With a sweeping gesture that seemed to encompass all the sky that lorded above the reaches of the lagoon, the boatman blurted out “the land where the sky was born!” Since he was mostly busy with navigating narrow channels of mangrove and churning across the expansive aquamarine waters, his few spoken words carried an extra weight that grabbed everyone’s attention. Indeed, row after row of a subtle and light cloud cast extended far into the distance and brushed every horizon. The flat jungle plain beyond the lagoon seemed to extend the horizons, and the elements of the distant sea at our backs completed this surreal realm of sky birthing.
In Mayan lore, there were specific gods tasked with raising the heavens, and four deities called ”sky bearers” hold up the sky at each corner. Ancient Mesoamerican inscriptions denote the sky with a segmented sky- band glyph, with celestial objects sometimes added into the band. These sky bands appear in some murals painted in the nearby site of Tulum.
Ethnic pride of a deep Mayan heritage beamed from our guide as he continued maneuvering our small craft along the marine routes once navigated by the ancients. My wife and I, the boatman and a guide, and a young couple that had been seeking remote Mayan ruins were the lucky ones lost in this world of lagoons and sky bequeathed by the ancients, at least for this tropical afternoon.
As we drifted along these canals engineered in millenniums past one of their ancient temples suddenly appeared on a jungle encrusted spit of land. A stop to explore this small edifice was initiated, and I found myself backing away from a large hornet nest hidden in its dank and dark interior. For one mile- long section of canal, which began at the temple, we simply floated with life vests, carried by the cool current while enjoying the resplendent life both below and above the water.
It had taken a long jungle trail to arrive at the lagoon launching point, and along the way we traversed a step back into the time of the Mayan empires, strolling among their temples and sculptures of stone at a site called Chunyaxche [also known as Muyil]. This was a tranquil place, with pathways interconnecting building sites with the main plaza. Rock rubble scattered around the edges and half walls appearing and disappearing in the verdant blanket of jungle growth. All around was a feeling of stillness, yet a soft background hum of birds and insects was ever present. One section of trail hosted a sudden convergence of noisy Chachalacas, a pigeon like bird with an extra long tail.
Meandering along, we explored the main plaza or civic center, where special rites and community gatherings occurred in the ancient city [settlements date back to 300 BC, the city peaked in 700 AD]. After passing a few more remnants of early habitation, the trail lead us to the cities’ majestic pyramid, ”El Castillo”, the castle. A temple topped this edifice, jutting above the highest layer of trees in this flat, sylvan world.
To my delight, two heron figures carved in relief graced the base of the temple high above the ground. “El Castillo” supported what could have been the temple of the herons. In this moment, I felt a special connection to this temple, since my most successful carving to date was a pair of herons.
An original stone track known as a scabe, roads that connected many Mayan cities, continued through the jungle from the ruin site to the boat launch. These Mayan roads originally connected this site of Chunyaxche with the more well- known ruined cities of Tulum and Coba, Tulum being a main seaport. The scabe that we were following once connected with trade routes that used ocean going canoes, navigating this same lagoon and sometimes landing on a beautiful sandy beach nestled beneath the templed cliffs of Tulum. Chunyaxche ‘s access to the sea was a myriad of waterways dotted with mangrove islands, including man made canals, lagoons, lakes and cenotes that immersed the jungle lowland and sprawled for miles until finally reaching the sea. This is the Sian Ka’an, land where the sky is born.
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Up the road a ways lie the ruins of Tulum, a sight I had dreamed about seeing when in high school. One magazine photo set my dreams alive with the most alluring ancient ruin I had ever chanced upon, an idyllic Mayan temple set on cliffs directly above a turquoise sea. And the day came that the dream materialized like heat waves creating a mirage.
There was no town of Tulum then, like there is today, only the temples and scattered stone buildings, the cenote, and a stone wall encircling the site. It was not on the way to anywhere, on an isolated edge of the vast Quintana Roo jungle plain. One string of two lane pavement ran parallel to the sea and connected one end of this flat jungle plain to the other, from the lively Caribbean flavored seaport of Chetumal bordering Belize in the south, to the empty, far northeastern corner of the Yucatan Peninsula that would one day harbor the resort city of Cancun. In this time of my youthful exploration there were only a few tiny fishing villages, isolated as much from each other as they were from the rest of the world.
We were four youths out for adventure, a band of backpacking brothers, two Americans and two Mexican Nationals. Back in that day, the Mayan ruins of Tulum, which means “City of Dawn”, sat forlorn and mostly forgotten, but they were the main target of my odyssey through Mesoamerica’s past.
“Could this be it?” One backpacker exclaimed with great reservation. A passing truck had deposited us at an intersecting dirt road. Off the dirt track an abandoned guard shack the size of a school bus shelter sat sinking into the sandy terrain, and there was no signage to be seen.
“Must be, let’s see what’s down the road,” I responded. Within a mile we were rewarded by a high stone wall with an opening leading to a fantasy realm of cultures past. We thoroughly explored the ruins, crawling into the Temple of the Frescoes and admiring the faded mural of warriors, climbing to the top of El Castillo and enjoying its magnificent view of the Caribbean Sea. We swam in the sea below the cliffs where El Castillo perched, nosing among small caves and ledges with their sea life, and watched as a small shark swam about.
And still there were no other people around—not another soul. The four of us took the solitude for granted, for it was an abandoned ruin that was uninhabited for many centuries, and the quiet demeanor seemed as it should be.
Today, the archeological site of Tulum hosts, on average, 3,000 visitors; per day. A disneyesque entry of restaurants, tour bus parking lots, performance areas, gift shops, and photo ops spreading out for acres has replaced the forlorn guard shack and dirt road.
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This land where the sky was born inspired me to think of my own land where my own sky was born everyday—above the Pacific coastline and the bay of Coos with its border of towering sand dunes.
“Where the sky was Born” could take on many meanings, and I thought that every day could be a new birth of the sky. One late winter morning came to mind, a morning sky that generated the most incredible rainbow of all my life memories. It came over the bay, a bay bordered by a horizon of sand dunes rolling and rising to varying heights. This rainbow formed in tandem with the rising sun, which bathed all the roiling clouds in a pink glow over the soft blue expanse of bay waters and the undulating sand hills.
It seemed to be the most beautiful rainbow ever, in tandem with and bathed by a glowing pink sunrise, stretching from the bay to the dunes—a full arch with an unbelievable color band of soft pink pastels, like no other color bands commonly seen in a rainbow. The mighty perpetuator of these weather events, the Pacific Ocean, lay beyond the bay and line of dunes, and out over this ocean other rainbows of the same hue appeared, dropping straight down out of the clouded, turbulent sky in short, wide bands with no arching. Of course, if this sublime vista of a pastel rainbow were the norm, and a brilliant rainbow of true colors was the rare oddity, then the brightly colored rainbow could be considered the most beautiful ever. It’s just a matter of perception.
Where on Earth?! Sian Ka’an Biosphere
Muyil, Mexico, March 2019 — Tulum, Mexico, Summer of 1971 – Coos Bay, Oregon, USA