Journey to the Mayan World


By Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez, Ph.D.

In the days when nations were called Palenque, Tikal, Copán, and Caracol, rather than Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, the Maya ruled&emdash;for hundreds of years. By the first millenium in our counting scheme, they abandoned some of their greatest cities in the Maya heartland. They spread out to several locations, with an especially strong concentration on the Yucatán peninsula. Years later, those Maya fought against Spanish encroachment for 20 years, finally losing the battle. Still, other Maya like the stubborn Itzáes held out for nearly 200 years, retreating further and further into the Petén jungle until they too were subdued.

But the Maya are still here. In fact, during the twentieth century, their populations grew faster than the general population in Guatemala and Mexico. The Spaniards only succeeded in invading Maya land, they have not been "conquered," as more than one Maya said to me on a recent trip, when I joined other travelers wanting to learn about contemporary as well as ancient Maya.

In 1989 National Geographic put out their first issue highlighting Maya culture, designating on the cover "La ruta Maya" (the Mayan route), although the article was in English. Little did anyone estimate the commercial/tourist impact that would follow during the last decade of the twentieth century, nor that that very issue would be on sale in all airport and tourist gift shops throughout southern Mexico and Guatemala for years to come. Other National Geographic issues in the 1990s featured new discoveries and information about the Maya, and advertising in this region swelled, inviting tourists to the historic land of Maya culture and people. On the Yucatán peninsula, highway sign symbols (like food or gasoline symbols) include one dedicated to the Maya route. Large group tour buses have become prolific in Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo (on the Yucatán peninsula), in neighboring Tabasco state (where the original Olmec colossal heads were found), and in Chiapas in the area of now wellknown Palenque and other Maya ruins.

Guatemala has become a safer place and renewed lure for tourists since the signing of the 1996 peace accord. In both countries, "Maya" has evolved into a buzzword certain to attract tourists. Even the indigenous of various Maya derivatives now self-identify with this word, probably for the first time since the days of Spanish conquest when it was erroneously applied: "Maya" basically means "people," therefore, a clearer designation isYucatec-Maya (or Yucatec people), Quiché-Maya, Lancandon Maya (in Chiapas), Jacaltec-Maya (Guatemalan highlands near the Mexican border), etc.

Knowledge about the Maya has improved in the last two decades, which encourages students and college professors to become better informed. On that premise, one of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer institutes this year was titled "The Maya World," and invited community and four-year college professors to improve their understanding of contemporary as well as ancient Maya during a six-week travel and study tour through this region. It would include seminars by experts on the Maya. I was one of the 25 nationwide participants selected for this unique opportunity, and provide some of my observations during my experience. This NEH grant project was scheduled from mid-June to the end of July, which is a good time period to avoid major rains (the torrential season is from mid-Spring through June). Part or all of this route could easily be followed by independent travelers who want to explore Maya life.

We began our journey in Guatemala, in the city of Antigua&emdash;a city favored by American expatriates and booming in Spanish-language study programs. (We had flown into Guatemala City, from which it is a one-hour drive to Antigua, which can be done rather inexpensively by taxi). Antigua is the only city during the entire six weeks where I found numerous vegetarian (with tofu dishes) restaurants as well as the option of whole-wheat bread and pancakes in most restaurants. The city is not beautiful in terms of architectural splendor like Puebla or Mexico City. Guatemala has suffered earthquakes every 30 to 50 years, and many colonial-era buildings and churches have been left in their decayed state, often with huge chunks of the tops of buildings sitting in their cordoned-off courtyards. But Antigua has cobblestone streets and an inviting downtown, and friendly people which each add an element of beauty and tranquility. There is a plaque in the principal plaza downtown which was commissioned by the state of California, thanking this region for its ample export of excellent avocados.

Bookstores display numerous books on the Maya, mostly by U.S. Mayan scholars. Mayan crafts and textiles are readily available in shops and markets, and by peddlers on the street. The municipal museum (which was originally one of the first universities founded by the Spaniards, when Antigua was the capital of Guatemala) is currently having their seventeenth and eigteenth-century colonial paintings restored and cleaned, which will make it more interesting. Otherwise, contemporary crafts and textiles are one of the best ways to learn the centuries-old story of the Maya. These, as well as their legends, calendars, and various dialects of language, have endured the Spanish invasion and efforts by successive Guatemalan governments to erradicate them. There are also numerous travel agencies in Antigua, advertising short trips to most of the areas we visited.

Our study-group's first week consisted of seminars with Canadian George Lovell on the history and geography of Guatemala (his books are excellent reading preparation for a trip to Guatemala); Stanford professor Mary Louise Pratt on Rigoberta Menchú; and presentations by Guatemala Mayan authors Gaspar Pedro González and Victor Montejo (currently a professor at UC-Davis), whose works have been translated to English.

González is credited with publishing the first Mayan novel in 1993, titled A Mayan Life in English translation (1995). His second book, Return of the Maya (1998) is a moving account of his escape from his village and several weeks' journey, with other villagers, to Mexico. He was seven years old. His father and brother had been killed by the military, and his mother sought to save his and a younger sister's life by becoming refugees. She died during the journey. González expresses frustration at not being able to learn his grandfather's Maya name, which was also his; he returned as an adult to locate the cemetery where his grandfather was buried, and it had been made into a air landing strip. His second book is a treatise on the need for Mayan values of culture and identity. His first novel and a book of poetry are published bilingually, in his native Q'anjob'al-Maya and Spanish. He has also published a history of Maya literature.

González is a soft-spoken, eloquent presenter. A Maya from the northwestern Guatemalan region of Huehuetenango, he currently lives in Guatemala City, where he teaches at his alma mater, the Universidad Mariano Gálvez. He organized the first international symposium on indigenous literature and culture in 1998, which just convened for a third year the last week of July in Guatemala City. González strives to creates links between the more than 20 known dialects of Maya, and a sense of the Maya as human beings. He said that between 1980 and 1985 (the period in which Rigoberta Menchú fled the country) 200,000 people were killed, of which 80 percent were indigenous or Maya Indians, and that more than 200 villages on record have completely disappeared/were burned to the ground. He also noted that the United Nations Truth Commission Report of 1999 showed that 93 percent of deaths were at the hands of the army, 4 percent by guerrillas, and 3 percent unaccounted for. As George Lovell noted, Maya Indian existence is truly "a miracle of survival."

Montejo is a U.S.-trained anthropologist who had to flee Guatemala in the 1980s and spent time in Mexican refugee camps, after the village where he was the only public schoolteacher was targeted by the army for protecting guerrillas (which was not true), and many innocent villagers were killed. This account is told in Montejo's book, Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village (1987). Before the 1980s, Montejo said, his people were only called "indios" (Indians). The fact that they found themselves in refugee camps brought out the Maya term, he added. There they discovered there were other types of Maya (both Guatemalan and Mexican), who spoke somewhat related languages, had some of the same legends, and used the same calendar. To unite and protect each other, they adopted this term.

"We now say `Maya priests.' This has helped validate a history, a culture, and moved us into a different position. We are naming ourselves, rather than being named.

"Sometimes in a village they ask me, what does this `Maya' mean?" As educated and/or traveled Mayas like himself explain, those who do not leave the village "now see it too. This is the idea of the Pan-Maya movement.

"We may practice ceremonies differently, and have a different dress, but other things unify us within our diversity. We are contemporary Mayas using the ideas our ancestors have left us. It is difficult because we have many languages, but we have the same ideas, and a lengua franca, Spanish. [Our people] are not just sellers of blankets, but also producers of knowledge. [Our tradition] is not myth and folklore, it is education and science. You plant crops when the moon is a certain way, and cut the wood when it is a full moon. The elders know it is going to rain at 3 p.m. when it is still morning, because of fish actions. It would not harm Western society to learn this science of ours."

Montejo noted that after Western society first photographed native ceremonies in his village in the region of Jacaltenango in the 1920s, the governmental authorities then came and arrested the people who performed, and said, don't do that, you show them we are still primitive. People were jailed, and eventually the traditional ceremonies were lost. Now they are being recovered. Montejo has created a children's book recounting the story of "El Kanil," a Jacaltec hero who gave his life for his community. Kanil buried himself in the mountain, but he is still alive, just as Maya history is still alive. To understand Maya culture, Western society needs to understand its relation to nature, Montejo says. He told an anecdote of instruction by his mother when he was a boy: she ordered him not to "pee" in the river, because if so, when he left this life he would be required to return and clean up the river for contaminating it. It scared him because he knew the Blue River coursed all the way through Mexico to the gulf and the ocean. He knew it would be an arduous task. He also noted that this river had remained pristine until recent decades.

Montejo's children's book has been published in Jacaltec-Maya and Spanish, as well as English and Maya. He also has a book of Mayan fables, which has been translated to English, as well as a novel on Mayan contemporary life.

Having spent time studying contemporary Maya, our group then traveled toward the Atlantic coast to begin study on the great predecessors of the Maya, beginning with the ruins of Quiriguá and, by crossing the border into Honduras, massive Copán (a total 5 hour drive). Eminent Maya anthropologist Michael Coe accompanied us and lectured on these sites. Quiriguá is in the lowlands, near the Montagua River (accessed by boat from the Atlantic), and along an important ancient trade route for jade. Copán is high in the mountains above the river, and was for two centuries the headquarters of Mayan civilization in this region, allied with Tikal to the north and Palenque to the northwest. The Copán ruins have been a favorite site of anthropologists&emdash;who even have their own bar in the small town of Copán&emdash;for many years. There is a small museum in the downtown area, which has several exquisite pieces taken from the site. Although remote, this mountain village is a lively and tranquil site for several days' stay. The main hotel is comfortable, with an enchanting swimming pool which connects to the bar.

Coe has published numerous books on the Maya, having spent some 50 years researching Maya and Olmec civilizations, and responsible for principal decoding of Maya glyphs. He told us he first came to the region in 1948, visiting the island of Cozumel and then onto the Yucatan peninsula before there were any tourists at Maya sites. Now a Yale emeritus professor, he seemed to enjoy lecturing and guiding us in any questions we pursued. His favorites, however, were the numerous well-preserved, tall stelae in both the Quiriguá and Copán sites. He spent considerable time at each recounting the stories of conquests and dynasties during the first millenium of Christian or Gregorian calendar time. He also connected this Maya civilization's history with Tikal, Palenque and other sites in Belize and Mexico.

Coe noted that some pottery found in this region (some housed in the Copán museum and others in Guatemala City museums) and called pre-classic Maya (or dating from 300 years B.C.) is actually much older by his own estimates, even dating back to 1,500 B.C. Coe has extensively studied Olmec pieces, and says these are similar. His idea, shared by a few other anthropologists, is that there is not one "mother civilization" as the Olmec has been called, but various, and most likely some before the Olmec.

Copán had a small settlement for hundreds of years earlier, but foreigners arrived in the fifth century (of the Christian era), from Teotihuacán (100-750 A.D.) in the Mexican valley. The original people in the Copán area spoke Cholan or Chortí (Maya), but some Náhuatl (the language of the Mexican central valley) then became mixed with their language. A Teotihuacán figure (chemical analysis of his bones indicates he is not Maya) who becomes king marries a Mayan woman and begins his rule in 426 A.D. (Teotihuacán is also involved in the refounding of Tikal). This founding rulership lasts several dynasties, in fact, 16 of those rulers are indicated on an outstanding altar in front of a later temple. There are many temples built by the successive rulers, of whom the last documented (in heiroglyphs on temples and stelae) was in the late 800s. Their histories are recorded on stelae, at Copán there are more than 100, and most are 25 feet tall. Coe noted three great traditions of symbolism in this time period: the notion of following the first great "founding" ruler from Teotihuacán, war imagery (always purely Maya), and the story of the hero twins from the Popol Vuh (Book of Council for all Maya groups) which accompanies agricultural imagery.

Some temples built in later centuries are built over earlier temples, while beautifully preserving those underneath. It is as though the Mayan civilization preserved its ancient history underneath newer temples. Sometimes the earlier are temples closed off because a ruler was buried there, and therefore could not be used again. Older temples in a way served as foundation strength for the newer temples, in my opinion probably favoring their ability to withstand earthquakes. It is interesting that we can still visit ancient Mayan structures, while many Spanish colonial buildings have not survived earthquakes.

The four façades (decorated with huge masks and imagery of god and war) of an early temple where one ruler was buried, have been recreated in the center of the Copán museum, with the two-story museum built around it. This reconstruction is painted cinnabar red, with blue, green, and yellow touches, as the original is thought to have looked. The museum also houses several beautiful, large pieces from the Copán site.

Although Copán is not on a main route or near a major city, it is definitely worth the effort to reach. While one could rent a car or jeep to get there, it is probably best pursued with a tourist group, as there is a Honduran border to cross (Copán cannot be reached from within Honduras), where guards require seeing one's passport and someone has to explain the purpose of the trip. The highway&emdash;a narrow mountain road with steep cliff dropoffs&emdash;is treacherous in some places. As we passed through, the road was being repaired in two different locations, for damage from the May torrential rains. Also, a group and bus endeavor is safest, for there have been some reports of robbers holding up vehicles on this road. We encountered no problems whatsoever; perhaps the presence of road construction crews helped discourage other activity. Copán is worth the trip because it is a treasure of ancient Maya high civilization, much as Tikal in the upper Petén of Guatemala. The museum is a helpful explanation of what visitors will find on the site, and numerous guides, who seem highly educated (most had worked with important anthropologists) were available for hire. The restaurant at the site was excellent, with good sandwiches and a buffet of various typical foods available each day at a reasonable price.

Copán is the first site where I encountered an unusual smell sensation, which was to occur again in Tikal and Palenque. As we left the site, trekking up the long path lined by tall trees to where the main entrance was found, I said to the guide who accompanied us, "My, I can smell lunch all the way from the restaurant." He said to me, "It smells like fresh cooked [pinto] beans, doesn't it?" I agreed heartily. "But no," he said, "these trees that line the path have a fragrance that smells like fresh cooked beans." In fact, although the smell repeated itself several times during our journey, I never did find anyone cooking whole beans, the only beans we were every served in restaurants were refried, mashed beans.

The numerous temples at Copán are enough to make one heady, although the climbs were fantastic exercise. I would recommend reading the excellent texts on Copán by William Fash, and Coe's The Maya before making such a trip, to become grounded in what one will see. My favorite structures were Temple 22, dedicated to the maize god, or life sustenance, and the Community council House (Popol Na) which flanks it. The latter had been a very public building, where community members could negotiate, and do court-like presentations, according to Coe. "I think Copán is the best Maya site we have," he said, noting that only Palenque was comparable. Did the Mayas have a predecessor? we asked Coe. He thinks the answer will be discovered soon; more glyphs can be interepreted now, and new excavations are occurring. "Someday we are going to find another Codex in a cave, perhaps in Belize." Coe thinks the origins of the Olmec will someday be found in the region between Chiapas and the Pacific Coast.

Coe also guided us through a site near the Copán temples called "Las Sepulturas," which is a collection of residences of lords and scribes, in other words, a suburb for the higher class of that society. This is where the magnificent House of Bakabs (ruling class scribes), frequently reproduced in texts on the Maya, is located. Sculptures of several figures extend out from the building. A causeway leads from this area to the area of numerous temples. As we drove along the highway, Coe pointed out other structures still needed excavation work. It was a huge civilization. While the Maya had no true measure or population census, agricultural documentation seems to indicate to Maya experts that more than 20,000 people lived in the Copán valley in its heyday.

Upon our return to Antigua, we listened to a lecture by Carol Hendrickson, whose interesting book, Weaving Identities: Construction of Dress and Self in a Highland Guatemalan Town (1995) documents centuries' old traditional Maya traje or dress, which consists of huipil, corte (skirt), belt and headdress identifying each village or place of origin. Most men now wear Western attire, but in some highlands villages they also wear specific pants, apron-type cinch, and shirts, sometimes made from wool (for cold, highlands temperatures) and more often, from cotton. While "Indian" clothing has often designated them for discrimination, some Guatemalan Maya are recently fighting and winning the right for their children to wear their traditional clothes rather than required school uniforms to public school. However, city jobs and modern professions are not open to permitting traditional Maya attire. Conversely, in most restaurants, even in Guatemala City, waiters and waitresses are dressed in Mayan attire, but seemingly only for purposes of giving the tourists a sense of traditional Guatemala.

Hendrickson has studied highlands weaving (dress and social identity) and seen people's lives affected dramatically by the 1976 earthquake and due to la violencia (as the 1980s government killings of Indians has been called). In the village principally documented in her book, Tecpán, 3,000 people lost their lives in that major earthquake (24,000 nationwide), and many more due to governmental massacres attempting to stamp out "communist" insurgents. Hendrickson, who lives and teaches in Vermont, shared her knowledge of weaving techniques and livelihood of the Maya in the villages of Tecpán and San Antonio Aguascalientes. She took us on a tour of the first village, where we also discovered a gallery of excellent paintings by local Maya. In the second village, many homes were also shops of weavings and garments for sale. One such home/shop provided us with lunch (chicken in pibil sauce, served to us in brown pottery bowls with thick, Guatemalan corn tortillas on the side, and cups of sweet coffee) for two dollars each, and then put on a mock play by asking for volunteers from our group, whom they dressed in traditional attire and staged a family wedding. We made several purchases there, and as we walked down the street afterward, on several occasions I was asked (in Spanish) to point out our tour guide. I understood that they wished to make an arrangement with him to also bring groups of tourists to their homes and shops.

We took a three-day tour to visit the famous town of Chichicastenango, high in the central moutains, and where a copy of the Popol Vuh was discovered in a church in 1701. Then we visited one of Guatemala's most beautiful lakes (Guatemala is replete with lakes and wide rivers)&emdash;Atitlán. On the way we stopped at the ruins of Iximché, city of the ancient Cakchiquel-Maya. They were the people (like the Tlaxcalans in Mexico) who agreed to help Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 to conquer their neighbors, the Quichés (Menchú's people). They were later betrayed by Alvarado, their leaders beheaded and their village burned.

Iximché structures remain however, some still of considerable height. We visited on a Saturday, and found local families and lovers strolling about the grounds. One group of Maya women with children asked if we had an instant camera. Since we did not, they wanted to know who could take a picture of them atop a temple (pyramid) and send it to them; two members of our group volunteered and they posed happily. When we walked to the very back of the ruins site, and behind a grove of trees (where we saw other people walking), we found a ceremony underway. Someone explained to us that this site was a sacred place to the old Cakchiquel king. A female Maya priest was conducting the ceremony for a couple who sought help and guidance in their family life. Afterward, the woman told a member of our group her story: When she was 20 years old, she encountered the old Paskal Abaj god in a vision, who instructed her to go out and do her work. She came to this area, and has lived here doing work ever since. She explained that she is only an intermediary for those who seek counsel from God. She is apparently famous because some people told us they had come from far away to see her.

In Chichicastenango, wellknown for its huge Sunday market, there was a path leading to the top of a hill, where a shrine was built to Paskal Abaj (the first word being the god's name, and the second meaning "rock" in Maya). One guide told us the large, black rock (which seemed to have a face on it) on the shrine was found here 500 years ago, and that it stands for "he who owns this land." When we visited the shrine, a couple were lighting candles, and spreading fresh herbs on the shrine table, preparing for a ceremony. A few peddlers, women and children, tried to sell us images of the god, also called "Maximón," and pipes. Four small crosses planted in the four directions (cardinal directions are crucial in Mayan cosmology) delineated the space of the shrine, as we had also seen in the area behind Iximché.

Some scholars believe that an image brought by the Catholic friars, called San Simón, merged with this ancient legend, and that is how the "Maximón" title came about. But others know of no true origin. Michael Coe mentioned that he thought the Smoking God, called "god L" by anthropologists&emdash;a withered old man who is smoking a pipe and carries a small pack on his back&emdash;connects to the Maximón tradition.

In the village of Santiago de Atitlán, which we reached by crossing the crystalline lake sourrounded by volcanoes on a ferry boat (about an hour's ride), it is known that Maximón is venerated and protected by a lay priest, a local man who is assigned this role for one year, and then it passes to another man. Our group had obtained an appointment with the annual priest. We took offerings of beer, candles, herbs and some cash, to present before the ancient Maya spirit. This lifesize wooden figure had the image, as he often does in Maya village photographs, of a man in dark, ranch-style attire, many colorful scarves tied around his neck, and a black Stetson hat. There was a small hole in his mouth where a cigar is placed for he is always smoking. Images that are reproduced in small frames for sale (always from the same, decades-old photograph) show him as a ruffian-looking figure smoking a cigar. He is thought by contemporary Maya to be the protector of the disenfranchised, prostitutes, and those cast-out by their society. Behind the large cooperative market of Maya goods in Antigua, there was a shack with a shrine built to Maximón (in a similar lifesize wooden form), serviced by an older man.

When we arrived at the house in Santiago de Atitlán where Maximón awaited us, we found a situation similar to that described by Francisco Goldman in his essay on Maximón in Ana Castillo's book Goddess of the Americas (1996): Maximón was sitting in his chair with cup holders at this hands, where a small bottle of rum rested in one cuphold. A cigar was burning in his mouth, and the black Stetson rested atop his head. This Maximón had some 15 handkerchiefs or scrarves tied at his collar, hanging down over his chest. Christmas music was playing continuously from a recording, and Christmas lights flickered on and off throughout the room. There was a strong smell of pine needles that apparently came from a room freshener spray can. A large statue of Christ on the cross hung on the wall, and the Christmas lights covered a casket-looking box, in which was said to reside Maximón's father. The box was covered with blankets and other kitsch décor, but somewhere at the top was an opening, in which Maximón's attendant put the quetzal bills we provided.

Our gift of beer was appreciated by Maximón as it was poured into the hole in his mouth (upon temporarily removing the cigar), and shared by the attendants, who included one who played a small guitar and sang a verse over and over in Maya. During sips of beer, they talked about the need for good crops this year, and a healthier economy in their lake community. As the melody was played over and over and the beer consumed, we sat and waited. Photographing was allowed, but only of Maximón. After an hour, three members of our group felt moved to donate the scarves that had been around their own necks, to Maximón's collection. Then we gave our thanks to the attendants and left. While we are all academics, most of us felt as we left that we had had the opportunity to participate in local custom and ancient tradition, even if it was only for contemplation of the year ahead. This syncretization of customs is a reality of many peoples, especially in the Maya regions. As we walked down from the top of the hill of this village, we remembered how hard-hit this village was during the worst period of governmental violence during the 1980s. We visited the small cathedral, where some of us were surprised to discover that a priest here who was an American from Kansas, was killed by the military in 1980. Per his family's agreement, his heart is buried under the engraving in the church, and his body was sent home to Kansas. All the saints statues that line both sides of the church's interior were dressed in traditional native attire, and our guide noted the background wall decoration, which included both Christian and Maya (bakabs that hold up the earth) imagery.

Outside again, we walked down toward the dock and ferry boats&emdash;along the path that leads up to the main part of the village, called "Gringo Lane" because tourists often spill out of ferry boats to shop for weavings along this path, where shops have been constructed just for tourists. Tourists shop and then return to their ferry boats within a couple of hours, generally staying at hotels in the trendy Panajachel on the other side of the lake. We bought salted, roasted ears of corn (that taste like nothing you can get in the U.S.), and boarded our boat again. We had also been in Santiago only two hours.

The next day we visited Guatemala City to spend time at three prominent museums: the National Museum of Archaeology, the Museo Ixchel of indigenous costume or dress, and the private Museo Popol Vuh, which although small, includes several wellknown pieces, some still retaining extraordinary color. The most impressive were large incensarios, tall pots with human or anthropomorphic figures, used to burn incense for all ceremonies and sometimes to store human bones. Their figures celebrated the return to the underworld. The Museo Popol Vuh has been at its new site for only five years, and has yet to prepare a book or pamphlet of its contents, which would be an excellent way to further awareness of these exquisite pieces.

After two weeks, we left the highlands villages and cities for the jungle, to complete our Guatemalan experience. We flew to Tikal in the northern Petén, which abuts the Yucatán peninsula, and shares that portion of the Central American strip with Mexico's most southern state, Chiapas&emdash;all of which is hot, lowlands rainforest, although we found Tikal much more lush than the other areas. We landed in Flores/Sta. Helena, then were transported by bus 60 kilometros away to Tikal, which is a protected site, with only a museum and one hotel (first established by archaeologists in the 1960s) outside the ruins. Many more hotels are available in town, but the commute is nearly an hour to the Tikal ruins. The small hotel (called the Jungle Lodge, yes, in English) consists of several fourplex bungalows and one large building for kitchen/bar/dining, reception desk and livingroom area, and an ample conference room for holding lectures. The Petén jungle, with its tropical fauna, surrounds the site. Howler monkeys abound. Their yell (which can go on for hours) has been compared to the sound of a jaguar or a lion, sometimes scaring and confusing those who have not heard it before. A story is told at the hotel of tourists who checked out early and asked for their money back because of the noise of machinery or a pump that did not let them sleep. When they referred to the sound they had just heard, they were told it was the howler monkeys. Their "roar" is occasionally machine-like, similar to that of a motocycle starting up, but at other times it truly sounds lion-like, with a kind of bark at the end.

While the food selections in the hotel dining room are limited and repetitive (food has to be transported from Sta. Helena), the ambience is most intriguing. Since town is so far away, the senses are opened to that around one: howler monkeys, exotic birds, and lush plant life. The pool is not as impressive as that at Copán, but the covered veranda around the dining room with comfortable deck chairs, is the perfect place to relax with a beer or cocktail after trekking up and down temples and hiking back from the site. Employees and other tourists provide stimulating conversation about experiences. A guide can be enlisted to take one to the site and the top of Temple II to experience daybreak; just as the sun comes up, local fauna are visible searching for their breakfast, and there is a richer view of the trees and plants as they are highlighted by the sun. The ancient Maya often planted herb gardens to the East side of temples, and when we walked in early morning past one such area, we smelled orégano, allspice and mint, although the plants were somewhat hidden under jungle growth.

Museum research curator from the University of New Mexico, Peter Harrison, who has published a fascinating book called The Lords of Tikal (1999), was our expert guide on this jaunt, and his lively personality made him a favorite among our group. He was one of the original group in the 1960s, which first prepared a temporary warehouse with cots so that anthropologists could spend time in the area doing excavations. Later, work began on cottages. Harrison laughingly admitted that several couples and marriages formed out of that original group, including his own.

Tikal is extensive, with sections of temples spread out in various directions. The Lost World pyramid (actually an astronomer's temple, but so named because its excavation was completed for use in a major Hollywood movie) is a steep climb, but not as tall as other major temples. I began the Lost World pyramid climb one day as the afternoon rain came down, then hiked to Temple II, where the rain stopped by mid-climb, and I warmed to solid sunshine by the time I reached the top&emdash;all within a two-hour period. Most of these temples were built in the seventh and eighth centuries, although smaller buildings were built hundreds of years earlier. Tikal's population in its heydey is estimated at 40,000, but this metropolis deteriorated after 1,000 A.D., although its buildings were occupied from time to time by people who did no building, and apparently formed no dynasty to record.

Harrison enjoyed showing us at each juncture how the buildings are a perfect geometrical fit, whether those near each other, or a greater distance away. In this way they connected to, and complemented those dedicated to earlier rulers. Often a new temple was erected to celebrate the ending of a katun, or 20-year period (the Maya used a vigesimal counting system). Numerous causeways (specially-designed, wide paths) connect each complex or grouping of temples. On the first day, after hiking for some distance up one causeway, Harrison led us to that first awesome sight of Temple I: the flat back of the pyramid, 175 feet straight up into the air. It is an amazing discovery: one comes suddenly upon a clearing in the trees, then out to view an immense structure in the remote rainforest. Of course we enjoyed our Kodak moment before walking around the side to the Great Plaza and main complex of buildings.

We again sucked in our collective breath: Two immense temples faced each other across a large open space, with a huge acropolis of buildings on each of the other two sides. Temple I (where the tomb of the great seventh century ruler was found) can no longer be climbed, a sign and rope prevents entry to the stairs. Too much traffic took its wear on this structure, inaugurated in 695 A.D., and Harrison is not certain when it will be open again. Temple II awaited us in its majesty, but Harrison led us instead to the north acropolis, where he wanted to demonstrate the various constructions. The Maya were indeed incredibly expert at preservation and recycling. Sometimes buildings (several hundred years' earlier in construction) were torn down, but then rebuilt upon. When they included an important connection to a present dynasty, they were preserved underneath. In this acropolis of some 20 buildings, we climbed up, then down an interior narrow stairwell, to view a mask some 6 feet wide that was on the façade of an interior building dating to 450 B.C. Then we walked around the side of the outer building, to climb up again on a new later building. Each one had its own elaborate décor. The glyphs on stelae and temples have revealed the stories of Tikal's great rulers, who celebrated their history in architecture and sculpture.

Temple I, which has nine levels (9 and 13 are important numbers for the Maya), celebrates the great ruler of the Classic era, Hasaw Chan K'awil, and Temple II, with three levels but nearly as tall, was built to celebrate his wife (Lady Twelve Macaw) who died nearly 30 years before him. Harrison then took us to the Central Acropolis&emdash;up an embankment and to the side of the South Acropolis, which has yet to be uncovered&emdash;which was built before Temple I. From the back side of this acropolis, stairs led down into another complex of apparent living quarters. Harrison enjoyed pointing out saunas, bathrooms, and even posed for us on a throne in one palace.

Temple V could be seen in the distance, but we never walked in that direction. It felt like miles between complexes of buildings, and we only had two and a half days to spend in Tikal. The next day we visited Temple IV&emdash;purported to be the tallest in Mesoamerica at 212 ft. (Teotihuacán comes close at 200 ft.), and from which the best cellular telephone reception is had according to our guide, who proceeded to use his phone at the top. It was inaugurated in 741 A.D., and built by Yik'in Chan K'awil, the son of the ruler who built Temples I and II. "This is a cenotaph," Harrison said, "a great memorial commemorating himself and his father. He knew no one would undo them." Temple VI (the numbers assigned by archaelogists as they are excavated) could be this ruler's own burial site, and Temple III, which is only partially uncovered, was built by his son, Yax Ain II.

From the top of Temple IV we could see (I imagined) the entire Petén&emdash;it must have made an excellent lookout tower when the rainforest was kept cleared in and around this city. I counted the tops of six temples, rising above the thick tree tops, of which I had climbed only three including the one I was on. Temples III, V and VI would have to be for another occasion. Of course, numerous other buildings were hidden behind or below the tall trees. Temple IV is only excavated at the top two levels; we climbed a contemporary wooden, narrow staircase, connected to trees growing out of the overgrown structure. Much work still remains to be done at Tikal.

The day we left we were taken to the Cobanarita caves, a short distance outside of Flores. It required a 45-minute trek through thick brush, uphill and then somewhat down, to reach the huge opening to these caves. Inside, we were shown inscriptions on the wall in one section, and a stonewall divider built in another section, all done several hundred years B.C. Chards of broken pottery abounded in different areas of the cave (we each had our own flashlight), which are all that is left since anthropologists and then cave robbers have visited this site. The cave extensions seemed to go further and further back, and we did not continue after an hour's trek. Many such caves exist in Central America and the Yucatán, and they have only begun to be studied. They were not lived in, but were sacred areas, perhaps used before the huge temples were built. During our return hike through the bush, some members's legs became hosts to garrapatas (chiggers)&emdash;those awful bugs that bury under your skin and take weeks to be rid of. We applied bug repellent more vigorously after that.

That afternoon we saw the village of Flores&emdash;an island in a large lake, connected to the shore and the city of Sta. Helena by a bridge. It is on this island that the Itzá Maya held their last stand against the Spaniards in the eighteenth century, and were finally subdued. A stark, white church now stands at the top of the hill on the island, proclaiming the end of the Itzá Maya. It was a solemn way to end our stay in Guatemala. The next day we would fly to Palenque&emdash;although still in the Petén, but in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. Our group did not have time to visit the many other Maya sites in the southern Petén region, such as Dos Pilas, El Perú, Seibal, Uaxatún, El Mirador and Piedras Negras (closer to Palenque), and just across the border into Belize&emdash;Naranjo and Caracol. Visiting these sites, along with the caves in this area, would require at least another two weeks.

Palenque is a small town, as well as the name given to the ruins of a great ancient Mayan civilization in this area. But the ambience was completely different from Tikal; this was a much more commercialized environment. The entrance to the site is nearly like a Disneyland experience, with buses arriving to spill out groups of tourists, all lining up to go through the gates. Several languages can be heard as tourists represent many different countries, while peddlers call out prices for fresh fruit, bottled water, and tamales. Alongside the gated entrance are several wooden structures of shops, displaying clothing, t-shirts and jewelry. Mini-bus taxis arrive from town every few minutes.

Palenque's famous Temple of the Inscriptions where the important Lord Pacal's tomb was found is now sealed off from public climbing, including entrance into Pacal's tomb. Too much traffic was harming the structure, and now only a guard stands atop the temple, watching tourists. Archaelogists are busy at work on other new temple excavations, led by Mexican anthropologist Alfonso Morales, who was our expert guide at the site. In three years of work he has supervised, they have ascertained that there are 1,405 buildings in this area, he said, and only 34 have been opened or excavated. He suspects as many as 1,500 structures exist. "We don't know what happened," he said&emdash;why they left or deserted the area by 800 A.D. "Perhaps it was a problem of growing out of proportion, the environment (overcrowding and extinction of resources), vulnerability to other groups because of overcrowding, or a combination of all." No record has been left behind at any Maya site, to explain why large civilizations were deserted.

Pacal's palace shows 200 years of construction of numerous buildings, at times on top of each other. The palace is the "source of power" at this site, according to Morales. He had us enter the complex of structures from the back, where what was previously a basement has been opened on one side. There he showed us what is believed to have been Pacal's throne, most likely put into this subterranean level of the palace, because the Maya often used the act of submerging, going down to a lower level, to represent the underworld where one returned after death&emdash;and the place of the origin of life, according to all Indian or native Americans. In inscriptions, rulers are often said to go to the subterranean to confer with their predecessors.

"It is not possible for one person to explain what is Maya," Morales said; many descriptions and analyses are needed. Although there is no rosetta stone to interpret Maya glyphs, a lot of extensive work has been done on the inscriptions or heirogphyphs in recent years. Some of the same statements are repeated at different sites, "so we have a history documented," he added.

The great Pacal began his rule in 612 A.D. when he was 12 years old. But it takes some 40 years in battles to consolidate his empire before he begins building several large great temples at this site, including the palace, his burial temple and another large temple near it. Since he is not in the direct line of rulership (no chemical analysis has been done on his bones; in fact, authorities at one point attempted to remove his bones and were thwarted by locals), he invents his connections to the gods and the reasons for his power. When he dies in 684 his origin is directly connected to the gods. In huge murals on the Temple of the Cross, built by his son, Kam Balam, Pacal and the Smoking God (or god L) are depicted blessing Kam Balam as he begins his own rulership. He built several more temples, and in a mural on the Temple of the Foliated Cross, Kam Balam is receiving corn from the maize god. Morales notes extensive use of lime in their constructions, which requires burning a lot of wood. As more and more forest was cut down, and they had to travel several kilometers to find wood, this may have contributed to later desertion of the site. As trees are depleted, so are deer and other animals.

There are permanent springs running throughout this site, and with tall mountains to the back and a canyon dropoff in the opposite direction; this was a good defense area. Anyone who came through Palenque on their way to the gulf had to pay tribute. An astronomy tower within the structures of the palace was a good lookout, but also the roofcombs on some of the temples were six meters wide, had steps going up the sides, and served for viewing out. The palace structures had steam baths, toilets, and beds. Many interior walls still show parts of the original paintings which covered them, and I winced as tourists rubbed backpacks and arms against walls as they sought to get around other people. No reconstruction has been done inside these rooms, all the work is original. But also likely to be gone within a few years.

Parks housing ancient sites close strictly at 6 each evening, but one day Morales arranged with the guard to let part of our group remain behind. We then, with his leadership, moved into the trees and hiked up the back of Pacal's great temple. We walked around to the top, where the guard greeted Morales warmly while we inspected the huge murals in an open room at the top&emdash;surprisingly in good condition. Then Morales led us to the back of this room and down the stairs. Electric lamps strung through the stairwell lighted out way. Halfway down the wide, some 30-deep steps, we discovered they were wet in places&emdash;caused by humidity inside the temple. We momentarily thought we had finished the descent, when we realized we had to turn the corner and take a second stairway down. Again the stairs were damp, and in places, revealed phosphorescent green worms. Morales waited for us at the base of the second interior stairway, where we joined him and peered into the barred area of Pacal's huge tomb, ornately decorated above the boxed area, and along the walls. All of the precious stones inside the "casket" have long since been removed, although of course we could not see inside. His bones were returned to this place by the contemporary people of Chiapas (in fact, kidnapped off the National Museums transport), who did not want their Mayan predecessor's bones going to a museum in Mexico City.

Morales' crew is currently working on Temple XIX, built by a ruler in 736 A.D., after defeat of the nearby Toniná, which may have conquered Palenque, as inscriptions show no ruler for 10 years prior. Morales has discovered and excavated the throne room, which had been looted, and expects to find other artefacts. Because the money from a three-year grant is running out, and the Mexican government has just changed political parties, Morales is unsure how work will be supported or continue at this site, but he remains optimistic.

At the intersection for the highway in and out of town, and the side road that goes up to the ruins, is a public monument&emdash;a circle containing a huge, white sculpture of the head of Pacal, in a thrown back position. This image is recreated extensively commercially, and even appears as a cameo on park benches outside the main church in town. In the municipal theater we watched a performance by a group of Mayan actors which told the story of the invention of maize, the mainstay of Mayan and early American populations. Huge puppets in the background peered over a curtain at the humans on earth (in the front of the stage), selecting who would be the best educator of fellow humans. The play's story had a work ethic as well as comedy and the continuance of culture. This group generally performs in Mayan communities, to help promote and value Maya culture. Palenque as a city mainly caters to tourists, there are only two banks, but also two Internet cafes (which we had last seen in Antigua). Numerous small hotels and two bus stations give note of the principal commerce for this area.

During our stay in Palenque, we were privileged to have the opportunity to head south, and first visit the famed murals at Bonampak, and then travel by boat up the Usumacinta River to little-known Yaxchilan. The road to Bonampak and out to the river (which was only in recent years paved) is in principal Zapatista area, according to the locals, but according to the military in this region, it is a dangerous area for robberies. We were required to be "escorted" by the Mexican military. On the day of our trip, another car of tourists and our bus were preceded by two army jeeps. When we stopped for breakfast, the green-attired soldiers&emdash;with rifles at their sides&emdash;breakfasted in the kitchen alongside us, although at their own, private table. They continued their escorted service all the way to Bonampak, then disappeared, while we spent time visiting the small buildings, huge stelae, and the three rooms with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling paintings. While the magnificent colors are now fading, considerable portions of the scenes are still visible. Within a few years, it is not likely the scenes will remain intact. We will only be able to see their reproductions in books.

As we left Bonampak and headed for the river, voilá! the military escort was ahead of us. Then some soldiers stood on the hill above us, watching as we boarded three, thatched roof boats. We wondered if they were watching us or watching for robbers. There were only a few shacks before the embankment and boat dock.

When we reached Yaxchilan by boat, we climbed up a hill and feasted our eyes on the substantial ruins of buildings which are seldom seen by tourists. Little archaeological study has been done on this site, which is pretty well preserved. The howler monkeys were especially loud here, in fact, we were the only humans in the area for a couple of hours, with the exception of a guard, who apparently boats out there every day to do his shift. We climbed throughout the temples on the highest ground, then hiked down to a palace location that included what one member of our group called "the condominiums"&emdash;a multilevel building of apparent apartments. The palace itself contained a five-foot tall statue of a prominent ruler, although the statue had been beheaded, and the head (complete with headdress) lay to one side. As we moved from this location down further, we followed a wide, original stairway, still well-preserved. From the lower part of the stairway, the view of the palace was inspiring. Now in a wide, open area, we found smaller structures and numerous stelae, many with still-apparent images and heiroglyphs intact. A larger palace toward the exit of this "park" had bars across a lower doorway, which indicated that something had been removed from inside, and now the subterranean was sealed off.

Most of us hated to leave after the two hours' stay. It was fascinating to visit a site that both intermarried with persons from Bonampak and attempted to conquer them. Why had these populations diminshed, and how had their structures endured so many centuries? Our guide mentioned that there is an equal amount of structures, all unexcavated, on the opposite side of the river, and once joined by a bridge across the river. He pointed out the former base to the bridge on the bank. We were impressed about a bridge over the incredible width of the river, while he noted only that Guatemala did not have an interest in doing excavation on their side. Another, even more sizable ancient Mayan city, Piedras Negras, is also along the banks of this river, further south and past where we would dock.

During the hourlong boat ride to and from Yaxchilan, we saw crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks. This wide river divides Guatemala from Chiapas, and runs out to the Gulf of Mexico. At the Yaxchilan juncture we were as close to Tikal as to Palenque. When we returned from our trip up river, the military were no longer on the hillside, and we returned to Palenque without escort.

"It is true that the soldier and police presence is here, stronger and permanently," Chiapas historian Jan de Vos told us, when we asked about the many military bases we had noted in the area. "But the Zapatista movement changed Mexico forever&emdash;by creating an awareness of the Indian&emdash;even if [the local rebels] are not doing so well now.

"Construction of a Maya identity is much more alive in Guatemala than Chiapas; they are way ahead of us," he added. After documenting Chiapas history for educated adults, in Spanish, for many years, deVos has created a children's book which will be published in 2001. "It is so important for the indios to know their history endured many more years than the present occupation," he said. His text explains the PreClassic, Classic and Post-Classic periods as dawn, middle of the day, and sunset time periods in Maya civilization. DeVos' intention is to reach those Maya past the era of the sunset, i.e., the contemporary Maya. "History is like a closed accordion. If it is not opened, they cannot hear the music."

We left Palenque by bus, heading north toward the Gulf of Mexico and then east into the state of Tabasco, where we visited the national park containing Olmec heads and other large sculptured stones, most of which are some 3,000 years old&emdash;an incredible realization. The stone to construct these objects (some pieces weighing as much as 20 tons) was brought to the coastal region from the volcanic areas of Chiapas and southern Veracruz. Where the Olmec colossal heads were discovered, in La Venta, there are several pyramid mounds, which are still unexcavated.

After this short stop, our group visited the restaurant at the anthropological museum site for lunch, and were surprised to find it busy with Mexican families. It was Sunday brunch&emdash;expensive at a price of eleven dollars&emdash;and an incredible array of traditional foods. The city of Villa Hermosa feels affluent, it is very clean and very modern. There are no colonial buildings in this city, it has built up around the oil industry. Very prominent in a highway circle, however, was a statue of Gonzalo Guerrero, the Spaniard shipwrecked sailor who took up "native" life for many years and then fought against the Spaniards who sought to conquer Yucatán.

We now headed to Yucatán and the last leg of our study of Mayaland. From the city of Mérida, we would then visit several of the numerous Yucatán sites, namely Uxmal, Sayil, Labná, Kabáh, Chichén Itzá, Ek-Balaam, and Dzibilcholtún. There are many more ruins in this area, some thought to have been in their prime much later than the sites in the Petén. While some sites, like Chichén Itzá, have been thought to have been influenced, or even conquered by the Toltec (roughly 900-1100 A.D.) who rose to power in the Mexican valley after Teotihuacán, now archaeologists are not so sure. Southern Maya influence seems just as strong, or longer-lasting, and Toltec architecture is only apparent in some structures and only at Chichén Itzá.

After one night in Mérida, our group traveled again and checked into the Zonas Arqueológicas Club Med at Uxmal (arqueological site Club Meds have established in several Mexican locations, making it comfortable to visit nearby ruins). The hotel was being remodeled and extended on one side, but the pool was open and enjoyable. Meal prices in the restaurant, however, were even more expensive than at our hacienda-hotel near the Chichén Itzá site.

Uxmal (whose heyday was before Toltec influence on the peninsula) has some incredible structures, one of which&emdash;erroneously called a "nunnery" by the Spaniards&emdash;seemed to me more like a club of diversions, for its naked figures sculpted on its main façade. Our new expert, art historian Jeff Kowalski, said the building represented the underworld. He saw history and mythic representation in the figures on the façade, which included Chac masks; he said no one could explain the nude, male figures. This building is one of a cluster of four around a plaza, from which the only entrance/exit is through an architecturally exquisite, arched passage. It is called the Nun's Quadrangle. The "nunnery" structure, and the principal temple to its left, were currently inhabited by thousands of small birds, who flew at any human who attempted to peek into doorways or between columns. It was impossible to enter these temples. I did see&emdash;upon craning my neck and my nose just missing a few bird swerves&emdash;several bird nests built into the arches and vigas. Near this structure is the ballcourt, where heiroglyphs around the ball ring indicate a last date of 905 A.D. (late in Uxmal's history), and that the ruler at Uxmal was in communication with the rulers of Chichén Itzá.

A principal structure at Uxmal, called the Magician's Temple, is prohibited from climbing, and Mexican anthropologist Rafael Cobos noted why: it is leaning slightly on one side, this having occurred since excavations, after material was pulled out of the structure. Sculptured figures and designs all along the outside of the building afforded great Kodak opportunities. This temple and the Nun's Quadrangle (probably built around 850 A.D.) are some distance from another set of larger buildings&emdash;with the ballcourt between the two sets. This larger area includes the Great Pyramid (a very steep climb) and the so-called Governor's House, a Xiú (Maya in this region) ruler's palace which was built toward the end of the ninth century, over a previous structure. A stelae contained his portrait. In the courtyard in front of his palace is an exquisite two-headed jaguar throne, a favorite for commercial postcards. Flanking these two was the smaller House of the Turtles, so-called for the turtle designs at the roof's edge. Archaelogists and workmen were busy at every juncture, completely reconstructing smaller buildings which did not seem to restore their authenticity. Our experts expressed disappointment in the work process, apparently supervised and ordered by the Mexican government's national museum division or INAH.

A new temple as tall as the Great Pyramid was being excavated, which seemed a breathtaking process. The public was permitted to climb one side, while work continued on the other. From the top, a contemporary structure, said to be a hospital, was apparent in the distance. The best view, however, was from the Governor's Palace (built atop a hill), where at 4 p.m., we were in the shade and as we looked out over the ballcourt, the sun's rays highlighted the magnificent Magician's Temple and Nun's Quadrangle.

Uxmal (which means "thrice built") was apparently a capital city in this region, according to our experts; its commerce was extensive, it received obsidian from about 10 different sources (all principally in Guatemala). And yet nearby Sayil (not connected to Uxmal by a causeway, while Kabáh was connected) only shows traces of 3 types of obsidian. Could it be that Sayil was occupied by Uxmal? Definitely Uxmal seems to have controlled the northern Yucatán region during the Classic period and even later, perhaps consolidating its power base after the fall of Teotihuacán. As understanding of glyphs has increased, considerable new information about life in this region should come available in the next 10 years.

Kowalski also guided us in a tour of the Sayil site, which has a prominent stelae of an Ahau lord at the entrance. He noted that the work here, dated approximately 889 A.D., does not match the fine quality in sculpture and workmanship of Copán and Palenque, in earlier centuries. The Mirador, or lookout tower is on a causeway that connects to the palace, some distance away&emdash;an extensive, three-story structure. When this area was first excavated, an altar was found sitting in the middle of the causeway, along with several cisterns to collect rain water. Sayil also had a huge chultún&emdash;underground reservoir for holding water&emdash;now covered with concrete so that visitors do not fall in, behind the palace. Another causeway, a narrower pathway, led in the opposite direction from the Mirador to a huge stelae revealing only a well-endowed, naked male figure&emdash;no glyphs explained the occurrence (the signpost says only Yum Kep, Yucatec-Maya for "Lord of the Phallus"). It reminded us of the naked figures on the "nunnery" at Uxmal, and a smaller building some of us had visited the previous day at the Uxmal site: It was down a narrow pathway that hooked off from a causeway leading to a magnificent and only partially excavated structure called "The Old Lady's House." Far from the principal Uxmal buildings, this small structure is called the "House of the Phally." Our group was not as impressed as archaelogists must have been two, three decades ago, who found several large phallic symbols still extending from the rooftop (apparently they also served as rainspouts). All have fallen off now, and are simply arranged in a grouping on the ground, along the pathway to this structure.

The Labná site is an elaborate architectural wonder for this region. The tall Mirador is a steep climb, rewarded by a view out to several paths or causeways, and of the entire valley. A réplica of one wall of the palace at this site was built for the 1893 World's Fair, we were told, attracting public attention to Maya sites in Yucatán. A stand-alone, huge Arch&emdash;comparable to the arched entry to the Uxmal Nunnery&emdash;is prominent in the middle of a causeway, and gives an idea of monumental proportions of architecture here. Labná in some ways resembles Dos Pilas, in the southern Petén.

Finally, we visited Kabáh, just off the main east-west highway, and nearest to the Uxmal site. The principal temple's roofcomb was constructed earlier than the Labná Mirador, and also served as a lookout. It accompanied smaller buildings around a grassy plaza where three small, capped chultunes looked like golf holes. Nearby was a huge palace, with a back façade covered in repetitive, curly-nosed Chac masks. The front façade had two huge, techno-type figures mounted above the entrance. Their arms reach out robotically, and they are naked above the waist, with markings around their eyes. The sculptured figures are constructed in three parts&emdash;lower body, torso, and head with headdress. They seem to come out of the wall. This building is dated about 883 A.D., and according to Kowalski, "there is no building like this" in the region. Lintels around the doorway to the palace reveal a story of taking prisoners or captives after a victory&emdash;scenes reminiscent of Copán and Palenque.

Now our group was ready for Chichén Itzá&emdash;one of the most famous sites of Yucatán, and the only one I had visited previously. But now it seemed so much more extensive. Still, I could distinctly remember seeing the Chac Mool figure in an enclosed area at the top of the main temple, El Castillo, eleven years ago, while now it is encased within the lower part of the pyramid, where people must wait in line to enter in groups of five. Except for this structure, most buildings are now prohibited from climbing, especially the interesting Casa del Caracol observatory, and the Nunnery, each of elaborate architecture. At the top of El Castillo some lintels are still apparent, but none of the tourists seemed to pay attention to them; our group members had become accustomed to looking for these historical displays at each site. There had previously been a frieze of walking jaguars here, which is now removed. A red jaguar throne, inlaid in jade, was found inside this temple, and is now housed in the Mexico City anthropological museum. Jade, and gold (many such objects found in the cenote or deep pond at the site) are from the Central American region, therefore examples of commerce and trade. I walked exuberantly all the way down the Castillo, remembering that when I visited previously I had had to back down, using the rope. Several weeks of hiking pyramids had left me more limber, or fearless.

At Chichén Itzá, no birds attacked us for attempting to enter buildings; they seem to have given up this site to the tourists. My favorite place was the Temple of the Warriors, also called the Temple of the thousand columns. No one knows what the columns commemorated, but they seem to provide an ambience of festivity. They extend eighty deep and four wide, running to one side from the base of the temple, then as many more on a higher level behind. To one far side is the temple, extending up several steps, with many more columns on top as well as a Chac Mool sculpture at the top of the stairs. The columns before the stairs of this temple&emdash;and in the cordoned-off area&emdash;are actually square, with glyphs on all sides. All of these glyphs were replicated in drawings and published in the 1920s. The public is prohibited from climbing this small temple, but we could walk between the numerous columns outside its main entrance. The best picture of the myriad columns was from the top of the Castillo.

We examined the huge ball court (at 270 ft. long, the largest at Mesoamerican sites), one of several ballcourts at Chichén Itzá, the Eagle Platform, the Skull Wall, the lower Temple of the Jaguars, the Red Temple, and the famous cenote where sacrifices were made. We only spent two days at this site, but one hour, after lunch, was devoted to experiencing the most beautiful site and heavenly of experiences. We visited a cenote, called Ik Kil, or the "place of the winds," which is likely the most exquisite 'blue sacred well" in all of Yucatán. While there was a large opening at the top, from which one could see the sky, the entrance (with paid admission) was a one-story level down, and from there one descended about three stories more, to water level. Long reeds of plant life hung down from various levels, and two small waterfalls descended from the very top. The water was crystalline blue, the color of pure diamond. As one jumped into the huge, round pool (purported to be 50 ft. deep) it felt cool but not too cold, just delicious. Swimming, or dog-paddling and looking up to the sky, occasionally moving under a waterfall, was the most perfect experience we had during our trip. The site is within a group of restaurants, and three kilometers from the Chichén Itzá ruins.

The following day, heading back to Mérida, we stopped at a site that has just recently made news of excavation. Ek-Balaam, which means "Black Jaguar," and likely also thrived in the Maya Classic era, between 700 and 1,000 A.D., has been a mystery awaiting unfolding by archaeologists. Its main temple's innards have only recently been unveiled, after many years' study.

First, our expert Rafael Cobos noted the Arch, from which causeways go in all four directions, and there are architectural groups (needing excavation) at the end of each. There are no chultunes but a huge reservoir and sinkholes, and the site is only 25 miles from the coast. It is also near considerable salt beds, which product was extensively traded. Cobos pointed out a mound in the northwestern direction, which he said includes temple, ballcourt and altar. Although there is a strong Post-Classic settlement here, excavations have revealed even Pre-Classic origins. It was even "occupied during colonial times," Cobos said, and pointed out the backdrop of an "open chapel" constructed by the Spanish during the 16th century&emdash;Spaniards discovered that the indigenous were accustomed to celebrations outside of temples, and found that the more effective way to gather crowds to their own religious services. In this area were a set of small twin temples, reminiscent of Tikal (although on a much smaller scale), and other small buildings. The jewel awaited us, several feet away.

The last ruler known at Ek-Balaam ruled from 860 to 870 A.D. But in the stelae, a ruler named Uki Kanli' was prominent in the early 800s. His grave was found in the palace we were about to visit. As we walked toward it, Cobos pointed out that the upper area was still in the process of being restored. "The last (most recent) construction was at the top of the temple, where you still see columns. But it is being removed now" to expose an earlier construction&emdash;the entrance to Uki Kanli's tomb. Our group members stood at the steps of the building, where large stelaes and figures on murals were prominent at each side of the stairs. They had been covered with thatched roofs to protect them now that they were exposed. As we looked up we saw that only one side near the top of the building was excavated. That area was also covered with a thatched, straw roof. Some of us started up the stairs&emdash;very steep steps although wide in depth.

When we reached the excavated sculptures, we seemed to stand with mouths open, until our experts arrived. Even Cobos and Kowalski seemed extraordinarily moved; Kowalski kept bemoaning his lack of a camera in possession and asked various of us to send him copies of our slides.

The impression of royal grandeur surpassed what we had seen in recent days. The doorway opening at this juncture of the building was the mouth of a jaguar. Its teeth, curving up at the bottom and down from the top, extended around the opening. The sculpture of its nose above the mouth-opening became the ruler, Uki Kanli', sitting on his throne. To each side along the façade (above and to the sides of the mouth opening) were sculpted figures (probably relatives and earlier rulers) etched into the wall. Below the mouth-opening were masks of Chacs and other god representations. From below, the sculpted figures probably seemed the eyes of the huge jaguar-mouth figure, but we were too close to see it that way. The mouth-opening was some eight feet tall, and served as the entrance to the area where the ruler's tomb was found, which has now been removed. A rope fence barred our entry, even to the level of the mouth-opening; we were standing on a level just below that.

Kowalski then explained how the excavation had happened, although he had not been present: "This area was covered by debris, in small pieces, carefully placed around the sculptures and façade, which preserved it well." A thin pillar of small pieces of stone and packed sand/dirt led from the top of the open mouth to the base; this was what was left of the debris-fill, Kowalski said. It was left there out of concern that the sculptured top of the mouth might fall if this were removed.

We understood that upon the death of this ruler, as often happened at Maya palaces, his body was buried inside (where he previously most likely sat on his throne and spoke to subjects) and the building covered to preserve his place in history. Later, a newer building was built over this structure. The robotic arms and hands of the standing figures are reminiscent of Kabáh, Kowalski noted, and the open-mouthed jaguar/doorway is reminiscent of Copán. White alabaster used in these sculptures is only found in central Honduras, Cobos noted. The only published data on this structure so far is in abbreviated form in the magazine Arqueología Mexicana; more study is needed, but presently the excavation and study is guarded by the Mexican team in charge.

Back in Mérida, we listened to lectures about Diego de Landa, the ruthless Catholic bishop who converted Indians to Christendom by means of torture and death. His account of the cities and people he found as he explored the Yucatán peninsula mid-16th century, however, has endured in contemporary reading. The city of Mérida, Yucatán state's capital, now shows no traces of its former nature of a Xiú city, although some towns, like nearby Ixamal, exist with pyramids or ancient temples alongside colonial and contemporary buildings. Prominent in the central plaza of Mérida, however, is the Montejo building, which is occupied currently by a bank. The façade of this historic, 16th century building includes the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo's coat-of-arms and, in the very center, a full-figure sculpture of himself, with each foot standing on the heads (only) of several Indians. Below this façade, city buses and taxis whiz past, as well as pedestrians on their way to twenty-first century life.

Our group had one more Maya site to visit, on the outskirts of Mérida: Dzibilchaltún, meaning "the place of the writing on the stones," and dating to as early as 500 B.C. Although it was also occupied during the 16th century, and has a larger "Open Chapel" structure attached to an earlier Maya building, this site was re-discovered after Chichén Itzá, and now includes an excellent, small museum which even documents the extensive commerce of hennequen (to produce clothing and other materials) in the nineteenth century. The Temple of the Seven Dolls, so-called because seven figuerines were found buried beneath an altar as offerings, is remarkable for its four windows, unusual in Mayan architecture. Apparently it was used as both temple and observatory, and in several different centuries of Mayan civilization. This site includes the longest palace in Mayan Yucatán&emdash;130 meters long with 35 entrances. The structure, at present, is not very tall&emdash;only about 15 steep steps up, then flat with some portions of wide columns.

Dzibilchaltún also includes a cenote, one of the largest in Yucatán. It is visited regularly by local families. Although the opening is wide, there is no dramatic descent to the water. The land slopes down to this cenote, with water at surface level, and it is easily seen from all sides of the land or civilization. It is said to go 40 feet deep at a sharp angle, then level out horizontally. It is not known where it ends.

Our last swim, our last climbing of pyramids, and we were back to the city to conclude our six-week study. How would each of us use what we had learned? While our approaches would be varied, like our disciplines, as teachers we will be showing slides and sharing the latest information on the Maya. While some misconceptions were disseminated by early explorers of Mayan ruins, information currently being corrected by new studies, the greatest error is in not recognizing an elaborate, extensive and knowledgeable civilization that existed prior to European arrival on the American continent. The values of contributions of this earlier people should be taught in our classrooms. Also, the fact that they still have many descendants among us.

There are currently six million Maya, living in Central American countries, southern Mexico, and some 100,000 live in the U.S. Although the Spanish conquest and European disease killed many Maya in the 16th century, after two centuries, their population began increasing again. While some are mixed with the European-derived population, many have survived living apart&emdash;in the Chiapas and Yucatán jungles, and Guatemalan highlands&emdash;for many years. Even the ethnocide of 20th century governments against their own people have not completely erased this native American ethnicity.

The 21st century is a new opportunity to get to know and understand the Mayan culture and people, through their books, plays, priests and their intellectuals. No native-American had ever been singled out for an international prize until a Guatemalan Quiché-Maya, Rigoberta Menchú, won the Nobel Peace Prize in the late 20th century. But our media highlights arguments and controversial ideas about her work, rather than the beauty and existence of the Guatemalan indigenous. Her government does not even disguise its hatred of her.

Victor Montejo and Gaspar Pedro González, who can be read in English, have a lot to tell us about the Maya, and their stories are very similar to Menchú's attempt to enlighten us. The words of beautiful Guatemalan poets, like María Cruz and Helen Umaña shed light on life early and late in the 20th century, respectively, although they only write in Spanish. If we respect their words and other Guatemalan writers, it will be easier for Maya poets to be revealed. Montejo and González have worked double-duty to produce their works in Spanish and also their native Maya. Thanks to the Yax Té Foundation in the U.S. their books are now available to us in English also. More of these publications and their dissemination is needed to learn more about early civilizations and their contemporary presence on this continent. U.S. film director John Sayles helped us learn that many Maya indigenous are in existence, and yet cut off from the privilege or protection of their own governments, in his 1998 film Men with Guns.

As Montejo said, Western society can learn from the Maya. Let us place their traditions, their culture and their heritage alongside those we respect in Western thought. In doing so, we are likely to learn more about architecture, math, art, science, and ecology, and find a richer American continent in the 21st century.


Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez, is Chair of the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures at Sonoma State University in northern California, and Associate Professor of Latin American Literature and Spanish. She completed her doctorate at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.