The demon’s manic eyes stopped me in my tracks. I shivered, imagining its hawk-like beak flaying the flesh from my bones. This was the Mayan rain god, Chac, the most important deity in a land where the only source of fresh water was infrequent rain. Ominous Chac visages framed the stairway on the Pyramid of the Magician, leading to a stone doorway said to be the mouth of the powerful god. Here, Mayan high priests ripped out the heart of human sacrifices with a flint knife before throwing their bodies back down the steep steps.
Uxmal, one of the most important cities of the Maya empire, is located just an hour south of present-day Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Located away from regions of heavy rainfall and the jungles that smother the ruins of Palenque, it stands with all its walls erect, almost as perfect as the day it was deserted by its inhabitants. Perhaps because Uxmal is in better condition than many other Maya sites, very little archeological excavation and research has been done on the site, however archeologists estimate that up to 25,000 residents lived in Uxmal at the zenith of its development during the Late Classic Mayan Period, from 850 to 925 AD.
Archeologists also speculate that Uxmal may have been more of an arts community than a governmental center, which could in part account for its stunning architecture. The Pyramid of the Magician, soaring 117 feet high and built on an unique elliptical base, is actually five superimposed temples. It anchors one side of the Nunnery Quadrangle, so named by Spanish Conquistadores because its 74 small rooms reminded them of nuns’ quarters in a convent. The western building’s facade is decorated with entwined stone serpent images, ubiquitous in the Maya world, which symbolized birth, change, and crawling though time. Even the latticework designs are thought to represent the diamond pattern on the rattlesnake’s skin.
Somehow the man in the Chihuahua park knew I was easy prey. From a distance he slouched against a hand cart and looked me over. His first pass was casual, just a slow saunter past my park bench, without even a glance in my direction. Old addictive thinking patterns resurfaced, patterns I thought I had long ago conquered. It was my birthday. Surely I deserved a treat? My desire transmitted through thin air. He reversed direction and approached a second time, until he stood on the sidewalk directly in front of me, his glittering onyx eyes boring through me.
“Que tienes?” I asked. What do you have?
“Ah, muchas cosas,” he replied. “Que quieres?” Many things; what do you want?
He tried to suppress the grin that crept onto his face. “Coca?” he repeated.”No, pero tengo coco.” No, but I have coconut, he corrected, as he reached into his into his ice cream cart for a tube of coconut ice cream. Apparently, I wasn’t the first gringa to mix up the word for coconut with the slang for cocaine, though I might have been the most embarrassed.
I don’t even like ice cream. I can accompany my friends to an ice cream parlor and watch them devour sundaes without experiencing the slightest twinge of desire. But Mexican helado is unlike any ice cream I have tasted; it is sweet seduction, nectar of the gods. I’d first answered the siren call in Cabo San Lucas, where I watched a heladero struggle his ice cream cart down a rocky sand path leading to the harbor entrance. Gnarled, dust-caked toes protruded from his decayed leather sandals and his canvas trousers and white shirt hung on his emaciated frame. I would have bought something even if he were selling pork rinds.
A vast smile slit his leathery brown face when I stepped up and asked what flavors he had. Wait, he signaled with an upheld finger, then opened the cart lid and ducked his head through the ice fog to rummage around in its depths. Triumphantly, he emerged with a frozen foot-long plastic tube filled with a white substance. “Usted debe probar este. Es hecho en casa – mi especialidad!” You must try this. It is homemade – my specialty! I tore a corner of the rubbery plastic with my teeth and tentatively sampled the icy treat. Rich, delicious coconut ice coated my mouth and slickened my teeth. Like a greedy baby I sucked on the tube, forcing the frozen cylinder up from the bottom with my thumbs, not willing to waste a single drop.
Though I tried to resist, the siren call of Mexican ice cream continued to lure me into its clutches. In tiny Dolores Hidalgo, the town where Mexico’s independence movement began, I rushed through the old jail and cathedral, anxious to get to the main plaza, where some of the country’s most famous ice cream vendors hawk a bizarre lineup of flavors. Our tour guide led us to his favorite stand. Immediately, spoons Continue reading
Having spent the last half-hour fighting nausea brought on by curvy mountain roads, when my tour van finally pulled into the parking lot at Misol-Ha Waterfall I briefly considered dropping to my knees and kissing the hot, motionless asphalt. I might have done just that had the tour guide not insisted we hurry, since this would be only a 40 minute stop. Instead, I gulped fresh air and headed down the hill to view this lovely ponytail stream that falls over a rock lip into a circular pool at the bottom of a gorge.
Descending the concrete stairs I carefully picked my way over slick rounded boulders littering the path to walk under the cascade. Beyond the cataract the path climbed to a cave on the opposite ridge. Up I went, grasping naked tree branches and ducking under rocky overhangs along the unimproved trail. Anything for a good photo. Afterward, hurrying back over the treacherous wet path, I groused silently, “I hope the lighting at the next waterfall is better.”
Back in the van we wound deeper into the mountains. From hilltops scalded by sunshine we descended into dense jungle tunnels that all but blocked the sun. As I squinted and blinked, trying to adjust my eyes to the alternating light and dark, I suddenly smelled smoke. With each passing mile the scent grew stronger, until we rounded a long curve that opened out on a broad valley pocked with gray columns slowly rumbling skyward. Everywhere, the rainforest was being set aflame to clear farmland. Here and there, blackened patches littered with Continue reading
The narrow mountain road carved a slithering path through impenetrable jungle that threatened to devour it. Even the view through the tour bus windshield provided no relief; the asphalt ribbon stretched into the distance until it too was swallowed by the green swath. With every curve my old malady, motion sickness, was kicking up, threatening to make me hurl. I put my head down and closed my eyes, attempting to block out the incessant greenness rushing past my peripheral vision. Breathing deeply, I concentrated on not throwing up. Mercifully, the bus suddenly slowed. I looked up just in time to glimpse a crudely hand-lettered sign at the edge of a clearing where a few ramshackle buildings had staked a claim. “You are in Zapatista territory,” it announced.
A memory bubble lurched up. Back in the mid-90′s I had considered loading up my truck and traveling through Mexico but had decided against it because of the armed conflict between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) and the Mexican government. On January 1, 1994 an estimated 3,000 Zapatista insurgents, based in the southernmost State of Chiapas and comprised mostly of indigenous peoples of Mayan ancestry, took up arms in response to Mexico’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they believed would further widen the gap between rich and poor people. They seized a number of towns and cities and freed prisoners from the jail in San Cristobal de las Casas, demanding governmental autonomy and more control over and remuneration from the vast stores of natural resources extracted from the State.
A bloody battle between the Zapatistas and government troops raged for 12 days before a ceasefire was brokered. As quickly as they had emerged, the Zapatistas melted back into into the jungle, choosing to eschew future violence in favor of disseminating their message via newspapers and the Internet. Although there were occasional skirmishes following the ceasefire, for the most part the fighting ended and the government pursued a policy of negotiation, to the point that they did not intervene when ELZN declared the establishment of 32 autonomous municipalities in Chiapas in 2001.
Now, 16 years later, I was finally making the pilgrimage I had put on hold due to the Zapatista rebellion. The further south I traveled the more I heard about Chiapas. Time and again during my four-month trip Mexicans I had met along the way extolled its beauty, insisting, “You must go!” Their passion was understandable. From the astonishing Mayan temples of Palenque to the mist-wreathed, jungle-smothered mountaintops, Chiapas is simply stunning. Continue reading
Most visitors to the Palenque Mayan Ruins in Chiapas, Mexico make the mistake of staying in the town of Palenque. Because the town and the archeological site share the same name, tourists assume that they are one in the same. Upon arrival, however, they discover that the ruins are a 15-20 minute ride from town. The short trip can be done by taxi for 50 pesos (about $4 USD) or colectivo (shared van) for 10 pesos (about 80 cents US), but there is an even better solution. Rather than staying in Palenque, choose accommodations in the tiny jungle village of El Panchan.
El Panchan’s location right outside the entrance gate to Palenque is one reason to choose it but there are even more compelling reasons. First, the price of accommodations in El Panchan is much more affordable. Although there are numerous options, I chose Margarita and Ed’s, where I rented a cabana with twin beds and a private, ensuite bathroom for about $15 per night. The room was spotless and well-furnished, there was round-the-clock hot water, and though the owners told me the closest Internet connection was in Palenque, I actually got a signal (albeit weak) on my Mexican TelCel Aircard that allowed me to get email and upload blog posts. Continue reading