Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Carter Lupton

Q: As an archaeologist with many years of experience in the Yucatan, what kinds of changes have you seen over the years? Are new discoveries still being made? 

A: There have been many changes to the archaeological landscape of the Yucatan in the past 20 years. Many of these changes are aimed specifically at tourism, from expanded, improved roads for access to major restoration of ancient structures, updated signage, and increased amenities. 

Yes, new discoveries are made regularly. A site called Ek Balam, not far off the main road between Chichen and Cancun, once rarely visited and poorly known, has undergone massive excavation and restoration in the past decade. Restorations are a great aid to the non-specialist in visualizing ancient structures and can be extremely impressive. But I delight in finding areas of sites that have yet to be excavated; they have their own aura, quite distinct from the beautifully restored pyramids and cleared plazas.

Q: In your experience, what do our travelers enjoy most about being in this part of Mexico? 

A: So many people come to Yucatan only to see Cancun or other resorts on the Riviera Maya. Smithsonian travelers are interested in so much more, and they get it. At one level there is the Maya archaeological legacy, seen not only in the numerous sites, but as a living tradition. Yucatan has one of the largest indigenous populations anywhere and you see today's Maya everywhere, dressed in both traditional and contemporary clothing, holding markets in small villages, living in homes often identical to those from pre-Spanish times. 

Another feature people love is the rich Spanish colonial heritage seen in the churches and other buildings in Merida, Izamal, and elsewhere. And let's not forget the food. Yucatecan cuisine has many dishes not familiar to the average aficionado of "Mexican" food, and visitors are always pleasantly surprised. Some of my favorites are pollo pibil (chicken marinated in achiote and other mild spices then baked inside banana leaves), lime soup (with tortilla and chicken), and poc chuc (sliced pork marinated in sour orange juice). 

Q: You mentioned that this itinerary was particularly good because it included some of the lesser known sites. Why is that important? 


A: Unlike many ancient civilizations, for example Egypt or Rome, the Maya were never organized into a coherent political entity, but were a conglomeration of independent "city-states." This independence is reflected not only in their political structure but their physical structures as well. While certain broad archaeological features—pyramids, plazas, range type buildings (palaces)—are found in varying degrees throughout both the Maya and non-Maya areas of Mesoamerica, there are distinct regional styles that are quite obvious in Yucatan. And of course, styles change through time as well as over space. To fully appreciate the range of variation in architectural detail, geographic, chronological, and structural, one must visit a number of sites.

Q: Along with tours to the Yucatan, you've led many tours to Egypt for Smithsonian Journeys. How do you think the Yucatan compares? 

A: The Maya area for me has always been one of those areas, like Egypt, that is very special. Although I am a professional archaeologist, with a full appreciation for the complex details of excavation and recording of innumerable bits of data, I am also a romantic. I have worked at sites where literally nothing was visible above ground and only soil stains and tiny stone flakes were revealed by excavation, but the basis for my early interest in archaeology was an attraction to sites with large, mysterious structures overgrown by jungle or half covered in drifting sand. Along with Rose Macaulay in her aptly-titled book in appreciation of archaeological sites, I glory in the "Pleasure of Ruins." For others with the same sensibility, Yucatan is at the top of the list with Egypt and a handful of other locales as a “must see” destination.