There are people who say that according to the Mayan calendar, the world will end on December 21, 2012.
The people who make these predictions are not what are known as scientists, and tend not to use the Mayan calendar for any purpose other than to forecast doom. After all, it is inconvenient, when the rest of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, to make dinner plans based on the Mayan calendar: “So, shall we say at nightfall on Day 5 of K’ank’in?”
If there’s an upside to these doomsday fantasies, it’s the attention that it draws to what has been a largely forgotten culture. The Maya civilization flourished in Mesoamerica from about AD 250-900 (by our calendar) and then went into a period of decline, effectively ending with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.
There are, however, a number of places where remnants of that civilization can still be seen: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and especially in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. Perhaps the best-known is Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southeastern Mexico.
For a lot of tourists, it’s a day trip from the beaches of Cancun — a bus ride of a little over a hundred miles. That’s how we got there, and after fighting our way through souvenir salesmen near the entrance, we had a look around what had once been a good-sized city.
There’s a domed building, called El Caracol (the snail), which appears to have once been an observatory. A raised platform with the remnants of pillars is known as the Temple of Warriors.
Another impressive structure is the Great Ball Court; stone walls enclose a field that is over 500 feet long and 200 feet wide. Carved into the stone are images of feathered serpents, and of a guy who has recently had his head severed.
That seems to be related to the outcome of the games that were once played on this field. When a team finally succeeded in getting a ball to go through a stone hoop mounted about 30 feet above the playing surface, the captain of the winning team was decapitated as a sacrifice to the gods. He didn’t even get doused with Gatorade first.
Not far from the Ball Court is the centerpiece of Chichén Itzá, the structure that has become its iconic image. Widely known as El Castillo, it is also called the Temple of Kukulcan in honor of the feathered-serpent deity whose likeness adorns it.
It is a step pyramid that is roughly 100 feet high; there are stone stairways on all four sides that rise at a 45° angle to a small room on top. The climb up wasn’t too bad, but coming back down — whoa! Take my word for it, it’s steep. We hung on to a chain and eased our way down, but tourists are no longer permitted to climb El Castillo since one of them had a fatal fall in 2006.
The ancient Mayans seem to have had an impressive knowledge of astronomy; the pyramid is laid out so that on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a series of shadows are cast on the northwest side, giving the illusion of a serpent slithering down the staircase. Maybe winter solstice (December 21) would be an interesting time to visit Chichén Itzá, too — especially this year.
Personally, though, I go by the calendar a local realtor sends us. According to that, low tide will be at 11:53 a.m. on December 21st. I like the sound of that better than “total annihilation.”