Archive for the ‘faculty-led’ Category

Delving into the Yucatan

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Josh Thomsen was a member of a faculty-led travel course to study Mayan art and architecture in Mexico. Led by Dr. Laura Amrhein, the upper-level Art History class explored many places in the Yucatan peninsula, giving students and faculty a first-hand glimpse into Mayan history. Josh had already studied abroad twice and this was his second faculty-led experience.  Josh explored ancient ruins, colonial-style cities, lush forests, and beaches, witnessing both historical relics and the present-day way of life of Mayan descendants. The following excerpt recounts his adventure in Mexico.

Map of the Yucatan            

 I woke quickly and early, eager to experience the land of the Mayans.  The plane ride, heat, and relentless mosquitoes left me bereft of energy.  Yet, awaking this morning and knowing that I was sleeping a mere five minute walk from Chichén Itzá, an ancient Mayan city, was enough to have me hastily showering to begin my day.

We came armed with knowledge gleaned from readings and discussions we had weeks before we arrived on the peninsula. I had studied abroad in Mexico before, so I was eager to sharpen my Spanish skills.  Also, I was already a witness to a pyramid’s majesty from when I had traveled to Teotihuacán (near Mexico City), and I was grateful to have the opportunity to again see such testaments to humanity’s ingenuity. Local Mayan people were setting up their tables to sell blankets and sculptures, thousands of birds were calling out to each other, and iguanas were crawling on top of the rocks to soak up the sun. We walked through a short trail, choked on either side with vines and trees, and came to a large clearing with the Pyramid of Kukulkan, or “El Castillo”, in the center.  It is a breathtaking “step” pyramid that rose out of the ground to meet us.

Chichén Itzá, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site, receives millions of visitors each year, and we soon saw why.Local Mayan people were setting up their tables to sell blankets and sculptures, thousands of birds were calling out to each other, and iguanas were crawling on top of the rocks to soak up the sun. We walked through a short trail, choked on either side with vines and trees, and came to a large clearing with the Pyramid of Kukulkan, or “El Castillo”, in the center.  It is a breathtaking “step” pyramid that rose out of the ground to meet us.

Chichen Itza

 El Castillo is possibly the most famous of all pre-Columbian structures in the Americas, but it wasn’t the only ruin on the site.  We chatted with the friendly vendors who were eager to teach us some Mayan words such as “boh’oh’tek,” which means “thank you.” After our day at Chichén, our group drove to our next stop, the small town of Izamal.  The town is a great example of colonial architecture and all the buildings are painted yellow.  We made our way to the cathedral, a beautiful complex where Pope John Paul addressed a crowd there in 1993.  The city was so alive, with firecrackers being let off in honor of a local holiday, and cars driving around with large speakers tied to the top and blasting songs of political parties (we were there a mere three weeks from the presidential election).  Our treks were rewarded with a rich lunch of sopa de lima (lime soup), relleno negro (turkey in a black chile pepper sauce), hot homemade tortillas and cold soda. 

Merida architecture 

Mérida, our next stop, is the largest city in the state of Yucatán, with a population of about a million people. We spent the evening walking around the parks, looking at the wonderful murals, and taking in the cosmopolitan atmosphere. Mérida would prove to be our home base as we took day trips to visit other sites. From here, we headed to the beach town of Celestún, home of the Ría Celestún. The Ría is a protected wildlife habitat, attracting a large number of different endangered bird species. The Mayans have been coming here for centuries to harvest shrimp, octopus and fish. We took a boat ride and saw a large flock of flamingos.  On the way back, our guide took us through a natural tunnel of mangrove trees and we stopped at a natural freshwater spring, named the Ojo de Agua, or Water’s Eye. It possessed some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. Later we ate lunch in a restaurant on the beach, followed by some time to swim in the ocean. I had never had the chance to swim in the Gulf of Mexico before.  

 Gulf of Mexico

The next day, we trekked north, stopping at Dzibilchaltun (Zee-bihl-chal-toon). This site featured a fantastic museum that detailed the history of the area from Pre-Columbian to the colonial era. There were some fantastic pieces in the museum, including a colorful Mayan codex, one of the few in existence.

In the morning, we went south to Mayapan, one of the largest Mayan cities and what would be the group’s favorite site.  It’s relatively unknown to tourists so we pretty much had the vast site to ourselves.  Here, visitors are able to actually climb the tall pyramids and get a good look at the vast forest completely covering the whole peninsula. From the edge of the clearing one can clearly see a large number of hills that are actually more pyramids and temples waiting to be dug out. 

Soon we left to visit Maní, where we visited the 500 year old Franciscan monastery which is famous for a gruesome reason. It is known for the burning and destruction of a vast number of Mayan books and artifacts. In the 1500s, Friar Diego de Landa wrote one of the first and most comprehensive books on Mayan culture. Unfortunately, he also ordered an inquisition at Maní, and the burning of a vast number of sacred Mayan books took place.  Due to this, only a few Mayan codices now exist, and the Mayan glyphs were largely unreadable until only the last fifty years or so.  As morbid as the history is for this place, the building was beautiful, and it was a welcomed stop on our journeys. 

Mani monastery

For the next day we visited Uxmal (Oosh-mahl), a site bigger and grander, in my opinion, than the more popular Chichén Itzá. The ruins here were built in the Puuc style architecture, which some compare to the Rococo style of Europe– they were built with very elaborate and intricate decorations. As the Mayans never developed a true arch, there are many doorways that are corbelled vaults instead which lead to more and more wonders on this expansive site.  The main building is the “Pyramid of the Magician,” a ruin massive enough to make the famous Castillo at Chichén look small.  The way the Pyramind of the Magician  looked rising above the jungle in morning sun was something I’ll never forget.

The next day we hit the Mayan cities of Kabah, Sayil and Labna, which featured intricate Puuc style buildings.  At these sites we got a chance to see the restoration of these buildings in action, as they were abuzz with workers paid by the Mexican federal government.  It was great to see local Mayan people cheerfully working to restore their heritage.  Next we drove to the cave of Loltún: a massive cave that was used for thousands of years by the locals had pre-historic Mayan cave drawings and painting.  We could only marvel at how beautiful the scene was; lush vines dropping in from the abundant ground above, chatty birds calling to each other as they flew in and out of the holes, and the brilliant light pouring in to meet the thick darkness of the cave. On our way home, we stopped at an old Cacao (chocolate) plantation that had been converted into a museum. We rewarded ourselves for our long day, with chocolate bars made from cocoa harvested on-site. 


Mayan art

We made one last stop at a traditional Mayan couple’s home.  They were proud to show us their way of life and their little plot of land on which they raised pigs and chickens and raised chiles and fruit.  The wife demonstrated how she made tortillas and the farmer showed us how he made strong ropes from the agave plants.  We bid them many thanks and a good farewell so we could get back on the road to Mérida.  We woke up early the next morning to hit the road back to Cancún and sadly, our trip came to a close.

 Josh with a local

The things I discover while abroad still do not cease to amaze me.  There is so much outside of our comfort zone that we can’t even begin to know, unless we travel first hand.  Studying while abroad makes it so much more rewarding than just traveling alone.  The knowledge one gains from education while in such strange places almost makes the trip seem like a lazy dream.  You can’t but help soak up the local culture and knowledge.  The friendships you make while studying abroad become special.  You and the other members of your group have these wonderful life-changing experiences together and you can’t help but become close to these people whom you didn’t even know before.  In all, I would recommend this travel course to others when Dr. Amrhein leads a group next summer.  If you would like to ask me more questions about my experience, please email me at