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News from our Latin American Correspondents


Feb 19 (1 day ago)

to undisclosed recipients
Long before gringos gathered on Cancun’s smooth white beaches and before Mexicans’ maddening installation of a purgatory of topes (speedbumps), the Mayans claimed Yucatan as their own. Hundreds of thousands thrived on religion and rainwater on this arid limestone peninsula, creating a culture of high art, architecture and science. The magnificence of their cities astounds, given the meager mud hut villages that now pepper the scrub and sand of the region. In equal parts the splendor of their cities, the mystery of their fall and the contrast with modern Maya culture are the sources of one’s wonder about these ancients.

Ek Balam, a small site overshadowed by neighboring Chichen Itza, might have remained among the hundreds of obscure and unvisited ruins, despite its pyramid being among the tallest in the Yucatan. But in 1999, workers at the site, wondering about the apparent asymmetry of the edifice, broke through the stonework on one side of the facade, discovering the most well-preserved art panel in the Maya world – a stucco monster head crawling with stony skulls, deformed demons and gods galore, created a millennium ago.

The remote rarely visited Chenes group of sites, Edzna, Dzibilnocac, El Tabasqueno, and Hochob mostly feature mere fragments of facades in a single, partly excavated courtyard, surrounded by oddly conical and isolated hills. These mounds are the unrevealed structures that remind us that the silence and emptiness here disguise what were once cities of tens of thousands. Now spike-spined iguanas and turquoise-browed mot-mots lord over what was once the domain of fearsome priests and kings.

The Puuc hills may have been the Renaissance Italy of the Mayan world, with sculptural arts and painting reaching their stylistic acme on the friezes and columns of ancient Labna, Xlapak, Sayil and Kabah. And their Florence was certainly Uxmal, whose unparalleled artistic excellence overwhelms and inspires all who journey here today, not least your humble gringos. As if directed by some suddenly-cubist Hieronimus Bosch, angular and intricate intertwined serpents spew warriors’ heads from their gaping jaws while massive square masks of rain-god Chac are piled like jig-saw jenga blocks up every palace quoin. The rigid geometry infuses all here, from architectural alignment with Venus and the stars, to sawtooth filagree screens and entablatures of serried faux bamboo. Lacking the strength of either the load-bearing curved arch or the gravity-conquering keystone, the ubiquitous corbeled arch defined the ziggurat geometry as it undermined the durability of the massive structures of the Mayan metropolis.

These mysterious masters of the universe created a complex social order, built sprawling multi-level cities, mastered astronomy and zero-based mathematics, tamed a hostile world with cisterns, long-haul roads and canals, used calendars, surgery and hieroglyphics, yet strangely lacked a written alphabet and that most fundamental invention, the wheel. And by the time Cortez landed, the Mayans were simple agrarian villagers, the art, sculpture and giant cities long buried beneath the jungle, not to be uncovered by western archeologists for hundreds more years.

We can’t make up stuff this weird and driving (watch those topes!) to these sites over the past week has been like having a little Nissan time machine.

¡Hasta luego, amigos!
Sali y Marco

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