Friday, May 6, 2011

In Stephens' Footsteps: Xcooch

The countryside of Yucatán has a timeless quality. There are people living on land and in houses where their families have lived for generations, even centuries. Although the rate of "progress" has quickened, some things still change slowly here.

As a teenager I obtained a copy of Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, a well-known account of explorations in the Yucatán Peninsula in 1841 by John L. Stephens and the artist Frederick Catherwood. When I first read them, the travels documented in this book seemed no more than colorful adventure tales out of the distant past or adventure films.

It wasn't until I moved to Yucatán much later that I realized people still do hack through the untracked jungle with machetes; there are still lost cities out there waiting to be rediscovered.

In my travels around Yucatán I also found that many of the places visited by Stephens and Catherwood have changed so little in the 170 years since they wove their real-life, archetypal Indiana Jones tales, that I can carry my well-thumbed copy of their original book as a guide. Recently I visited the ancient Mayan city of Xcooch (shk-oh-sch), near Santa Elena, Yucatán, which was explored by Stephens and Catherwood in 1841. Looking around the area one gets the distinct feeling that nothing much has happened during all the years since they walked here.

Here I share Stephen's words, as published in that 1843 edition of Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (which is fortunately in the public domain), interspersed with my own observations made in 2011.

The "narrow path" is now a road.
1841: " a narrow path just opened, we again found ourselves among ruins, and soon reached the foot of the high mound which towered above the plain..."

2011: Stephens and Catherwood rode for some time from the pueblo of Nohcacab (now Santa Elena) to reach this spot. A couple of weeks ago, we drove out on one of Santa Elena's main streets (probably the same route taken by Stephens) which quickly turned to dirt and passed through a series of fields and then into trees. We parked when the going got a little rough for my car, and continued walking on a dusty path. Suddenly we became aware of a looming white mass ahead.

2011: "The great cerro," or rocky hill, which once was the great pyramid of Xcooch.
1841 engraving of the pyramid from a drawing by Catherwood.

1841: "The great cerro stands alone, the only one that now rises above the plain. The sides are all fallen, though in some places the remains of steps are visible. On the south side, about half way up, there is a large tree, which facilitates the ascent to the top. The height is about eighty or ninety feet."

2011:  The ruins look much the same as they appear in the 1841 drawings by Catherwood, although not surprisingly the structure appears to be more eroded. This is especially noticeable at its peak. Only a few fragments of the steps mentioned by Stephens are visible, and the large tree is long gone, but a series of wooden posts and railings have been set into the east side of the structure to help climbers safely reach the top. We were told by our guide that parts of the area were recently cleared because archaeologists have been making a survey of the site. 

The view to the west from the top of the structure reaches to Uxmal. A fragment of wall, possibly the "corner of a building" mentioned by Stephens, still stands.
1841: "One corner of a building is all that is left; the rest of the top is level and overgrown with grass. The view commanded an immense wooded plain, and, rising above it, toward the southeast the great church of Nohcacab, and on the west the ruined buildings of Uxmal."

2011: A small section of wall that appears to be the corner of a structure still stands on the level top of the ruin. The view remains nearly identical to that which Stephens and Catherwood appreciated 170 years ago. The nearby church of Nohcacab (Santa Elena) and the buildings of distant Uxmal still predominate the wooded landscape. Nothing has been constructed in the intervening years to mar the vista.

1841: "The ground in this neighborhood was open, and there were the remains of several buildings, but all prostrate and in utter ruin."

2011:  Because the vicinity of the pyramid has recently been partially cleared of trees and brush, ruins of a number of structures are visible. Today we probably can see more than Stephens did, because in addition on one side local ejidatarios, (communal land holders) have been clearing the area for planting.

The ruins, such as the one pictured at left, look like nothing more than piles of rock. Close examination, however, reveals that many of the stones have been shaped or carved. The ruins will be harder to spot when regular seasonal rains begin in June, prompting the leafing of trees and growth of rampant summer vegetation.
Our guide, Santa Elena resident Abel Gutierrez, descends.
Stephens did not explore unaccompanied, but always found local Mayan guides to show the way. I don't often use guides, but since this is a remote site not often visited, I hired Abel Gutierrez, a Mayan man from nearby Santa Elena, to show us around. We wouldn't have been able to find the place, and would not have enjoyed the day or learned so much, without his assistance. I'll share more explorations with Abel, in a place where, in the words of Stephens, "not a white man...had ever entered," in my next post, In Stephens' Footsteps: The Well at Xcooch.


  1. I'll stop the neighborhood's knife sharpener the next time I hear his toot and get my machete sharpened so I'll be ready for your next jungle exploration. I will, of course, want to be back home by dark....or at least to Valerie's little Inn.

  2. Thanks Marc, I really enjoy your blog and appreciate you posting these things.

  3. OK, Paul. We'll plan the trip so you are back in the hammock at Valerie's by nightfall.

    Ron: I am glad you enjoy the posts. There will be more posts in this vein coming along. All I really am doing is the kind of stuff I dreamed about doing when I was a kid...

  4. I love the post and the new outline for the blog is fabulous.

  5. Thanks, Benne'. I am still playing with the design, but it's getting to be more readable. I like the colors. I am glad you like it.

    I really liked doing this post, and have material for quite a few more along the same lines. Kind of a series that I will mix in with other stuff. It's a topic I love.

  6. I always have a copy of Stephens when I am in Yucatan, it puts me in the mood. Reading over the passages at night or over breakfast on where we are going that day makes me feel a little like an explorer. An explorer driving an air conditioned van with a cooler full of goodies from the hotel's kitchen...

  7. This is going to be a wonderful series. I'm so glad you are doing it. I'll explore along with you.

  8. I love all things archeaological. I can't wait for the day when I'll be able to do lots of exploring of Yucatán's hidden treasures. For now, I'll trek along with you here.

  9. Interesting. I hope to travel to many of these places one day soon. Even with your assistance with the phonetics, Xcooch still wants to come out of my mouth as "Shootz". I've got work to do on learning to pronounce these Mayan names...

  10. What a great way to bring those historical travels to life. I have been meaning to read this book since I first heard about it, but worried I might find it boring because I wouldn't know many of the places. Looking forward to the next instalment!

  11. "All I really am doing is the kind of stuff I dreamed about doing when I was a kid..."

    How completely delicious, yes? Oddly, or maybe not so, given the way of the world, I was enchanted by books about the wilds as a child too. Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Alex's island stay with Black Beauty. Those images of self sufficiency and living in isolation and freedom have lasted the longest and, I think, colored my adult life.

    As clearly with you! I think it's wonderful that you read the book as a child, and here you are living it right now. Lovely post. I also anxiously await more in this vein.


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