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.

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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

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.

El Silencio de los Pájaros

tenochtitlan-44-fs

Tenochtitlán se eleva
Desde el gran lago de la vida
Brilla como una joya
Brilla la luz natural

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La calzada está bordeada
Con las pájaros de su mundo
Con sus colores tan vivos
Con sus canciones tan puras

*

Símbolos de la belleza
Símbolos de la gracia
Hernán ha visto
Él sabe de su poder

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Ahora ha llegado el silencio
Se han quemado los pájaros
Hay un nuevo orden de poder
De poder sin gracia

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La enfermedad del corazón
Que sólo se curan con el oro
Hernán es la obsesión
Hernán es la vergüenza