“THEIR buildings are beautiful. What a shame the Mayans have all gone – they could have told us so much.” Ikal, my guide and very much a living Maya, laughs as he tells me this story of what one client said to him here at Chichen Itza in the heart of the Yucatán Peninsula where the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo meet.
It’s not surprising that we assume ancient peoples have vanished from the scene when we visit vast ruins, made empty by their “preservation” as archeological sites. But the Maya (Mayan refers to the language), best known perhaps for the calendar said to foretell the end of the world in 2012, are far from extinct themselves. In fact, there are at least seven million throughout Mexico and Guatemala, many still native speakers of Mayan rather than Spanish.
“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos,” Rigoberta Menchu told a Danish interviewer in 1992, the year she won a Nobel Peace Prize. “We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.” Menchu, a heroine of Guatemalan indigenous rights, spoke only Quiche, a Mayan language, until she was 17.
Chichen Itza is the sort of place that inspires myths. Years of research by Californian acoustic engineer David Lubman shows that a strange bird-like echo produced by a handclap in front of the steps of the Kukulkan temple at the heart of the complex exactly matches the sounds of the near-extinct Quetzal bird, sacred to the Maya. “Where else in the history of the world have an ancient people preserved a sacred sound by coding it into stone so that a thousand years later people might hear and wonder?” asks Lubman.
The site’s Great Ball Court is also an echo chamber that would have allowed the ruler to address large crowds without shouting. Lubman also suggests other odd fluttering echo effects might have been deliberately designed to conjure up the voices of their ancestors. The 24-metre-high Kukulkan temple, often called El Castillo (The Castle), was dedicated to a serpent deity covered in the feathers of the Quetzal. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadows of the pyramid fall in such a way as to show the serpent wriggling down the staircase.
The Great Ball Court is the largest in the Maya world, at 175 metres long and 70 metres wide (much larger than a football field), with two eight-metre-high side walls. Used for a game involving two teams of 13 players, the object was to use hips, elbows and wrists (but not hands) to hit a rubber ball through stone hoops on the walls. So sacred was the circle to the Maya that it is suggested as a reason why they never introduced the wheel into everyday life. The walls of the court bear bloodthirsty carvings show players being decapitated. “Many people say the winning captain was killed, as that was a great honor. It makes a great story but would have made for a dull game, as no-one would want to win,” says Ikal. “It’s much more likely that the losing captain was killed. But, of course, we can never know for sure.”
At Xcaret, near the upmarket resort town of Playa del Carmen and 80km south of Cancun, the “Miami of Mexico”, I watch this highly skilled game being played. Although no one is decapitated afterwards, it’s obviously hard work to keep the ball in the air, involving a lot of throwing yourself on the ground under it to key it up for a team member to score with.
The ball game by Maya-costumed players is part of the nightly entertainment at this Mexican “eco-archeological theme park”. You can visit a butterfly park, explore Mexican art in a hacienda, see jaguars and pumas, swim with dolphins or sharks, and enjoy an evening of music and dance with a cast of hundreds. The whole is a sort of down-market Disneyland but I enjoy it all the more for its sometimes amateur air but obvious sincerity.
The park is also famous for its Flying Men, the Voladores de Papantla who jump from a 30-metre-high pole in bright costumes with a rope tied around their waists. Four men descend in slow circles while a fifth stays atop the pole playing a drum and flute. The ceremony is a pre-Hispanic religious ritual of the Totonac people that is thought to bring rain and good harvests. The 13 loops of the pole made during the descent represent the 13 months of the Maya calendar. Xcaret’s highlight for many is the evening show – the Mexicans in the audience cheering wildly for songs from their home regions – but one other unique experience is swimming with shoals of tiny fish for 500 metres along an underground river linking various sinkholes or cenotes.
Yucatán has almost no rivers but its soft limestone is characterized by these cenotes, the only source of fresh water and often used by the Maya for sacrificial offerings. A long period of drought is thought to have contributed to the end of the Maya Empire. The cenote at Chichen Itza, called Chen Ku or “The well of God”, was found to contain gold, jade and incense offerings as well as the remains of human sacrifices. Yucatan has an estimated 30,000 other sinkholes, many of which make great natural swimming holes to escape the daytime heat. The water is so pure that the management often insists I shower beforehand to remove suntan lotion. Other cenotes are so remote I have only bats for company and the spirit of ancient Mayas seems not far away at all.
Another 60km further south along the coast road are the remains of the Maya city of Tulum, which enjoys one of the best settings of any ancient ruin in the world. This walled city sits on a cliff overlooking the bright blue Caribbean, facing the sunrise, and is so picturesque with its white sand beach and green palms that it is a regular poster child for Mexican tourism. With a population of up to 1,500, it once sheltered an important port and prospered between 1200 and 1500, dying when Spanish invaders brought Old World diseases that killed off its people. Like Chichen Itza, its Temple of the Frescoes also features Maya motifs such as Kukulkan, but its “El Castillo” pyramid was also a lighthouse where two torches helped guide ships through the reef.
Beyond Tulum are seven kilometres of bright white sand, ending in the 650,000-hectare Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Sian Ka’an is Mayan for “where the sky is born”. It spans 120km from north to south, nearly one third of Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and preserves mangrove lagoons, 23 Mayan sites and natural habitats that include nesting areas for sea turtles and many wading birds. Jaguars and puma are among the five species of big cat found here. The reserve also extends out to sea to protect 110km of the world’s second largest barrier reef. About 2,000 people live here, mainly in the villages of Punta Allen and Punta Herrero, where a small fishing industry thrives. The Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an (CESiaK) offers eco-friendly cabins with wind and solar power and composting toilets-with-a-view. Cesiak also runs kayak, fly-fishing, canal and sunset tours where you can follow Maya trade routes dating back 1,200 years.
Pastor Caamal Uitzil is a trilingual Maya who works with the reserve’s Community Tours. As a child, he collected chicle (used to make chewing gum) in the forest with his family and is an authority on reading the signs of animals large and small, and on the birds of the jungle. Chicle will burn the skin badly if it drops on it and blind you if it gets into your eyes but Caamal shows off a natural antidote for such inflammation from the bark of another jungle tree, the chacá. “Some people call it the ’tourist tree’ because its bark is red and peeling, like sunburnt tourists,” he jokes. Other trees provide food, drink, flavoring or pain relief. As Caamal shows me how much of the jungle is a larder or medicine cabinet for the Maya, no fine words are needed to understand how important it is to preserve this great gift of nature.
The beaches near Sian Ka’an carry another message. Covered in countless piece of plastics of all shapes and sizes, from bottles and blocks of polystyrene to countless flip-flops and other footwear, they are a reminder that anything we throw into the ocean has to end up somewhere. A clean-up during August 2011 to celebrate 25 years of the reserve saw 1,135kg of trash being collected in a day, with plastic bottles from as far away as Russia and Finland. Much of this, of course, comes from passing ships but this part of the Caribbean seems to act as a giant rubbish trap. Caamal points out that, while Sian Ka’an might disappoint in this respect in comparison to the spotless beaches of Cancun, that is only because hotel staff have been out early in the morning cleaning up the sands of the all-inclusive tourist resorts before visitors take to the sun-loungers.
Heart-breaking pictures of turtles suffocating with plastic bags drive home the same message at Akumal, just north of Tulum, where I snorkel in the shallow clear waters among dozens of turtles. Mexico is home to six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles and the beaches here are nesting grounds for two, Loggerhead and Green Turtles, while Hawksbill can often be seen on the reef. Swimming with such lovely creatures is one of the most magical experiences you can imagine and leaves me more determined than ever to be responsible about the environment.
It is fashionable to think of ancient “Indian” peoples such as the Maya as environmentalists, living in harmony with nature, as Caamal does now. In reality, archaeologists says that pollen found in refuse dumps shows the Maya had over-exploited the ecosystem on which they depended for food and that there was almost no rain-forest left. Drought, over-population and constant warfare, caused by the growth of a large power-hungry elite, are other factors thought to have hastened the end of the Ancient Maya. The last factor was the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, bringing diseases such as smallpox to which the native peoples had no resistance but Chichen Itza, for example, had already been abandoned two centuries earlier.
Another tragedy in addition to the death of up to three-quarters of the population was the loss of knowledge about their culture. The Maya made significant discoveries in science, including the use of the zero in mathematics, but vast libraries of writings on bark were burnt by the Spanish priests, while as many as two million sacred images were destroyed as idolatrous. “We found a large number of books,” wrote Diego de Landa in 1562, “and as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”
Deciphering the remaining Mayan stone hieroglyphics has taken decades of work. “We’ve had a lot of lucky breaks along the way. One of them is that we know the language in which it’s written; a lot of Maya people still live today speaking Mayan languages,” says noted Mayan scholar David Stuart.
One day in 1511, the sea off Yucatán disgorged shipwrecked Spanish sailor Gonzalo Guerrero and his companions, 14 men and two women, and I can imagine him gazing on Tulum when it was still a living city, linking him to us through the centuries. Although 15 of his crewmates died in captivity, he survived and was the first European to make Mexico his home, becoming a noted Maya warrior and father of the first three mixed race children in Mexico. Such mestizo identity was the basis of modern Mexican national self-image, mixing Spanish and indigenous cultures, although the word has now fallen out of use.
The term was used disparagingly in Yucatán of those Maya who refused to join the Caste War which lasted from 1847 to 1901, one of the few successful uprisings of native people in North America. Leading to a state that was recognized by the British Government, within the boundaries of present day Quintana Roo, its 50-year existence centered on the capital of Chan Santa Cruz, now Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 100km south of Tulum.
Ikal takes me through the history. “The Maya were virtual slaves of the people of Spanish descent. They were heavily taxed and their culture was threatened by the Catholic Church. In the war against Texas, they were conscripted and learned military skills before revolting in 1847. They killed any white people they could find and made Yucatán a no-go area for them.”
Things went badly at first as the different Maya factions bickered among themselves but, in 1850, a Talking Cross was found in a cenote near Chan Santa Cruz (Small Holy Cross). Veneration of the cross symbol pre-dated the arrival of Christianity with the Spanish and the cenotes were long thought of as portals to another world. The instructions of the Talking Cross – channeled through a shamanic ventriloquist – unite the Maya into the Cruzob (”People of the Cross”) and guided them in their military campaigns against the Mexican army for another 50 years.
After taking control of Chan Santa Cruz in 1901, the Mexican army declared the uprising over but sporadic fighting continued until 1935. While epidemics of measles and smallpox carried by the invading troops caused more deaths among the Maya, it was chewing gum that actually ended the war. Wrigleys of Chicago paid the remnants of the Cruzob, still holding out in the jungles, to become chicleros (see mini feature).
What happened to the Talking Cross? I notice that Ikal changes the subject, so it seems a sensitive one, but I find out later that several villages in the region claim to have the original or parts of it. One cross, in the village of X-Cacal, is under 24-hour guard by armed Maya and never shown in public. In these shrine villages, the veneration of the cross and Catholic saints might give the illusion that Christianity holds sway.
The Cruzob eye outsiders warily but, if you can look deeper, you will find that the ancient religion has merely co-opted these symbols and survives in plain view, such as in the shrines to the old gods you can find in farmers’ fields. In this Catholic country, the caution may come from the allegations of witchcraft aimed at adherents of this Church of The Talking Cross, which was only recognized as a legitimate religion by the Mexican Government as recently as 2002.
Writing about Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, where the actors all spoke Yucatan Mayan but the ancient religious rituals were exaggerated into sadistic and evil bloodbaths, Professor David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin says: “The surprising feature of the Maya is not the collapse of their Classic civilization but their astonishing tenacity after the Spanish conquest, through centuries of tumult and abuse.” The Maya may be down but you get the feeling that they definitely can’t be counted out. After all, they never say goodbye but only “Tu heel k’iin.” – “Another day”.