The Women of Chichen Itza

March 8th, 2018 by ejalbright

Editor’s note:

I devote a chapter in my book about the “gringo” history of Chichen Itza to the “gringas.” It’s one of the longest chapters in the book and I could have written much, much more. The women who explored and tamed Chichen Itza were practical and capable, unlike many of the men, who were dreamers and, much of time, rash and foolish. The hubris of the early archaeologists and developers of Chichen is a major theme of the book, hence they get most of the ink (not to mention the book title).

One day the women of Chichen will get their respective due. As today is “International Women’s Day,” below is an excerpt from my chapter, covering the period of the late 1920s and 1930s and featuring Carmen Gomez Rul Castillo, Frances Morley, Anne Axtell Morris, and the unnamed “virgin” who talked her way out of sacrifice into the Sacred Well. The rest of the chapter covers Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Elva Legters, who were influential during that period. And the book is peppered with other women who played important roles during the discoveries and commercial development of Chichen Itza, including Alma Reed, Victoria (Marrufo) Manjarrez, Alice Le Plongeon, Adela Breton, Henrietta “Etta” Thompson, Carmen Barbachano y Gomez Rul, Isabel “Belisa” Barbachano Herrero, and Maruja Herrero Garcia.

From The Man Who Owned a Wonder of the World

THE PAST

the women of Chichén Itzá

FERNANDO BARBACHANO PEON may get the credit for building Yucatán’s tourism industry, but he did so in partnership with his wife, Carmen Gomez Rul Castillo. And hers arguably was the hardest job. She ran the Mayaland Hotel—trained and managed the staff, planned the menus, supervised any new construction—and did it all while caring for her five-year-old son, Fernando, and a newborn baby girl, Carmen Barbachano y Gomez Rul. While her husband was in Mérida building that end of the business, she was at Chichén insuring that her customers had every luxury and more importantly, were insulated from the reality of living in the bush—thriving scorpion populations, the occasional poisonous snake, and at least once, the majestic jaguar, whose wet paw prints were discovered on morning leading away from the hotel fountain.

For such a remote area almost exclusively inhabited by Maya and mestizos, white women called the shots. Not only Carmen (assisted by her aunt) at the Mayaland, but Sylvanus Morley’s second wife, Frances, was the true power next door at the Carnegie Institution’s headquarters at the Hacienda Chichén. “Vay” and Frances had met in Sante Fe in 1926 and, even though she was fifteen years his junior, Morley knew instantly he wanted to marry her. In March 1927 he brought her to Chichén Itzá and at sunset proposed to her atop El Castillo, twenty years to the day after he first visited Chichén Itzá. Frances became Morley’s guardian and micro-managed his life. During meals she would hover over her husband and hand him his napkin, put food on his plate, salt it, and even butter his bread. The two were the source of local gossip, the result of their non-stop public displays of affection—a taboo in conservative Yucatán where men courted women without even speaking to them or looking directly at them. “They often pull ears and sometimes kiss!” one observer noticed. The couple was so amorous, it became a bit of a joke by some of the archaeologists and visitors to Chichén Itzá. At one meal Morley leaned over to buss Frances and on cue all the other couples at the table simultaneously turned and kissed their partner. The table roared at its prank on Morley, but according to one of the witnesses to this event, “I do not remember that it reformed him.”

Between the Mayaland and the Hacienda Chichén was doña Victoria, who fed the Carnegie workers and later took in visitors. Her husband, Carlos Marrufo, and her sons frequently were away, leaving her run her little inn.

These three women had little interaction with each other; even though they lived within a few hundred feet of each other, their lives did not appear to intersect with any regularity.

Of the three, doña Carmen had the greatest challenge. While the Carnegie Institution refused to hire Maya as servants in the main house (considering them unfit for domestic service), doña Carmen had no such luxury. She depended upon local labor to clean the hotel rooms, work in the kitchen and laundry, and maintain the grounds. Few, if any, of those she hired had any experience at all. Her workers were farmers who grew maize or laborers who rebuilt the ancient Maya temples for the Carnegie. Or they were young girls hired from the villages and who wore huipils. They lived in Maya nas with packed dirt floors and hammocks in which to sleep. They had no experience cleaning buildings with tile floors and modern bathrooms. They had to be taught the proper way to strip a bed and then make it, even though they themselves would probably never spend a night in one over the course of their entire life. They had to be trained how to serve drinks in glasses filled with ice even though they drank from hollowed dry gourds. They learned to set a table with silverware, plate, and napkin, even though they had no use for such things for in their homes the tortilla served all those purposes and was edible to boot.

The biggest training challenge no doubt had to be to get the local men to accept orders from a woman, although at Chichén Itzá this may have been less of a problem because there had always been unusually empowered white women. For more than fifty years Chichén Itzá had attracted strong-willed gringas, such as Alice Le Plongeon in the 1870s and 1880s, Adela Breton after the turn of the century, and Edward Thompson’s wife Henrietta. These women endured the same hardships as their male counterparts, but it is the men who received most of the credit for the discoveries and accomplishments. It is a tradition that reached back to the ancient Maya of Chichén. The oral history of Maya regarding Chichén is filled with exploits of men, such as man-as-god Kululcan, or the three brothers who legend had it together ruled the ancient city, or of the king of Mayapan, Hunac Ceel, who conquered it. But the hieroglyphs found on some of the walls at Chichén Itzá refer to women. There are glyphs in Akab Dzib which describe at one prominent woman, the mother of a dynastic ruler, although in her case the world of men still intrude as her name has been translated as “Lady Penis.”

The only oral legends that mentioned women at Chichén Itzá were about those who were sacrificed into the Cenote Sagrado, but there was one well known story of the woman who said, “no.” Like the other sacrifice victims before her, this woman was led into the little shrine at the lip of the Sacred Well where the priests explained that she would be lowered by a long rope into the cenote thirty meters below and dunked repeatedly until she encountered the gods, or until she died, whichever came first. If the gods came to her, they told her to ask for rain. “I will ask no such thing,” she said. Instead she would tell the gods to send no maize or anything at all. “The boldness and assurance of that virgin in her speech had so great an effect that they left her and sacrificed another in her place,” according to a Spanish monk who documented the tale.

A millennium later, another strong-willed woman Ann Axtell Morris ventured into Sacred Cenote, not as a sacrifice but of her own free will. She lived at the Hacienda Chichén for several years assisting her husband Earl with his excavations of the ancient monuments for the Carnegie. She eventually became a skilled excavator in her own right, in addition to her work as a staff artist. According to Axtell Morris, there were two types of archaeologist wives: Those who stayed at home and those who joined their husbands on their expeditions. Of the latter, acceptance among the husband’s archaeology colleagues had to be earned. “The poor newcomer who presumes to break into the sacrosanct circle must stand trial by fire, till it is decided she is all right,” Axtell Morris once observed.

Axtell Morris possessed those ephemeral qualities that she believed made her “all right.” Crazy, but not too crazy; hard-boiled about facts, but still retained a “will-o’-the-wispish flair”; unbothered by ants in the oatmeal or other discomforts; perceived indigenous people, past and present, as something more than the stereotypical savage; “finally it is imperative to consider a skeleton as a very lucky find, and not as a dead human being.”

One afternoon in the late 1920s, Axtell Morris, her husband, and two other men wanted an adventure to escape the tedium of archaeology. They found they could reach the waters of the Cenote Sagrado by climbing down a tree that was growing on a ledge about halfway down the cliff. They made it the rest of the way by shinnying down one of the tree’s thick, exposed roots that stretched to what Axtell Morris described as a “small beach.” She apparently did not know the beach was man-made, the tailings left behind by Thompson’s famous dredge two decades earlier. As they stood on Thompson’s Beach, the quartet marveled at the thought that under the jade green waters was a fortune in Mayan treasure.

The four spent the afternoon lazily swimming the cenote. When the sun disappeared over the lip, the shade gave the appearance that twilight was only a few minutes away. The party hurriedly dressed on the beach and one by one the men climbed up the root, then up the tree and out of the cenote. They threw down the end of a rope and instructed Axtell Morris to tie it around her waist as a safety harness. Morris, unaccustomed to ropes and knots, put too much slack in the loop around her body. As she crawled up the tree root, the oversized noose began to slip over her head. She panicked, let go of the tree root and grabbed the rope with both hands. The three men had no choice but to haul her up, unceremoniously banging her repeatedly against the wall of the cenote.

Morris wrote that she remembered nothing of the ascent. She could not let go of the rope once she was topside and the men had to pry it from her fingers—not unlike those women of centuries past that legend claimed also were pulled from the cenote. Once she regained her senses, she found the world above was now “beautiful beyond anything I had ever imagined,” she wrote. “For those few minutes, the scales of the commonplace fell from my eyes, and I saw the earth and loved it, in the manner one should.”

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Mexico Maintains Chichen Ticket Prices in 2018

January 4th, 2018 by ejalbright

Another year, another ticket price increase.

But not at Chichen Itza, at least not as far as the federal portion of the ticket price is concerned. In 2017, the total ticket price to enter Chichen Itza for non-Mexicans was 242 pesos, of which 70 pesos went to the federal government. This year the federal government announced it was holding to the 70-peso price.

As yet we have not heard what the state of Yucatan has decided for 2018, but last year the fee was 172 pesos. The state has announced that the price of the nightly light-and-sound show has increased to 453 pesos.

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Light-and-Sound Show No Longer Free Nov. 1

October 6th, 2016 by ejalbright

The nightly light-and-sound show at Chichén Itzá has been free since it launched two years ago. That ends Nov. 1.

Earlier this week tourism authorities in Yucatán State announced that the show will cost 434 pesos (approx. $22.50 USD) beginning Nov. 1, 2016.

This isn’t the first time that officials have said they would begin charging for the show, but this time they called a large press conference. As reported by the Diario de Yucatán, the new fee was revealed at a joint press conference of federal and state authorities.

The announcement was made by representatives from the Secretaría de Fomento Turístico (Secretariat of Tourism Development) of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History or INAH), the federal agency that oversees Chichén Itzá. They were joined by representatives from two state agencies: Patronato Cultur (the state agency known as CULTUR) and the Agencia de Administración Fiscal (Agency of Fiscal Administration).

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UBER offers Merida to Chichen Itza and back, less than $50 US

March 29th, 2016 by ejalbright

It’s a price that will be pretty hard to beat.

UberTOUR, the vacation wing of the Uber car service, is offering roundtrip transportation from Mérida to Chichén Itzá for 850 pesos (slightly less than $50 US) for up to four people. If you are a first-time Uber user, you can get a discount of 150 pesos by entering the code “UBERTOURCHICHEN.”

I have yet to know anyone who has done this, but Uber’s recent launch into Mexico has been popular among expatriates living in Mérida. The convenience of ordering and paying for a car service via the Uber ap on a smartphone is winning over locals as well.

For the Chichen Itza UberTOUR (ordered through the same ap), the driver will pick you up in Mérida and drive you to the entrance of Chichén Itzá. Admission and guide fees will be the responsibility of the passengers. The driver will wait up to four hours, which is plenty of time to see ancient city

For the return trip, the passengers text or call the driver (therefore must make certain they get his or her number before leaving the car), who will meet them at the entrance for the return trip to Mérida

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Report: Mexico Adds 45-Peso Fee to See Equinox

March 15th, 2016 by ejalbright

If a report in the Diario de Yucatan is correct, federal officials will be charging visitors to Chichén Itzá and Dzibulchaltun an extra 45 pesos ($2.50 US) on March 21, the day of the equinox.

The fee is for shooting video and, according to the Diario, will be imposed on everyone, presumably because everyone has a smart phone or similar device that can shoot video.

If the Diario is correct, the admission fee for foreigners will be the normal 232 pesos plus the camera fee for a total of 287 pesos or slightly more than $16 US.

According to the Diario, the fee violates federal law, which states the fees can only be imposed on professional photographers and videographers who will use the images for commercial purposes. Violation or not, it appears that the federal government will be collecting the additional 45 pesos on the equinox.

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2016 Is a New Year; Ticket Prices Go Up!

January 4th, 2016 by ejalbright

Ticket prices to Chichén Itzá went up Jan. 1, 2016 to 232 pesos, but thanks to the weakening peso, the entry price is less for U.S. visitors than it was a year ago.

Visitors to Chichen pay for two tickets, 65 pesos to the federal Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) and 167 pesos to the state CULTUR. The INAH fee increased 1 peso and the CULTUR fee jumped 9 pesos, according to a report in the Diario de Yucatan.

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Yucatan State Abruptly Boosts Ticket Fees to Chichen

April 2nd, 2015 by ejalbright

The state of Yucatan, without warning, increased entrance fees to its archaeological zones on Monday.

According to a new report in the Diario de Yucatan, a ticket to Chichén Itzá for foreign visitors now costs an additional four pesos. Thanks to the weak peso, U.S. visitors will barely feel the increase, which is the equivalent of an American quarter.

The new fee to enter Chichén is $210 Mexican (slightly less than $14 U.S.). Of that, the state of Yucatan receives $156 Mexican and the federal government $54.

For Mexican citizens and legal aliens, the fee increased two pesos from $145 to $147. Of that, the state receives 83 pesos and the federal government 64 pesos.

The ticket fee for the new Chichén Itzá light-and-sound show was slightly reduced from 206 pesos to 201 ($13.30 U.S.).

Uxmal, the other major site in Yucatan state, now costs foreign visitors $203 Mexican. Mexican citizens and legal residents are now charged $143 Mexican.

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Protesters Block Entrance Road to Chichen Itza

March 8th, 2015 by ejalbright

Protesters from Pisté, the town next to Chichén Itzá, blocked the entrance road into the archaeological zone one day last week.

The Maya, who represent the ejido of Pisté, are protesting what they believe is unfair distribution of proceeds from tickets and concessions at Chichén, namely that the government and businesses get it all and the local people get none.

The protesters were stopping cars and buses going into Chichén and collecting 10 pesos per head or 300 pesos per busload. They managed to collect 20,000 pesos before authorities convinced them to stop.

This issue is not resolved, although there are no specific plans announced for the “toll collecting” to resume.

If you are stopped just outside Chichén, my advice is to pay the toll. This is a non-violent protest. Also, this issue probably will be resolved and there will be no more protests.

Don’t get involved in what is a local dispute. It is illegal for non-Mexicans to participate in anything that smacks of politics. Though rare, gringos have been arrested and deported.

These type of protests happen occasionally, and this should blow over in a day or two. But if it doesn’t, I will post additional information here at americanegypt.com.

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Credit Cards at Chichen Itza, Uxmal? Not so Fast …

January 29th, 2015 by ejalbright

Visitors to Chichén Itzá and Uxmal will soon be allowed to use credit cards to purchase tickets, according to the federal agency that oversees the ruins.

Before anyone gets too excited about this development, the announcement by the federal Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) does not mean that tourists can pay the entire ticket price with a credit card. To get into Chichen Itza requires two tickets, one purchased from INAH and one purchased from the state of Yucatan’s CULTUR.

On Feb. 1, the INAH ticket booths at the two ancient cities will accept credit cards as a form of payment, which represents 64 pesos of the admission price; the announcement, however, contains no word about what the state of Yucatan intends to do, which in 2014 charged 129 pesos to enter the site.

Our advice–bring pesos!

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New Night Show at Chichen Itza is FREE!

December 11th, 2014 by ejalbright

It took more than two years, numerous delays, and blew out the original budget of $40 million Mexican, but according to dignitaries and others that attended last night’s premiere, the new night show at Chichén Itzá is worth it.

And for now to Dec. 19 the nightly program will be free. After that there will be a separate admission, the price of which has yet to be officially announced but earlier reports put it at 198 pesos ($13.60 U.S.).

Today the state agency for tourism, CULTUR, will hold a press conference announcing details of how to get passes to the free shows.

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