The inviting tropical entrance beckoned, but I hesitated. My mind wandered back forty years. I probably could’ve reached Edzná in the Yucatan  of 1971. The thirty-five to forty mile trip might have taken a hard week’s travel from the city of Campeche. I was on a dual sport motorcycle back then; it would have taken longer by truck if a primitive road existed that snaked anywhere near the site.
Even today, the drive from Highway 180 to the site remains lonely. Visitors should stop beside the road before reaching Edzná to consider the landscape. A true appreciation begins with understanding how remote and unreachable this region was only a few decades ago. This ancient settlement, the southernmost of the Mayan Puuc sites, was originally discovered in 1906 and revisited in 1927. In 1955, the railroad reached Merida and the highway a few years later, finally putting Edzná within reach of modern civilization.
In November, I was the only tourist. Many of the stelea are housed in huts outside the main pyramid site. Despite the rustic setting, the lighting is perfect to study the carvings. Small bits of the original paint survive on some of the sculptures. Given the remoteness and date the civilization collapsed, it’s amazing any of the colors survived.
The park-like atmosphere turns eerie when you’re the only soul among the vines and trees. Having stopped and examined the landscape en route to the ruins heightens the sensation of being in solid tropical forest. I absorbed every jungle sound, hoping not to hear or see a jaguar. In the past, I’d experienced such forbidding atmospheres while alone in Yucatan. It’s not always pleasant to realize how quickly civilization can disappear.
If you visit Edzná, walk a hundred yards into the jungle. You’ll be surprised how rapidly human sounds fade and how alone you feel. The isolation is worthwhile and enables you to imagine the Maya one thousand years ago in that same solitude. With that vision of a time without electricity or lights, you can truly grasp how awe-inspiring Edzná appeared to early natives.
We’re amazed when we pass the first rubble. Suddenly, the Main Plaza and the Great Acropolis loom to the left. As the vision temporarily stuns, there is no difficulty imagining what awe the construction inspired in an ancient Mayan living fifteen miles away who might visit the city once or twice in his life. No doubt he believed the very gods were responsible for such architecture.
The Great Acropolis is a square, five hundred-thirty feet long at the base and twenty-five feet high. Central to pyramids and palaces on each side a five-story building, called the Palace, crowns the acropolis. To the northwest of the Main Plaza are the remains of two sacbeob (the famous Mayan white causeways). To the left lies the Platform of the Knives, its modern name based on the numerous ceremonial flint blades discovered within its rubble. It may have been a residential complex. Directly across the plaza from the Great Acropolis is a long construction called Nohochná, or the great house. A row of squat square columns adorn its top.
Standing on the Nohochná, or the Great Acropolis, provides a good perspective of the ocean of jungle surrounding the site. The green canopy provides an opportunity to consider how remote and little known Edzná is even today. What happened here one or two thousand years ago? How did this marvelous city spring up in a jungle vastness?
No one truly knows the answers. People began settling in Edzná between 600 and 200 B.C. Those early Mayan were farmers and hunters. One of the main problems then and now was the water supply. The people eventually constructed canals and reservoirs for use during the dry season. The majority of the surviving ruins at Edzná date to the Late Classic period, but some canals were constructed in the Late Preclassic.
An adoption of Michael Coe’s dates for the Mayan periods on Yucatan are:
Late PreClassic, from perhaps 100 BC to 250 AD.
Early Classic 250 to 600 AD.
Late Classic 600 to 800 AD.
Terminal Classic 800 to 925 AD.
Early Post Classic 925 to 1200
Late Post Classic 1200 to 1530
Thus the early farmer-gatherers dug their first ditches and cisterns to control water before the time of Christ. As this area of the Yucatan borders on Olmec territory, and probably other Indian civilizations yet to be identified, they likely borrowed some technology and methods from that older and more mysterious civilization. Over time, the drainage systems continued development. Aerial photographs reveal an extensive hydraulic system of aqueducts, holding tanks and canals. These improvements allowed more stable agricultural production and led to the civilization reaching its zenith from 600 to 900 AD.
Once the background of the site is grasped, the constructions and inventions become even more awesome. The Palace faces west, so on May 1 and August 13, when the sun reaches its zenith, the light shines into its rooms. The complexities of the Mayan calendar are worthy of pursuit. Some scholars believe they dated the start of the world at August 13, 3114 B.C.
Standing on the lush grass of the plaza, imagine you’re the average ancient Mayan during a ceremony. A broad staircase climbs to the surface of the acropolis. You stand stricken in place, along with several thousand fellow citizens, as minor priests and intricately painted warriors adorn those stairs. This is one of the rare days when you, a commoner, have been allowed close to the acropolis and the gods. Hieroglyphics cover the risers of the first four steps. On each side of the staircase, doorways open into rows of vaulted rooms. Priests in gaudy, flowering headdresses enter and exit these quarters as the ceremony progresses. However, they’re minor distractions to the main event. The Palace looms above, topped by a roof comb. In the fifth story are three rooms where the high priests work in direct contact with the gods. The central room contains a stelea (now removed) illuminated by the setting sun.
You chant and pray at the appropriate moments to ensure your future crops and victories in war. As night takes the jungle in a sudden swoop, torches illuminate the palaces and pyramids on the acropolis. The festivities frame a wonderful night to celebrate, but you’re too shaken from the August ceremonies, and instead retreat to communal palapa-covered longhouses to reflect and rest.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of years later, like the ancient commoner visiting the site, I’m awed. Instead of thanking the ancient gods for rain, good crops and success in war, I thank my lucky stars I was able to visit and explore these ruins. I leave hopeful in the future I’ll make yet another pilgrimage to Edzná.