Day 7: Uxmal and the Chocolate Museum

img_2713

“House of the Nuns” at Uxmal, where no nuns ever lived.

 

After a peculiarly tasteless breakfast amid the imposing splendor of Hacienda Uxmal, we headed out to the ruins on foot. It really was a short walk, for once. There is a visitor’s center with shops featuring books, pottery, etc., very upscale. There was a short line for tickets, so I sat down to wait in the shade until they were purchased. While I was waiting, the gentleman sitting near me said he was a guide and could speak English. We hired him to show us the site, and I’m delighted we did. He was a Maya Indian named Dimitro.

This is the pyramid that answers with a quetzal's cry when you clap your hands in front of it.

This is the pyramid that answers with a quetzal’s cry when you clap your hands in front of it.

As we walked out to the site, I asked Dimitro what he knew of aluxes. He said they were mischievous, small beings. Some were good, some bad, but the bad ones just play tricks–they aren’t truly harmful. They will bother you at night, pulling on your ear or your clothing to prevent you from sleeping. You can stop them by putting a piece of chocolate and a glass of water on the table before you go to bed and announcing, “This is for everyone. Anyone can have it.” You will sleep in peace that night. In the morning, the chocolate and water will still be there, but they will be tasteless: the essence is what the aluxes take. (Maybe that was the problem at Hacienda Uxmal: an alux infestation.) It’s the same with the gods–they don’t consume the sacrifices physically, but partake of the essence, which is why they burned the sacrifices, whether of blood or food. I asked him if he had ever seen an alux, and he said only children and animals can see them (confirming what Roberto had told me), but they had sometimes bothered him at night or misled him in the forest.

Detail of the Temple of Chaak at Uxmal. Chaak's noses are all pointing down, which is a prayer for rain.

Detail of the Temple of Chaak at Uxmal. Chaak’s noses are all pointing down, which is a prayer for rain.

Dimitro said the Mayan view of the life and death cycle was this; when you are born, you carry with you the knowledge of your ancestors in your blood. You add to this store of wisdom in life, and in death you are consumed by the jaguar and pass through the tree of life back up to your ancestors to be reborn later with added wisdom. As you were in past lives, you will be forever. It’s a rather nice scheme for kings, priests, etc., but not so great for the slaves and peasants. I forgot to ask what if you were a great warrior, but were captured and enslaved. Do you come back as a slave or a warrior?

One of Chaak's noses, not yet restored to its proper place.

One of Chaak’s noses, not yet restored to its proper place.

The buildings at Uxmal are much larger than in the classical Mayan cities we saw in the south, and they are beautifully adorned with carvings. The Chaak mask is everywhere, including at the corners of the temples. Chaak has a long nose because he has the face of a caiman, a symbol of both water and the underworld. When Chaak’s nose points upward, it is a prayer for rain. When the nose points down, it is thanks for the rain.

Dimitro, standing near a fallen Chaak nose.

Dimitro, standing near a fallen Chaak nose.

As we approached the first pyramid, Dimitro clapped his hands sharply together. The noise echoed off the pyramid with a high-pitched cry that he said was the cry of the quetzal bird, highly prized in ancient times for its brilliant blue-green feathers, symbolizing the sky, and now endangered. I have no idea if this sound was intentionally engineered by the builders, but it could have been. People are very clever creatures, and have built other monuments that do strange things, like track the solstices or create “whispering stones.”

The so-called House of Nuns is an enormous complex of temples and long, low buildings built around a vast rectangular courtyard. Dimitro said this had been a school, but didn’t seem to know what they might have taught there. Not priests, he said, because priestly knowledge was inherited in the blood. There were, of course, no nuns, but the building reminded the Spanish of the walled convents back home. The acoustics within this enclosure are spectacular–a priest could have addressed a crowd of hundreds from the steps of the temple and been heard clearly by everyone.

The pillars at Uxmal resemble Doric columns, but without the fluting along the sides.

The pillars at Uxmal resemble Doric columns, but without the fluting along the sides.

The stone motifs on the buildings were lovely. There were many round columns, rather like unadorned Doric columns, which we had seen at Tulum but not in the south. There were lattice-like insets, and others that looked like many half-columns arranged in rows that Dimitro said were representative of bamboo. There were no carved stele on the site. There are no cenotes in the area, but instead of the open catchments used in Calakmul, they used chultuns; jar-shaped subterranean water storage pits. The areas around the pits are angled to direct rainwater into this underground storage. This was a big improvement over the earlier method, as evaporation would have been much less.

The buildings at Uxmal are decorated with gorgeous bas-relief sculptures. You can see a plumed snake here, with a head emerging from its open mouth. This is the "spirit snake" incarnation of Kulkulcan, enabling the spirit of an ancestor to communicate with the living.

The buildings at Uxmal are decorated with gorgeous bas-relief sculptures. You can see a plumed snake here, with a head emerging from its open mouth. This is the “spirit snake” incarnation of Kulkulcan, enabling the spirit of an ancestor to communicate with the living.

Uxmal is a pleasant place to walk around, with fewer trees than Calakmul, but still enough shade, and it was also a cooler day (not cool; cooler). We visited the ball court, slightly larger than the one at Becán, with one stone goal ring still protruding from a wall. (There never were stone rings at Becán). Then we came to the “governor’s palace,” which involved scaling a rather steep and long set of stairs. I decided to give my knee a break and sat in the shade, trying to take notes on my phone.

The "Governor's Palace" at Uxmal. Again, probably no governors, but it looked like a governor's palace to the Spanish.

The “Governor’s Palace” at Uxmal. Again, probably no governors, but it looked like a governor’s palace to the Spanish.

After perhaps 20 minutes, Dimitro came back alone and sat with me. He said the tour was over and the others would come find me, but he wanted to say goodbye. He asked for my hand and held it between his two hands. We both closed our eyes for a few beats. Then he touched my hand on the back and the palm. I thanked him and we talked another minute until I felt a sudden rush of coolness despite the heat. He said he had given me energy because I needed it, and said goodbye. Whether it was real or not isn’t the question; I was both touched by this and felt refreshed.

After doing a bit of obligatory shopping, I mentioned that although we had been doing well on two meals a day, this was the day I needed to eat lunch. I was getting that empty, urgent feeling that females of my family sometimes get, and it inevitably leads to HANGRY. But the suggestion was made to visit the Museo de Chocolate across the street before eating. I might have objected, wanted to avoid full-on HANGRY mode, but chocolate sounded promising.

Museo de Chocolate at Uxmal

Museo de Chocolate at Uxmal

The museum has a circular path that has several stations set up, each explaining a different aspect of chocolate. These cover in great detail the biological info about the plant, the use of chocolate by the Maya, a “Mayan chocolate ritual,” how the ordinary Maya lived, including their homes and everyday things, how they prepared chocolate (this involved a free taste), the discovery and adoption of chocolate by Europeans, the modern agriculture, modern chocolate processing, and more. There were also plants growing in the outdoor museum that were important to the ancients, such as sisal, and some spider monkeys, deer and jaguars in cages. These latter were not being kept as exhibitions so much as either being rescued and rehabilitated, or as in the case of the jaguars, sheltered because they could not survive in the wild. By the time we left, we probably knew way more about chocolate than any of us wanted to know.

There were two things worth noting. First, the “Mayan” chocolate ceremony. Several Mayans in plain cotton shifts guided us to a seating area. Waiting for us was someone who was clearly the priest, an elderly but sturdy-looking Maya who could have been the model for the human avatar of Quetzalcoatl in “The Obsidian Mirror.” I was staring at him in fascination as I sat down on the board being used as a bench for spectators Not having noticed the board was extremely narrow, I promptly fell backward onto the gravel. It wasn’t a long fall, but several well meaning Belgians and their guide rushed to my rescue, offering large, strong hands. I took their hands, but before I could get my feet under me, found myself being dragged through the gravel at a high rate of speed. I indicated I would rather do it myself, and eventually got to my feet, apologized to all and sundry for the interruption, and sat down again—very carefully. Someone handed me my phone, which will need a new case after serious gravel abrasion. But I was fine.

The "Mayan chocolate ceremony" at the Museo de Chocolate.

The “Mayan chocolate ceremony” at the Museo de Chocolate.

Tom described the ceremony as a cross between a Mayan ritual, the Catholic mass, and Monty Python. I suppose they studied the steles and murals to approximate it, and may even have some of the stages worked out, but in all likelihood, the actual doings are long forgotten. Still, it was a good way to show that the Maya regarded chocolate as sacred and special, hardly a casual treat.

Chocolate was prepared as a drink in those times, never eaten. The beans were fermented and ground into a paste that was mixed with coconut butter. It was combined with chilis and sometimes honey and mixed with hot water to drink. Often, the blood of sacrificial victims was added as well. (I’ll take mine straight, thanks.) Chocolate was reserved for the elite, of course, as all good things have been throughout history.

Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine, which is a stimulant and vasodilator. In high doses, it may have other effects. One of the Spanish conquistadores described an Indian consuming several cups of chocolate and then offering himself as a sacrifice. So I suppose it can amp you up a bit, especially if you believe, as this gentleman undoubtedly did, that you’re going directly to paradise.

We were given a demonstration of the preparation of the drink (sans blood) and given cups of the hot mixture to try. You could add sugar (Tsk!), chilis, achiote (a popular local spice from the annatto tree), and other flavorings if desired. I went with chili, and because I am a wimp, sugar. It was very rich and tasty. But not enough to avoid HANGRY.

As a last note on chocolate, it was the Europeans that added sugar and milk or cream to the drink (no chilis), and also discovered how to make chocolate candies. The Maya never consumed it as anything other than a drink.

I could have bought some chocolate there—there were chocolate bars and chocolate ice cream—but I didn’t want candy or ice cream, I wanted FOOD. By the time we finished up at the museo, I was ready to eat my own head. Fortunately we were near several restaurants. Unfortunately, there ensued a discussion about which restaurant to try. I turned to Tom and said, “JUST GO SOMEWHERE!” We chose the restaurant at the entrance to the ruins. This proved to be an excellent choice, as they had Yucateco cuisine like cochinita pibil (pulled pork flavored with achiote), and it was well prepared and delicious.

After lunch, we piled back in the car and took the road to Valledolid. We had originally planned to stay two days in Valledolid, then Linda and Clod would drive to Cancun to catch their flight home while we went on to Isla Mujeres for a few day. Note to unwary travelers in the Yucatán: the time zones change between states. Valledolid is in the State of Yucatán and Cancun is in the State of Quintana Roo, and they are not in the same time zone. If we had followed our original travel plan, Linda and Clod would have missed their plane by several hours. So we stayed only one night in Valledolid and then went on to the Marriott Courtyard Airport in Cancun so that Linda and Clod could get up at some horrible hour in the morning and catch their flight home.

Moon over Valladolid, as seen from our hotel roof.

Moon over Valladolid, as seen from our hotel roof.

The hotel in Valledolid was charming, It reminded me of the pensions my mother used to tell me about, built around an interior courtyard. The courtyard was probably once occupied by a fountain and potted plants, but now has a pool taking up most of it. Every surface was tiled, with wrought-iron railings and bars on the windows. They had a rooftop patio where you could look out over the city, and they served breakfast up there as well. The hotel was clean and comfortable, though our window was right on the street—literally. Cars passed within inches of the wall of our room. But that didn’t keep me awake. The price of $30 a night was also very comfortable.

Valladolid town plaza with the church in the background.

Valladolid town plaza with the church in the background.

After dinner, we went for a walk to the town plaza, which was delightful. Everyone was out strolling in the cool night air, and kids were running around with balloons or eating ice cream. The church at one end of the plaza was all lit up. We were all charmed with the domesticity of the scene, and at the same time, reminded of how different our own culture is.

Clod and Linda, testing the "courting benches" in Valladolid's town plaza.

Clod and Linda, testing the “courting benches” in Valladolid’s town plaza.

Save

Save

Days 3 and 4: The Lost City in the Jungle

calakmul

 

We had a journey of about three hours from Laguna Bacalar to Calakmul, the Mayan city I had most wanted to see. But before we left the lake, I wanted to swim in Cenoté Azule. The Yucatán Peninsula has no running surface water–streams or rivers–but the subterranean water rises to the surface via cenotés, which are underground caves that form in the limestone that composes the peninsula. Back in the day, many of these cenotés were repositories of virgin sacrifices, weighted down with jade and probably high on something. Xebalba (sheh-bal-bah), the Mayan underworld or place of death, is under the water. It did not pay to be a virgin in those days–if it ever did.

Many cenotés are deep holes, filled with water, but hard to get to as the water is many yards below the ground’s surface, though open to the sky. Cenoté Azule is a “mature” cenoté, which means the water is now at the surface so it is easier to get into and out of. Cenoté Azul is inevitably described as having crystal clear, pure waters, and we were advised to bring snorkeling equipment to see the underwater sights.

Cenoté Azul has restrooms and a restaurant, and a few ricketty shade structures much enjoyed by termites. Linda and I got into the water, but crystal clear is not how we would describe it. It was quite murky from the mud being stirred up by people getting in and out. I swam out further than Linda, and the water did clear up, but beneath me, intensely black, deep water was all I could see. I swam back and got out. At least I had a chance to adjust my new snorkel mask in fresh water with no waves slapping me around. And I can say I swam in a cenoté, however briefly.

Cenote Azul in the foreground. The water beyond is Laguna Bacalar; the cenote and the lake are separated only by a thin strip of land.

Cenote Azul in the foreground. The water beyond is Laguna Bacalar; the cenote and the lake are separated only by a thin strip of land.

We drove to the next large city, Chetumal, needing to pick up sundries and cash as the next leg of the trip was cash-only. Then on to the Calakmul Biological Reserve, deep in the jungle near the Belize border. We had reservations at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, which is deep inside the reserve. It is the only hotel in the reserve, but it is still a LONG way from the actual ruins. The hotel reminds me of the Adirondacks, or something similar. Everything is rustic, with natural logs and branches forming the supports of the buildings. There’s lots of screening, and the buildings are all palm-thatched. There is a surprisingly good restaurant here, a pool, and not much else. Everyone here came for the ruins or for the nature reserve, or both. There’s one group of bird-watching Brits who can always be seen, all wearing khaki and carrying huge binoculars.

Home sweet home at Hotel Calakmul.

Home sweet home at Hotel Calakmul.

The jungle is not quite what I expected. There are some large trees, but not as many as I imagined. Mostly the trees are rather slender and of medium height. There is less dense undergrowth than I would have anticipated, and the place has more the feel of a young temperate forest—if it were not for the orchids and bromeliads clinging to the trees, plus the occasional monkey. I suppose this is because the Yucatán is a rather dry place–definitely not rainforest, with trees so tall that there is a complete ecosystem existing in the canopy. Mostly, there is no canopy in the jungle here.

The beds were comfy and although the mosquito netting didn’t seem necessary, we used it. I have been surprised at the lack of bugs. I knew this was the driest, coolest, least buggy time of year, but I still expected a LOT more bugs.

The next morning, we met our guide, Roberto. Roberto is a Mayan from Chiapas whose family moved here when they lost everything in a flood/mudslide. I immediately began to pick his brain.

I am particularly interested in a legendary people called aluxes (ah-LOOSH-es). They are similar to the Menehune of Hawaii and the leprechauns of Ireland in that they are small people, the size of children, and they are mischievous and curious. They are guardians of the forest. I saw them as being akin to Fred the Mannegishi, if you happen to have read “The Obsidian Mirror.” The aluxes go back at least to the time of the ancient Maya, and there are bas-relief sculptures of them from the ruins (but not the ones we were there to see.)

Aluxes from a bas-relief sculpture at Uxmal.

Aluxes from a bas-relief sculpture at Uxmal.

Roberto said he didn’t know much about aluxes, but it turned out he knew quite a lot.

He said he saw one when he was young, but he was with several other boys. No one else saw the alux, but he said it looked like a child running in the forest, wearing a shirt and shorts with a woven hat with a pointed crown and a brim all around. None of his companions saw it. When he and his brother got lost in the forest, they believed it was aluxes leading them astray because they hadn’t asked permission to hunt. He told me that if you are hunting for food and make an offering to them to ask permission, they will leave you alone. If you are hunting to sell the meat or fail to ask for permission, they will trick you and get you lost in the forest.

I asked Roberto whether he knew of other forest spirits, and he told me about Juan de Monte. “Monte” is a Spanish word for forest, and Juan de Monte is another protective forest spirit with the added characteristic of shielding wounded animals and nursing them back to health. He told us a story about a man from his village who was a very good hunter. He shot deer to sell the meat. He was hunting one day and shot a deer, but the wounded animal escaped. He followed it and came to a stone hut. Inside the hut, he saw many wounded animals. A spirit of the forest appeared to him, Juan de Monte, and told him these were all the animals he had wounded but not killed. Juan de Monte was nursing them. He told the hunter he was not allowed to hunt again. The hunter returned home but he couldn’t speak. His family took him to a curandero, who helped him to regain his power of speech. The hunter went hunting again because it was his livelihood. In the forest, an enormous deer appeared, the largest he had ever seem, and he shot it. But the deer was unwounded. He shot at it several more times with no effect. He threw down his rifle and ran home. Later, he and his brother went back to get the rifle, but the man never hunted again. I don’t know how far back Juan del Monte goes, but I plan on researching it. (I found a Mayan legend later about the “King of the Forest,” a spirit who plays the same role as Juan de Monte. I believe they are probably the same.)

Calakmul Temple of Venus (I think).

Calakmul Temple of Venus (I think).

Our first visit was to Calakmul, a city that was founded about 700 BC and abandoned around 1200 AD. From the hotel, it is reached by a 60-kilometer-long road with many potholes. In the Classical Maya period, Calakmul was the predominant force in southern Yucatán/northern Beliz and Guatamala. At its peak, it was home to 65,000 people. Archeologists have been excavating and restoring Calakmul for decades, but much is still unexplored. There are no cenotés in the area so they had a system of rainwater catchments and storage. Unsurprisingly, the primary god of this city (and all the Mayan cities of the Yucatán) was Chaak, the god of rain and lightening. The city was abandoned because of a severe drought and crop failures. They probably thought Chaak was trying to tell them something.

It was a very pleasant place to explore, with lots of shade. On the 1-kilometer walk to the ruins from the site entrance, we saw two spider monkeys– the first monkeys I have ever seen in the wild. We also saw oscillated turkeys, as gorgeous as peacocks, and pheasants.

Oscillated turkey.

Oscillated turkey.

Coming into the ruin feels almost as though you have discovered a lost city. There are very few other visitors there, and you can walk around alone hearing only the sounds of the leaves in the breeze or perhaps howler monkeys booming in the distance. The ruins are impressive, and you can see how the building and stone-carving techniques evolved from the older to newer buildings. There are many limestone stele, but they are so eroded that most of them resemble rotten teeth more than bas-relief sculptures. Two large stele still show the remains of a king on the right side and a queen on the left. You can just make out the faces and bodies. The queen faces right toward her husband, and the king faces left. Their feet are portrayed with left foot pointing left and right foot pointing right, knees bent, giving them the appearance of being bow-legged.

One of the least-eroded stele at Calakmul.

One of the least-eroded stele at Calakmul.

Most of the overgrowth has been removed from the excavated buildings, but strangler figs still grow on them in places, roots flowing over the stone steps like melted wax. Roberto was very informative about the animals and flora, happily pointing out the poisonous trees (chechem) and the trees (chaka) that cure the itchy rash caused by the chechem, as well as the orchids and bromiliads that have hitched a ride on many trees. The chaca tree is also called by some “la tourista” because it has a red, peeling skin–like so many Norte Americanos who come here and expose their pale skin to too much tropical sun.

Strangler fig surrounding a captive stele.

Strangler fig surrounding a captive stele.

There were many round stone altars associated with the stele. They were heavily eroded, but it was still easy to see they are nothing like the post-classic Mayan altar shaped like a human being, usually on its back (chak-mool). The Classical Maya of the Yucatán did not practice much human sacrifice. They did practice blood sacrifice, however. The royalty was expected to let their own blood, obtained by perforating lips, tongue, earlobes or genitals with a stingray spine, cactus thorns or thorny vines. I’m not talking about making a modest cut or incision, either–there is plenty of graphic evidence that they thrust the object all the way through their flesh to the other side. The blood was collected in a bowl and burned. This was the duty of royalty to assure the gods were properly worshiped. Animal sacrifice and the burning of food like maize was also practiced. Although some cities sacrificed the captain of the winning ball team, Calakmul doesn’t have a ball court­—at least none that has yet been found. More about the ball game later.

Maize was the principle crop, but they also grew beans and squash. The Maya cultivated cotton, at least in some places. The standard garb was a simple white cotton garment for men and women. Priests, warriors and elites added elaborate headdresses of feathers, jade jewelry, animal skins (the jaguar being especially significant and powerful) and other ornaments. Those heavy-looking headdresses you see in Maya murals and bas-relief sculptures? Those are highly stylized feathers.

Imagine this fresh and new, painted in bright colors.

Imagine this fresh and new, painted in bright colors.

The temples and palaces were originally covered with stucco and painted. These important buildings were oriented to the four cardinal directions. Little remains of the stucco or paint, but it is likely that each side was painted with the color associated with that direction. The only pigment remaining that I could see was red. Mayan cities, which were cleared of vegetation, must have been bright and gorgeous under the sun, richly colored and designed to impress, with their tiered temples and palaces, and spacious plazas. The red color of the paint was created with cochineal bugs.

Some temples had living quarters, maybe for priests or royals. They left little to inform us. The Maya lived outdoors for the most part, using rooms only for sleeping. The elite rooms feature a slab of stone, often quite large, as a bed—very much like the concrete slabs we slept on at Hotel Azul36. These slabs would be covered with matting or perhaps mattresses stuffed with the cottony insides of ceiba fruit. There were often niches cut in the wall or into the sides of the stone platform, perhaps for personal storage. The common people lived in wattle-and-daub round huts with palm-thatched roofs, so there is little left of them, if anything. Cooking was done outdoors, and there is no evidence here of kitchens.

There was a magnificent ceiba tree at Calakmul, one of the largest trees in the area. At this time of year it is leafless, but we could see the many small, oval fruits on its branches. With its height, symmetry and white bark, it reminded me of the White Tree of Gondor. The Maya thought the ceiba tree was the tree of life, holding up the sky.

Ceiba tree, the Mayan tree of life.

Ceiba tree, the Mayan tree of life.

The largest pyramid was dedicated to Chaak, of course. There was also a temple dedicated to Venus (the planet, not the Greek goddess). Venus was essential in the Mayan calendar, and was also associated with Kukulcan, a feathered serpent god precursor to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl—but Roberto said there was no evidence of Kukulcan worship at Calakmul.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Maya. Time and the jungle obliterated much, and the Spanish took over from there. It’s only due to a few Spanish friars that any of the Mayan codices were copied and translated. Hundreds of these Maya documents were burned, and artifacts stolen or destroyed. And yet, there are still many people who speak one dialect or another of that ancient language and continue to pass down the ancient stories, one generation to the next.

The artifacts at Calakmul have either been removed to the archeological museum in Mexico City, or walled off from the public by archeologists. There were three royal tombs discovered there with jade masks. Roberto showed us photographs. They were widely separated in time. The earliest is composed of tiny pieces of jade, needed to be able to show the curvature of the face. The second uses larger pieces that have been worked to create curves, but the third, composed of large pieces, is a stunning work of art. The ability to work with jade at all is impressive, given that jade is harder than steel, and the Maya had no metal tools. They barely had any gold, as it was obtained only through trade, and they considered jade more beautiful.

The oldest jade mask found at Calakmul, using tiny jade pieces to create the contours of the face.

The oldest jade mask found at Calakmul, using tiny jade pieces to create the contours of the face.

Newest mask found at Calakmul, showing huge steps forward in jade working and artistic skill.

Newest mask found at Calakmul, showing huge steps forward in jade working and artistic skill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We could have gone on to the merchant quarters and marketplace, but we thought we’d seen the best of Calakmul–at least that part of it that has been excavated. We walked back to the entrance, seeing a family of white-lipped peccaries on the way. They are much smaller than wild boars, but they have pretty much the same attitude. We gave them a wide berth and went on, Roberto pointing out the flora and fauna as he went. Unfortunately, I had little time to write everything down. We were scheduled to do something every day, and I was always so tired from the heat, humidity and walking that I fell asleep every night without journaling.

 

 

Save