Awakening the Mayan Past — In Mexico


Tulum Iguana

Digging up good literature about ancient Mayan culture is about as difficult as uncovering the ruins overgrown with jungle trees and plants. Some 3,000 Mayan cities have been identified by archaeologists, and 300 have been excavated, but even there, only partial excavations have occurred, resulting in about one percent on view.


Temple of Masks at Kohunlich (close-up on the right)


Previously, RoadWorks visited important Mayan sites such as Copan, Tikal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza. This trip took us to the crowded seaside site of Tulum, overrun by cruise boat tours, but also to the quiet and more notable sites of Dzibanche and Kohunlich some hours away from Tulum nearer to Chetumal and the Belize border. These were easily accessible from the wonderful resort where we stayed for a week: The Explorean Kohunlich. Frankly, we did not know these locations prior to our visit as they don’t have the press of a Tulum or Copan, but they are significant. Dzibanche, for instance, features not only extensive ruins but also a troop of boisterous Howler Monkeys, and the quieter Spider Monkeys. Kohunlich is well regarded for its Temple of Mascaderos—stunning figureheads that retain their ancient coloring.

Dzibanche Temple


What to read to enhance these site visits? By far, the best fictional treatment I found was The Well of Sacrifice (1999) by Chris Eboch. Although marketed as a teen novel, it’s a good read for adults, too. The actual well of sacrifice is located at Chichen Itza, a cenote—a deep pool of water surrounded by limestone. Archaeologists in dredging the well have found traces of human remains as well as precious objects such as jade. The cenote plays an important role in the narrative as a power-hungry priest seeks to take the place of the recently-departed king. For anyone who stands in his way, he tells the people of the city that the gods have ordered a sacrifice. In this way, he removes his rivals, one in particular, Smoke Shell, a young warrior who is enormously popular. Well_cover_from-210

His sister, Eveningstar Macaw, is the main protagonist of the novel, a teen who is knowledgeable of jungle plants and herbs that she gathers for her mother, who is a healer. Will Eveningstar be able to avenge her brother’s death and save the city? That’s a secondary concern as the book’s primary benefit is in revealing day-to-day Mayan life. Admittedly, even scientists do not know exactly what happened in everyday life since the cities were abandoned centuries before, around 900 CE, but murals provide some clues. The author uses what is known to good effect. The Mayan civilization believed in human sacrifice and even blood-letting among its own people; as a result, some scenes can be graphic although nothing in comparison to violence in contemporary films.


Remnants of a ball court, a crucial site in The Well of Sacrifice, where captives play for their honor–and then proceed to their death or to slavery.

The Mayan culture was popularized in the mid-nineteenth century by American John Lloyd Stephens and his artist partner, Frederick Catherwood. Their collaborative work, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, is in public domain and still reads very well due to Stephens’ clear prose and Catherwood’s detailed drawings. This 1848 book was very influential in revealing Mayan cities and creating expeditions to unearth them. Contemporary novelist Eboch acknowledges that debt. (By the way, Catherwood’s home in Merida is open to the public.)

A “juvenile book,” The Search for the Silver City: A Tale of Adventure in Yucatan (1893) by John Otis, who penned almost 200 “boys’ books” in the style of Tom Swift or The Hardy Boys, follows two teens who are marooned on the Yucatan after the family yacht catches fire. Along with an engineer who survives, they run into an ex-pat, who has located a lost Mayan city, and who is determined to steal some of its gold and silver. Exploitation of native people reminds us that at one time such colonial attitudes still reigned even centuries after Cortez’s destructive path.

These three books are all available in electronic form, which makes packing much easier. Another possibility is a historical romance by Barbara Wood, Woman of a Thousand Secrets (1999). Frankly, it’s too much romance for my reading tastes. Scott O’Dell, a prize-winning author for young readers, published three novels about classic period Mexico. The first, The Captive (1975), focuses on a Spanish Jesuit, who is taken by Mayans. Unfortunately, it is not in e-book format. His other two novels focus on Aztec and Incas. Likewise, Daniel Peters weighs in with three hefty novels, each focusing on the three major cultures: Mayan, Inca, and Aztec. Another young adult novel is Marc Talbert’s Heart of the Jaguar (1995). I wish I had found Marella Sands’ novels on Tikal before visiting there: Sky Knife (1997) and its sequel Serpent and Storm (2001).

Moving on to other major tribes of Mexico, Colin Falconer’s The Feathered Serpent (not to be confused with the Scott O’Dell novel of the same name) focuses on the Malinali, the Aztec woman—a slave to Mayans—who became the mistress of conqueror Cortes. Gary Jennings’ popular Aztec series offers hefty reads. Simon Levack has a mystery The Demon of the Air (2005) that also centers on Aztecs.

National Geographic offers this list of best books about Mayan culture:

By the way, several books about Mayan prophecy circa 2012 came out about that time. These were not of interest to me.