Storm in a Port: Costa Maya’s Ruins UnruinedRuins Unruined

Mention the name "Dean" in the Mexican port of Costa Maya, and everyone will know just what you're talking about. The Category 5 hurricane that carries his name struck two years ago, leaving an indelible imprint from which both the port and the nearby town of Mahahual are still recovering.

The contorted, gray limbs of dead mangrove trees stretch across what was once verdant jungle. The spider-monkey sanctuary and dolphin attractions are gone, and the road that once followed the contour of the beach was demolished.

Rick Denbow, a tour operator with Grupo Cacum, explains that "we were all evacuated before it struck. But when we came back, there was devastation everywhere."

Still, everyone returned to this sleepy port, which comes alive only when cruise ships pull up at the dock. A boardwalk along the beach front was built, and stores began opening a few steps outside of the port's walls. You can get your favorite Starbucks beverage at the Plaza La Fuentes today, sit down for a burger at the Hard Rock Cafe or check out the fake Mayan temple alongside the plaza.

Fortunately, one attraction that was left untouched by the howling winds of Hurricane Dean was Chacchoben — the ruins of an ancient Mayan community that lie 30 miles from the port. Chacchoben, which literally means "place of red corn," once housed a community of up to 18,000 Mayans who lived here from 250 C.E. until 950 C.E.

They built homes, temples and altars before moving elsewhere and leaving their land to the jungle. In the years that followed, their community was hidden beneath a thick canopy of plant growth. Strangler fig trees sent long tendrils into the ground, palm trees towered into the sky, and the boughs of untapped chewing gum trees shaded the ruins.

Spider monkeys swung from one palm tree to the next, and jaguars prowled through the undergrowth. Soil and rubble accumulated over and around the temples until all that remained were hills in an otherwise flat landscape. The traces of Mayan civilization had all but disappeared.

Until the 1970s, that is.

That's when Chacchoben was rediscovered, and the laborious task of reconstructing those temples, homes and altars began. Clearing the jungle and removing thousands of years of sediment, soil and plant growth would take more than 30 years, and even today, a decade after it opened to the public, the excavation of Chacchoben can be called incomplete.

Still, tour the area and you can catch a glimpse of a fascinating, highly intelligent community whose legacy persists today in the calendars they left behind. They may not have invented the wheel, but the Mayans sure understood the passage of time.

The air is heavy and thick with humidity as we make our way around the ruins, climbing the ancient steps of the three temples that have been excavated and marveling at their architectural majesty. From the peak of one temple we see a taller mountain nearby that represents a fourth temple, still under excavation.

"When the archaeologists are done excavating that temple, it's rumored it will rival Tikal in Guatemala, one of the largest archaeological sites of pre-Columbian Maya civilization," says Denbow.

Scan the landscape and smaller hillocks abound, little bumps in the land that could easily be Mayan burial graves.

Cattle graze on and around the hills, and there's no sign of excavation, meaning that the mysteries they hold are still sealed in the past.

Spider monkeys still chatter from the treetops at Chacchoben, constituting one of the 97 species of mammals that call this area home. As we move about the ruins, we see a pacu, an animal resembling a large guinea pig, scurry across our path. We look out for wild boar and one of the six species of large cat that reside here.

But it's the middle of the day, and between the Caribbean heat and the presence of several tour groups, neither felines nor boars are showing their faces.

The heat forces us back to the coast, where the Uval Beach Resort offers a reprieve. We stick masks to our faces and snorkels to our mouths, hop into a boat and motor over to the Meso-American coral reef, the second largest reef in the world.

Brightly colored fish dart in and out of the corals, and a lobster stretches spiny tendrils from a cave. Two barracuda glide past, and pearly conch shells litter the shallow coral seabed. A little farther out lies a coral wall, where the fish are larger and the wrecks of more than 500 ships are submerged, making this a worthwhile dive site.

Cruise Control
The resort, open only to cruise passengers, also offers para-sailing, kayaking, dune-buggy rides and an open bar on cruise days.

Seven hours after arriving, the cruise ships get ready for departure, and both the port and town prepare to hibernate. The women who carried monkeys on their shoulders — offering visitors a chance to pet or photograph them in exchange for cash — walk away. Restaurants close their doors, and the port's posh diamond store has no reason to stay open, given that the average wage in the area is just about $8 per day.

The same buses that drove tourists to the ruins and back now load up with locals who serve the cruise industry, returning them and their newly acquired dollars to their homes in Chetumal, the state capital.

The population of Mahualal halves instantly, and sleepiness descends until the next cruise ship appears on the horizon. u

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