© Gregor Hohenberg
© Gregor Hohenberg

In search of an ancient civilization

  • TEXT MATHIAS BECKER
  • PHOTOS GREGOR HOHENBERG

The decline of the Mayan empire remains a mystery some 1000 years later. On the Mexican peninsula Yucatán, our author met an archeologist searching for answers, discovered great diving spots and gorgeous beaches, climbed a pyramid, and visited a friendly shaman

“Just let yourself fall backwards,” Richie – Richard Schmittner, my diving guide – calls over. Only a few years ago, the sandy-haired 29-year-old was an optician in Bavaria. Today he shows visitors like me Yucatán’s underworld. Squeezed into a neoprene suit and with an oxygen tank strapped to my back, I am standing on a very slippery wooden jetty at the entrance to the Dos Ojos water hole near Tulum. Originally, we intended to explore the Mexican peninsula in a rental car only. The day after tomorrow, in Mérida, we meet archeologist Guillermo de Anda, who dives in the freshwater-filled subterranean limestone caves or cenotes that lie beneath Yucatán, to find out how the decline of the Mayan kingdom came about roughly 1000 years ago.

Lufthansa Magazin

To the Maya, the cenotes were gateways to the underworld, which is why, in order to appease their gods, they threw all manner of things into them: tools and precious pitchers, but also human beings. Today, what remains of those sacrifices provides useful information about the lost civilization. “We find answers down there,” de Anda had said on the phone. Cenotes are just as exciting for amateurs as for archeologists so, after a day on the beach in Cancún, we jumped into the car and drove south along the coast toward Tulum and the most spectacular caves.

Now a ceiling of rock curves above me and Richie is waving to me from below. Let myself fall backwards? Is there no ladder here? My diving suit pinches and perspiration is pouring from my brow. A bloodthirsty mosquito settles on my ankle and the next group of frogmen is already coming up behind me. Persuaded! I turn around and lean back; the weight of the tank takes care of the rest. Splash! The water is refreshingly cool, as is the air in the cave entrance, something the birds above our heads evidently like. “They’re motmots,” Richie tells me, “they build their nests in the rock.” To the Maya, the motmots were the gatekeepers of the underworld. They don’t appear to want to stop us, so we dive beneath the surface of the crystal-clear water. Richie glides into a dark, narrow tunnel and I follow his flippers, shining my flashlight onto the bedrock below and the ceiling above me with its forest of cone-shaped outcrops. During the last ice age, the sea level dropped, leaving the caves high and dry. Rainwater seeped through the roofs and over the millennia created countless dripstone formations. Then the oceans rose again and flooded the labyrinthine cave system. So far, divers have explored roughly 1000 kilometers of it, but the greater part remains virgin territory.

Ik-Kil is a large ­cenote outside Pisté is open to the public for swimming

Ik-Kil is a large ­cenote outside Pisté is open to the public for swimming

© ddp images
The archeological site in Tulum extends right down to the sea

The archeological site in Tulum extends right down to the sea

© Gregor Hohenberg
Sombreros provide protection from the sun

Here sombreros provide protection from the sun

© Gregor Hohenberg
A 15-year-old girl poses for the photographer on Cancún beach on a very special day, Quinceañera, which celebrates her passage from girlhood to womanhood

A 15-year-old girl poses for the photographer on Cancún beach on a very special day, Quinceañera, which celebrates her passage from girlhood to womanhood

© Gregor Hohenberg
The step pyramid Kukulcán rises in the center of Chichén Itzá, the most extensive ruins in Yucatán

The step pyramid Kukulcán rises in the center of Chichén Itzá, the most extensive ruins in Yucatán

© Gregor Hohenberg
It’s a tough 42-meter climb to the top of Ixmoja pyramid in Cobá

It’s a tough 42-meter climb to the top of Ixmoja pyramid in Cobá

© Gregor Hohenberg
An enchilada stuffed with fresh vegetables and chicken is a classic item on any restaurant menu here

An enchilada stuffed with fresh vegetables and chicken is a classic item on any restaurant menu here

© Gregor Hohenberg
Underwater flying

 Later we come to a cave worthy of the cathedral of Atlantis: vaulted ceilings, walls covered with bizarre ornaments. Sunlight pierces the darkness, bathing the inner sanctum in a magical light. Richie turns to me; I give him the OK sign, but he jabs his thumb upward: time to surface. What, already? My watch tells me we’ve been down here nearly an hour – it seemed like just a few minutes. Shortly afterwards, peeling off our diving suits in the parking lot, I notice a tattoo on Richie’s shoulderblades: a pair of wings. The image is perfect; diving is like flying underwater.

We leave Tulum and its gleaming white beaches behind and drive northwest to Mérida along roads lined with flaming coral trees and palms laden with coconuts amid a landscape straight out of an exotic fairy tale. A fruit vendor sells her wares by the roadside and cracks open a coconut for us with a well-aimed swipe of her machete. Back in the car, we slurp the cool milk through a straw.

An hour later we reach Cobá, once one of the largest Mayan settlements. It had already been swallowed up by forests when the Spaniards arrived. Today, tracks beneath a dense canopy of leaves connect the ruins. We rent bicycles at the entrance to the excavation site and ride through green tunnels until we see Cobá’s largest pyramid towering before us: Ixmoja, 42 meters high, with 120 crumbling steps leading to its summit. What are we waiting for? We take the first few steps with our heads held high, but before long, break out in a sweat. Halfway up, we feel a burning sensation in our calves. We climb the final third on all fours, and reach the platform at the top, gasping for breath. Up here, above the leafy canopy, priests once stood and worshipped the gods while the populace gathered below. According to one theory, a period of poor harvests caused this hierarchy to falter, and, driven by hunger and plagued by disease, the hut dwellers stormed the palaces and pyramids. It is also unclear why the priests’ knowledge – the Maya had developed a precise calendar and were able to predict with some accuracy the course of the planets – disappeared along with the old order.

A diver explores the Chac-Mool cenote in the Mayan Riviera

A diver explores the Chac-Mool cenote in the Mayan Riviera

© Karen Doddy /gettyimages
The Indiana Jones of Yucatán

 On the way to Mérida, we make a detour to Izamal. A three-hour drive brings us to the little town with its center all done out in deep, gleaming yellow ocher. It was first painted that way in 1993, when Pope John Paul II paid a visit, and since then, all other colors have been taboo. So much piety can be unsettling. The imposing Franciscan monastery here was once the residence of Diego de Landa, who later became Bishop of Yucatán. He made a name for himself as an inquisitor, who destroyed not only people but also every Mayan manuscript he could lay his hands on. “The Spaniards wanted to blot out all trace of the old civilization,” says archeologist de Anda, a stout man with lively eyes and a firm handshake, whom we meet a little later in Mérida. As often as possible, the “Indiana Jones of Yucatán” trades the dry, bright rooms of universities for pitch-dark water holes. “Down there, we find shards and bits of material that are over a thousand years old,” he says. With their consistently cold temperatures, and total lack of oxygen or a current, some cenotes act as the freezers of history, he explains. A short time later, he drives his van out of town and along narrow tracks through dense bush country.

Getting into this cenote is a little more complicated than usual: At the end of a rope, we will be winched down through a narrow chimney shaft into an underground lake. Once everything – team and equipment – is all set to go, we grope our way down the rough wall into complete blackness. De Anda and his team have been here once before. Today they want to chart the bed of the cenote, where a Mayan skull has been discovered. We follow the bright beams of the flashlights and after a half-hour search, we gather and train our lights and cameras on a single point, where a fragile, rust-red skull is lying on the rocky floor. “Nothing gets touched,” is the command we receive before diving down, so all de Andas’ team takes back up to the surface are crystal-clear close-ups of the skull. “We are interested in the details,” says de Anda, as he steers his van out of the bush amid clouds of yellow butterflies. “Traces and marks on bones, pitchers and blades give us valuable information.”

Mayan shaman Don Pedronito

Mayan shaman Don Pedronito shows us ...

© Gregor Hohenberg
A mixture of roots and alcohol are said to soothe headaches

... a mixture of roots and alcohol. It is said to soothe headaches

© Gregor Hohenberg
A ladder leads down into the cenote near Homun: the subterranean basin serves as a local swimming pool

A ladder leads down into the cenote near Homun: the subterranean basin serves as a local swimming pool

© Gregor Hohenberg
Divers in the crystal waters of the Gran Cenote water hole not far from Tulum

Divers in the crystal waters of the Gran Cenote water hole not far from Tulum

© Gregor Hohenberg
A couple of locals chat outside the Franciscan monastery in Izamal; the monastery was painted yellow ocher for the Pope’s visit in 1993 and the color has dominated the city ever since

A couple of locals chat outside the Franciscan monastery in Izamal; the monastery was painted yellow ocher for the Pope’s visit in 1993 and the color has dominated the city ever since

© Gregor Hohenberg
Delicious ­papadzules, a kind of pre-enchilada, are served in many places

Delicious ­papadzules, a kind of pre-enchilada, are served in many places

© Gregor Hohenberg
Sunday evening is dance time on Plaza de la Independencia in Mérida

Sunday evening is dance time on Plaza de la Independencia in Mérida

© Gregor Hohenberg
Gaudy skulls await buyers amid the ruins of Chichén Itzá

Gaudy skulls await buyers amid the ruins of Chichén Itzá

© Gregor Hohenberg
Mayan culture lives on

 Our final destination before we head back to Cancún is anything but unexplored: Chichén Itzá, the foremost Mayan city and, circa 900 A.D., home to 50 000 people. Today, a million tourists wander among the city’s ruins every year. The history business brings other profiteers, too: Souvenir vendors tout trinkets from Mayan masks to skull ash trays. We should have bought a sombrero, we realize a short while later as we stand beneath the blazing sun surveying the mighty Kukulcán pyramid, before finding a shady spot in which to sit and gaze in wonder at the monumental structure. “It’s a magical place, isn’t it?” says a petite woman in a floral dress. She’s Elizabeth Gomez, a dentist who works in Puebla, near Mexico City, but travels to her old home, Yucatán, whenever her practise permits. “The friendly people, the rich culture, the glorious scenery – when I’m here, I often think that paradise exists, after all!”

For the Maya it had evidently become hell. Perhaps we can find out why from Marcos Santos, Chichén Itzà’s chief archeologist. His office is crammed full of books on Mesoamerican history. When we ask him why the Maya died out, he falls silent, the only sound in the room the hum of the air conditioning. Then he shakes his head. “It isn’t true. They didn’t die out. They just abandoned their temples and went into the forests. Their culture is very much alive!”

The Spaniards wanted to blot out all trace of the old civilization

Guillermo de Anda, archeologist

Later, as we roll along the highway, Santos’ words echo in our ears. All of a sudden the heavens open and within minutes the roads are flooded. We seek shelter in a village kiosk. “Chaac is merciful,” one man tells us with a smile. Who? “Chaac, the rain god.” Interested to know more, we ask a boy to take us to the wooden hut belonging to Don Pedronito, the village shaman. An open fire gleams in one corner, in the other, his children sit and stare, wide-eyed. Don Pedronito tells us about the rain god in Mayathan, the Mayan language still spoken by at least 800 000 people in Yucatán today. The boy translates: “We shamans ask the gods for rain or a good harvest. And we drive out evil spirits.” How? Don Pedronito picks up a bundle of twigs, and hums and sings words we don’t understand as he moves the twigs repeatedly over our heads and upper bodies, as shamans have done for thousands of years. A short while later, the rain subsides and we continue our journey in silence. In the evening, we are back where our journey began, on el Mirador beach in Cancún. The moon’s reflection gleams on the water. In a couple of hours, the sun will rise over the smart hotels of Cancún, over Don Pedronito’s wooden hut – and over Yucatán’s thousand mysteries.


Yucatán Tips

Cenote Zaci

You can enjoy Yucatán specialties on the terrace and a view of Zaci cenote in Valladolid.

cenotezaci.com.mx

Xibalba Dive

The brothers Robert and Richard Schmittner run diving tours to the ­cenotes around Tulum.

xibalbadivecenter.com

Nueva Vida de Ramiro

This hotel is the local ecotourism pioneer and rents out romantic bungalows in a glade of palm trees.

tulumnv.com

Chichén Itzá

The ruined city is a must for all tourists; the crowds and heat are most bearable in the morning hours.

chichenitza.inah.gob.mx