I’m in the ancient city of Muyil, on the edge of a lagoon in the Sian Kaan Biosphere in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. I had driven 40 minutes from Tulum down the 307 Highway, pulled into the small dirt parking lot, paid the Maya gatekeeper 50 pesos and found myself wandering here. I’m walking through thick jungle, discovering a civilization that had sown its roots here more than 2,300 years before.
The crunch of my footsteps on the loose, alabaster gravel of el Sacbe, the ancient “white road,” is the only sound I can hear against the constant buzz of insects. I ask myself for the 10th time, “How on earth I am the only person at these ruins?” It’s 3pm on a Saturday and, aside from the group of children leaving as I arrived, I have not seen another visitor.
Swatting at the gnats dancing around my ears, I try to focus on the plaque that stands at the base of El Castillo, one of the tallest coastal pyramids in the Yucatan at 55ft (17m). I’m trying to envision the community who once called this place home when the silence is disrupted by a primal roar.
I’m frozen. My stomach lurches. Did I just hear a dinosaur?
If you've never heard the call of a howler monkey, that is the closest comparison I can bring to mind. Though they only grow to be about 3ft (1m) tall, their howls can be heard from a mile away.
My heartbeat is thudding in my ears, but something tells me not to be afraid.
I stand still and wait.
After a few more calls, a furry brown arm reaches through the greenery and behind it, a small brown face looks down at me. After a few moments she ascends back into the tree, and the jungle is silent again.
I can't wait to share my experience with another human, so I rush back to the entrance and tell the gatekeeper. “Saraguato! Veo un saraguato!” (I saw a howler monkey!) Despite my poor Spanish, he nods. I can tell by the smile on his face that my excitement is contagious.
“Regresar mañana, amiga. Gratis.” He has invited me back tomorrow, free of charge.
The next morning, I wake up with plans to spend the day by the crisp, cool water of an open cenote. It’s my last full day in Mexico and I want to relax, finish my book, and soak up the sun. But sitting at the water’s edge, I can't concentrate on the words I’m reading. My mind is back at the Castillo. I remember the palpable feeling of joy shared between the gatekeeper and me, and I decide I must return, if only to thank him for his kindness and capture his portrait with my camera. If I leave now, I’ll arrive 30 minutes before the site closes at 5pm.
This place is sacred. The umbilical cord to the whole world.
The gatekeeper greets me with a hug, and I ask if I can quickly take his photo and ask a question: “What do you love about this place?” He pauses and answers “This place is sacred. The umbilical cord to the whole world.”
It gives me the chills.
To my amazement, he asks if I’d like a tour. “Don't you close at five?” I ask.
He smiles. “Not for friends.”
As we make our way back to the Castillo, he points out the local flora and fauna. We try to bridge our language barrier with charades, hand gestures, and sound effects. He teaches me about the Maya sacrificial practices that were believed to bring the spring rains, the feathers and gold they used to adorn themselves with, and the arrival of Spanish conquistadors that lead to the downfall of this long-inhabited trade city.
Finally, we arrive at the Castillo. I thank him and think the tour is over, but to my amazement he asks, “Do you want to climb?” I’m speechless. I must have misunderstood him – surely I cannot climb the pyramid.
“Not for many people. But you are only one. You have a good energy – I feel it. You came back after yesterday. You tell the truth. We climb.”
I’m still incredulous, but follow as he begins to ascend the stone steps. It takes 10 minutes to climb to the “room” near the top. He explains that he comes up here to meditate sometimes. He invites me to close my eyes and we meditate together. I feel the warm breeze cool the sweat on my brow. After a moment he takes a deep breath and says, “Bueno energia.” (Good energy).
I abandon my flimsy sandals, and leave my camera behind so my hands are free. We scale the remaining rocks and sit atop this structure, and I'm gifted with the most incredible view. The canopy of the jungle hides all evidence of modern civilization – we are the only people in existence. I’m transported through my imagination back 2,000 years.
The gatekeeper and I share the Maya and English words for “breathe” and “happiness.” We point out the birds we see in flight and listen for their calls. We talk about our birthdays and families at home.
We watch as the sinking sun paints everything with its golden hue. Overcome with emotion, I say “Gracias, Señor. Muchas, muchas, gracias. I will remember this forever.” He thanks me in return. “Un regalo para mi, tambien. (A gift for me, too) Gracias, amiga. Suki, princess of the pyramid with the good heart.”
He has gotten my name wrong, but I hardly notice. Words don’t matter here, only connection. This connection is what I travel for, and this time I have found it.
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