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