Yucatan: An Environmental Culture

It is often not until we step outside a culture of our own that home is redefined. To make a place feel like home, it requires two things — culture and history. Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula certainly has a wealth of both.

Over spring break, Duke transitions from a flood of students roaming campus to an empty home — its residents leaving campus culture temporarily. RDU traffic increases overnight and dorms empty. With passport in hand and boarding passes at the ready, I set out to take a temporary respite and boarded a plane to the cultural wonderland that is the Yucatan and its remaining Mayan culture.

The area is predominantly flat, with freshwater underground, covered by a thin layer of arable rocky soil. Limestone bedrock collapses, giving way to cenotes ubiquitous throughout the area. But the region is defined by much more than its natural wonders and environmental peculiarities. The Mayan culture has thrived for more than 3,000 years and has been marked by the continued respect for the nature surrounding its famous temples. Many species were worthy of veneration, with the sacred ceiba tree, the young maize plant and fruit trees taking on a spiritual significance. Animals were divided according to the elements in which they moved — air, land, or water — and were also often sacred representations of deities and natural forces.

So with our plane landing in Cancun, we quickly bussed out of the tourist-populated crystal waters and crowded beaches to the sleepier town of Tulum. After throwing on my overpacked backpack onto my soon to be sore shoulders, we set out to dive into (quite literally) the limestone cenotes of Dos Ojos. Hidden from the suns warm rays, the waters felt more like snow melt than a refreshing dip, but any shivering was quickly counteracted by the breathtaking stalagmites and stalactites covering the ceiling and watery floors below. Swimming through the caverns of the underground rivers, I couldn’t help but imagine the thoughts of those who first discovered the hidden world. More so, I couldn’t help but to imagine their shock when their gaze glanced upwards at the crawling ceiling occupied by hundreds of bats. After visits to the nearby ruins and run-ins with the dangerously cute coatis that called the crumbling stone home, we set off to visit a true wonder of the world: Chichén Itzá. 

Coati, also known as tejón in Mexico

Wandering around the ancient ruins, I couldn’t help but to imagine what the temples looked like in their full glory, stone steps rising thousands of feet into the air and painted in colors of teal, oranges, and reds. The Mayans gave us many of things that no longer only define their culture, but also our own — calendar formats, the concept of zero, a great fear of being sacrificed. But above all, the Mayans’ ingenuity and imagination was what brought a true sense of awe to the remote ruins. Their respect for nature was displayed by entire temples constructed in the name of gods of the land or Kukulkan himself. For with every trip to a new country and culture, I experience a greater understanding of other’s motives for protecting the land and the veneration with which nature has been met for centuries and centuries.

Cenote Ik Kil
El Castillo at Chichen Itza

Continuing on from the impressive ruins of Chichén Itzá, we traveled to the colonial town of Merida. Here we met history, yet another component of a home. When living out of suitcase, I often contemplate what elements of other countries and cities create a feeling of home for others. Without a culture, a place lacks unity, creativity and uniqueness. Yet without history, there is no foundation with which to build such culture. Merida was a Mecca for both. Museums were filled with a collection of Mayan ruins, stories of shocking customs and traditions that have been adopted within Mexico due to its indigenous population. Its colorful streets were filled with rainbow houses and a collection of cuisine, from Cuban to Argentinian to Peruvian. Culture and history had found their nexus in Merida.

Markets of Merida

So with a peek into ancient practices of the Mayans, an insight into the cultural world of Merida, and many a walks among the stunning landscape Quintana Roo’s coastline, we hailed a taxi airport bound once more. Campus culture was calling.

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