The Most Cheerful Graveyard in the World

One of the more colorful tombs in the Isla Mujeres graveyard.

After a restless night (me, not Tom), we wished each other happy Valentine’s Day and got into the cart to drive to town. I was much less freaked out this time. Breakfast was the first order of business, then we needed to get the cart gassed up and the wheel fixed. The rental place was right in the middle of a shopping area filled with tiendas offering artisanal crafts and touristy tchachkis, and I wondered why Francisco had not brought us here. Who knows, but I spent a couple of hours going through the shops looking for gifts. I saw all kinds of cool stuff, and a whole lot of crap, but I had no desire to haul heavy woodcarvings or painted (and fragile) pottery home, so I was primarily looking for small, non-breakable, lightweight things.

I asked around for sea glass jewelry, as that is our daughter’s passionate hobby. I only found one shop that had it, and it consisted of monumentally ugly, poorly worn pieces set clumsily in huge, heavy silver collars. I finally did find a few pieces of delicate, beautifully designed jewelry in one store, but nothing with sea glass. I think based on what I got, that she will forgive me.

Great little jewelry store, but look at their “open” sign.

Tom, as always, followed me around while I shopped without the slightest impatience, bless the man. Once I concluded the hunt, we picked up the cart–but we got a new one with no wobbly wheel and much more get-up-and-go than the original. We called it No. 8, as that was the number painted on the side. No suspension, but a huge improvement nonetheless, as it no longer wobbled and had a bit more get-up-and-go. We went to a beach where someone had told us you can find sea glass and found a lovely little swimming area, but no sea glass. I suspect that the sea glass here is of the broken beer bottle variety, anyway, but I’ll keep looking.

We came back to the hotel. I was somewhat disturbed to find a squashed, three-inch cockroach lying by the bedside table, still waving its legs. I wasn’t disturbed by the cucaracha so much–it’s the tropics, after all–as the fact that we hadn’t squashed it and the maid hadn’t done the room yet. I sent it to Xibalba (the Mayan realm of the dead) down the toilet and mopped up the mess. Nothing was missing or amiss, so oh, well. It’s not as if I brought my diamond tiara with me. We returned to the Cubano restaurant for more excellent guacamole and a ceviche to die for, with octopus and conch in it.

And then we did nothing. Just nothing. Until about 8:30 pm, which is about a half an hour before most of the local restaurants close. We weren’t starving, so we went to Chedraui down the street, which is sort of a supermarket combined with Costco—you can get everything from mopeds and washing machines to fountain drinks, dried hibiscus flowers and fish. We got some cheese, crackers, wine and snacks and went back to the hotel for a modest repast, using our kitchen for the first time.

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We set our alarm for the next morning, as we were scheduled for a snorkeling tour at 10 am. However, the weather was projected to be quite windy, followed the next day by rain. Windy conditions are poor snorkeling conditions, so we rescheduled for after the rain.

As that was our big expedition today, we had to make new plans. We had breakfast at Lola Valentina, where we had eaten the day before, and the staff recognized us, which is always nice. I didn’t feel like a heavy breakfast and had fruit and yogurt. Then we visited the cemetery.

I adore cemeteries. The older, the better. This cemetery features the self-carved gravestone of Juan Menaca, although apparently he was buried in Merida. I wanted to find his stone, but the cemetery was sufficient on its own to delight me. The majority of the tombs are created by hand, each one different, and each one a very personal tribute to the departed, which is what I love about such places. Mexicans have a very personal relationship with their dead. Everyone knows about Dia del los Muertes, Halloween, where families picnic among the tombs and catch up their dead relatives on the doings of the past year. They share food and drink with their departed loved ones and have a lively family party.

Most of the tombs in the Isla Mujeres graveyard were designed like little two-story houses. The top story was often enclosed by glass and protected with miniature wrought-iron grills like most Mexican houses. These enclosures were often locked with padlocks, though in some cases the closure was a simple wooden latch. Inside were offerings of liquor, plastic and real flowers, little Madonna statues and angels, candles, and other things. One fancy tomb had an entire bottle of sparkling wine. Many of the structures are electrified–I’d like to see it at night. The monuments come in all sorts of designs. While most looked like little houses, one looked like a Roman temple, and there were many other variations. No two were alike, although there were several identical angel statues, each holding an index finger to her lips, the other index finger pointed heavenwards. It had the effect of a bunch of very bossy librarians.

“How many times do we have to tell you to BE QUIET???”

Some of the tombs were crudely fashioned, others were elaborate. One looked like a suburban house, complete with artificial turf lawn. Another was fashioned in the shape of a ship–several were dedicated to sea captains, which makes sense on an island. One of the captains’ tombs had a railing composed of concrete ship’s wheels and a model ship resting in a large glass case in front. I assume it was a model of the captain’s own ship, or perhaps something he created. One structure that was made to look like a cottage was painted white with twining roses painted around the door. Several were covered in ceramic or marble tiles. The larger and taller monuments had built-in steps along the side. At first I thought perhaps these were for the deceased’s spirit to reach the offerings, but I soon realized the steps were there to allow the living to reach the little offering houses and replace the contents.

This captain still sails his boat.

Sadly, hurricanes and time have damaged many of these momento morii. The sandy ground is littered with broken marble, glass tiles, shattered bottles and glasses, and so forth. But you can sense the care and love with which these tombs are created and­—as much as possible—maintained.

We did not find Juan Menaca’s gravestone. Disappointing, but even I finally gave up. We ran a few errands and had a nice lunch and did some shopping. We did finally discover the “fiesta artisanal,” and there were some very beautiful items, some different than in the surrounding sea of tiendas, but I didn’t buy anything.

Some tombs were modest, others elaborate, but each one was different.

 

 

This one had its own lawn and a fence around the yard.

The afternoons here tend to be sweltering, even though there is always a breeze. I thought it would’ve been a nice day to swim at Playa Norte, but we stayed in out of the heat instead. Toward sunset, I thought we should go to Punta Sur and watch the sun set. Traveling south in No. 8, I saw a dog enjoying the evening breeze. This would not have been unusual except that he was lying on top of the peaked roof of a portico that stretched out in front of a house. I still wish I had gotten a photo.

When we got to Punta Sur, the facilities were closed for a wedding, but we did sit out and watch the dramatic clouds as the sun set and the storm began to gather. Frigate birds, looking like a flock of pterodactyls, hung on the wind far above us, not fishing, not doing anything, as far as we could tell. Perhaps it is enough to be able to suspend oneself above the sea like a hang-glider, taking in the gold-edged clouds, the towers of Cancun, the little rocky island below, and the darkening waters.

Sunset from Punta Sur.

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Mrs. Toad’s Wild Ride

The view from the Cuban restaurant on Isla Mujeres.

The view from the Cuban restaurant on Isla Mujeres.

 

By the time we woke up in the Marriott Courtyard at the Cancun Airport, Clod and Linda were winging their way home. We ate a leisurely breakfast, turned in the car and caught a cab to the Isla Mujeres ferry. The ferry terminal was a zoo. Being a Sunday, people were taking day trips to the island and people were lined up with kids and bags.

The island is visible from the mainland, separated by brilliant, brilliant turquoise water interspersed with purple and indigo where the water is deeper. It was a brief journey and when we landed at Isla Mujeres, it was a bit overwhelming. The ferry slip is right downtown, and the place was full of people, dogs, motorcycles, taxis, and many, many golf carts. You aren’t allowed to bring your car, and people get around in rented carts, mopeds or taxis–or on foot.

Cancun in the distance, across the blue, blue water.

Cancun in the distance, across the blue, blue water.

Every golf cart in the place was rented, so we took a taxi to our hotel, which was thankfully a good distance from the noisy central area. Chac Chi Suites is a small hotel, two stories built around a central area with a little pool. We have a nice kitchen area with table, which is kind of too bad, as they provide no utensils with which to cook an actual meal–not even a coffee maker. It’s a bit basic other than that, but the room is clean and there is an outside patio area overlooking a small street. We are across from a walled elementary school, and the next day, we could hear the kids at play. (A nice sound!)

Once we got settled, we headed down that street, around the corner, to Sergio’s, a Cuban restaurant, and had beer and the most wonderful guacamole, followed by yummy broiled shrimp cooked with lime and garlic. To get to the restaurant, you walk into what looks like someone’s yard, then just persevere through some non-restaurant-appearing areas until you emerge into a rickety, palm-thatched structure over the water. Sergio’s turned out to be a popular stop for boats, which just moored to the side and let the passengers off. But it didn’t seem touristy at all, the people were friendly and the food was cheap and delicious. And, other than walking to dinner at GreenVerde, that was our day.

The next day we walked a little further to Mango Cafe for an enormous and delicious breakfast. Our rented golf cart wouldn’t be ready for hours, so we hired a taxi to take us around the island to get our bearings. Isla is a long, skinny island, oriented north-south. There are several large lagoons, some fresh, some not, and these are occupied by crocodiles, but crocodile incidents appear to be vanishingly rare. Of course, you are advised not to swim in the lagoons.

First, we went to Punta Sur (South Point). At the extreme tip of the island, there is a tiny temple to Ixchel, the most important goddess in the Mayan pantheon. Ixchel, often portrayed with a water jar or a snake headdress, is the goddess of childbirth, medicine, rainbows, fertility, and possibly the moon. As with many other cultures, she is associated with a triad of goddesses, maiden, mother and crone, Ixchel being the crone and represented in ancient times as a fierce old woman with jaguar ears.

The path to the temple winds through a sculpture garden, with the ocean to either side.

The path to the temple winds through a sculpture garden, with the ocean to either side.

“During Lent of 1517 Francisco Hernandez de Cordova sailed from Cuba with three ships to procure slaves for the mines… (others say he sailed to discover new lands). He landed on the Isla de las Mujeres, to which he gave this name because the idols he found there, of the goddesses of the country, “Ixchel” and her daughters and daughter-in-law’s “Ixchebeliax”, “Ixhunie”, “Ixhunieta”, only vestured from the girdle down, and having the breast uncovered after the manner of the Indians. The building was of stone, such as to astonished them, and they found certain objects of gold which they took.”

—Excerpt from “Yucatan, Before and After the Conquest” written in 1566 by Friar Diego de Landa.

The temple is sadly battered by time and hurricanes. A century ago, it was more or less intact, but today it is a broken tooth at the end of a white path that winds through a sculpture garden. Walking down this path, the rough waters of the Caribbean dash against the rocky western shore of the island as the gentle waters of the sound rock against the east. Cancun is clearly visible on the distant shore.

On the left, the temple of Ixchel on Isla Mujeres today. On the right, what it looked like 100 years ago. Hurricanes have taken their toll over the past century.

On the left, the temple of Ixchel on Isla Mujeres today. On the right, what it looked like 100 years ago. Hurricanes have taken their toll over the past century.

 

The structure was used as a lighthouse. Its second floor had openings, and a fire was burned inside, allowing the light to shine out to sea. It is possible it was just a lighthouse after all, and the temple itself is at a different site.

There are an abundance of iguanas sunning themselves around the rocks on the point. Several modern statues have been erected of Ixchel and an enormous green iguana near the restaurants close to the point. Ixchel is represented as a ripe young woman with a coiled snake on her head.

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A modern representation of Ixchel. In ancient time she was represented by a fierce old woman with jaguar ears. The odd hat is a snake, representing great power.

Next we drove to Hacienda Mundaca. Fermin Anonio Mundaca y Marecheaga was a slaver, and some say a pirate who made a fortune selling Mayan slaves to Cuba. He retired to Isla and built a—for the time—splendid two-story house surrounded by gardens. Much of this he did in hopes of winning the heart of a local maiden, Martiniana (Prisca) Gomez Pantoja, known as La Triguena (the brunette, which may not have distinguished her much, actually). She was a tall, green-eyed beauty, and Mundaca was hopelessly in love with her. He dedicated much of his house and grounds to her, hoping she would marry him, but she married a much younger man (Mundaca was about 35 years older than she). Heartbroken, he slid into madness and died. He carved his own gravestone, which can be seen in the graveyard at the north end, but as he died in Merida, he is not actually buried in the Isla Mujeres graveyard.

Stairs to the upper story of the Hacienda Mendaca. SO glad they don't make stairs like this today.

Stairs to the upper story of the Hacienda Mendaca. SO glad they don’t make stairs like this today.

The estate looks as though someone in the past tried to restore it a bit and add things like caged animals as attractions. The cages are now empty. The house is in ruins, but you can see the two downstairs rooms. Visiting the upstairs would be taking your life in your hands. The staircase from the ground floor to the second floor is more a ladder than a staircase, and I am sure the upper story is unsafe. There are a few photos with labels in Spanish in the downstairs area. Ruins of several outbuildings surround the house at a distance. If you follow a dirt path into the woods, you will come to an eerily deserted garden, surrounding a well at the center. The circular area around the well is delineated with stone and concrete low walls, creating four pie-wedges of masonry. Each pie-wedge has areas for plantings and a seat where one can contemplate the beauty of the vanished garden. Mendaca carved some of the stones, calling himself a ship’s captain and a pilot, not a slaver or a pirate. A few plants struggle on, notably a bougainvillea blooming its meager little heart out. It is a deserted, peaceful and very melancholy place, especially considering it’s creator’s sad story. The incurious would never find this garden, as it is well concealed by the woods.

The well at the center of the forgotten garden.

The well at the center of the forgotten garden.

The forgotten garden at Hacienda Mendaca.

The forgotten garden at Hacienda Mendaca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closer to the house, but a safe distance from it, is a large pond with rushes and water lilies growing in it. It also has a resident crocodile or two, but we didn’t see any. Unlike the rest of the estate, however, the stone wall around the pond looks in very good repair.

Then we embarked on a wild goose chase. A poster in the hotel office advertised an artisan craft fair on the esplanade. I wanted to see it and asked the driver, Francisco, to take us there. He obligingly took us to some shop at the north of the island, but that was obviously not the fair, so we drove back to the hotel, and I asked Francisco to go in and look at it. He then took us to the site in question, where there was no craft fair in sight. Well, no worries. On to Playa Norte, the top-rated beach on the island, for a cold beer and a gander. We weren’t going in the water, but it looked very inviting. It’s shallow, with a white sand bottom out quite far. The water is that heart-melting turquoise, and the sand is as soft and fine as sugar. By this time, we had driven all around the island, and felt well oriented.

We went back to the hotel and found that our golf cart was ready. Tom went to pick it up. Later that night we decided to go to a recommended restaurant called Villa Rolandi. We got into the golf cart, and thus commenced Mrs. Toad’s wild ride. I’ve never been in a golf cart before, and I felt like a turtle without its shell as we putt-putted down the busy main road in the dark, overtaken by taxis, mopeds, and other golf carts. Mexico has some of the most ferocious speed bumps I’ve ever seen, which is OK in a car, but the golf cart had absolutely no suspension, so each one was a bone-rattler. I heard my neck crack more than once as we jolted over these things, and I expected to be thrown out at any moment.

Mrs. Toad.

Mrs. Toad.

We finally arrived at Villa Rolandi, and I immediately felt grubby, underdressed and generally outclassed. We’ve been eating in pretty unpretentious places, with the exception of Hacienda Uxmal (but the quality of the food was the worst there of any place we ate). Villa Rolandi is a grand hotel with all the fixings. Nonetheless, we were ushered into the restaurant without a second glance and seated where we could hear the waves (though being night, we couldn’t see them), with an expansive view of the lights of Cancun shining across the dark sound.

The food was incredibly good. They brought us an interesting crispy flat bread with olives to start, then we had calamari and zucchini deep-fried to perfection. I ordered grilled octopus (pulpo), figuring I could not go wrong, and was not disappointed. Tom had a lovely filet mignon. I couldn’t finish the poor octopus, and followed insult to injury by having chocolate ice cream that I also couldn’t finish. We had a yummy Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon with our meal.

We got into a pleasant conversation with the couple next to us, as Tom recognized them from the hotel at Calakmul. They were from England, near Manchester. The man had at one time decided to visit every Mayan ruin in existence, and apparently had a good stab at it before giving up, but he still likes to visit the ones he missed earlier. I asked him why he wanted to do this, and the answer was because he wanted to, which is certainly a good enough reason. They were both retired educators. I explained what we were doing here, and they were kind enough to ask about “The Obsidian Mirror” and where to buy it.

On the way back, I rode in the back seat of our chariot–which also had a wobbly wheel. The speed bumps were just as vicious but somehow I felt marginally safer because there were support rails to cling to. I was awake for a long time after we finally went to bed at 11:45, and woke up many times during the night. I blame the chocolate ice cream and its theobromine. Sometimes, too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Because you can't have too many iguanas.

Because you can’t have too many iguanas.

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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.

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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

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.

 

 

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Day 2: Land of Sky-Blue Waters

Me and some friends at Tulum

Me and some friends at Tulum

 

 

 

 

 

Before leaving Tulum, we returned to the open-air market at the ruins because I wanted to get the little embroidered dresses for our granddaughters. I bought the dresses, paying too much for them, probably, and joined Tom, Clod and Linda at Starbucks. Los Volantes were at it again, and this time I got a good video.

Also present were some men dressed as Mayan warriors. Their costumes were as authentic as humanely possible, using genuine jaguar skins and quetzal feathers. The clothes were very detailed, carefully crafted and must have cost a fortune. They painted their faces and bodies exactly as you can see in the ancient murals. One of the men had an enormous albino python, which looks more yellow than white. I knew they were there for tourists to get their pictures taken posing with them, so I grabbed some cash and asked to pose with the snake. They kept telling me the snake wouldn’t bite, but I was perfectly certain that it wouldn’t bite because snake-bitten tourists don’t pay. I enjoyed the photo session and the heavy, muscular, dry and scaly presence of my cooperative co-model.

After a much-appreciated latte, we piled in the car and set out for Laguna Bacalar, heading south. We were traveling through jungle, but at first it was rather low, if extremely dense. As we made our way south, the vegetation gradually got taller. By the time we reached the lake, it was no rain forest, but definitely more along the lines of my mental image of jungle. We only stopped once, to buy some bananas at a roadside stand. We passed a village where there were probably 20 stands selling pineapple, but pineapple seemed too daunting and complicated for people without a knife or a kitchen. The bananas, each not much larger than a healthy banana slug, were consumed in about two bites. They were slightly tart, which gave them an apple-like flavor that was much more tasty than the huge, bland cultivar we get in grocery stores.

We noticed throughout our travels that when you hit speed bumps (topes), you will almost inevitably find someone selling something–usually snacks and drinks, but sometimes other things. Slowing down gives you a chance to realize you’re thirsty or hungry, I guess.

Laguna Bacalar is a freshwater lake more than 60 kilometers long, very narrow, with a white sand bottom. The water is known for its seven colors of blue. There’s not much to do here except swim and kayak, but we are staying only one night. There’s an island bird sanctuary, but you have to kayak out, and Tom has sworn off kayaking after overturning in Moss Landing harbor and losing his prescription glasses. In any case, you can’t land on the island because you will sink six feet into something that looks like sand–but isn’t. In other words—don’t try to get onto the island or you will die. On the plus side, there are no crocodiles in the lake, making it a safe swimming place. There just aren’t enough fish in the lake for crocodiles to bother with it.

Laguna Bacalar

Laguna Bacalar

We had an excellent lunch at a lakeside restaurant and lingered far too long, enjoying the cool breeze from the lake. The place was jumping, but no one tried to get us to move along. There was a dock in front of the restaurant, stretching out into the cool, blue  waters. Instead of running around the restaurant, kids were jumping into the lake. The best play area ever.

We walked back to the hotel, Azule36. I don’t know for sure, but it may be named for a nearby cenote called Cenote Azul, which is a popular swimming place. It’s a cute, tiny boutique hotel on a lot only slightly larger than a house. The neighborhood is a higgeldy-piggeldy mix of houses, a church, hotels and stores. There are only six rooms. Roosters crowed from the house next door, and as we sat under a palapa playing cards, dogs, cats and people wandered through the yard, entering from a back gate. I wondered if it was a family-run business, with the family living behind the hotel. The rooms are spare but clean and comfortable. Unlike the first place we stayed, there is soap! The beds were comfortable—actually mattresses laid on concrete platforms. I thought in a country where scorpions and snakes abound, not having a cavernous under-the-bed space is probably sensible.

Our hotel at Laguna Bacalar

Our hotel at Laguna Bacalar

We skipped dinner and went to bed at a reasonable hour. I had trouble falling asleep because I’m not used to a lot of noise at night. What with roosters crowing, doves cooing, people talking, multiple dogs barking, and traffic, it was a while before things calmed down and I slept. I’m writing this at some ungodly hour of the morning because the whole chorus started up again around 4:00 am.

Yucatan: Day of the Iguanas

Mr. and Mrs. Iguana

Mr. and Mrs. Iguana

In the remote eventuality that anyone was disappointed that I haven’t been blogging about my research trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, I apologize. We were often in areas where the Internet service couldn’t handle large files, and I wanted to be able to post photos and videos, so I decided to wait.

Why Yucatán, you may ask? Well, for reasons I can’t reveal, the third book in the series that began with “The Obsidian Mirror” has to take place in Yucatán. The second book, “Fire in the Ocean,” will be out later this year from Diversion Books, and all will be explained. Well, some of it, anyway.

Day 1: Tulum

We made our way to Tulum on the Mayan Riviera without much problem. Our rental condo is located in a large tract of land not too far from the beach, called Aldea Zama. Aledea means village in Spanish and Zama is the Quiché (Mayan) word for dawn. It is also the original name for the Mayan city in the area, which is why we are here.

We ate dinner in a very good Argentinian restaurant, came back to the condo and fell into bed.

The next morning, we woke late, as it is East Coast time here, we’re from the West Coast, and we were tired. Breakfast, continuing the international theme, was crepes. We asked the waiter how far it was to walk to the ruins. He told us to walk straight down the road we were on for about four kilometers. So off we went. And continued for a long way, walking in the late morning heat and sunshine. We didn’t have a lot of water with us, and I didn’t realize it, but I was becoming dehydrated.

About three miles or so down the road there was an entrance to the beach and my husband Tom headed off across the sand, intending to walk the rest of the way on the beach. By this time, my enthusiasm had flagged, although I did appreciate the white sand, fine as sugar, and the brilliant turquoise and indigo of the ocean. Linda asked a woman how far it was, and we learned to our surprise that not only had we been directed down the wrong road, we were many miles from our destination because there was no access to the ruins from the road we were on or the beach.

We flagged down one of the passing taxis which took us to the ruins, all of us thankful we hadn’t tried to walk it. The entrance to the ruins is reached on foot or by a little tram pulled by an old tractor, and to my relief we took the tram. Before we embarked for the ruins, we saw a performance by a team of voladores. Four men climbed to the top of a 40-foot pole, playing instruments and dressed in colorful costumes. Once they reached the platform at the top of the pole, they wound ropes around the pole. Then a fifth man climbed the pole and seated himself, playing the flute as the other four men looped ropes around their legs, turned upside down, and spiraled down the pole as the ropes unwound from the pole. Wikipedia says this is a very old tradition, starting with the ancient Maya. It has deep cultural significance, and to prevent the tradition from dying out, Mexico started a school to teach children how to become voladores (females need not apply).

There is a large outdoor market around the ruins, but we went straight on without looking at the amazing array of goods, ranging from Los Luchos masks to delicately woven hammocks that looked like lace.

When we got to the ticket line, I wasn’t feeling too well, so I sat down on a bench near the front of the line. Along came a coatimundi–a relative of the raccoon that looks sort of lemur-like. She plopped herself down right among the tourists’ feet, rolled over and proceeded to give herself a bath, licking delicately at armpits and tummy. A man standing right next to her leaned down and tried to pet her. Tourists feed coatis all the time at Tulum, so assuming the man had food, the coati lunged at his fingers. Startled, the man jerked back and dropped his bottle of beer, which smashed on the stone flooring. The coati promptly began licking up the beer as the man cleaned up the glass. When last seen, the coati was cuddling in a woman’s skirt and continuing her bath, drunk and happy.

By this time, I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me. I felt utterly drained and frankly not very interested in touring the ruins. This is completely out of character for me, as I am interested in ancient Mayan culture and had come all the way from California just to see them. But I had no energy and was beginning to feel odd; I was getting chills despite the heat and felt slightly nauseous. I rested for a while in the shade, but the water was gone. There was no place to buy water inside the ruins. I dragged myself around the ruins anyway. I probably took more photos of the iguanas at the park than the ruins. Often, they lay sunning themselves in pairs like tiny prehistoric monsters; Mr.and Mrs. Iguana taking a sunbath. There were black iguanas, green iguanas, gray iguanas, and youngsters with stripes streaking around while the adults sunned. I finally found a place to sit and look at the ocean–narrowly missing stepping on an iguana–and stayed there until the rest of the party found me. Then all I wanted to do was leave. On the walk back to the tram I developed an aura, like the kind you get when a migraine is starting. My hips hurt in a way I have never experienced before, and I felt generally horrible.

There has to be an iguana in this photo somewhere.

There has to be an iguana in this photo somewhere.

Tom got me a huge bottle of water, and after drinking a good bit of it, the aura went away. When we got to the open-air market, Linda saw a Starbucks and wanted iced tea. I noticed a vendor with adorably embroidered children’s dresses. He wanted $25 each. I wanted to get out of there and was not interested in bargaining, so I said no thanks and walked away. By the time I got out of earshot, he was down to $5 each, but I just didn’t care. This is also totally weird for me, because I adore haggling.

We took a taxi back to the condo. By the time we got back, I felt a great deal better, had a cold shower and took a nap. Lesson learned: take lots of water!

Despite getting dehydrated, I enjoyed the day. I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip, and will be much more cautious about staying hydrated.

 

 

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