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On our first “sea day,” as we steam through the Gulf of Mexico on our way to the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula—the “Riviera Maya”—we hear a lecture from an archaeologist on the empire that lent its name to the tourist region. It’s just filler programming for those cruise passengers too sedate to spend the day on the pool deck, but the professor manages to squeeze so much exoticism and mystery into a few bullet points that it seems like the exposition of an Indiana Jones movie.

The Maya, we’re told, were a backwards people who had little scientific knowledge and a number system made of “dots and dashes,” but nonetheless managed to construct impressive cities like Kohunlich and Tulum. They were bloodthirsty, requiring “daily” ritual bleeding and frequent human sacrifice. And most mysteriously of all, they disappeared—completely—shortly after the beginning of the second millennium A.D., and to this day no one knows why.

The mystique of the “lost civilization” is undeniable. Without it, the Riviera Maya would be just another underdeveloped strip of tropical coastline, bypassed by cruise ship after cruise ship. With it, the region (located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo) has been called “the hottest of hot spots” in a USA Today article only a week prior to our visit. (We learn this when the cruise line places a photocopy of the article on each of our beds during turndown.) But the mystery of the Maya isn’t covered in the mists of time, as our sea-day history lesson implied. The great cities of the ancient Maya may have been abandoned hundreds of years ago, but the people who call themselves and their language Maya never disappeared at all—many of them serve as our tour guides and bartenders. The trouble comes in piecing the imperial Maya and the living Maya together. As befits an area with so many “zonas arqueologos,” Maya history often resembles some half-excavated object: often jagged and hard to piece together, but never entirely buried to those who know how to look for it.

It didn’t have to be like this, we will be told by guide after guide at the opening of each tour we take—mirror images of the expository lecture we received during our sea day. The Maya Empire had fallen some centuries before Europeans set foot on the Yucatan, but it was not yet “lost”: knowledge of the empire and its scientific advances had been recorded in writing, using the logosyllabic Maya alphabet in which characters represent symbols or words. But in the early days of Spanish colonization, Dominican friar Diego de Landa heard rumors of human sacrifice among the people he was attempting to convert, and mounted an auto de fe in response. He wrote later that, having decided that Maya books “contained nothing which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all.” (In fact, he missed four, which are now kept in various museums in Europe.)

It took archaeologists and linguists until the 20th century—and many false starts—just to figure out the alphabet and begin to decipher stone inscriptions. The Maya continued to use traditional spoken language, medicine, crafts and religion, but lost their written language, history and science. And as centuries passed, the world outside the Yucatan subscribed to the myth that the great civilization that built cities and developed calendars had disappeared of its own accord, and had very little to do with the illiterate village-dwellers who had lived there since. The myth may have lost some of its potency, but the divide persists—foreign archaeologists know more about the Maya Empire than most of the living Maya do. And throughout our trip, for we tourists are told that the Maya we see and the Maya we hear about are one and the same, it seems impossible to make the connection.

Most tourists, of course, don’t care about any of this. The Riviera’s appeal lies as much in its beaches as in its ruins, and at port after port, those of us led out on “shore excursion” tours are outnumbered by those who remain within the walled enclaves of the cruise port. They tan. They drink. They shop at duty-free liquor stores, “handicraft” stalls whose wares bear “Made in China” stickers, and the omnipresent duty-free jewelry store Diamonds International—which has a location not only in every port of call we visit, but on the ship itself as well.

The ports resemble nothing so much as suburban malls. “Maya” is a costume, like the satiny, Disneyfied rendition of “traditional” garb worn by the woman who stands on the gangplank for photo ops at our first port of call, Costa Maya—no more “authentic” in appearance than the pirates who occupy a similar position at our third port of call in Belize. It is an easy innocence, in which tourists can imagine themselves to be discovering a part of the world that no one has known about for centuries, blissfully ignoring anyone without authorization to enter the port. We, on the other hand, have signed up for the pointedly-titled “Mayan Reality Tour,” an attempt to see the past in the present.

From the minute we leave the parking lot in Costa Maya, across from the Hard Rock Cafe, the globalized affluence of the enclave gives way to globalized poverty. Quintana Roo may be the sixth-wealthiest state in Mexico thanks to its economy of “100% tourism,” as our guide informs us, but the cinderblocks and tin roofs we see from the road look more Third World than “developing” world. Both the tourists and their dollars seem firmly locked up in the cruise port. Our tour guide, like all tour guides, tells us earnestly that the best way to help the region is to spend; but he, like every other guide we have on this trip, isn’t from the area himself. The children we pass may dress in familiar American hand-me-downs—including, in one case, a college T-shirt identical to the one a boy in our tour group is wearing—but they can’t read the English on them, a fact that makes it unlikely they will be able to find employment in Quintana Roo and impossible for us to communicate now. Through the bus windows, they seem distant and opaque. It seems like the worst kind of Third World rubbernecking, taking in the people along with the scenery and giving nothing in return. Knowing that they are Maya tells us nothing.

Our tour guide attempts to direct our attention away from the squalor of the present to tell us a tale of the glories of the past—a mirror image of the expository lecture we got at sea, and a spiel we will hear repeated almost verbatim by every tour guide on the trip. Those “dots and dashes” were the basis of a sophisticated vigesimal (based on twenty) number system that also was the first to use the concept of zero. The Maya grasp of astronomy was so strong that they designed temple windows to catch the sun at noon on the solstices and equinoxes, and kept a list predicting the date of every solar eclipse until the end of the 24th century. Myths are debunked just as dutifully: Diego de Landa’s suspicions aside, there is little evidence, if any, that the Maya engaged in human sacrifice.

The diagrams and photographs our guide passes around the tour bus provide a welcome counterpoint to the scenery, but they’re impossible to harmonize. Even when he takes us to an “authentic Maya house” for lunch, and shows us traditional medicines and cultivation techniques, the display seems less indigenous than performed. In the past, the region that is now Quintana Roo, was an exporter of sisal rope to the world.Now, with the development of synthetics, the only use of the skill required to strip a sisal plant to its fibers is to perform for a tourist audience. The closer past and present are juxtaposed, the more different they seem.

When both are visible at once—in the center of a village, where a pyramid hulks between shacks and a day-care center—the effect is one of total temporal vertigo. We are told that the pyramid was once part of the outer wall of a large city, and it’s almost possible, focusing narrowly, to imagine the wall extending to each side. But the minute the whole scene snaps into focus, with clotheslines, livestock, and power lines where the wall would be, the illusion shatters and the pyramid becomes even more alien. There’s no way to tell whether the people who live in the open shack next door have any idea what once stood there. So much has been forgotten.

Only on the last day of the trip, when we visit the city of Tulum, do we begin to see some interaction between the history that has been packaged for tourist consumption and the people for whom that history is heritage. In a way, it's fitting: Tulum was built when the ancient Maya, who generally kept to themselves in the highlands, decided to improve their trade with civilizations around the Caribbean by building a coastal port city. Of course, it bears little resemblance to Costa Maya and other tourist-friendly cruise ports, which reach docks far into the water to welcome incoming ships. Tulum, which means "walls," is essentially a fortress built upon an ocean cliff.

In its heyday, the city was as inhospitable to the Maya masses as it was to invaders. Our guide explains that the main plazas through which we walk, weaving among other tour groups on the way, housed only the nobles and priests of the area. The peasantry lived in villages, as their descendants do now; they went about their business mostly unaware of the triumphant discoveries of the learned few. (Even before Diego de Landa, most Maya were illiterate, though the same was true of their contemporaries in Spain.) Only once in a while, when the priests stood at a particular point on the hilltop, did the lives of the Maya outside Tulum and the Maya within it overlap.

Lacking Maya priests, the only benefit we reap from Tulum’s acoustic magic was the ability to eavesdrop surreptitiously on other tours after our own is over. The city swarms with tourists—not just American cruise-ship tourists but European and Asian tourists as well. And for the first time all week, we hear one guide, who plays an ocarina between stops, speaking in Spanish to a group that appears to be from elsewhere in Mexico. They may not be of Maya descent, of course; but even if it is not their own heritage strictly speaking to which thy are bearing witness, it is a national history which is being written backwards as more of pre-Colombian America is uncovered. (On Sundays Tulum is open to Mexican citizens for free, making it if anything more egalitarian than it was under the Maya, at least for those who live relatively close to the site.)

Like any other tourist attraction, of course, the site is surrounded by a thick shell of shops and restaurants. Here at least some of the stores are operated by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, with profits going to maintenance and research. I order a charm that purports to spell my name in the “Mayan alphabet;” there are no phonetic letters in Maya, and the system they use instead to make the charms is based on Diego de Landa’s own attempt to decode the writing system he did so much to destroy. As an object, it is hopelessly inauthentic, but its history explains more about the Maya “disappearance” than the onboard lecture. Some of its cost will go to the Maya craftsman who makes it as we tour the ruins his ancestors built; the rest will go to uncovering more of what remains partially buried, and sharing it with tourist and Maya alike.

There are two signs along the walkway to the entrance to Tulum: one from the Mexican government, declaring in Spanish that, “This is our national heritage,” and another with a passage in English, Spanish and transliterated Yucatec Maya that closes with “Take care of this heritage –it’s yours!” Both are right. Global tourism has laid claim to the Riviera Maya, for better or for worse. I won’t feel “connected” to the Maya by wearing my pendant, and I don’t understand much of who they were or are after a week on the coast that bears their name. But the best we can do for the living Maya, sealed off from both their past and the “developing” enclaves of the future, is spend a little money on a pendant with a fake description to fund the decoding of a real one.

Dara Lind is a critic and blogs at The American Scene.

Illustrations by Kyungduk Kim.