Farewell to the Isle of Women

The Caribbean shore of Isla Mujeres, with embellishment.


This morning, I was determined to do some beachcombing. Everyone says there is sea glass here. But first we had breakfast at Lola Valentina, where the staff now knows us and the food is good. They have a small army of cats in the restaurant, black and white, orange tabby, and cream. They aren’t feral, exactly, but they aren’t pets. I suspect they are there not to cage crumbs from the tourists, but to keep the rodent and cucaracha populations under control.

Then we took No. 8., our putt-putt cart, over to the north shore. It is rocky all along the Caribbean side. There are no beaches and the currents are too strong for swimming. The waves are small, just a constant slap-slap-slap against the rough rocks.

Sadly, what we mostly found was plastic garbage. We did find some sea glass, but nothing that a sea glass enthusiast would get excited about. Mostly of the broken beer bottle variety but there were a few nice pieces. And we found a sad, dead cow fish. But mostly plastic garbage, which you see everywhere on this island. Every day, I saw people finish food and just walk away, leaving their refuse on the street.

The bridge to Mia Reef



After that, we went to Mia Reef, which is a resort built, natch, on top of a reef. As a consequence, the reef is now dead. It is reached by a narrow wooden bridge across a beautiful turquoise inlet. For a fee, non-residents can get all the food and drink they want (including alcohol), and hang out on the beach or at the pool. There is still reef, accessible from the beach, and the water is quite shallow all the way out to it. We didn’t snorkel because it was windy, but one man who was snorkeling said there was a lot to see. We swam in the aqua water and lazed on a swinging mattress under a palapa, looking out on the Caribbean. Mia Reef would be an ideal place to take kids because the water is crystalline, shallow and calm. Once older kids are used to the water, the reef would be an excellent introduction to snorkeling. The resort is elegant and clean, there’s a kids’ club, and the staff is attentive even to day trippers such as ourselves. The food was acceptable, the drinks not overly alcoholic, if you know what I mean.

We walked out on a long pier. There were two people snorkeling, and they said they saw a lot of fish. I decided not to try because of the wind and because we were scheduled for a snorkeling tour the next day, but I later regretted my decision to give it a pass.

As the following day was our next-to-last day on the island, we checked the flight times and discovered that we weren’t going to make our flight if we stayed on the island for the last day we were booked. We would have to go back to the Marriott Courtyard at the airport, which meant we had to check out the afternoon prior to our flight instead of staying on Isla. This was the same day we had scheduled the snorkeling tour, which bothered me because once you’re on one of these tours, you don’t just decide it’s gone on too long; you’re there for the duration. We had to turn in No. 8 by 4 pm and make sure we caught the ferry to the mainland in time. So I cancelled the trip again.

* * * *

We’d already seen most of the things there are to see on this small island. There were only two things left, so we decided to do them.

Green sea turtle at the Tortugranja

We started at Garrifon Reef Park to do some snorkeling. It was more expensive than Mia Reef, but it is a kind of family playground with zip lines over the water, snorkeling, kayaking, a shallow, wandering pool with waterfalls and grottoes, beaches, restaurants and bars. Food, drinks and all activities were included in the price of admission.

Tom and I went snorkeling, but it was a disappointment to me. They make you wear a life jacket, which annoys me because it makes it hard to swim. The reef is dead, but they won’t let you snorkel over it anyway. We saw some fish and I saw a stingray. Tom saw a very large fish that he thought at first was a barracuda, but it was too chunky for that. He’d recognize a shark, so we never figured it out. My snorkel mask, which is one of the new kind that have a non-fogging bubble and built-in snorkel, was apparently too large, and I had to snorkel with my mouth hanging open to prevent water from entering. There was a line of people waiting at the steps to get into the water, and none of them would budge to let us out. A kindly man eventually took my equipment to allow me to climb out, which was nice of him.

We had the cafeteria food they were serving for lunch, accompanied by a non-stop stream of pretty-much-non-alcoholic margueritas that we didn’t ask for, which was fine. Sort of like lime slurpees, but better. Again, this would be a terrific place to bring kids. I’m just spoiled because I have snorkeled in places like Hawaii and Tahiti, where the reefs are alive and the ocean life abundant. I think I’m done trying to snorkel in the Caribbean. I’ve snorkeled in Antigua (actually OK at the time; early 70s), Jamaica and now Isla Mujeres, and most of the reefs I’ve seen are dead.

This was our last night on the island, so we made reservations for the fancy restaurant at Villa Rolandi. I had a filet mignon with bearnaise sauce that was as tender as chicken (I mean well-prepared chicken) and flavor to die for. It’s a great place, but at $400US a night it’s pretty pricey, even if all meals and drinks and activities are inclusive.

The following day we had breakfast at Mango Cafe–poblano pepper stuffed with bacon, eggs, onions and cheese, breaded and deep-fried. OK not healthy, but I’m on vacation dammit. We’ve pretty much done everything there is to do here, so we visited the Tortugranja, a rescue and breeding facility for sea turtles. They provide a safe place to lay and hatch the eggs, then release the babies. They have tanks with some older turtles being rehabbed, and there are some very large specimens in a pen in the ocean. You can walk along a pier to see them. They sell bags of turtle chow at the entrance.

There’s a large pen that extends into the ocean containing several large turtles. I think they are mature adults that for whatever reason will not survive in the wild. When you throw turtle chow in the large pen the turtles get some of it, but there is an army of assorted seagulls above and another one of little fish below that eagerly gobble up much of the food.

Albino sea turtles


They had several albino turtles–one tank had nothing but albinos–and had green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles there. Sea turtles are threatened for several reasons. One is because they are so darned delicious. People everywhere catch and eat them and their eggs despite the fact they are endangered. Another is because many of their hatching beaches have disappeared, taken over by development and humans who enjoy the beach environment. Another is because given their diminished numbers, the natural predation on the babies cuts seriously into their surviving numbers. Baby turtles must crawl from their nests in the sand to the ocean, all the while being attacked by birds. Once in the water, the babies are an easy snack for fish and more birds.

After the Tortugranja, we were pretty much done with Isla. We went into town, bought some gifts, had lunch and turned in No. 8. Then it was time to pack and catch the ferry to the mainland. On the taxi ride from Puerto Juarez, the ferry port on the mainland, the driver told me he had saved up to take his family to DisneyWorld in Florida, spending $750US for visas. The visas were cancelled by the P45 administration, no explanations offered. I apologized for my country, embarrassed. This was the first time anyone in Mexico raised the subject; of course they rely on tourism, but I also think they gave us, as individuals, the benefit of the doubt. Plus, the Mexican people are for the most part friendly, kind and polite. Many times, someone stopped unasked and helped me with something–a dropped item, a suitcase, or helped me over rough ground. On the ferry, which was crowded, a man gave me his seat with his family despite my protests. The Mexicans absolutely do not deserve the cold shoulder they are getting from my country.

I was pleased throughout our trip to note that there were as many Mexicans as other nationalities on vacation in the places we went, enjoying the sights and experiences of their country. (Calakmul was an exception. Most people there were American or European. It’s a kind of remote place, after all, and not someplace you’d take kids.) I have visited Mexico a few times before and didn’t see this previously. I am hopeful this means the middle class is growing in Mexico, and more people have the leisure and money that we have taken for granted here for many decades. I believe there were more Mexican tourists in Isla Mujeres than Americans.

At some point during the trip, Linda asked me if I had enough material for the next novel. I am beginning to work on a story line, but I would say no, I do not. I came back from Moloka‘i two years ago seething with ideas and enthusiasm to start writing. I’m not there yet with this one. I think it will be a slow burn. This one has to be the best one, because after that, I am saying farewell to Sierra and Chaco, Clancy, Fred, Rose, Kaylee and Mama Labadie. Three books are enough.

Next research trip: Iceland, but not for a while. I still have to launch “Fire in the Ocean” and write the third book in the series. But I’m thinking about it!

Here are some photos, included in no particular order, but I like them for one reason or another and they didn’t fit into my narrative:

A typical Mayan arch at Uxmal











Clod and friend.

Church at Valladolid.

Beautiful bas-relief at Uxmal.

Our guide Roberto, standing in front of an arched tunnel at Becan. Air funneled through this tunnel and it was as good as air conditioning in the heat and humidity of southern Yucatan.

Another captain’s tomb at Isla Mujeres. You can see the ship’s wheels in cement in the surrounding fence What you can’t see as well is the model of a ship in the glass case at the front.

Red-capped manikin, a rare sighting! At Chicaana.

Just a nice green fungus at Calakmul

Strangler figs (isn’t that a wonderfully ominous name?) growing on an unexcavated building in Calakmul.

Hotel Calakmul. This is what the jungle looks like in southern Yucatan–more like the Adirondacks.



Day 6: My First Crocodile and the Long, Long Road to Uxmal

This checkerboard pattern is a bit of detail from a palace at Becan.

This checkerboard pattern is a bit of detail from a palace at Becan.

We arose at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am to meet the wonderful Roberto for a nature tour in the biological reserve of Calakmul. He drove up on his motorcycle right on time. The restaurant wasn’t open until 7, and in-room coffee was not a feature, so we ventured forth, unfed and uncoffeed. It was dark and relatively cool. I have to admit after the past two days of walking, I was still tired.

We drove some 27 kilometers down the same road leading to the ruins before turning off into a wooded area. We saw spider monkeys immediately, a troop of them brachiating from branch to branch, chirping to each other. Right after that, we countered howler monkeys, a larger and slower monkey that makes up for it in volume, hooting and roaring in an unmistakable way.

Spider monkey in the Calakmul Biological Reserve. This is about the best picture we got.

Spider monkey in the Calakmul Biological Reserve. This is about the best picture we got.

Roberto moved quietly through the forest, and we imitated him. His sharp eyes would spot birds and other things we never would have seen on our own. Unfortunately I don’t remember most of what he pointed out, not being a birder, though I do remember a pair of large woodpeckers. And the crocodile.

I spotted a lovely waterfall of cream-colored orchids growing on a tree in a swampy area. I moved cautiously closer to take a picture and Roberto pointed out that one of the logs in the water was actually a crocodile. But just a little one, he said–perhaps nine feet.

These are the orchids that tempted me into the crocodile-infested swamp. Well, there was one crocodile. Our pictures of him look like a distant log, which is boring.

These are the orchids that tempted me into the crocodile-infested swamp. Well, there was one crocodile. Our pictures of him look like a distant log, which is boring.

We walked a little further, but as much as I hated to admit it, I was just tired. And hungry. And I wanted coffee. So we walked back to the car. When we got there, we heard howlers again, and everyone else went to see them. I stayed with the car, I am ashamed to say, but I could hear them just fine. Roberto is a good mimic, but they seemed incensed at whatever he was saying.

I was awfully glad to get coffee and breakfast when we got back. I had chilaquiles, and they were delicious.

The next stop was Uxmal, a post-classic Maya city located far to the north of Calakmul. It was a very long drive. Tom and Clod took turns driving and navigating in the front of the car, Linda and I in the back. I have long legs, and it was like sitting in a movie theater for six hours with an occasional bathroom break. We had had a big breakfast and did not stop for lunch.

Men may want to skip this paragraph. Okay, ­I warned you. At this point, I really need to share with you a travel product for women that has been a godsend to me, especially as I’ve gotten older and my knees have become garbage. I think we’ve all been in situations where there are 1) no toilet facilities; 2) toilets with seats you wouldn’t go near if your life depended on it; 3) toilets with no seats; 4) holes in the ground. SheWee is the answer to your prayers. It enables you to pee anywhere you want. Just like a guy. And it all goes back in a discreet case small enough to fit into a purse, backpack, and even a pocket. I always carry a small packet of Kleenex to use where there’s no paper. SheWee does have to be rinsed, so do it on the spot if possible and wash with soap later. I’m not shy about rinsing it out in public, but water isn’t always an option, either. I have had to use it almost every day on this trip and I can safely say I have never loved a few pieces of plastic more.

This sporty-looking iguana was one of the few interesting things we saw on the way to Uxmal.

This sporty-looking iguana was one of the few interesting things we saw on the way to Uxmal.

Nothing of particular interest happened on the way to Uxmal, so I will say only that as we traveled north, it became discernibly drier. The vegetation was not as tall or as thick. It was mostly rural or completely undeveloped except for the little villages and a few small towns we passed, with the exception of the coastal city of Campeche, where Clod spent summers as a child. At almost every speed bump along the way, there were people selling jicama with limes, little finger bananas, pineapples, coconuts, cold drinks­—you name it.

Finally–finally–we reached Uxmal. The hotel was the grandest by far of the entire trip, and only a five-minute walk from the ruins. Hacienda Uxmal is modeled after the historical haciendas of the region, with beautiful tiled floors and walls, a sweeping staircase, and pillared verandas. Many celebrities have stayed there, from Jackie Kennedy and kids to Queen Elizabeth I.

Somehow, we were assigned enormous, luxurious rooms with elegant soaker tubs and marble showers with glass roofs giving you a panorama of the sky and tree-tops. Our room had photos of John-John and Carolyn Kennedy visiting the ruins as children, while Linda and Clod got the Jackie-only suite. We weren’t paying enough money to get these posh quarters, so I guess we just got lucky. Sadly, we didn’t get any photographs of the hotel rooms. They really were splendid.

I threw myself in the shower and then joined the others for a curiously tasteless marguerita. Dinner was outdoors, a buffet. Though we had not had any lunch, by this time I had no appetite at all and could think only of sleeping  I made myself eat some dinner, figuring that if I didn’t, I’d wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach growling. The food was also curiously tasteless. All this luxury, and they couldn’t produce food any better than your average school cafeteria.

I excused myself early and fell into bed, falling asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

Day 5: The Bat Tornado

Temple at Chicaana

Temple at Chicaana

We were actually scheduled to go to three Mayan ruins this day, but I wimped out after two, Chicaaná and Bécan. The third, Xpuhil (shpoo-heel), was the last and smallest, and by the middle of the afternoon, I was sweaty, tired, and not sure I’d be able to tell one from the other.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it's also called "la tourista" because of its red, peeling bark.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it’s also called “la tourista” because of its red, peeling bark.

Chicaaná, Xpuhil and Bécan were vassal cities of Calakmul, which was the big cheese in the region. As these cities are many miles apart and the jungle in those days must have been denser and more difficult to navigate back then, I asked Roberto how they traveled between cities. These cities were located many miles from Calakmul and from each other; if Calakmul didn’t have local representatives or surrogates at these cities, it would have been hard to maintain control. Roberto said they had paths between cities called sac-be—the white road. All paths and unpaved roads hereabouts are white due to the limestone that makes up the earth.


This is one of the sleeping platforms for the elite that I mentioned in the past post. It is located in a small room in one of the palaces at Chicaana. There are two small carved faces on either side of the recess in the platform, which is speculated to be for personal possessions. The palace rooms were very small, as even the elite Maya lived mostly outdoors.

Bécan was unusual in that it had a moat surrounding the city, just like a medieval castle. There were seven entrances into the city across the moat (seven being a magical number). There were no drawbridges. Roberto said that the entrances were narrow enough that invading warriors could be picked off more or less one by one as they invaded the city but there is no evidence of invasion ever occurring at Bécan.

Temple at Becan.

Temple at Becan.

The temples here are larger than at Calakmul, and have two towers. There is a ball court at Bécan, unlike Calakmul. The ball game was central to Mayan spiritual life. It was played at least partly in tribute to Hunapu, one of the two sets of hero twins of the Popul Vuh, the Mayan origin story. Hunapu is decapitated by the lords of the underworld (Xebalba). His twin, Xbalanque (shball-ahn-kay), uses a squash as a substitute for his brother’s head, which is being used as a ball by the lords of the underworld. Xbalanque rescues the head and replaces it on his brother’s shoulders. (His brother is apparently none the worse for the wear.) Xbalanque substitutes a ball of chiclé sap for use in the ballgame. Ever after, the lords of the underworld do not receive human sacrifice, but instead must be satisfied with offerings of fragrant tree sap.

Not every Mayan city has a ball court, but the later ones do. They were not intended as a public entertainment but as a religious event, and were witnessed by priests. The captain of the winning team was decapitated as a sacrifice, and it was believed he went directly to the Mayan version of paradise. I would have been a lousy captain.

Both cities were impressive, showing increased sophistication in stone working techniques compared to Calakmul. They had attractive bas-relief carvings that are still quite crisp and clear. We went inside the palace (or one of the palaces). In the large space inside, a tiny bird was flying about from beam to beam of ironwood, a wood so hard it can last for many centuries. Roberto told us it was a red-capped manikin, and quite rare. I thought about the British birders back at the hotel, and considered walking by them, casually remarking, “…and I looked up, and there it was–a red-capped manikin!” But I didn’t.

On the other side of the palace was another long, low building. The front entrance was surrounded by elaborate carving which Roberto pointed out represented the face of a jaguar. It was so abstract that I might have thought it was just stylized patterns if he hadn’t pointed it out to me. So to enter the building was to walk into the mouth of the jaguar, and it was a statement of the king’s power. The first dynasty at Calakmul was the Bat Dynasty, but they were overtaken at some point by the Jaguars. Jaguars trump bats, I guess.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teetch, and you can see stylized eyes and ears to either side of the doorway.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teeth, and you can see the nose over the door, and eyes above that.

I have forgotten a lot of what I saw and heard of Bécan and Chicaaná because I didn’t journal every day. We were busy all the time and by the time I got some alone time, I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead. A lesson for future research trips not to move around so much and schedule so much. I need the writing time or it all flies away.

The night before, the hotel manager stopped by our table in the restaurant to chat and asked if we had seen the bat cave. We hadn’t heard about it and were interested, so we decided to visit it this evening, as it was our last night and the cave was an easy walk from the road. Roberto pointed out the exact location to us on the way back from the village of Xpuhil (not the ruined city), where we had stopped for sundries, so we were confident of not getting lost. Besides, there were signs with bats on them when you got close to the turnout for the cave.

A little while before sunset, we pulled into the tiny turnoff and hiked a short distance up a hill. There was an enormous hole in the earth, probably 100 yards across and 250 feet deep. The sides were sheer, and Tom, who is acrophobic, grabbed the back of my shirt every time I went near enough to the edge to actually see the cave, which was a vertical gash in the rock about 200 yards down. On the rocky overhang of the cave, I could see little brown shapes. Dead bats.

Several other people joined us, some with kids. A Canadian couple next to us set up some complicated-looking equipment. It turned out they were bat experts on vacation–a lucky turn of events for us, as they provided a lot of information. The equipment was intended to record the supersonic squeaks of the bats and identify the species. There were a number of raucous birds calling in the area, and the bat experts said they preyed on the bats. Mrs. Bat Expert perched jauntily on the edge of the chasm, making Tom nervous.

By the way, here as everywhere else we went, you are expected to take care of yourself. There are no railings separating you from the edge of the great pit in the earth–not so much as a sign. If you are careless enough to break your neck, it’s just too bad.

We all sat around chatting quietly. I flirted with someone’s baby, who was delighted with touching my hand and playing peekaboo. As twilight set in, a few bats emerged from the cave. Then more. And more. And more. Hundreds of thousands of little bats flew out, circling in a great clockwise spiral, forming a literal bat tornado. My video doesn’t do it justice, and still photos didn’t show it at all, really, but it was an awe-inspiring phenomenon. My hearing isn’t good enough to hear their calls, but the sound of those thousands upon thousands of tiny wings was like a spring breeze stirring the leaves, or the sound of a gentle rain shower.

The bats circled in their spiral for a long time, each individual rising imperceptibly higher until streams of them began to break away, veering off above our heads. Several of them flew through the trees and came quite close to us, but of course never collided. The bird noise stopped as the hunters got serious and began to go after them, but I couldn’t see them.

There was something hypnotic about that spiraling tornado of tiny bodies—enormous and overwhelming, yet delicate, gentle. We watched until the great spiraling cloud had dissipated, the bats flinging themselves on the night wind, seeking food and to avoid becoming food.

Our bat experts said there were too many species in the cave–maybe six different species or more–for the equipment to identify, but they had visually identified hoary bats and ghost bats. It was a memorable experience unlike any other, and I’m grateful for it.

Days 3 and 4: The Lost City in the Jungle



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.