Sunrise At Izapa, Mexico: The Place Where Time Began

WINTER SOLSTICE, 2011 – The darkness enveloped us like a warm blanket as we walked carefully toward the center of the ancient ruins of Izapa. We carried a flashlight but did not turn it on, believing our eyes would adjust to the dark. With no warning, from the direction where I thought the royal throne should be, light shot into our eyes, blinding us to a halt.

“Make some moves with the flashlight,” Robert said. Someone must have arrived before us. “Turn the thing off and on a couple of times, so they don’t think we’re sneaking up on them.”

Our daughter quickly did so, and the other light fell away. We waved our arms in the air, but it was too dark to see if there was a response. I had not expected company. Izapa is off the beaten path even for Maya trail travelers, on the Pacific coast where Guatemala and Mexico come together. It’s not Palenque with its grand temples, or the intimate painted walls of Bonampak. I hoped the light hadn’t come from a drug trafficker. Maybe an early-rising farmer.Hungry families plant corn and beans right up to the ruins, errant stalks and tendrils invading old stones. But 3000 years ago Izapa was a powerful city-state, much bigger. An archaeologist told me that sometimes a peasant farmer, acres away from the center, is clearing brush with his machete and – clang! – he hits the stony remains of an old staircase, or a sacred altar.

I wasn’t worried about who was behind the flash of light that stopped us. At one time I would have turned back, worried or not, out of concern for our daughter; but she is in her 20s now, travel-wise and a good runner, should the need arise.

We started again, taking small steps, the three of us, and the memory returned. As a child she would tell people dolefully she never had a “real” vacation.

“My parents always want to see something,” she said, “usually ruins.”

She would be leaving us soon; these few days together were the end of a certain epoch for our very small family. I could taste my regret. Perhaps we should have gone to more theme parks or beaches over the years. Done something a different way.

“This is probably the birthplace of the Maya Calendar,” I said to her.

“I know, Mom. Cool.”

The calendar is 5,126 years long. Its last day is December 21, 2012. The culture that built Izapa gave birth to the Maya civilization, and both were obsessed with time. Izapa’s layout, its temples and sacred ball court, is not accidental, but strictly aligned with the movement of the stars. Some epigraphers say the end of the calendar, properly called the Maya Long Count, is merely like a certain moment on an odometer, when the date will turn over to 0000, and we will go forward another 5,126 years. Others say as the calendar ends, we are in for cosmos-size troubles, soon, or in the near years ahead.

I go for the odometer theory, but I am not surprised at what are now called weather events, signs of our broken pact with Mother Earth. Even an odometer will stop counting when a car is destroyed beyond repair.

We took seats on a step behind a thick, flat stone that was the royal throne; we made out lines of a long court where a heavy rubber ball was once kept in motion by the fittest young men, a re-enactment of the struggle of the Hero Twins against the Lords of the Underworld. The tale is familiar in these parts, found in the Popol Vuh, a Maya telling of the creation of the world. We kept our eyes on the far end of the court, where the sun was supposed to rise.

Our daughter climbed the mound behind us by light of the stars and moon. Eventually three other observers, a man and two women, descended from the mound and stood nearby, from where they could see the ball court, too. Ah, those of the bright light. They greeted us formally, but kept to themselves, speaking Spanish in hushed tones. Robert and I spoke quietly, too, as if in a church out of respect, even though we were all keeping watch in the full outdoors.

When our daughter came down, she whispered, “Two of them are astronomers. The lady in the poncho is the mother of one of them.”

At any other time, I would have approached the astronomers and asked endless questions. It is said the sun crosses the dark valley of the Milky Way, which Maya think of as a womb, at the time of the winter solstice that marks the end of the calendar. Is it true this transit of the sun happens only once every 26,000 years? Could the Maya have known?

Instead, I stayed quiet and tried to absorb the venerable feeling of the old stone walls, the hieroglyphic tablets around us carved with the first written language in the Americas. Outlines of three distant volcanoes emerged from the dark. Stars faded; the first birds called. Slowly, hypnotically, the eastern sky turned pearl grey, pink, and finally, the palest yellow.

Then, something unexpected. Before coming into view, the sun we had been waiting for sent out an astonishing ray of light, rich yellow edged in glowing orange. The beam illuminated the trees of the horizon until their very branches came to life, traveled toward us up the narrow length of the ball court and fell, squarely, on the seat of the throne of stone. I heard the astronomers and the lady in the poncho take in breath. I didn’t need to see their faces to know they looked like ours, with expressions of awe and delight at the workings of the human mind that could construct its surroundings just so, in harmony with the stars.

In the Maya creation story, the Hero Twins defeat the Lords of the Underworld. One twin becomes the moon, the other the sun. Our daughter touched my hand and nodded up to the sky. The moon, one brother, still hung there, just a few degrees south of his twin, the rising sun.

“Mom.” she said, “Remember when I was really small and you and Dad were looking for ruins and you let me climb that boulder in a cornfield and it turned out to be a huge carved head?”

“You remember that?” I said.

“Of course. Olmec, I think. Maybe 600 B.C.? I tell everyone that story.”

Robert caught my eye, contentment on his face, and she caught the look between us. “Whaaat?” she said.

The path out of the ruins ran through a grove of trees bearing pendulous cacao pods, holding seeds from which chocolate is made. Occasionally a farmer passed and touched hand to forehead, a silent hello. At the foot of something like a ruined temple staircase, we found remnants of a recent Maya ceremony, stones in a circle, feathers, fresh ashes. Farther on, a woman outside her house making chocolate candy for sale showed a profile like the ones carved on the stelae, the upright stones.

“The cocoa-pods have always been here,” she said, nodding to a tree. Under its branches a toddler, armed with a stick and unencumbered by clothes, speared dead leaves. “My abuelos, the ones who came before, have always lived here.”

Walking toward the main highway that led to the rest of the world, I found myself not overwhelmed by the end of things, but feeling the continuity of past with present. The odometer, I told myself. It gave me the nerve to ask that absurd question, “Well, what did you think? I mean, the sunrise and all?”

“I imagined what it would have been like in the Maya days,” our daughter said. “The king on that throne, and the ball court full of people, like it is in the markets.”

“I felt the silence,” she said. “Even with the birds singing.”

Veteran journalist Mary Jo McConahay is the author of Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (Chicago Review Press).

Photo of the Day: A birds eye view of Mexico

This Photo of the Day, taken today, comes from flickr member Doug Murray and shows “A birds eye view of Andador Real de Guadalupe in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.”

Chiapas is home to ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque, Yaxchilán, Bonampak, Chinkultic and home to one of the largest indigenous populations in the country with twelve federally recognized ethnicities.

Chiapas was also the state where a massacre in 1997 left 45 people dead in an armed conflict that began three years earlier in southern Mexico after Zapatista rebels pushed for more rights for indigenous people.

Upload your best shots to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Several times a week we choose our favorite images from the pool as Photos of the Day.

Into Zapatista territory: Exploring the Mexican state of Chiapas

If you haven’t heard of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, you’re not alone. An overnight bus ride away from major tourist hubs like Cancún and Mexico City, Chiapas might just be the country’s most diverse region– as well as its most underappreciated.

Visitors to Chiapas are rewarded with scores of things to see and do: from crocodile-spotting on a boat ride through a a gorgeous canyon, to strolling the cobblestone streets of the super-cool highland town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, to climbing the Mayan ruins at Palenque, some of Mexico’s most beautiful (yes, better than Chichen Itza).

Located right in the heart of Chiapas, the Spanish colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas (pop. 300,000) is rapidly becoming a big-time travel destination, and for good reason.

Although San Cristóbal is the headquarters for the well-known left-wing revolutionary group called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (popularized and supported by, among others, the band Rage Against the Machine), outward signals of the group’s influence in the town are limited. The group’s initials in Spanish, the ubiquitous “EZLN”, are spray-painted all over town, and you’ll find countless vendors selling Zapatista-related memorabilia– take some time to dwell on that irony– with most items printed with the group’s famous logo of a red star on a black background.


But San Cristóbal has overcome its tumultous past, including a brief Zapatista takeover in 1994 led by the (in)famous Subcomandante Marcos, to place itself firmly in the category of a bona fide travel destination. In fact, Matt Gross, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler, recently praised the city in a dispatch writing, “San Cristóbal was a city that had me joyously roaming its streets from morning till night. In fact, these lanes, paved with hexagonal stones, may have been the most roamable I’ve seen.”

And when you’re done exploring the city’s churches and markets, San Cristóbal has no shortage of bars and cafes to keep you well-hydrated and in good spirits. Cafe-Bar Revolucion is recommended if you’re looking for scores of local hipsters shaking their money-makers to Cuban music. (And who isn’t?) The creatively-named Backpackers Hostel is highly recommended for its nightly campfire and daily excursions.

A final note about San Cristóbal: bring warm clothes. The town’s location in the highlands means it gets cold– not cool, not brisk, cold!– at night, and few hostels or hotels will have heat.

Speaking of heat, just four hours away from San Cristóbal is the steamy town of Palenque, famous for the awe-inspiring Mayan ruins located several miles away from the town proper. Though the town itself is run-of-the-mill, Palenque’s nearby ruins are anything but.

Surrounded by dense jungle, the ruins, which date back to at least the 600s, are some of Mexico’s most accessible and best-preserved. Within walking distance of the ruins is El Panchan, a popular collection of campgrounds and cabanas where many visitors to the ruins spend at least a couple nights.

If you’re looking for a daytrip from Palenque, hop in a colectivo (shared taxi) and head to the series of waterfalls known as Agua Azul. This place is breathtakingly beautiful (see photo below) and more fun to hang around than any theme park (except for you, Silver Dollar City!).

The town of San Juan Chamula, about six miles from San Cristóbal, also cries out for a day-trip. In its oft-visisted church, worshippers fuse ancient Mayan traditions with those of Christianity in a series of customs that must be seen to be believed. Pine needles are spread to cover the entire floor, hundreds of lit candles line the walls, and worshippers kneel on the ground while drinking Coca Cola in hopes of keeping evil spirits at bay. (You might want to read that sentence again.) Be sure to take a guide if you have any hopes of figuring out what’s going on.

For natural beauty and wildlife, head to the Cañon del Sumidero an hour away from San Cristóbal. Here you’ll take a boat ride on a river flanked by thousand-foot-high cliffs, all the while doing your best to avoid the crocodiles on the river’s banks and the vultures overhead. Avoid years of depression and regret by bringing your camera.

Zapatistas, ruins, crocodiles, waterfalls: Why don’t more adventure-seeking travelers look to Chiapas as an affordable, authentically Mexican destination?