NEW BOOK: The Visible Sun: Exploring the Ruta Maya

I took a hiatus from writing this blog in order to finish my third book, which is now complete.  The title of the new book is The Visible Sun: Exploring the Ruta Maya and it expands on the adventures I relate in this blog concerning the ancient Maya.  It’s both a history and a travelogue, with myself and my partner traveling throughout Mexico and Central America in search of the remains of one of the world’s most mysterious and interesting civilizations.  It’s available online here: or on  This is the cover:


I hope some of my readers will pick it up and enjoy the continued adventures which were first related on this site.  Thank you!

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Posted by on April 30, 2012 in Uncategorized


La Ruta Maya – Tulum

WHEN WE ARRIVED IN TULUM later that day, we just wanted to find a hostel and a hammock.  We found both a short walk from the bus station.  Our room was a private thatch-roofed hut on the second floor next to a large balcony that was strung with hammocks from one end to the other.  There was a kitchen downstairs and breakfast was included.  The only drawback was the husband of the lady who ran the place.  He turned out to be one of those overly friendly drunks who can’t seem to shut up until they pass out.  Luckily for us he was usually snoring by noon.

The town of Tulum had a  beach vibe, but it wasn’t much of a vibe.  At least not compared to Playa del Carmen and Cancun just up the coast.  I suppose it was more of an island vibe where nothing happens in a hurry and everyone seems to be hanging out in the shade.  The main drag featured some good eateries and shops, but it was the nearby Mayan site of Tulum that brought most people to town.  This was to be our final stop on La Ruta Maya, but first we went to see a lucha libre wrestling match.

My girlfriend had spotted a leaflet stuck to a telephone pole as we were walking up the street.  It was a poorly mimeographed black and white advertisement featuring a couple of masked, shirtless men.

“I’ve always wanted to see a lucha libre match!” she said.  “Do you want to go?”


She wrote down the address and we showed it to a man at the tourist information booth.  He smiled when he saw it, evidently recognizing the venue, and gave us directions.

Later that night we showed up for the event, which took place in a walled, outdoor lot.  A wrestling ring had been set up in the middle of the yard with folding chairs on each side.  Before long the place had fairly filled with local families and a smattering of tourists.  The crowd gave a great cheer as the first pair of luchadores approached the ring.  They wore capes and had colorful masks that were laced up at the back.  They stopped to pose for photographs, showing off their barrel chests and bulging biceps.  One of them wore a black costume with white trim that had a tiger motif, while his partner – a much smaller wrestler – was shirtless and wore a red mask with gold trimming.  Their opponents were much bigger and wore shirts that read Perros del Mal (Bad Dogs).  Despite the size difference, the first pair struck upon an effective strategy when the match began: El Tigre would throw his partner into his opponents and knock them down.  Before long however, the Bad Dogs figured out how to dodge this assault and tricked El Tigre into launching himself out of the ring.  Then they had the red-masked wrestler alone and soon he was against the ropes.  They looped his hands and feet into the ropes so he couldn’t escape, then one of the Bad Dogs ran across the ring and launched himself feet first into the smaller wrestler, who received the blow full on his chest and crumpled out of the ring.  Things didn’t go any better for his partner when he returned, having to handle both opponents now.  They threw him against the ropes and knocked him down, even smashing a wooden board over his back when he was on the canvas.  These tactics displeased the crowd and they began shouting ¡Heelo! at the two.  The hulking twosome seemed annoyed by the crowd’s criticism and shouted back at them, at times threatening to climb out of the ring and mix it up with the disapproving mothers and shouting children.  It was all the respite El Tigre needed as he flung himself off the ropes and leaped in the air, scissoring his legs around the neck of the first opponent while hooking an arm around the other.  Spinning forward, he catapulting the Bad Dogs out of the ring.  The crowd erupted in cheers as the Bad Dogs slunk away.

I couldn’t remember having this much fun at an event since watching women’s roller derby as a child.

The next day we scoured the shops for luchadore masks.  There were plenty to choose from and the shopkeepers taught us the names of some of the more famous wrestlers.  There was the Blue Demon, Rey Mysterio, and the most famous one of all: El Santo.  I was told that these masks hearken back to the days of the Aztecs.  Perhaps they were the modern equivalent of the Flayed God masks, which would explain why an unmasking during an event is considered the ultimate humiliation: it would have corresponded to a beheading.

Now we were ready for the Postclassic site of Tulum.

Tulum was one of the ruins that immediately caught my eye when I was researching our route.  Situated on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it stands like a medieval fortress above the white sands of the Riviera Maya.  Picturesque and Postclassic, it seemed like the perfect final stop on our journey.

It was a simple matter to reach the ruins, requiring only a ten-minute bus ride from town.  Second only to Chichen Itza in popularity this Maya site was also a fraction of the size, so the crowds did not disperse upon arrival and we were in considerable company all afternoon.  Nonetheless, the site lived up to its postcard allure with well-preserved temples set amidst green lawns and palm trees, with the turquoise waters of the Caribbean just beyond.  The main building was known as “El Castillo” – which is a kind of catch-all appellation given to numerous buildings in the Maya region – and did, actually, resemble a castle.  It was flanked on one side by an oddly shaped structure that was reminiscent of a decrepit hut.  Like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it appeared slightly askew regardless of the angle at which it was viewed.  This was not a result of the ravages of time but an expression of the architects intent.  Known as “negative batter”, it gave the building a rather quirky appeal.

Occupied sometime in the early 13th century, Tulum had become one of the most prominent Maya cities at the time of its discovery by Old World explorers some three centuries later.  Its importance seems to have lain in its highly defensible location and the fact that it was well-positioned along the coastal trading routes.  Seaborne merchant trade had increased in the Postclassic as the Maya moved away from monumental building projects and focused their energy on erecting more utilitarian structures such as warehouses and ports.  This new economy appears to have spread the wealth in a way never before seen in the Maya world as an emergent middle class blurred the old distinctions between elite and nonelite.  This extensive trade network also revitalized areas to the south, especially sites that were located on navigable rivers that could reach the inland regions where prestige items such as pelts, feathers, copal, and cocoa could be obtained.  Sites like Lamanai, where our journey had begun.

This was Maya life when the Grijalva Expedition of 1518 explored the coastline of the Yucatan and spotted Tulum, declaring that “Seville could not be better or larger”.  Less than a year later, the Conquest had begun.

At the end of the day, as we left the ruins of Tulum behind us, I found myself trying to put together what I had learned from this adventure, what it was that I would be taking away with me when I left the world of the ancient Maya.  Over a late lunch that consisted of several margaritas I made a brave effort at a summation that would bring my trip to some kind of edifying – or at least functional – conclusion, but all I could think about was the pageant of splendid cities which had risen from the jungle like exotic models in a Paris fashion show, only to fall to ruin again and again.  The Maya saw life as a cyclical arrangement and may have seen these changes as a simple matter of the stars in their courses.  As we read in The Ancient Maya:

 The myth of the Hero Twins also highlights the dualistic theme that permeates Maya ideology.  This can be seen in the eternal struggle between the powers of good and evil, day and night, life and death … This eternal contest is depicted in the codices, where Chaak, the rain deity, is shown caring for a young tree; behind him follows the death god, who breaks the tree in two.

[Author’s Note: This will be my last post for awhile as I work to put together another series of travel tales.  Thanks for reading!]

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Posted by on November 1, 2011 in La Ruta Maya 2010


La Ruta Maya – Chichen Itza

WE WERE CLOSING THE CIRCLE NOW.  From Merida we would be traveling east in the direction of Cancun, our starting point.  We weren’t ready to tie things up just yet though, so we purchased bus tickets to Tulum, eighty miles south of Cancun.  We planned on getting off the bus at the halfway point for a layover of several hours to experience the best-known Maya site in Mexico: Chichen Itza.  At least it was the only site that I knew of prior to starting this trip, and then only parenthetically as the place where the world would come to an end on December 21, 2012.  The event was being promoted the same way The Restaurant at the End of the Universe was promoted in Douglas Adams’ brilliant Hitchhikers series, as THE place to be for trendy hipsters when the sands of time ran out:

“At the Restaurant you can meet and dine with a fascinating cross-section of the entire population of space and time … Afterwards the world will explode for your pleasure.”

When we stepped off the bus the following day we found ourselves in decidedly unhip company; surrounded by crowds of tourists.  This site was close enough to the tourist hubs of Cancun and Cozumel that it was practically de rigueur to take a day off from the beach to see this splendidly reconstructed city.  Some of the visitors appeared to have come directly from the beach and wore little more than their bathing suits, while others guarded themselves against the fierce sun with an excess of clothing that was just short of a burqa.  It was strange to be among so many people after having so often been the only visitors at previous sites.  Once inside the archaeological zone however, people quickly dispersed to the four corners of the site.

Immediately in front of us rose the Temple of Kukulcan.  If it were painted black and had “50 TONS” stenciled on the side it would look exactly like an immense cartoon weight, the kind that Wile E. Coyote always managed to drop on himself.  It was an almost featureless pyramid except for the carved serpent heads at the base of the northern staircase.  Rising 100 feet from the center of a large courtyard, its solid appearance and great bulk seemed to declare permanence and ownership: We’re here to stay.  Chichen Itza reigned supreme in the northern Yucatan for over 200 years.  It was the largest and most powerful Maya city ever to come into existence.  It also marked the first appearance in the Maya area of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, known elsewhere to the peoples of Mexico as Quetzalcoatl.  It has been suggested that this is evidence of a takeover, perhaps by the Toltecs of central Mexico, but it appears that Chichen Itza was simply a more cosmopolitan city, open to foreign influences which in turn aided its widening influence and trade with the rest of Mesoamerica.  It also expanded its domain through military action, overwhelming even the large polity of Coba, more than 50 miles away.  Chichen Itza boasted the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, with a width of over 200 feet and twice that long.  The complex comprised several other structures as well, including the Temple of the Jaguar which surmounts the east wall of the ball court, and the North Temple, which looks like a throne for a Roman emperor to enjoy the game of death on the field below.

I picked up an odd little tchotchke from one of the many vendors sitting in the shade: a small mask of patchwork stones and mother-of-pearl representing the Flayed God.  Occasionally, during ancient Mesoamerican sacrificial rites, after a captive had been killed his skin would be flayed from his body and handed to a priest who would then wear it as his own flesh so he could perform a ritual dance for the spectators below.  It was a kind of macabre resurrection theater with the skin of the victim revivified by the priest.  My brightly-colored mask seemed far removed from its gruesome referent.

Unlike most other sites, the buildings here were off-limits to visitors, roped off against those of us who like to climb the structures and get acquainted with their every niche.  It was an understandable restriction, considering the number of people who visit this place, and showed a kind of sustainable vision that the ancient Maya apparently lacked, since almost all archaeologists agree that the Maya consistently overpopulated and deforested their realms until they breached the carrying capacity of the land, leading to environmental degradation and perhaps societal collapse as well.

But Chichen Itza appears to have reached its demise in a different fashion.  In the Maya Chronicles – native accounts written by Maya scribes shortly after the Conquest – we hear about Itza rulers who were like those of Rome in its decadent period:

They brought shameful things when they came.  They lost their innocence in carnal sin … There was no great teacher, no great speaker … Lewd were the priests when they came to be settled here…

The instability was manifest in comments referring to this period as an era of

the origin of the two-day throne, the two-day reign.

Instead of overpopulation and environmental degradation, Chichen Itza appears to have fallen victim to internecine strife.  In The Ancient Maya we hear of

political intrigue, even the dramatic kidnapping of the wife of the ruler of Chichen Itza by the ruler of Izamal.

Perhaps as a result of its cosmopolitan nature, the polity of Chichen Itza was rife with such maneuvering.  The ruling elite of the city may have comprised several different groups: the Itza, Chontal, Xiu, Cocom, and perhaps Toltecs as well as other groups from Mexico.  Each finding themselves in league against the other or forming Machiavellian partnerships, leading to a kind of Mayan melodrama with the participants  in pursuit of dominance.  The Postclassic city of Mayapan, apparently founded by a group that had been expelled from Chichen Itza, returned with a vengeance and conquered that great capital sometime in the 12th or 13th century.  Mayapan, though it ruled in the wake of Chichen Itza’s downfall for another two centuries or more, itself fell victim to such intrigue.  History appears to have repeated itself when the Cocom and their Canul mercenaries from Mexico expelled the Xiu from Mayapan, only to see them return (with their Mexican mercenaries, the Chel) fifty years later to put the house of Cocom to the torch.

These coups and countercoups brought an end to Mayapan and scattered the combatants all over northern Yucatan, where they established small – still warring – fiefdoms.

By now the Maya had essentially become seafaring merchants who had ceased to build the great temples of the now receding Classic.  It is an open question whether this represented a lull between periods of florescence or if, in the words of our guide at Lamanai, “It was over”.

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Posted by on October 16, 2011 in La Ruta Maya 2010


La Ruta Maya – Dzibilchaltun

UP TO THIS POINT in our trip my girlfriend and I had been applying for jobs online.  It was an odious chore because it reminded us, in the middle of our vacation, that we had to get back to the mundane task of earning a living.  But one morning in Merida the both of us received job offers from a place where we’d applied months earlier.  It was a mixed blessing because while it provided us with a firm return date and eased our minds about our finances, it was just another service industry gig.

By the time we’d filled out all the obligatory pre-employment forms it was well after lunchtime, but we decided to make the trip to Dzibilchaltun anyway.  It was a nearby site that had been occupied for two millennia, reaching its maximum population and splendor in the Terminal Classic.  It was located just nine miles north of Merida and we could get there by city bus.  Once we found the right bus we quickly left behind the charming historic district and were soon chugging through the nondescript terrain of an urban everytown.  We were stuck in traffic for an hour, enduring bad smells and bad air.  The heat and the noise fouled my mood, and when I saw clouds moving over the blue sky I almost decided to cut my losses and turn back.  But we broke free of the congestion and accelerated out of town, sending a welcome breeze through the bus and arriving at the ruins soon after.

Dzibilchaltun continued the trend of remarkable minor sites.  Although it once boasted a population of 40,000, there was not much left of the place today.  The pyramids here were small and truncated, and the Spanish had plunked down a church in the middle of the site.  But these were not the main attractions, that honor belonged to the Temple of the Seven Dolls.  We approached this temple via a long sacbé, a Maya road, that at one time had been covered in white limestone.  Halfway along this path there was a low platform with steps leading up to a tall stela.  It was pockmarked, but no glyphs were discernable.  The sun reappeared and the obelisk threw a shadow on the smooth surface of its pedestal, like a sundial.  Prior to reaching the main temple we passed the remains of three smaller buildings, most likely they were part of what is known to archaeoastronomists – a fairly new branch of archaeology – as an “E” group.  To an observer standing in the middle of the main temple it would be possible to see the sun set directly behind the middle structure at both the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, while during the Summer or Winter solstice the sun would set behind one of the side structures.

The Temple of the Seven Dolls, so named because seven small clay figurines were found here during excavation, was discovered beneath a pyramid which had been built over it around 800 CE.  It’s an unusually shaped building, which is perhaps why archaeologists chose to unearth it instead of restoring the pyramid that succeeded it.  There are eight stucco masks of the rain god Chaac on the upper tier of the building, which sits upon a stepped platform 15 to 20 feet in height.  On the roof of the building is a chimney-like addition which might have served as an astronomical observatory of sorts.  Two large doorways on the east and west of the building open upon a central shrine within, now reduced to dust.  Originally there must have been an altar or a stela which received the rays of the setting sun on the solstice.  These rays would no doubt have triggered an optical effect, ricocheting off the stone to reveal the location of hidden Maya treasure.

I couldn’t complete this trip without at least one Indiana Jones reference.

It was here in Dzibilchaltun that I saw my first cenote as well.  These were underground aquifers that had been exposed because their limestone roofs had caved in, often leaving a sinkhole with a precipitous drop to lakes of cool, clear water.  The Maya considered them sacred and would sometimes throw sacrificial victims into the larger ones, especially during times of drought, in order to appease Chaac and bring rain.  They were also considered to be gateways to Xibalba, the underworld.  The cenote at Dzibilchaltun however, had no menace about it.  The water came to within a few feet of the crater’s rim and its surface was graced with attractive lilies.  There were even some locals swimming at the far end.

When my girlfriend visited Mexico a couple of years ago she’d gone to see a few of the larger cenotes, and the experience had apparently made her a bit of a cenote snob.

“This one is okay,” she said.  “But the ones I saw with Rochelle were huge, and you had to go underground to see them.”

That was all it took to put a cenote tour on our itinerary.  The following day found us on another bus heading south of Merida to a small town where they offered tours of some of the more impressive cenotes.  We were told that these had not been sacrificial cenotes, but it was an assurance that seemed calculated to ease the minds of tourists who would be swimming there.  After all, the cenote at Dzibilchaltun had been explored at depth and many artifacts had been brought up, including human bones.

Upon arrival we were obliged to take a motorcycle taxi to the jump-off point for tours.  The contraption consisted of a moped with a wheeled bench welded to its front.  There was nothing to keep us in our seats so if the driver hit the brakes we would be pitched forward out of the taxi and then he would run us over.  We held on during the ride and were deposited at a cul-de-sac where several men and donkeys awaited us.  If I thought the motorcycle taxi was an odd form of transport, the bar was about to be reset.  We were led to a kind of buckboard with metal wheels that was positioned on a narrow railroad track.  One of the men hopped on the bench at the front of the wagon and was handed the reigns to a donkey.  He gave the rope a crack and the donkey started off at a trot alongside the track.  Our wagon lurched forward and the flimsy rails threatened to come apart under our weight as we bounced along on hard seats.  It was like a carnival ride: a carnival ride that gets shut down by the Health & Safety department.

There were other truckeros on this route, and since there was only one track it meant that if someone was coming the other way then one of the teams had to stop and haul their wagon off the rails so that the other could pass.  Consequently there was a lot of wagon-heaving going on.  We caught up to one truckero who had a dead rooster dangling off the back of his wagon.  Its lifeless body jerked with the motion of the vehicle as if it were still trying to escape its fate.  I wanted a picture, but it was impossible to focus my camera with the jolting ride.  Eventually we came to a stop next to some scaffolding that was positioned over a hole in the ground.  We grabbed our towels and stepped off the wagon so our driver could wrestle it to the side.  At the top of the ladder we stared down into a large cavern of blue water.  As we descended the rickety steps the air became cooler.  The cavern, especially its far reaches, was dimly lit.  Wavering reflections from the water played over the ceiling while stalactites and tree roots reached down towards the water like skeletal fingers.  There were tiny fish in the water and they darted in and out of the sunlight while we eased into the refreshing underground lake.

We visited two more cenotes, one of which required us to lower ourselves down a hole that was barely wider than our bodies.  At the bottom of the ladder we found ourselves in a large cavern that was dark except for where the sun shone through a small opening above and illuminated the middle of an aquamarine lagoon.  It was easy to see how the Maya considered these openings in the earth to be portals to the underworld: they were dark, silent, and alien.  Yet these cenotes also provided the Maya with the essential substance of life, which is perhaps one of the reasons why they made sacrifices here: life-giving water was taken from these nether regions, and life had to be returned to it.


Posted by on October 2, 2011 in La Ruta Maya 2010


La Ruta Maya – Uxmal

THE CHICKEN BUS TO MERIDA must have stopped at every shack and henhouse in northern Yucatan.  It was late afternoon by the time we arrived, and the weekend market was already underway in the main plaza where our hostel was located.  There was music, street food, and numerous little stalls crowding the central part of the square with everything on display from cheap trinkets to fine handicrafts.  Like the main plaza in Campeche, the square in Merida was dominated by a Spanish colonial cathedral, which had been built with stones taken from the Maya temples that once graced this spot.  Formerly known as T’ho, the city had featured five pyramids as its focal point, which provided plenty of building material for the Spanish.  The fall of T’ho in 1542 at the hands of Francisco de Montejo (the younger) marked the first real breakthrough for the Spanish in their war against the Maya.  Soon after this victory, other Maya polities in the northern Yucatan began to accept Spanish suzerainty.  The most opportunistic of these made a devil’s bargain by allying themselves with the new boss in order to gain the upper hand against their old rivals.  It was a tactic the Spanish were happy to exploit, thus hastening the end of Maya independence.

In the evening we watched a presentation of some folklorico dancing in the plaza.  The girls wore traditional Maya huipils while the boys were dressed like Chicago gangsters.  They were very young and it was like watching a middle school play.  While there was nothing unusual in the performance – certainly nothing menacing – I had trouble enjoying the proceedings because such depictions of native culture put on for the benefit of tourists always remind me of the scene in Joan Didion’s book Salvador where the author is treated to just such an event in a country that, ironically, is in the process of exterminating its indigenous population:

The dances … were Indian, but they were less remembered than recreated, and as such derived not from local culture but from a learned idea of local culture, an official imposition made particularly ugly by the cultural impotence of the participants.  The women, awkward and uncomfortable in an approximation of native costume, moved with difficulty into the dusty street and performed a listless and unpracticed dance with baskets.  Whatever men could be found (mainly little boys and old men, since those young men still alive in places like Nahuizalco try not to be noticed) had been dressed in “warrior” costume.

She found the performance, which had taken place under the watchful eyes of soldiers with assault rifles, “deeply obscene”.  Troubled by these images, I found myself looking forward to traveling back in time with our next stop: the Terminal Classic city of Uxmal.


The Classic period of Maya civilization in the central lowlands was over.  The great cities of Tikal, Calakmul, and Palenque were already being reclaimed by the jungle.  But in the north, beginning around 850 AD, there was a florescence of Maya culture which in some ways represented the most sophisticated period of the Maya before their light dimmed and was finally put out.  Uxmal, which was the most important polity in the northern Yucatan at the beginning of the 10th century, was a magnificent city.  It epitomized the architectural style known as Puuc, named after the nearby hills, and survived the intervening millennia in far better condition than many other sites in large part because of its superior construction.  I knew none of this prior to my visit, which explains the astonishment and delight I felt upon seeing what remained of this jewel.

I had an inkling that something was different here when I paid the entry fee, which was three or four times the usual rate.  Upon entering the site we were faced with a solid pyramidal mass rising over a hundred feet into a perfectly blue sky.  This was the back of the Magician’s Temple.  As we walked to the front I marveled at the rounded sides of the temple.  Instead of the sharp corners of the central lowland pyramids, the Adivino – as it is also known – seemed to bulge like an overstuffed chair.  At the front of the temple there was a small courtyard framed by low buildings with rounded columns and expertly carved geometric patterns on the upper tiers.  The temple itself was adorned with several masks representing Chaac, the rain god.  At the top of the stairs was what looked like a Borg spaceship: a large, ornate cube.  The entrance to this cube was through the gaping mouth of a Maya earth monster, who was often depicted guarding the entrance to sacred places.

Uxmal was full of striking ruins, some of which were so well preserved they couldn’t even be called ruins.  The Nunnery Quadrangle was a large courtyard bordered by long, low buildings with ornate friezes of Chaac, Kukulcan, and other fantastic creatures.  By the time I reached the structure known as the Governor’s Palace I should have been ready for what rose in front of me, but I just shook my head in wonder at the sight.  It was perhaps the quintessential example of Puuc architecture.  A long building, over three-hundred feet, it was positioned atop a hill overlooking the rest of the city and built on a 40-foot-high platform, giving it the appearance of a museum piece displayed on a pedestal.  The lower half of the Palace had several chambers cut in featureless stone, while the upper half was a showcase of baroque ornamentation, heavy with gods and monsters.  This latter part of the building is larger and overhangs the substructure, giving it the impression of a densely populated celestial realm.  I shuddered to think of such a magnificent example of Maya workmanship taken apart to build a cookie-cutter colonial church.

Uxmal was one of those sites, like Palenque, that you don’t want to leave.  It seemed alive.  I almost felt that if I stayed long enough I’d see a Maya priest come out of one of the enclaves atop the Adivino.  But there wouldn’t have been any divine kings in resplendent quetzal plumes; the Maya had moved beyond such fanciful forms of governance and had established a more pragmatic system of rule by committee.  They had taken that first small step towards a more representative form of government, from divine king to ruling class.  A thousand years later, few countries could claim to have made any further progress.


Posted by on September 15, 2011 in La Ruta Maya 2010


La Ruta Maya – Calakmul

FROM PALANQUE WE STARTED NORTH.  Up until now we’d been traveling south and west, away from our starting point in Cancun.  Now that we’d made a U-turn it started to feel like our trip was winding down.  I didn’t like that idea, and maybe that’s part of the reason I didn’t like Campeche.  It was an old colonial town on the Gulf Coast.  In fact it was the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Yucatan.  The Spanish had made Campeche their beachhead for the conquest of the Maya homeland, and while things didn’t go quite as smoothly as their earlier expedition in Mexico due to strong resistance from the Maya and the fact that many of the conquistadores were lured away from this part of the New World by stories of greater plunder to be had in Peru, the end result was the same.  We stayed at the Monkey Hostel, which looked across a small square at the main cathedral.  After visiting so many Maya sites, I felt as if I were now in enemy territory.

There wasn’t much to do in town, so my girlfriend and I asked about nearby Maya ruins.  We were told that Edzna was the one to see, and it could be thrown in with a full-day tour that would include historical sites and caves as well.  But we weren’t interested in any of these pricey itineraries.  We just wanted to see Edzna.  The travel agents told us that it was a complicated affair to reach the site, that we could get stranded, lost, etc. etc.  In fact it turned out to be a piece of cake.

We asked a taxi driver to take us to the bus station, which was a chaotic jumble of buses, minivans, and taxis all sharing the street with an open-air market.  We stood around in a daze for a few minutes until a smartly dressed old man tapped me on the shoulder.

“Edzna?” he asked.

He pointed out a row of red minivans on the other side of a playground, then tipped his hat and disappeared into traffic.

We got on board a minivan that was almost full (knowing that they never leave until they have every seat filled).  The driver took us all the way to the site for a few pesos and told us when we could expect him to return to take us back to town.

The site turned out to be comparable in size to Xunantunich, and just as much of a surprise.  It was beautifully restored with an open parade ground in front of a long stepped platform known as the Nohoch-Na (the Big House).  One could easily picture the steps crowded with spectators as ceremonials were conducted in the yards.  Across from this platform were steps leading up to the central acropolis with finely-chiseled temples and cylindrical stone columns.  The main temple, known simply as the Edificio de los Cinco Pisos (the five-story building) rose one hundred feet above the plaza.  It retained a part of its roof comb, a peculiar fence-like adornment atop certain Maya temples that may have supported large stucco engravings of kings or deities.  In front of the main temple was a temascal, a low rectangle of stone that may have functioned as a bathing area for the priests.  This Classic Maya city was abandoned only a few decades before the arrival of the Spanish.  As at Xunantunich, we had the place entirely to ourselves.  As we walked around the ruins in the company of iguanas, I mentioned to my girlfriend that Edzna had been affiliated with Calakmul.  Before I could launch into an unsolicited lecture about the Tikal-Calakmul rivalry (again), she look at me and smiled.

“You really want to see Calakmul, don’t you?”

“Well, sure.  But it would mean backtracking.  It’s almost at the Guatemalan border, and we’re already halfway to Merida.”

But she knew that I needed to see this remote site, even if it meant straining the budget, or else I’d feel that La Ruta Maya was incomplete.  We’d been following the course of history, and if we continued on to the sites of the northern Yucatan we’d be leaving the Classic period behind.  It was our last chance to see Tikal’s great rival, and I was fortunate to have an indulgent girlfriend.  We agreed to rent a car for two days, which would give us just enough time to visit Calakmul and perhaps a couple of other nearby sites as well.

Back in Campeche we located a rental agency and asked for their cheapest car.  We picked it up at 8:30 in the morning the day of our road trip.  It was a tiny white Chevy.  We asked what model it was and the lady said, “Chevy”.

“What kind of Chevy?” we asked.


So we gassed up the Chevy Chevy and hit the highway.  It was a nice day for a drive, with plenty of sunshine and the Gulf Coast splashing ashore to our right.  There was very little traffic and we were only slowed by the abundant topés, speed bumps, that were only occasionally preceded by a warning sign.  By early afternoon we were pulling off the main road to visit our first archaeological site in the region: Balamkú.  It was a minor site reached by a short, paved road that was bursting with verdant potholes.  The ruins were still in ruin except for the Jaguar Temple, which had a jaguar motif at its base (somewhat recognizable, if you squinted and used your imagination).  A man on a bicycle rode up behind us, parked, then wordlessly led us up some scaffolding on the side of the temple and unlocked a steel door leading to the interior.  We followed his outstretched arm and went inside.  It was fairly dark so I pulled out my headlamp and switched it on.  When I played the light over the wall I was surprised to see a panel of fantastic creatures staring back at me: serpents and Maya earth monsters populated the entire length of the chamber.  Our nominal guide spoke no English, and chose to remain outside anyway.  When we were done we thanked him and watched as he flicked the ash from his cigarette and closed the door.  He reminded me of one of those small town America entrepreneurs who sell tickets to oddities like three-headed cows and chunks of meteorite.

Our next stop was just a few miles down the road at a site called Xpuhil.  It was also a minor site, but it gave us our first glimpse of the architectural style known as Rio Bec.  After a short walk in the woods we came upon a trio of partially restored pyramid temples rising steeply from a raised platform.  Their facades were in crumbles, but an interpretive sign showed that the original structures had steps leading to their summits.  These steps were too small and steep to be functional, and there were no chambers atop the temples themselves.  Beautiful to look at, but seemingly useless.  This was the Rio Bec style.

Our last stop prior to spending the night in the town of Calakmul, was Bécan.  As the capital of the Rio Bec region Bécan was a major site, and we spent the rest of the day until sunset exploring its ruins.  The main plaza was crowded with tall pyramids which afforded wide views of the surrounding country.  The site was fortified and had a moat around the main part of the city.  It was thought that Bécan, despite its proximity to Calakmul, maintained its autonomy from that powerful polity, at least for a time.

We drove the rest of the way to town and got a room at a serviceable little lockup.  Right across the street was an open-air restaurant where I was enjoying a wonderful chicken mole until a delivery truck backed up to our table and filled the air with choking exhaust.  The pleasures of Mexico always seem to come at a heavy price.


 I threw open the curtains to reveal a beautiful blue sky.  We tossed our bags in the Chevy Chevy and hit the road for the final hundred kilometer stretch to Calakmul.  Most of the drive was on a side road that was well paved but narrow.  The forest pressed in on all sides while trees hovered over us like censorious nuns.  Whenever a car came from the opposite direction we’d be forced to the edge of the road where branches would slap our windshields to punish us for our impertinence.  We arrived at 9:00 a.m.  It was a long walk to the main plaza, which had not been cleared of trees so it afforded no great AHA! moment when we burst on the scene.  The plaza was a bit smaller than the one at Tikal, and held many stelae.  The limestone used here at Calakmul was of an inferior quality and did not weather well, so that many of the engravings on these stelae had eroded away and were illegible to Mayanists studying the site.  There was hope, however, in a new scanning technology that allowed scientists to see patterns that were all but invisible to the unaided human eye.

This rather lackluster introduction to Calakmul was swept away once we stumbled upon Structure II, an enormous temple whose base was as wide as the plaza itself.  Because of the trees we hadn’t seen it until we were upon it.  It was fronted by five large stelae and rose almost one hundred and fifty feet, dwarfing the plaza temples.  Halfway up this structure was another large stela, upon which it was still possible to see the outlines of a female personage, most likely a queen.  From the top of this pyramid one looked out upon unbroken jungle, but in its day this vantage point must have overlooked a vast expanse of limestone-plastered courtyards, religious and residential structures, and waterworks.  It is believed that the rulers of Calakmul were the heirs of the Kan Dynasty which ruled at the great Pre-Classic city of El Mirador.  If so, Calakmul represents a ruling house that lasted for well over a thousand years.  Longer than any Egyptian or Chinese dynasty.

But Calakmul was abandoned by the end of the 9th century along with the other great cities of the Classic era, ending this long-lived line.  In the Books of Chilam Balam, a series of 18th-century Maya documents that cover subjects from history to medical recipes, we find the following passage:

 There were no more lucky days for us, we had no sound judgment.  At the end of our loss of vision, and of our shame, everything shall be revealed.

With the end of the Classic period came the end of the institution of divine rulership.  No longer would kings rule as gods.  Perhaps the constant warfare, droughts, and ever-increasing privileges of the elite had finally come to a head and revealed to the masses the decidedly fallible nature of their leaders.  The populace voted with their feet and bequeathed the magnificent temples they had helped build to the squatters.

This seemed like a good way to end our tour of the central lowlands and the cities of the Classic period.  We left Calakmul in the late afternoon and arrived back in Campeche well after dark, dropping off the Chevy Chevy and darting through the rain to our hostel.  Over a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc we discussed our next stop: Merida and the Postclassic world.


Posted by on September 2, 2011 in La Ruta Maya 2010


La Ruta Maya – Palenque

IT WAS AN EIGHT-HOUR TRIP BY CHICKEN BUS across the rough roads of the Peten to get to our next destination: Palenque, Mexico.  It made for a long day, but a relatively uneventful one save for two minor episodes: minor because neither of them realized their potential to become full-blown disasters.

The first of these episodes occurred at the Usumacinta river crossing.  We’d been on the bus for several hours already, bumping along dirt roads that filled our mouths with grit, when we stopped at the muddy banks of the Usumacinta; a large river and one of the main thoroughfares of the Maya.  We followed a young boy down the slippery bank to the shore of the river where several long, canoe-like boats wobbled in the current.  The boats were equipped with life preservers, an unusual precaution in devil-may-care Guatemala.  My girlfriend made note of it:

“If they’re providing us with life vests here, we should probably put them on.”

The river appeared to be moving lazily along, but once we reached midstream I noticed dozens of whirlpools turning in the current, as if the river were being drained away in sewers.  Whenever the boat got too close to one of these eddies it would lurch toward the swirling water and threaten to keel over.  All of us on the vulnerable side would lean away from the gunwales and dart unpleasant looks at our young captain.  At one point he swung us around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees to show us a crocodile on shore and very nearly capsized us in the process.  Every maneuver of the boatman seemed to be executed with the very intention of endangerment: spilling us into the river at the mouth of a whirlpool or toppling us into the mouth of a crocodile.  I gladly left the boat when we bumped ashore, and then saw my girlfriend hand our pilot a tip.  I asked her why.

“Well, we didn’t die,” she said.

Ah, if only tips were so easy to come by in the United States.

The next episode came hard on the heels of the river crossing, which had put us in Mexican territory.  We had just gotten our passports stamped and were proceeding in a minivan when the driver stopped at a small guardhouse.  The side door was pulled open and a local man peered in, holding up a pad of tickets.  He addressed me in a quiet voice, spinning off a long monologue in Spanish.  When he finished I said, “No entiendo”.  He turned and repeated his spiel to the other foreigners in the van (only half of the passengers were tourists), and mentioned the sum of fifteen pesos.  I looked at the pad he was carrying and read the words zonas archaeologicas, so I figured it was just some minor shakedown of tourists where the money was supposed to go towards conserving the local resources.  I was about to pay the dollar when a Polish woman in front of me started yelling about “corruption” and told the driver to just keep going.  The driver gave her a bored smile, but didn’t move.  Then the rest of the tourists took up a hue and cry against the petitioner that seemed entirely out of proportion with what was being asked by this quiet little man.  He listened politely to their complaints, then explained that we had to pay the fifteen pesos or we could not continue on our trip.  This was too much for the Canadian man sitting next to me, who suddenly lurched across the seat and tried to slam the door in the man’s face.

“Don’t do that!” I said, stopping the door in mid-slam.

“This is bullshit!” he spat.

A crowd was growing outside the van and a couple of them had machetes.  Realizing that things could quickly get stupid my girlfriend reached in her purse and handed the man thirty pesos, indicating the two of us.  He took the money and thanked us while the others glared at us for our betrayal.

“We’ve already paid for this trip,” the Polish woman said, scowling at us.  “This is just corruption because we are foreigners!”

Eventually everyone paid the man, albeit grudgingly, and we were on our way again.  All I could think of was how mean the Canadian had been.  Didn’t he realize that Canadians are supposed to be the nicest people on earth?

The van dropped us off at a fenced-in yard with no services.  Yes, this was the town of Palenque, the driver assured us.  So we grabbed our bags and followed the rest of the passengers as they wandered up a tree-lined avenue.  Within a few minutes we reached the main street and started pricing hotels.  There was no need to pound the pavement – it was too hot anyway – because rooms were going for eight dollars a night.  Once we’d settled in, unpacked, and had a couple of beers, we started looking for transportation to the Maya ruins of Palenque.  We could have simply hopped on one of the vans displaying a sign for “Ruinas”, but my girlfriend wanted to see the terraced waterfalls of Agua Azul.  She told me that she’s wanted to see these falls ever since she’d seen a picture of them as a child.  So we signed on for a tour that included Palenque, Agua Azul, and another waterfall.  That night, as I was reading The Golden Bough – a nineteenth-century book on comparative mythology – I came across this passage:

…the dim light of tradition reveals a similar union of temporal and spiritual power, of royal and priestly duties, in the kings of that delightful region of Central America whose ancient capital, now buried under the rank growth of the tropical forest, is marked by the stately and mysterious ruins of Palenque.

I held up the book and told my girlfriend:

“Look!  He’s talking about Palenque, and here we are in Palenque!  I love synchronous moments like this.”

The author, Sir James George Frazer, was talking about how the early priest-kings were considered to be gods themselves.  They were regarded as divine and thus were able to bestow upon the populace such blessings as rain and good harvests.  It is not difficult to imagine the precariousness of this post, however.  If the rains did not come, if the crops failed, the people knew who was to blame.  It has been strongly suggested that this may have been one of the motivating forces behind the collapse of the Maya civilization (and why it continued to collapse after every renaissance): the belief of the people in the divinity of their leaders.  It was a matter of misplaced confidence that was destined to disappoint.  In modern times we elect leaders who almost invariably disappoint when their rhetoric falls short of their accomplishments.  These leaders often lose their titles.  In the days of the Maya however, when kings were seen as gods, their failures were not forgiven so easily.  These leaders often lost their heads, and few communities could survive when it was believed that the gods had abandoned them.


Palenque was the first stop on our all-day tour.  As we entered the grounds and stood among the gray temples, the early morning mist began to lift and I felt as if I’d been transported to Europe and was now viewing the ruins of an ancient Roman city.  Stately is the right word.  There was the Palace with its central tower that would not look out of place in Italy; the clean, Romanesque lines of the Temple of the Inscriptions; a trio of temples in the main plaza rising imperially over a central fountain that could have been a shrine to Egeria; there was even an aqueduct running through the heart of the city that still carried water from the surrounding hills.

Palenque was a Classic-era city that was at its height during the long reign of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who lived to be eighty and ruled for sixty-eight of those years.  His tomb is located within the Temple of the Inscriptions, and his carved sarcophagus lid is one of the most recognizable artworks of the Maya.  This lid weighs seven tons, and because of its size it still rests in the chamber where it was placed in the 7th century.  It was famously – and wildly – misinterpreted by Erich von Daniken in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods, wherein it was claimed that the carving represented an astronaut sitting at the controls of an alien spaceship.

One didn’t have to tax one’s imagination, however, to imagine the paths that wound through the city crowded with vendors and noisy with commerce – because it was here.  Wood carvings, obsidian blades, ceramic skulls, painted leather and silver jewelry, all laid out on long tables or on blankets in the grass.  The vendors were young girls in breezy huipils and old men who sat in folding chairs in the shade and shouted at passers-by.  Even if it no longer ruled the western lowlands, Palenque was still a lively and cosmopolitan market town.

Further on, past the heart of the restored city, there were a series of residential areas that more or less followed the river as it descended through lush forest.  These structures were mostly unexcavated: walls half-submerged in moist earth and tree roots pulling apart moss-covered stones.  This part of Palenque ended the Roman conceit and returned the visitor to the rank growth of the tropical forest of Central America.  At the bottom of this trail, which featured thick vegetation and revealed fewer and fewer Maya ruins, we found ourselves at the entrance road across from the on-site museum.  We were only given a scant half-hour to visit this museum, barely enough time to take in the jade masks and elaborate ceramic incensarios before being whisked away by our driver to the waterfalls of Misol-Ha and Agua Azul.

Misol-Ha was a twin waterfall, plunging 100 feet into a green lagoon.  The river dropped from an overhang so the water fell cleanly into the pool below, like a lace mantilla, undulating slightly in the breeze.  Behind the falls was a mossy cave where it was possible to stroll, listen to the thunder of the falls, and catch a chill from the rush of air and mist.  But this was just an appetizer; my girlfriend was anxious to see Agua Azul.  At last the driver waved us into the van and we set off.  It was a short ride to the site, and my first glimpse of the famous waters was strangely familiar.  These terraced pools occur at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, and I’d seen them at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia as well.  The mineral-laden waters form their own pools by depositing travertine in a series of descending basins, flowing from one to the next like a cascade of champagne at a wedding party.  But it was brown champagne.  The recent rains had washed sediment into the river and turned the waters of Agua Azul into agua marrón.  But my girlfriend saved her disappointment for later, when we’d scaled the terraces to their upper reaches and discovered a small concrete dam and channels leading into the river which appeared to be – and smelled like they were – carrying sewage from the nearby community.  We returned to the lower pools, having given up any thoughts of swimming, and watched without envy as children splashed in the cool water.  I didn’t ask my girlfriend how she felt about all this.  I didn’t have to: the stately and mysterious tropical falls of Agua Azul had been buried by the rank growth of civilization.

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Posted by on August 17, 2011 in La Ruta Maya 2010