National Geographic: Secrets of the Maya Otherworld

As I flipped through this month’s National Geographic, I was delighted to find “Secrets of the Maya Otherworld”, written by Alma Guillermoprieto with photographs by Paul Nicklen and Shaul Schwarz.  The 24 page article talks about cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chaak – the Mayan rain god.

Although I did not visit most of the places mentioned in the article, on this trip, I had experiences similar to those the author and photographers shared: attending a Mayan shaman ritual, swimming in a cenote and such.  Thanks to the article, now I know that the rectangular shape of the altar at the ceremony I attended “symbolizes the four cornered shape of the Maya universe”.

A shaman standing behind the altar at the Mayan ceremony I attended

My guides told me about Chaak, the supposed purpose of the ruins, and sacrifices that might have taken place.  I took the latter with a grain of salt, because sacrificial artifacts were not visible at the ruins.  However, some of the underwater pictures in the article revealed with great clarity the artifacts and remains of what were sacrificed centuries ago.

Another thing that I heard of throughout the trip, but never saw, was sacbe – the paths Mayans built and used to connect important places and cities.  All the ruins were cities, and they were once all connected by sacbe.  Now they are connected by roads and expressways.  In a photograph taken by photographer Paul Nicklen (below), archaeologist Guillermo de Anda was standing inside a cave with headlamp and flashlight.  The path beneath his feet was raised and perhaps lit by the light from his gear.  I finally saw a sacbe.

Guillermo de Anda standing on a sacbe (Paul Nicklen)

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