One of the most important structures in all of Mesoamerica, the pyramid of K’inich K’áak ’Mo’ is more than 34m high and one of the largest pyramids by volume in the Yucatan.
K’inich K’áak ’Mo’, which means “fire macaw with sun face” in ancient Mayan, was built around 400 A.D., though the site has been continuously inhabited since around 700 B.C., sprawling out into the vastness of the Yucatan jungle scrub and connected to other Mayan communities near and far by raised white stone paths, known as sacbeaob. The Maya believed that the god Kinich, a solar deity, descended in the heat of the midday sun, to burn and therefore purify their sacrifices and offerings.
It’s fascinating to think of the technological advancement and engineering marvels of the ancient Maya, not least the concept of zero, the cornerstone of modern mathematics and physics; they were first to vulcanise rubber and play football (of sorts); the inventors of chocolate, smashing cocoa beans to form a drink; inventors of one of the most advanced codified writing systems ever known, using 700 glyphs for words, sounds, syllables and pictures – recording the daily life of their gods, such as K’inich K’áak ’Mo’, which has been interpreted as a symbol of impending drought and scorching heat – as well recording the more mundane daily lives of the people; their incredible accuracy in astronomy through their detailed observations and predications, including their calculation that the Earth appeared to have 365.242 days in a year. And, perhaps most spectacular of all, and their most famous invention, the Mayan Calendar – one of the most accurate calendar systems in human history, and the one that predicted the end of the world in 2012 – well, perhaps not that accurate… (we hope – or maybe just a decade off?).
The first full report of these pyramids was of course completed by the intrepid explorers, John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the 1840’s, who would have found a relatively intact K’inich K’áak ’Mo’, though largely hidden by the jungle. Catherwood drew an image of the Sun God, Kinich Ahau, that was once on the side of the pyramid, but has since disappeared, with this drawing the only remaining record. Sadly, since this discovery, much of the site has been quarried for building materials to construct the town of Izamal.
Today, K’inich K’áak ’Mo’ is a sprawling rough ruin. You can walk right off the street onto what would have been a lower-level terrace, then climb up through other levels until you reach a large flat plain, with the ziggurat pyramid looming ahead. You can climb, as I did, pretty much on all fours – that’s how rough and perilous it was. I realised at the time of doing this that going up was one thing, but heading down, in a very steep incline, was going to be an entirely different matter. Ants decided to view the pyramid from other angles, and I have to say I had my doubts about climbing too, but on reaching the summit, the views were spectacular and far-reaching across the Yucatan to the horizon. They say that on a clear day you can see Chichén Itzá, and do you know what? I reckon I could just make the pyramids out on the horizon, some 70ks away – being the only discernible feature on an otherwise dead flat landscape.
After clambering over K’inich K’áak ’Mo’ in the intense 38-degree midday sun, we walked down the flanks of the pyramid and onto the street and into the gorgeous Restaurante Kinich, where we had the most wonderful lunch of (no surprises here), Cochnita Pibil, a classic Yucatec Mayan slow-roasted pork marinated in sour orange, wrapped in a banana leaf, served with pickled red onions and a red bean soup. Whilst Ants had the the Poc Chuc, thinly sliced strips of pork marinaded in sour orange and cooked over coals, washed down of course by a salt-rimmed, tangy margarita en las rocas. Or two. Absolutely delicious!