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
Two days later, the journey continued – Chichén Itzá, and the great Maya pyramid, the Temple of Kukkan.
Arriving in the resort lobby at 7:20, we find our tour driver already waiting. His name is Bruno, and he ushers us outside to a white van. Inside is a middle-aged Chicago couple. James is his name (I never got hers), and, in addition to sports, he’s very into history. Bruno briefly mentions we’re going to the Moon Palace, before dealing with the broken roads and sharp speed bumps leading out of Puerto Morales. At Moon Palace, we disembark, and board a luxury bus alongside forty or fifty others. There’s a driver and two tour operators wearing vibrant orange t-shirts with company logos on it.
Brian and I sit down in a pair of empty seats in front of a young Asian couple. Without any introduction, the bus pulls out silently. After a minute or two, one of the tour operators works his way back, passing out cardboard food packages. In a whisper, he says it’s a traditional Maya dish. “Unwrap it and you can eat the paste,” he says. It was apparently some sort of corn paste, with chicken in the centre. Not bad. Then came “real chocolate”, a hot liquid cocoa without milk or sugar added, again offered in a whisper. After that, not a word from out guides for more than an hour, so I broke out my headphones and listened to the remainder of the Korea and the World podcast I began on the flight. Professor Andrei Lankov finishes off his economic analysis of the North, and I move onto the second podcast, where Hyeonseo Lee summarizes her escape and defection.
More than an hour into the trip, and finally the bus, approaching what looks like a toll station, pulls off to the side of the road. It is now that one of the tour guides, a large gentleman with slicked-back hair named Ulysses, taps the bus’ microphone. “Sorry to interrupt your siesta,” he says. He goes on to say that there is a tax for leaving the state of Quintana Roo, which the driver has gone into the border station to pay for each of us, and he is going to take a few minutes to introduce our tour and the Maya civilization.
I quickly whip out my phone, bring up the audio recorder function on it, and hold my arm up to pick up the speaker above my head. Ulysses then goes on to speak for more than a hour. He begins, “The Mexican government says that,” then he repeats it in Spanish, “they say that we have more than 7 million – 7 million – Maya descendents in my country.”
About half the bus, it turns out, is Spanish; people in from El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia and elsewhere. Everything he says he immediately repeats in Spanish.
As he speaks, his partner, a silent gentleman who Ulysses would momentarily introduce as Walter – one of those 7 million Maya, fluent in the language – is handing him laminated articles from a file folder. Punctuated with Spanish, Ulysses lectures, “In the year 2014, a group of Mexican archeologists, and American archeologists, they decided to look, to look inside a sinkhole, they found some fossils. In the year 2014, this group of archeologists, they found the fossils of two animals, which we call in English the sabre-toothed tiger. They found an armadillo, okay, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. And they found the body of a woman. They found the skull and some important pieces. They took it to United States, they tested, they were surprised. She died in that cave around 13,000 years ago.”
He’s holding a laminated article on what’s become known as the Hoyo Negro Girl, or Naia. Alberto Nava, an underwater cartographer, was mapping the Sistema Sac Actun, not far from Tulum, when the narrow caves dropped away, and he and his colleagues emerged into a vast underwater pit, which he described as like the Grand Canyon, only underwater. Dubbed Hoyo Negro, or Black Hole, they found animal remains everywhere the looked – smilodons (or sabre-toothed tigers), giant ground sloths, gomphotheres (cousins to mammoths and modern elephants) and glyptodons (the giant armadillos) – and they found Naia, the oldest intact human skeleton in the Americas. About 13,000 years old, she’d have been a teenage girl when she wound up down there, some one hundred feet down.
Current theories place the original population of the Americas somewhere around 13-17,000 years ago, towards the end of the last ice age. Glaciers were much larger then than now, covering much of North America and Eurasia – all of Canada and Greenland and well into the northern states, and northern Europe and much of Russia down to the Black Sea. One area relatively free of glaciation was an area known as Beringia, the area stretching roughly from the Lena River in eastern Siberia to the Yukon border – and yes, the entire area was one contiguous landmass. It would have been possible back then to walk all the way from China into northern Canada without crossing water, and with comparably little snow. At the end of the last ice age, the glaciers began to melt, the oceans rose, the Bering strait filled in, and the Siberians living in Alaska (who now can’t go back to Asia), would have had a now-glacier-free highway down into the Americas.
Ulysses says, “They did a DNA test, and they said that the DNA is Asian. People here in Yucatán, with respect, most of the people in the jungle, they are very short, very short people. For the skin colour, Maya people, we call them copper-coloured skin, okay – red-coloured skin, copper-coloured skin. The people, they have very high cheekbones, they have the eyes like the Asian people, they have black, straight hair. They never gonna have grey hair their whole life. They can be fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety – they never have grey hair. Also, there’s no balding problem. You will not find balding Maya men.” He smirks, says, “I can see that some of you are not Mayas.”
[Footnote 19: Sic. As near as I can ascertain, Maya is the proper term for both noun and adjective, singular and plural. The only times Mayan are used is when referring to the Mayan language family (as opposed to Yucatec Maya, the singular language within the family), or when referring to Mayanists; that is, Maya specialists. The rules on this are not well-established.]
He went on to read from a local newspaper article on the Naia find, and quoted it as saying that “Migration came from what we call today Russia, and the Mayas have one hundred percent Asian features.” He continues, “The first last name in Yucatán – listen to me, this is true – the first last name in Yucatán is Chan. Chan, for us, means ‘small’, okay. Another Maya last name: Chen.”
So how exactly did Naia wind up in a two-hundred-foot-wide underwater cave, a hundred feet down? We may never know. Let’s envision the scene. Her name wasn’t Naia – that’s a Greek name, taken from myths of water nymphs. Instead, let’s call her Xochimitl. She stands only four-foot-ten, with a large head, and a small, narrow face. She’s fifteen years old. The rain has not come; the local watering hole is drying up, and the glyptodon population is moving further north. So too are the sabre-toothed tigers that prey on them. Corn hasn’t been domesticated yet, so Xochimitl’s people rely on these animals for food. The rain god is not pleased – if his anger is not abated, famine will follow and the god of death will walk these lands.
[Footnote 20: That doesn’t occur for another 3,000 years, so corn is as alien to Xochimitl as an iPhone would be to an Egyptian pharaoh.]
From the most distant reaches of the land, Xochimitl was sought. Through every village and countryside, for weeks and weeks, a thousand shamans have sought her, this fairest flower of maidenhood. Her beauty is unparallelled. Now she is brought before the great shaman, at the mouth of a great pit, water deep below. The high shaman is clad in ceremonial vestments and an elaborate feathered head-dress, the sabres of the tiger ringing his neck. He is the holiest of all men – the pontiff of the great Feathered Serpent.
Xochimitl knows the supreme honour she was selected for – this was not forced upon her, but rather is her highest calling. But there is terror in those lovely eyes, a benumbing, cold fear of the unknown. She is to be the bride of the rain god, who, in some distant future, will be known as Chaac – united with him bodily deep in this chasm in the Earth, his blood far below.
The girl is ushered by lesser shamans to the edge of the pit, where the high shaman stands. Two shamanesses undress the girl of her simple garments, and she stands naked, spine straight, trying to keep her eyes locked with the holy man, still her fluttering breath. Behind them, filling the whole of the Sacred Way, comes the chieftain, the nobles, the great warriors and many other shamans. On the far side of the pit is gathered a silent, grave-faced multitude, the entire village and hundreds from afar as well.
The high shaman enters the little temple at the brink of the well, a small thatched hut. A dirge by holy adepts ceases, the drums stilled. He performs his devotions to Chaac. He lights the sacred incense-burners and the fragrant blue vapour floats, curling, upward, through a vent in the hut. With a sharpened piece of obsidian, he cuts his lower lip, sticks out his tongue and slices down the length of it. All the blood he drips into the burning incense.
Outside, two powerful nacons, or lesser shamans, lift the maiden, their muscular brown arms forming a sling in which she lies as lightly as a leaf on the bosom of a stream. With her, they advance with her to the edge of the pit. The pitiless sun glares down into her upturned fear-stricken eyes and she throws one slender arm over her face.
Slowly, these men swing the feather-light body backward and forward to the beat of the drums. At a sign from the high shaman, appearing now in the daylight once more, blood still on his lips, the drums are suddenly stilled; the chant from the crowd of holy men ends in a high-pitched wail. A last forward swing and the bride of the rain god hurtles far out over the well. Turning slowly in the air, the lithesome body falls faster and faster until it strikes the dark water seventy feet below.
An echoing splash and all is still.
This almost certainly didn’t happen. These past paragraphs are a simulacrum of Theodore Arthur Willard, from the book City of the Sacred Well, first published in 1926. Willard was interviewing Edward Herbert Thompson, whom he called ‘Don Eduardo’, in the same fashion as the Mexican workers under Thompson. From these two come the motif of the Mesoamerican virgin sacrifice, although Thompson, who studied the Maya for forty years, learning their language, customs and religion, claimed Willard wildly embellished the story. Thompson, an American archeologist, had been inspired by the writing of John Stephens, and, in 1894, purchased the plantation which included Chichén Itzá. He spent much of the rest of his life in Yucatán, and was the first to dredge the Cenote Sagrado, or Sacred Cenote, of which I have roughly described with Naia.
[Footnote 21: Pages 53-55.]
[Footnote 22: Though, one should remember, her body was found near Tulum, not Chichén Itzá.]
Ulysses continued, “Where are we going today? We are visiting Chichén Itzá. Chichén Itzá means this: chi means ‘mouth’, chén means ‘sinkhole’. When I say chi-chén, I mean ‘in the mouth of the well’. Itz, in English, means ‘wizard’, and ha means ‘water’.” He goes on to talk about the various cenotes in Yucatán, and how these exist in each of the cardinal directions surrounding Chichén Itzá (most importantly, Cenote Sagrado in the north), and how the pyramid was built right atop a cenote.
The pyramid, he explains, is perfectly aligned with the equinoxes. Every March and September twenty-first, the sun will align in such a way that two faces of the pyramid are entirely bathed in light, and the other two entirely in shadow, the crest of darkness perfectly in line with the stepped corners of the structure. These steps form the shape of the body of a snake. On the north side is a giant, chiseled stone head of a snake, and so the equinoxes are marked every year with the illusion of a snake slithering down from the peak, facing Cenote Sagrado. Each year, he says, at each equinox, Chichén Itzá receives around 30,000 visitors to witness this.
“Out there,” he said, motioning to the window, “it is a dense jungle. Out there, we have jaguars. We have panthers, and bobcats. Chicos, out there, we have scorpions, we have tarantulas. But more than anything else, we have snakes. We have, in the Yucatán peninsula, more than sixty-eight different kinds of snakes. That is why the name of the area is Cancún – can means ‘snake’, cún means ‘nest’.” Singling out a woman, he added, “Señorita, this is where your husband brought you for vacation.”
And so, therefore, one of the principal deities of the Maya was Kukkan (Kuk’can), or, the Feathered Serpent. Feathers, in this case, mean scales, and specifically, it refers to the rattlesnake.
[Footnote 23: Among the K’iche’ Maya of Guatemala, whom Popol Vuh specifically tells the story of, the deity is known as Q’uk’umatz.]
And this is where Ulysses’ history lesson turned to the Spanish, their quest for gold, and their crusade against the Natives’ Satanic snake-worship.
The bus was off the highway now. The landscape was still jungle, but there was a dryness to the terrain. We came to a stop sign. Ulysses points out the window. “Take a look what is on your right.” It was a field of large cacti. “This is the reason there are 120 million Mexican people. I mean, is it not true that after two or three shots of tequila, there is no such thing as an ugly woman?”
The first stop of the day is a Maya village. This rundown little place is in Maya-controlled territory, something like a Native reserve. They have a gift shop here, beautifully hand-painted, where a friendly young Maya man eagerly takes your picture in front of one of the murals. Ulysses, upon pulling into the town, had tried to sell everyone on a birth certificate in the Maya calendar, and now directs you towards the desk where you can pay (it will be drawn up on site and delivered upon our departure). All proceeds from this gift shop go to the local community, which is not doing well. They really try to push this on you; upon entering the territory, Ulysses pulls out a newspaper article proclaiming that Chichén Itzá – one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World – is at risk of losing its status because of uncontrolled vendors on site. On a tour he conducted just recently, one tourist bought a wooden carving from a vendor that was infested with termites. All sales final, of course. The moral is clear: don’t buy from the peddlers on site; this Maya village controls their products.
After about fifteen to twenty minutes, it’s back to the bus, you’re given some much-desired water, and then it’s off to Chichén Itzá.
The entrance to the site is through the Mayaland Hotel, a large, Victorian-style resort deep in the jungle. As with Tulum, there’s a tax on my GoPro, though no one ever told me when to pay, and, owing to the site’s uncontrolled nature, I found myself inside having never paid the tax. It was just as well; a fingerprint smudge covered the case’s lens and the video never turned out.
We were separated into two groups, English-speaking and Spanish-speaking. Ulysses took the Spanish group, which included Nicaraguans, El Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Peruvians, Brazilians and a newlywed Colombian couple. James and his wife, the Asian couple sitting behind us, a San Francisco couple and others went with the other tour guide, Walter, who’d been mute up to this point.
Walter leads us around some of the hotel’s bungalows, past some signs, and now we’re on a path that has to be a part of the historical site, rather than hotel grounds. The path we’re on isn’t paved or gravelled. It winds haphazardly through the jungle. ‘Street’ vendors are scattered here and there, selling all the same stuff, as the path goes up and down, twists and turns. There’s a dense canopy, and the path – such as it is – splits a few times in random places, as though we’re just striking blindly into the jungle and following the guesswork or earlier groups that weaved through the trees this way instead of that. Every third vendor, sparsely occupying this area and therefore off in the distance behind rows of trees, is blowing a jaguar flute, a little wood-carved cat’s head that, when you restrict the outflow of air on the other side, produces a hissy growl. We are therefore surrounded by the sounds of a half-dozen jaguars growling as we wander about.
Walter gets to a point of his choosing, waves us in. “Okay, señors, gather in.” He now seems to take a breath, draw himself up. “Okay, listen to me, señors, the reason I let my colleague take over this morning,” he smirks slightly, “is because I was tired,” and then launches into a thirteen-minute speech about the first astronomical observatory on Earth, and the discovery of the Maya by Stephens (whom Walter repeatedly referred to as Mr. Steve Lloyd) and Catherwood. According to Walter, ‘Mr. Steve Lloyd’ was looking for the golden city of El Dorado, and, with Catherwood, came across Chichén Itzá in 1841. Catherwood produced a now iconic sketch of Chichén Itzá, nearly engulfed in jungle overgrowth.
[Footnote 24: There is no reference to this in William Carlsen’s book, Jungle of Stone, a biography of Stephens and Catherwood.]
It’s at this point that someone asked how Mr. Steve Lloyd and Catherwood could have discovered Chichén Itzá if the Spanish – the gentleman referenced Diego de Landa, the book burner – had known about the Maya nearly two centuries before.
Walter replied, “Listen to me, señor, the Spanish people, they came over the territory of Yucatán in the year 1540. They heard about Chichén Itzá, and they heard about gold in a cenote, but they didn’t know where was that.” The young Chinese woman, wearing oversized sunglasses, was nodding vehemently as though she only half-understood Walter’s accent. “There is a book that says that Friar de Landa saw that temple, but here in Yucatán, there are five temples like this one, so we don’t know if he saw this one or not.” However, de Landa’s accounts were some of the inspiration for Mr Steve Lloyd in coming to Central America.
Walter continued, “Then, in 1904, explorers from United States” – he’s referring here to Ed Thompson – “they saw the pictures, I mean, they saw the sketch from Catherwood, and said, ‘Wow, is this real?’ Now, Mr. Steve Lloyd recorded this, and was told [by local Maya] it’s called Chichén Itzá, but he didn’t know the meaning of this temple.” He then went on to reiterate the meaning of Chichén Itzá – City at the Mouth of the Well of the Water Shamans – and how Thompson, speaking to the Natives and learning the language, deciphered it, before adding, “but I know the language, and I know the real meaning of this word. It means, ‘Magic Window to Please the Gods’ – because for us, the gods, they live in the water.”
[Footnote 25: Who began dredging Cenote Sagrado in 1904, though had owned the plantation for a decade prior to this, and had been documenting the Maya in Mexico since 1885.]
One should remember that Walter is full-blood Maya, and fluently speaks the language, along with Spanish and English, and, apparently, French and Russian as well.
As he speaks, he keeps talking about “that temple”, and saying “just over there”, and I realize that, just behind the wall of trees before which he is standing, is a grey mass. Without my glasses, it blends in almost perfectly with the fair colour of the trees’ bark, but listening to our tour guide, I’m now acutely aware the great pyramid of Kukkan is only a few meters away; Walter has very deliberately chosen his lecture point.
We’re led around a group of trees. There are a few more vendors fluting jaguar sounds, but they’re barely there. Before us stands the great pyramid of El Castillo, the Temple of Kukkan. Nearly one hundred feet in height, ninety-one steps up, sitting in a grassy clearing just beyond this treeline, it dominates all in my field of perception. The jaguars are gone now, and I am filled with awe and wonder, while simultaneously humbled by the great structure before me. In an instant, the true scope of Native American sophistication crystallizes, and I am filled with the exact same awe I felt when I first stepped up to the edge and saw the Great Wall outstretched before me.
Chichén Itzá, the site, rose to prominence somewhere in the seventh through ninth centuries. A smaller pyramid stood at this site then, which is encased within the Temple of Kukkan now. In fact, the Temple encases at least two earlier pyramids. The outer shell, now perfectly acoustically and astronomically designed, was built sometime between 800 and 900.
The Maya were a warrior people, with a rigid caste system. The star size you were born under determined your roll in life. To be born under the jaguar, or kotz’b’alam, destined you for the life of a warrior. Long before the Aztecs and the Inca, the Maya dominated the Americas. They were the domesticaters of corn, they invented the only true writing system in the Americas, they were building vast temples at the same time the Greeks were, they built the first observatory on Earth and invented the concept the zero, allowing for complex mathematics and calendar measurement. Around the year 900, everyone close enough to know who you are is going to be envious, so you’ve got a lot to defend. Plus, as the vendors are so happy to remind us, there are jaguars about everywhere.
[Footnote 26: This is an historical slight and overgeneralization. The Olmec were the first great Mesoamerican civilization, from which the later Maya significantly borrowed (including the calendar and the concept of zero). The Toltecs had their own great civilization in Mesoamerica, which came to influence the later Maya, notably the site of Chichén Itzá. The Moche of northern Peru had elaborate temples, irrigation systems and an abundance of ceramic art depicting heterosexual anal sex. The Norte Chico civilization in Peru is often cited as the oldest civilization in the Americas, contemporaneous with ancient Egypt and predating the Olmec by more than two millennia, with complex architecture, systems of government and food production.
More recently, findings suggest the Kuikuro people in the Xingu region of the Amazon (Mato Grosso, central-western Brazil) may have had their own elaborate city-state. Long-sought by Lieutenant Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett – in many ways, a real-life Indiana Jones – in the early twentieth century, it was dismissed by most scholars as impossible. Fawcett never found ‘Z’, as he dubbed it – indeed, the quest for it cost him his life, and the life of his son, not to mention scores of others who went after him when he went missing in the 1920s. New research by Professor Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida, however, suggest that some form of Z may have actually existed at the site of Kuhikugu, perhaps with a population as high as 50,000, dating around 1,000-1,500 years ago. Such a population would have made it as large as any city in Europe at the time.
These are but a few examples. Many other complex societies existed. See Mann’s 1491 for details. The life of Percy Fawcett is recounted in the book The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which has been adapted into a movie by the same name, starring Charlie Hunnam.]
[Footnote 27: This puts them in a very exclusive club; writing has been invented (by which I mean completely from scratch) somewhere between two and six times in human history. Other progenitors include the Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, the Indus Valley civilization and the Polynesians of Easter Island. Some arguments exist that all Eurasian systems (including Easter Island, as Rongorongo came about after first contact with the Spanish) all derive from Sumerian cuneiform. The only undisputed originators are Sumer and Mesoamerica.]
It was very hot, so Walter gathered us under a tree to continue his history lesson. As he spoke, a black American woman voiced a question. “The Maya collapsed because of a drought and the water levels in the caves fell, right? Well, if they didn’t have the technology to get the water up, how could they build pyramids like this?”
“Slaves,” he answered, matter-of-factly. He then went on to describe how, with slave labour, Kukkan could have been built in as little as fifteen years.
I wanted to ask about sacrifice – I knew captured warriors were the common form sacrifice took, but, ignorant then of Thompson and Willard’s germination of the virgin motif, wanted to find out if this actually happened. I didn’t ask directly – I didn’t care to be perceived as a buck-toothed tourist – I instead, following Walter’s mention of slaves, asked, as if to confirm, if slaves were the ones used for sacrifice.
“Yes,” Walter replied, monosyllabically.
When I saw he wasn’t going to add anything to it, I went on, “And slaves were warriors captured from enemy tribes?”
“Yes,” he said again.
I got the impression he wasn’t too enthused about these questions. One more time, I went on, “Was it just slaves they sacrificed? Or would they ever sacrifice anyone else?”
He didn’t exactly answer that question. Instead, he mentioned how the king would sometimes cut himself – “Okay, listen to me, señors,” and he gathered everyone at the base of the staircase on the pyramid’s one side. He gave a speech about how blood itself was a gift to the gods. “Sometimes the king would cut his tongue, his lips, his nose, sometimes his penis, and then burn the blood.” This would have been done with a piece of obsidian, which is everywhere in Yucatán, and the king would have been atop the pyramid, inside the temple itself, where the gesture could be observed and disseminated to the masses.
“Okay, señors, I want you to clap along with me – one, two, three...” and we all clapped in unison following his counting. As soon as we began, the whole plain, it seemed, had an echo sweeping across it – the pyramid itself was spitting back the sound. I looked to my left – the sound was coming from the temple itself, ninety-one steps up.
Immediately to the north of the pyramid is the Platform of Venus, with serpent and jaguar heads jutting out of the side of it. To the east is the Temple of the Warriors. This is where human sacrifice would have been performed, the shamans administering the ritual, the man held down, a piece of obsidian driven into his heart. This is where shamans would blow a specialized horn, which sounded as though a man was screaming. There are no numbers on Maya human sacrifice, yet Walter told us they probably sacrificed a slave twice annually, at the equinoxes. Other sacrifices could be performed depending upon the circumstances.
Next to the Temple of the Warriors is a veritable forest of carved stone columns – the Group of a Thousand Columns (though there are not actually a thousand). On the other side of the Platform of Venus is the royal ball court. This is where Walter led us next.
Here, the Maya would have played an elaborate game, shooting a rubber ball made from local rubber trees with their hips, trying to score at either end. The sides of the court are lined with structures for the viewing crowd, including an elaborate platform for shamans and royalty. This game is also referenced in Popol Vuh; the Lords of Xib’alb’a became annoyed at the bouncing by Jun Junajpu and Wuqub’ Junajpu. This was not just a game for fun – this too was life or death. Fourteen players would face off. The star player – the winner – would be sacrificed.
As soon as Walter says this, an exclamation of shock erupted from a few people in the group. The black woman – the one who’d asked about how they’d built the pyramid – exclaimed, “I’d play to lose!”
This game of hip-ball is known to us through sources, though Walter claimed they’d once brought together some of the world’s top Olympic athletes, and no one was able to duplicate it; no player could bounce the ball far enough with just their hips to clear the goal at the end. Instead, Walter speculates, there must have been a stick involved – something like lacrosse – and he points out faded hieroglyphs at the base of the shamans’ viewing platform as evidence. You can faintly see they players are holding something that looks like a lacrosse stick, though it could also, perhaps, be a spear or something like that, the game representing warrior rituals on the field.
Now we had free time. We were to meet back up with Walter and Ulysses at the Mayaland buffet in about an hour for lunch. Brian and I walked the grounds, swinging along the northern edge past the Platform of Venus and the Temple of the Warriors towards the Group or a Thousand Columns. There are vendors everywhere, selling leather paintings, carved wood or fishbone plaques, miniature statues of the Temple of Kukkan, and so on. And, of course, every third one is blowing a jaguar horn.
We meandered back around, and wound up at the Mayaland buffet, where lunch was apart of our ticket price. We met up with James and his wife, while eating miniature tacos, and James described how he loved learning about the history of various places he travelled to. Afterwards, the four of us went through the meagre Mayaland gift shop, where James picked up a book of photographs of Chichén Itzá with brief historical notes attached to each.
Next came a walk through the Mayaland bungalow area to a planetarium, where, donning headphones that translated the film to English, much of the story of Popol Vuh was recounted in visual form.
Back to the bus, for a brief two-minute trip north to Cenote Sagrado. Here, like at the Jungla Maya with Robbie, we could swim in the cenote, and you had to shower beforehand to keep the local water table safe for drinking.
This is where, for a period of six years, beginning in 1904, Edward Thompson recovered jade, gold, pottery and incense, as well as hundreds of bodies. The sacrifices were both male and female, and well as children. To quote Thompson (via Willard) when he realized the significance of this cenote, “I was gazing at the Sacred Way, and at its end the Sacred Well in whose murky depths even then might lie the pitiful bones of many once lovely maidens sacrificed to appease a grim god. What untold treasures this grisly well might hide! What tragedies had been enacted at its brink!” As Willard described, these people were offerings to the rain god – although they’d have been killed beforehand, not tossed over unscathed, as he depicted with his willing virgin accepting her fate. Virginity was likely not any sort of barometer in choice of sacrifice. The victim would not have gone willingly and proudly to her end; rather, an enslaved warrior had to be held down before stabbed with obsidian. “We must, alas, abandon visions of live victims drowning in agony, thus following by decades the demise of the colorful virgin sacrifice theories,” says Jane E. Buikstra, an American anthropologist, criticizing this idea, put forward by Thompson and Willard.
[Footnote 28: Willard, page 52.]
[Footnote 29: New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice, page 301.]
You’re given about a half hour at Cenote Sagrado. Everyone was told to be back to the bus at a specific time. Gradually, the bus began to fill back up. There were, however, a few latecomers – notably the newlywed Colombian couple.
More water was passed out and, hitting the road, a new face appeared at the front of the bus. Actually, we’d seen him before – he was the young Maya gentleman that took our pictures outside the Maya handicraft centre. Ulysses takes to the microphone again and begins passing out the Maya calendar birth certificates for those who’d purchased one. Then he launches into a new sales pitch. “People, they come to Mexico, they want to take back something from this country. They want to take back tequila. Let me tell you something, Mexico exports tequila – go to Costco.”
He then introduced xtabentún. This is a traditional Maya liquor. Tequila, he explains, was invented in 1795 with distillation, made from blue agave, a cactus-like plant, over the course of seven to twelve years. Xtabentún, on the other hand, is made via fermentation from maize, honey and flower nectar. The bottle presented to us by this young Maya man was thirty percent alcohol.
He gave us samplers. You can really taste the honey. Bottles were offered at the price of US$20.
The final stop of the day was Valladolid, a colonial-era Spanish town not far down the road. Here, we only stopped for about fifteen minutes, just enough time to walk around town square. It was late in the day and the sun was already setting. Back at the bus, and a lot of people were already filling the seats. Walter was taking a headcount. I spoke to him for few minutes, asking some questions on Maya history, whereupon he presented me with a Spanish-language book on the subject (alas, not available in English), titled El Saqueo del Cenote Sagrado de Chichén Itzá by Luis A. Ramirez Aznar, and gave me his preferred method of spelling for Kukkan.
Another five minutes and everyone was present except for the Colombian gentleman and his buxom young bride. Walter was irritated at this point, and called for the attention of the bus. “Okay, listen to me señors,” he pointed to the empty seats of the Colombians, “you remember this couple was late at the cenote as well.” He showed us his clipboard. “This is a witness form, I’m going to pass it around for everyone to sign, and we’re going to leave them behind.”
I think the entire bus was collectively in shock. Valladolid was two and a half hours away from Cancún, in another state, and looked like it had been pulled out of a previous century and dropped here in the Mexican jungle. It was nearly dark out.
Luckily for them, before a single signature could be put on the form, as Walter was filling out the tour number, the couple showed up.
It was a long a tiresome ride back to Puerto Morales. I finished off the podcast with Hyeonseo Lee, we said goodbye to James and his wife, the only other couple driven away from the Moon Palace resort, and Bruno, under cover of nightfall, drove Brian and I back to Now Jade, where we each immediately grabbed ourselves some white Russians.
I went to Mexico knowing very little about the Maya. I spent all of two minutes looking up the distance between Maya Riviera and Chichén Itzá. Standing in the Jungla Maya gift shop, I didn’t even know what the Popol Vuh was, and must have looked like a fool to the kid working there. Virtually every detail Walter, Ulysses or Robbie gave me was fresh information. So, in many ways, this was a put-your-feet-up-and-relax sort of vacation, and I walked away with a newfound appreciation of the Maya, and American Indigenous peoples in general. Also, always buy travel insurance.
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