Time to reveal the secret cities
By Claire Wrathall
Published: December 31 2004 02:00 | Last updated: December 31 2004 02:00
It might seem perverse to rely for a guidebook on something first published in 1843, but John Stephens's Incidents of Travel inYucatan is not just engrossing but surprisingly up to date. His complaints about the execrable state of the roads, the pernicious "moschetoes" and the enervating humidity still ring true.
Some of the haciendas he stayed at still take paying guests (Hacienda Tabi, Hacienda ChichÃ©n, although the Santa Rosa and San JosÃ© he refers to are not the same as the luxury hacienda-hotels of those names). And his descriptions of - and wonder at - the archaeological remains of the ancient Mayan cities that dot this peninsula have never been bettered.
That these ruins are known about and visited at all is largely thanks to Stephens. A lawyer, sometime politician and diplomat, entrepreneur and adventurer from New York, he met the Hoxton-born engraver Frederick Catherwood at an exhibition in London and together they rediscovered 44 lost "American" cities. He and Mr C are engaging companions - "Our landlord refused to receive the four dollars due to him in rent. The pleasure of our society, he said, was compensation enough," he wrote on quitting their lodgings in MÃ©rida, and one can understand why. They are erudite, witty, breezily eccentric and best of all intrigued by what they encounter and able to conjure it vividly in words and pictures.
Most visitors to the Yucatan stick to its Caribbean coast - all cerulean water and cool, white quartz sand - rousing themselves from their sunbeds or hammocks to go only to ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡, whose Castillo or pyramid, built in about 1000 AD, has been co-opted by the Yucatecan tourist authorities as its logo. It's an undeniably impressive sight - "a spectacle which, even after all that we had seen, once more excited in us emotions of wonder". But those who marvel at its near-miraculous state of repair are deluding themselves. Look at Catherwood's intricate, infinitely atmospheric drawings of the "gymnasium" or ball court, and you'll see not the almost perfectly restored stadium of today, but crumbling fragments densely cloaked in "strong and vigorous nature". Likewise the Castillo, its sides barely visible through the undergrowth, its north stairway largely crumbled away, while the temple at the top, Stephens noted, was "defaced and timeworn".
Even back then, Stephens observed, "Every Sunday the ruins are resorted to as a promenade by the villagers of PistÃ©." Now they can seem overrun by coach parties, and at equinoxes as many as 80,000 people converge. You can avoid some of the traffic by arriving early (jet lag can be good for something) when the gates open at 8am, but you risk encounters with the various drum-banging, new-age dawn-worshippers who come here to chant.
In any case, the architecture of ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡, with its square rather than oval pyramid, has Central Mexican influences and is not wholly Mayan. Far better to visit Uxmal, a city of 25,000 at its peak between 750 AD and 900 AD, and by far the most breathtaking of the seven sites I visited (after half a dozen or so, one risks succumbing to Stendhal's syndrome). Frank Lloyd Wright declared it one of the most beautiful buildings the world has ever seen, and it had no little influence on his work.
The proportions of its long, low governor's palace - in whose fetid, gloomy interior Stephens set up camp - are exquisitely realised, not least in the way its flat roof rises imperceptibly in the centre to avoid the illusion of sagging that, given its 180m length, would be inevitable were it level. But even the extraordinary geometry of the palace pales beside the intricacy of its decoration, figurative and abstract, and the other buildings in the city, parts of which date back to 560 AD. There are exquisite carved birds that look as though they've just alighted; lifelike turtles; warriors in their armour and feathers, so animated that, Stephens reports, "the Indians believe they walk at night".
It would be a shame, too, to miss Kabh, with its amazing Palace of Masks: hundreds of bug-eyed, almost cubist faces representing the rain god Chac, recognisable by his elephantine nose. Or Labna, with its magnificent arch. Or Sayil, with its monumental three-storey Gran Palacio.
But these are a good 200km from the Caribbean coast. If the beach is your priority, at least make time for Tulum, with its majestic site on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean, where Stephens records "the wildest scenery we had yet found", likening it to "the witches' gathering place in the Harz Mountains as described in the Faust of Goethe". A little far-fetched, but it conjures the magical atmosphere of the place.
Better still, head inland to Cob, about 50km north, once a city of 55,000 people, with more than 15,000 buildings some of which date back to AD100. Stephens never found it: it stayed lost in the rainforest until 1891, despite its chief pyramid, Nococh Mul, rising 42m, well above the still-encroaching tree canopy.
"The steps are very narrow and the staircase steep; and after we had cleared away the trees, and there were no branches left to assist us in climbing, the ascent and descent were difficult and dangerous," he wrote of the now off-limits pyramid at Uxmal. But he might as well have been writing about this one. Especially if you have in mind his discomfiting description of human sacrifice, after which the priest would "kick the bodies down the steps".
"In all the long catalogue of superstitious rites, I cannot imagine a picture more horribly exciting than that of a priest, with his white dress and long hair clotted with gore, performing his murderous sacrifices at this lofty height." Still the climb is worth it for the incredible view: miles of rainforest, home to spider monkeys and all sorts of voluble birdlife - toucans, parrots, citreolines, chachalacas, orioles and grackels - and whose density is broken only by mysterious ancient buildings and alligator-infested lakes.