Mayan mysteries |

Mayan mysteries

Naomi Havlen
From the top of Calakmul's temples and pyramids, climbers gain 360-degree views of the jungle canopy. (Michael Brands)

Walking through a river in Belize, carrying a Styrofoam takeout container that holds chicken, rice and vegetables and wearing a helmet, I feel ridiculous. It’s hard to believe that the greatest adventure on a trip through the Yucatan Peninsula lies just ahead.My husband, Mike, and I are with five other people following a guide to one of the ancient Maya’s sacred caves. Aktun Tunichil Muknal, or Cave of the Stone Sepulchre, lies 40 minutes ahead, concealed by jungle. Our guide, Renan, says we’ll eat lunch at the mouth of the cave before venturing inside.

We’ll spend three and a half hours inside the cave, following single file behind him, he says. What we’ll see in the dark recesses of this mysterious cave is what has drawn all of us to this particular tour – pottery that’s more than 1,000 years old, and skeletons of people the Mayans sacrificed to their gods.It’s a far cry from the typical places tourists visit when they venture inland on the Yucatan Peninsula. Most people who fly into Cancun like we did are there for the pristine beaches, throbbing spring-break-style nightlife and maybe a trip to the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza. We knew about all that, but our agenda took us elsewhere.

It’s hard to know where to start when immersing yourself in the history of a culture that thrived between 300 and 900 AD. The Mayan people stretched from the northern Yucatan Peninsula down to El Salvador and Honduras, living in villages in the jungle and along the coasts, sometimes building vast cities with populations in the tens of thousands.The familiar, architectural face of the Mayan civilization is exactly what you get when you go to Chichen Itza, one of the largest Mayan cities. But we had seen photos of huge crowds standing in that city’s main plaza, and that was all we needed to stay away; we wanted to explore ruins on our own terms, sometimes with guides, and sometimes not.We started with the beachfront ruins of Tulum, just 40 minutes down the road from Cancun.Tulum was built right along the coastline, so its temples and buildings are set within tropical, palm-treed reach of the turquoise ocean. This “city” surrounded by three walls (the fourth is the ocean) is small and only takes about an hour to explore.Tulum was built after 1200 A.D. as a port to the larger ruins of Coba, located farther inland. Along with temples, the site has a number of elevated earth platforms, surrounded by stone, roughly 2 feet high. Homes used to sit atop these platforms, but their timbers have long since rotted away. Because of structural problems and graffiti within the site’s largest temple, visitors can no longer climb the stone steps to see rooms where rituals were once performed. But there were obvious carvings of Mayan gods on many of the structures.Visiting Tulum at the start of our trip was like a tasty appetizer before the huge meal yet to come.

Another relatively small site that was nevertheless chock full of archeological enlightenment is in San Ignacio, Belize.This small town has made itself a hub for eco-travelers: cave tours, river trips and jungle exploration. Uphill from San Ignacio is Cahal Pech, or “Place of Ticks.” The ticks arrived when the area became a grazing field for cattle, after the Mayan site was abandoned. As pleasant as “Place of Ticks” sounds, Cahal Pech is a good primer on Mayan building techniques. Open plazas are surrounded by stone temples that lead into warrens of rooms, all long and narrow because the triangular stone “arches” (sometimes referred to as the “Maya Arch”) cannot support the width that rounded arches can.Each room has a platform about 4 feet high and as wide as a twin bed, that were used as the primary “furniture” for eating, sleeping – you name it. Cahal Pech has a number of plazas, large and small, and a ball court where games were played. Bats have taken up residence in some of the complex’s inner rooms.There are hundreds of fascinating tidbits when it comes to ancient Mayan culture. History books will teach you about their written language and their advanced understanding of astronomy; their surprisingly accurate annual calendar even included eclipses.But touring the ruins and viewing relics reveals more about everyday life. Mayans believed that flattened foreheads and crossed eyes were attractive and a sign of nobility. They would sandwich some infants’ heads between boards to make their skulls less round, and perhaps dangle something between the child’s eyes to cross their eyes. Mayans of true noble birth drilled pieces of jade into their teeth, and leaders in the biggest Mayan cities were buried with ornate jade masks.Cahal Pech has a visitor center with a helpful diorama of the site and ancient pots and clay toys, but we had bigger fish to fry.

Caves were some of the Mayan’s most ceremonial places. Mayawalk Tours and one other tour company in San Ignacio provide tours of Aktun Tunichil Muknal (known as the ATM tour), one such sacred cave.Aktun Tunichil Muknal was known by locals around San Ignacio but undisturbed because of its sacred status, until archaeologists and cavers explored it fully in the 1980s. These days tour groups are closely monitored – no more than two tours per day, with fewer than eight people on each tour. And it’s no wonder, given that the tour includes stepping mere inches away from 1,500-year-old pots.After the jungle hike and lunch, our tour guide, Renan, gathered us around to explain the sanctity of caves in Mayan culture. It’s possible that only the most revered of religious leaders were allowed into these caves, as Mayans felt these spaces were part of the underworld. In their culture, stalactites overhead represented roots of trees entering the underworld from the earth above.Mayans would enter the caves carrying pots, large and small, and perhaps even leading a young person in to the space to be sacrificed to the gods. Being sacrificed was an honor, Renan said, and young people – babies and toddlers, even – were sometimes killed specifically because of their purity of spirit.Because a branch of a creek runs directly through Aktun Tunichil Muknal, entry begins with a swim into the mouth of the cave. We each wore headlamps on our hard hats and trekked into darkness for a third of a mile, sometimes up to our ankles in the creek, sometimes bobbing along in neck-deep water. Deep underground, a scramble up some rocks leads to a ceremonial room on a shelf above the creek.

In the cavernous room, pots were scattered on the floor and the occasional skeleton of a sacrificial victim was embedded in the dirt floor. Some of the pots were in pieces – Mayans may have broken them just before leaving the cave, a ritual meant to release a pot’s spirit or energy.The centerpiece of the ATM tour is the “Crystal Maiden,” an intact skeleton of a woman who may have been around 20 when she was sacrificed. She was left sprawled on her back, and her bones have calcified because of cave drippings during rainier seasons. When it’s wet in the cave, her figure sparkles because of those mineral deposits. She was dry when we were there, but dripping parts of the walls nearby sparkled in the beam of Renan’s flashlight.Time seemed to have been stopped in the damp stillness of this ceremonial site, giving us a glimpse into an overlooked piece of Mayan history.

One of the largest cities in the whole of Mayan civilization was built in what is now northern Guatemala. Tik’al will be recognizable to anyone who has seen Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” since the set for parts of the film was modeled after Tik’al’s grand plaza, flanked by two enormous temples.You can spend days exploring this area where 100,000 to 200,000 people once lived. The residential area alone covers 23 square miles, much of which has not yet been excavated. As a modern city of its day (thriving between the late seventh and early ninth centuries), it has six temples over 200 feet high, a system of roads and irrigation ditches, and residential complexes. Deep in the jungle howler monkeys sit high in the trees and call to each other in prehistoric, echoing groans. On occasion a pleasant aroma fills the air from allspice trees. The greenish-black allspice berries look a bit like peppercorns; they gave off a Christmasy scent when we crushed them with our feet.Tik’al is a perfect portrait of the height of the Mayan empire, with huge complexes of rooms where nobles and religious leaders lived. Tall rock monuments known as stelae are engraved with hieroglyphics that depict Mayan leaders, and round altar stones sometimes portray sacrifice victims, their arms and feet bound behind them.A fear of heights isn’t recommended for climbing Tik’al’s temples. I climbed to the top of a pyramid along with Peter from San Francisco, who was touring the ruins with us. While admiring the view from the top he leaned in and said, “I have to admit something. I’m absolutely terrified of getting down.”I knew exactly what he meant. The climb up is focused on the stairs in front of you, but on the return trip it’s obvious that one misplaced step could have disastrous results. Peter and I descended the pyramid sitting down, step by step, chatting the whole way.Walking around with other visitors is a given at Tik’al, but you can avoid most of the madness by staying within the national park itself. We resided for a night at the Jaguar Inn, just 100 yards away from the gated entrance into the ruins themselves. Other tourists stay in towns an hour away or so, so Tik’al doesn’t really get hopping with visitors until around 11 a.m. We slathered on bug spray and hiked into Tik’al at dawn and dusk, crowd-free.You can spend days exploring Tik’al and still leave plenty of ancient stones unturned, but we headed back to Mexico for one more stop at an especially remote site.

The ruins at Calakmul are located deep in the 1,800,000-acre Calakmul Biosphere reserve, just 30 kilometers from the Guatemalan border. Tarantulas were visible on the almost overgrown but paved one-lane road that leads about 60 kilometers into the reserve, and wild turkeys strutted along the sides.It was here that we were finally able to wander through a deserted jungle past stone pyramids, stelae and ball courts while only seeing about six other visitors. Signs were written in Spanish, a Mayan dialect and English, so there was no need for a tour guide to distract from the solitude.At Calakmul, a proliferation of ruins remain unexcavated and hidden by jungle undergrowth, soil and large trees. This site has the largest pyramid in all of Mayan civilization, featuring a base that covers five acres, but there are also plenty of uncovered mounds hiding stone buildings. In some cases stone stairways lead to crumbled piles of rubble, and huge tropical trees spring from the steps. Presumably archaeologists found the trees too difficult to remove.Mysteries surround many aspects of Mayan culture, including why these large cities were eventually abandoned. Climbing the largest pyramid at Calakmul, it’s easy to gaze across 360 degrees of jungle canopy, and marvel at a civilization that made vast scientific advances while struggling to survive in a harsh environment. It makes our modern-day inconveniences seem trivial.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is


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