story and photos by Susanna Starr
The mouth of the dragon-Chiccana Mayan ruins © Susanna Starr
I’ve just celebrated my fortieth year of visiting the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Starting from the first year of 1973 when my young children went scampering up the archaeological sites of Chichen Itza, Tulum and others, we were virtually the only ones there. As the years went by and we returned to our “paradise” we found that the area was developing in a serious way. Twelve years later we moved to the southern part of the Yucatan and settled on Laguna Bacalar where we were to build a small eco/retreat resort we called Rancho Encantado. During the years I’ve visited many archaeological sites. Most of them were still being excavated and mapped out by the archaeologists I hiked through the jungle and climbed up steep pyramids which, at the time, were mostly high mounds although some of them like Dzibanche and Kohunlich had been in their early stages of restoration. We sought out the undiscovered (except by archaeologists and experienced the thrill of discovery known to very few others.
Becan Mayan Ruins © Susanna Starr
The day after the archaeological site of Calakmul in the adjoining state of Campeche was opened to the public, Luis, who was our manager and now a tour guide, was contacted by the archaeological people of INAH informing him of the new status. Within a few days, he took us to see this site along with my entire family who were visiting at the time. It was thrilling, with newly discovered Calakmul reputed to rival some of the most major and already well-known sites of the Mayan empire. By this time my children were grown and with spouses and partners, and my grandchildren were now the ages of what my children had been in the early seventies. At the insistence of Luis and my son, Roy, who promised to help me, I climbed the highest pyramid, walking along ledges that I had only experienced in dreams. It was an amazing trip with the voices of howler monkeys in the background and spider monkeys cavorting in the branches above us.
During the nineties, we were visited by Gerry and George Andrews who was a professor of architecture and a specialist of Mayan archaeological sites. His renderings of his own interpretations of what the sites looked like originally were precisely calculated from notes and measurements he and his wife took themselves. With them we went to many unexplored sites using old maps from his collection. We were impressed not only by their delightful personalities but by their energy and enthusiasm. Gerry, a yoga teacher was in her seventies and George was in his early eighties. While they climbed mounds of rock and dirt, strewn with roots and tree stumps, he was with his measuring tapes and maps while she took precise notes. They were great excursions and he was a fount of information as well as being so highly enthusiastic He definitely did hands-on research.
Now, after decades of living in this area of the ancient Maya, having visited more sites than I can count on my fingers, many of them a number of times, I thought I was done with those adventures. Over the years we had visited sites where the archaeologists were working, sometimes seeing artifacts that had been unearthed only days before. I’ve climbed to heights that were dizzying, looked down at the jungle, mountains and valleys and recapturing in the mind’s eye, the way these buildings had been constructed and laid out around a large paved plaza, peopled with thousands who had come to the markets or to conduct business as well as to attend the spectacular celebrations. I really thought that I was finished exploring newly discovered sites and climbing steep pyramids.
Recently discovered Mayan fresco behind glass – Becan Ruins © Susanna Starr
Today, however, we were once more with Luis, driving through the jungle with the guide from INAH (Instituto Nacional de la Antropologia y Historia)and the two young boys who were accompanying us, with the special one-time only permit in hand. Since 1995, Luis Tellez has been a professional guide in addition to being a fine photographer and birding expert. We were not permitted, however, to take any photos until the site was further mapped and then opened to the public.
Actually, I had been to this site almost twenty years ago, when we were accompanied by Don Julio who was working for us at Rancho Encantado and his friend and mentor, Don Mellan who was in his late seventies at that time. We were told that it was an important site, but since no excavation had been done, we had to climb up the steep incline that was completely covered by trees, rocks, roots and dirt. I remember Don Mellan pointing to a tree whose leaves, he told us, made a good shampoo. As many of the contemporary Maya, he still knew the healing and useful qualities of trees, leaves, barks, roots and branches and although all the trees looked much alike to me, he recognized each of them.
Later, a little less than five years ago, John and I and another couple who live in Bacalar tried to visit the site of Ichkabal. We went prepared with coolers of food and drinks, knowing that it could be a long, hot and arduous day. But it turned out, after two flat tires on pot-holed roads that were only then just being hacked out of the jungle, that we had to abort the trip. Once again, our friend Luis was our guide and we were accompanied by the same Don Mellan of the earlier trip. Since he grew up in Bacalar, he was familiar with the surrounding terrain and knew where the pyramids were. But this time we just couldn’t make it.
John, however, was not willing to give up on visiting the site. For a number of years we’ve been told by people in state tourism, including a former president of the entire municipality of which Bacalar and Ichkabal were a part, that they were working on the site and it was expected to be open to the public soon. Like archaeological projects everywhere in the world, funding is always difficult and despite high hopes for initial or continuing stages of excavation, the projects always take longer than expected. Here, in the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, there are many thousands of sites to be explored and even those that are known to have been very important to the ancient Maya have to struggle for funding. Anyway, Luis was able to secure the one-time only permit that allowed us to try once again today to visit the site.
This trip was different from the first two in that the roads were clear and passable, it wasn’t raining, and enough excavation and restoration had already been done to provide a glimpse of what was begun about 250 B.C. How could I not climb to the top of these pyramids, even though I thought I had been finished with that kind of thing? At one point, when everyone climbed the “Mirador” which had an altitude of approximately forty meters, I decided that I would wait on the level that had been the platform. But, after a while, I decided to go on ahead, feeling somewhat confident since there was a guide rope to hang onto.
Although John, Luis, our guide from INAH and the two boys were already at the top, it still felt that I was doing this alone. Knowing that they were not that far away that they couldn’t hear me if I fell and screamed, I forged ahead. It was worth it when I joined them at the top and looked out at the panorama. I knew where we were in relation to several other well known archeological sites of Dzibanche and Kohunlich and just 11 kilometers from KinichNa. The distances between these other sites, however, were covered with jungle growth so none of them could be seen. What could be seen though, through imagination, was the slight glimmering of understanding the extent of the Mayan Empire and how the many sites that we see as individual ones, were actually centers for a vast population with smaller city-states surrounding these large central cities, connected by stone causeways known to the Maya as sac be.
When we descended and walked to the main plaza, I had to ask our INAH guide to reiterate, once again, the parameters of the central plaza which looked so enormous. Although the entire central plaza has not yet been worked on, the estimation is that it was about 200×500 meters. No wonder it looked so enormous – it was! Obviously, judging from the height of the buildings we had ascended, this was a major city of great importance to the ancient Maya. Just trying to envision the plaza being filled with people and commerce was another insight of the magnitude of the central space of the city. At that time, the floor of this plaza was paved and its entire surface painted. The temples, too, were stuccoed and painted red. At the first site we visited, we saw that the bottom row of stones was indented and were told that it was painted a darker red than the rest of the pyramid which was also plastered with a smooth coat of stucco, finished with a coat of red dye, the traces of which still can be seen.
The impact of this must have been spectacular, much as modern day skyscrapers. But no equipment was used for these constructions. From hacking through the jungle, clearing out enormous spaces filled with trees, bushes and vegetal growth, to creating the building blocks from the limestone below the earth’s surface took vast labor forces and many generations of work. Then, to place each stone in the exact position with clearly defined corners, with Mayan arches, with openings for tombs, with living and working areas, was another amazing feat which undoubtedly involved most of the populace.
And, it went on……after some of the temples were constructed by one or more reigning dynasties, succeeding dynasties would build on top of them, never destroying what was created before them. Considering that the start of this city was reputed to be 200-250 years B.C. and that the decline was probably around 700-900 AD, they lasted for fifteen hundred years or more. In spite of what some “new agers” like to say, there is no evidence that the ancient Maya were visited by an advanced civilization from outer space. Rather, they were intelligent enough to do amazing engineering projects that have endured for more than a millennium without the help of machinery or even the wheel. The designs were intricate and the temples were built on a massive scale. The positions of the temples were carefully calculated to align with constellations, as they were superb astronomers as well as amazing engineers and architects. All the stone work is hand cut and precisely fitted together without the use of mortar. There was probably no unemployment.
At the entrance to this site of Ichkabal, there is a large reservoir that is man-made, being perfectly rectangular. Today, it’s inhabited by crocodiles and turtles, covered with a thick growth of water plants which send their roots deep into the water. It provides water for visiting animals, like deer and javelina (wild pig), jaguar and ocelot, monkeys and a host of smaller animals. But at one time it helped sustain a large population. This very sustainable civilization relied upon people who carefully thought out their methods of everyday living, exchanging goods and services and honoring their gods. They had a hierarchy similar to the kingdoms in other civilizations of their time.
The Maya are still very much alive and well today. Speculations abound as to their apparent disappearance just before the Spanish arrived but so far only theories exist. The contemporary Maya continue to live in the same areas as their ancestors inhabited, although the ancient cities have long been abandoned and buried. Many of the present day Maya look as though they could have stepped out of a painting, with a specific type nose and flat forehead, high cheekbones and straight black hair that are such defining characteristics.
Sunrise, Laguna Bacalar – near archaeological zone © Susanna Starr
As with most civilizations, there has been a lot of intermarriage. In the capitol city of Chetumal there stands a magnificent statue of the “first mestizo family” honoring the combined marriage between the Spanish and the Maya that describe many of the people of today. Unearthing their heritage and reconstructing some of the major archaeological sites like Ichkabal has been a work of great importance and provides a greater understanding of the magnificence of this ancient civilization not only for their descendants, but for the world.