PRIOR TO LEAVING FOR MEXICO I was constantly importuned by friends and family to be on my guard, to take extra precautions, to avoid standing out as a foreigner. These concerns had been stirred up by the media in the United States due to a spike in drug-related violence along the borders of the two countries. It gave me an odd sense of déjà vu, these caveats. Odd, that is, until I remembered that these were the same warnings I’d received prior to visiting South America during Carnival when there were news reports of one or two tourists who’d come to harm during the festivities, and prior to visiting Thailand at a time when there were reports of a rise in political violence, and prior to visiting France shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Prior to just about every trip that I could recall in fact. I came to the conclusion that either my friends watch too much television, or I lead a much more dangerous life than I realize.
The goal of this trip was to visit as many of the ancient Maya sites as I could fit into the six weeks I’d allotted myself. My girlfriend would be coming along as well. In fact this excursion had been her idea. She’d visited the northern Yucatan a couple of years ago and had fallen in love with the area. Since she’d only spent a scant week there she was anxious to return for a more in-depth adventure. I signed on soon after learning that there were hundreds of Maya sites to be toured: locales with exotic and evocative names like Tikal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza. I began to make a list of must-see sites and even plowed through The Ancient Maya, an 800-page tome that opened my eyes to the fabulous world I was about to explore.
The Maya homeland encompassed most of present-day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and parts of Honduras as well. Their history went back to perhaps 1500 BCE and ended, as with many pre-Hispanic cultures, with the Conquest some three thousand years later. There have been recent breakthroughs in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics and new information was coming to light all the time. Initially, the Maya were thought to have been a peaceable race who spent their time studying the stars and building vast observatories to further their understanding of the celestial realm. Their hieroglyphs were thought to refer only to calendrical cycles and special events such as eclipses. Once their system of writing began to give up its secrets however, these early, romantic notions quickly went by the wayside. Deciphering these glyphs was no mean feat either: up until the 1970s only a small fraction of Maya hieroglyphs were understood. To give an example of their complexity: one does not simply read Maya glyphs left-to-right or right-to-left, nor does one read up-to-down or down-to-up. In order to read these glyphs properly you have to first separate them into paired columns and then read them in a descending zigzag pattern. And then you have the problem of deciphering the glyphs themselves, which are both logograms as well as syllabograms, meaning they can represent either words or syllables. It is no wonder that for many decades the Maya script was thought to be indecipherable.
One of the things we’ve learned about the ancient Maya is that they were ruled by kings who were considered to be divine. Also, there was no single ruler who held sway over the entire Maya area. There were numerous rulers who controlled their own fiefdoms. What most profoundly diverged from the popular image of the Maya however, was the revelation that they were almost continually at war with each other. Gone was the naive belief that these were noble savages who regarded the heavens with nothing more than a thirst for understanding and built their magnificent temples for the sole purpose of enlightening themselves on the composition of the Music of the Spheres.
I found all of this fascinating, and my girlfriend took pleasure in watching my growing excitement, which she’d helped to kindle. But this idea of touring Central America solely to explore what remained of the Maya realm was not new. In fact, it was known as La Ruta Maya. There was even a Lonely Planet guidebook with that name. Unfortunately the most recent volume was dated 1987, which made it over twenty years out-of-date. We bought it anyway. It was a battered old copy that sold for two dollars online and it was full of caveats, especially about Guatemala. At that time, Guatemala was going through the final convulsions of its 36-year civil war, a war that traced its origins back to a 1954 CIA-backed coup which ended democratic governance in the region for nearly half a century. The violence didn’t come to an end until 1996. So, with fourteen years of relative peace in the region, we were hoping for an uneventful tour.
We arrived in Cancun in October, which – judging from the ease with which we found accommodation and the emptiness of the bars – was not the high season. But we weren’t interested in the party scene, we were only there long enough to catch a bus to Belize. We had to get there quickly because that’s where Rochelle would be meeting us. Rochelle was my girlfriend’s best friend. She wasn’t interested in seeing Maya ruins so we were meeting her on Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of Belize that had been recommended to us as a relatively cheap and relaxing getaway. Thus, the first item on our Ruta Maya checklist would be snorkeling.
The bus left late in the evening and we struggled to sleep through the night against the chilling air-con and incessant music from the driver, but it was good to be on the road and off the treadmill. Our summer jobs had been thankless food-and-beverage positions, but it had given us more than enough for our trip. In the morning we crossed over into Belize and were soon waiting at the dock in Belize City for the water taxi which would take us to the island.
It was a short trip, not more than an hour, to get to Caye Caulker. When we stepped off the dock on the east side of the island I could look across town and see the ocean on the west side. A narrow island, but several miles long. Our hostel was a stone’s throw from the dock and we were soon lying abed in our breezy room, listening to the surf and the chatter of palm fronds swaying stiffly outside our window. Somewhere below us on the beach we heard a voice call out.
“Frittas! Conch frittas!”
My girlfriend leaped off the bed and rushed downstairs, returning a few minutes later with a couple of enormous, steaming hot conch fritters. Island life had begun.
The week that followed felt like one long and pleasant afternoon. Rochelle arrived and the three of us divided our time between the bar, the beach, and the bungalow. We became lotus-eaters and thought of nothing more than the next meal. But when Rochelle left, we shook off our somnolence and spurred ourselves to action. It was time to start La Ruta Maya.
My girlfriend and I boarded an old American Blue Bird schoolbus at the Belize City bus terminal. The bus, which might have transported me to Palmer High School as a teen, was now taking us to Orange Walk. The driver picked people up at every corner until the bus was packed, then he cranked the stereo and headed out of town. Soon we were bopping through the lush Belizean countryside to the danceable rhythms of Lady Gaga.
Orange Walk was a sleepy, sweaty, rundown town, but it was also a friendly place. We dropped our bags at the hostel and went looking for a travel agency to arrange our excursion to Lamanai: an ancient Maya site several miles up the New River. The agency we settled on was located in a closet-sized office with a few locals outside drinking beer and a little boy sleeping on a sofa inside. I noticed that the “sofa” had been torn out of the back seat of a van. The travel agent smiled indulgently at the sleeping boy and made arrangements for our trip the following morning.
There was a young English couple taking the tour with us. They were on a round-the-world trip and seemed entirely without enthusiasm for the undertaking. They looked at each other grimly when I asked about their trip.
“It’s been long,” the girl said carefully as her companion turned away. “We’re rather looking forward to getting home.”
Our guide, Gilberto, lead us down the road to the river, which was wide and slow-moving at this point. Trees crowded the far shore and egret-like birds prowled the shallows. Our boat was tiny, just large enough for the four of us and our guide, who sat in the rear. However, it was equipped with a canopy, which was an essential accoutrement considering the strength of the sun in this tropical setting. Gilberto guided the boat away from shore and started the motor, expertly weaving his craft through the narrow channels of the river. He pointed out crocodiles along the shore and spider monkeys in the trees. There were bats clinging to branches overhanging the water that looked like pieces of loose bark, blending in perfectly. After two hours the river widened to a sedentary lake and Gilberto shut off the motor, steering us silently towards a small dock where we all got out. He then lead the way into the jungle where tall trees arched to a close high over our heads, giving the trail the feel of a leafy cloister. But that was where the similarity to a tranquil place of worship ended, because ahead of us came a throaty roar as if a pride of lions were fighting over a recently killed prey. It was howler monkeys of course, high in the canopy, that were making this din. It aroused my sense of the dramatic and I regarded this as our symbolic introduction to the Maya, as though we had just been ushered across a sacred river and here was Cerberus at the gates of the Maya underworld.
Lamanai, the guide explained, meant “submerged crocodile”, and archaeologists could date the site back to around 1500 BCE. It was one of the oldest Maya sites and an appropriate starting point for our journey through time. The city, built astride the New River, boasted a continual occupation up to the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, making this one of the most enduring of Maya settlements. Our first glimpse of the city was the Mask Temple, which offered a striking introduction to our tour. Two large faces, carved in white stucco, stared blindly out at us from the sides of a stepped pyramid, their mouths agape as howler monkeys provided their demented screams.
These faces are similar in character to the colossal heads of the Olmec, which some ethnologists consider to be the mother culture of all Mesoamerica. Lamanai is old enough to have been contemporary with San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, the oldest Olmec center near the Gulf Coast, and there is evidence that the Maya practices of bloodletting and ritualistic ball games were originally practiced by the Olmec. But while the Olmec had disappeared from the cultural stage by 400 BCE, the Maya could lay claim to having established the longest lived civilization in all the Americas.
Our next stop was the High Temple. As the name would suggest, it was the tallest building at Lamanai, rising above the tree tops and affording a magnificent view of the New River. It was here that our guide explained his theory about the collapse of Maya civilization: it had to do with water. Droughts, he said, had caused social unrest and political upheaval. “The people did not believe any more in the divine power of their kings, and killed them.” The New River, he said, was the reason for Lamanai’s longevity. I would hear other theories about the demise of the Maya on this trip: massive uprisings of the commoners against the elite; climate change; environmental degradation; overpopulation; and foreign invasions. From what I had read, the truth seemed to lie in a combination of these factors, or different factors in different areas. Often overlooked was the fact that there had been several such collapses. The first occurred at the end of the Preclassic, between 100 and 200 CE. The second collapse brought an end to the Classic period around 900 CE. Finally, there was a collapse around 1100 CE, which concluded a brief flowering of Maya culture in the northern Yucatan. Of course the Maya didn’t disappear after this last event and were possibly in the early stages of another flowering in the highlands south of Tikal, with the K’iche and Kaqchikel coming into prominence. This was cut short by the arrival of the Spanish.
We continued our tour of Lamanai at the ball court, where the Maya would re-enact the duel between the Hero Twins and the gods of Xibalba (the underworld). This was their most enduring myth, and the ceremony in the field of play was akin to current-day Christian presentations of the passion play, except that here we would have witnessed beheadings. It was not the loser of the contest who was beheaded however, but the winner. A concept that we find amusing today. But as Joseph Campbell explained in the Power of Myth dialogues:
The old idea of being sacrificed is not what we think at all … I think the great model of sacrifice is the Mayan Indian ball game … the captain of the winning team was sacrificed on the field by the captain of the losing team. His head was cut off. And going to your sacrifice as the winning stroke of your life is the essence of the early sacrificial idea.
This was a good introduction to the Maya, and I grew more excited about the larger sites to come. As we boarded the boat for the return trip and started downriver I felt an appreciation not only for what I’d learned on this day but also for the breeze coming off the water after a long day of walking and climbing ancient ruins in the humid jungle. I tipped Gilberto at the end of the tour and watched with dismay as the English couple walked away without so much as a thank you. Sullen and quiet, they loosely held each other’s fingers as they shuffled up the hill towards the next Station of the Cross.