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The Stone Horse of Flores

January 2nd, 2014

The new issue of Betwixt, out yesterday online and in print, features a new story of mine, “The Stone Horse of Flores”, what I’m calling a post-virtual retelling of a Guatemalan folktale.

Being as how my rendition takes significant liberties and the original is awesome and not likely to be something you’re familiar with, I thought I’d share the story here the way I first heard it. If you have any inclination to read my version, however, might I suggest doing so first so as not to spoil it?


Flores is a little city on an island in Lago Peten Itza, in the southern (Guatemalan) portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was settled in the early 16th century by the Itza Maya, a sect of water priests, after abandoning their former home, Chichen Itza, to the conquering Spanish. This turned out to be quite a prescient strategic move for the Itzaes: the natural protection provided by the lake and the trackless jungles of the surrounding Peten helped keep Flores under independent rule for the next 175 years, far longer than any other Mayan settlement.

Cortés himself actually visited Flores in 1541, but his supply train had been so decimated by disease on the long trek through the jungle that he no longer had the resources to muster an attack. Instead he only rested a few days and moved on. He did, however, leave behind one injured horse, asking the Itzaes to care for it until he returned.

They did the best they could, but having never cared for a horse before, they didn’t know what to feed it or how to treat it, and it died. Luckily, Cortés never came back. Under increasing protest against his tyrannical policies from the colonies he himself had founded, he fled the New World for Spain within the year, never to return.

In 1618, seventy-five years later, two Franciscan friars visited Flores on an evangelical mission. They found its people dedicated to their own religion and made no converts, but discovered a stone statue of a horse in the city square, erected in memory of Cortés’s gift. They claimed the Itzaes had taken to worshipping the statue golden calf style. which maybe wouldn’t be so hard to believe but for the tellers, without whom this story would in all likelihood never have been carried down.

When the Spanish did finally capture Flores in 1697, they razed it to the ground, along with all its oral and written history. The usual story.

Thus far in my travels I’ve spent all of half an hour on a bus idling in a grocery store parking lot on the shore of Lago Peten Itza at four in the morning, gazing at the orange lights of the island flickering reflected in the lake.

In a few weeks I get to go back and, with any luck, spend some quality time there.

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Tales from Topographic Oceans

May 21st, 2012

Only tenuously related to the Yes album of the same name, widely considered the most navel-gazingly pretentious prog rock album ever recorded. (No, I will not attempt to relate the Shastric scriptures to Mayan prophecy. Maybe another time.) The Roger Dean cover, however, is awesome:

See the Castillo over there on the horizon above the Nazca monkey?

The other week I was back in Yucatan. It’s been six years. Not much has changed. A lone wind turbine has sprouted over Quintana Roo Highway 308 south of Cancún, and a dozen new all-inclusive resorts have elbowed out another few hundred thousand acres of coastal swamp, though you’d hardly know it from the road except for the twenty-foot white concrete faux-Mayan monoliths marking the entrances surrounded by landscaped agave and coconut palm. The real ruins are all still there, the big ones a little more harried maybe what with the approaching end of the world, the less impressive sharing the sun-baked empty stretches between hotels with more recent ruins, failed tourist traps abandoned a year or a decade ago, their pale dirt parking lots filling with trash like alluvial silt from the underground rivers.

The coastal reef, second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, hasn’t recovered–it’s still all bleached and apocalyptic, like the ash-caked girders of a collapsed skyscraper a hundred miles long, an aqua-tinted desert broken only by occasional tiny, mind-blowingly colorful fish flitting in and out of gray-blue darknesses. If anything, it’s getting worse.

Still, the apocalypse feels just as far away (and just as close) as anywhere else I’ve been. Even Detroit. Even though the entire Yucatan Peninsula is so low-lying and flat it will likely be underwater as soon as Micronesia and Manhattan, and it’ll look even more like the Yes cover than it already does.

By the way, for those of you who haven’t seen it, a recently discovered Mayan mural at the Xultún site in northern Guatemala includes explicit references to dates after December 21, 2012. So the world isn’t ending. Which means we’re going to have to live with what we do to it.

But I’m not here to preach about the end. I’ve done that enough. I’m here to share a bit of the beauty before it’s gone.

These are not the pictures I would have taken of Tulum in 2006. Maybe the difference says something about the person I’ve become in the years between. Because the place hasn’t changed. Salt wind and time have done what they can, at least for now. And all of Antarctica would have to melt before the Gulf will make it up those cliffs. Who knows, maybe that’s part of why they built it here.

One of three offeratory altars on the cliff below the Templo del Viento–not unlike another shrine I found years ago, ten miles to the north. The coastal Maya had a lot to thank the sea god for, not least the reef, which made a natural breakwater for hundreds of miles along the shore, allowing easy trade between cities.

Masked face, Templo de las Pinturas, southwest corner. One of the last Mayan structures built before the conquest and the best preserved at Tulum. This is the building with the seven-fingered red handprints I so lamented not having photographed last time. But you’ve seen those.

I’d love to know who this mask depicts—Itzamna? Don’t have the research at hand, unfortunately.

East face of the Castillo, the large central pyramid, the side that faces the cliffs. The architectural style at Tulum is unique…of course that’s true of every Maya site, and Tulum benefited from trade with both the Mexica (the Aztecs) and the Toltec-influenced Maya of Chíchen Itzá…but the skewed lines of the temples here are different from either. There are no right angles anywhere, hardly even any straight lines. It’s like something out of…Dr. Seuss, crossed with Lovecraft. It’s awesome. The first time I was here I didn’t appreciate it—after the mathematical, acoustical perfection of the Castillo at Chíchen Itzá, it seemed sloppy, a sign of a civilization in decline. This time, after gawking at those beautiful masks for awhile, then at the Templo del Dios Descendente,
I realized it could be something else: a sign of a civilization passing its peak, developing into decadence, developing a higher (wierder) aesthetics. This curve…it echoes the sea, obviously. All of Tulum is about the sea, really: the location atop the cliffs like a lighthouse, the protected beach below, the temples to the morning star. The sea was their livelihood, their garden, their connection to the outside world.

The curve of the Castillo wall distills that to one calligraphic gesture, a sweep of a brush.

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Bitten Sun

March 16th, 2007

“The word for eclipse in Maya is chi-bal-kin, literally ‘bitten sun’, and it was the ancient belief, which persisted until fairly recent times, that at the time of an eclipse the sun was bitten by a serpent.”
City of the Sacred Well

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Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 4: Red Handprints

December 18th, 2006

At the Mayan ruins of Tulum, on the southeastern coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, my camera battery died. Not in the sense that I had failed to charge it, but in the sense that it had outlived its usefulness; having lasted me some 3 years, it had lost the capacity to hold a decent charge. I managed to get one picture out of the sucker before it went dead…which ought to give at least some indication of how amazing a place Tulum is.

This building is called the observatory; you’ll note the three small offeratory shrines at its northwestern corner bear a strong resemblance to the water god shrine I found on the beach about 30 miles to the north.

Tulum was constructed in the middle postclassic period, around 1100 AD. The Mayan cities of the southern Yucatan had collapsed, and the Toltec invasion had radically altered even the most remote remnants of the Maya culture. All the buildings are oddly skewed in their symmetry and proportion, as though they belong in something by Dr. Seuss. The idea one is inclined to infer about its builders is of a ruling elite, no longer driven by the enlightened goals of the high classic, but rather by a desperate desire to maintain the high standard of living to which they had become accustomed, without the advanced knowledge of astronomy and engineering that standard of living had originally required.

Testament to this, perhaps, are the red handprints that adorn Tulum’s best-preserved structure, the Temple of the Frescoes:

(not my photo–I got this from some dude’s Tulum collection on fotoslibres.com)

The red handprints are a recurrent phenomenon in Mayan architecture, to be found in ruins all over Central America. John Lloyd Stephens mentions them several times in Incidents of Travel, noting the shiver of connection they convey, the inevitable parallel drawn between the temple’s ancient builders and the living human being standing before it. I indulged in a sense of temporal vertigo, and with sudden, giddy credulity, allowed myself to suspend disbelief long enough to accept those markings at face value: as physical proofs of a divine intervention in this city’s construction. These were the handprints of a god, taking physical form to bestow his blessing and approval on the faithful. For a minute, standing there in the sun and the seabreeze, surrounded by sweating tourists and indifferent lizards, I bought into the myth wholesale.

Giving up the crutch of the camera had a lot to do with this, I think. As we had passed beneath Tulum’s encircling wall, Erin had offered me a sarcastic consolation. She said something like, “you’ll just have to remember it, instead of taking pictures.” I took that to heart. I flung myself into my senses and didn’t come out. If there was ever a moment when I was in danger of being sucked back nine hundred years, immersing myself in the experience of the Maya culture as it had once been, it was when I stood in front of those red handprints.

Look at the picture again. You’ll note the left hand appears to have seven digits. The guide claimed this was a characteristic of the grandfather god, Itzamna–along with the supernatural height that would have been required to place the prints where they were. But she offered a more mundane explanation. The ruling class among the Maya, like those of feudal Europe, valued bloodlines too highly to allow intermingling with common stock. They also valued, even revered, certain deformities. I’d seen art depicting midgets carried atop people’s shoulders like household gods. Why shouldn’t polydactyls have been equally exalted? Especially, argued the guide, since the mummified corpse of the great king Pacal, the architect and ruler of the Guatemalan city of Palenque, was discovered to have seven fingers?

When I got out of the sun and came back to my senses I looked into this. Actually now that I think about it, I don’t think I can claim to have come to my senses, or else I wouldn’t have looked into it nearly so deeply.

It turns out that according to the most recent reexaminations of the mummified corpse of Pacal, he didn’t actually have seven fingers after all. Put the word “polydactyly” into Google and you get all kinds of freakish pictures, none of which bear any similarity to the remarkably uniform and well-proportioned shape of the seven-fingered hand imprinted on the Temple of the Frescoes. Recently I went to the Body Worlds 2 exhibit at the Museum of Science–which I found, as I expected from the hype, to be on average one part disturbing, one part educational and one part egomaniacal. But they happened to have on display the plasticized corpse of a six-fingered man. (You killed my father. Prepare to die.) I examined the superfluous digit in detail, using my own hands and the others on display as comparison. And keeping in mind the extensive results of the Google search, the conclusion I drew was that even in the most innocuous cases of polydactyly, the extra finger is drastically reduced in size and functionality, even more so than a pinky. It tends to curve inward, huddling against the fifth finger like a scrawny little brother. In the specimen I examined, the sixth finger appeared to possess almost nothing in the way of independent musculature.

What I’m saying is there’s no way a real polydact produced the red handprints.

So maybe what we have is proof that the priest-ruler-architects of Tulum were not believers, but corrupt oligarchs deliberately pulling the strings of their congregation’s faith in order to keep themselves well-supplied with jade and mead and brightly-colored dye and willing volunteers for sacrifice. Certainly the recently laid bare failings of our own dominant religion lend credence to this view. But they also make it seem too easy a conclusion. If Apocalypto accomplished nothing else, it made clear the tendency of popular thought to read our own percieved shortcomings into the past. To turn history into parable.

I’d like to keep an open mind on the whole subject, if I could.

But look, there are only two possibilities. Either somebody faked the sixth and seventh fingers on the hand, perhaps simply by making a half-print followed by a whole one, or Itzamna really did descend from on high to bestow his blessing on his holy chosen. With the practical effect of dooming them to imminent enslavement and collapse. Unless, you know, he liked his worshippers so much that came down to retrieve them, and only left the handprints behind as proof that he’d allowed them to ascend.

Had it not been for the death of my camera battery, I suppose I might have been more inclined to take the rational view.

After floating out into the salty sea and seeing Tulum from the perspective of the Spaniards approaching through the gap in the reef, I walked barefoot through the ruins, over sharp limestone gravel, dodging thorn creepers and thumping big lizards, to the gateway in the ruins’ western wall. As usual, the bus was leaving, and I didn’t want to be on it. Erin left me behind with a frustrated humph, but she was the one who’d made me see the camera’s death as an opportunity. It was only five minutes I spent standing alone, looking back on the ruins, burning their shape into my memory, opening my senses to the salt wind and the heat–but I undertook it as a spiritual experience. An unmediated memory, which for the rest of my life I’ll be able to hold up against fiction and film and blanket advertising and say, “has any of it ever been as good as that?”.

A pelican approached from the direction of the Observatory. It circled the Castillo on motionless wings, perhaps contemplating the wisdom of picking a fight with an iguana. Then it sailed down over the cliffs out of sight. A little pod of tourists shuffled past me through the gate. After another moment I followed. And I felt… I don’t know. Connected.

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Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 3: Jungle

November 3rd, 2006

Something else just occurred to me that must have contributed to the sense of awe I got out of the natural settings of the Yucatan.

The distinction between ‘old growth’ and ‘new growth’ that exists elsewhere in the Americas–that phenomenon which causes nature lovers of the pacific coast to scorn us easterners and our baby forests where none of the trees are any more than seventy years old–is completely inapplicable in the Yucatan. The soil here is so porous and so thin that the only time you ever see a tree older than fifty or sixty years is when it was cultivated to grow that way.

I had been, until I arrived in the Yucatan, perhaps mildly unclear on the distinction between rainforest and jungle. Rainforests are old-growth. When you come in with the gas-powered buzzsaws and cut down the glorious mahogany to make tables for the wealthy imperialist, that shit doesn’t just grow back. The trees are hundreds of feet high, and the canopy so thick it blocks out most of the light and limits the types and the density of undergrowth capable of surviving beneath it. I’ve hiked in a rainforest before in Hawaii, and while bushwhacking one’s way around might not be the wisest idea, it could certainly be done.

A jungle is nothing but undergrowth. The trees don’t grow taller than 25 feet. I considered a few times, while traveling in Yucatan, the possibility of exploring some of the jungle on my own, the way I would in a woods in New England. Considered it for about twenty seconds, from the safety of a nice, cleared path, before giving the notion up as insane. Foot travel in a trackless jungle is well nigh impossible. Cutting a path through jungle with a machete would be like snipping a path through a cornfield with a pair of swiss-army scissors. Nobody cuts down a jungle, except to make space for farming, or maybe to construct a shamanic temple, or to clear off one that was already there so you can invite white people to it and swindle them. And when you do cut it down, you better not look away for twenty years or it’ll all grow back just the way it was.

The result of all this is that when you are walking around in the jungles of the Yucatan, they look exactly the same as they did a thousand years ago.

Except for, you know, the occasional corrugated metal cerveza shack.

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Kukul Can

October 29th, 2006

Some carved images of the serpent god from Chichén Itzá

Tomb of the High Priest

Ballcourt railing

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Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 2: Chichén Itzá

October 26th, 2006

Chichén Itzá, roughly translated: City of the Water Witches.

I spent most of the two and a half hour ride from Playa del Carmen to Chichén Itzá reading the Popol Vuh—one of the few surviving written works describing the beliefs of the Maya ancients. The dense, oppressive heat of a Yucatan midday engulfed me as I stepped off the bus. Eduardo, the short, stocky Maya descendant who was leading my tour, grinned and asked if I was excited.

I was positively jittery.

I told him about my efforts to comprehend the customs and the idiom of a culture so removed from mine. He rolled his eyes with an wry expression that said “I’ve got one of those gringoes, have I?” But he sympathized. He told me he’d read it, as well as the Chilam Balam, the Book of the Jaguar Priest—but that they had been difficult to get through, and harder still to understand.

I was damn impressed with Eduardo. He told me later on that he was planning a five-day climbing excursion in the mountains of Tabasco, the habitat of the quetzal bird, which the Maya hold sacred. He was not only a scholar and an archaeologist, but an explorer. A giant insatiable sponge of obscure knowledge and profound experience after my own heart.

We were at Chichén Itzá for a total of three hours. I could have spent three days there–more. The ruins are immense. It took me a good 15 minutes, at the fastest pace I could muster in the heat, to make it from the Sacred Cenote, where they threw in the virgins to drown, past the Ballcourt, where they played the Game, and the Castillo, where the priests of Sovereign Feathered Serpent would greet the equinoctial dawn, to make it back to the tour bus before they left without me. All right, so the Court of the Thousand Columns doesn’t actually have a thousand columns. But there are 64 stone stelae arranged outside the Temple of the Warriors, each one inscribed with the life-sized reliefs of four feather-crowned, jaguar-hooded, spear-toting, snake-spitting warriors. I could have spent a day just working my way among them.

The acoustics of the place alone are mind-blowing. Stand before the steps of the Temple of Kukul Can. Look upon the hollow-eyed, decayed face of the bird-serpent god of the Maya, staring down upon you from above the temple door. Clap your hands three times, and from the stony heights, engineered by ancient human minds and hands, will ring back the call of a bird–a bird I can turn and walk a hundred yards to the edge of the jungle and meet in the flesh, and hear its living call.

Don’t believe me? I didn’t either, the first time someone told me. I didn’t believe it even when I read it in the books. But then I stood there, on the worn spot in the grass, in the ninety-degree heat and the ninety percent humidity, sweat rolling down my temples, and I tried it myself. And I realized I was staring at an amplifier, a PA system and a fucking vox distortion pedal made of nothing but limestone, mathematics, and the sweat off the backs of the faithful. A servant of the serpent god could stand atop the pyramid, speak without shouting, and a member of his congregation, listening from a quarter mile away, would hear the voice of Kukul Can as though the god were standing beside him.

In the Ballcourt, one could send the rubber sphere rocketing against a relief-covered wall and hear it echo back like a gunshot across a canyon–multiplied not once, but ten times.

Eduardo kept talking about the energy of the place–all the people who had lived and died, and the residue they left behind. He told us that once, he’d spent the night here–here, between the goal-rings of the Ballcourt, where the captains of the winning teams were ritually slain. He said it was something he would never attempt again.

Later on, when the tour was over, he told me there had once been a native woman on a tour he’d given, a shaman of a North American tribe, who at the foot of the Tomb of the High Priest had fallen on her knees and burst out sobbing. He started towards to ask what was wrong, to try to console her–but another woman caught his arm and stopped him. “Let her be,” the woman said. “This is a breakthrough for her. It’s something she needs to do.” He asked why. “She was sacrificed here, in a past life.”

Of course, from one perspective these are just the same kind of boogety-boogety stories you hear from the whacked-out credulous all the time. Anybody can spend the night in an abandoned house and work themselves up into a white-eyed terror if they really want. If that’s their idea of a good time. So why am I even bothering to record such things? Well, first, it has to do with the person telling them, and the way they’re told. Eduardo preambled this stuff with a few choice disparaging remarks about the demented conspiracy theorist conflations of the Maya with extraterrestrials. He also pointed out that the modern Maya are superstitious people—himself included. What he didn’t have to explain to me is that he is an educated guy, a person capable of being objective about these things—a guy who comes here every day with a crowd full of sweaty, glassy-eyed white people asking stupid questions. The fact that he manages to retain any kind of romanticism or sense of mystery about this place is more than enough for me.

The other side of it is that even though I am utterly un-superstitious and skeptical by nature, working myself up into a white-eyed, mystical-religious rapture over ancient things of wonder and beauty just happens to be exactly my idea of a good time. I consider it an act of knowing self-deception—an effort to entertain myself with a bit of magic realist fiction on a personal scale. Much as it would chagrin certain new-agey allies of mine to hear me admit it.

At one point Eduardo noticed me making note of a couple of books he’d mentioned. I explained I was a writer, researching the Maya for something I was working on. Which was true, more or less. At least it sounded more legit than, “I’m just another Maya geek who happens to have better research skills than the rest of these schmoes.”

“You know what you should really read, if you’re interested in this kind of thing,” Eduardo said. “Are you familiar with the writer Carlos Castaneda?”

Bwa ha.

There are pages and pages more I could say about my experience of those three hours at Chichén Itzá: my encounters with the native hagglers, human sacrifice, the sacred well, Chac Mool, the astronomers, the social order of the ancients, religion, and on and on. But this entry’s getting on in word count as it is. Hopefully I’ll cover some of that stuff with the pictures over in the Visions section, and the rest in the course of future posts.

Still to come: The modern Maya. Tulum. The red handprints. Probably some random anecdotes in between. And to wrap it all up, the bibliography.

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A Keyhole in the Earth

October 25th, 2006

A minor feature at Chichén Itzá, located maybe twenty feet from the southwest corner of the Observatory complex. Not included in the tour. My best guess? More practical than fantastical, I’m afraid: I think it was a well, a convenience for the astronomer-priests, too busy figuring out how many times Venus would be occluded by the moon in the next fifty-two years to consider a break for a beverage. No surprise the well filled up with debris in eight hundred years, and no surprise, what with all the other wonders just lying around in the jungle still uncovered, that something so mundane remains unexcavated.

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Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 1: First Impressions

October 23rd, 2006

My first impression of the Yucatan as it came into sight from the plane window was of a vast, featureless expanse of jungle. I sat on the left side of the plane, looking south, and as a result didn’t catch a glimpse of the city of Cancún until the return flight. As we descended, the only indications of human presence were the long, straight swaths of power lines, and a few dirt roads and scattered clearings positively dwarfed by the endless forest receding westward into blue obscurity.

The Yucatan Peninsula comprises three Mexican states: Quintana Roo, which includes the eastern coast, and where I spent most of my time; Yucatan, in the northwest, which I entered only briefly, and Campeche in the southwest, which I did not have the opportunity to visit. Geologically, the peninsula is composed of an utterly flat slab of limestone, which until the most recent ice age lay at the bottom of the sea. I saw evidence of this almost everywhere, in the form of marine fossils embedded in the bedrock. Effects of this geology include thin, rocky topsoil which is very discouraging to modern farming technologies, as well as all kinds of fascinating geological figures such as caverns, underground rivers and cenotes (which I will get back to eventually, though likely in a later post).

Accorting to our Chichén Itzá tour guide (Eduardo, a Maya descendant born in Márida), in 1970 the population of Cancún was something like 180. Now it is 200,000. As late as 1995, the 60-mile stretch of coastline south of Cancun known as the Riviera Maya, which is now wall-to-wall with all-inclusive resorts, was uninhabited, save by a very few natives, subsistence farmers living in the jungle the same way they had for a thousand years.

On the hour-and-a-half ride to our hotel from the airport along México 307, we passed long stretches of thick jungle and mangrove swamp, punctuated by the towering, monumental gates of resort hotels and condo communties. Overhead, buzzards circled. The handful of billboards we saw were in English. Once in a while, we’d glimpse a cluster of ramshackle brown huts roofed in thatch-palm, or a block of hastily-constructed concrete tenements. The vast majority of Quintana Roo’s current population is employed exclusively by the tourism industry. They make an effort to conceal the class discrepancy–the resorts are all well-fortified, cordoned off from the outside world. But when you do catch a glimpse of the way most people live–as I did when I borrowed a bike from the hotel and made my way past the first couple of tourist-flooded oceanfront blocks into the city of Playa del Carmen–the difference is astonishing.

Our first act upon arriving at the hotel was to recline in the air-conditioned foyer, sipping at champagne and dabbing at our faces with cool towels moistened with rosewater. Which where presented to us on a silver platter by a brown-skinned gentleman in a black three-piece suit. That’s right: we had been there five minutes, and already we were settling into the stereotypical roles of rich white gringo classist oppression. Which, I might add, was exactly what I had been afraid of ever since I learned the meaning of the phrase “all-inclusive resort”. But dammit, they made it so easy! The whole time I spent there, nobody did anything without first asking my permission, then thanking me after I gave it. Somehow every time I tried to turn down some offered luxury it felt as though I were making a personal slight against the person offering it. Likewise whenever my poor knowledge of the protocols of highbrow culture caused a hitch in the smoothness of their delivery–faux pas such as getting caught in the bathroom when the maid arrived for turndown service, eating the first course with the incorrect fork, and attempting to set up my own cabana without the aid of beach security.

Not that I’m complaining. There was, after all, an endless supply of mohitos. Frickin dee-licious mohitos.

Everybody was just so darned nice. Freaked me out a little bit is all.

Still to come: Chichen Itza. The modern Maya. Tulum. The red handprints. Probably some random anecdotes in between. And to wrap it all up, the bibliography.

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Sea God Shrine

October 22nd, 2006

Maya Shrine, Postclassic Era. Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, México

Perhaps the coolest of the many, many mindblowingly cool things I photographed during my trip to the Yucatan peninsula. I found this shrine at the edge of the jungle overlooking the beach a little over a mile south of my hotel. The jaunty hat it appears to be wearing is a cactus. And yes, leaning against the entrance is the barnacle-encrusted, sea-worn glass cathode of a 1970s-era television.

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