Living in Mérida we have been a little overwhelmed by how much there is to see and do. There is a free cultural or family activity every day of the week, but the one that was at the top of our list was the ceremonial ball game played by the ancient Mayans, Pok ta Pok. The city offers visitors and locals alike a chance to see the game played every Friday night, and we couldn’t wait to experience a game in person.
Before going, we brushed up on our Pok ta Pok mythology by reading the excellent graphic novel The Hero Twins: Against the Lords of Death: a Mayan Myth. It retells the legend of the Mayan hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque and their journey into the underworld to play Pok ta Pok against the Lords of the Underworld. This is a very accessible adaption of one of the greatest work of indigenous American literature, the Popol Vuh.
Instead of the more traditional ball court we saw at Palenque, this game takes place right in the middle of Calle 60, closed off to traffic for the evening. The event starts with Mayan rituals of prayer and incense. Then, the game itself is pretty intense: using their hips and legs, each team tries to hit the ball past the other team. For especially skillful shots, players aim to send the ball through an elevated hoop. The players definitely had no easy task, flinging themselves onto the street with only leather pads to protect their hips and legs.
The large ball is traditionally made from rubber, and we enjoyed watching the players skillfully bounce it into the air and at one another. For the final match, though, the players parted with tradition and brought in a whole new ball. We watched in awe as they lit the ball on fire and used hockey sticks instead of their bodies to play the game. The players didn’t seem to noticeably hold back, and many definitely ran through a sea of sparks and dodged the ball as it came quite close to their bodies. At the end of the match, the players received a well earned round of applause and all the Fives’ respect. Without a doubt, this was an experience we will be talking about for a long time.
Fives’ Facts about Pok ta Pok in Mérida
* When and Where: Pok ta Pok is held every Friday at 8:00 PM in the main plaza, in front of the Cathedral (Calle 60 between 61 and 63).
* No Tickets Needed: Just show up and enjoy the free show.
* Get There Early: About half of the seats are occupied by 7:00. If you get there later than 7:30, finding a seat might be very difficult.
* Vendors Galore: Many food vendors make their rounds through the stands, so you can enjoy some peanuts, popcorn, and other treats without leaving your seat.
* Enjoy the Parks After the Show: Mérida’s parks are a treat to visit at night. They are very safe, and the evening coolness is wonderful. The playgrounds are too hot to use by day (at least for us), but on a Friday night they are ideal.