Why Latin America?

There Is a Reason Why I Keep Going Back There

My first vacation on my own—at the age of thirty—was to Yucatán. In the intervening years, more than two-thirds of my international vacations have been to Mexico, Central or South America. Originally, my interest was in Pre-Columbian archeology. I still am, but I’ve added post-Columbian (i.e., Christian) archeology to my interests. The two exist side by side in fascinating ways.

Many Latin-American towns have museums of religious statuary and paintings that used to be in churches that are no longer in service. Lima, Peru, for instance has a fascinating museum in the former Archbishop’s palace adjoining the cathedral.

Sacramental Vessels from Lima’s Archbishop’s Palace

American tourists usually go in for all the pre-Columbian sites, but are totally uninterested in the ruins of Catholicism that are evident all over the place. In places like Buenos Aires; Cuenca, Ecuador; Mérida, Mexico; and Antigua, Guatemala there are old churches that are no longer in use, but there are thousands of items of religious art that are fascinating to me. One of the most incredible is the huge monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru, which is like a walled city in its own right.

The Monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru

In the morning that I visited Santa Catalina, I took the two-hour morning tour. Then I went to lunch and had some rocoto relleno (spicy stuffed Peruvian green pepper) in a restaurant behind the cathedral. Then I went back and spent the whole afternoon actually trying to get lost as I wandered through the narrow streets and saw the chapels, nuns’ cells, gardens, kitchens, laundries, and other services that made up the monastery.

Looking back, I think I’d rather see Santa Catalina again than Machu Picchu. In my mind, they are of equivalent interest, but Santa Catalina is much nicer.

 

Looking South

I Am Looking Forward to My Next Trip to Latin America

It has been not five months since my return from Guatemala, and already I am looking forward to Yucatán and Belize—which is still more than six months in the future.

(Incidentally, I would never refer to it as “the” Yucatán unless I were wearing a pith helmet and those stupid zip-off pants/shorts worn by travelers who fear to venture more than twenty yards from their hotel room without an escort.)

I have been to Yucatán four times in all, the last time with Martine in November 1992. During my visits between 1975 and 1992, I have visited about a dozen Maya archeological sights. Since then, scores more have been developed, including one of the largest at Calakmul in the State of Campeche. In addition, I hope to visit Cobá in Quintana Roo, Ek Balam and Kinich Kakmó in Yucatán, Edzna and several Rio Bec sites to be decided later in Campeche, and Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas. In addition, I plan to revisit some of the sites I have already seen such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque.

There is something calming about seeing what remains of an ancient civilization—one that had the ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances and survive in the 21st Century.

Yucatec Maya Girls Today

The Maya population is scattered across five Latin American countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. A large number of Maya have found their way to the United States from Guatemala and Honduras, because of dire conditions in their countries of origin, though Maya from Mexico tend not to migrate to the United States. That is despite the long Caste War against the Ladino (Spanish speaking) population that ended only in the early 1900s and the Zapatista Revolt in Chiapas during the 1990s.

 

The Past Goes Up in Flames

Frederick Catherwood’s Drawing of Maya Ruins at Chichén Itzá

I wanted to write about the Notre Dame de Paris fire yesterday, but I held back. All I could have said at that point is, “What a horrible shame! I am completely aghast!” It needed me to sleep on he news before I was able to put the event in any perspective.

That perspective, as it comes to me now, is that our past is always and everywhere going up in flames, collapsing under the wrecking ball, or being abandoned and overgrown. The City of Los Angeles, for example,  is under the sway of greedy developers who think nothing of bulldozing our history. Much of the history of motion picture production in Hollywood is gone forever, with just a few isolated buildings such as the Chinese and Egyptian Theaters, the Lasky-DeMille Barn, and the Post 43 American Legion Theater standing out from the architectural Kleenex boxes.

Have you ever heard of the seven wonders of the ancient world? They are (or rather were) as follows:

  • The Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt
  • The Colossus of Rhodes
  • The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
  • The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
  • The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece
  • The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  • The Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt

How many of these wonders still exist? Only one, the Great Pyramid. All the others were destroyed by natural disasters and other mishaps over the centuries and millennia. All the great cathedrals of Europe are vulnerable to fires, terrorism, floods, and what have you.

Overgrown Maya Ruins at Copán, Honduras

My visits to Maya ruins in Guatemala and Honduras in January brought home to me in the most vivid way the fragility of the past. I keep thinking of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

How many other cultural landmarks will disappear during our lifetimes? I have visited Notre Dame twice and marveled at the sheer artistry and magnificence of the place. I hope that the French succeed in reconstructing the interior, the roof, and the spire that were destroyed in the conflagration.

Unfinished Business with the Maya

The Three States on the Yucatán Peninsula

I have not been to the Maya parts of Mexico since 1992, when I traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula with Martine and several co-workers at Urban Decision Systems. Now I am thinking of going again. My January trip to Guatemala only whet my appetite for more.

On past trips, I have seen the ruins at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, Acanceh, Mayapan, Palenque, Tulum, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak. I would not mind seeing Chichén, Uxmal, and Palenque again, and perhaps even spending a little time at Valladolid and Izamal, which I have not seen. New destinations would include several Maya ruins in the State of Campeche, most notably Calakmul and Edzná, and Bonampak and Yaxchilán in the State Of Chiapas. The latter two can be seen on a tour from Palenque.

The most problematical destination is Calakmul, which may possibly have been the largest Maya city at one time—perhaps even bigger than Tikal in Guatemala. The problem is that the southeastern edge of the State of Campeche has not yet been sufficiently developed for tourism by the Mexican government. I can possibly get a tour from either the city of Campeche or of Chetumal in Quintana Roo.

Maya Structures at Calakmul

There is also the possibility of Cobá in Quintana Roo. I might visit it if I have to go to Chetumal to set up a tour for Calakmul. Otherwise, I would be reluctant to run into the passenger ship mobs that dock at Cancun and the Maya Riviera.

Two cities I would love to re-visit are Mérida in Yucatán and Campeche in the state of the same name. Both are delightful places that positively reek of contemporary Maya culture, with hints of the Mexican mestizo culture and—oddly—an admixture of Lebanese and Syrian, due to the merchant classes that set up there in the 19th Century.

 

The Copán Ruling Dynasty

 

Altar L with God/Kings of Copán

When I first began traveling in Maya lands, the Maya did not appear to have a history. Now that so many of their glyphs have been translated, we see that—particularly in the Classic Period between AD 600 and and some point in the 9th century AD, most of the major archeological sites not only had a history, but a rich one as well.

The first event recorded at Copán in Honduras was in 321 BC on Altar I. There was a founder of a dynasty called K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ who ruled between 416 and 437 AD. Then there were two unnamed rulers before K’altuun Hix dedicated a carved step inside the Papagaya Structure around 480 AD. There were two more unnamed rulers before Balam Nehn (524-532 AD) and Wil Ohl K’inich (532-551 AD).  After an unnamed Ruler 9, we have a filled-chronology that takes us all the way to 822 AD:

  • Moon Jaguar (553-578)
  • K’ak’ Chan Yopaat (578-628)
  • Smoke Imix (628-695)
  • Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, better known as 18 Rabbit (695-738)
  • K’ak’ Joplaj Chan K’awiil, better known as Smoke Monkey (738-749)
  • K’ak Yipyaj Chan K’awiil better known as Smoke Shell (749-763)
  • Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, better known as Yax Pac (763-820)
  • Ukit Took’ (began reign in 822 AD)

It was Ukit Took’, the last known ruler of Copán, who dedicated Altar L, shown above, identifying his predecessors. There are no known dates at Copán after 822 AD.

What happened in 822? The kingship failed for various reasons, as it did around then through most of the adjacent area, for environmental reasons (probably drought), overpopulation, and a change in the form of governance.

As alien as the dynastic names above may seem, the chronology is surer than that of many European dynasties of the period. The calendar was sacred to the Maya, so they were sure to note the exact date that events occurred—and that didn’t even happen in most European countries of the Dark Ages.