July 30, 2010

Viva Mexico!

It might feel a little soon to be writing about September or November 2010, but this year is a little special. Besides, if anyone wishes to be here for it, then you really need to be booking up flights and accommodation in advance. The whole of 2010 is significant for Mexico, as it's both our bicentennial and our centennial year.

Viva Mexico

On September 16th 1810, the bells were tolled to signal the War of Independence, which ultimately led to freedom from Spain. 100 years later, on November 20th, 1910, the Mexican Revolution began. This finally established true democracy throughout the country. It is now 2010 and parties, parades and other celebrations will mark the anniversary of both major events.

Both are generally celebrated in annual events anyway. At midnight on September 15th, Mexicans will gather in the street to ring their bells. El Grito de la Independencia (Independence Cry) will be yelled out, usually taking the form of someone re-enacting the historic speech given by Padre Miguel Hidalgo. This Catholic priest was the man who sparked the whole movement into independence. At the end, everyone goes wild, screaming, 'Viva Mexico!' until hoarse; then parties ensue until the early hours of September 16th.

Much of this will be happening in downtown areas or over on Isla Mujeres, so those of you booking for Cancún might need to venture out of the Hotel Zone. However, if you do wish to stay put, you won't miss out. El Grito is relayed through the big screens of the nightclubs and even the small screens of the hotel bars.

Here is a taste of how that looked last year, though this video doesn't show the fireworks filling the skies, nor the music and dancing accompanying the festivities:

The next day, on September 16th itself, there will be a grand military parade through the streets of the city. Thousands of locals and tourists alike traditionally turn out to view this amazing spectacle. Meanwhile, the Viva México En Cancun festival runs throughout the month, with numerous exhibitions, demonstrations, street entertainment, food tasting events, vibrant folk music and dancing, craft stalls, film screenings and the like. The event list is too vast and packed to be squeezed into a little blog.

If you are planning to visit the area for that, then it's also worth noting that Chichén Itzá is the place to be at Autumn Equinox. It is here, at dawn on September 21st, that the stairs of El Castillo are subject to a natural phenomenon, which was quite intended by the ancient Maya architects. The god, Kukulkan, can quite plainly be seen, in the shadows cast by the sun's rays, descending the stairs as a feathered serpent.

November 20th, Día de la Revolución (Revolution Day), is marked by a bank holiday in Mexico, where many of the stores, banks etc will be closed. However, that just paves the way for a host of other attractions, unique to the day. This year, more than ever.

Viva Mexico

In Cancún, it will be a very family orientated day. The festivities start in the Main Square, Avenida Tulum, in downtown Cancún, at 8.30am, with a huge parade through the streets. Alongside city dignatories and students, there will be gymnasts and acrobats delighting the crowds. The parade also depicts scenes from Mexican history, while celebrating many aspects of its culture. The rest of the day will be riot of fun and galas, with speeches, patriotic events, rodeos and just downright partying.

The next day, a trip to Playa del Carmen should be on the cards. It is here, on November 21st, 2010, that the Taste of Playa del Carmen food festival is being held. Twenty sponsors and over 25 restaurants will be pooling resources to deliver the very best in Mexican cuisine. 3000 people are expected to throng through the streets, sampling a little here and a bit there. This is the opportune moment to sample those unfamiliar dishes that you were always too nervous to try before.

There is a lot more going on besides, not least the Cancún Riviera Maya Film Festival (Nov 17-21st, 2010) and the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival (Nov 24th-27th, 2010).

In short, being in Mexico at this time is like visiting the USA for July 4th. It really is an unmissable celebration.

July 29, 2010

Getting around Cancún with iPhone Apps.

It is a perennial problem for the Cancún party-goer - so many clubs, so little time. Where should I start drinking? Which is the best club for me? Two recent iPhone apps. have made finding the answers a whole lot easier, with the right information quite literally at your fingertips.

Launched this month, 'Cool Cancun & Isla Mujeres' is written by local girl, Zora O'Neill, and sold by Sutro Media. It is compatible with iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, requiring iOS 3.0+, and includes many cool features. It can be downloaded for just 99c.

Because Zora O'Neill has lived in Cancún, she is able to include many tips and hard-to-find places for a truly good night out. She has written travel books for the area, including 'The Rough Guide to the Yucatan'. She knows the locations of 24 hour Taco kiosks; and the best eateries for anything from gourmet dinners to bargain snacks. She has danced in these clubs; drank at that bar; and had great fun on those tours. Her reviews are sometimes opinionated, often witty, but generally spot on. This is the app. for people who want to enjoy Cancún with local knowledge, instead of simply following the madding crowd.

As well as tips and activities, 'Cool Cancun & Isla Mujeres' also includes a GPS system and maps. This allows it to direct you to where you wish to go.

'Cancun NOW' is the brainchild of Solly Levi. It is compatible with iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, requiring iOS 3.0+, and includes many cool features. It can be downloaded for anywhere between 99c and $2.99.

The touch of a button will reveal what's on in clubland that night; filtered recommendations, based on your needs; the best bars, restaurants, tours and fun to be had. The information is revelant right now, as it updates itself with up-to-the-minute news and reviews. 'Cancun NOW' is fitted with a GPS system, so it knows precisely where you are and where you need to be. It has built-in maps to direct you right into the center of all the fun, along with the precise distance you need to travel.

The app. also includes special offers and vouchers, to ease your way straight into the party. From free drinks to money off a scuba diving trip, this app. delivers the goods. If it all goes belly-up, then there's even a button to summon the emergency services!

July 28, 2010

The Lionfish Situation

While everyone waits anxiously for news about how the Gulf of Mexico oil leak will affect migrating sea life, there is one species that marine biologists wish would just go away. The lionfish might look impressive, but it's also a voracious predator currently experiencing a population boom in the region.


The lionfish is a favorite of tropical fish tanks across the world. Tourists often squeal with delight to see them in the oceans, because they now know for certain that they are in the tropics. That is if the white sands, turquoise sea and palm trees hadn't already given them the clue. However, it's not native to these waters. No-one had seen one in the Mexican Caribbean until January 2009.

Lionfish should be in the Pacific Ocean, specifically around the Indian Pacific. Their range covers Western Australia, Malayasia, French Polynesia, the Pitcairn Islands, South Korea and Japan. Until recently, it didn't include the Gulf of Mexico and the Mexican Caribbean. Now, it most definitely does. Their numbers have grown to critical level in the waters around Cozumel particularly.

No-one knows why they are here. The major theory is that Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in Florida, USA, releasing the lionfish into their oceans. They then just migrated down into the Caribbean. However, this view has been challenged by NOAA ecologist James Morris Jr, who was spotting them around Florida as early as 1985. The amended guess then is that Floridean tropical tank owners have been privately releasing the lionfish into the oceans, perhaps when they wanted to close down their tank. This is not unknown. Lionfish have been found as far afield as the waters off Long Island, New York, and in the Mediterranean Sea, both as a result of tropical fish tank owners letting them go. Those captured, in the Caribbean, have been proven, through DNA, to all be descended from the same six or seven fish.

Lionfish are not generally deadly for human beings.Lionfish They will keep their distance for a start, being extremely wary of us. Even if they did sting a human, with their venomous dorsal fins, the affected area would simply be painful. A good soaking in some warm water would sort that out.

It's only those experiencing an allergic reaction to the venom who need to worry, in the same way as some people aren't good with wasps. That said, the current medical advice is to have a sting checked out at a hospital, just in case.

However, for the smaller marine life, lionfish pose a greater threat than all of the sharks and other natural predators put together. The lionfish's favorite snack are those algae-eating creatures. These help to protect the coral reefs, as a build up of algae could hinder the growth of the reefs. From late afternoon until dawn, lionfish are travelling up and down the coral, eating whole any unfortunate herbivore fish that crosses their path. As many as 185 juvenile native fish a day could be eaten by just one lionfish. This includes some species that were already endangered.

With such a buffet on hand, and no natural predators in the area, the numbers of lionfish are increasing every day. The females can each produce up to 30,000 offspring! The lionfish here are also growing much bigger than their usual 12cm (5"); some as big as 55cm (22") have been seen. Volunteer divers are capturing them and killing them on sight.

Meanwhile, some enterprising local events have been staged, as a way of disposing of lionfish, while also highlighting the situation. Ricardo Gomez Lozano, director of the Cozumel National Marine Park, organized a lionfish tournament recently. Divers and fishers set out to land as many as they could, with the winner being the one with the biggest catch. They were caught live and dropped into ice water, as a humane way of killing them. Tournament over, and this being Mexico, everyone relaxed with a barbecue on the beach.

"This is the beginning of the invasion for us, but we have seen how quickly infestations have developed elsewhere." Ricardo Gomez Lozano warned, "We have to act quickly."

So if you are a fishing enthusiast or a diver and wish to do your bit for the environment, please do come down to Mexico on a lionfish hunt. Your coral reef needs you! For safe, effective hunting and cooking of them, please visit the Lionfish Hunter website.

July 27, 2010

Golfing on the Riviera Maya

Moon Palace

(People-watching in Cancún) A man looks up with an expression of pure wonder and delight. Grinning broadly, he exclaims, "There's a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course here!"

His adult daughter frowns, "I didn't know that he was into golf."

"Jack Nicklaus?" Her father is both bemused and bewildered. "I'd say that he's very 'into golf'."

She's not convinced, "Just because he can act, doesn't mean that he's good at golf." Uncertainty piqued, "Or is he?"


"The actor!" His daughter clarifies the issue, "The one out of 'The Shining'!"

"I think you'll find that's Jack Nicholson." He chuckles. "Totally different person."

Moon Palace

Jack Nicklaus did indeed design a local championship golf course - at the Moon Palace Spa and Golf Club, Cancún. It's one of two Nicklaus signature courses on the Riveria Maya. The other is at the Mayan Palace, further down the coast towards Playa del Carmen. Further north, he has a third at the Yucatán Country Club, in Mérida. They are only three of the magnificent golf courses available, for seasoned golfers and hacking amateurs alike, in the region.

In 2003, the Mexican Open was held at Moon Palace. The tournament was part of the wider Tour de las Americas, with Colombia's Eduardo Herrera winning in Mexico. Jeff Burns (USA) and Eduardo Argiro (Argentina) were the runners up. When it's not being used for world class championships, Moon Palace is one of many courses open to the general public on the Mexican Caribbean.

If you are a golfing enthusiast, then watch this space. We have news of the best golf in Cancún coming up soon.

July 26, 2010

Uxmal (Maya Ruins)


Site: Uxmal

Average time to see the whole site: 2-4 hours

Opening times: 8am - 5pm; then 7.30pm for light show.

Guides: 500 to 900 pesos to hire, speaking a variety of languages.

Wildlife: Iguanas.

Entrance fee: $10

Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located 78km south of Mérida. A lot of restoration work has taken place on the ruins, but little in the way of archaeology. Therefore, while the ruins look impressive, not much is known about them.


What has been established by archaeologists is that Uxmal was built between 700 and 1100 CE and housed an estimated population of 25,000. However, The Mayan Chronicles state that it was founded two centuries earlier, in 500 CE, by the Xiu dynasty. After the Xiu aligned themselves with the Spanish Conquistadors, they relocated to Mani. Thus Uxmal went into decline, until the jungle reclaimed it.

There is a pyramid with unusual architecture here, known as the Adivino, or the Pyramid of the Magician, or the Pyramid of the Dwarf. The sides are more oval in shape than the usual rectanglar design. Moreover, there is a legend connected to its building. In Mayan folklore, el enano del Uxmal (the dwarf of Uxmal) was set a series of challenges in competition with the local Mayan king, all of which were orchestrated by the dwarf's mother, a bruja (witch). Part of the challenges was to build a pyramid. The dwarf built the adivino overnight, after the king told him that he couldn't. The dwarf won the competition. The House of the Old Woman, on the site, is said to have belonged to his mother.


Other significant buildings include the Governor's Palace, which has the longest platform facade in MesoAmerica; Nunnery Quadrangle, which is a Spanish name given to the largest quadrangle government palace; a beautifully preserved ballcourt; the North Long Building; House of the Birds; House of the Turtles; Grand Pyramid; House of the Doves; and South Temple.

Several statues and reliefs, each depicting phallic elements, were removed from the site in 1863, ahead of the visit of Empress Carlota of Mexico. The site had its revenge upon another monarch 113 years later, when Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain arrived for the launch of a light and sound show. Despite the event taking place during a prolonged dry spell, as the show progressed into a prayer to Chaac, the Rain God, torrential rain arrived from a previously cloudless sky and drenched the watching dignitaries.

Visitors can climb on some of the structures, looking out over jungle through which unexplored structures poke out. But these are increasingly becoming roped off. As this sprawling expanse of Maya ruins is not prominently on the main tourist trails, they tend to be less crowded than the more famous sites. However, visitors will find more than adequate amenities, including a gift shop, bookstore, hotel and restaurant. There is no mercado, nor lone vendors, inside the grounds.

Please note that it can get very, very hot at Uxmal, so take measures to keep yourself cool in the Mexican heat.

Getting there:

* It takes around 4-5 hours to drive from Cancún. Therefore leaving the ruins at noon is necessary, if you wish to drive in daylight.

* The ATS bus line has a daily bus leaving the 2nd class bus station in Mérida at 8:00 a.m. The bus does a circuit of five archaeological sites (known as the Puuc Route). It waits for 30 minutes at the minor ruins, and then waits 2 hours at Uxmal before returning to Mérida. It does briefly stop at Uxmal before going onto the circuit. The bus returns to Mérida at 2:30 p.m.

* Book into the Villas Arqueologicas Uxmal hotel, which has gates which open directly into the ruins.

July 23, 2010

Maya Royal Tomb Opened

The Maya Empire stretched over a huge area, encompassing modern day south Mexico and the northern part of Central America. It was in the southern region of the Maya world that a 1,000 year old royal tomb was uncovered in May. The find was announced this week with the discoveries inside adding great insight to our knowledge about the ancient Maya.

The burial chamber was inside a pyramid, which had lay hidden underneath thick jungle, near to the city of El Zotz. It appears to be largely intact, subject only to the ravages of Mother Nature, rather than the plundering of later people. The art and artifacts found inside are going to advance our understanding about the Maya, especially since they include some oddities.

Alongside carvings, ceramics and beads, there was the grisly find of six sacrificed infants. As already discussed in previous blogs, the Maya did not undertake the industrial scale human sacrifice, as shown in films like 'Apocalypto'. But the sacrifice of one or two individuals was not unknown, especially during the ascension of a new monarch. It would appear now that the sacrifices were also linked to the demise of the previous one. However, that is open to interpretation.

A team from Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, led the excavation. Andrew Scherer, one of its anthropologists, said, "Why the children would have been killed is a mystery. But the youth of the victims hints that their value as sacrifices may have lain in their being, to Maya eyes, on the verge of personhood."

Read the full story, by John Roach, at the National Geographic News website: Bowls of Fingers, Baby Victims, More Found in Maya Tomb. Meanwhile, the current home-page has a photographic slide-show of some of the artifacts from the tomb: Click here to see it

There is also a interactive map on the site, showing the cities of the Maya Empire, as well as a quiz about its people and settlements.

Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá
Various tours, to suit every wallet or time-frame, to the most famous of all the Maya ruins.

Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

July 22, 2010

'Apocalypto' - Mel Gibson's Maya Gore-Fest

(Please note that there are spoilers for the movie, 'Apocalypto', in this blog entry.)

ApocalyptoMel Gibson's epic movie, 'Apocalypto', is already four years old. However, for many visitors to Mexico, this movie is their only source of knowledge about the Maya people. Many tourists point at the steps of real-life structures like El Castillo, then start referencing a particularly graphic scene from 'Apocalypto'. It is clearly time to explore this award-winning blockbuster, with regard to the real-life Maya.

'Apocalypto' is a chase flick, in the action-adventure genre, played out against the lush jungle setting of the late Classic Maya civilization. It has a script entirely in the Yucatec Maya language, with subtitles for those not conversant in it. The movie watching public is drawn into a dark and dangerous world, as we follow the fortunes of a young man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). We watch endemic sadism, as captors torture slaves; wars run bloody; wholesale human sacrifice is practiced; and even friends are left in the jungle to die alone.


Jaguar Paw lives in a Maya hunting community, deep within the Yucatán jungle; but the village is raided and its adult population is taken to a Maya city. Here the people are sick and starving; while the captives are enslaved or sacrificed in horrific, public ceremonies. However, Jaguar Paw had time, before being captured, to hide his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernández), and child, Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Báez) in a well. They have no way of climbing out again, so Jaguar Paw needs to escape in order to rescue them.

Jaguar Paw captured

This seems hopeless, as he is splayed upon the sacrificial altar, having just witnessed his friends in the same position. Their still-beating hearts were torn from their bodies. They were still conscious, as they were decapitated. (The audience gets the viewpoint from the eyes of a head tumbling down the steep steps, before death finally envelopes the brain.) But the advent of a total eclipse of the sun stills the sacrifices and Jaguar Paw is eventually able to escape via the barbarism of the ballcourt. The entire second part of the movie is the vaunted chase sequence.

Sacrificial scene

Jaguar Paw runs for his life, while the warriors of the ruling Maya king hurtle after him, intent upon his death. He eventually emerges triumphant and saves his wife, child and new-born baby. At the very end, they glimpse the arrival of the Spanish, headed by a Catholic priest, in boats approaching the shore. Jaguar Paw dismisses them as insignificant, despite his wife's suggestion that they may represent their salvation. The whole family walk off into the jungle for a new beginning.

Apocalypto's Themes

The theme is made clear from the Will Durant quotation, in the opening credits, 'A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.' In short, the Maya world was already crumbling into the depths of degradation before the Spanish even conquered them. They were starving in the big cities; their magnificent buildings were in disrepair; their forests were being felled; and humanity was taking so many resources that the environment could no longer sustain them. The revelance to our modern, Western civilization couldn't be more obvious.

Seven and Jaguar Paw

Commentators have also noted the underlying Catholic message. Jaguar Paw's wife, Seven, is heavily pregnant, but both she and the baby are endangered. Pro-lifers have seized upon this as an anti-abortion message. Others have stated that the more stark religious statement is that the Maya world was so horrific, that the coming of the Spanish is seen viewed almost with relief. They had a priest prominently placed in the boat, kneeling before a cross. When Seven suggests that her family should go to them, we are all willing Jaguar Paw to agree. He refuses and only historians approve of his decision (as historians know what happens next, namely the death of most of the indigenious population from war and diseases like smallpox). From the point of view of the movie, then the Spanish option would seem the better one.

Is this movie a true, historical depiction of the 16th century Maya?

On balance, the answer would have to be no, it isn't. There are enough broad details and scenery to get a taste of the Maya world; but many of the plot devices are pure fiction or else did happen, but not within Maya civilization. The major argument here is that Mel Gibson wasn't filming a documentary. He was creating an action-adventure movie to entertain theater-goers. But if that same audience is going to treat it as a depiction of true events, then the inaccuracies do need to be ironed out.

* The language isn't 16th century Yucatec Mayan. It's actually modern day Yucatec Mayan, hence there are a lot of Spanish borrow words in it. For example, 'beyora' for 'now' has the Spanish 'hora' in it; while the dog is called 'peco' from the Spanish 'perro'.

Jaguar Paw and Flint Sky

* Jaguar Paw's community wouldn't have been hunters living deep in the jungle. In the late Classic period, the Maya were an agricultural people. They did hunt, but rarely, with meat being a luxury meal. The jungle would have all been owned and maintained by a ruler. Even if Jaguar Paw's people lived in the jungle, it would have been in a huge clearing surrounded by fields. They would not have lived in the wilderness of the deep jungle.

* Jaguar Paw's people would have known about the stone cities. Even the most remote Maya village was connected, politically and economically, to a large settlement. There was an extensive road system and the stone cities were plentiful. The local ruler would have not only known about every village in his/her area, but would have had representatives keeping the channels of communication open between all. Supposing that Jaguar Paw had never heard of the city is a little like believing that a modern day person would live in Brooklyn without knowing about Manhattan, or in Etobicoke without suspecting that Toronto existed.

* The Maya women would not have run around bare-chested. Every depiction of the ancient Maya, in books, steles, statues and other carvings shows that they were fully dressed.

Seven and Turtles Run

* Villages would not have been raided for slaves and sacrificial victims. There was slavery and human-sacrifice in the Maya world, but the victims wouldn't have been the local villagers. They would have been prisoners captured during wars or, even better, the elite from enemy polities. If one ruler could take another ruler, then this heightened his/her prestige. The captured ruler would be publicly humiliated and eventually sacrificed. This would have all happened after a war between the two provinces. It's similar to Saddam Hussein being hanged after the Gulf Wars.

* The Maya did not practice wholesale human sacrifice. The Maya did practice human sacrifice, but not on the industrial scale shown in the movie. The Aztec sacrificed roughly 4,000 people a year; but not the Maya. The Maya people sacrificed a smaller number of people (often just one) less frequently. There were no calendar events requiring it. There is evidence that a human sacrifice happened only in extremity (to end a war) or in the ascension of a new ruler. What was widespread was animal sacrifice or auto-sacrifice (cutting yourself so that your blood falls, but you don't die).

The altar upon which Jaguar Paw is splayed is actually Aztec and was used for that purpose, exactly as depicted. But never by the Maya. They typically threw people into the cenotes with a cord around their necks. The victim then drowned or hanged, whichever happened first.

In short, the sacrificial scene in the movie shows something more akin to the Aztec than the Maya.

* The king wouldn't have just stood by watching the sacrifices. The king acted as High Priest as well. He would have been right in there delivering the speeches and performing the sacrifices. If he hadn't, then he wouldn't have been the divine ruler. The priest would have been.

* The ballcourt wouldn't have been used for 'target practice' on Jaguar Paw and his friends. Even Mel Gibson admitted that this was complete fiction, written in for dramatic tension. It also sets the scene for Jaguar Paw's escape, otherwise it wouldn't have made sense even within the world of the movie. After all, these men could have been better employed as slaves in the lime factories. Therefore I won't bother disputing it, other than to highlight that it didn't happen.

There are many more inaccuracies, but those are some of the main ones.

So we shouldn't watch 'Apocalypto' then?

Please do go ahead! It's a great movie, with some lovely cinematography; though if you hate gore and gratutious violence, then I'd give it a miss. However, it's not a documentary about the Maya. It's a Hollywood movie.

Naturally, if you want to learn all about the true Maya, we'd be happy to welcome you to Mexico!

Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá
Various tours, to suit every wallet or time-frame, to the most famous of all the Maya ruins.

Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

July 21, 2010

Why Can't I Climb on the Maya Pyramids?

The Maya pyramids were built to be climbed. They usually have steep stairways rising to the top, where there is often a temple or, at least, an altar. The views over the rest of the ruins and the jungle were enough to reduce grown men to tears of wonder. Millions of people, in the past, have made the pilgrimage up them. Advice abounds on how to survive the arduous ascent - don't look down until you reach the summit; sip water frequently; try not to do it in the midst of a massive group - and even more advice for the sheerness of the descent - hold onto the guide-rope; come down on your backside, bumping from step to step; do it like a crab, sideways.

El Castillo

Yet, increasingly, the great pyramids are being roped off. You can no longer climb the mighty El Castillo at Chichén Itzá; but, at Cobá, it is still possible to make your way up the tallest pyramid in Yucatán peninsula - Nohoch Mul. Within two or three years, it is likely that no Maya pyramid will be available for the public to climb upon. This really is a call out that, if you wish to experience this, then you will have to visit the remaining sites now. They are Cobá, Dzibilchaltún, Ek' Balam, El Meco, El Rey, Itzamal and Uxmal. The other sites have already banned climbing on their buildings.

(Edit: Since posting this blog entry, I've since learned that Uxmal is starting to rope off more of its structures too. It's still possible to climb the Great Pyramid there, but some of the others can be seen only from ground-level.)

Climbing these pyramids, especially El Castillo, usually turns up on 'things you should do before you die' lists. With this in mind, disappointed tourists often demand to know why they can't climb on them. Unfortunately, the issues have arisen from the sheer number of tourists that wanted to experience the climb and the views.

Over a million people, annually, climbed the sides of El Castillo. Within a decade, the effect was obvious. Tourists, triumphant in reaching the Cobásummit, had left their mark in the form of graffiti. The stone steps, which had survived centuries, were already showing signs of rapid erosion. Letting people up there was severely damaging the pyramid itself.

The climb was already steep, but the crowds rendered the steps shiny with wear. It was hot work getting up there, so sweat poured off them onto the stone, adding another slippery layer. As more and more people flooded into the site, the ascent was generally made with huge groups of people clambering up together, knocking into each other. In short, it was becoming way too dangerous for those attempting the climb.

For a while, the owners of these sites, not wishing to deny the experience of the climb to their visitors, opted for damage limitation. An ambulance was on permanent stand-by at the foot of El Castillo (aka Castillo de Kukalcan). It was used more often than anyone would like, as tourists slipped and fell. Most injuries were fairly minor, but there were an alarming number that were a little more serious. Then came a tragic event that was a lot more serious.

Over Christmas 2005, eighty-year-old Adeline Lorraine Schiller Black was on vacation, with family and friends, in Mexico City. Adeline Lorraine Schiller BlackBy all accounts, she was a fit, healthy, inspirational woman, with a zest for life. She spent a lot of her latter years canyoneering. She was already planning her next vacation, even while on this one.

After three weeks in Mexico, Mrs Black and her family were due to return home to Clairemont, San Diego, USA, but there was one last day for an adventure. On January 5th, 2006, Mrs Black and her family chose to travel down to Chichén Itzá. Once there, Mrs Black did not want to miss out on the experience of a lifetime, so she climbed the 91 steps of El Castillo.

All was well on the way up, but the descent is famously difficult. It was also noon, so the temperature was soaring, even for January. Around the 46th step, 18 meters (60ft) above the ground, Mrs Black slipped. She tried, but failed, to grab the guide-rope. In front of a crowd of horrified, helpless staff and tourists, Mrs Black fell down the remaining steps of the pyramid.

Medical assistance was immediate. The ambulance, permanently stationed at the foot of El Castillo, was mobilized. Its crew administered aid at the scene, then rushed her to the nearby Regional de Valladolid Hospital. Unfortunately, the lady's head and neck injuries were too severe. Despite the best efforts of the hospital personnel there, Mrs Black died four hours later.

For the owners of Chichén Itzá, this was the last straw. They had bowed to public pressure to keep the structures accessible to climbers for too long. An army of specialists had scrubbed or otherwise erased the graffiti; repairs had been made to eroded steps; guide-ropes had been fitted; and the ambulance installed. But there were now simply too many people wishing to climb the pyramids. What had occurred with Mrs Black had been an accident waiting to happen; and now it had actually happened. The decision was made, for the safety of visitors and the preservation of the structures, to prohibit public climbing on the pyramids.

Meanwhile, other archaeological sites took note. Some places, like Tulúm, had also been suffering with graffiti and erosion, but they didn't wait for a similar tragedy to occur within their premises. As soon as news spread about Mrs Black's fall, the owners of several sites started to rope off their tallest, steepest structures too. The more squat buildings are still accessible in all of the sites.


Other places were lesser known, so didn't get the same quantities of tourists. There had been little or no damage caused there by the crowds. Their steps might be steep, but they weren't worn by millions of feet, nor covered in the perspiration of dozens of tourists per minute clambering up them. They decided to risk leaving access open, until such time as that situation changed. However, this meant that more and more visitors arrived, en route from one of the larger sites, now wishing to climb a pyramid. As the popularity of the smaller sites grew, then more of them started roping off their structures too.

For some, this is an absolute travesty and it's ruined their vacation blah blah. For others, this is actually better. In previous years, the structures could barely be seen under the press of bodies climbing all over them. Now they are there in all their glory. It's not like these buildings are small. The rope is very long and there are whole courtyards to stand in and marvel at the architecture. This isn't like going to see the 'Mona Lisa' in Paris, where short people don't stand a chance of viewing the main attraction. These are huge pyramids, for which even toddlers in pushchairs could find a decent viewpoint.

Now the magnificent buildings look more like they did in the books and pictures back home, which had enticed visitors here in the first place. It was only ever a percentage of people who actually climbed them. The more intrepid adventurers would often start their ascent leaving behind the rest of their party,Chichén Itzá who would watch from the ground level. Some tourists have whispered that the roping off is much better, because they no longer have to wait in the heat, with all the bags, while their teenagers disappear off up the steps. Selfish, maybe, but much more enjoyable for all.

There is still plenty to see and do at places like Chichén Itzá and Tulúm. They are still world class heritage sites, with stunning vistas and a sense of the mysterious. They are just a whole lot safer now for their visitors. Just over a year after some buildings were roped off, Chichén Itzá was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. A recent visitor to the site, Susan, blogged about it just a couple of days ago,

'There are few times in life when you approach something so amazing that it literally takes your breath away. I mean the kind of things you’ve seen online and in books and even on TV, but that you never imagined you’d see up close. Lisa and I dedicated our last day in Mexico to such an encounter...

... Tourists used to be able to climb the steps of El Castillo, but it is now prohibited. Looking up from that view, I was perfectly fine with keeping my feet on the ground.'
Chichen Itza, July 18th, 2010, at Transient Travels, by Susan

For those who, despite all of this, still wish to experience that climb, then Cobá, alongside the smaller sites of Dzibilchaltún, Ek' Balam, El Meco, El Rey, Itzamal and Uxmal, are waiting for you. However, please do hurry. There's no telling how long those pyramids will remain accessible for the climb. The only certainty is that they too will eventually be forced to rope off their structures, in order to maintain the safety of their visitors.

Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá
Various tours, to suit every wallet or time-frame, to the most famous of all the Maya ruins.

Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

July 20, 2010

Discovering the Maya

Chichén ItzáAny trip to the Yucatán Peninsula will inevitably involve the Maya people. There are Maya ruins to visit; Maya food to eat; Maya heritage in the museums; Maya art in the shops; Maya crafts in the market; and Maya rides in the theme parks. The very name Yucatán is Mayan! If nothing else, then the world owes a debt to the Maya for messing around with the seeds of cocoa trees and inventing xocoatl in the sixth century. We know that better as chocolate. The Maya called it 'the food of the gods'.

Some people might even be visiting Mexico for the first time, lured here by considerations of the Maya Long Count calendar coming to an abrupt finish. The internet abounds with scare stories that this also means the end of the world. There was even a blockbuster Hollywood film about that, '2012'; and if the Maya knew about the end of the world, then maybe they also worked out what to do about it?

So after all this talk of the Maya, it might be worth discovering them in modern Mexico.

How do you pronounce Maya?

Maya is pronounced MY-er. This refers to the people, the lands and, indeed, everything except the language. The language is Mayan, pronounced MY-an.

'I would also point out here that the adjective 'Mayan' is only conventionally used... when referring to languages. Otherwise plain 'Maya' is employed both as a noun and adjectivally, singular and plural. Thus we talk here of Maya art and Maya people, not the 'Mayas' of long ago.'
'The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings' by David Drew

Who were the Maya?

The Maya arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula around 3114 BCE. Their own history says that they sailed to Mexico from a location '150 days westward'. There have been various theories about where they might have come from. A strong contender is Sri Lanka, where the central region, in ancient times, was called Maya. There are also a lot of linguistic, religious and architectural links between Sri Lanka and the Maya, not least the fact that the Maya carved elephants into their temples. Mexico isn't known for its elephants. (Gene D Matlock has written about the Sri Lankan connection here.) Other historians have offered places such as Russia, Turkey or various countries in the Mediterranean for the homeland of the Maya.

Maya men

Whatever the truth is, they were certainly in Mexico making ceramics by 2000 BCE. This is known, because we've found the pottery. They went on to found a civilisation that was, at its peak, one of the most densely populated and advanced of its age, in comparison to anywhere else in the world. They were the first people in the Americas to develop writing, which they carved into stone slabs, meaning that we can still read them today. They had fully fledged mathematical and astronomical systems. Their art and architectural influence has been discovered miles away in far flung countries; and, of course, they created a calendar, which still accurately counts the days today. That's better than Western calendars, which, even today, have to rely upon leap years to remain on track.

We should have had a fully written history, explaining all of those details which have now become mysterious, such as the meaning behind the Long Count. However, when the Spanish arrived, they began a wholesale evangelism program. Their aim was to convert the Maya into Christianity. In order to achieve this, many of the Maya records were destroyed. One of the biggest examples of this occurred on July 12th, 1562, when the acting Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa Calderón, oversaw the burning of 5,000 cult images (stele), as well as all of the Maya sacred books.

Dresden codice

Following this program of cultural destruction, only three Maya books (codices) and the fragments of a fourth remained. They were scattered around the globe. Today, the three full books are in Paris, Dresden and Madrid, hence a bit of travelling is involved in order to compare their contents. The fourth underwent some restoration work in the 1920s, so it was able to shed more light on the story.

However, these four sources are just a drop in the ocean of what could have been available. Imagine walking into a library today and picking out just four books at random. Then imagine that, a few centuries down the line, those four books had to inform people of the whole of your nation's cultural, social, economic and linguistic history. Wouldn't you really hope that the right four books had been saved?

Since the majority of the books and steles went up in Spanish flames, the story of the Maya has had to be pieced together from their own oral history; the archaeology in their cities; any steles that have remained buried; and the evidence from other cultures. A great deal was written by the Spanish conquistadors, but this obviously included a lot of bias. The conquistadors were writing to sound like heroes back home, not to provide a sound academic thesis on those they were conquering!

Where were the Maya?

The Yucatán Peninsula is only the heartland of the Maya world. They lived throughout a vast area, which also covered the modern Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco, as well as extending into today's Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Western Honduras.

Maya world

What happened to the ancient Maya?

For centuries, the Maya lived in small, coastal communities, exporting jade, obsidian and cocoa along the trade routes of the Caribbean Sea. Then, around 250-900 CE, they became wealthy enough to found magnificent cities, build pyramids and start trading even further afield. This was also the age of great intellectual advances and an explosion of art.

Following this was a huge disaster, the basis of which has never been fully explained. Theories include prolonged drought or the Maya strip-farming their resources and therefore running out of supplies. Either way, the Maya left their southern lands and congregated in the northern part of their empire instead. This included the Yucatán Peninsula, which experienced a massive boom in building and trade. Chichén Itzá and Cobá became truly huge cities, as their populations swelled with incomers.

So why isn't the area still ruled by the Maya now?

In 1511 CE, the Spanish arrived in the Yucatán Peninsula. There were only seventeen of them and they were quickly captured by the Maya. Their number were divided between the local chieftains and used as slaves or human sacrifices. Only two men survived, in different communities. One later made it back to the Spanish and became an advisor against the Maya. The other opted to stay with the Maya and advised them in strategies to defeat the Spanish. Unfortunately for the Maya, this first landing had also brought with it smallpox, which killed them off in huge numbers.

There were a couple of expeditions over the next decade, but they were inconsequential. TulúmThe Spanish had been lured by stories of gold in the Maya lands. They brought Christianity with them. They left again without much gold and with very few religious converts. The Spanish conquest didn't begin in earnest until 1527, but that failed when the Maya deserted their towns just ahead of the Spanish troops, then doubled back and repopulated them once the Spanish had moved on. The prospective conquistadors gave up.

Between 1531-1535, the Spanish were back and this time did succeed in briefly taking Chichén Itzá. Local resistance sent them packing again. They returned in 1540 and, two years later, managed to conquer the Maya city of T'ho. This was renamed Mérida and is now the capital city of Yucatán. The lord of nearby Maní converted to Christianity and this was the great turning point in the Spanish Conquest, as the Xiu people there allied with the Spanish and helped subdue their Maya neighbours.

Nevertheless, it took until 1697 for the whole of the Yucatán Peninsula to come under Spanish control.

Where are they now?

The Maya are still where they've always been. In the Maya area, the descendents of this great empire still speak the Mayan language and continue many of the cultural traditions. They are just harder to see, as the majority live in modern houses and are indistinguishable, at a glance, from other Mexicans. There are Maya people who still live in their traditional villages and these may be visited.

Maya lady

Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá
Various tours, to suit every wallet or time-frame, to the most famous of all the Maya ruins.

Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

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