In Mesoamerica: Retracing glories of Mayan culture

mexico-akhilLeaving Mexico City and its hillsides covered thick with humble dwellings of the poor, we drove through the remarkable southern and northern Sierras, furrowed with deep canyons, dimpled with lakes, waved with ridges and peaks that reach into the azure sky. Where the valley widened were noble pine groves, rolling green meadows fringed with luxuriant growth of ferns and flowers, and corn fields that provide the country with its staple diet.

As the road snakes its way through lofty heights of 8,000 to 10,500 feet every curve presents grand and stately views. Closer to Oaxaca where wind and rain have swept away the top soil from hillsides, exposing red earth, nature has sculpted the most magnificent crags with deep, eye-catching cleavages.

mexico-akhil1Alighting in the ancient town of Oaxaca, we stepped into Mesoamerica, a geographical region extending from Southern Mexico into Central America with a shared culture and history among its indigenous people. With its cobbled streets lined on both sides with colourful houses, impressive government buildings and exquisite churches, all over 300 years old and of Spanish colonial design, the historic centre of the city is a world heritage site. Zocalo, the main square, is a moving spectacle of grace and beauty. Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Mazatecos and a hundred other variety of natives, mostly mixed with European blood, shuffle along, dressed in the trademark costumes of their tribe, pedalling beads and ornaments, embroidered clothing and woven rugs and tapestries of curious designs. A young girl, streams of sweat falling from her dusky face, performs her antics with a hoolah-hoop. Mariachi musicians serenade diners toasting on tequila and mescal. In the church square a group of clowns entertain crowds of smiling people perched on a wall. A few feet away the local leaders deliver speeches that are followed by the army band striking up a clash of martial tunes. A man in an Aztec costume stands for an eternity on one bent leg, still as a statue, with the other leg raised forward. Everywhere men in cowboy hats are getting their shoes shined while reading the newspaper. On another corner of the square a band is performing for flag-waving communist party cadres. Next to the fountain, a fiercely moustached man plays the xylophone, unconcerned of the fruits of his labour. Amorous native couples occupy the ornamented benches publicly showering their affections.

We saw the 2,000-year-old cypress tree in Tule, 52 metres in circumference, the stoutest tree in the world; drove and trekked deep into the mountains inhabited by the Zapotec to see the incredible Hierve el Agua, petrified waterfalls; and visited the ruined Zapotec cities of Monte Alban and Mitla, thriving settlements from 200 BC but suffering damage and decay for 1,200 years.

Retracing the Mayan glory

mexico-akhil2An overnight bus brought to Tuxtla and into Mayan-dominated territory of Chiapas. Accompanied by our guide, Gomez, we sped on the highway towards Sumeidero Canyon. A toll gate had been captured by the striking teachers and they were collecting the money for themselves. The only reasonable demand the teachers here are making is the introduction of Mayan language in school syllabus in Chiapas region. “You can study Mayan languages in France – but not in Mexico,” remarked Gomez. Distancing ourselves from terrorist teachers, we got to the 35 million-year-old crack in the earth’s crust through which flows the Grijalva River. Getting on a jet boat we flew through the wide, muddy river that, with recent heavy rains, was in spate. Monstrous American crocodiles lounged on a sandbank with their jaws wide open as butterflies flitted on their nostrils. The river narrowed into the 13km long canyon with vertical walls that rise up to a thousand metres. The beauty of the canyon us marred by the floating garbage and plastic bottles that completely cover its waters. Carried by the drains of communities living near the river, 5,000 tons of solid waste is extracted from the river every year.

Frozen in Time

Driving through wonderful alpine scenery, we arrived in the quaint township of San Cristobal that seems frozen in time. Spaniards created this settlement, coolly located at 7,200ft, painting the facade of houses, as the Mayans did, in vibrant colours – and it has remained as it was over three vanished centuries.

Battle of the Gods

mexico-waterfallNext morning, before the sun was up, we left for Palanque. An hour later the sky turned red as the sun climbed up from behind the mountain range. “That’s a good sign,” said Gomez. “The Mayans believe that the Sun god battled the nine gods of the underworld at night, defeated them and came out the victor. The red sky is the blood from his wounds.” As we came down the highlands and entered the forest, we ran into the devilish teachers once again. This time they had blocked the road through the village, holding up traffic for a kilometre on both sides. They led the word out that they would not open the road until six in the evening. It was 9 a.m. After two hours, just when we were going to haul or bags to the other side of the village and negotiate an exchange with another car, the teachers announced that they would release the traffic – after deciding how much money they would charge for vehicles to pass. After another forty minutes of speeches that bashed imperialism and capitalism, we were let through. The teachers extorted 50 pesos ($4) from cars and 100 pesos from buses and trucks. A Zapatista movement, that had initially declared war on the Mexican state, is still active in Chiapas seeking greater autonomy for the region. Their leader, Subcommandante Marcos, not a Mayan, is underground in America or Europe, no one knows for sure – but he is in control. There are also reports of Muslims from the Middle East settling in Chiapas in recent years.

Games of Love: Left-behinds

We spent some time at two different waterfalls – Agua Azul and Misol-Ha – insignificant in size though not in beauty. Along the way trucks were being loaded with the deep red fruit of the African Palm for extracting fuel for cars and planes. Earlier when corn was used in fuel production, corn prices went up, hurting the masses. Introduction of the African Palm as biofuel has eased the pressure on corn.

The twenty-seven-years-old Gomez is unmarried. “Mayans would say I have been ‘left behind’,” he said. Mayans marry early – at 13 or 14, the boy indicating his desired wife and parents brokering the deal. After 18, if still unmarried, you are considered “left behind”. Divorce is uncommon in villages. If the first three children turn out to be girls, a Mayan man may seek divorce or take another wife. Mayans have large families. “Twelve-thirteen mexico-akhil3children are common. In my village there is a family with 18 children – all from one wife,” said Gomez.

Stefan, a storehouse of Mayan knowledge, guided us through Palanque, one of the most celebrated Mayan sites in the Americas. In scorching heat we climbed up and down steep steps, holding our knees. We saw the empty tomb of the Red Queen excavated in 1994. We saw all the estelas, stone slabs, with carvings of the great king Pakal making mincemeat of his enemies and offering blood from his ding-a-ling for improving soil fertility and ensuring a bumper harvest. We saw all the palaces and temples, bathrooms and observatories, now just a pile of stones but beautiful once when their exteriors were painted in striking colours and designs.

Again leaving before sunrise, we drove through farmlands of Mayan communities, along the edge of the Lacandon National Park whose dense trees covered the road with a canopy. Turning off the road, we went 11km inside the forest on a dirt track to visit the Bonampak site, famous for its Mayan murals dating from ca. 790 AD depicting presentation by the king of his new-born son, the future king, to the nobles and priests; and scenes of war, blood and captured prisoners.

At Frontera Corozal, a Mexican outpost on the left bank of River Usumacinta, we presented ourselves at the immigration office to exit out of the country. The lone officer checked our passports for the entry stamp into Mexico. We explained to him that there was no immigration check at Tijuana, at the opposite end of the country, from where we had entered. He questioned us at length, made some calls and said, in a most civil manner, that he would not charge us the penalty as the fault was theirs. The muddy river forms the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala.

Boarding a motorised canoe we first went to visit another Mayan site at Yaxchilan, 30 minutes downstream. The once all-powerful Mayan state had been taken over by the forest and many of its structures have been left alone with vegetation and moss sprouting from them. It is a picturesque sight. The place was famous for its lintels. The best ones were taken away to the British Museum where they are housed respectfully.

Coming down from the steps of a temple, I spotted a Spyder Monkey lounging on a breadnut tree. He scanned my face too and seemed to notice the family resemblance. I bowed ceremoniously. He responded by throwing a nut at me and followed it up with another missile. I felt offended and, with hurried steps, made my way over mossy stones to the river bank.

For a little over an hour our boat zig-zagged upstream across the meandering river, that ran through a large stretch of rainforest, before dropping us at the slushy bank outside the village of Bethel on the Guatemalan side. We hauled our bags through the mud and got to the immigration office – again a one-man show in this remote corner. The gracious officer made us feel welcome. Fernando and a van were there to receive us and together we drove 136 km (of which the first 57 unpaved km took two hours) to Flores.


The region we were driving through was Petin, the largest state if Guatemala and largely forested until the 1960s. It is a biodiversity hotspot and 22,000 sq km of it comprises the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. In the 1960s and 70s the government, dominated by the US-supported oligarchy and military, encouraged the innocent indigenous Mayans to relocate to Peten, clear the land and develop farming. The Mayans moved in hordes. Once the land had been cleared, the military moved in, mowed down the Mayans and handed over the land to the oligarchs. The Mayans sought refuge in neighbouring Mexico. Guatemala faced a bloody civil war for over 40 years – during which, according to varying estimates, 200,000 to two million people died, mostly the indigenous Mayans.

“My grandfather was a man of substantial means. He had adequate farmland, raised cattle and poultry. But he was forced out of his village by the land-grabbers and ended his life in penury,” said Fernando.

Monkey Tricks

Next morning, we drove into the Tikal National Park to call on the largest and most powerful Mayan state, now just an archaeological site, with monumental structures dating back to 4th century BC. Howler monkeys and Spyder monkeys frolicked on the canopies of trees, free of care – as the predator Harpy Eagle had almost become extinct. As the forests of Peten were cleared and the Mayan refugees returned to their own homeland and settled villages, raising crops and poultry, the eagle developed a taste for chicken and became an instant enemy of man. The Mayans eliminated the eagles – resulting in an over-population of monkeys. A sign warns that the Spyder monkeys, from their high perch, like to defecate on the heads of visitors to attract attention.

Tikal has some grand buildings and shows evidence of a highly developed city-state and culture. It has over 3,000 structures that have been left alone, clad in vegetation.

Vanished Mayan cities: Climate change?

Every ancient Mayan city we had so far visited was eventually abandoned. What was the reason? According to a recent study published in Science, the Mayan cities were gradually abandoned due to climate change that took place over two centuries. Rainfall in the region decreased episodically for periods as long as a decade at a time. Decrease in summer storm activity caused evaporation to become dominant over rainfall and water availability was reduced – adversely affecting agricultural production. Consecutive years of drought could have led to social unrest and, as people moved out, eventual collapse of the cities and their surrender to the forests. The scientists noted that the droughts they saw during the demise of the ancient Mayan civilisation were similar in severity to those projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the near future in this region of Mesoamerica.

Nixon, an archaeology student who was guiding us through Tikal, said: “Not necessarily climate change. Could have been war. If in this day and age, in Guatemala, just 40 years ago, people could have been forced out of their homes and villages by the greed of the powerful elites, why could a similar situation not have occurred 1,300 years ago?”

In a raging storm, we returned to our hotel – and prepared for our travels further into Central America.

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