“Does anybody live here?” a man from London
earnestly asked me as I lingered along the white beach that stretches
in front of the Maroma Resort and Spa. I was spending two days here,
enjoying their new spa, before traveling inland to visit some Maya ruins.
His companion added, “We took the toll highway, driving through
miles of nothing but jungle. We stayed at a lovely hacienda and visited
the ruins of Uxmal and Chichen, but the peninsula seemed deserted. Where
do the people live, what do they do, how do they make a living? We simply
missed it, and tomorrow, after some spa and sun time here, we fly home.”
Over three million tourists visit Cancun every year. Most stay within
sight of the beaches, along the fourteen-mile long hotel zone, a fragile
island in the northeastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state
of Quintana Roo. The archaeological sites most visited are nearby Tulum,
and possibly Chitzen Itza, an easy day trip from Cancun.
The Brits’ question made me wonder. I pulled a tourist map from
my beach sack. A network of tiny roads, dotted with circles and triangles
designating villages, large and small archaeological sites, like knotted
beads on a necklace, piqued my interest more than the fast road they
had chosen that bypasses all the towns and villages. The peninsula was
far from deserted and the Maya, who guided, served, cooked, and labored
at the resorts and ruins lived in nearby villages. I decided to alter
my route and travel inland, deeper into the heart of the landscape,
letting the winding backroads lead me to villages and smaller sites
along the way, to see for myself what I could of Maya culture.
Driving south along the highway, a billboard for visiting
the ruins read, “Las Piedras Hablan: Escuchelos - The stones speak:
listen to them”. Can a sign be taken for a sign? Coba, Ek Balam,
Labna, Sayil, Xlapak, Kabah; musical names, that beckon as stops along
the way to Chitzen Itza and Uxmal. Stones might be easier to hear in
quieter places and listening to them might help to put a face on the
Maya and their home. However, I could not abandon the sea before visiting
In the early 1970’s several travelers, my future husband included,
constructed palapas and lived for months on the paradisiacal beach at
Tulum, swimming out to the reef to spear lobster and fish; a world apart.
“Today,” friends warned, “it’s a theme park!”
I entered Tulum Park through a broad plaza lined with goods, and crowded
with shoppers; a beehive of languages filled the air - Italian, Japanese,
Maya, Spanish, German, English and more. This tree lined visitor center/shopping
mall definitely had nothing to do with the Tulum of the 70’s.
Nevertheless, given the popularity of the site, this configuration has
actually saved the heart of Tulum. Now the option of a short walk or
a tram ride kept motor traffic away from the site, protecting it from
further degradation. The ruins, that were part of a late Post-Classic
settlement around 1200-1521 AD, were still radiant against the Maya
blue Caribbean and white sand beach.
A confetti of ticket hole punches littered the stone in front of the
entrance to the ruins at Tulum. Each bit, equivalent to 38 pesos, adds
up to nearly two million visitors a year. The Maya called Tulum Zamas
–sunrise. It was a walled, fortified settlement facing the Caribbean,
a vibrant trading crossroads.
It seemed as if all roads once led to Cobá.
There had been a constellation of sacbe roads, etched through a jigsaw
of green like sky charts —Sac is Maya for white and be for road,
and sacbes were a system of raised, limestone roads radiating from this
powerful Classic Maya center as far as Yaxuná and Chichen Itza,
110 kilometers away. The old sacbe from Tulum stopped here.
I reached Coba by late afternoon. An empty parking lot, a few vendors,
and a some village men waiting with their bicycle taxis - a half hour’s
drive inland seemed light years away from the hubbub of Tulum. With
less than two hours of sunlight before 5:30 PM closing time, I opted
to ride, and so for 75 pesos Elio ferried me through the ruins. The
delicacy of the British artist Frederick Catherwood’s watercolors
of the 1840’s unfolded before me, for the place still feels undiscovered,
a vanished tropical topography. Catherwood accompanied John L. Stephens.
They were the first to attribute the ruins they encountered to the Maya.
Other travelers were certain the ruins were the work of anyone but the
local Maya suggesting instead the lost tribes of Israel or mystic Atlanteans!
In twilight, the stacks of stones appeared numinous through the pencil
thin pixoy trees. Chatting as we rode, I learned that Elio, from a nearby
jungle farm, is 19 and was 12 before he first learned Spanish. Like
many Maya speakers, Spanish is their second language, and many, like
Elio’s parents, speak only in their native tongue.
Nohoch Mul, literally big mound, which at 42 meters towered in the distance.
It used to be plastered red – like some gigantic ginger blossom.
When I reached the final 120th step, another descending god - Venus,
honeybee, evening star - greeted me. Wonder kept vertigo at bay as I
turned to survey the jungle, flat as a pool table save for two pyramids
poking out of the canopy and several shaggy phantasmagoric lumps of
greenery – a mere 5% of Coba’s structures have been restored.
The stones themselves were entombed. The forest inhaled them like enormous
green lungs. If I had x-ray vision I might see a colossal city, raised
terraces, markets and palaces, trails, trade routes, and other vestiges
of a culture that would beguile.
Coba, sited on the shores of sweet water lagoons, is alive, temples
constantly shedding their cloaks of forest then retreating like some
elusive animal you catch a glimpse of, between the trees, before it
melts into darkness and mist. Before leaving the area, I walked down
to the dock on the largest lagoon, adjacent to Villas Arqueológicas
Cobá, a hotel run by Club Med, comfortably, steps from the ruin.
Still waters, a serious heron waited to strike, crocodiles skulked,
and only wild parrots singing down the sun ruffled the silence. .
Within the first hundred years after 1492, at least 90% of indigenous
Americans were killed by disease or slaughtered and almost all their
leaders were killed. The Spanish destroyed all but four books of the
Maya, a literate culture where books and manuscripts painted on bark
paper were commonplace. Its not surprising that they became ‘the
mysterious lost civilization of the Maya’.
We see the bones of a culture, at times only fragments like a knuckle
or a rib poking out of the overgrowth, but they say that from a bit
of bone, one can tell date, climate, even function, with surprising
accuracy. This bone-faith is what archaeologists carry in their heart
and rests at the core of any theory. Disrobing monumental fragments
of their jungle cover is guided by hope or hunch that a carving, temple
stone, or stela will speak to them in the subtler whispers of a culture.
Of walls once draped with skins and colorful weavings, delicate manuscripts
inked onto bark, detailed paintings making interiors sparkle with tightly
bound brushwork, of clothing with adornments of bead, feather, paint…and
the murmurs of song, love and laughter. They toil knowing that all the
subtleties of this vivid culture either were destroyed or were re-absorbed
into the tropical loam. The archaeologist works with detritus of what
remains. In 1994, they hit pay dirt at Ek Balam; a place where people
had lived continuously since 600 BC, the age of the Etruscans in Rome,
until 1000 AD when the site was abandoned.
When the Maya abandoned sites, the jungle rapidly enveloped the buildings,
consuming anything that was not stone, disguising art and artifice as
lumpy mountains. After walking through the ball court past the steam
baths, I ascended the steep stairs of the Acropolis. I couldn’t
believe my eyes. Ek Balam is the best-kept secret in Yucatán.
The royal residence and seat of the economy was perfectly preserved,
for upon the death of king Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' in 840 AD it had been
transformed into his tomb. The doorway to the room where he was buried
is a monster whose massive jaw is lined with teeth the size of a small
person. Stucco figures that look human, not stylized, hold up the monster’s
eyelids and pose in the cornices. “Our ancestors” says Francisco,
“carefully covered all the sculptures with layers of fine mud
and powdered limestone before stacking stones and mortar, and finally
covering it all with a platform.” “Everything is as the
king’s son, who succeeded his father at age 12, left it.”
Why would the son go to such pains to preserve all this so meticulously?
The stones spoke to me and the answer was - tenderness.
After Ek Balam, Chichen Itza is a shock to the system. It is bold, calculated,
imposing and enormous, sustaining a population at its height of 50,000
people. Thirteen major cenotes, or sinkholes that supply freshwater
in a porous limestone plateau without rivers, made this prime turf in
the 10th century when the Itzae Maya dominated commerce, economic and
political power in the region. Water was scarce and determined where
cities could be built.
On the broad wooden verandah of the XVI century Hacienda Chichen, I
met Antonio Bustillos Castillo, a gracious gentleman who had agreed
to guide us through the ruins. Early next morning we set out, and even
though he had been here a zillion times he seemed genuinely delighted
to discover something new...“I wonder if,” he pointed at
a stone room, “ that was once a…” He gave this place
a humanity. Without him, I would be lost. What I understand is that
as the more militaristic Toltecs from western Mexico took over, introducing
such images as a reclining Chac Mool, with a flat lap, perfect for offerings
of human sacrifice. Open space between the buildings cried out for grand
displays of pomp and power. Built atop an earlier temple, the Castillo
was a layer cake of calculation. 91 steps on four sides equaled 364
days, 9 tiers, 52 year cycles, long count and short counts - I am dizzy,
even before climbing the pyramid! I’m caught in the machinations
of a timepiece that would make a Swiss watchmaker fall to his knees.
During spring equinox, sunlight shimmers to cast a shadow down the pyramid
like a wriggling snake, and thousands come to watch, just as thousands
came to watch a thousand years ago. At this collective celebration of
each equinox the sun seems to bend, if only for a moment, to the wishes
of the community, dancing down the ramps of brilliantly engineered constructions,
casting shadows of serpents. Invoking a sense of wonder, I think, is
the true beauty of such architectural precision.
Evening descended gracefully upon the Hacienda Chichen. Birdsong and
warm breezes rippled through the palm, bauhinia, and cedar trees. Before
dinner, I swam in the pool, wandered along the garden paths, perused
the library of this former home of the American Consul, Edward Thompson,
who purchased the archaeological zone. Later, renowned archaeologists
stayed here as they explored, excavated and restored the ruins. My cottage
was built with temple stones from Chichen.
After the crowds at Chichen, I headed for the hills, taking a back
road short cut via Holca to Teabo with its colonial church, to Mani
where the zealous Bishop Landa burned libraries and tortured Maya while
they watched their heritage go up in flames. I passed an open-air butcher
shop where a young woman selected a cut of beef, her astonishing profile
equal to stone carvings of old. In Sotuta, pigtailed schoolgirls with
backpacks as big as they were walked to school after helping with the
morning’s chores; Oxkutzcab’s sweet orange orchards glistened
as the fog lifted. A family of three pedaled by on a bike, poinsettias
loomed the size of trees, and lemon trees dropped an abundance on the
ground. The village road was lined with whitewashed stone walls. All
the women were wearing huipils. The traditional houses, replicas of
the carvings on the temples, had gourd or papaya trees in front, dogs
in the shade, and turkeys out back. Trucks lumbered by carrying oranges,
pineapples, and bananas. At last, I drove among the gentle rolling Puuc
hills, which after so much flatness was as intoxicating as a ride on
a Ferris wheel. The air was redolent with the perfume of dried grasses.
From Labna to Xlapak, to Sayil to Kabah, the road leads towards Uxmal,
the queen of the Puuc sites. This area sings with the essence of Classic
Maya and is rarely visited. At Labna, ochre colored stones span a magnificent
vaulted arch. Amid the grassy site lay carved pudgy cherubic heads,
phalluses, and fragments of glyphs. At Kabah a plethora of invocations
to Chac, and other rain deities — the facades in the Puuc are
Chac-a-block with carvings, two headed snakes, latticework, owls and
jaguars — all exclaim fertility and beauty.
The present reiterated the architecture of the ruins. I stopped for
a refresco at a store with a façade of wooden lattice that was
mirrored in stone in the Puuc ruins, and saw more of the traditional
thatch houses along the way identical to those carved on the arch at
Hacienda Uxmal, surrounded by fragrant trees and flower gardens, was
built 55 years ago in the colonial style, around a courtyard. Hand hewn
hardwood rockers placed before each room, on long, wide arcades bedecked
with beautifully painted Criolla tile — a perfect invitation to
relax. Tempting, but I chose first to walk over to the ruins where I
met a guide at the gateway to Uxmal with a touch of poetry in him who
ushered me through this most beautiful of ruins.
“92 steps at 60 degrees, 121 steps at 40 degrees, 35 meters high,
52 masks of Chac…” rapped Jorge Mex Solis, and then he slowed
his cadence, “Stephens said ‘the buildings in Uxmal cry
out to be restored!’” He gestured toward the Great Pyramid,
and then placed his hand at his side. “Imagine this,” he
continued as we walked in towards the building called the Dovecote,
“ every solstice the sun perfectly illuminates the roof comb of
the Dovecote and the nine undulating combs project a serpent on the
ground! This, my friend, is poetry.”
A tour group approached.
“Italians” he noted.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Color. The bright colors they wear and they walk closely together.”
Archaeologists have restored only seven of Uxmal’s major structures.
The ground is redolent with stories. The mounds are layers of time.
Jorge pointed to a cave opening, “Natural underground tunnels
that formed in the limestone plateau, were used by the ancient Maya,
and in times of danger they connected one city with another.”
True or false, this reiterated a tale told me by Dario Tus Camaal, a
villager from Chichimila, who said, “The temples were created
long ago by magical small people, who used underground tunnels, not
the upper roadways, the sacbe, to travel. When the Spanish came they
closed the tunnels forever.” The more I learned about the limestone
formation that did indeed contain networks of natural tunnels, the more
it seemed that this story was something resonating from the deep, archaic
past. Who was I to say what was science or poetry? Often, things are
not as they seem.
We climbed the steps of the nine-tiered Great Pyramid, Standing on the
top platform, it was impossible to see the steps below until you got
right up to the edge. The Puuc hills rippled on the horizon. The miracle
of the pyramids is that magical sensation of the earth as a flat platform
hovering above the tangled jungle, and the wish to soar over it like
a bird, has never been created more successfully as in these temples.
Las piedras hablan. Escuchelos.
Copyright © Mary Heebner 2004