The Snake’s Nest:
A Tale of Travel Insurance, the Maya, and the End of the World
Date: Thursday, April 20th – Thursday, April 27th, 2017
It is a dense, treacherous jungle, full of pumas and man-eating jaguars, spiders, scorpions and sixty-eight species of snake. Yucatán is the very spot where, 66 million years ago, the asteroid that extirpated the dinosaurs slammed into the Earth. Now a lush, sophisticated – and, by some counts, impossible – civilization dominates the jungle. The most sophisticated mathematics and astronomic charts on Earth currently reside in this jungle – their calendar has been counting for more than 4,300 years, since the last alignment of the five planets visible by the naked eye. This civilization can perfectly measure the equinoxes and solstices, and knows those planets won’t be in conjunction again for another seven hundred and ninety-one years – when New Age types will speculate on all measure of calamity, each more fantastical than the last. Currently, by the Maya calendar, it’s ten baktum, nineteen katum, sixteen tun, fifteen uinal (or 1221 CE by the Gregorian), and the rains have not come. For a number of years now, Chaac, the rain god, has been angry.
Chaac has been punishing your people off and on for some time now – many droughts have come and gone in the historical record. Your name is Ucha’an K’in Bahlam, ruling ajaw, or king, in the city at the mouth of the well of the water shaman, a descendent of the Feathered Serpent. You stand at the peak of the Serpent’s temple. Three of your wives (you have many) stand behind you, each in a flowing white dress. Smouldering charcoal glows in a pit in the centre of the temple, which is open on all sides, granting you a panorama of the surrounding jungle. A shaman stands nearby, silent as the grave.
[Footnote 1: Fictional ruler. The name means ‘Master of the Sun Jaguar’, taken from the third king (ruled 727-741) of Dos Pilas, a Maya site in Guatemala.
Here, the word bahlam is what means jaguar, whereas later I will otherwise translate it as b’alam (or kotz’b’alam specifically – distinguished from the puma, which is tukum b’alam). The former translation is taken from Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, Second Edition by Martin and Grube, who don’t specify a translation system; the latter from the English translation of Popol Vuh, by Víctor Montejo, who “follows the most recent rules laid down by la Academia de las lenguas Mayas (the Academy of Maya Languages) which is based in Guatemala.” (page 81). As I am unfamiliar with the transliteration of Maya, I’m left with multiple renderings throughout.]
A crowd of forty thousand has filled the open spaces at the based of the pyramid. Some thousands have already left the city, abandoning this holy place. You can hardly blame them; maize yields have not been good – people are starving. You step out into the sunlight and smile. Your teeth have been filed down and capped with jade, so your mouth radiates for miles – as though the Feathered Serpent himself is speaking through you. Moreover, this pyramid was perfectly designed with acoustics in mind, so even in a whisper, the entire crowd can hear you.
Chaac has not abandoned us, you preach to the crowd – will not abandon us. Just then, from the Temple of the Warriors, shamans blow a specialized horn, which sounds as though a man is screaming. The man probably is screaming as well – he’s a captured Toltec warrior, one you’re now offering to Chaac in a blood sacrifice. A half-dozen shamans are now administering the offering, just northeast of you, not far from the path towards Cenote Sagrado – the entrance to Xib’alb’a, the Underworld.
This is not the only offering being made today. You instruct each of the noble families to choose one of their slaves to take the plunge down to Xib’alb’a before the end of the day. Moreover, you’re making your own offering. You step back inside the temple to the charcoal. You’ve already taken some psilocybin mushrooms, and now you take a swig of xtabentún.
Your favourite wife hands you a piece of obsidian. You disrobe. With the blade, you take your penis in hand and–
This was not my vacation. I was there, but the extent to which I prepared for this trip was little more than me buying travel insurance (a very useful thing to have, it will turn out). My credit card number was given to a travel agent who’d already planned everything, and I spent about two minutes looking up how far Chichén Itzá was from the resort. This was my sister’s trip; after six years, she and her boyfriend Mark were getting married in a tropical wedding.
Pedro, our tour representative, met us at the airport in Cancún, whereupon the bus struggled for ten or fifteen minutes to leave the parking lot. We were staying at the Now Jade, a five-star resort not far from the airport. You pass by a zoo with a painting of a jaguar, turn off the main highway at the small (and virtually invisible) town of Puerto Moralos, down a broken roadway in desperate need of repair with jagged speed bumps. The place is surrounded entirely by swamp – resort officials will tell you not to go venturing outside the resort on foot at night, for fear of alligators.
You pass by a water treatment plant, and a large construction site, a half-finished resort, comes into view. Down a little further, on this thin, bumpy road. and there’s Now Jade, with rigid security at the front gate. We were early, unable to check in, so we left our bags at the front, and went exploring on the resort. Of course, the first thing most people did was head straight for the bar.
This first day was not an uneventful one. In fact, here’s your lesson on purchasing travel insurance:
I’m not much of a drinker. I prefer hard liquor to beer, and when I drink, I fervently try to avoid a hangover the following day. That afternoon I had a few, but was pacing myself.
Now Jade consisted of a number of four-storey buildings along the beach, with a couple pools, infinity pools, a gym, and multiple bars. Most of us were in the south end. My friend Brian and I did a brief tour of the resort while we were waiting for our rooms to become available. On the north side, past the executive club private restaurant, we ran into Kelsey and Mark, who’s specialty room was available, somewhere way up here. They were lost and Kelsey was irritated at that.
Our room became available at 3pm – I pressed the desk clerk to get us something above ground level, and he got us a room on the third floor overlooking the swamp on the front side of the resort. The room was immaculate (although the air conditioner took its sweet time). There was a living room area that stepped down from the sleeping area, although only about half of this was guardrailed – I quickly placed our luggage in the spot without a handrail, lest we stumble back to the room drunk one night and split our skulls on the tile.
We went for a swim down the way a little after that and chilled. The following day Pedro was to go over the resort orientation information, so this day was just a jet lag, adjustment, and relaxation day.
At 6, we went for dinner at the Carnival buffet. This was one of many restaurants in the resort, though the only one open before 5:30. I left with Brian to head back to the room, when we ran into Mark, just outside the buffet. “Time to start drinking,” he said, or something to that effect.
I had with me just a water bottle. I told him I’d already had a few that afternoon.
“I’m going to get you so drunk this week,” he said. He was already fairly wasted himself. “Come on, you don’t have to work tomorrow, you don’t have to be anywhere, there’s no consequences.”
He was blitzed enough that there was no arguing with him. He was mellow and didn’t want to hear that I hate hangovers. I wound up just walking away from him.
On the way back to the room, I met up with my brother, and he, Brian and I headed back down towards the beach bar, in the direction we’d just come from.
We reached the main lobby building, where we saw my sister at the bar. Then we turned right, where there were a few restaurants, a coffee place, the buffet, and then the beach bar. The three of us were walking along that row of buildings, when, in the garden area to our left, I saw four or five resort staff rushing someone towards the lobby on a stretcher.
“Oh, shit,” I said, “look at that.”
“Oh, wow,” said Mitchell. “I wonder what happened.”
The guy on the stretcher was face down, and was rushed quickly for the lobby.
We continued on for fifteen or twenty paces, at which point Mark’s friend and groomsman, Shavarr, came rushing up to us. “Have you guys seen Kelsey?” he asked, urgency in his tone. “Mark’s going to the hospital.”
Mitchell, Brian and I kind of eyed each other for a split second. One of us asked, “Was that Mark on the stretcher?”
It turns out Mark and his friends (who have been to a number of Caribbean and Central American resorts) have a tradition of charging into the ocean the first night they get there. He must have headed to the beach right after seeing Brian and I. Now Jade doesn’t own or control the beach in Puerto Moralos – that’s federal property. As such, the beach was the a thin strip of sand, poorly maintained, and had to have a skidsteer clear the wave of seaweed that washed up twice daily. The Mexican government also delineated safe swim areas with a series of buoys, but these were small. Elsewhere, there was rock – sharp, jagged rocks just below the water’s surface. And Mark, charging out before his groomsmen followed suit, sliced his foot open, requiring external and internal stitches and an overnight stay in a hospital forty minutes away.
I’d like to underscore a few things. While some of the above dialogue is reconstructed and therefore not verbatim, the phrase “there’s no consequences” is a direct quote. And the consequences that did arise weren’t two or three days later – no, he was on his way to the hospital no more than twenty minutes after the fact. It took him longer to get to the hospital than the interval between the words “there’s no consequences” and the resort staff grabbing the stretcher.
The bill, had he not had insurance, would have come to $15,000. Mark was relegated to a wheelchair for much of the rest of the week, with doctor’s orders not to drink or swim, and he walked down the aisle, and had his first dance with my sister, in crutches.
Two and a half years before, at a resort in Cuba, my friend Andrew wound up spending the night filling out police reports because of a couple hookers. Kelsey, despite the fact that she was none too pleased about Mark’s foot, still swore it was “a better story” (by which she meant less embarrassing/incriminating) than the hookers. Still, Andrew, who I messaged that night, was joking about upping the ante. We’ve already had police and medical – the next step is fire, and then you’re getting into biohazard scenarios.
[Footnote 2: See Los Bandoleros.]
Two days later, Mitchell and his boyfriend Eric, and Brian and I, went into Cancún for some shopping. The resort called us a taxi, who took us to an outlet mall. The driver did not speak a great deal of English, but managed to tell us he’d wait for us in the parking garage for as long as we wished. Tequila was sold everywhere, but I’m not a Tequila fan. Instead, I was looking for a white Mexican rum named Porfidio, which is apparently unheard of. When I was in Macao, I stumbled across a large bottle of this Porfidio rum, which I didn’t purchase at the time. Brian and I found a liquor store, but there was no sign of it. Even Francisco, the friendliest of the bartenders on the resort (“Francisco’s my name and alcohol is my game.”) had never heard of it, when we asked him upon return from Cancún. He claimed Porfidio was a tequila company, but apparently not one all that well-known.
The morning was still young, and there wasn’t much at the outlet mall. We asked around, and were told there’s a flea market across from Coco Bongo, a disco and show popular with tourists. Our driver eagerly took us there, where we parked in an over-full parking lot with no lanes to exit from if you’re in the back. Across the road was Coco Bongo, where Mexican police stood in flak jackets next to what looked like an armoured personnel carrier.
Walking into the market, they descend on you like vultures. I’ve been to pushy markets before – I once set down a Chinese scroll and marched out of a booth in Beijing half-indignantly because the guy wouldn’t so much as let me look before he was shoving something else in my face – but this was something else. Perhaps because it was morning, and there weren’t too many customers there.
Mitchell and Eric separated from Brian and I. Brian at one point went into a t-shirt shop to pick up something for friends back home. I couldn’t stand in one place without being swarmed, so I wandered around for a minute, then slipped into that shop. Brian was just paying. Another salesman immediately came up to me. I was standing next to a t-shirt with a jaguar in the foreground and Chichén Itzá in the background. This salesman, I guess, tried a more friendly tactic. I was wearing a shirt from an Ontario zoo with many big cats on the chest. The salesman said, “I like your shirt,” with a heavy accent.
I smiled but didn’t say anything.
“Where are you from?”
“Canada,” I said.
He pointed to the Chichén Itzá t-shirt beside me. “In Mexico, we have the yaguar,” he said, pronouncing it with a Y. “In Canada, you have the tiger.”
He said it so seriously, and with such confidence, that I could hardly keep a straight face. “No, this is from a zoo. In Canada, we have the puma.”
At that point Brian had paid and we quickly left.
Walking through the market, Mitchell was offered by various vendors everything from weed and cocaine to “my sister”. I also had a vendor offer me his sister. This was far worse than the pushy salesmen in China. In fact, the only place we weren’t harassed was the liquor store (alas, no Porfidio here either). Walking into one shop with a Moche male fertility figurine (Peruvian giant boner statue), the salesman was quick to grin and, in a heavy accent, say, “Mexican-size,” and then was immediately pulling out clay dildos before we left the store.
Mitchell had an ear infection from swimming, and was looking for a pharmacy. He made the mistake of asking someone if there was one around, and was immediately met with, “What do you need? Something for pain?” Eventually a pharmacy was found. The whole experience was, in Mitchell’s words, “terrifying.”
The night of the wedding I got pretty drunk. Earlier in the week, I’d asked the bartender for a caipirinha, and had since made it a mission to try various cocktails I’d never buy at home. Going online, I found a website dedicated to myriad cocktails, and made a list I’d carry around to whip out whenever I was at a bar. Variously, I tried such things as a chocolate martini, vodka martini, man o’ war, caipiroska, godfather, kamikaze, a Don Pedro, and a couple tastings of brandy.
[Footnote 3: Brazilian; cachaça, crushed limes and sugar.]
[Footnote 4: Shaken, not shtirred.
[Footnote 5: Bourbon, orange curaçao, vermouth and orange juice.]
[Footnote 6: Same as a caipirinha, except with vodka instead of cachaça.]
[Footnote 7: Amaretto and bourbon.]
[Footnote 8: Sugar, lime juice and vodka, as a shot.]
[Footnote 9: Bourbon, Kahlúa and ice cream.]
This continued the day of the wedding. I remained sober during the day, but I was speaking at the reception, so I began drinking after the pictures. After pictures followed forty-five or so minutes of small talk and finger foods, during which our private bar opened up. I’d had a single drink early on – a man o’ war, if I recall – but was avoiding becoming too inebriated.
I was the third person to speak, and since I’m no good at public speaking, my aim was to hit that sweet spot – somewhere around smooth. Our bar shut down once the food began coming out and the speeches began, so I went up to the bartender just before he closed up shop, ordered off my list – a godfather, this time. I was mostly sober after the man o’ war. Champagne was served with the first course, which I took a quick sip of. When the first speaker went up, I downed about a third of the godfather. When the second speaker was called, I downed the next third.
Finally my turn to speak came, and I wasn’t quite feeling it yet. So I went up there, unfolded the speech I’d practised once, an hour before, and went through it, mostly stumble-free. I offered a toast, applause was heard, I went and sat back down–
At which point, the godfather kicked in, and I went right through smooth and into tipsy.
Drinking continued throughout the night. The bar reopened after the main course. I vaguely remember ordering something called a big titty ho on a motorcycle.
[Footnote 10: Coke, tequila, amaretto and bourbon.]
By the end of the night, my tie was off, I had a long balloon tied around my head like it was a Roman wreath, a tie dye glow stick looped around my neck, and Brian and I went and recorded a video message to a friend back home – wherein I did a Sean Connery impression the entire time, and mistakenly said it was sister’s birthday, and then didn’t even catch it when Brian corrected me, and sarcastically said that it was rather strange she’d be getting married on her wedding day.
The drink to cap off the night outdid them all – it was aptly named end of the world.
[Footnote 11: Equal parts bourbon, vodka and 151.]
I barely remember this, but there were two specific times I had gone up to the beach bar, just down from the reception, at the end of the night. I’d checked earlier with the bartender at the reception – he didn’t have 151. I asked the bartender at the beach bar, and he said something to the effect of, “I can make do.” There was something in the way he said it that made me suspicious. I vaguely remember him telling me they don’t have it on the resort, but he makes his own. My suspicion seems to have left me there, because about ten minutes later, I was ordering one from him–
So the night of my sister’s wedding was capped off with a drink named end of the world made with (three words that should never go hand in hand) Mexican bathtub 151.
Brian and I were on our way back to the room, and we’d agreed to split it. The bartender filled it to overflowing. I did a sip. “Not bad,” I said, and passed the glass to Brian.
Very reluctantly, he did what amounted to a drop on the tongue, before stammering, “No, no, no.”
I sipped some more, but lightly, trying to encourage him to drink more. In the length of time it took us to walk past the buffet and the coffee shop, I’d drank maybe a quarter of it, and Brian was still refusing. I asked him one more time, at which point I did a mouthful, then chucked the contents of the glass over the railing into the garden. A waitress at the fancy restaurant right there watched me with an unsure and placating smile on her face. I set the glass down on one of the patio tables at that restaurant, nodded to her, and walked on.
[Footnote 12: Those drink names came from a user-submitted website. With some of the lesser-known names, I have no idea if they’re legitimate drinks, or random concoctions users came up with.
Drinking about a litre and a half of water before bed, and lending to the fact that all the alcohol on that resort was watered down, I did not have a hangover the following day. Later in the week I got nearly as drunk, once more recording a video to a friend – this time in a Russian accent, with such brilliant one-liners as “We have just drunk three kamikaze shots each. They hit you really hard... in the aircraft carrier” – I also avoided the hangover. Such luck did not extend to the weekend immediately following my landing back in Toronto. Andrew, the friend for whom I was recording those drunken messages, and the friend who’d given us the Cuban hooker story, came to stay with me, and, that Saturday, we went on a, as I called it, trans-Eurasian drinking tour – this time with non-watered-down alcohol. In one night, we each drank a white Russian, a few soju-Yakult cocktails, a jackknife (Jack Daniel’s and Baileys – only with rye, as opposed to Jack), an end of the world, and a shot of Chinese baijiu. I vaguely remember threatening Brian with a Chinese sword “not to waste valuable Chinese liquor.” While I really didn’t have a headache the following three days, every other part of my body felt like it had been hit by a truck.]
On the Tuesday of that week, we had an excursion booked. Brian and I, Mitchell and Eric, a friend, Amanda, and Mark’s sister Ciara, were seeing the Tulum Maya ruins, not far down the coast from Puerto Moralos.
Mitchell and Eric had ordered room service the night before and turned in early. At Now Jade, they do housekeeping all day long, and depending on where your room is, they might show up at 9am, or at 5pm. It was quite common to see empty room service dishes left on the floor outside people’s rooms, which housekeeping would pick up when they got to it. Mitchell and Eric followed the pattern, and put their dishes on the tray, leaving it out in the hallway, whereupon they went to bed. At 3am, there was a smashing sound just outside their door, and both were wrenched out of sleep. Mitchell described it as, “It sounded like someone was taking the dishes and smashing them on the floor.” Slowly, quietly, they got out of bed and approached the door, spying through the peephole, where they expected to find some drunken frat brother smashing shit for the fun of it. Instead – on the fourth floor of this building – they found what Mitchell called “a Mexican badger” fiercely rummaging through the dishes. Eric knocked on the door and it ran off.
At 6:50 that morning, we met with Robbie, our tour guide who’d be taking us to Tulum. Piling into his cargo van, we went to two other resorts, picking up a middle-aged British couple, and two Aussie women – and at one of those resorts, right out front, I saw one of those ‘Mexican badgers’, standing on its hind legs to rummage through a garbage can. With a long snout and a monkey-like tail, it stood at a height with the garbage can, and then hobbled off when the van approached, nursing its front right leg. I would later learn it’s called a coati, and is a relative of the raccoon.
Robbie took us first on the Jungla Maya tour, on the way to Tulum. Off the highway, this is a large jungle property with many cenotes – natural pits resulting from sinkholes, which lead to the cave system below ground. Sistema Sac Actun, the longest underground river system in the world, runs through here. This is a water table that people still drink, so the very first thing we have to do is shower, removing bug spray and sunscreen. Then, with just our bathing suits and sandals, we all board a large safari-style truck, and go bombing into the jungle, hitting every rut and pothole along the way, holding on for dear life. Robbie sat shotgun, and when he went to leave the vehicle, the door actually fell off its hinges and plopped to the ground.
The first thing we did was descend into a cenote on a rope, landing in water and then swimming out. We ran through a number of ziplines, donning safety harnesses and climbing rickety ramps up to the platforms. Somewhere in the middle of the ziplining, we diverged off the main path, for a quick ceremony with a Maya shaman. No filming or pictures were allowed. Robbie, sombre, explained the specifics.
The shaman’s name was Don José, a short, middle-aged Maya man in a white shirt. He was set up in a smoke-filled cave in the jungle. The Maya believe in thirteen upper gods and nine lower, Robbie explained – which wasn’t necessarily a sky-good, underworld-evil dichotomy, though Spanish Catholicism certainly interpreted it that way. A small altar was set up outside the cave’s entrance, which had a Catholic cross, but also aspects of the Maya religion. “We don’t sacrifice people or animals anymore,” Robbie said, but Don José would nonetheless be making a sacrifice – an offering to the gods – to pray from our safe return to Canada, the UK, and Australia. He would be burning a small tree root, from the World Tree, a sacred symbol in the Maya religion.
In the Popol Vuh, two twins, Jun Junajpu and Wuqub’ Junajpu, disturbed the Lords of Xib’alb’a (the underworld) with a ball game. Challenged by the Lords, they descend into Xib’alb’a, only to be tricked multiple times. In the end, they were put in a Dark House – a place with nothing but darkness inside – and failed one final test, whereupon it was decided they should be destroyed.
“Jun Junajpu’s head was carried on a stick and placed on the branch of a tree that had never borne fruit. It was on the road to Xib’alb’a. As soon as the head was put on the tree, round calabashes sprouted all over the branches and the head could not be distinguished from the other fruit. Then the Lords of Xib’alb’a commanded that no one come near the forbidden tree.
‘Don’t anyone ever come to pick these fruits,’ the Lords of Xib’alb’a commanded.”
[Footnote 13: Pages 34-35.]
In the next section, Princess Ixtik’, a young maiden, tempts fate. Jun Junajpu’s skull warns her just as she’s about to eat from that tree. Nonetheless, she wants the fruit.
“‘Yes, I want them,’ said the princess.
‘Very well. Just stretch out your right hand.’ The young woman reached for the skull. At that moment the skull spat right into the princess’s hand. Surprised, she looked down at her palm, but the saliva had already evaporated.
‘My offspring is in the spit. Go back up to the earth and you will not die. Trust in my word,’ said the skull in the tree.
And this is how Princess Ixtik’ was made pregnant by the saliva.”
[Footnote 14: Page 35.]
Princess Ixtik’ (after some drama with her father and the Lords of Xib’alb’a regarding who she’d lain with) gave birth to a second set of twins – the Amazing Twins – who would go on to defeat the power-hungry god Seven Macaws, falsely claiming to be the sun and the moon, with blowguns.
The World Tree is a motif that shows up in many religions, from China to Assyria to the Norse. Mongol shamanists believe in a World Tree that stands at the edge of night and day and, much like the Maya legend, connects Earth with the Upper and Lower Worlds. Robbie explained how the Maya refer to the Tree as Pom.
We entered the cave, following a path of candles in the darkness. Don José was waiting for us around an altar, with many candles set up. We all gathered around in a circle. Don José never spoke a word of English, and Robbie, respectfully, explained. The shaman picked up a small clay chalice in his one hand, with glowing charcoal inside. With his other hand, he took a small piece of the Pom root, and then began chanting.
The Maya language is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I’m not much of a linguist, but, at least with major world languages, I can generally at least tell what the language is when I hear it spoken. If someone is speaking virtually any European language, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Mandarin or Cantonese, Korean, Japanese or Mongolian, I’m not surprised at their tones or pitches. Even languages like Vietnamese or Tibetan I’d have a fighting chance at. I might get Swedish and Danish confused, or Portuguese and Spanish, but I’m not guessing Swahili in either case.
Don José spoke quickly, dropping the root into the charcoal and creating a cloud of smoke, which he then wafted around each of us, rhythmically swinging that chalice to and fro. He spoke for two or three minutes, waving the chalice about, then stepping back from the circle and walking around us on our little island, encircling us with smoke. He was silent when he did this and, in a whisper, Robbie explained how he was creating a protective circle around us.
Outside, Robbie told us that he’d grown up able to speak Aztec (or Nahuatl). Originally from the Mexico City area, his grandmother had taught him. He can still understand it, but can’t actively speak it. Maya and Aztec are not related to each other, so Robbie couldn’t directly understand Don José, but he knew enough about the ceremony and the Maya language in general. He explained how the jungle property was owned by a Maya family; the matriarch was a seventy-eight-year-old woman who spoke only Maya, and her son now ran the business.
After more ziplining, we went snorkeling through a section of Sistema Sac Actun, donning snorkels and cannonballing off a deck into a cave. We had to go single file, swimming through this cave system, as Robbie shone a flashlight down to the depths below. At places the caves were six or seven meters deep, at places it became a much deeper cavern. Stalactites hung from the ceiling above us, and reverse stalactites emerged from the save floor, the result of the river rising and drying up over thousands of years. At times you had less than a foot of air above you, and at one point we had to slip between two stalactites, whereupon my snorkel hit the ceiling. Instinct took over and I jerked my head, fearing for my breathing, at which point I hit my head on the ceiling.
We emerged on a very slippery set of stairs, then boarded the bumpy, seatbelt-free safari truck back to the entrance to shower, eat lunch and go over the various pictures they took at each zipline.
Here they had a small gift shop, mostly with t-shirts, and I picked up a copy of Popol Vuh, which I quoted from above. This Maya creation myth, and epic of the Amazing Twins, is one of only a few surviving sacred Maya texts, saved from destruction at the hands of Spanish religious zealots by the Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez, who, in 1701-03, translated Popol Vuh. As I would learn two days later, in a lengthy history lesson en route to Chichén Itzá, Ximénez is the exception, not the rule – the majority of Maya texts were systematically destroyed by the Spanish, who took it upon themselves to Christianize the Native savages. One of the chief deities of the Maya is Kukkan, ‘the Feathered Serpent’. The Aztec version of him is Quetzalcoatl. The Spanish associated the snake with Lucifer, and saw Mesoamerican human sacrifice as a form of devil-worship.
[Footnote 15: The common spelling is Kukulcan, and is still pronounced something like this. However, on our last excursion, to the Temple of Kukulcan at Chichén Itzá, one of the tour guides, Walter, presented me with this alternate spelling at the end of the day. On the bus-ride back from Valladolid, the last stop on the trip that day, I spoke to the tour guide about some of the historical details for this travelogue, and he spelled it out got me as Kukkan, “the way Mayans spell it.” He explained that the double K sound is pronounced as two distinct Ks, thereby producing a slight vowel sound between; something like Kuk’kan. Walter was fluent in Maya, and worked with the university (I’m not sure which one) so I’ll take him at his word, and render it Kukkan throughout.]
The Spanish landed in northern Mexico and then swept eastwards by land into Yucatán. Although much of the Maya grandeur was gone, written records still remained in the form of many codices. In 1562, Spanish Catholic Bishop Diego de Landa, who otherwise provided excellent eyewitness documentation of the culture, ordered everything they could get their hands on burned. According to de Landa,
“We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”
[Footnote 16: Sharer, Fifth Edition, page 599.]
Only three (undisputed) original codices remain in existence, and none of them are in the possession of the Maya people or the Mexican government. They are in museums in Dresden, Paris, and Madrid.
It wasn’t far down the road to Tulum, a set of ruins from the late ‘postclassic’ period. Robbie parked the van, then turned to me in particular. I had my GoPro on – he said, “Put that in your pocket until we get inside. They charge a tax for video cameras, which is stupid because everyone has cameras now on their phones.”
He led us down through a market, where men stood offering pictures with a monkey of a toucan on the shoulders. Down a forested road, where we were confronted with a stone wall – not too tall, doesn’t look like the most defensible thing in the world, but I suppose it’s plenty for a small settlement when your enemy doesn’t have cannons or munitions or even horses. Off to the left and we go through the site entrance. Through a winding jungle path, Robbie explains how Tulum rose in prominence after the fall of major sites like Chichén Itzá.
The Maya, he explained, had a class-based society, and those that lived on the coast were considered lower class, poor fishermen on the fringes on the great Maya society. Beginning in the 1200s, the Maya went through a seven-year period without rain. This led to lower crop yields and the cities, fifty or sixty thousand in population, collapsed, pushing the Maya into their final stage. Tulum – or Zama, as the Maya called it – became an important trading site on the coast following this drought.
Zama meant ‘City of the Dawn’, and would have been home to about two hundred and fifty to three hundred people. It’s surrounded on three sides by stone wall, the sea on the fourth, which was a cliff face. Atop the cliff was a fortress, which, given the flatness of the Yucatán peninsula, would have provided a vantage point to observe enemy troops on approach. The Aztecs, at this late stage of the game, wanted to crush the Maya. As Robbie explained, the Aztecs allied with other groups to dominate Mesoamerica, forming the Aztec Triple Alliance with the Acolhua and the Tepaneca. In the mid 1400s, Robbie claimed, the Maya had been defeated, and the city fell into ruin, thus leaving it unmolested by the Spanish – though in fact the city was still inhabited for a few decades after the Spanish conquest.
[Footnote 17: Various places online put the population at 1,000 to 1,600. Robbie reported to us it was between two hundred and fifty and three hundred. I don’t know which is true. Perhaps Robbie was referring specifically to the inhabitants of the walled city, and the higher number presumes a suburban population outside the walls; to quote Masson and Lope in Kukulcan’s Realm, “Tulum is largely known for its walled epicenter, but its associated town, presumably beyond the wall, has never been documented.” (page 46).]
Nestled along the coast, surrounded by impenetrable forest, the ruins went largely unnoticed throughout much of the Spanish conquest. A few sailors spotted it, but the city wasn’t described in detail until John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood came through here in the late 1830s through early 1840s. Stephens was a New Yorker, trained in law and technically in Central America on an official posting from President Martin Van Buren, but had made his name and his money with a couple of travel books detailing his adventures in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Russia, Poland, and some other places. Catherwood was a Brit, a draftsman and artist, who’d travelled to some of the same Old World places as Stephens, and had come into the former’s employ to sketch the ruins Stephens hoped to investigate. During his posting to what was then the Federal States of Central America, the country fell apart in civil war, though Stephens was able to complete his duties in Guatemala, then the capital. On personal time, he and Catherwood travelled about, fighting mosquitoes, malaria, unassailable terrain, bandits, and each brushed parts of the civil war, on sturdy mules, documenting a total of forty-four sites, including Copán (Honduras), Quiriguá (Guatemala), Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico), and Uxmal (Yucatán, Mexico), even purchasing the site of Copán for US$50. A successful book came from this, and another in 1843 when the pair returned, this time for more thorough exploration in Mexico. The pair is credited with the rediscovery of the Maya.
Prior to Stephens and Catherwood, few people would have believed the Native Americans were anything more than roving savages. Early Spanish Conquistadors had, indeed, encountered grandiose civilizations in both the Aztecs and the Inca, but even they were preceded in large part by the diseases they brought from Europe, which began decimating the Natives before war was ever brought. Pizarro pressed into Peru at the same time as an Inca civil war, and as a result, both major powers fell with little resistance. Spanish archeological explorations were often left unpublished, or were filed into archive in Mexico City and then forgotten during the War of Independence. As such, there was little documented evidence of great New World relics. What stories did abound were believed to be inflated or embellished. El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, was not forthcoming, and this was a time before photographs. When Native architecture was uncovered, theories abounded that this was the result of long-lost Greeks, Scythians, Canaanites, Carthaginians, Chinese, or a lost tribe of Israel (this last most famously making it into the Book of Mormon). Indeed, the Natives were dismissed out of hand. William Robertson, Scottish historian and author of one of the first histories of the Americas (1777), dismissed all claims of vast cities and structures in the jungles, using as a source someone claiming to have travelled to all parts of New Spain, and having seen nothing impressive.
The facts are rather different. We now know that some Native Americans societies were every bit as complex and sophisticated as anything in the Old World. Indeed, the Norte Chico had an elaborate network of city-states nearly three millennia before Alexander’s time, and, at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1521, the city of Tenochtitlan, upon which Mexico City is now built atop of, was the fourth-largest city on Earth.
Passing through a tunnel in the wall at the north end, we can see just how thick this defence was. A parapet and walkway would have run along the top of it. Then, coming out the far side, the whole site opens up to us. The landscape has a roll to it, the grass is neatly cut, there are few trees down the streets or near the main living spaces. Various temples and other buildings can been seen as soon as we emerge from the wall, and to the left is a line of trees and a building overlooking everything from a hilltop. Beyond those trees is the crashing waves of the ocean.
Tulum was a last dying breath. A mere three hundred people would have lived here, harried by enemy troops pressing them against the coast. Walking through, the grounds are well kept. The grass is cut, and there’s an openness to it. Many of the temples and larger buildings remain, though in somewhat shambling condition. Stone foundations of what would have been one-room households line the three pathways leading through the city.
The fortress atop the hill is dubbed El Castillo, or ‘The Castle’. In times past, it would have been painted red. It sits atop a twelve-meter cliff face, and is the grandest building in Tulum. When you get up there, you get a beautiful view of the ocean. The water is calm and teal, the shore protected by the Mesoamerican barrier reef – the second largest in the world. A wooden set of stairs coils its way down the cliff face, where hundreds of tourists are enjoying a dip.
At the south end of the site is a small placard on the Yucatecan Caste War. Fought between 1847 and 1901, with violence continuing into the 1930s, this saw the rebellion of local Maya against their Yucatecan, and later Mexican overlords. The catalyst was private encroachment into traditional Maya lands, and, for a time, the Maya fought well and managed to establish their own state, Chan Santa Cruz, stretching roughly from Tulum to the border with Belize (then British Honduras), along the Caribbean coast. The British even recognized the state, though this was more to bolster their own position in Belize. As soon as the Mexican government was ready to recognize the Belizean borders, the British gave up on Chan Santa Cruz and supported Mexican claims. Crescencio Poot, leader of the Chan Santa Cruz state, agreed to a peace with Mexico, allowing the state to be absorbed into the federal republic in exchange for his governorship of the state. He was ousted a year later in a coup d'état, at which point Mexico voided the treaty.
[Footnote 18: From 1841 though 1848, Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche formed an independent Republic of Yucatán (the second incarnation of such a state). The Caste War forced the Yucatecans to seek Mexican aid, which was granted on the condition that they rejoin the union. Stephens and Catherwood, par for the course when it came to exploring Hispanic counties during periods of civil war, came to Yucatán at the same time as Yucatán was breaking away, and the Mexicans were mounting an invasion of the territory.]
All throughout the grounds of Tulum – much like anywhere else in Mexico where rocks and sunlight are present – are dozens and dozens of iguanas. Some are small enough you can hardly see them, whereas some are big enough to eat a small dog. Heading back out to the market, another photo poser had four-foot (or more) iguana perched on his shoulder. The grounds of Tulum were not large; Robbie had given us a little over an hour for free time, and it was more than enough.
Driving back, we passed through a military checkpoint, where the officers again wore flak jackets – this time with M16s. As Francisco, our favourite bartender, later explained, it’s just a routine stop. Nothing to be concerned about.
Driving back down the broken road towards Now Jade, the Brits and Aussies already having been dropped off, Robbie carefully avoided the speed bumps. As we passed by the other resort now under construction, he mentioned, “I don’t know how they got permission to build.”
Almost everything around Now Jade is swampland. He went on to tell us that there were environmental protections in place, which is why the road was in such bad shape – they’re not allowed to repair it, or widen it, for fear of disturbing the swampland. This new resort is just going to destroy what’s left of the road quicker. The former governor of Quintana Roo, he told us, was notoriously corrupt, and was granting permits left, right and centre towards the end. Governors are only allowed to serve one term in Mexico, so he didn’t need to worry about re-election. After this governor left office, he disappeared before his corruption caught up with him.
“They just found him not to long ago,” said Robbie. “In... Guatemala, I think.”
He was likely referring to Mario Villanueva (in office 1993-1999), also known as El Chueco. Accused of money laundering and drug trafficking, he never showed up to hand over the office to his successor in 1999. He vanished, and was arrested two years later at a random vehicle inspection in Cancún – not Guatemala, as Robbie claimed. Though, this also happened fifteen years before, and Robbie had given the impression it was more recent, so perhaps he was referring to someone else. Villaneuva was convicted of money laundering and served six years in Mexico before extradition to the United States, where he served an additional six years. In late 2016, he completed his US sentence and was sent back to Mexico, where he’s expected to serve twenty more years.
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