#23: Yucatan, Mexico: Land of the Mayas
26 Apr 2002
“The days set out from the east and started walking.
The first days produced from its entrails the sky and the earth.
The second day made the stairway for the rain to run down.
The cycles of the sea and the land, and the multitude of things, were the work of the third day.
The fourth day willed the earth and the sky to tilt so that they could meet.
The fifth day decided that everyone had to work.
The first light emanated from the sixth day.
In places where there was nothing, the seventh day put soil. The eighth plunged its hands and feet in the soil.
The ninth day created the nether worlds. The tenth day earmarked for them those who had poison in their souls.
Inside the sun, the eleventh day modeled stone and tree.
It was the twelfth that made the wind. Wind blew and it was called spirit because there was no death in it.
The thirteenth day moistened the earth and kneaded the mud into a body like ours.
Thus it is remembered in Yucatan.”
– Genesis, Book One of the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Eduardo Galeano
I have always been suspicious about the version where god created the world in seven days. For me, given the complexity of the world, the Maya version of 13 days sounds more credible.
The Mayas, an ancient civilization which reached its peak between 1500 BC and 1000 AD, once flourished in what is today Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas State, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and western El Salvador. They built great monuments and pyramids though no great empires. Numerous city-states were formed in the Maya region, some of which became powerful enough to dominate their surrounding regions, but none strong enough to unite the Mayan world.
The Mayans were great astronomers and mathematicians, making computations a millenium before the Europeans were able to perform similar work. The Mayans were also great practitioners of rituals – they practiced human sacrifices – and not only were enemies sacrificed to their gods for good harvests and victories in battles, but members of the royal family and nobility also drew blood by pulling a string through their own tongues or, in the case of the male, through their penises in public ceremonies. The Mayans were great sportsmen too: their ball courts were used for a kind of football game, in which the winning team received the great honor of being sacrificed to the gods. Hmm… would you want to participate in a Mayan game?
Mysteriously, the cities were abandoned around 1000 AD. Speculations about their decline ranged from conquest by an external power to collapse of their eco-environment, which led to the collapse of irrigation systems and consequently political power. What they have left to the world today are the monumental pyramids and ruins of their cities. Their descendants still live in the same region, divided into over 30 languages and sub-tribes.
As I entered Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo (one of the three Mexican states on the Yucatan Peninsula) from Belize, the tropical rainforest gave way to dry, shorter forest land, bushes and shrubs. I switched onto a comfortable first-class coach at the first of the many efficient, well-organized Mexican bus terminals I was to encounter. This is a world of difference from those dirty, confusing bus stations with their touts and burdensome hawkers so common elsewhere in Latin America. Mexico, one of the largest and most advanced economies of Latin America, is indeed leagues ahead compared to many of its neighbours.
The bus passed through the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto, a sleepy place which was once known as Chan Santa Cruz, and the center of the Talking Cross cult of the Mayan people. This group of Mayan people, remnants of the rebels of the bloody Yucatan Caste War which began in 1847, was successful in holding out against the Mexican Army for 50 years in this isolated part of Yucatan. Here they set up a semi-independent state based on the worship of their ancient gods, who spoke through crosses – not the Christian crosses, but the Mayan ones which look similar to the Christian ones but have existed for over 2,500 years, before Christ himself. After years of battle, they were only forced to surrender in 1901.
I dropped by Tulum, a beautiful Mayan city by the Caribbean Sea. I stayed at a seaside cabin by the coconut trees and white sandy beaches. A mistake, for I had to endure the lack of electricity and a sandy bed alone in the overpriced hut, far away from the town centre, at the mercy of overpriced restaurateurs. I decided to skip the rest of the Riviera Maya, the new name for the eastern coast of Yucatan, crowned with the world-class resort city of Cancun. This coast was off the beaten track 30 years ago but has since then become one of the most successful models of tourism development worldwide. Cancun was identified as a prime site of luxury resort development by the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, and over the past three decades hundreds of hotels have appeared where deserted sandy beaches once stood.
Cancun is now a city of 500,000 people, although many of the people return to their homes in Merida and elsewhere during the weekends. Today 2 million tourists come here every year, propelling the income of this once poor region. Luxury hotels line the coast; even supposedly budget places like Tulum and Playa del Carmen are no longer cheap. A basic meal starts from US$10 at the most basic of restaurants, and my bare-bone beach cabin in Tulum with no electricity cost US$18 per night. Indeed, Riviera Maya is now a playground for the rich and famous.
As a long-term budget traveller, fancy resort stays are not my cup of tea, so I moved on swiftly to Valladolid, a quiet colonial town from where I visited the great Mayan city of Chichen Itza and its palaces, pyramids and ball courts, as well as nearby cenotes, underground caves of cool crystal clear waters. Ancient Mayans were known to dump gold, silver and victims of human sacrifices into cenotes. A pity I didn’t bring any snorkelling equipment along…
I went on to the city of Merida, capital of Yucatan state, which is a nice colonial city whose centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a nice base to visit other Mayan cities like Uxmal and Kabah. This is a wonderful city with cobbled streets and colourful colonial mansions, one with so much to do and to see. Merida is also a great place to relax, with good cuisine at reasonable prices. This is a relatively affluent city and a very cultural one too. The City Council organises concerts and performances almost every night, and these are attended not just by tourists but mainly by locals. Here I also spent some time in jazz bars with an Australian girl and other assorted nomads, exchanging news on the roads and arguing meaningless issues.
I explored some small towns near Merida, on local chicken buses on narrow bumpy country roads. Ancanceh is one of them, where a Mayan pyramid, a weather-worn colonial church and a large 20th-century church share the plaza full of local Mayan women with their colourful costume doing their weekend market bargains. I hopped onto an express bus to Progresso, a port near Merida. “Progress,” as it is named, this beachside holiday resort for Merida’s citizens used to be the main port for the export of henequen, or sisal, the material for strong ropes used at the height of the Industrial Revolution, before its replacement by synthetic material. The harsh exploitation of the Mayan Indians on henequen plantations led to the Yucatan Caste War of 1847, a bitter conflict which reduced the Peninsula to ruins. Today, among tanned holiday makers and swaying coconut trees, I had a wonderful plate of cerviche mixto, the sexy dish of raw fish, octopus, prawns and crabmeat marinated with lime, hot sauce and onions.
After Merida, I got onto an overnight bus to Palenque in Chiapas State. Another ancient land of the Mayans, plus colourful ethnic vitality and some modern-day political trivia. OK, I have to run now. I will write more about Chiapas later.