Copan and the Mayan Legacy; A World that Will Not End in 2012 (Vámonos Vol. 19)

You are bound to hear a great deal about the Mayans this year. It’s been said that the Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012. That is not true. The world may or may not end in 2012, but the Mayans never predicted it.

For a traveler, a student of history, or just a person living in the Americas there is a lot to be learned from a society that whose height lasted for 600 years, according to William R. Coe’s article in “American Anthropologist.” But let’s start by laying the persistent rumor to bed.

Mayan elders have heard a number of questions on the subject of the coming apocalypse. Apolinario Chile Pixtun is quoted in an AP article saying “they had me fed up with this (2012) stuff.” The same article later quotes David Stuart a specialist in Mayan writing who says flatly, “The Maya never said the world would end.”

This sentiment is echoed by physicist and Discovery News contributor Ian O’Neill. “There’s no evidence to suggest the Mayans believed the end of their long count calendar would spell doomsday,” he said. “There’s no real prophecy that says this is going to be the end of the world, not from the Mayan ruins, anyway,” added archeologist Christopher Powell.

The idea of a Mayan predicted apocalypse was greatly strengthened by the viral promotion for and 2009 release of the film “2012.” The Internet Movie Database says the John Cusack vehicle has grossed more than $750 million worldwide at last count. So, at least somebody is getting something out of this misinformation.

But behind the popular pseudo-science and movie lip service, a vibrant culture occupied the Yucatan Peninsula as far back as 2600 B.C. The dates for the earliest Mayans come from radiocarbon dating done at a prehistoric Maya site in Cuello, Belize, and published in “Nature.” But the Mayans whose classic period happened much later, around 300 – 900 A.D. according to Coe, left behind more physical tangible evidence of the world they lived in.

As a tourist there are many Mayan sites you might visit. The empire, as described in the “Nature” article, stretched across the southern part of Mexico southwest into Honduras. Perhaps the greatest remnants of that past are the Ruins of Copán.

“The amount of inscribed materials at Copán is truly astounding,” said David Stuart, chair of the Art and Art History Department at the University of Texas. These inscribed materials are so important because they provide a written way to look into the distant past. The once great Mayan City, which sits near what, is now the border between Honduras and Guatemala is a treasure trove of these artifacts.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization recognizes Copán as a world heritage site, a distinction that puts the ruins on par with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. UNESCO praised the ruins of the great city as the site of “significant achievements in mathematics, astronomy, and hieroglyphic writing.”

The mathematic achievement obliquely referred to here is probably the Mayan base 20 number system, a system that was described in depth in the J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson article “Mayan Mathematics.” This mathematic system combined with what Ian O’Neill calls “keen and highly accurate astronomy,” contributed to the Mayans to creation of the famous long calendar; a calendar that today is still emblazoned on t-shirts and cemented into Chicago sidewalks. But while that calendar does finish, it doesn’t call for the apocalypse. Ideas about the end times are more likely to come from The Book of Revelations than Mayan texts. Chile Pixtun concluded that these 2012 end-of-the-world theories come from western ideas.

So the Mayans didn’t predict that the world would end this year and neither do I. But if you get a chance to visit Copán this year, I predict you’ll enjoy it.

Tequila: Home of Tequila (Vámonos Vol. 2)

On the high dry Jalisco lands two hours outside of Guadalajara, there is a little town called Tequila.  Not the drink, but the drink’s hometown.  This tiny village is about a third the population of Evanston, on rolling hills.  It’s a half mile above sea level and only a short distance from the Pacific.  It has a beautiful 18th century church, and, well…  a lot of Tequila.

The liquor is there right on the city’s coat of arms. Pictured are the church, the distilleries and fields of agave.  None of that is false advertising.  There are any number of distilleries in town and each one has its own tour.   The tours vary in quality, but can be great fun.  The church is the central structure in the town’s main square.  And the fields of agave are striking.

Agave is tequila’s grape.  It looks nothing like grapes but agave is the source of the drink.  These spiny blue green plants look more like cactuses.  They grow in rows that stretch out across the landscape.  The individual plants can be as long as 8 feet across, with artichoke-like hands reaching out in all directions.  The starchy center of this plant, the “pina” is the source of the starch that becomes the sweet stuff which fuels yeast that makes two things: carbon dioxide (released in fermentation), and ethanol or alcohol.

The agave plant distilled into liquor can produce many types of drinks called mescals, but only the blue agave of Jalisco and some neighboring states can be cultivated into tequila.  The plant is distinctive in its color and for the quality of sugars that are cultivated from its starches.   France has Champagne and Burgundy — Mexico has Tequila.  Just as Sparkling wines not made in Champagne cannot bear its name, so too is Tequila a product that can only be made in a specific region.  Anything distilled outside of the states without the dispensation of the Mexican government cannot legally be called tequila.

Tequila is now widely known and available through out the world.  One doesn’t need to stand on the ground where it was first cultivated to enjoy it.  But if you’re in Jalisco and like the drink you have no excuse not to enjoy the town itself.


Trip Tips

When should I go to Tequila?

Whenever you travel to Guadalajara a side trip to Tequila could be a good idea.  The climate is dry enough that the weather can be pleasant all year round, but snow birds might like to escape Chicago in the winter.

How long should I stay?

On a day trip from Guadalajara: long enough to stroll through the streets visit a distillery, Jose Cuervo is one of the biggest and though it is generally associated with its least distinguished variety, there are many fine Cuervo Tequilas beyond the kind immortalized in country western songs.  Overall, it’s not a bad option.

How much should I drink?

Enough to try at least a sip of the anejo, reposado and the silver, but not enough to hate yourself the next day.  The altitude is not extremely, but it is high for Chicagoans and as I’ve said its very dry.

I don’t like to drink Tequila should I still go?

Yes, but only if you’re willing to be convinced that you actually do like to drink tequila.