Mary Heebner
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Carribean Travel & Life
v.20 no.2, March 2005


“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 Tulum.

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.

Turquoise from Mesa Verde, jade and feathers from Guatemala, copper and gold from Panama and cacao from the Gulf Coast traded hands here, and the port thrived even as the Spanish arrived. Suddenly the continuum between 1200 and 2005 became apparent – Tulum was still a marketplace where trade for items came in a rainbow of currencies.

At the Castillo, at the edge of a low cliff, is an opening about the size of a hand, positioned high into the imposing temple, catching the first rays of sun at equinox. At night the window reflected a fire within the room, functioning as a lighthouse for Maya boatmen navigating a trench cut through the reef to reach shore. The reef is the second longest in the world, extending all the way to Honduras.
On the adjacent Temple of the Descending God, a figure with the abdomen of a honeybee dived downward, like Venus, the evening star. From the turquoise sea below came shrieks of laughter. Tourists as well as raven haired Maya families bobbed in the buoyant salty water, some swam close to the caves that lie directly below the Castillo while others waded cautiously, holding up huipil dresses as white as sunlit foam. I couldn’t resist and finally walked down to the beach and dived in with gusto, only to discover that the view of the temples from sea is truly the way to appreciate this ruin.

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. .

Valladolid is a sweet town. From the central plaza pathways radiate from a fountain like spokes of a wheel. Vendors sell paletas (popsicles) and palomitas (popcorn). Couples whisper secrets to one another seated on S shaped chairs, called confidentes. Along the plaza village women come early to set up shop and stay through the afternoon. Wire coat hangers festoon the curlicues of wrought iron fence with handmade cotton dresses, baby clothes, huipiles and blouses. Each woman wears the traditional huipil, by far the most comfortable garment ever invented; a basic T form elaborated with a garden of embroidered flowers across the bodice and the hem. Black hair braided and shining, gold teeth capped and smiling, bolsas of plastic with a tortilla wrapped around bits of last night’s meal for a lunch, and a tiny wallet for change, the women banter with their friends and bargain with the tourists, each one in competition for a sale. I came away with a bouquet of gifts, colorful as picked flowers.

Across from the plaza, Hotel Mesón de Marquez, one of the oldest of the city’s 17th century colonial homes, is where Mario Escalante Ruiz was born. The family home turned inn once offered six rooms and now Mario and his son Rodrigo manage 90. People travel for miles for the longaniza, Yucatecan sausage, Mario makes from scratch as well as his traditional cochinita pipil. This is a perfect base to explore Cobá, less than an hour away, Chichen, and the cenote Dzitnup. Mario insists, “ now there is Ek Balam— you must go there early in the morning, it is a treasure.”

At daybreak, I headed towards bright star, black panther, Kingdom of the Divine Lord of Talol— all names given to the ruins of Ek Balam. Ten years ago, these were a series of unexcavated mounds, just 20 minutes from Valladolid. I met Francisco Cupul, a Maya guide who spoke with me in English. He had worked as a mason in Cancun, where he learned some English, as well as building techniques, on the job site. Later he bought a bilingual dictionary and taught himself. We walked along the sacbe to reach a unique four sided Maya corbel arch. “Imagine following a glinting white plastered limestone road ten meters wide, straight as an arrow, in the moonlight,” mused Francisco. This road once led to Zaci, a town the Spanish razed to construct Valladolid.

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 Labna.
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