The Yucatan: Math, Ruins and Fun

By Thomas W. ’19
Photos by Mrs. Bonner

Going into the 2017 Maya Math Trip, our group of 15 students and 2 teachers knew each other at least somewhat, but those acquaintances immediately started to become close friends from our very first bus ride to the airport. Despite the early hour and cold weather, we spent the drive talking and playing games and soon we were on our way to the warm beaches and ancient ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula. As soon as we stepped out of the plane in Cancun, the blast of heat from the Mexican afternoon replaced all thoughts of snow with dreams of the ocean.

We spent our first two days in Playa del Carmen, a city about an hour south of Cancun. Our hotel was close to the ocean, so our first night we headed down to the beach in our flip-flops to splash and chat. It almost didn’t seem real; it was dark, but there was just enough light to see everyone. There was the sound of the waves, with the warm water washing over everyone’s feet, and of live music playing behind us. It was a magical start to our adventure.

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The next day we returned to the beach but also began to learn about the Maya with lectures on their number system, calendar and religious practices from our extremely knowledgeable guide, Dr. Heather Teague. 

That evening, we walked through the city to a restaurant where we ate authentic Mexican quesadillas and tacos. Chipotle burritos might be good, but nothing beats the small but delicious and filling tacos from Mexico. Food became a memorable part of the trip, as it seemed we could try a new delectable dish at every meal. By the end of that first day, we were so physically tired from the beach and mentally loaded from our lectures that it felt like we had already been there for a while. 

The next three days we spent touring three different ancient Maya sites. We went to Cobá, Chichén Itzá, and Uxmal. One might think that they would be very similar, but the architecture and experiences at all three were unique. 

On our first day of ruins exploration, we rode bikes through Cobá, with stops for pictures and learning about the ruins. This was the setting for one of my favorite memories. We were walking a little ways on a busy tree-lined trail when we saw what seemed like a mountain of stone on our left. When we stepped into a mildly crowded opening, we saw that the mountain was actually an absolutely massive temple. We later learned that it is the largest in the entire Yucatan. Naturally our next question was, “Are we going to climb it?” and to our delight, we did. 

The satisfaction of finally reaching the top after over 100 steep, narrow steps was further amplified by the amazing view from the top. You could see over the sea of trees for miles and miles. Over the next two days we had similarly awe-inspiring tours of the ruins at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. We learned about the intricate math and astronomy the Maya used in the construction of temple Kukulkan in Chichén Itzá and admired the stone likenesses of the rain god, Chacmool, in Uxmal. These sites provided us with amazing views, knowledge, and friendship, as we experienced these breathtaking ancient ruins together.

Sprinkled into the itinerary were trips to three cenotes, which are holes in the limestone bedrock filled with water from underground aquifers. Just like the ruins, each was unique, but all were tons of fun. Whether it was jumping into 150-foot deep water, playing a spontaneous game of “King of the Hill” over a kayak, or watching little fish nibble at our feet, the cenotes were for many of us one of our favorite experiences. They were also a much welcome break from the Mexican heat.

During the last few days of the trip, we did more than our share of shopping and wandering, experiencing the authentic feel of Mexico. We returned to Playa del Carmen, but not before stopping in Valladolid, an old Spanish colonial town, to shop with our now close friends around a beautiful cathedral and bright green plaza. 

Once back in Playa del Carmen, we swam, wandered, ate, and shopped some more. As we headed back to Pennsylvania, everyone was utterly exhausted by our busy schedule and plentiful walking, but we could look back and know that our excitement was well deserved, and that we all had an unforgettable experience that bound us closer together and taught us amazing things about the Maya and one another.

LCDS Global Programs include a robust, curricular, experiential learning travel program and a diverse international student community. For more information on our travel opportunities or learning about the rewards of hosting an international student, please contact  Heather Woodbridge, Director of Global Programs