Quest for the Lost Cities


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There’s something about dreaming of lost cities that brings out the Indiana Jones in us. My downfall came well before the first screen appearance of the character with the wide-brim felt hat, leather jacket and bullwhip. In the late 1960s, I began my own search for adventure by packing a camper with beer and insect repellent and driving 3,000 miles to photograph Mexico’s Maya ruins.

I carried a paperback copy of Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, written a century earlier by explorer John Lloyd Stephens and illustrated by his artist companion, Frederick Catherwood. From 1839 to 1842, the pair endured two epic expeditions through the tropical forests of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, discovering ancient cities. Stephens’ journals, filled with Catherwood’s sketches, told an astonished world of an unknown civilization—the Maya—the ancient people who developed the first accurate calendar, charted the sky and created the earliest written language in the Americas. One morning among the ruins, I found myself standing exactly where Catherwood had set up his easel a century earlier. I duplicated his 1841 sketch with my camera and vowed to someday retrace the path of that expedition.

The explorers had met by chance in London, where Catherwood told Stephens about rumors of ancient cities found in the jungles of Central America. The thought of searching for those ruins fired Stephens’ imagination, and he asked Catherwood to travel there with him. On November 4, 1839, they boarded a boat on Guatemala’s Río Dulce, landed at the port of Izabál, then rode mules over the mountains, heading for ruins said to be near a Honduran village named Copán.

In 1990, I cruised up the Río Dulce in a dugout and eventually landed in a small cove, where I asked the village elder if he knew of Puerto Izabál. He smiled, pointed to the stones under my feet and answered, “You are standing on the floor of the old customhouse.”

Stephens and Catherwood reached the village of Copán, then walked through a gloomy tropical forest where they were suddenly surrounded by huge carved stone figures. Some were on the ground, covered with vines, while others were still standing after centuries of neglect. Beyond the sculptures they could see tall pyramids with trees growing from their sides. The explorers instantly knew they had found a once magnificent city, built by an unknown people.

I entered the Copán ruins before dawn on Christmas Day, 1990. The deep mists obscuring the sculptures and temples around me and the silence of the forest helped create an illusion, making me believe I had just arrived with Stephens and Catherwood in 1839. As the sun illuminated the forest, I found the sculptures drawn by Catherwood and photographed the subjects of his drawings.

After weeks of unearthing relics and using measuring cables and surveying apparatus to map Copán, Catherwood stumbled upon an even more mysterious ruin, Quirígua, where he sketched the largest known Maya sculptures. Stephens next climbed the dark volcano looming over Antigua, Guatemala, then traveled to Lake Atitlan, writing “we both agreed that it was the most magnificent spectacle we ever saw.” Along the way they discovered three other ruins before crossing the rugged Sierra Los Cuchumatanes to enter Mexico. They were searching for the village of Palenque, in Chiapas, where, in 1746, a Spanish priest had reported finding some “old stone houses.”

Stephens and Catherwood discovered the ruins of Palenque on a high escarpment overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. They established living quarters in a corridor of a sprawling temple called the Palacio (palace), which had walls covered with carved designs like those at Copán. They were the first to recognize that both abandoned cities, hundreds of miles apart, had been built by the same people. After three weeks at Palenque, each suffering from malaria, they sailed down the Palizada River to the Mexican coast and from there arranged passage to New York.

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