Getting ruined in Mexico and Guatemala

Walking through any of the Mayan ruins, it is easy to be look around in awe and wonder what these majestic cites must have looked like in their peak more than two thousand years ago.

The Mayan empire covered an area from Southern Mexico to Northern Honduras. During its heyday from 250-900 AD, it was one of the most densely populated and sophisticated societies in the world. Among its many accomplishments, Maya have the first recorded use the concept of ‘zero’ in 36 BC, had a fully developed written language, used sophisticated mathematics and astronomy, and built many huge elaborate stepped pyramids and throughout the dense jungle. The Maya had no single center of power, but were a diverse group of powerful city-states that often were engaged in a struggle for power with their neighbors.

There are hundreds of major Mayan sites and thousands of minor ones in existence today. We ended up visiting three sites in Mexico, and one in Guatemala over the last two months. Palenque (Palisade in spanish), the first site we visited was in southern Mexico, is set against beautiful jungle hillsides. We were awed by the pyramids crowned with temples, elaborate living quarters, aqueducts, and carved reliefs that covered the walls.The buildings that exist today are probably from a reconstruction effort after the invasion by the city of Calakmul in 599 and 611 AD.

Close to Palenque is the very small but important site of Bonampak. In one of the temples, rainwater slowly leaked through the roof in a way that covered the walls with a thin layer of calcium carbonate. Unlike most Mayan sites, these magnificent murals are still visible. It is amazing to imagine that such murals would have covered many of the interior walls of the temples and royal living quarters. The discovery by archaeologists of these murals in 1946 (the local indigenous Lakandons led them there) changed the previously held notion that Mayan were a mostly peaceful society.
We then went to Yaxchilan, a small site on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. With its maze of cavernous rooms and pyramids crowned with towering structures, this site is only accessible by a one hour boat ride from Frontera Corozal, the closest town. Yaxchilan was built on a river bend, but during a rainy period the river flooded and turned Yaxchilan into an island. The Mayans solved this problem by building a 100 meter suspension bridge in the 7th century. The 63 meter span remained the longest in the world until the Italian Trezzo bridge surpassed it more than 700 years later.

Finally at Tikal in Guatemala, we climbed one of the tallest pyramids of the Mayan Empire and looked across the jungle to see the tops of three other pyramids rising above the trees. These temples were the tallest of all the places we visited, and since people have died from falling down the steep stone staircases, rickety wooden staircases just as steep (but with handrails) have been installed.

Around 1000 AD, the Mayan civilization rapidly declined from its height. The cause of this collapse is still subject to rigorous debate. Some people believe that a 200 year drought may have strained the dense population that had settled on land poorly suited to intensive farming, while others point to evidence of internal political strife.

Today, over 6 million Mayan people live in southern Mexico and northern Central America today. Many Mayan still speak one of the 21-29 different Mayan languages, wear colorful traditional clothing, and practice a blend of Catholicism and pre-conquest Maya customs. Many Mayans consider the ancient temples sacred. Ceremonies are still performed at Tikal, and in 2007, spiritual leaders performed a cleansing ceremony at the ruins of Iximche after US President George Bush’s visit.

When you visit a Mayan site, try to ignore the grass lawns (a European invention) and the vendors selling inaccurate Mayan reproductions. Imagine seeing priests instead of tourists on the top of the temples, and instead of seeing the jagged exposed bricks, imagine the temples beautifully painted and covered smooth with limestone stucco. And, if you are a person well known for your unpopular foreign polices, expect a spiritual cleansing ceremony to be performed in your honor.

(video of our experience at Yaxchilan)

Crossing Mexico’s other border

We successfully crossed the border between Mexico and Guatemala on Saturday November 8. We spent the previous evening in Comitan, a town close to the border, but far enough away to be removed from border problems. According to the International Migration Organization, one out of every ten Guatemalans live in the USA as of 2003. Mexico is fighting the same losing battle as the United States in trying to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs migrating across their southern border. With more than 1/3 of the population of Guatemala living on less than $2 USD a day, it is easy to see why over 100,000 Guatemalans risk their lives trying to cross through Mexico to enter the United States every year. We woke up at 6 in the morning in order to get an early start, as it is best to be off the roads in Guatemala by the early afternoon. We arrived at the Mexican immigration office just as they were opening at 8 AM, and after about an hour we were back in the car heading towards the Guatemalan border. After ten minutes of driving, the road seemed to disappear in a crowd of people and crude market stalls. Not knowing what to do next, we drove at a slow crawl while unconerned people moved slowly out of our way until we came to an orange cone in the middle of our lane, and a small chain link fence extending from both sides of the road. A man in a blue uniform asked us to get out of the car, and then proceeded to spray down the inside and outside of the car with an strong citrus scented insecticide. I am not sure what I was expecting the border to be like, but it definitely was not this. Looking to the side, you could see cement posts placed every 50 yards up the hillside marking the border. After paying for this unusual car spray down, we spent another hour getting all the payments and papers processed for Guatemala. We then got back in the car and fought our way through more street markets. While it took about 2 hours to get our papers in order, passports stamped, vehicle import permit, and fumigate the car, in general it was a pretty painless process. It felt strange to be able to actually see the border between two countries stretching up the hillside.

(Mexican-Guatemalan Border)

A street market had taken over the main highway that ran through the Guatemalan border town of La Mesilla, so after a quick detour through some narrow streets that wound through small neighborhoods, we continued on the Pan-American Highway to Queztaltenango. Locals refer to this bustling town as Xelaju (shay-la-who), which is the original K’iche name for the pre-Hispanic site. The K’iche people are direct descendants of the Mayans, and they make up about half of the town’s population. They are easily recognized, as their clothes are a riot of different colors and patterns, but they seem to be completely integrated in to modern life, as we see them in McDonalds, talking on cell-phones, and riding noisy scooters around town. Xelaju is the somewhat gritty commercial center of Western Guatemala, and has a mix of beautiful crumbling colonial homes and churches around the central park that contrast with the typical cement-walled and tin-roofed homes of most of the inhabitants. The views from the city are shrouded in fog mornings and evenings, but during the sunny afternoons two dramatic volcanoes grace the horizon. We decided to stay in Xelaju for several weeks to live with a local family and take intensive Spanish lessons.

(street market in La Mesilla, Guatemala

November 4, 2008

Tonight we watched the election returns on CNN while simultaneously trying to follow the results online. We’ve had some slow connections here, but tonight it seemed like everyone in Mexico shared the same dial-up line. Our friends Kelsey and Tom, a Canadian and a New Zealander, joined us for the evening. Many of the people we met on this trip expressed intense interest in the outcome of this election. I am glad it’s over now – the uncertainty was killing me these last couple of days. To calm our nerves during the early hours of the initial returns, we burned some candles and copal we bought in Chamula, a Tzotzil town near San Cristobal. These candles, sconces, and copal incense are used during traditional Tzotzil ceremonies in their church and on holidays such as Dia de los Muertos.

Party with your ancestors on Dia de los Muertos

We’ve been awakened by many different unusual noises in Mexico: braying burros, phone call announcements, marching music, and howler monkeys. The morning of November 1st in San Cristobal de la Casas, it was church bells and fireworks. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday that has evolved in Mexico over hundreds of years, combining both pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions. Pre-Hispanic Mexicans traditionally welcomed the visiting spirits of the dead into their homes a week after the autumn equinox by building arches of yellow marigolds over the doorways to provide a portal for the spirits to enter our world. Food and drink were placed under the arches to welcome the spirits when they arrived. After the Spanish conquest, this pre-Hispanic celebration was combined with the Catholic holidays on November 1 and 2 of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which shared similar traditions. These traditions have continued to evolve, and today people celebrate by visiting the graves of departed loved ones, decorating the graves with marigold flowers, pine needles, food and drink, building altars in their households, and visiting with family.

We visited the towns of San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan, both about 3 miles outside of San Cristobal de la Casas, to observe their Dia de los Muertos celebrations. We went on a tour organized by “Alex and Raul,” although our guide was actually named Cesar. He provided interesting information on the culture and traditions of the communities we visited throughout the tour. Chamula and Zinacantan are both Tzotzil villages, an indigenous group directly descended from the Mayan civilization. Chamula is a fiercely independent town that has autonomous status within Mexico, allowing them to have their own police force and local government. Mexican police or military are not allowed in the town. They are very suspicious of outsiders, as they have been fighting to maintain their culture since the Spanish invasion and still feel threatened by Christian missionaries. Photography of the Chamulan people, the interior of their church, or any religious ceremonies is not permitted, but Cesar did let us know when it would be appropriate to discretely take some pictures from a distance. As we descended into the Chamulan valley we saw hundreds of families gathered around graves blanketed in orange flowers and fragrant green pine needles, playing music on guitars and harps, sharing meals and a strong sugar cane liquor called posh. Chamulan people wear the traditional clothing of their ethnic group: the women wear colorful silk blouses and homespun black wool skirts, and the men wear black or white jackets made of the same fuzzy fabric. Ringing church bells and ceremonial firework explosions echoed through the valley as we walked around the graveyard to the town center. Across a large marketplace men rang church bells, and as we neared the church, clouds of aromatic pine incense called copal billowed from the church door. Chamulan tradition considers copal to be the food of god, just as corn is the food of the people. Leaders of the Chamulan spiritual community gathered in front of the church, setting out lines of coke bottles filled with soda as offerings to visiting spirits. Younger men packed gunpowder into narrow metal tubes to shoot off homemade fireworks. Traditionally, cane sugar juice was used as offerings to the gods and to draw out evil, but Coke and Pepsi have largely replaced that as a more readily-available alternative.


We entered the church and carefully made our way across the stone floor, slippery with a layer of pine needles. Cesar explained to us that this church is no longer under the control of the Vatican, and priests are only allowed to visit monthly to baptize newborns. Statues of saints in glass display boxes lined the church, many of their faces covered with colorful clothes, so that the spirits of bad people who had returned for the day would not be able to look at their faces. People sat in a large circle around the altar in the middle of the church, sharing posh, sweet bread, and a milky corn stew. The altar was covered in orange flowers and surrounded by pine needles and white candles. These offerings are typical of many Chamulan ceremonies. Flowers are considered to be the food of God, and pine needles represent the people for whom the prayers are being said. White candles represent mother earth, god, and purity. Posh is often used in healing ceremonies to strengthen people and liberate their soul from evil spirits.

Afterwards we visited the home of a spiritual leader. Dried garlands of herbs and flowers covered the beams of the house and the air inside was thick with overpowering copal incense. The spiritual leaders stood behind a table draped in flowers, pine needles, and flickering white candles. As the musicians played an eerie repetitive chant, the leaders removed layers of colorful cloths from several crosses and statues. These cloths will be washed and used to cover the crosses and statues again once they were clean. Deafening explosions shook the house as men blew up fireworks outside. Small glasses of posh were passed to us to sample, which had a fiery taste like a rough tequila. Slightly muddled from the loud explosions and copal smoke, we made our way to the next town, which was blissfully more quiet.

San Lorenzo Zinacantan is a more prosperous village than Chamula, and their Dia de los Muertos celebrations are significantly more reserved. They are a distinct Tzotzil group from the Chamulans, and wear beautiful black cotton clothing embroidered with intricate turquoise, purple and blue floral designs. We visited their church, bells ringing, to observe their colorful altar with food and drink offerings for the dead. We also visited a family’s home to learn more about traditional Tzotzil healing practices. The women of the house sold scarves, table cloths, tortilla wrappers, and other handwoven clothes, all brightly colored with intricate designs. One of the younger women made tortillas in a simple cement room furnished only with a small table and a large fire at the center of the room.

The next day, we wandered over to the large cemetery in San Cristobal de la Casas. Dia de los Muertos celebrations continued there, and the graveyard was thronged with crowds of families. Vendors pushed carts selling sweets, soda, fruit, and chicharron, a delicious and highly unhealthy fried food that is covered in spicy chile and lime. Bands of musicians roamed the graveyard, stopping to sing and play traditional songs for groups surrounding their family’s graves. Some graves were simple mounds marked with wooden crosses; others were large mausoleums with glass doors, altars, and pictures, but most were surrounded by families and decorated with candles, orange marigolds, and pine needles. The atmosphere was festive and celebratory, and we discussed how different their views on death and loss (at least on this day) seem to be from the somber atmosphere you would expect in graveyards in the US (click here for a video of our Dia de Muertos experiences)

Loving the auto-hotel in Villahermosa

Villahermosa is not the beautiful city its name suggests. After driving through its bustling but uninteresting downtown, we decided to try out an ‘auto-hotel.’ We noticed these attractive, gated ‘auto-hotels’ outside many cities on our drive through Mexico. We drove into Hotel Villa Magna on the edge of town. We were pleased by the price, the spacious room, and the fact that we had our own garage with an electronic garage door. We found it strange that we were not given a key to our room, which was located above our personal garage. The room and car were only locked when we closed the garage door behind us. We also found the room a bit unusual with a full length mirror behind the bed framed by flashing green LEDs, and lighting that was so dim we couldn’t even read our books. I think we were memorable guests, since we ended up eating in the employee cafeteria (by accident). Since there was a menu in the room for the restaurant, we went down to the front desk to ask where the restaurant was located. I don’t know if we were having an off day in terms of our Spanish comprehension, if the employees had extremely strong accents, or if they were messing with us, but we simply could not understand how to get to the restaurant. Finally, one of the maids beckoned for us to follow her up a strange staircase through some back halls to the ‘restaurant’. This turned out to be the kitchen with a couple of tables for employees during their breaks (we think). I don’t know if the cooks or we were more confused, but we were fed so we were happy.

Several weeks later we were discussing this experience with Kelsey and Tom, travelers who are also driving to South America. We came to understand that these ‘auto-hotels’ are the Mexican equivalent of a Japanese ‘love hotel.’ These hotels exist solely to give people a discreet place to stay with the emphasis on privacy. Just like Japan, many Mexican people live with extended families in smaller houses, making a romantic night with your new wife difficult if share a room with your cousins. I think that explains why I kept on hearing ocho horas (eight hours) when the maid was quoting us prices during one of our confusing conversations. We stayed for 12 or 14 hours though – I don’t think they thought it was worth trying to explain their hotel concept to the clueless foreigners.