Postcard from Yucatan, Mexico: Mayan ruins, sacred cenotes and margaritas

santa barbara cenote

Water surrounds much of the Yucatan, but salt water does not quench one’s thirst. Instead of pooling in rivers and lakes, fresh water is hidden from view. Through the ages, water seeped through layers of limestone, and the gradual erosion formed holes in the earth – natural entrances to caverns filled with pure water. The Mayans regarded these precious offerings from the gods – cenotes – as sacred.

As the only natural source of freshwater, cenotes are and were essential resources to people living in the Yucatán. Prehistorically, some cenotes were exclusively domestic, reserved for drinking water; others were exclusively sacred with their locations kept secret. A few, like the Great Cenote at Chichén Itzá, were sacred sites that served a number of religious purposes, including but not exclusively ritual sacrifice.

To the ancient Maya, cenotes were passageways to the underground world of Xibalba. They were often also associated with the rain god Chaac, and sometimes said to be his dwelling place. Settlements grew up around many cenotes, and they were often part of or directly connected to the most important monumental architecture of the Maya capitals.

“The Geology and Archaeology of Sinkholes,” ThoughtCo.

Fortunately for its occupants, the Yucatan has somewhere around 6,000 cenotes. One does not have to drive far from Merida to hit roads lined with locals trying to flag cars down with signs to indicate their particular cenote is better than all the rest.

Proximity and lack of overcrowding were guiding our choices when we picked the destination for our Mayan archeological site and a cenote. And, of course, we wanted lunch.

Having visited Chichen Itza and Uxmal several years ago, we headed to Mayapan. We found two busloads disgorging passengers from nearby cruise ships upon our arrival. Fortunately, their scampering time was short, and then we, the occupants of two other cars and the iguanas had the site to ourselves. 

With the decline of Chichen Itza, Mayapan was founded about 1250 by Kukulcan, a powerful ruler named in honor of the plumed serpent deity worshipped by the Mayans. The last capital of the mighty empire, Mayapan had a population of 12,000 to 17,000. 

Among the advantages to Mayapan is that visitors are free to climb the pyramids (No, I did not.) and explore at will; it is less than an hour’s drive from Merida; it is uncrowded; and the entry fee is only 45 pesos per person. That’s right. Only about $2.

Finding ourselves sufficiently hot and thirsty, we then headed to the cenotes at Santa Barbara, another relatively under-visited spot. The whirring fans overhead in the high-ceiling palapa-style restaurant were particularly appreciated by the person in our party without a bathing suit – me. Going a bit off the beaten path again proved an amazing bargain. Lunch plus a plunge into the cenotes totaled less than $10 per person, even with a round of margaritas and beer.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: “Graves are all too young as yet to have outgrown the sorrow”

Stop and consider! life is but a day;
A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way
From a tree’s summit.

“Sleep and Poetry,” John Keats, 1816

For someone raised Catholic, visiting the Non-Catholic Cemetery in a city with such an incredible wealth of churches meriting attention seems almost heretical. But I am drawn to cemeteries.

This one has a reputation as a particularly soothing one, one where cats choose to live out all nine of their lives. And, as an act of advance penance, I posted a “genuflection” to Santa Maria Maggiore first.

The Non-Catholic Cemetery is a pilgrimage must for many because here lie the remains of John Keats (1795-1821). Plagued by tuberculosis, the medically trained poet traveled from England to Italy in hope the climate would result in a cure. Some believe he was self-prescribing unsafe dosages of mercury at the time, perhaps to treat venereal disease. The combination proved lethal, and Keats died in Rome at age 25.

Shortly after Keats’ death, his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) penned “Adonais” as an elegy:

… Go thou to Rome, – at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;

And grey walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid* with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who planned
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transformed to marble; and beneath,
A field is spread, on which a newer band
Have pitched in Heaven’s smile their camp of death,
Welcoming him we lose with scarce extinguished breath.

Here pause: these graves are all too young as yet
To have outgrown the sorrow which consigned
Its charge to each….

“Adonais,” Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821

The ashes remaining from the scandal-ridden life of this productive young poet joined his friend Keats amongst the young graves scarcely more than a year later.

In the summer of 1822, the Courier, a leading Tory newspaper in London, carried a brief obituary that began: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no.” From this moment on, the dramatic death of Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Gulf of Spezia was set to become one of the most powerful of all Romantic legends. And also perhaps the most misleading.

“Death and Destiny,” Richard Holmes, The Guardian, January 24, 2004

Shelley had been sailing during stormy weather with two others aboard his small racing schooner, The Don Juan, on a return trip to Lerici from Livorno after visiting Lord Byron (1788-1824), who, too, would perish at an early age. But we have killed off enough romantic poets for one day, and Byron’s bones do not reside within the shelter of these walls.

Shelley’s death left a young widow, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), behind. Although their marriage was a rocky one, some claim Mary sentimentally and literally retained Shelley’s heart, which sounds nightmarishly apocryphal save she is the literary birth-mother of Frankenstein.

Why did I not die? More miserable than man ever was before, why did I not sink into forgetfulness and rest?

Death snatches away many blooming children, the only hopes of their doting parents: how many brides and youthful lovers have been one day in the bloom of health and hope, and the next a prey for worms and the decay of the tomb!

Of what materials was I made, that I could thus resist so many shocks, which, like the turning of the wheel, continually renewed the torture?

But I was doomed to live….

Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1818

*And the incongruous presence of a pyramid by the graveyard? Things Egyptian became fashionable in Rome after the conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. (No, I am not getting waylaid by the story of Anthony and Cleopatra.) At 118 feet-tall, this pyramid of marble-clad brick and cement is the tomb of Gaius Cestius Epulo, a wealthy Roman who died about 15 B.C. The unlikely landmark survived all the subsequent years of development in Rome possibly because of its incorporation into the city’s fortification walls.