Stephen Cooke, in Mexico, runs into a dubious policeman, a jungle and a lost city.
I suppose it was always going to be: a trek to find ‘a lost city’. And of course it isn’t really lost, just not known about, and a long way off the beaten track. Having avoided the big Mayan sites here in southern Mexico and their coachloads, we have visited some lesser-known places and found these even a bit touristy for our liking. So we set off on a three hour journey into the unknown. Unknown to the satnav, and without any signal for most of the journey, it was down to map-reading to find Xtampak.
It didn’t look favourable at the start, being immediately stopped by armed police. Unsmiling, sweating under the sun in their heavy uniforms, weighed down by what looked like World War 2 machine guns.
Errr… no actually, we left them in our hotel.
Driving licence? The same (Note to self: don’t be a complete idiot, keep your documents withyou and forget your worries of having them stolen by bandits).
Being unable to communicate with them, one of the tooled up officers shouted angrily into his phone- maybe asking his boss what to do. Not exactly. After his tirade down the phone he held it up to me to listen.
To my amazement an American female voice asked: “How much do you wish to pay in cash?”
I expressed surprise. You have broken the law, your car will be impounded, I was told. I expressed shock. You must pay 1,000 Pesos. I expressed disbelief. And so it went on until the cop must have decided that he could supplement his income more easily by catching more willing prey. Adios, he finally said. I shook him by the hand and drove away as fast as limits allowed.
After an hour or two through the small Mayan villages to which we are now accustomed, speed bumps, flocks of goats and the ubiquitous Coca Cola signs sprayed onto the walls of concrete hovels, we turned off onto a lesser road. And then an even lesser one. I experienced slight anxiety on seeing pigs crossing our path – this is not a well-travelled route, I am guessing.
I wanted to photograph them. Ama, sitting next to me, noted: “They are pigs”. She’s right, we don’t need photos of pigs.
No People, No Human Intervention…Just Jungle and More Jungle…
For the next twenty miles we see no cars at all, no people, no sign of human intervention, just jungle and more jungle and a road increasingly difficult to navigate because of deep potholes. Slight fear too that we are now actually in the middle of Mexican Nowhere, vulnerable to justabout everything. To our great relief, the seemingly endless track ends at Xtampak. There is a sign and a car park, but no cars to be seen.
From a concrete bunker emerges a tubby little Mayan man who has a lanyard improbably hanging from his neck. It bears a logo and words pertaining to archaeology and heritage. His name is Fidel Kuk.I tell him that my name is Stephen Cooke and he embraces me warmly. “Familia”, we agree. With that he takes 90 Pesos (£4) and we sign the visitors book, into which no-one has written for two days. He points to a path cut into the jungle and encourages us to proceed.
With the sun beating down and the jungle beckoning, I realise that we have no water. This must be the only place in Mexico that does not have a huge fridge with Coca Cola and water for sale. A small detail here is that the water in Mexico is not safe to drink, even for the Mexicans, a point not lost on Big Sugar in the form of Coca Cola. Along with the coke, they also have a virtual monopoly on water, and it’s the sameprice, all in plastic bottles. Hence an almost universal level of obesity. And if you buy the coke, instead of water, the deal is you get a pack of salty snacks for a tiny additional sum. The rest is obvious.
Despite the visible lack of a fridge, I ask Fidel if he has any water and he says he does. I ask anxiously if it’s ‘agua pura’. He smiles and points to the sky. And a moment later we are taking long draughts from a plastic cup that he dips into a drum of crystal clear rainwater. It all has rather a Biblical feel to it: “I was a stranger and you gave me water”.
What follows next is probably the most remarkable experience of my life. We walk uphill in the searing heat deep into the jungle for ten minutes and enter a clearing. In it stands a Mayan palace. We are the only people there so we can ignore any instructions there might have been not to climb the buildings. The building is probably fifty feet high, crumbling around the edges, but intact. Utterly awe-inspiring, as I found as I sat on one of its steps as above.
I gather from subsequent research that the site is thought to be about nine square kilometres in scope and comprising as many as 120 buildings, nearly all obscured by the most vigorous jungle growing through and around them. Since 1995 they have cleared the trees and undergrowth to expose the palace and three great quadrangles.
Great trees grow between the stones as do extraordinary flowering plants. Brightly coloured butterflies flutter around us. I manage to ignore that I have read this remote part of Mexico is host to jaguars and venomous snakes. And that we are dressed for a day on the beach, Ama in flip-flops.
All we can hear are the calls of the great cawing birds we have disturbed and, within that strange silence, it is only possible to feel and imagine coming alive the great Mayan civilisation in whose ruins we walk.
It is a gruelling return journey home. But we find the wayside fruit seller we had passed on the way out. We buy a pineapple, some oranges and mangoes. Americano? asks the strangely huge Mayan. Inglaterra, I say.
He looks puzzled. I confirm my nationality: “David Beckham”.
“Gareth Bale!” he shouts in recognition. I agree and apologise to Welsh friends as he waves us on our way.