The Call of the Quetzal

Veiled in morning fog, the pyramid emerges, revealing a mystical structure more than 1,000 years old. Situated in a large grassy square surrounded by smaller structures and jungle, the pyramid’s grandeur towers above the gawking tourists below. Sweat drips from my forehead as the fog fades. With the sounds of birds around, few tourists have come here this early.

Chichen Itza in the morning fog

Built for Kukulkan, the Mayan feathered serpent god, this temple in the site known as Chichen Itza, illustrates the brilliance of the Mayan people that inhabited Yucatán. Scientists, mathematicians, and astronomers, the Mayans built many of their temples in exact alignment to function as calendars, and astronomical guides, using the sun’s light to foretell the coming of rainy season. The sun hits the side of this temple’s staircase every equinox, forming snakelike figure that winds down in shadow ending at the bottom where a carved stone head completes the serpent.

I am snapped out of my trancelike wonder by a nearby guide clapping his hands, while my guide explains the intricacies of the edifice in front of us. As I draw closer in front of the staircase, my guide claps. The familiar sound of hand-clapping echoes in the morning; however, clap in front of the staircase, and a sound meant to emulate the sacred Quetzal bird bounces back. At the right angle, a clap (not vocal) bounces off the façade and the ears hear a chirp. Not only is this awesome structure a calendar, it is also an acoustic wonder. My guide explains that this place of worship and ritual; when Mayans inhabited it, they would have used drums.

Imagine the scene: drums banging, amplifying like a hundred of the most revered birds that all who gathered can hear. The Europeans built their cathedrals to echo their choirs and organs in praise of their god; here the Yucatecan Mayans built temples to echo the call of their sacred bird and sun god in ceremonies.

The fog fades away as the late morning sun beats down, brightening the stones before us. From every angle this structure—which is several temples built on top of each other like Russian nesting dolls—impresses the eye.

Temple for Kukulkan at Chichen Itza

Walking out of Chichen Itza, I dodge the tourists who now flow in by the hundreds. With the physical structure behind me, the call of the Quetzal still rings in my ears and my soul stirs from the moment spent marveling ancient perfection.

Other structures of note at the Chichen Itza site: temple of the warriors, observatory, great ball court (where the elite played a game), platform of Venus (to the planet), sacred cenote (natural sinkhole used for ritual).

Mayans abandoned these structures hundreds of years ago—before the Spanish colonizers invaded their lands. Descendants of the Mayans still live today, and I will write more about them soon.

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