Archaeologists Discover Lost Mayan City In Jungles Of Mexico

A lost Mayan city is uncovered in Mexico
INAH Reuters

Hot on the heels of the news of a lost city being discovered in Cambodia comes word that another ancient city has been unearthed, this time in the Yucatan region of Mexico. A few days back, a team of archaeologists announced that they had located a large site that has been covered by thick jungle foliage for centuries. Underneath all of that growth sat a city that was once a part of the Mayan Empire.

The team, which is led by Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Sprajc, call the city “Chactun” and believe that around 600 to 900 A.D. it was one of the largest in the Yucatan. So far, the site stretches out across more than 54 acres and includes 15 pyramids, the tallest of which is 75 feet in height. At its peak, the ancient city was likely home to as many as 40,000 people, although its population likely declined very quickly as the empire crumbled.

The city was first spotted in a series of aerial photographs and an expedition was eventually organized to travel to the site to examine it first hand. The team spent three weeks cutting their way through the dense jungle, carving a 10-mile trail in the process. Although they’ve only just begun to uncover the various buildings and other structures, what they’ve seen so far leads them to believe that Chactun will be an incredibly important find.

Historians and archaeologists have long struggled to explain what exactly happened to the Maya. At the peak of their civilization their empire stretched across the entire Yucatan, into southern Mexico and continuing on to Central America, all the way to Guatemala and Honduras. But at the height of its power, the empire suddenly and unexpectedly fell into a speedy decline, becoming just a footnote in history. This lost city could hold clues that can help unravel that mystery, as well as provide important insights into day-to-day life of the Mayan citizens.

How Far Can You Get On Three Wheels? Piaggio Ape Adventures

Taurinorum Charity Rally 2012 – APEMAYA Official trailer” from Taurinorum Travel Team on Vimeo.

On my recent trip to Italy, I fell hard for the tiny Piaggio Ape (say AH-peh, means bee in Italian, for its pleasant hum), a glorified Vespa scooter with a truck bed or a back seat attached. In Italy and India, you see the adorable vehicles everywhere, outfitted as delivery trucks or touristy rickshaws. With its small footprint to park nearly anywhere, high fuel efficiency and low city speeds, I think the Ape might be the perfect car for a New Yorker who just wants it for IKEA runs and those times you find a really amazing coffee table on the street.

Researching the viability and legality of these cars outside of Italy (maybe okay in America, if you don’t take it on the highway), I found the Taurinorum Travel Team, a group who has been raising charity funds with some incredible adventures. They started in 2009 in West Africa, touring in a comparably large Fiat Panda. The first Piaggio Ape trip was in 2011, from Quito, Ecuador, to Machu Picchu, Peru, for the centennial celebration of the ancient city’s discovery and to support biodiversity (watch the little trike car make it over 4,000 kilometers here). The ApeMaya trip last year went through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, ending in Chichen Itza to combat violence against women. The 2012 trip was designed to coincide with the end of the world as prophesied by the Mayans, but the tuk-tuk survived the 3,000-mile trip. Check out more of their beautiful footage here.

No news yet on their 2013 trip, but I hope they can stop by Brooklyn so I can take it for a test drive.

The Dzilbilchaltun Ruins: We Come In Peace

It’s nearly impossible to avoid Maya culture in the Yucatan, particularly during the month of December in 2012, when conspiracy theories detailing the “predicted” Maya doomsday were running wild like a pack of wolves through the Internet, dirtying websites with their footprints. When you can’t beat them, you’re instructed to join them. And so I went to Mexico in December alongside the wolves and I followed their trails, which of course led, in some divergences, to Maya ruins. The Dzibilchaltun Ruins, small and unassuming, were the ruins I liked best from the trip.

Located just 10 miles north of Merida, where I stayed for a few days, the Dzibilchaltun Ruins aren’t as popular as other ruins in the Yucatan, but they were popular enough for me to have heard a Texan woman tell her guide, “We Texans are very familiar with rattlesnakes.” I lived in Texas for two years. I’m happy to report that I am still not, nor do I hope to ever be, familiar with rattlesnakes.

%Gallery-179972%Modern researchers speculate that this relatively small group of Maya ruins sits on a site that was probably chosen for its close proximity to the salt-producing region on the cost, which is around 30 minutes by car from the ruins. That coast, which welcomes the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico, hosts the beach town of Progreso. That coast is also the spot where the meteorite that possibly killed off the dinosaurs first made impact. You can’t see a crater at the modern day coast, but the effects are seen in the soil and rock beneath the surface – effects that just might have been apparent to the Maya community that once thrived within the walls of Dzibilchaltun.

Dzibilchaltun was occupied for thousands of years. The city expanded and became a mid-sized city as well as contracted down to a small town on more than one occasion throughout its extensive history. The Temple of the Seven Dolls, which was filled with stones and covered by another building around 800 A.D., is the most famous structure at the ruins. I climbed the wall leading up to the elevated structure that once encased seven small effigies, unearthed only when the site was discovered in the 1950s. The Maya stones at this site are sometimes sharper than you might expect; I sliced a part of my finger open while approaching the temple through what I assumed to be a shortcut. As I stood at the temple’s entrance and studied its interior, I couldn’t help but wish to have scheduled my visit during the spring equinox, when the sunrise shines directly through one window and out the other of the small building.

I descended the stairs and continued exploring the remaining ruins spread out across the open field. It was my husband’s birthday. I spotted him in the distance atop a tall and wide staircase formation, crouching down to snap a photo. As I made my way toward him, sparkling turquoise waters glistened through shading tree branches and the voices of fellow travelers became clearer as I approached the spot. A small path through the trees yielded a wonderland of a clearing; a lily-ornamented cenote holding crystal-clear, blue-green water. A couple donned their snorkeling gear and submerged themselves beneath the surface, emanating tranquility with each smooth stride. They call it Cenote Xlakah and, like many of the other cenotes in the Yucatan, it’s a vision to behold.

A 16th-century Spanish church was built in Dzibilchaltun after the conquest. I approached it in awe, stunned by its perfectly rounded ceiling and entranceways, wondering if, even with the tangential engineering and architecture knowledge I have solely from living in our modernity, I could ever carry what I know from this age back in time and apply it with any success. I doubt it.

The steep inclines and small windows of the structures at Dzibilchaltun mesmerized me. The open field, resembling that of the National Mall, allowed the sun to beat down on my bare shoulders as I made the trek from one end to another. There may have been as many as 40,000 inhabitants in this city at one time – an estimate that would have made Dzibilchaltun one of the largest cities of Mesoamerica. With each stone sculpture and engraved rock, I became entranced by the legacy of this site. Curious and sweating, I made my way into the Museum of the Mayan People, which is on the grounds and included in the entrance fee. Unearthed works of art stand erect in the museum’s garden and behind protective glass. In contrast to the quiet of the grounds that day, these collective images of a once-bustling Dzibilchaltun seemed out of place.

As I made my way out of the museum and toward my car, I remembered the three young Korean men I had briefly met while standing in line to purchase my ticket. One of them had asked if he could take a photo with my husband and me. His fingers formed a peace sign as the picture was taken and, unable to say much else in English, he said, “thank you.” He was studying us and we were all on our way to study them – the ghosts of the Maya who once inhabited Dzibilchaltun. It’s circular, it seems, our fascination with those from whom we differ. We take notes and learn from them, no matter where or when they are from and, if we do it well, we come in peace.

Visit Altun Ha in Belize

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

New Agers Trash Mayan Pyramid At ‘End Of The World’ Party

Mayan, Tikal
Revelers at an Apocalypse party at the ancient Mayan site of Tikal in Guatemala have damaged one of the pyramids, AFP reports.

Temple II, built at Tikal’s height around 700 A.D., was damaged when a crowd of partygoers ignored signs saying it was off-limits and climbed up it anyway. An official at the site didn’t reveal how extensive the damage was but did say it was permanent.

About 7,000 tourists visited Tikal on Friday to mark the end of a cycle in the Mayan calendar, which many wide-eyed dupes believed would bring the end of the world, or at least some New-Agey world transformation that would imbue their crystals with deep spiritual significance.

If they had asked the Maya themselves they would have learned that the world wasn’t actually ending, but why do that? Traditional cultures and UNESCO World Heritage Sites are only there as props for jaded First Worlders shopping for a cheap semblance of spirituality the same way they’ll buy Save The Whale T-shirts made in Filipino sweat shops.

They’ll also blithely ignore the real historical and cultural significance of such sites in preference for silly theories about secret civilizations, aliens or Atlantis. This sort of New Age archaeology is rooted in racism. As some locals complained, the party wasn’t really about the Maya at all.

Dave, an old friend of mine, calls the New Age movement “Newage,” because it rhymes with “sewage.” I propose a worldwide movement to adopt Dave’s term for these callow crystal-clutching consumers. Protect ancient Mayan sites by flushing the Newage movement!

[Photo courtesy Mike Vondran]

Business Fuels Doomsday Prophecies In Mexico

Every other billboard seemed to mention 2012 as I drove along that famously flat stretch of road from Cancun to Playa del Carmen. I was on my way to spend a couple of days relaxing at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, but the easiest way to reach Riviera Maya is via Carretera Federal 307 and 307 is ornamented with billboards, as anyone would expect. Riviera Maya is a popular vacation destination, and popularity and advertising are two peas in the Business Success pod. It wasn’t the billboards themselves that caught my attention, though. What flashed before me memorably every few minutes was a billboard referencing 2012, or the apocalypse, or Doomsday prophecies, or the Maya calendar – and this consistency is what I noticed. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the ads approach and then disappear; marketers, when they’re good, are usually really good.

%Gallery-173831%The billboards along 307 were just bigger, bolder versions of what I’d already been seeing all over Cancun and Merida in the days prior. In Cancun, an employee at the car rental company tried to convince me to go to a tourist trap complete with Maya this and End Of The World that. He was moonlighting as a promotions guy for the place while I signed the forms for my rental car. In Merida, it seemed as though most businesses and individuals who had thought of a way to capitalize off of the December 21 hype had acted on those thoughts. The enterprising women and men behind these ventures, many of them holding shops at the weekly Merida market, sold Doomsday books and guides, Maya calendars, Maya calendars made out of chocolate, apocalypse T-shirts and key-chains. I ate at a restaurant in Merida called 2012 Mayan Spaces and Something Else. The food was very good, as were the drinks, especially for being one of the few vegetarian options in Merida. Nonetheless, the restaurant carried this name and thus, so did the menu. The back wall of the outdoor patio displayed Maya-based art. The hotel I stayed at in Merida offered an impressive selection of Maya-themed tours to guests and “2012″ was scribbled in large numerals on their office chalkboard. The crowds at Chichen Itza were insufferable; the long lines buzzed with End Times speculations.

Of course no one else was talking about the world ending on December 21. The only people who seemed to engage in any of these theories in the Yucatan were the people who were in a position to profit from the surprisingly widespread belief. The first man I spoke to in Merida, a man of Maya descent, was quick to discuss the modern Maya and history of the Maya in Merida with me, but he didn’t comment on the 2012 prophecies until 15 minutes into our conversation and he only spoke of the prophecies as a response to my questioning. When I mentioned the lore, his eyes glazed over as if he were remembering something he’d only taken note of in the most distant, peripheral sense. Like asking a non-Christian for their thoughts on the rapture mentioned in the Book of Revelation, locals were aware that others had attached themselves to this prophecy, but they were not believers.

When Pastor John Hinkle made his D-Day declaration for June 9, 1994, my parents nervously anticipated the date. I cuddled with my elementary school friend that night, waiting for fiery claws to rip the skies wide open, and of course it never happened. But it isn’t the truth behind the prediction that matters. What matters is how much publicity the prediction can collect leading up to the date. Hinkle’s ratings for his TBN show were probably skyrocketing from the hoopla before June 9 that year. All of this is to say, the “end of the world” appears to be relevant to the people of the Yucatan in only one way for certain: business.

It’s a good thing December 21 falls on a Friday. All of the opportunistic entrepreneurs out there can take their hype-checks to the bank and have them deposited before Christmas morning.

Read more from my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan,” here.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]