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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.