Travel: The Yucatán

6 mins read

Richard Hodges visits sites in the shadow of Chichén Itzá.

The ‘nunnery’ at Chichén Itzá.

Hotels, at their best, resemble oases in a desert. Mayaland – nestling in the shadow of Chichén Itzá, one of the New World’s Seven Wonders – is just such a place. Its civility and graciousness are rooted in the Carnegie expeditions to this Maya metropolis, led by the indefatigable Sylvanus Griswold Morley (1883-1948). Morley was an early advocate of helping Mexico to leverage tourist dollars from the ruins of the ancient Maya. Never could he have envisaged how globalisation with internet tourism would turn a trickle of Mayanists into a mob. Millions visit Chichén Itzá each year, and the press of people is greatest in the week after Christmas – which was why I decided to stay at Mayaland, treasure the oasis, enter the archaeological site early and then, based in this open-air aviary, visit other Maya sites close by.

Lost to Mammon

And like all great hotels, the archaeology bids welcome in a discreet but compelling fashion. At Mayaland, its architects took their axis for the hotel from the towering Classic period Observatory in the southern sector of the sprawling Maya city. Like a Seljuk round tower, ruined but resplendently visible over the top of the forest canopy, it serves to enforce a kind of pilgrim’s piety on all who stay and dine in the hotel. Maya-style high-pitched thatched cottages are dotted around the hotel’s tamed jungle grounds. Within dangling vines straight out of an etching by Alfred Maudsley (1850-1931), bright orioles and raucous parrots find sanctuary. Sipping a margarita before an à la carte dinner, it brings to mind other such oases, hotels that possess a magic of civility, and I recall dining this way close to Nile pyramids and the Ayia Sofia in Topkapi.

Sacrificing authenticity for Mammon: tourist merchandising and fakery almost obscure the magnificence of the monuments.

Mellow and charged in preparation for one of the great splendours of the Maya, I joined the little queue of like-minded Americans at the private ticket office soon after dawn. Here reality intruded. Perhaps the hand-written sign of indignant employees should have been warning enough. But no. Our crocodile line of 30 advanced at a snail’s pace for no apparent reason. At the tills, the two young women seemed benign and as gracious as any at Mayaland. The reality-check was swiftly apparent: entry to the park was fairly priced, but, with electronic ticket in hand, I was gently scolded as I advanced towards the lost metropolis. I needed a second ticket – hence the two tills. The first was for the federal government, the second was for the regional government – or perhaps it was vice versa – and hence the stalled, grumpy queue. Issued curtly on faded blue paper, this second ticket earned me the rite of passage to the prize. ‘Welcome!’ the polite official chanted, doubtless in response to my scowling face. The millions of tourists bussed from the sadly blighted beaches of Cancun fare better: their tickets are purchased ahead of time and, I resentfully imagine, in dubious ways that doubtless generated all the unnecessary fuss solitary visitors like me had to endure.

Soon, though, I was in the park and, almost as soon, it was not its glorious monuments that mesmerised me but the accompanying fair: marketing on a scale that eclipses even the tacky surroundings of Pompeii. Jungle paths reverberate to the sound of jaguar roars, or, more accurately, the forced last gasps of a dying beast. To this cacophony add the wistful vendors’ pleas in arched English: ‘only one dollar!’. Chichén Itzá worryingly demonstrates how globalisation at its least constrained debases Morley’s philanthropic gesture.

Chichén Itzá is also stupendous. Most monuments date to the age of the Late Classic and after, erected by people who shared with their Late Antique and High Medieval European contemporaries the wish to create a sense of awe through ritual and perhaps pilgrimage. Their complex political history is well told in textbooks by studious luminaries like Michael Coe and Robert Sharer. But the texts and the monuments offer different windows on the past. What struck me most here were the ubiquitous and fundamentally underwhelming late pre-Hispanic phases, as though in contemporary Europe the Gothic never happened and instead a tacky expediency replaced a vaunting architectural rhetoric. A reason for this is now becoming clear with scientific evidence drawn from ice cores: according to a recent essay in Global and Planetary Change (2016), episodes of severe drought may have largely decided matters long before the Spaniards arrived.

The centrepiece pyramid, El Castillo (the Temple of Kukulcan), is spectacular, a global icon to compare with the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower. It commands the open heart of the site like a great cenotaph in a London park. Close inspection, though, reveals that it is heavily restored, to standards UNESCO (given this is a World Heritage Site inscribed in 1988) normally reproves. No less impressive is the huge high-walled ball-park, and the sanctuaries close by with moulded reliefs. Yet it is the discreet ‘Nunnery’ in the southern sector, a palimpsest of many building phases, with its bold ornament, far from the madding crowd, that is most affecting. Somehow here, the Maya story – traced over almost a millennium and a half – is most vivid, with its vainglorious scale and ritual enhanced by each leader leaving a memorial of glyphs and moulded sculptures to trounce (and damn by concealment) the achievements of his forebear.

The millions of visitors swarming into this site are treated to thousands of simple stalls anchored into the shady woodland paths. Chinese-themed knick-knacks and locals masquerading as savage painted kings are the sum of the parts. In truth, Chichén Itzá is once more a great international marketplace, but the bill of goods is mostly cheap and, well, demeaning. Contemporary Maya authenticity is in short supply. Moreover, you cannot ascend any of the pyramids and the site information is minimal. Ubiquitous guides in all manner of languages offer fervid renditions on a theme of the mendacious Maya who knew their astronomy as well as their astrology. Drawn in fleets of buses from beach resorts, this internet-era audience is treated to a pastiche of the authentic, having seen the virtual online. What can I say? The world of modern Maya studies and the opportunity to engage with the monuments is reduced to selfies and banalities. My wistful conclusion is that management of Chichén Itzá to make the stones speak has gone missing in the face of Mammon.

The colossal pyramid of the one-time Maya capital Ek’ Balam, named after its founder-king Bright-Star Jaguar.

A Bright-Star Jaguar

Not so Ek’ Balam – an hour away, just north of Valladolid. The poor signs to this Maya capital make you wonder if it really exists. Named after a famed founder king (the Bright-Star Jaguar), it was still flourishing when the Spaniards arrived. Secreted in the low jungle is a colossal plaza surrounded by immense, mostly ruined mounds of rubble. The greatest pyramid of them all is a confection of building phases. From its bowels, voluptuous stuccos and panels of glyphs of the Classic Maya age have been exposed. Its simpler, almost prosaic, last temples cemented atop the earlier ones by lackadaisical conservation are readily differentiated for what they are – the end of driven ambition. Add to this one further element: at Ek’ Balam the voracious jungle promises to grow back at any moment.

No ropes and no cosmetic conservation treatment have been meted out here. Climb at your own risk – and climb we do, to attain dizzying heights, and to grasp at the inspiration that is the essence of the pyramid and its builders. This is the authentic experience, complete with circling turkey vultures, easily trumping the Temple of Kukulcan at Chichén Itzá!

Tricycle taxis bring visitors to Cobá, where they can climb the 42m-high Nohuch Mul (‘Big Mound’) for an authentic Mayan experience.

An hour south of Chichén Itzá, Cobá – like Ek’ Balam – still offers the authentic Maya experience. This is not so much a sanctuary city as a loosely knit series of sanctuaries badly mauled by the appetite of thick jungle. The trip to the most vertiginous pyramid is best made on a tricycle taxi that glides effortlessly along the woodland path at a steady clip. Nearly 2km from the entrance, Nohuch Mul (literally ‘Big Mound’) has suffered chronic attrition to its stonework, but nevertheless visitors are tacitly invited to climb the near vertical face to discover themselves 42m above the green canopy, along with curious iguanas. Forget the selfies, the acoustics, astronomy, the talk of human sacrifice: climb here, and the Maya Classic will never be forgotten.

A further hour beyond Cobá lies the Caribbean and the miniature walled Maya coastal entrepôt of Tulum. Consumed by the ribbon development stretching over 150km southwards from Cancun, this once glorious last stronghold of a civilisation is now mobbed. A giant shopping mall has to be crossed before the 1km-walk to the walled port. The narrow passage through the fortifications ushers the visitor into a curated metropolitan park with neatly roped-off monuments. All are late pre-Hispanic ventures, as the Maya took to the seaways to release themselves from the steady depression of their inland economies and the concurrent fragmentation of their realms. None of these overconserved buildings has any majesty, except perhaps for El Castillo, which, close to the cliff edge, has the kind of panoramic setting missing elsewhere in the jungle fastnesses. From here, a wooden staircase leads down to the rocks and turbulent surf below, a magnet for photographers and brazen bathers alike.

This is an excerpt from an article published in CWA 82.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.


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