YUCATÁN PENINSULA, Mexico — What’s the Mexican drug-war body count now? 47,000? Ever since the killings began to escalate in late 2006, I’ve been visiting the country less and choosing spots more carefully.
But the Yucatán Peninsula was an easy call. One of the safest and most rewarding places in Mexico these days is the same steamy, lizard-ridden Maya stamping ground where ritual sacrifice was once business as usual, where the alleged apocalypse — the end of the Maya calendar — is barely 100 shopping days away.
In May I flew to Mérida, Yucatán’s capital, about 500 miles south of New Orleans. By noon on the first full day I was clinging to the steeply pitched steps of the Great Temple of Uxmal, about 50 miles south of Mérida, about 100 feet above ground, incalculably far from the 21st century.
From my perch at the temple’s highest point, a horizon of green treetops spread before me, interrupted only by jutting stone marvels such as the Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle and the stately House of the Governor.
Uxmal is not Yucatán’s marquee attraction. That would be the now-unclimbable pyramid at Chichén Itzá about 120 miles east. But Yucatán is full of wonders that allow better access and draw smaller crowds than Chichén Itzá. If you want a workout, a few subterranean thrills and a glimpse of what North American civilization looked like before and just after the Spaniards got here, it’s a good place to start.
The Uxmal complex, younger than Egypt’s best-known pyramids but older than Peru’s Machu Picchu, was built more than a millennium ago. At its peak, it housed perhaps 25,000 Mayas.
Nowadays at Uxmal, there’s a nighttime light show and a handful of hotels within walking distance. Like gift shops throughout Yucatán, the one at Uxmal is well stocked with books suggesting that the Mayas predicted the end of the world for Dec. 21, 2012. And there’s no denying the creepiness of the ruins’ mascots: the iguanas, which race bowlegged across the grass, climbing ancient steps with eerie agility.
Lock eyes with an iguana long enough and an apocalypse begins to seem inevitable. But then look away, and another ruin demands climbing. Or a set of descending stairs will lead you to a cool, blue cenote — sinkholes and water-filled underground caverns that are scattered all over the peninsula.
To give scenes like that my full attention, I didn’t bother with Cancún, the tourist magnet 200 miles east, or the several Yucatán haciendas that have been converted into restaurants and luxury hotels. In fact, I never strayed more than 150 miles from Mérida.
At Kabah, just down the road from Uxmal, hundreds of loose stones are laid out like laundry in need of sorting, and one long wall (known as the Codz Poop) is crowded with bug-eyed, long-nosed stone faces carved to honor the rain god Chac. At Labná, an ancient gate leads nowhere special but might be the most graceful, haunting Maya portal still standing.
At Ticul, I had hot chocolate. Not by choice but because the EcoMuseo del Cacao, opened in 2011, includes a hot chocolate-making demonstration among its many exhibits. (There was also a human skeleton and some sentences about the Maya’s ritual sacrifices.) The temperature must have been 95 degrees outside — which is why many people visit in winter. But the cook so graciously offered the steaming cup, I had to say yes.
At Cuzama, about 30 miles southeast of Mérida, I paid a man about 250 pesos (about $20) to take me on a bone-jarring ride aboard a horse-drawn cart that rolls on narrow-gauge railroad tracks. The route runs through a henequen plantation (where fiber for rope was cultivated), but the real attraction is below ground: three cenotes.
The first was Chelentun (easy access, with stairs and a handrail), followed by Bolonchoojol (a rabbit-hole entrance with a 25-foot ladder) and Chansinic’che (steep stairs, narrow squeeze). At each, you can climb down, dive and swim beneath the stalactites, surrounded by tree roots and darting little fish, in the cool waters of a slow-moving subterranean river. Shafts of filtered sunlight illuminate the blue waters. Voices bounce crazily off the walls.
There are thousands of these places in Yucatán, some open air, some accessible only by a dark descent on a long ladder, dozens outfitted for easy visitor access. The only problem is that after you’ve explored a few, if you ever venture to Capri, you’ll never understand all the fuss over its Blue Grotto.
The next day, I headed to Cobá, another underappreciated but sprawling set of ruins about 135 miles east of Mérida in the state of Quintana Roo. The archaeological site is so vast that tourists rent bikes to get from spot to spot. With the help of a heavy rope, most climb to the top of Nohoch Mul, a pyramid with 120 steep steps. The view was cinematic — the most remarkable of my trip — because the landscape is otherwise so flat and the foliage below so thick.
Throughout these various ascents and descents, Mexico’s most notorious 21st century peril — the drug war — seemed far away. And statistics suggest that it is.
In the Mexican newspaper Reforma’s tally of drug-war killings, Yucatán logged just two such deaths in 2011 — the lowest figure among all 31 Mexican states. The U.S. State Department’s most recent Travel Warning on Mexico (issued in February) bristles with border-state cautions and alarming numbers, including the 47,515 drug-war deaths nationwide as of September 2011. But the State Department’s experts have no cautions to offer for Yucatán.
That peace of mind gave me the luxury of more daydreaming about the Mayas, who drew water from cenotes and sculpted their gods into decorative patterns on buildings. The Maya created a written language and left scores of manuscripts, most of which the Spanish burned. They devised epic ballgames that sometimes ended with the ritual sacrifice of a player. Aristocrats wore jade inlays in their teeth.
Their empire included the neighboring states of Campeche, Chiapas and Quintana Roo, along with parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Yet centuries before the Spanish conquistadors got anywhere near here, their empire collapsed and the people scattered to small agricultural settlements.
As a result, few outsiders paid much attention to the Maya until the late 1830s and early 1840s, when explorers such as John L. Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood spent long expeditions describing and sketching vine-strangled structures throughout the peninsula. Since then, Maya imagery has compelled all sorts of artists and designers, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who drew inspiration from Uxmal, Mel Gibson, who directed the movie “Apocalypto” in 2006, and the makers of the 2009 disaster film “2012.” (For a more factual visual take on the contemporary Maya, check out the black and white photographs of Macduff Everton in 2012’s “The Modern Maya” or the super-saturated color shots of Jeffrey Becom in “Maya Color,” published in 1997.)
So why did the Maya fall? Deforestation, drought and wars against neighbors have been blamed. In his 2005 bestseller “Collapse,” UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond cites “kings who sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster —reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs.”
Before things went south, the Maya astronomers calculated a long-term calendar and forecast that a 5,125-year era in human history would come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012.
And then? Like so many fortunetellers and economists before and since, the Maya were vague on details.
For the 21st century doomsday industry, of course, this was perfect. Now we have books, movies, souvenirs and T-shirts tied to Dec. 21. Even though almost nobody believes it, the idea of extinction evidently sells. Mayaland Resorts was charging less than $200 a night at its lodges at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá in May, but this December, the rates will reach $1,000 a night and beyond.
I asked just about every Yucatecan I met, including many of Maya descent, about Dec. 21.
“People say, ‘It’s 2012. I’m not going to die. I’m going to Chichén Itzá!’” said Andre Mar Arriaga, manager of the bookshop in Mérida’s Regional Museum of Anthropology and History.
In the Valladolid office of MexiGo Tours, guide Gilberto Tec Ligorria noted, “My mother is from Guatemala, and my father is from here. So I’m a mix of two kinds of Mayas. And I think it’s just the end of a cycle.”
At the Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman outside Valladolid, I raised the subject with manager Diego Moo, who keeps a slingshot at the ready in case turkey vultures fly too close to the water. Maybe, Moo suggested (in Spanish), his Maya ancestors were predicting the end of the pure Maya race.
This may seem pessimistic, given that several million Maya endure, many of them farming in Yucatán. But old ways are fading, Moo said, and Mexico’s bloodlines are more mixed than ever.
Then the trees rustled and he reached for his slingshot.
On my last full day in the country, I finally got to Chichén Itzá, where the 12/21/12 hucksterism is at its most intense.
It was about 9 a.m. when I stepped up, well ahead of the crowds, and paid separate entrance fees to the state and federal agencies eager to get their cut.
While I roamed, hundreds of vendors were setting up throughout the archaeological zone, playing radios, making faux jaguar roars on little ceramic kazoos and peddling shirts, hats, carvings, calendars, hammocks, dresses, jade jaguars, Cuban cigars and enough refrigerator magnets to drag Iron Man to his knees. Much of the merchandise was doomsday-based.
Guides told me they expected about 2,500 visitors on the day I was there, compared with 8,000 on busy days in December. About 40,000 came for this year’s spring equinox, one guide told me, and many are hoping for 80,000 on Dec. 21.
The site’s marquee attraction is the restored Temple of Kukulcán (a.k.a. El Castillo), and it’s a sight to behold, a four-sided pyramid guarded by feathered serpents. In 2000 I climbed it, along with a few thousand others that day. But now you can’t.
Local guides say climbing has been banned since Adeline Black, an 80-year-old visitor from San Diego, suffered a fatal fall while ascending the ruin in January 2006.
You also can’t swim in Chichén Itzá's Sacred Cenote. But as you stand at its lip and look down, remember that just last year scientists found bones here of six apparent human-sacrifice victims. Two were children. Estimated time of death: between 850 and 1250 AD.
So was it a perfect trip? Oh, no.
Mérida’s traffic drove me nuts and gave me plenty of time to scrawl “miserable city driving torture” in my notebook while creeping along at 2 mph. For the carless, the city’s 16th century cathedral, its plaza loud with bird song, and the poc-chuc (grilled pork with citrus juice) at La Chaya Maya on Calle 62 are good fun. But if I had this trip to do again, I’d give Mérida just one night.
I’d sleep instead in the countryside, perhaps at the Pickled Onion, a restaurant and B&B in Santa Elena (near Uxmal) that’s run by an English expat named Valerie Pickles, or perhaps at one of the big hotels at Uxmal so I could walk to the ruins.
I’d also spend a few more nights in Valladolid, which has twice the charm and about 8% of the population of Mérida. The Hotel El Mesón del Marqués on the plaza charges about $60 a night, and I had the most elegant meal of my visit at Taberna de los Frailes, a short walk away. While I ate, songs of worship seeped into the night from the neighboring Ex-Convento de San Bernardino de Siena.
Another change I’d make: more time in Izamal, where the Convent of San Antonio de Padua was built atop a Maya temple in 1561 and most of the downtown is painted mustard yellow.
One thing I wouldn’t change, however, is my lunch in the town of Xocen. As part of a daylong tour with Valladolid-based MexiGo Tours, guide Gilberto Tec Ligorria and I arranged to share lunch in Xocen in the home of a Maya farming family.
The Puc Canuls are a middle-class family, which in Xocen means a father, mother and six kids farming corn, keeping bees and growing limes, coriander, mangoes, mint, sapotes, chaya and bananas in the yard. The eight of them share four hammocks, a refrigerator, one television, cellphones and an old sewing machine, all on a dirt floor. Next door, in the larger building where the family keeps its seed corn, the concrete floor was immaculate.
The family’s eldest daughter, 13-year-old Helmi, made us corn tortillas on a traditional stove (three rocks, campfire and metal tray).
The kids told me about school and sang songs in Spanish and the region’s Maya dialect. I showed them pictures of my daughter, drank Fanta from a gourd and gave thanks for an hour of contemporary Maya humanity to complement the days of architecture and history.
For the record, I predict an uneventful Dec. 21. But if you get to Yucatán and you’re lucky, the Maya past, present and future may flash before your eyes.