Saturday, February 14, 2015


We headed South to escape the frigid Chicago winter.  We drove out in whiteout conditions with 3 days to meet the Princess cruise ship in Houston. The weather didn't warm up much until we reached the Yucatan in southern Mexico.  We spent several glorious days there--Belize, Costa Maya and Playa del Carmen.  At one time up to 2 million Mayans lived there.  Today, this region is sparsely populated--the population of Belize is only 333,000.

Although we don't seem to know where the Mayans went, the locals claim they are descended from them.  If so, they appear to have lost most of the advanced culture and knowledge that archaeologists are constantly digging up.  The latest theory is that the Mayan civilization was devastated by drought, maybe of their own making because they cleared much of the jungle for their farms and temples. 

The Yucatan was named by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes who asked the locals what they called the area.  The Indians replied, "Yucatan" which in the native language means essentially, "I don't understand you."  If they had been Australian Aborigines, the peninsula would today be called the Kangaroo. 

Remnants of the Mayan culture can be found all over the Yucatan.  There are literally over 1000 Mayan archaeological sites scattered through southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.  Belize alone, a tiny country, has over 900 historic locations.  Most are closed to the public, and probably many more are still undiscovered.  The fast growing jungle (excuse me, the rainforest) has obscured many of these sites.   Our guide pointed out that the land in the area is flat, and any "hills" that we see partially obscured by the dense foliage are most likely buried Mayan sites. 

Just beneath the soil is limestone which the Mayans quarried and and cut the stones to build their pyramids, temples and houses.  The pyramids are enormous edifices.  I climbed the magnificent Lamanai pyramid which is over 130 feet high.  They made it relatively easy--the park built a wooden staircase behind the pyramid to climb the first 100 feet of so to a platform on the pyramid.  From there, you had to climb the rocks, each one about 2 feet high.  Going up (safely) is easier than going down which is best done backwards.  If the Mayans wanted to build that today, they'd never be able to get a building permit because the Code would require elevators, ramps and railings. 

The ancient Mayans are renowned for their remarkable scientific achievements.  They were highly sophisticated in mathematics, astronomy, construction and culture.  They had a written language.  In mathematics, they used the number zero.  Historians have contended they did all of this without having invented the wheel, but that is not true.  The Mayans did have the wheel, but they did not use it the way we would.  They used it for children's toys. 

Their astronomy surpassed anything the Europeans did until recent times, but the purpose was not scientific but rather to mark the times for Mayan religious ceremonies.  To that end, they established a complicated calendar which we are still trying to decipher.


The Mayan calendar was devised by their priests to serve the needs of the people in different ways.  I'll try to simplify this as much as possible.  The calendar consists of several overlapping cycles (counts) of different lengths. 

For example, the Haab count corresponds to the solar year.  The Haab begins on the Winter solstice and is composed of 18 months of 20 days each with 5 holidays at the end of the year for festivities.  The 5 extra days are considered "dangerous" and people were afraid to leave their homes at that time.  The Tzolkin, the "count of days" was a 260 day count.      It combines 20 named days with 13 numbered days and was used for religious and ceremonial events. 

Taking this a little farther, we have the Calendar Round date which repeats after 52 Haab years, or 18,980 days.  Every 18,980 days, the Haab count ends on the same day as the Tzolkin count.  To record history by specifying dates longer than 52 years, the Mayans devised the Long Count which began August 11, 3114 B.C. and ended December 21, 2012.  As we now know, the world didn't end on that date--the Mayans just began another cycle.   They have these cycles strung out for the next 63 million years. 

The Mayans built huge decorative concentric wheels to incorporate the different calendar counts and illustrate the various cycles of months and years.  However, for all their astronomical genius, they screwed up on one thing--they didn't account for leap years.   That one-quarter day each year adds up after many years, and the calendar no longer corresponds to the seasons.  The Egyptians had the same problem. 

We've shown the different cycles, but it didn't end with that.  The Mayans also tracked the 584 day cycle of Venus (relative to Earth) with great accuracy.  Modern astronomers using telescopes have calculated it as 583.92 days.  To the Mayans, Venus was important because they associated it with war.  They would arrange battles and wars according to the movements of Venus and sacrifice captured warriors according to the position of Venus in the night sky.  They also tracked the position of the stars for agricultural purposes.  For example, the rise of the Pleiades in the night sky normally coincided with the beginning of the rainy season. 


We visited the Mask Temple which is flanked by two large sculptures of Mayan gods.  One had unmistakably African features.  The guide said the temple was built in approximately 100 B.C., 1500 years before Columbus.  Our history books say the first African Americans arrived in America in 1619.  Maybe they'll have to re-write the history books.  I've seen a program about this sculpture on the History Channel, but now I've seen it with my own eyes. 

The ancient Africans are referred to as the Olmecs.  We don't know much about them or what they called themselves.  Archaeologists say they disappeared about 400 B.C..  The Olmecs carved huge stone heads using boulders transported from 60 miles away.  They apparently also had an advanced culture, but we haven't uncovered most of it.  If they Olmecs carved this statue, the Mayans either appropriated it, or copied it when building the temple

The Mayans wrote everything down on deerskin books, and archaeologists can read their language.  The problem for us is that the Spanish conquistadors, appalled at the practices of the Mayan religion, in 1562 ordered the burning of everything they could find in a huge bonfire, the auto de fe of the Spanish Inquisition.  Bishop Diego de Landa, the man responsible for this disaster, was also the one who ironically preserved the alphabet for historians.  Much of what we have learned about the Mayans was through the efforts of individual Spanish soldiers who smuggled out documents from the pyre as souvenirs and concealed them in their luggage.   These papers turned up from time to time in Spanish cities and are named according to the place where they turned up, such as the Leon document. 

Many of these Mayan sites are inaccessible by land.  Our journey to Lamanai to view these treasures was a job and a half.  It is possible to drive there on rugged bumpy roads and it would take all day, so you pretty much have to go by boat.  The site is about 30 miles away from where our bus was parked, but it was an hour's ride by speedboat on a winding river.   The jungle comes right down to the water, and we saw monkeys, crocodiles and huge termite nests in the trees.   Many of the trees are mahogany, a cash crop for the locals. 

A group of German speaking Mennonites have carved farms out of the nearby jungle and grow sugar cane near the river.  They arrived in 1958 in what was then British Honduras, attracted by cheap land and a laissez faire attitude by the government toward their religion.    Today the Mennonites number about 10,000.  Their customs and dress are strange in this country, but they are prosperous and contribute much to the agricultural production of Belize. 


Belize is only 72 miles wide.  It used to be called British Honduras, and the official language is English.  Most of the people speak Spanish also.  It was settled in the 1600's by British expats and buccaneers called the Baymen.  They built the hardwood industry using African slaves.  The Baymen and their slaves defeated the Spaniards in 1798.  Belize eventually became a British colony in 1862 and was governed as part of Jamaica. 

We spent some time driving around Belize City, getting the flavor of the country.  The children we saw were immaculately dressed in their school uniforms.  My observation is that most of the natives in Belize City are Black, but in the rural areas, most are Natïve Indians (Mayas). 

The guide explained that many locals make a living in the car business.  The travel to the U.S. to buy high mileage used cars cheap, and they drive them back to Belize.  If you sell your high mileage vehicle or give it to charity, chances are it will turn up in Belize or another Third World country.   Other than that, the major industry is tourism.  Scuba diving is especially popular in Belize. 

In every country we visit, we check out the local beers.  The most popular beers in Belize are Belikin and Sol.  Most people drink rum, however.  Of course Coca Cola is available everywhere. 


The Mayan presence is strong in nearby Mexico.  Playa del Carmen, in the state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan, is a 40 minute ferry ride from the port in Cozumel.   Within an hour's driving distance are Tulum, Chichen Itza and Coba.  We have previously visited Tulum, hard by the coast and highly commercialized.  We had to choose, and we chose the less popular Coba about 80 miles South of Playa del Carmen.   It attracts fewer tourists because of its distance from the popular resort towns. 

This site is huge--30 square miles.  To get around the Mayans built 50 roads paved with white limestone stretching out from the main pyramid Nohoch Mul ("large mound"), the tallest in the Yucatan at 137 feet high.  The longest road goes to Chichen Itza, 62 miles away.  What's crazy is that the Mayans transported goods on the roads without using wheeled vehicles.   Goods were moved by manpower on foot at night when it was cooler.    They didn't have horses until the Spanish came.  The roads were illuminated by the reflected light of the white limestone paving blocks.   As I mentioned earlier, the Mayans were aware of the wheel but didn't use it for what we would consider the obvious.  Like the absent minded professor, the Mayans were brilliant in math and astronomy, but lacking in common sense. 

The Mayans were fiercely independent and battled against the Mexican authorities until the 20th Century.  The Caste Wars broke out in the 1830's to protest the caste system in which Europeans from Spain occupied the top caste, mixed blood mestizos in the middle, and the local Indians (Mayans) on the bottom.  The Mayans had their farms taken away by the upper castes and started a revolt.  The Indians attacked anyone of European or mixed descent.  The war was not resolved until 1915 when the Mexican government subdued the Indians and instituted reforms.  One such reform was a settlement with the Wrigley Company which gathered chicle from the ubiquitous sapodilla tree to make chewing gum. 

The Coba site was not visited until 1920 because of the dense jungle and the Caste Wars.  Today, much of it is still unexplored.   It has been a park open to the public since 1973.  It is tourist friendly.  You can walk around on the wide Mayan roads, a mile from the entrance to the pyramid.  Many people rent bicycles or ride in chauffeured tricycles as Dianne did.

Like other Mayan sites, Coba has the pyramid, the temples and observatories arranged in accord with their astronomical observations.  The moon, stars and planets would be visible from certain windows at certain times of the year which were significant to the priests.  Like us moderns, sports played a prominent role in Mayan life.  It could literally be a matter of life and death. 

At Coba and also at Lamanai, the ball field is a prominent feature of the site.  On certain holy days the warriors would compete in a game called pok-a-pok in which the contestants would attempt to advance a 9 pound rubber ball through a goal, using only their hips and elbows.

The winner was "rewarded" by being sacrificed to the gods, considered a great honor.  The loser was just killed.  Obviously they have to recruit new competitors each year.  Are you sure you want to play this game?         

NEXT:  The Suskins Mess with Texas--Johnson Space Center, the Alamo, and Spindletop