Playa del Carmen, Mexico's virtual guidebook written by locals

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The Mayan World after the Conquest

The First Contact

The very first Europeans came to this area in 1511 when a Spanish ship sunk off the Caribbean coast. Out of the 19 survivors, only two eluded sacrifice or disease - Brother Gerónimo de Aguilar and Seaman Gonzalo Guerrero. They settled down with the Maya; Gonzalo Guerrero married a Mayan woman and had three children, the first mestizos. After eight years a passing ship ransomed the Brother out, but Gonzalo Guerrero decided to stay with his family. When Hernández de Córdoba tried to land a Spanish force in 1517, they were driven off by Mayan troops under the command of Gonzalo Guerrero. Gerónimo de Aguilar later became Hernán Cortés's translator and was crucial as the means of communication between the conqueror and the initially welcoming indians.


The many surprisingly advanced civilizations in the New World boggled the mind of the first Europeans that arrived. How could these savages construct amazing buildings and maintain an advanced social structure, when they didn't even know about God? Wild theories were soon introduced to explain the mystery. The most common theory, and one that you will still hear, is that early Europeans or Egyptians must have visited the New World centuries earlier, bringing their wisdom and knowledge. Even though we do know that parts of the New World were indeed visited before Columbus, it is more likely that civilizations developed independently on different continents. In modern day, this  there's no way they could have done this themselves theory has prevailed and, in some cases, evolved into absurdity. Some people actually believe that the Maya, along with the builders of the pyramids in Egypt and the Nazca lines in Peru, must have received other-worldly help. Do what you want with that theory, but the truth is there are lots of mysteries involving the Maya. Not only did they construct amazing temples in perfect geophysical alignment, they also made roads between cities. These roads are called sacbe, which means white road. Like so many other features of Mayan culture they remain a mystery. They are perfectly straight, even between cities quite far apart. They are raised, built on a platform, and paved with white stone. At times reaching 10 meters in width, the sacbe seem suited for wagons and heavy traffic. However, the Maya knew of but did not utilize the wheel and there weren't any big mammals in the Mayan world before the Spanish brought the horse. The grandeur of the sacbe was most probably due to ceremonial purposes.

What happened?

How could these people, with their tools of stone, obsidian and fire-hardened wood, build awesome monuments, transport great monoliths and carve intricate hieroglyphs? The collapse of the early Mayan society only helps to further fuel the mystery - if they were so superior, how come their society didn't last? There are many theories to the downfall of the Mayan civilization; famine, invasion, epidemic illness, social uproar and the aliens leaving. The truth is - we don’t know. Most probably it was a combination of several things - except maybe the aliens… Do bear in mind that many civilizations in the Old World also have flourished and perished over the centuries, such as Rome, Samarkand and Troy. Perhaps the answer lies in the destructive and aggressive disposition of the human race.

Where Does Playa del Carmen Fit into the Picture?

Playa del Carmen, or Xaman-Ha in Mayan, is in the Yucatán Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo. The coast and the lowlands of the peninsula were still heavily populated with the descendents of the fallen civilization when the Spaniards arrived. Tulum, less than an hour south of Playa, was the last Mayan outpost and there are plenty of small ruins in Playa del Carmen. The Spanish focused their attention around the area of Mérida, where conditions were better for growing henequén (sisal), a fibre used to make rope. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Caribbean coast was considered a savage place with not much to offer for potential settlers. At this time, pirates roamed the seas of the Caribbean, and there are many stories of treasures hidden by legendary pirates, like Jean Lafitte and Henry Morgan.

Persistent Yucatecans

The Maya on the Yucatán did not give up their independence easily. As late as 1847 there was a major revolt around Valladolid and Mérida, as a reaction of the inhuman conditions in the henequén plantations and the discrimination in general. This is called the War of the Castes and it was a violent time with massacres on both sides . The Maya took control of much of the Yucatán, but a few years later they went back to sow their crops. This allowed the Governor of Yucatán tocounterattack and what was left of the Mayan troops were forced down to southern Quintana Roo, were resistance against the government was renewed. In the aftermath of the War of the Castes a cult arose in this area. A man named José María Barrera and the Mayan ventriloquist Manuel Nahuat invented the Talking Cross. Thousands followed the Cross and the cult took the name Cruzob, a mix between the Spanish word for cross and the Mayan plural suffix - ob. Cruzob ruled the southern part of Quintana Roo, with bloodshed and force, until 1901 when the Mexican army regained control over the area.

The Mayans of Today

So, from the beginning of the 20th century until about 25 years ago, this area of Mexico was more or less isolated from the rest of the country. It was only some 25 years ago some American and Mexican investors decided to make Cancun into the next big vacation spot. Their instinct turned out to be right on the money (literally) and the entire coast has seen a rapid and powerful growth in the tourist industry since then. Before this, the peninsula was inhabited by people whose mainincome came from fishing and growing coconuts and henequén. Unfortunately most of the coconut plantations are gone due to the fatal yellow leaf disease and the henequén have been replaced by other materials. Tourism have become a major source of income to present day inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula.

Although the Spaniards brought great change to all of Mexico as a result of their 16th century conquest, it might be argued that the change seen by the present generation Maya is greater still. Land rights along with the economic control of local resources are often in the hands of the privileged few living far away. The enlightened traveler will bear this in mind in his or her encounters with the descendents of this once great society. Without an understanding of their yesterday, it may be difficult to fully appreciate their today.