Mexican Mythology: Sacred Trees

In various places all over the city, you can find these huge ceiba trees, gigantic sacred trees that for the Mayan people represent the connection between the heavens and the underworld. They are 20 to 40 meters high (65 to 130 ft) and their canopy is up to 50 meters (9’10”) wide. Somewhere I read that their roots can be the size of a fully grown man. (Well, you know that in general Mexican men are not too tall…) Thanks to the formation of the branches that allows for the wind to pass right through them, these trees are resistant to hurricanes.

Up to this day people honour the ceibas and instead of felling them they rather build around them. Especially in a country that cares so little about the environment, this is something really beautiful, don’t you think?P1050693

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Mexican Mythology: Aluxes and the Cancun Airport Bridge

Those year end statistics that WP kindly provided held a surprise for me: Whereas my German blog got the most hits by people looking for “nudity” (yes, Germans are kinky – and imagine their disappointed faces when instead of some juicy video clips they get to my little blog!), English readers apparently are most interested in Mexican mythology. In fact, most hits I got by people looking for stories on duendes and aluxes, those little fellows in Mexican mythology that I already talked about in a previous post.

Cancun Airport BridgeI, too, love all things mystical, and that’s why it always gives me a little kick when we drive to Cancun: Before you enter Cancun, you pass a bridge that leads to the airport, and underneath this bridge there is a little stone building like a miniature temple. For a long time I didn’t know what this was all about. Clearly, it is too small to fulfill any purpose such as holding tools or I don’t know what – even for not so tall Mexicans. So I decided it must be for decoration purposes only. I found out I was wrong when finally, a colleague of my husband’s shed some light on the dark: It’s a home for aluxes (pronounced alooshes), those small fellows dressed in Mayan costumes who can make themselves visible if it serves their purpose. Some may remember that aluxes often ask people, mostly travellers and farmers, for offerings. Grant their wishes, and they will bring you good luck, but in case you don’t oblige they can cause pretty severe damage. The latter happened in this case.

You see, when they started to build the bridge leading to the airport, the construction workers received a warning by a Mayan leader that they had to ask the aluxes’ permission first as they were about to build on land that belongs to these little fellows. Of course, nobody believed him but sure enough, the bridge collapsed soon after being built. Still, nobody took the warning seriously but after rebuilding the bridge, it collapsed again although even the smartest engineers couldn’t find anything wrong with its construction.

That’s when it was decided that the Mayan gentleman should take up negotiations with the aluxes. The price claimed by the aluxes was a little house for them under the bridge (I still wonder why they didn’t pick a more idyllic spot…), and believe it or not, after the house had been built the bridge collapsed no more.

So if you ever pass this bridge, I suggest you give them a friendly wave. Do not call them by their name, though, as this is supposed to provoke them – or at least have some food handy then. I would hate for your car to break down just because you insulted a little alux!

Hidden in the jungle: Coba

Can you feel it? Christmas is around the corner! Not that in this part of the world anything would indicate it except for the very persistent Christmas items in all the stores. And it is surprising they are still available, after all, I spotted the first stands of wrapping paper and dancing santas already in July.

That’s as Christmassy as it gets: Christmas Tree in Cancun.

Last year, my parents came for Christmas which is why at the moment I am thinking a lot about all the fun stuff we did together. And I realized that I never wrote that post about Coba that I actually promised in August!

Every tourist visits Tulum at some point, but not everybody makes it all the way to Coba. But if you have one full day and are in the mood to discover some ancient Mayan history, you can easily set off for Tulum in the morning and then go to Coba from there. From Playa del Carmen you drive about an hour to the south to get to Tulum. It takes most people about an hour, maybe an hour and a half to explore the ruins, afterwards there is plenty of time to drive another hour northwest to Coba. And even the drive is worthwhile: You pass through tiny Mexican villages and finally get to Coba that is set amongst two lagoons, so you can catch a glimpse over the water before entering the parking lot.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, if you think (like I did) that seeing one Maya site covers them all more or less, you are wrong. They are all very different and unique, and while I love Tulum for its picturesque setting by the sea, I still prefer Coba due to its almost mystical flair.

Coba is a lot older than Tulum, it is said to have been founded between 100 BC and 100 AD. It very quickly became the most important and powerful trade hub in Yucatan with more than 50,000 inhabitants. I read that Coba had strong connections with Guatemala and the south states of Campeche and established not only military alliances with those states, but also arranged marriages. I always wonder how people back then travelled that far. By the time the bride arrived, she must have grown a lot older!

Around 750 AD, Chichen Itza emerged and altered Coba’s importance. In fact, those 2 cities got into a power struggle resulting in Coba losing its position as political leader, but maintaining its religious importance. But although Coba lost its leading role to cities closer to the coastline, it only got abandoned around 1550 when the Spanish conquered Yucatan.

Taxi Bikes in Coba.

By now, I have been to Coba a few times, but I vividly remember the first time: It was magical! Unlike Tulum, Coba is not such a popular tourist attraction and I was relieved to see that we didn’t have to pass a plaza of souvenir shops and restaurants to get to the site. Instead, you enter through a large gate and find yourself amidst the jungle. If you don’t like to walk, you can either rent a bike for USD 3 per hour, but there are also rickshaws waiting behind the entrance which is great for people who are in whatever way handicapped (they cost USD 10 per hour).Or lazy. My vicious me couldn’t help but notice how bizarre it looks to see young, slim, and mostly short guys transporting big and often just sluggish tourists through the woods… Could there be any better motivation to get your butt off the couch than seeing a muscular sweaty back in front of you while you are doing nothing but having your heavy body carried around? Sorry, got sidetracked…

Coba gets a lot less visitors than Tulum, but even if you might feel that there are still quite a few tourists with you when you enter the site, after a few yards everyone spreads out, and it is getting really quiet around you. The first ruin that you encounter is the iglesia, the church. The name is due to a little statue that people once interpreted as a statue or virgin Mary. Unfortunately, this statue got destroyed during a hurricane, yet the name remains.

Right behind the church is the ballcourt where they used to play pelota – the Maya version of soccer.

The ball court.

Afterwards you follow the little pathway towards the big Nohoch Mul pyramid that is actually the tallest pyramid on the whole Yucatan peninsula. You can climb up the 120 steps that are rather steep (bring hiking boots!) and enjoy the view over the treetops. But although the pyramid is very impressive, my favourite part is getting there: You wander amongst the high trees and lucious bushes – and all of a sudden you stumble upon a majestic ruin! It always makes me realize how enthralling it must have been for archeologists to detect those ancient buildings! And still, there is a lot to discover, a lot that lies hidden in the jungle. You really have to look left and right in order not to miss a ruin, it feels like being an explorer!

The big pyramid.

And like a real explorer, you shouldn’t forget to bring mosquito repellent, water and good hiking shoes (if you want to climb the pyramid). Now that I come to think of it… It’s time we get some more visitors, I am really in the mood for another trip to Coba now!

A building from the paintings complex.

Mexican Mythology: Duendes and Aluxes

Mexico is a country full of old myths and tales, and although more than 80% of the people are Catholics, most of them seem to believe in the supernatural. I find it fascinating and comforting to see how old Mayan believes live on, and how some traditions are being passed on from generation to generation.

Recently, somebody told me about duendes, little elves in the Latin American mythology similar to leprechauns or Scandinavian trolls. Duendes are about 20 inches (50 cm) tall and run around naked. Both male and female duendes have very long hair, and the males also grow long beards. They live in large clans in the jungle and feed mostly on fruits like figs.

English: Shoe, supposedly from a duende, at th...

English: Shoe, supposedly from a duende, at the Museo de los Duendes in Huasca de Ocampo, Hidalgo, Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only few grown-ups can see them – unless duendes get drunk, then they seem to lose all caution. If you catch a duende in that moment, you can keep him and have him do all kinds of chores for you. However, you have to treat him nicely and always offer him the first bite of your food in that you throw it over your shoulder. If you don’t, the duende will get angry and spoil your food. In former times, people used to have a much closer relationship with duendes and offer them food and licquor. Nowadays, with the destruction of large parts of the jungle, duendes have retreated farther away from the people.

A small relief figure on a Classic Period Maya...

A small relief figure on a Classic Period Maya Civilization olla (water) jar in Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, Belize. The figure lacks thumbs and was described by a tour guide as a mythological Duende, though this is hyperbole due to the probable Spanish origin for the Duende myth in the Americas; this figure dates to at least 800 years before the conquest and may depict a monkey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, we merely sense them in the wind, sometimes we catch an unfamiliar smell or hear them whispering. But since duende language is different from ours, we cannot understand what they are saying. That doesn’t seem to bother the little children, though, to whom they are visible. Being a little mischievous and childlike, duendes enjoy playing with them. Our housekeeper A. who is always my most reliable source for all questions on Mexican everyday life, told me that her little daughter used to chat with them a lot until A. told her to stop. Apparently, children can easily become enchanted by duendes and follow them into the woods. The duendes don’t harm them, they just play with them for a while and finally let them return to their homes, but which mother fancies a supernatural playdate that might go on for days?

A.’s sister had an encounter with duendes on her wedding day: The morning they were to be married, all their papers had gone missing. Both, bride and groom, asked everybody, but nobody had seen the papers. Desperate, A.’s sister went up to her bedroom to cry and noticed a very unusual smell of mango although there was no mango tree near the house. It dawned on her, that some cheeky duende might have played a trick on her, and she started to search the bedroom. And there under the mattress were all the papers they needed to get married!

And then my student A. told me that her uncle once met a duende on his way back home from work. He was riding his bicycle through a forest, and there was this little guy standing on the side of the road, holding bunches of fish in both hands. He asked A.’s uncle whether he could mount the bike and ride with him for a while, and the uncle being a little scared said yes. The little duende was sitting behind him, clutching hard on his shoulders, but after a while he just disappeared. Some might say that a little too much tequila after a long day at work might have easily taken the shape of a duende that evening, but A.’s uncle still insists on this incident to be true. However, I am not sure whether that wasn’t rather an alux.

This is what a female alux would be wearing.

Very often, people get confused with duendes and aluxes, a Mayan spirit. Aluxes look like miniature maya people wearing the same kind of costume but are only knee high. Aluxes are visible but can take any shape and form if it serves their purpose. It is said that aluxes often stop farmers or travellers and ask for an offering. If you don’t oblige, the alux will spread illness and wreak havoc, but if you do, they will bring you good luck and protect you from any harm.

So in case one of those little guys stops you during your next trip around Mexico, you better be nice!

Ruins, Beach, Iguanas – Tulum has it all!

Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages of living in a touristy area. One of the big advantages is, that there is plenty of fun stuff to do when you have visitors.

The first sight I like to show are the ruins. In my opinion, they are spectacular. Some may find it boring to look at old stone monuments, but for me the magic lies in picturing what life was like back then. It is like taking a trip to another time.

Entrance to the ruins through the town wall.

Close to Playa del Carmen, about 45 minutes south by car, is Tulum. Not only is it a quite picturesque Caribbean village (on a sunny day, don’t go when it’s raining!), but the archaeological site is one of my favourites. By now, I have been to Tulum so many times, if it wasn’t too far a commute, I’d consider working there. I would like to walk around with an umbrella, gathering my little tourist sheep, taking pictures of families posing with iguanas…

In comparison to other Maya sites, Tulum is rather small, but what makes it unique is its setting. I am sure that is the reason why the Mayans decided to settle down there. After all, location is everything, isn’t it? Keeps the real estate prices up. Tulum is located right above the sea, so even on a very hot day (and we have those right now), there is always a very pleasant breeze that dries off your pearls (or in my case: rivers) of sweat. Always good for pictures! Although the Mayans didn’t know that back then, but still: Thank you!

Tulum is one of the younger Mayan pueblos. The Maya civilization had already begun its decline by A.D. 900. However, Tulum rose in the 13th century and became an important trade hub due to its location by the sea. I love to picture the Mayan people arriving in their boats down below and then climbing up the steep cliffs – they must have been tough little monkeys, I wouldn’t want to do that in the heat! (…hmm… maybe not even if it was cooler…) The site is surrounded by a big wall (Tulum means “wall” in Mayan language). I read that people used to live on the outside and used the inside for festivities and religious rituals – supposedly some pretty bloody ones, I am just so glad I live NOW…

Templo del Dios de los Vientos

When the Spanish arrived in the late 16th century, Tulum was still a flourishing town in contrast to other Maya towns. And even after the arrival of the not so friendly Spains, Tulum remained a place for Mayan rituals up to the 20th century which I find a very intriguing thought. There are some beautiful temples to see, my favourite one is the Templo del Dios de los Vientos – the temple of the God of the winds. When you stand up there, you feel like you are on top of the word, below the turquoise water and the white beach, above the blue skies – no wonder that the iguanas like to hang out there!

Another beautiful one is the Templo de los Frescos with its well maintained murals.

Templo de los Frescos

Tulum is an ideal excursion for families because you don’t need forever to get around. Don’t get scared when you arrive: It is terribly touristy, people try to sell you all kinds of stuff that nobody needs, but that is just the entrance area. From there, you can either take a little train towards the ruins which might be fun for children or you can just walk, it basically only takes 5 minutes. The walk around the ruins might take you up to an hour, but if you bring your bathing suit, you can walk down the stairs to the beautiful beach and go for a swim to cool off.

Traditional Mayan costume.

During high season around Christmas, Tulum gets rather crowded and loses all its magic. However, if you go on a Sunday afternoon, you might be lucky and avoid millions of visitors. The entrance closes at 5pm, so if you get there at 3 / 3:30 pm, most people are gone already. Unless, of course, you like tourist watching. I am always amazed to see that all tourists pick the same spots for pictures and do the same silly things! Like all pulling a crazy face or jumping up in the air. It’s a miracle to me – the Tulum miracle.

If you still can’t get enough of ruins, you can easily combine a trip to Tulum with a trip to Coba, another Maya site located in the jungle which is a beautiful contrast to the beach setting. The drive from Tulum to Coba only takes about an hour, but we will talk about Coba another time!