit of obligatory shopping, I mentioned that although we had been doing well on two meals a day, this was the day I needed to eat lunch. I was getting that empty, urgent feeling that females of my family sometimes get, and it inevitably leads to HANGRY. But the suggestion was made to visit the Museo de Chocolate across the street before eating. I might have objected, wanted to avoid full-on HANGRY mode, but chocolate sounded promising.

Museo de Chocolate at Uxmal

Museo de Chocolate at Uxmal

The museum has a circular path that has several stations set up, each explaining a different aspect of chocolate. These cover in great detail the biological info about the plant, the use of chocolate by the Maya, a “Mayan chocolate ritual,” how the ordinary Maya lived, including their homes and everyday things, how they prepared chocolate (this involved a free taste), the discovery and adoption of chocolate by Europeans, the modern agriculture, modern chocolate processing, and more. There were also plants growing in the outdoor museum that were important to the ancients, such as sisal, and some spider monkeys, deer and jaguars in cages. These latter were not being kept as exhibitions so much as either being rescued and rehabilitated, or as in the case of the jaguars, sheltered because they could not survive in the wild. By the time we left, we probably knew way more about chocolate than any of us wanted to know.

There were two things worth noting. First, the “Mayan” chocolate ceremony. Several Mayans in plain cotton shifts guided us to a seating area. Waiting for us was someone who was clearly the priest, an elderly but sturdy-looking Maya who could have been the model for the human avatar of Quetzalcoatl in “The Obsidian Mirror.” I was staring at him in fascination as I sat down on the board being used as a bench for spectators Not having noticed the board was extremely narrow, I promptly fell backward onto the gravel. It wasn’t a long fall, but several well meaning Belgians and their guide rushed to my rescue, offering large, strong hands. I took their hands, but before I could get my feet under me, found myself being dragged through the gravel at a high rate of speed. I indicated I would rather do it myself, and eventually got to my feet, apologized to all and sundry for the interruption, and sat down again—very carefully. Someone handed me my phone, which will need a new case after serious gravel abrasion. But I was fine.

The "Mayan chocolate ceremony" at the Museo de Chocolate.

The “Mayan chocolate ceremony” at the Museo de Chocolate.

Tom described the ceremony as a cross between a Mayan ritual, the Catholic mass, and Monty Python. I suppose they studied the steles and murals to approximate it, and may even have some of the stages worked out, but in all likelihood, the actual doings are long forgotten. Still, it was a good way to show that the Maya regarded chocolate as sacred and special, hardly a casual treat.

Chocolate was prepared as a drink in those times, never eaten. The beans were fermented and ground into a paste that was mixed with coconut butter. It was combined with chilis and sometimes honey and mixed with hot water to drink. Often, the blood of sacrificial victims was added as well. (I’ll take mine straight, thanks.) Chocolate was reserved for the elite, of course, as all good things have been throughout history.

Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine, which is a stimulant and vasodilator. In high doses, it may have other effects. One of the Spanish conquistadores described an Indian consuming several cups of chocolate and then offering himself as a sacrifice. So I suppose it can amp you up a bit, especially if you believe, as this gentleman undoubtedly did, that you’re going directly to paradise.

We were given a demonstration of the preparation of the drink (sans blood) and given cups of the hot mixture to try. You could add sugar (Tsk!), chilis, achiote (a popular local spice from the annatto tree), and other flavorings if desired. I went with chili, and because I am a wimp, sugar. It was very rich and tasty. But not enough to avoid HANGRY.

As a last note on chocolate, it was the Europeans that added sugar and milk or cream to the drink (no chilis), and also discovered how to make chocolate candies. The Maya never consumed it as anything other than a drink.

I could have bought some chocolate there—there were chocolate bars and chocolate ice cream—but I didn’t want candy or ice cream, I wanted FOOD. By the time we finished up at the museo, I was ready to eat my own head. Fortunately we were near several restaurants. Unfortunately, there ensued a discussion about which restaurant to try. I turned to Tom and said, “JUST GO SOMEWHERE!” We chose the restaurant at the entrance to the ruins. This proved to be an excellent choice, as they had Yucateco cuisine like cochinita pibil (pulled pork flavored with achiote), and it was well prepared and delicious.

After lunch, we piled back in the car and took the road to Valledolid. We had originally planned to stay two days in Valledolid, then Linda and Clod would drive to Cancun to catch their flight home while we went on to Isla Mujeres for a few day. Note to unwary travelers in the Yucatán: the time zones change between states. Valledolid is in the State of Yucatán and Cancun is in the State of Quintana Roo, and they are not in the same time zone. If we had followed our original travel plan, Linda and Clod would have missed their plane by several hours. So we stayed only one night in Valledolid and then went on to the Marriott Courtyard Airport in Cancun so that Linda and Clod could get up at some horrible hour in the morning and catch their flight home.

Moon over Valladolid, as seen from our hotel roof.

Moon over Valladolid, as seen from our hotel roof.

The hotel in Valledolid was charming, It reminded me of the pensions my mother used to tell me about, built around an interior courtyard. The courtyard was probably once occupied by a fountain and potted plants, but now has a pool taking up most of it. Every surface was tiled, with wrought-iron railings and bars on the windows. They had a rooftop patio where you could look out over the city, and they served breakfast up there as well. The hotel was clean and comfortable, though our window was right on the street—literally. Cars passed within inches of the wall of our room. But that didn’t keep me awake. The price of $30 a night was also very comfortable.

Valladolid town plaza with the church in the background.

Valladolid town plaza with the church in the background.

After dinner, we went for a walk to the town plaza, which was delightful. Everyone was out strolling in the cool night air, and kids were running around with balloons or eating ice cream. The church at one end of the plaza was all lit up. We were all charmed with the domesticity of the scene, and at the same time, reminded of how different our own culture is.

Clod and Linda, testing the "courting benches" in Valladolid's town plaza.

Clod and Linda, testing the “courting benches” in Valladolid’s town plaza.

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