Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, May 2000
From the air, the limestone peninsula of Yucatan looks like a gray-green carpet, almost featureless, with few hills and no streamsonly a few waterholes, called cenotes, that dot the Peninsula, and an occasional ribbon of road. When we got off the plane in Merida, the main town, we were engulfed by hot air. It was May, a transitional month between the cooler dry season (October-April) and the torrid rainy season (May-September) when hurricanes from the Caribbean occasionally sweep ashore. Temperatures were forecasted to rise to 99 degrees after our arrival, but a moderate easterly breeze and scattered cumulus clouds kept the atmosphere bearable for the week we were there.
Yucatan is at about the same latitude as Hawai‘i21 degrees Nand the landscape resembles the dry leeward coastal plains of Hawai‘i. Some of the flora is immediately recognizable to a resident of Honolulu: Royal Ponciana trees, with their bright red flowers, and Golden Shower Trees. Mangoes, papayas, watermelons, cantaloupes, and bananas were available in abundance in the markets.
Merida was founded by Spanish invaders in 1542 on the ruins of a Mayan town called T’ho. The pyramid and other buildings were torn down and the stones used to build a cathedral and homes for the Spanish soldiers, monks, and businessmen.
Today about 800,000 people live in Merida. The old part of the city is typically colonial Spanish, built around a square dominated by a cathedral and a government palace. Nearby is the marketplace with all sorts of foods and handicraftsincluding local products like hammocks and panama hats. From early morning to late evening, street vendors, some still children, sit on the narrow, congested sidewalks or wander the squares hawking their wares.
Almost four decades after reading about Mayan Civilization in Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations and other books I borrowed from the library in Kane‘ohe, I traveled to the Yucatan to visit the Mayan pyramids and temples scattered across the 200-mile-wide peninsula. The thrill of coming upon remote, isolated ruins in a jungle I had fantasized as a young boy is no longer possible in the Yucatan today. Like ancient ruins all over the world, the Mayan sites have become popular tourists destinations. (Map of Yucatan.)
Still, the ruins were impressive, adorned with geometric forms, bas-reliefs of gods and warriors, and over 800 kinds of hieroglyphs. The ruins in this northern region of Mayan civilization (the Mexicans states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo) date from 600-1300 A.D. Earlier ruins dating from 150 B.C.-150 A.D. are located in the jungles and mountains to the south, in Mexican states of Campeche and Chiapas as well as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Tulum (“Wall”), the site closest to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, has an amusement park like atmosphere, with golf-cart trams, numerous tour groups with guides spouting facts in Spanish and English, costumed acrobats spinning around a pole to which they are attached by their ankles, and a modern mall full of mass-produced curios and T-shirts, along with American fast-food eateries.
The inland ruins of Chichen Itza ("Mouth of the Well of the Itza People"), Uxmal (“Thrice-Built”), Ek Balam (“Black Jaguar”), and Coba (“Water Stirred by Wind,” referring to a lake nearby) are beautifully restored and more tastefully developed, but also crowded at peak hours.
The pyramids of the Yucatan seem to have been built to create artificial hilltops in the flat terrain. From the tops, astronomical and meteorological observations could be made, with the buildings, windows and doorways aligned to the rising and setting points of the sun. From the platform at the top, some over a hundred feet high, you can see over the flat landscape to the horizon, in all directions, a great advantage in studying the heavens and the weather.
The Mayan astronomer-priests were able to predict the movement of the planets and kept track of the passage of seasons and years using a system of calendrics, which included a 260-day calendar for religious purposes and prophecies, a 365-day calendar marking civil activities in the solar year, and a 360-day calendar used in a “Long Count” that went back over 3 millenia to a “zero date,” associated perhaps with the creation of the world.
The pyramids brought the priests closer to the realm of the sky gods and were used for religious rituals; and the stairways were paths down which the gods, like the life-giving rain, came to earth. The stairways at Chichen Itza are bordered by feathered serpents, their tails at the top and their heads at the bottom, with mouths open, as if to disgorge the gods.
The Maya were and are farmers. Corn, their staple crop, depends on the summer rains. Without mountains, the Yucatan is prone to drought, so to insure rainfall, the ancient priests ascended the stairways of their pyramids to offer animal and human sacrifices to their rain god. The hearts of the sacrifices were torn out and their corpses rolled down the stairs. Bas-reliefs of skulls on stakes cover the outer face of one wall at Chichen Itza.
The practice of human sacrifice, some scholars believe, was introduced from central Mexico around 1000 A.D. by invading Toltecs with their feathered-serpant god, Quetzalcoatl. This invasion could explain the non-Mayan architectural features and sculptural motifs found at Chichen Itza and other Yucatan sites. Although human sacrifice may have been an occasional practice earlier, archaeological evidence seems to indicate it increased after the Toltecs arrived.
The traditional folk worship of the Mayan rain god Chac was less extreme. The offering was a custard made of corn, accompanied by children croaking like frogs, which are associated with rain and fertility. Such folk offerings to Chac and other Mayan gods are still made today in rural Mayan farming communities.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, many of the magnificent Mayan ceremonial centers had already been abandoned. The reason for the abandonment is not known, but scholars speculate that there must have been multiple causes. Perhaps a series of destructive natural disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, epidemics, or locust swarms reduced productivity and caused inter-city warfare to break out over limited food supplies and resources. Such disasters might have caused the farmers and other workers to lose faith in the priests. After all, the working class supplied the labor, skills, and resources to build the temples and produce the sculptures in exchange for protection against natural disasters and favors from the gods; if the priests and their temples and rituals could no longer guarantee protection and favors, why pay tribute to them, why not get rid of the burdensome elite? The farmers and hunters could easily have returned to a simpler folk worship, leaving the elaborate ceremonial centers to be overgrown by the jungles.
Or it might have been the growth of the ruling elite that caused the working class to rebel: a bloated, parasitic aristocracy demanding too much tribute and labor. Or perhaps, a new mercantile way of life emerged, based on mass production of goods and trading, which produced a broader, more even distribution of wealth, so that the old religion which concentrated wealth among the elite and required elaborate temples and pyramids was no longer appealing.
By the time Spanish arrived, the Yucatan was divided into sixteen provinces. The Spaniards exploited this lack of unity, finding allies among some groups of natives. The superior weapons of the Spanish enabled them and their allies to conquer the peninsula. Diseases like small pox devastated the native population.
The Franciscan friars came in to convert the natives to Christianity. They took the children and the youths to their monasteries and instructed them in the new religion, then sent them back home to convert their parents and destroy the idols of the traditional religion. Those converts who reverted to their native religion were imprisoned, beaten, and tortured. Some committed suicide rather than convert. According to the Franciscan Friar Diego de Landa, these suicides were “deluded by the devil.” The Mayans had a different idea of suicide: “Suicide, especially by hanging oneself, was looked upon as the greatest measure of personal sacrifice, an act insuring the unqualified pleasures of immortality” (Gallecamp 145).
Obsessed with destroying native beliefs and converting the Mayans, Landa ordered 27 hieroglyphic codices, discovered at Mani, near Merida, burned. The codices, recorded on paper made from a root, probably contained information about astronomy, calendrics, divination, and rituals. Landa declared they were “superstitions and lies of the devil,” even though he couldn’t read them. Landa was later put on trial in Spain for imprisoning natives and obtaining confessions of idolatry through torture. In his defense he wrote Yucatan Before and After the Conquest (c. 1566), which contains descriptions of the native culture he helped destroy; he was absolved by the religious court in Spain and returned to the Yucatan as a Bishop in 1572.
As in the American Southwest, the native people aren’t of the past. Two million Mayan-speaking natives still inhabit their Mexican and Central American homeland. In the towns of the Yucatan women walk along the roads of these areas carrying buckets of corn on their heads, and men carry firewood on their backs or on three-wheel bicycles, two of the wheels supporting a basket in front.
Outside the towns, the farmers were burning vegetation off their corn fields to prepare them for planting as the rainy season approached.
May is butterfly season, and yellow, orange and black-and-white butterflies swarm in endless flurries across the roadan amazing and beautiful sight, although we were speeding along at sixty mph, and not a few of the butterflies ended up as splatters on the windshield. A couple of times a bird with a long tail and shiny blue feathers leaped from the bushes in front of the car to gobble up butterfly maimed by an earlier vehicle.
Our air-conditioned rental car seemed like a spaceship from another planet, detached from the earth, the seasons, and all living things. The road kill includes iguanas and snakes. I managed to avoid one green snake that materialized like magic from a mirage of water on the hot pavement. As it slithered off, I wondered how it escaped, as its body stretched almost half the width of the two-lane road. A large iguana sunning itself wasn’t as quick. As I sped over him, we heard a thump against the bottom of the car.
The roads pass through small villages and towns with Mayan names like Hoctun, Xocchel, Yokdzonot, Xcalacoop. Along the roadside, you see both weathered stucco houses and door-less one-room huts with earthen floor, high-pitched roofs thatched with palm leaves, and hammock hunging inside (the coolest way to sleep in the intense heat).
Some of the children make money by offering themselves as guides at the out-of-the-way sites not yet serviced by professional guides, or as guardians of cars in the parking lots. One enterprising group of kids waited by a topes, or speed bump, in the village of Kaua, so that when tourists in cars slowed down, they could display a couple of pups of a fox-like mammal and an armadillo, for a tip. I had never seen an armadillo, except in a picture book. It was cutebig pointy ears, a coke-bottle-shaped head, with clawed feet and a smooth, soft, taupe-colored belly hidden beneath the accordion-like carapace on its back. As we photographed it, it started drooling on the car. According Landa, the armadillo is “tender and very good to eat.”
When we passed the village the next day, the kids were no longer showing off the armadillo; instead, they were selling mass-produced stone statues, akin to the lava tiki of Hawai’i.
I was fascinated by water sources in the Yucatan. There is very little surface water; rainfall seeps through the porous limestone into underground streams and pools. We visited the cavern at Dzitnup, a popular swimming spot. Tree-roots and stalactites hang from the ceiling above the large underground pool. A small opening just above its center allows a single column of sunlight to illuminate the warm limestone-milky water.
When the ceilings of such caves collapse, cenotes are created, some as much as sixty feet below the surface. The ancient ceremonial centers and towns were built near these algae-green pools.
On the back roads of the Yucatan heading south, the Mexican military, armed with semi-automatic rifles, had set up road bocks. One group of soldiers waved us through. A couple of days later another group stopped us. Their leader asked for my passport and wanted me to open the trunk. He discovered our cache of dirty laundry. I’m not sure what he was looking forcontraband? drugs? anti-government pamphlets?
The show of force probably had to do with the disparities of wealth and the ethnic tensions between the indigenous Maya and the Mexican elite of Spanish-Aztec-Toltec descent. After battling the Spanish for 300 years, the Maya fought Mexican domination and exploitation during the nineteenth century in what was called the War of the Castes. Yucatan tried twice to secede from Mexico. More recently, a Mayan group called the Zapatistas engaged in armed skirmishes with government troops in the state of Chiapas, followed by police, paramilitary, and military persecution and repression. (In 2001, with a new Mexican President elected to office, the Zapatistas were hopeful of reconciliation after a promise of laws to protect their indigenous rights.)
On the final full day of our visit, we headed out to the brackish-water lagoon of Celestun, a small fishing village at the sparsely populated, bone-dry northwest corner of the Peninsula, where Mayans gather salt at shoreline ponds. Today, the lagoon is a bird sanctuary, noted for its flamingo population.
We passed through three small dusty towns‚the most impoverished we had seen. The stone churches and factories with stone smokestacks looked abandoned.
The indigenous sisal plant (used to make rope and twine), along with cattle ranching and sugar, were the mainstays of the Yucatan economy during the nineteenth century, when the Mexican ruling class got rich off of cheap Mayan peasant labor and expropriated Mayan land. During the nineteenth century, the Mexican government allowed large landowners to claim “vacant” lands after posting a notice at the nearest cathedral: “Soon the … lands the [Mayans] had farmed individually or collectively from before the Conquest, passed before their owners had heard of the ‘notice’ to create the great landed cattle ranches of the north, the hemp haciendas of Yucatan, the sugar lands of Morelos, where at the time of the Madero revolt practically every bit of arable land in the whole state was owned by a few great landholders, and the Church” (Gates).
By the early twentieth century, Yucatan manufactured 90% of the world’s rope, and Merida had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world. (Sisal was brought to Hawai’i, but never became a viable cash crop. It can still be seen growing in dry areas like Ka’ena Point on O’ahu.) The demand for sisal collapsed after the invention of synthetic fibers; today it is a specialty crop whose fiber is woven into rugs, handbags, and hammocks.
After we passed the third town, the noon landscape turned into a white inferno, bristling with spindly, almost leafless trees that cast no shade on the barren limestone. The asphalt had broken off the road in places, and the limestone beneath was pitted with potholes. There were no street signs and no other vehicles. Were we on the road to Celestun or driving into oblivion? We turned around.
Under a shade-giving tree, we spotted an old campesino and his son, whom we had passed earlier. They had apparently ridden into the inferno on bicycles. Genny asked them in Spanish where Celestun was. The old man said we were on the right road, but had to drive farther to get to the main highway. “How much farther?” “Eleven kilometers.”
We turned around again. Finally, the highway appeared and we sped for Celestun. I had trouble starting the rental car that morning and called for a replacement, which set us back four hours. After a late lunch of delicious fried fish from the Gulf, I took a plunge in the silty, greyish waters to cool off. We wanted to be back in Merida before evening, so we skipped the boat ride to see the flamingos among the mangroves.