At Xcaret, near the upmarket resort town of Playa del Carmen and 80km south of Cancun, I watch a highly skilled game being played.
It’s the ball game the Mayas used to play. Earlier today, at Chichen Itza – the world-famous complex of Mayan ruins on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula – I’d visited the largest ball court in the Maya world, at 175 meters long and 70 meters wide (much larger than a football field), with two eight-meter-high side walls.
Used for a game involving two teams of 13 players, the object was to use hips, elbows and wrists (but not hands) to hit a rubber ball through stone hoops on the walls. So sacred was the circle to the Maya that it is suggested as a reason why they never introduced the wheel into everyday life. The walls of the court bear bloodthirsty carvings showing players being decapitated.
“Many people say the winning captain was killed, as that was a great honor. It makes a great story but would have made for a dull game, as no-one would want to win,” Ikal, my Maya guide, had told me. “It’s much more likely that the losing captain was killed. But, of course, we can never know for sure.”
Although with this game at Xcaret no one is decapitated afterward, it’s obviously hard work to keep the ball in the air, involving a lot of throwing yourself on the ground under it to key it up for a team member to score with.
The ball game by Maya-costumed players is part of the nightly entertainment at this Mexican “eco-archeological theme park”. You can visit a butterfly park, explore Mexican art in a hacienda, see jaguars and pumas, swim with dolphins or sharks, and enjoy an evening of music and dance with a cast of hundreds. The whole is a sort of down-market Disneyland but I enjoy it all the more for its sometimes amateur air but obvious sincerity.
The park is also famous for its Flying Men, the “Voladores de Papantla” who jump from a 30-meter-high pole in bright costumes with a rope tied around their waists. Four men descend in slow circles while a fifth stays atop the pole playing a drum and flute. The ceremony is a pre-Hispanic religious ritual of the Totonac people that is thought to bring rain and good harvests. The 13 loops of the pole made during the descent represent the 13 months of the Maya calendar.
Xcaret’s highlight for many is the evening show – the Mexicans in the audience cheering wildly for songs from their home regions – but one other unique experience is swimming with shoals of tiny fish for 500 meters along an underground river linking various sinkholes or cenotes. There’s quite a lot to like about this "Miami of Mexico."