Wednesday, July 22, 2009


CHACCHOBEN, Mexico – It’s only March, but the air is still and thick, water vapor visible between the spinach-colored foliage. We immediately break into a sweat, made worse whenever we guzzle the cold water we carry.

Our immediate surroundings are essentially jungle here on the Caribbean side of Mexico that tour guides like to call the “Mayan Coast.” Indeed, we had docked at a brand new town called Costa Maya, which had been hacked out of the jungle just to give ships a place to anchor.

And speaking of hacking, archeologists are still peeling the jungle away from the dozens of structures strewn around Chacchoben, which was originally rediscovered and reported to the Mexican government in 1972. Completely consumed by jungle, Chacchoben became the site of intense restoration beginning in 1994 and many ruins remain only high spots in the jungle-covered terrain.

Unlike Tulum, which has been fully restored and is popular among tourists, Chacchoben is and feels more rustic and unexploited. There are perhaps 50 people at the site with us, and within minute we are essentially alone walking among 2000-year-old pyramids and other structures in various states of restoration.

The word “chacchoben” is Mayan for “place of red corn,” and there’s an inhabited village of that name about seven miles away from the site. Originally many of the structures on the site were painted red, but today only small splotches of the original red covering can be found.

We rest from time to time as we wander the grounds, inevitably spying mounds and humps that represent ruins yet to be restored, another stark contrast from Tulum and other Mayan sites. We spend a few hours at the site, at several points catching up with our guide, other times, wandering off alone to view the ruins in solitude, making it easier to appreciate the genius and commitment it took these people to build such structures with only human muscle, a knowledge of mathematics and architecture, and a deep faith (the latter so fierce that it sometimes moved its adherents to human sacrifice).

Our largely American tour group – the type of tourist not necessarily known for subtlety and appreciation of native cultures – was quiet and respectful, using only muted tones muffled further by the jungle flora and heavy air. There were temple pyramids for worship, community housing buildings and burial grounds throughout the site. We were allowed to walk to the top of several pyramids, through I’ve read that damage to the sites has required the government to restrict that activity since our visit.

The trinket shops back at the water’s edge are a minor distraction, easier to accept when you consider that the alternative for these folks is a subsistence living that may sound romantic but is, in reality, a grim existence. The opening of Costa Maya has brought tourism dollars to this remote section of the Mayan Coast, a welcome influx.

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