The Angels of Ek’ Balam

Mayan Angels

Angels in a Mayan pyramid? Surely not Christian angels as we think of angels in a church or pictured in an illustrated Bible with pseudo-Renaissance prints…

No. Although they do look a lot like the kind of angels we think of seeing in a Christian context, I prefer to understand these angels as naturalistic people dressed up like birds.


The Mayan archaeological site of Ek’Balam, Black Jaguar, in north central Yucatán is not only home to angels, but also to a monster.

It has a huge mouth ringed by fierce white teeth and its throat opens into a tunnel leading to the underworld.

Teeth of the Monster Mouth

Returning from a road trip to Rio Lagartos, we noted a sign for the Ek’Balam archaeological site. We turned into the parking area, and a short walk from the car put us in the middle of it.

Motmots in the Ruins

The first thing we noticed were Motmots. These birds, Blue-crowned Motmots, seemed as plentiful here as at Uxmal.


Ascending the steep stairs of the main Pyramid

The view to the Gulf of Mexico from atop the main Pyramid

And there is more to see at this beautiful site, a ball court, tunnels, bats, iguanas and the incredible view from the main pyramid of the forest canopy stretching to the Gulf of Mexico.

Connecting portions of the site are sacbé roads,  elevated white, stone pathways. On these you can walk in the steps of the Mayas.


Motmots at Uxmal

In 1989 while working on a business venture in Belize, I took several days to look for wildlife around the Coxcomb Reserve.

I am interested in birds and was lucky to see Scarlet Macaws near the village of Red Bank. One dark night on a mountain trail I saw a small wild cat, a Margay, exposed by the headlights of our jeep. Also I saw some huge snakes, boa constrictors—locally called Wolas, and one aggressive venomous Fer de Lance—a serpent Belizeans call a Tommygoff.

One bird I was particularly interested in seeing was the Motmot. These birds have long ‘paddle tails’ and electric coloring. They are easy to identify. For me however, finding the Motmot in the wild proved elusive. After spending a good part of three days looking around the edges of the Coxcomb Reserve and adjacent banana plantations, I gave up and decided that Motmots were just not destined to make my list.


When Alice and I were driving around Mexico looking for a place to settle, we spent six weeks in Mérida—trying the city on for size.

After a couple of weeks, we discovered there was a bus that left from near our apartment and traveled daily to several archeological sites—including Uxmal. I have to admit Uxmal was not on my radar, but I can say now it is one of the “don’t miss” places in Mexico.

Because we were traveling with an old beloved dog, suffering from the summer heat, Alice and I decided to take the bus to Uxmal on different days while the other stayed in Mérida dog sitting.

Alice went first and came home bubbling with happiness about her day at what she thought was a most impressive site—and, she was effusive about the amazing birds.

“They are emerald and blue and have incredible long tails with just a bare quill in the middle.”

Couldn’t be Motmots, they are too elusive to hang around a tourist site. 


The following day, I had my turn. I decided to hire an English-speaking guide as Alice felt the history and significance of the site weren’t easily understood from the few informational placards in English scattered throughout the grounds.

I talked to a couple of bored looking “old hand” guides at the entrance, and balked at hiring any of them. Then, a very small man, who I at first took to be a kid, approached me.

“Hola, my name is Puc.”

It turned out that this tiny Mayan man was twenty-nine and had three kids. He had attended a University in Mérida where he majored in Mayan Studies.

Pyramid of the Magician

Puc and I entered and came first to a most unusual pyramid. It is smooth-sided and elliptical at the base—the Pyramid of the Magician, El Adivino.

Puc told me a story of how a dwarf, el enano del Uxmal who hatched from an iguana egg, had built the structure in a single night.

Then he looked me in the eye and told me that the Mayas transmitted much of their wisdom through allegory and metaphor. He said Uxmal’s huge libraries of codices, the folding hieroglyphic books, attested to the Mayan quest for knowledge. Then he told me the site had been a university, a center of great learning.

“Where are all these books now?” I asked.

View of the courtyard of the Nunnery Quadrangle at Uxmal

“Many volumes were kept in what is today known as The Nunnery Quadrangle, el quádrangle de las monjas. There the Spanish threw most of them into the middle of the courtyard and burned them—somehow believing they were saving the indigenous people by this horrible act.”


We turned to walk toward the structure named by the Spanish as House of the Doves, In the first small grove of trees we walked through, I saw them—the Motmots. Seeing my attention shift, Puc smiled.

“Blue-crowned Motmots—they love the grounds here at Uxmal. The Mayan people revere them. They believe Motmots are the most beautiful birds in their world. But, they also believe these birds are self-aware and arrogant.

Mayan lore tells of time when a great hurricane headed to the Yucatán. All the animals could feel it. They knew it was coming and all sought shelter. Except the proud Motmots, who disregarded the signs.

Terrible winds buffeted the Motmots and they lost parts of their tail feathers, leaving a partially naked quill with its distinctive paddle shape at the tip. The Motmots were humiliated and to this day are secretive and hide from view.

But here on the grounds of Uxmal, they are proud and open for all to see.” 

Motmots in the Trees at Uxmal

Whale Walk

When living on Calle Ecuador in Puerto Vallarta, our view of Bahia de Banderas from the balcon stretched wide—an awesome vista. We could see Punta de Mita across the bay to the north. South from Punta de Mita, straight in front, lay the Islas Las Tres Marietas. Scanning the open water further south, our eyes met land again at Punta La Iglesia on the south side of the bay.

After moving there, we watched the sun swing from behind Punta de Mita in the north at the summer solstice to inland of Punta Iglesia in the south at the winter solstice. Every day at sunset, we noted the apparent solar movement. In mid-January, the sun has moved north from Punta Iglesia enough to set on the southern end of the bay.

One morning looking out at the bay, we spotted whales. The whales were here.

Whales, ballenas!

A quarter-mile offshore, a catamaran and two pangas were dead in the water within a hundred yards of three wallowing whales. The people in those boats were getting a real close look.

I had a morning meeting in Old Town, Colonia Emiliano Zapata, so I kissed Alice goodbye, hurried down to the street, and scrambled down the steep Calle Panama to reach flatter terrain. I zigzagged across the cobbles of Colonia Cinco de Diciembre toward the north end of the malecón, the shoreline’s broad walkway.

There they were—the whales. They had moved further south, even closer to shore—now just a few hundred yards out.

I could swim to them from here.

As I eased into a comfortable pace weaving through strolling tourists and locals, the whales seemed to move with me. They would sound and gain a few hundred yards, then dawdle together for a while. I was so pleased my pace synched with the whales’ movements it took a while to realize most of the people on the malecón were oblivious to the whales. Every hundred feet or so, I met a person whose gaze also had locked on the whales and we exchanged smiles.

It was like walking along with a dog—until we arrived at the south end of the malecón and they turned west—out to sea—untethered—free—wild. 

A high-five tail-wag. Gone.

Whales. Humpback Whales.

Forty-thousand Flamingos

Ria Lagartos/Rio Lagartos

You don’t pass through the little fishing village of Rio Lagartos, Alligator River, going anywhere. Unless you intend it as a destination, you will never come upon it. The village is remote—at the end of a road in the middle of the northern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. However, it is a place rich in wildlife and natural beauty, the home of Mexico’s Reserva de la Biospera Ria Lagartos.

Alice and I drove from Merida to Rio Lagartos. Once there, we hired a guide to take us on a birding adventure. We wanted to see some of the hundreds of species of birds living in or migrating through this reserve. We understood very large numbers of Flamingos were the main attraction, and we were not disappointed.

Our guide, Roman Fernandez, was a gifted naturalist well versed in the life histories and habits of the creatures we saw—birds and others. He told us Flamingos weigh 2.5 kilos for females, 5.5 kilos for males. They may live for 20 years, have few if any predators, lay and incubate one white or green egg per year and mate for life.

With Roman, we stood on the dikes of a huge salt works bordering the reserve and looked into the very salty water. It was pink-colored from thousands of tiny brine shrimp and other small carotene-loaded organisms. Roman, scooped a handful to show us the pink-orange squiggles thrashing about in the water.

“This,” he said, “is what makes the Flamingos pink!”

When you see the huge population of wild Flamingos there, sometimes as many as 40,000 in the reserve, they appear little changed from their earliest appearance on this earth. Gawky looking with their upside-down bill, yet graceful, they glide across the vast flats.

Roman also told us, 56 to 34 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch, the dawn of mammals, Flamingos were wading about here. They are gregarious birds in the genus Phoenicopterus and family Phoenicopteridae. Worldwide there are six different species. One of these, the American Flamingo, lives in the Caribbean Islands, Caribbean Mexico, Belize and the Galapagos Islands, with the greatest numbers in Mexico frequenting the Ria Lagartos area.

Although we had traveled to Rio Lagartos to see the Flamingos, they were just a part of the great show we experienced. Among the birds we saw were:

American Flamingo / Flamenco Comun
Great Blue Heron / La Gran Garza de Azule o Garzon Cenizo
Great Egret / Garzon Blanco
Boat-billed Heron / Garza Cucharon

Boat-billed Heron

Snowy Egret / Garzita Nivea
Great Black-hawk / Aguililla Negra
Osprey / Gavilan Pescador
Wood Stork / Ciguena
Roseate Spoonbill /Espatula
White Ibis / Ibis Blanco
Magnificent Frigate Bird / Fragata
Brown Pelican / Alcatraz Pardo
White Pelican / Alcatraz Blanco
Neotropical Cormorant / Corvejon
Anhinga / Huizote
Ruddy Ground Dove / Tortilita Rojiza
Scaled Pigeon / Paloma Escamosa
Yucatan Parrot / Loro Yucateco

And many, many other birds.
We also saw:
Crocodiles / Cocodrilos

BIG Croc hiding in mangroves

We saw several. One was huge, and we saw it up close!! Roman said it was nesting. I later read nesting crocodiles are the most dangerous!

The once-numerous crocodiles gave the town its name as the Spanish mistook them for alligators, el lagartos—the big lizards.

It is interesting to note the name of the village is Rio Lagartos while the reserve is Ria Lagartos. Roman explained that Ria is used to describe an estuary where salt and freshwater meet and mix. Spanish explorers mistook the narrowing of the estuary, ria, for a river, rio, and the crocodiles for alligators.

The Maya knew the place as Holkobén and used it as a rest stop on their way to Las Coloradas, a part of the vast estuary stretching east almost to the border of Quintana Roo. There they extracted precious salt from the waters, a process that continues on a large scale today.


Less than 1km east of town, on the edge of the estuary, is a beautiful natural freshwater spring, ojo de agua dulce. The locals called it a cenote, although it didn’t look at all like the cenotes we saw farther inland. There was no cave or lake, instead, the spring bubbled water up to sea level where it mixed with the salty water of the estuary. It is the town swimming hole.


The Tell

A Tell is what is demonstrated when a poker player, grifter or salesman—some person who wants to know something about his subject’s future—discovers a clue that enables him to predict whether a person is sincere or not—lying or being truthful.

Sometimes, A Tell may be delivered by a third party. For instance, in an old I Love Lucy episode, Lucy sees Desi’s poker hand and her big facial exclamations telegraph to the other players his great hand. Of course, the other players fold leaving Desi disappointed.


In January, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is an almost perfect place to be. Christmas is over and the weather is sunny with a fresh light breeze blowing every day from the ocean. Humpback whales cruise around the protected waters of Bahia Banderas, Mexico’s largest bay. They are busy with mating and birthing their calves. And, the city is full of grateful refugees from the frozen north.

One day while walking from our apartment on Calle Ecuador down the steep Calle Panama, I looked up from my feet as the cobbles levelled out and caught a glimpse off to my left of a bright colored bird in an alcove. The bird’s perch was a young man’s shoulder. He was working on cleanup of the demolition of a small building. I turned in and asked the man if I could take a picture of his bird, as I had never before seen a parrot like this one. The red blaze across the bird’s forehead distinguished it from other parrots I’d seen around Puerto Vallarta.


Si, por supuesto!” he said flashing a huge open-faced smile.

I took several pictures as we spoke.

“You have a beautiful bird. What kind is it?”


“Did you raise it?” I asked as I took another picture.

I understand it is illegal here in Mexico to possess wild birds. Yet, I’ve seen many for sale.

“Ah no, lo encontré en el bosque,” I found it in the forest.  “Se había caído de su nido,”  It had fallen out of its nest.

I do know most parrots live and raise their young from tree hollows, huecos en los árboles, no en nidos.

As the words exited the man’s mouth, the bird made a deft move toward his ear and bit it.

“Pinche perico!”

After a quick examination of the red trickle exiting his wound, he calmed and in English asked me, “You like to have a perico like this? I can get you one.”

I’ve since compared my photo of the bird to various illustrations and texts I found online as well as my own bird identification books, and I believe this bird is a Lilac-Crowned Parrot, Loro Occidental or  Cotorra Frente Roja. In 2006, Birdlife International classified this species as Vulnerable. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature uplisted this species to Endangered.

These birds are very intelligent. They are often taught to speak and they know how to Tell.


Formal Attire

Black-necked Stilts

Candelero Mexicano

Picture a busy business executive dressed in a tuxedo while grabbing a bite in a sandwich shop at the beach. There’s no reason to wear dull clothing even when eating a mundane meal.

Yelapa, a small coastal village accessible by boat on Mexico’s Bahia de Banderas, is where we first found Black-necked Stilts. Then living in Guanajuato, we had fled a cold snap. After taking a bus to Puerto Vallarta, we traveled by shuttle boat across the bay to Yelapa.  Our room overlooked the lagoon formed where a river, Rio Tuito, meets the ocean waters. This was our week to warm up.

On our first morning, as I prepared breakfast while looking out over the lagoon, I was delighted to spot a group of unfamiliar shorebirds. They appeared to be similar to the American Avocets we’d often seen in coastal North Carolina—both with a slight upturns to their thin bills. Watching them forage along the alluvial banks, we noted a most striking difference. These birds were wearing full formal attire.

American Avocet


Now living in Puerto Vallarta, we have discovered these fancy-dressed Black-necked Stilts are frequent visitors to the mouth of the Rio Cuale, the small river running through the south end of the city. There they parade about the shallows showing off to walkers crossing the river’s footbridge along the malecón, the pedestrian causeway along the bay’s edge. Their graceful motion on long thin red legs is an elegant slow dance. Among birds, only flamingos have legs longer in proportion to their bodies.

Their scientific name, Himantopus mexicanus, points out their home turf. In the morning before the noise level of Puerto Vallarta is too high, you may hear them. They are quite vocal—making sharp yapping calls. Sometimes they make soft cheeps, with deeper contented-sounding intermittent gargles.

While Black-necked Stilt populations appear stable throughout Mexico, the US Fish & Wildlife Service lists their near identical cousins, the Hawaiian Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus knudseni, also known as Ae‘o, “One Standing Tall”, as an endangered species.

Stilts are wetland birds and vulnerable to pollution from pesticide runoff.

These dignified shorebirds often work the waters together in groups of up to twenty, going about the business of their daily lives—corralling tiny minnows. They also eat bugs, shrimp, tadpoles and some seeds and plants making the Rio Cuale a perfect habitat.

And they are formally dressed for all their meals.

A Gift of Color


Note the white flecks on the blooming nopal

Blue jacaranda petals shower the ground and nopal pads 


I rubbed my fingers across the flakey white stuff on the side of a nopal cactus in our jardin, intending to catch for closer examination a little of what appeared to be white powder. I had seen something like this in my North Carolina vegetable garden—little white scaly mealybugs on my tomatoes. Glancing down at my hand, It startled me to see bright red across my fingertips.

Did I cut myself?

Ahhh, this must be the way some Native American discovered cochineal dyes.

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500s, they found the Aztecs  producing vibrant red cochineal-dyed fabrics—far brighter than anything available in Europe. Further, these dyes retained their color for a very long time. The little creature responsible is the cochineal, Dactylopius coccus, a scaled insect native throughout sub-tropical Mexico, Central America and sub-tropical South America. The parasitic cochineal colonies attach themselves more or less permanently to nopal plants and spend their lives there sucking nutrients. Native Mexicans collected the bodies and eggs of the cochineal by hand using deer tail brushes, then crushed and dried the tiny bugs. It takes 80,000 to 100,000 of these insects to make a kilogram of cochineal dye.


“Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail”

by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777) (Wikipedia, Cochineal)

Kermes, the nearest comparable red dye available in 1500s Europe, is also derived from an insect. However, it was very expensive—and a weaker dye. Soon, dried cochineal from the New World became a major trade good—second only to gold in desirability.

Much of the color vibrancy that exploded among Renaissance painters may be attributed to the introduction of cochineal reds to their palettes.

Amazingly, the Spanish were able to guard the secret of the cochineal dyes for two-hundred-fifty years. Finally, a French naturalist smuggled nopal infested with the scaly insects out of Mexico.

Today, indigenous southern Mexicans still practice cochineal gathering and dyeing as a folk art.

So, whenever you see carmine, cochineal extract, or natural Red No. 4 listed as an ingredient in food or cosmetics, you will know the product is made from powdered bugs.

Until 2009, cochineal fell under the umbrella term “natural color” on ingredient lists. However, cochineal provokes allergic reactions in some people. Now, the US Food and Drug Administration requires carmine and cochineal extract to be explicitly identified in ingredient lists.

Except for its role as an occasional allergen, cochineal has no known health risks.

Synthetic red dyes such as Red No. 2 and Red No. 40 carry far greater health risks. They are derived from either coal or petroleum byproducts and have been proven carcinogenic.

Perhaps it’s time to return to natural colors. Compared with synthetic dyes, powdered bugs seem safe and appetizing. 



In 1984, Alice and I visited Mérida. Then, the people called it La Ciudad Blanca, The White City. In addition to the whitewashed buildings, many residents wore white. Most men wore loose-fitting pleated white shirts, guayaberas, white trousers and fine woven straw hats from the nearby town of Becal. Women wore white dresses with heavy embroidery and bright-colored floral patterns. The city appeared clean and prosperous.

What we didn’t realize then was we were witnessing the very end of the Henequén Era in the Yucatán.

In the 1950s, nylon rope began to take the place of rope made from the natural fibers of the henequén and sisal plants. By 1984, the last viable commercial harvest of these crops had taken place in the Yucatán. The henequén industry which created enormous wealth-producing plantations using slave-like company store labor was over. The natural fiber rope market collapsed, and DuPont with its new synthetic products ruled. Only narrow specialty markets for these natural fibers survive today.


When we returned to Mérida in 2012, we found a different city. Nikes, t-shirts with designer names and jeans were the standard dress. We only saw traditional dress around the main square, the Zócalo, displayed there for tourists.

Departing from Mérida in 1984, we took a bus and rode all day to Belize passing through many huge henequén plantations. These are difficult to locate today. Many are abandoned, overgrown—reclaimed by Mother Nature.

Henequén, (Agave fourcroydes ), and Sisal, (Agave sisalana), were the two principal plants used for fiber production. Henequén was used for coarse-fiber production—lines for ships, riggings, string, sacks and rugs. Sisal is a close relative to henequén but considered a finer fiber often blended with cotton. I purchased a guayabera and a hammock, hamaca, in Mérida. Both were soft cotton/sisal blends.

The henequén and sisal plants appear as rosettes of sword-shaped leaves. These they harvested in bundles and then stripped them lengthwise, yielding long stiff fibers which twisted together made twine, rope, mattress ticking or coarse clothing.

The names henequén and sisal may refer to either the plant or the fiber. Additional name confusion comes from the Mexican port of Sisal, which shipped much of the fiber product during its heyday. Shippers labeled both henequén and sisal shipped from Sisal as Sisal—indicating the port of embarkation. As a result, many people referred to all fiber products from the port as sisal.

Although now grown in many parts of the world, both henequén and sisal are indigenous to the Yucatán.


While in Mérida in 2012, we visited some of the remaining vestiges of the henequén plantations. One of the most beautiful was Yaxcopoil.




Entrance to Hacienda Nohchakan, another henequén plantation we visited

In the late 19th century, the henequén industry grew to unprecedented power in the Yucatán. The export of henequén products made many local families rich. That wealth is still evident in much of the architecture of the colonial city of Mérida and in the more than one-hundred-and-fifty henequén haciendas spread throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. The henequén industry provided many years of financial autonomy to the isolated Yucatán.

At the height of the Henequén Era (1850-1984, interrupted by the Mexican Revolution), Mérida was one of the richest cities in the world.

Since the henequén collapse, many of the workers from the more remote plantations have moved into Mérida, and since 1984 the city has grown from around a half a million to well over a million people. Today, it is dependent on tourism as its primary economic engine.

The Eye of the Curve-billed Thrasher

Cuitlacoche común


How is it possible for these birds to fly into such tangles of spikes and thorns unscathed?

Handsome with  intimidating fierce yellow eyes, the Curve-billed Thrasher, Cuitlacoche, is high on my list of favorite Mexican birds. Calling with high-pitched, trilling chirps, they draw your attention while ripping apart ripe tunas on a nopal cactus with their powerful down-curved bills.


Red nopal tuna fruits, ripe for a meal

Curve-bills are as comfortable around thorn brushes, cactus spines and scrub as Brer Rabbit was in the briar patch. Their diet of insects, seeds and berries, draws these birds into improbable places. It is quite a show to watch these fearless birds land in spiny, well-guarded spots. Their careful landings often appear to be downright miraculous.

I once observed a Curve-bill fly into its nest in a Cholla cactus, a true snarl of sharp points.



Although these birds are common throughout Mexico, loss of habitat to urban development and agriculture continues to cause their population to decline.