Gateway To The Yucatan
Someone named Garcilasso de la Vega explained the origin of the name Yucatan to those who happened to stumble across his obscure writings. In 1625, long before Amazon.com, he wrote on this topic in his work, Purchas his Pilgrimes. This was also before Spellcheck.
“Yucatan received the name from … the first discoverers asking the place, the Indian answering tectetan, tectetan, that is, I understand you not, which they understood of the proper appellation, and corruptly called the place Yucatan.”
In all fairness, and with all due respect, Yucatecan / Mayan words are right proper tongue twisters, suitable for any Scrabble or spelling bee finalist. But tackle them we must, and why not start with Chicxulub.
Death To The Dinosaurs
Virgil L. Sharpton of Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute identifies for us exactly how the entire population of dinosaurs died some 65 million years ago, give or take. A giant asteroid or comet, identified by Luis Alvarez in 1980, smacked into Earth almost where you’re standing at this very moment. Don’t look up! Luis along with his son Walter postulated that this rocketing rock left a 200-300-kilometer-wide crater that now lies buried under 1100 meters of limestone. And, the Alvarezes were convinced that this event caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs as well as more than 70% of all life on earth. Thankfully, Crystal’s chefs were left unscathed. Oh, to tie this all together, note that the underground divot became known as Chicxulub. Say that three times!
Sights, Sounds, and Spicy Foods
That was then, this is now. You’ve come to Progreso for its archaeological wonders, a flashback look at Mexico Past, or perhaps a grilled Gulf of Mexico lobster.
Archaeological wonders abound beginning with Chichen-Itza, the jewel in the proverbial Mayan crown. In truth a fusion of Toltec and Mayan mastery, Chichen-Itza’s centerpiece is El Castillo pyramid. Its quartet of staircases, each counting 91 steps, plus the platform above, equals the exact number of days in one year. Each façade features 52 panels indicating something known as the “52-year cosmic cycle” used to calculate the beginning and end of time. It’s a complicated mathematical theory that your guide can explain in detail but suffice to say, according to the Mayan people, the Great Cycle of the Long Count will run out in 2011. And, who knows what that means? Chichen-Itza’s other highlights include the Observatory, lovingly referred to as “The Snail”, and the Ball Court where the vanquished lost their heads.
Dzibilchaltun (dZeeble-TOON) is one of America’s oldest continuously occupied settlements with more than 8,000 structures. Like Chichen-Itza, it draws throngs of visitors for the spring equinox and also features an important freshwater pool known as a cenote. Worshippers tossed offerings into the sweet waters including sacrificed humans.
Izamal, founded in the 5th century by a Mayan priest, was once a prestigious Mayan place of worship. Sadly, the Spanish destroyed many of the important structures by tearing down existing temples then reusing the stones for the massive Convento de San Antonio de Padua.
Whether you’re a history buff, an architecture aficionado or someone on a spiritual pilgrimage, the Mayans left a full menu of sites behind for your sampling.
Progreso and Nearby Merida
The port city of Progreso evolved quite differently from its mainland counterparts. Like other Yucatecan outposts, it was square in the sites of Mother Spain rather than the colonial powers that focused instead on the bulk of Mexico’s interior. Spain ruled over the Yucatan with a heavy hand often at the expense of the local indigenous people. Pirates, too, caused much suffering. Then religious factions locked horns with the civil authority and, generally, a bad time was had by all. Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The people of the Yucatan attempted to separate from the rest of Mexico, which then led to the War of the Casts in 1847. The indians were given arms and they succeeded in driving out the federal troops in certain areas. Government forces re-armed and, within six years, the indian population declined by half.
With the political climate cooled down, the landowners set about amassing fortunes from something known as henequen. This local fibrous plant provided the raw materials used in the production of rope. Merida became known as the “Paris of the New World” with more millionaires per capita than any other city in all of Mexico. Glorious estates were erected, impressive cathedrals and monasteries were built, and fine buildings were constructed to house the civil authority. Plaza de la Independencia’s zocalo was the scene of much fanfare as dignitaries came and went, the wealthy standing by their side. Because of all these niceties, Merida is known even today as the White City. A carriage, or calesas, ride around town, especially down Paseo de Montejo, will give testimony to the above.
During the 1950s, the Meridanos learned to escape the summer heat by retreated to their new beach houses in Progreso. Today, this city remains a magnet for sun worshippers who stroll the Malecon promenade and others who sit under a shady palapa umbrella in their guayabera shirts and Panama hats or swing on the afternoon breeze in a locally woven hammock. A typical conchinita pibil meal or queso relleno is the only thing a cool breeze can’t help. Yucatecan habanero chilies are said to be the hottest in the world. It’s best to leave this statement left unchallenged.