Category Archives: History


By John Mitchell

I recently had a chat with geographer and author Tony Burton about his latest book Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries, and mystique (Sombrero Books, 2016, 165 pages), a wide-ranging collection of  informative and often surprising vignettes gathered from Mexico’s rich history and culture. Tony’s unique book brings to light many little-known facts about this fascinating country and its people. A copy belongs on the bookshelf of every serious Mexicophile.


JM: You have been writing about Mexico for many years, what first got you interested in the country?

Tony: Necessity! I was teaching geography in the Caribbean and the examination syllabus required a study of Mexico. The Mexican chapters in Robert West and John P. Augelli’s wonderful book Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples were familiar friends by the time I spent the summer of 1977 touring the southern half of Mexico. Two years later, I returned to teach geography in Mexico City. The complexity of Mexico’s geography kept me hooked, which is why I jumped at the opportunity a few years ago to collaborate with Dr. Richard Rhoda to write Geo-Mexico, the Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico. Amazingly, that book (published to coincide with Mexico’s bicentenary celebrations in 2010) turned out to be the first ever English-language, college-level book devoted to Mexico’s geography. (For more details, see Continue reading MEXICAN KALEIDOSCOPE: AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR TONY BURTON

Could The Pyramid Of The Sun Pancake?

The great city, now archaeological site, of Teotihuacan was built 1,000 years before the Aztecs occupied it. It was one of the great cities of the world before 1400 and was inhabited by 100,000 people. It covered 8 square miles, but scientists claim that only about 5% has been excavated. No one is certain who built it, but it continues to be one of Mexico’s most popular attractions.

But now scientists are reporting that the main structure, the magnificent Pyramid of the Sun, maybe be in danger of collapse. Ironically, an attempt in the 1070s to preserve is might have backfired. Read more about it here

Hacienda Uxmal: Hotel with a History

By John Mitchell

If you stay at the Hacienda Uxmal, you might end up sleeping in the same room once occupied by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Indira Gandhi, or even Queen Elizabeth II. These are just a few of the illustrious guests who have used this historic hotel as a convenient base from which to explore the spectacular Mayan ruins of Uxmal, which lie just a stone’s throw away from the resort’s front gate.

Built in 1950, the Hacienda Uxmal has also long been the lodging of choice for archaeologists who come to work at Uxmal. This close connection with the nearby ruins is celebrated by an “Explorers Gallery” on the hotel’s main floor. Lining a long, open-air corridor overlooking a turquoise colored swimming pool are photographs of famous nineteenth century explorers who visited Uxmal. Among them are the American traveler and author John L. Stephens, who published Incidents of Travel in Yucatán in 1843, and Frederick Catherwood, the talented British artist who accompanied Stephens on his journeys in Mexico and Central America. Catherwood illustrated Stephens’ books with remarkably detailed and haunting drawings of the region’s abandoned cities.

Adding to the Hacienda Uxmal’s historical ambiance are Spanish colonial touches such as Moorish arches, richly tiled floors, and iconic statues of angels and the like scattered about the grounds. The hotel’s 79 guestrooms are airy and bright, plus some have balconies surveying the rolling Puuc hills. Comfortable sitting areas outside each room feature traditional wooden furniture made from local timber. These cozy arrangements make ideal spots for sitting back and taking in the hotel’s forest-like gardens while pondering the incredible legacy left behind by the ancient Maya.

Please click on this link to watch a slideshow of my photos of the Hacienda Uxmal. It may take a few seconds to load.

Pyramids and Prophecies – A Closer Look at Uxmal and Other Mayan Mysteries

By: Lisa Coleman

Now that 2012 is upon us, it seems the Mayan culture has become more intriguing than ever. Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is known as the “Land of the Maya” and it stands as a tribute to one of the most prolific and fascinating civilizations the world has ever known. The ruins of complex ancient cities are scattered throughout dense jungles and lush rolling hillsides. But it’s here, in the state that shares its name with the region, the magic and enchantment of the Mayan world are at their most brilliant. If you have a week (or more), a trip to Yucatán to explore these treasures will be an adventure you’ll never forget.

Having seen a number of archeological sites throughout Mexico, I can honestly say that Uxmal (oosh-mahl) is my personal favorite.  There is a certain energy here that I’ve never felt at the sites that seem to get a bit more tourist traffic. There never seems to be much of a crowd here, which makes it all the more alluring.


Uxmal is located 58 miles south of Mérida, along what is called La Ruta Puuc.  “Puuc” means “hills” in Maya, so a fair translation would be “the hilly route.” The archeological sites found along this route include Uxmal, Kabáh, Labná, and Sayil. Puuc also defines the architectural style of these particular sites whose structures are characterized by elaborate and ornate façades quarried from stone in the region. Puuc architecture is also identified by the lower blocks of the buildings being plain while the upper levels are highly decorated and often have representations of the Mayan rain god, Chaac.

Architecturally speaking, Uxmal is said to be one of the most significant sites in the ancient world. Founded around 700 A.D., Uxmal (meaning “three times built”) was created in various stages and many of the buildings are stacked in layers of stone. The centerpiece is the extraordinary 115-foot tall “Pyramid of the Magician,” which is actually five temples layered on top of one another. This is absolutely one of the most breathtaking sites in all of Mexico. It’s almost surreal to stand in front of it and try to conceive of what it might have taken to construct. On the day we were there, a breeze rustled the trees and perfect, puffy clouds made every photograph look like a postcard.

Once you move past the awe of the pyramid, you’ll make your way to the “Nun’s Quadrangle.” This is a huge open plaza flanked by four (almost perfectly preserved) massive buildings with 74 rooms and carved stone doorways.  Given its name by Spanish explorers who thought it resembled a convent, the quadrangle is thought to have been a palace for one of Uxmal’s prominent kings.

The “Governor’s Palace” is another of this site’s many treasures and almost rivals the main pyramid on the “awe” scale. Some archeologists consider this structure the “most spectacular single building in all pre-Columbian America.” This enormous building (320 feet long) is situated on five terraced acres and is covered with some 20,000 intricate stone carvings.  If you stand far enough way, you can see stone masks of the rain god, Chaac (103 of them to be exact) woven into the design.  At the front of the building, a jaguar throne made of stone implies this may have been the home to chiefs or kings.

Just behind the palace, it’s worth the 260 foot climb to the top of the “Great Pyramid” to take a look at the Temple of the Macaws.  Not to mention incredible views of all Uxmal.

After leaving Uxmal, we had a chance to visit the Mayan village of Santa Elena. Seemingly lost in time, this village is still home to many Mayan families who practice the traditions of their culture. We went to the humble home of Azaria and Hernán. I am sure they have a last name, but their warm, welcoming smiles were all we really needed to know. She spoke in Mayan (which to me resembled something similar to Navajo or Apache) as they showed us around their single room palapa home.  Hammocks are strung across room for sleeping, and an altar sits in front of one of the walls. Their altar is a fascinating mixture of Mayan figurines and Catholic icons, something that is very common throughout the region.

The kitchen is in a detached palapa located a few steps from the “main house,” and Azaria is happy to cook us up some incredible fresh corn tortillas. Hernán shows us the rest of the homestead, careful to explain all the plants and what they are used for. They have some henequén plants on the property and he makes fast work of the fibers to show us how he makes rope by hand. It was a humbling and beautiful experience to be at their home.

Azaria in the kitchen
Hernan making rope

Our last stop of the day was to meet with Mr. Don Gaspar Xiu –a local celebrity, author, professor and former President of the Supreme Maya Council. He is the descendent of a dynasty of Mayan kings and is a notable authority the culture.  Mr. Xiu’s lineage links him to the last Xiu king that governed Uxmal and he has spoken about Mayas both in and outside of Mexico. Mr. Xiu has been a huge force behind the resurgence of Mayan culture in his native state of Yucatán and has become a well known speaker and presenter as well.

Don Gaspar Xiu

I am very interested in all the press and speculation about the meaning of 2012…and Mr. Xiu was more than happy to explain and to assure me the world is not ending. The Maya were very complex people, as is their calendar, which consists of symbolic and symmetrically grouped time-periods.  December 21, 2012 signifies the end long count calendar and a unit of time known as a “katún.” So in actuality, the end of 2012 is a new beginning… the beginning of a new katún.  The Mayan katún predictions are cyclic and each new katún brings a new idea and a new energy for the world. As this katún begins, the prediction is for a new awareness and a brand new path for humanity.

Even through a translator, it was fascinating to listen to Mr. Xiu. He talked gently about the cycle of life that is so important to the Mayas. He says the culture is intricately tied to “warnings about both good and bad things” – what we call prophecies. The Mayan people could see disasters coming and so could predict what would happen to Earth during the change of cycles. Mr. Xiu feels this “new beginning” is a chance for people of the world to have a fresh start.   “Our message to the world is to live a peaceful coexistence, to respect the rights of others, to love one another without bearing grudges and hatred in order to prepare ourselves for the world of tomorrow that will come in the next 2012 cycle registered in the Mayan prophecies. Hatred, power supremacy, human exploitation, envy and grudges must end. Humans are not a product of power, but of humans.”

We could all benefit from this Mayan wisdom. If you have a chance to visit the Yucatán during this magical year, indulge yourself in the pyramids, prophecies and all the energy that is a part of this extraordinary culture.


A Leaky Ship Sinks An Empire

From our friend and guest blogger Greg Custer, founder of Destination Ventures and the Magic of Mexico, and someone who has truly revolutionized e-learning and the way travel agents learn about Mexico.

The next time you look seaward from your Cancun or Puerto Morelos resort, scan the Caribbean horizon and imagine a small flotilla of 16th century Spanish ships heading south to north (that’s right to left for the directionally challenged). Suddenly the ships stop, reverse course and disappear to the south.  At the helm of these ships is none other than Hernán Cortés. It is January of 1519 and the great Conquistador has usurped control of an expedition to the American mainland. Departing from Cuba with 500 men, 16 horses, an insatiable lust for gold, and conviction to save heathen souls, his first stop is Cozumel.

The Cortés expedition is scattered by a storm at sea but arrives at Cozumel, scaring the daylights out of the Maya inhabitants. He attempts a form of crude communication with the local chief, but without an interpreter the exchange is meaningless. Learning little, the Spaniards leave Cozumel and sail north towards Isla Mujeres , only to be stopped south of what is today Cancun by a leaking ship in need of repair.  The epic journey that would forever change the world then does an about face and returns to Cozumel, laying anchor along the very beaches used today for Corona beer commercials (really!).

Ship repaired and the Indians utterly terrified by a beachfront exhibition of Spanish horses, steel, cannon and armor, the Spaniards were about to depart Cozumel for a second time when a lone canoe appeared on the horizon, crossing from the mainland at what is today Playacar. Cortés sends a small band up the beach with swords drawn.  As they approach, a man rises from the canoe and asks “Are you Christian brothers?” On the canoe is a man who would become perhaps the most valued member in Cortés’ epic journey and the devastation of the America’s most powerful civilization.

His name was Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest and shipwreck survivor. He had endured eight years as a Mayan slave after his 1511 trip from Panama to Santo Domingo was blown off course and the ship scuttled off the coast of Jamaica. A desperate band of surviving Spaniards departed the Jamaican coast, only to be again marooned along Mexico’s Caribbean shore.

The battered foreigners were quickly captured by Mayan tribes, some of them immediately stripped, roasted alive and eaten. Others (including Aguilar and a companion Guillermo Guerrero) were caged for fattening, but manage to escape and spend the next eight years in and out of capture. Along the way, they learn to speak Mayan. Guerrero marries, has children, launches the Mestizo race, and goes native. Aguilar was anxious to return to his Spanish brethren. Hearing of the strange flotilla’s arrival on nearby Cozumel, he darted across the channel, surprising Cortes.

During the next two years Aguilar will never leave Cortes’ side. He becomes the indispensable translator between Cortés and Mayan chiefs. The expedition continues by circumventing the Peninsula and cruising up the Mexican Gulf coast. When weeks later a woman given to Cortes proves fluent in both Mayan and Nahuatl (the language of Central Mexico, the Aztecs and their vassal tribes) Cortés has the linguistic effervescence to understand, prod and manipulate mainland Mexico’s political realities.

Had Cortes’ ships not returned to Cozumel for repairs, and the Cortés – Aguilar-Malinche linguistic link broken, the great Conquistador’s utter destruction of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilization would have faced insurmountable communication challenges and Cortés deprived of his greatest tactical advantage.

Had Cortés failed, we can only wonder if Mexico’s indigenous people might have avoided, or at least delayed, European domination, disease, and devastation. Given the Aztec’s near absolute power and prosperity, Mexico might have avoided 300 years of Spanish enslavement, and the Aztecs might have endured, to become the America’s dominant civilization.


Celebrating Mexico… Some Little Known Facts

By: Lisa Coleman
Before midnight on the evening of September 15th, bells will ring, the President will shout out a cry for patriotism (El Grito) followed by a threefold yell of Viva Mexico! and the fiesta will begin. Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexican Independence Day… The 5th of May actually commemorates the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.  Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16th. On this date in 1810 the movement, which became known as the Mexican War of Independence, was led by Mexican-born Spaniards, Mestizos and Amerindians who sought independence from Spain. It was a long, hard fought battle to break the ties, but Mexico finally stood on its own.

In honor of the holiday, I thought of writing about food or celebrations or history… but instead decided to broaden your horizons and share some fun Mexico facts.

Did you know:

1. There is a Mexican tamale called the zacahuil is three feet long and weighs about 150 pounds.
2. Chocolate, corn, chilies and the Caesar salad are among Mexico’s gifts to the world.
3. The first printing press in North America was used in Mexico City in 1539.
4. The National University of Mexico was founded in 1551 by Charles V of Spain and is the oldest university in North America.
5. The poinsettia is named after the first American ambassador to Mexico.
6. The border between Mexico and the United States is the second largest border in the world (only the U.S.-Canadian border is longer).
7. Mexico is located in the “Ring of Fire,” one of the earth’s most violent earthquake and volcano zones.
8. Mexico’s flag is made up three vertical stripes. The left green stripe stand for hope, the middle white stripe represents purity, and the right red stripe represents the blood of the Mexican people. The picture of an eagle eating a snake is based on an Aztec legend.
9. Mexico City is built over the ruins of a great Aztec city, Tenochtitlán. Because it is built on a lake, Mexico is sinking at a rate of 6 to 8 inches a year as pumps draw water out for the city’s growing population.
10. Mexico City has the highest elevation and is oldest city in North America. It is also one of the largest cities in the world.
11. Only ten countries in the world have a larger population than Mexico’s 109,955,400 million people.
12. The Aztecs adopted human sacrifice from earlier cultures (such as the Olmecs) because they believed the universe would come to an end and the sun would cease to move without human blood. There are many ancient statues of gods sticking out their tongues, such as Huitzilopochtli, which may be a sacred gesture that suggests their thirst for blood.
13. Actor Anthony Quinn was the first Mexican to win an Academy Award for his role in the 1952 movies Viva Zapata
14. One unusual Mayan weapon was a “hornet bomb,” which was an actual hornet’s nest thrown at enemies during battle.
15. Spanish conquerors brought bullfighting to Mexico, which is now the national sport of Mexico. Bullfighting takes place from November to April, and the Plaza Mexico is the largest bullring in the world.
16. Mexico remained under Spanish control for nearly 300 years until the Mexican people, led by a priest named Father Hidalgo, rose up against the Spanish on September 16, 1810. Hidalgo is widely considered the father of modern Mexico, and Mexican Independence is celebrated on September 15-16.

I’ve never been in Mexico for the holiday, but it’s certainly on my list. So my sombrero is off to my favorite country, and may you all have a wonderful weekend! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!

This post is part of a Blog Hop…. check out these other great posts about Mexico’s Holiday!

Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Community Manager for the México Today Program. All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.


By John Mitchell

Canoes leaving the village of Polé at the Sacred Mayan Journey 2011 event, Riviera Maya, Mexico. Click on photo to see larger version.

Perched on steep cliffs overlooking white-sand beaches and the startlingly blue Caribbean Sea, the ruined city of Tulum is now a magnet for tourists visiting the Riviera Maya. At one time, however, Tulum was part of a network of busy ports from which Mayan seafarers embarked on trading journeys that took them as far away as Panama. The Yucatec Maya also made frequent pilgrimages to the island of Cutzamil, now modern-day Cozumel, where they worshiped the moon goddess Ixchel who – among other things – governed the tides, sent hurricanes and bestowed fertility.

The Sacred Mayan Journey project was founded in 2007 with the intent of bringing this ancient religious pilgrimage back to life. Then and every year since, about 300 men and women volunteers from the Riviera Maya communities of Xcaret, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen have trained for months in order to make the grueling 100-kilometer (60-mile) round trip to Cozumel in up to 30 traditional Mayan dugout canoes. The crossing takes at least five hours each way on the rough waters of the Cozumel channel.

This year (May 19-21, 2011), the Riviera Maya marked the fifth anniversary of the Sacred Mayan Journey event, and I was fortunate enough to be invited, along with a number of other travel journalists, to attend the festivities. The event began at Xcaret with the re-creation of an ancient Mayan market or Kii’wik. Before entering the market, we were told to put our pesos and dollars away. Each of us was then given a bag of cacao beans (most other visitors had to pay for theirs), which were used as currency by the Maya in pre-Hispanic times. Once inside the bustling outdoor marketplace, we were immersed in a world of exotic sights, sounds, and smells.

The pungent odor of copal incense wafted through the air, and the local Mayan dialect replaced Spanish as vendors dressed in traditional costumes hawked their wares. Offered for sale in a maze of wooden stalls were honey, seashell jewelry, herbs and spices, fresh produce, plus a host of other earthy delights. Craftspeople were hard at work making baskets and wooden carvings, while others cooked tortillas and roasted cacao beans in huge ceramic bowls. From the steps of a stone ceremonial platform at the center of the market, an elderly Maya chieftain or shaman — I wasn’t sure which — sporting a regal feathered headdress serenely surveyed the hectic scene. The market was obviously theater. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was upbeat, and proceeds from sales went to help local Maya communities.

Leaving the market, we joined the throng heading towards the seaside village of Polé to watch the opening ceremonies. En route, we were purified by clouds of copal incense pouring from chalices held high by dancers clad in white gowns. The path wound through lush forest past a voluptuous effigy of Ixchel surrounded by offerings of flowers, ears of corn, and squash. Soon we arrived at the beach where there was a palpable air of anticipation as the spectators awaited the arrival of warriors with Guerrero Gonzalez, a shipwrecked Spanish sailor who had been captured and enslaved by the Maya.

What followed was a program of traditional music, colorful purification rituals and dances that stretched into the night. Our small group eventually headed back to our comfy hotel, the Hacienda Tres Rios, for a few hours of shuteye before returning to Polé to witness the departure of the boats. At the first light of dawn, we were back at the cove with some 3000 people watching the hardy paddlers climb into their canoes and sail off into the choppy water under a pink-tinged sky. Shamans, along with baritone blasts from conch-shell horns and cheers from the crowd, bid the seafarers farewell. Once at Cutzamil, the oarsmen would present the slave Guerrero Gonzalez and other offerings to Ixchel and then ask the goddess for her blessings, which they would take back to the mainland.

On the following afternoon, we gathered on the beach at Xamanhá, now the resort city of Playa del Carmen, to await the pilgrims’ return. The crowd eagerly scanned the horizon for signs of the canoes. Suddenly they appeared from around a rocky point, accompanied by two Mexican naval vessels. Bravos rang out as the first canoes hit the sandy shore, and a wave of people ran to greet and hug the paddlers.

A closing ceremony ensued with more music, dancing and theater, this time featuring a reborn Guerrero Gonzalez, who had been granted his freedom while on Cutzamil and was about to elope with an alluring Mayan princess. Most moving of all, though, was the presentation of awards to the paddlers, who looked tired and sunburned but were obviously in high spirits. The glowing looks on the participants’ faces as they received medals and certificates spoke of their sense of accomplishment and camaraderie that will no doubt ensure the continuation of this demanding journey in years to come.

Here is a slideshow of some of my photos taken at this year’s Sacred Mayan Journey event. Move the cursor over the screen to view captions. Click on individual images to see larger versions and for information on ordering prints or downloading photos.

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Sacred Mayan Journey 2011 – Images by John Mitchell