- Historic Sites
On a journey to Mexico’s land of the Maya even the experts can fill in the past only lightly
February/March 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 1
In the last year or so the Mayas—both present-day population and ancient civilization—have gained a new kind of attention in the popular imagination and in the press. “Secrets of the Maya,” a Time magazine cover story of August 9, 1993, sought lessons for today’s world in the Mayas’ centuries of spectacular achievements and sudden decline about nine hundred years ago. Recently a five-nation effort called El Mundo Maya was set up to lure travelers to the hundreds of archeological sites that still give powerful evidence of the great heights Maya civilization reached while most of Europe slumbered. “The history of the American continent does not begin with Christopher Columbus or even with Leif the Lucky,” writes the Yale anthropologist Michael Coe, “but with those Maya scribes in the Central American jungles who first began to record the deeds of their rulers some two thousand years ago.”
And if one needed further evidence of the long reach of history, there was the shock of New Year’s Day 1994, when front-page headlines told how an army of mostly Maya peasants in Mexico’s impoverished Chiapas state came down from the hills, took over San Cristóbal, the main city, and fought with surprising effect against Mexican troops, signaling what one New York Times reporter called “the first Latin American revolutionary movement of the post cold-war age.”
American travelers have been drawn to the steamy jungle lowlands of Mexico’s Yucátan Peninsula since at least the 1840s, when John Lloyd Stephens and his English artist companion Frederick Catherwood first parted the curtain of centuries to peer into the enigmatic, crumbling, vegetation-sprouting stone ruins that still proclaimed the unmistakable presence of a once great people. “They rise like skeletons from the grave,” Stephens wrote, “wrapped in their burial shrouds; claiming no affinity with the works of any known people, but a distinct, independent and separate existence.”
Last December my eye was caught by a brochure from Sun Line Cruises outlining a voyage to the Yucátan Peninsula on the Stella Solaris , leaving from Galveston, Texas. The trip included a daylong shore excursion to one of the most fabled Maya ruins, Chichén Itzá, to witness the celebration of the spring equinox.
In the midst of a rigorous winter, it was appealing just to consider the certain arrival of spring, as it must have been for the ancient Mayas, who devised a remarkably precise calendar that allowed them to plan a farmer’s year. “To understand life on earth, they reached for answers in the sky,” explained Edwin Krupp, an archeoastronomer and one of five lecturers aboard the Stella Solaris .
“There are no dumb questions,” Krupp announced at the start of one of his lectures, and my fellow travelers didn’t need much coaxing. They appeared highly knowledgeable and absorbed in their subject.
One passenger aptly characterized the Stella Solaris as a big ship with a small-ship mentality. Built in 1953, thoroughly refurbished when Sun Line took over in 1973 and several times after that, the vessel offered all the charms of a vintage ocean liner, not least of which were its sleek lines and cascade of open deck that clearly predate the chunky, veranda-laden cruise ships of the nineties. For most of us the point of this journey was to taste of the Maya world—and in a short time only a taste was possible—but three full days at sea on the schedule also promised the chance simply to relax. From the start, when a synchronized trio of leaping dolphins followed the vessel out of Galveston Harbor, to a series of flamboyant tropical sunsets, and through to the evening of Greek entertainment when the captain joined in his crew’s spirited singing and dancing, shipboard life met all the promise of a glossy color brochure.
The first port of call, the island of Cozumel, lies just off the Yucatán Peninsula. There passengers could choose from several tours, among them a trip around the island, stopping at San Gervasio, where the remains of a city dating from A.D. 300 to 1500 are set amid blessedly shady vegetation, providing a pleasant and manageable first look at the stubbornly secret Maya world. Our guide, Joaquín, claimed, as most guides in the region do, Maya ancestry. “Erase in your mind for a few minutes,” Joaquín said, “the idea of ‘Indian,’” and he went on to count his forebears’ achievements—the art, architecture, calendar, mathematics, and the ancient, hieroglyphic language that today’s Mayas neither read nor speak. The original names of the gods to which San Gervasio’s buildings were dedicated are gone; the precise purposes of these structures are only guessed at, “but they knew, amigos,” Joaquín whispered, “they knew.”
San Gervasio was only the warm-up for the main event, a visit to the sacred city of Chichén Itzá, one of the largest, most combed over, and probably the best preserved of all Mesoamerican ruins. Founded around A.D. 450, in the early classic period of Maya history, Chichén, as our team of scholars called it, gained new strength in the eleventh century, when, it is thought, the Toltec peoples of central Mexico moved into the region, leaving their stamp on the architecture here. The Spanish invaders of the 1500s came, even as we do now, to marvel at the scale and audacity of Chichén’s structures and to absorb the elusive sense, of which Joaquín spoke, that what “they knew” we still do not.