COZUMEL – The Mayans came from outer space. Or the Mayans were visited by aliens who shared extraterrestrial intelligence to create an advanced civilization on earth.
“Some people believe that,” says guide Alex Cab. “But neither one of those things is true.”
Nor is it true that Mayans no longer exist.
“I’m a Mayan,” Alex says. “You can’t say that the Mayans are all dead because I’m still here. I am of mixed blood but I am a Mayan. It is the Mayan culture, civilization and knowledge that has disappeared. That is gone.”
Part of the pleasure of a cruise is the many shore excursions that can be taken when a ship is in port. When our Disney Magic docked in Cozumel, we had a choice of 35 organized trips, plus the option of walking off the ship and visiting Cozumel on our own.
Some of the choices included golf, scuba, horseback riding, catamaran sailing, submarine expeditions, dune buggies, kayaking, dolphin discovery, snorkeling, Jade Caverns, ATV rides, segway, stingray encounters and beach time.
And our stop in Cozumel was only from 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Whew!
My sister Elaine, grandson Logan and I picked the San Gervasio Mayan Ruins & Discover Mexico Cultural Park tour at $59. I’ve visited the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum and enjoy hearing about the mysterious civilization. My daughter Kelly decided to stay on the ship with its beautiful pools, spa and activities.
Our tour would start with San Gervasio, then travel to the Discover Mexico Cultural Park where we would visit the museum, stroll through the park with its replica ruins and have a Mexican lunch. Children in our cruise group would try their hand at breaking a piñata and we all would marvel at a traditional Mexican pole dance where the costumed male dancers launch themselves tied with ropes backwards from a tall pole and dangle upside down until they finally reach the ground.
But it was the Mayan ruins that most intrigued me and they were well worth the trip.
To begin our four-hour tour, we walked from the Magic and met our guide Alex who took us to a comfortable air-conditioned shuttle bus. The 35-minute ride to San Gervasio is a good way to get an overview of Cozumel with Alex giving entertaining and informative commentary.
“I think one of the reasons I liked the Mayan tour so much was because of Alex,” Logan told me afterwards. “He gave us a good understanding of how they lived. Because he was a Mayan descendant, he gave us some interesting insight.”
The largest inhabited island in Mexico – located 11 miles from the mainland – Cozumel is about 32 miles long and 9 miles wide. The island’s only city, San Miguel, has a population of about 95,000. Only a small percentage of Cozumel is developed. The rest is teeming with all kinds of exotic creatures, including brightly colored tropical birds and fish.
“Tourism is our only industry,” Alex says. “During our high season, which is now, we get about 25 to 28 cruise ships per week.”
A couple tourists on our ruins tour were wearing flip flops. Not a good idea. The ruins area is sandy with black, fine sand that gets your feet filthy. That explains a sign I saw by a water spigot at the ruins’ entrance. “Por favor lave sus pies acqui, no en los banos,” it read. (Please wash your feet here, not in the bathroom.)
The ruins also have small lizards and large iguanas skittering around which is another good reason to wear shoes. “Can you eat them?” a small boy asks. “Sure,” Alex answers, “They taste like chicken.”
As I said, Alex is entertaining.
The island of Cozumel was considered sacred by the Mayans who lived here for hundreds of years, starting in 300 A.D. “We aren’t sure where the Mayans came from, why they settled here or why they left,” Alex says. “But we do have some good theories.”
One of the most accepted theories is that the Mayans came from Mongolia, north of China.
“Some of our features are the same as the Mongolians. We have no facial hair. Since we have mixed blood with the Spanish, we do have some facial hair now,” Alex says. “We are born with a blue green birthmark at the base of our spine. The birthmark disappears at about age 8, 9 or 10. The Mongolians have it, too.”
Surrounded by a forest, San Gervasio was the island’s capital and Mayan ceremonial center. “The Mayans believed in many gods and goddesses. They worshipped natural forces,” Alex says. “The temples here were where they worshiped Ixchel, the goddess of the full moon.”
Ancient Mayan women would make pilgrimages from the mainland to San Gervasio to pay tribute to the goddess of love and fertility. “This was a very special place for Mayans to get married,” Alex says. “They would get married when they were 14 or 15 years old… Mayans were monogamous. Their culture didn’t believe in divorce.”
Most of the stone structures at San Gervasio now lack roofs and upper portions of walls but it is still easy to see how they must have been. The grounds and ruins are well kept with plaques describing each structure. Only about one-fourth of the site has been excavated and developed. Future plans are to open up the remaining area.
When we came to a pyramid-looking building, Alex answered a question that many of us might have had. Since the steps leading up to the top of the building were so narrow and since the structure doorways were so low, the Mayans must have been midgets with teeny feet.
Not so, Alex said, walking up the pyramid steps by carefully placing his feet sideways instead of lengthwise. By walking that way, a Mayan would not turn his back to anyone behind him or in front of him. Stooping over to enter a building, a Mayan would have looked as though he were bowing reverently – even if he had forgotten or didn’t want to.
“It was all about respect,” Alex said. “It was a way to force them to show respect.”
Only the upper class Mayans lived in San Gervasio. The workers lived outside the settlement and labored to support the upper class who didn’t work. As for why the Mayans left the area and where they went, Alex said no one knows for sure.
“Perhaps there was a drought,” he says. “Agriculture was the base of economy and without enough food or water the Mayans may have started abandoning their big cities and moving away.”
The arrival of the Spaniards didn’t help the Mayans either, Alex adds. “The Mayans were already in a decline but the Spaniards brought smallpox and TB which killed many Mayans.”
The Spanish sickness ran rampant across the island. There have been three mass graves discovered at San Gervasio where smallpox victims were buried, along with glass trade-beads given to them by the Spanish.
The Mayan calendar is just one example of the advanced development of the Mayan civilization. “It has been found to be within a tiny fraction of a second’s match to NASA’s scientific measure of time,” Alex says.
As for the end of the world that was proclaimed would happen on Dec. 21, 2012, because it was prophesized in the Mayan calendar, Alex just laughs.
“You will never see the words ‘end of the world’ in any Mayan prophecy,” he says. “The Mayans never believed that the world would end. They believed they would just start a new cycle of life.”
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch