Day of the Iguanas

Uxmal, México
November 2016

The spirits of Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Burton are strong today at Uxmal. I’ve seen dozens of dragon lizards, if not quite iguanas, bathing in the sun or crawling out from the rubble. They are the last remaining residents of Uxmal.

I have returned to Uxmal to correct a mistake I’ve regretted for twenty years. And as soon as I crest the hill leading from the entrance and see the grand House of the Magician, I realize I will never accomplish it.

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Nunnery Quadrangle (L) and House of the Magician (R)

I have been to Uxmal before, during my first trip to Mexico in the 1990s. On that day, I climbed halfway up the west slope of the 39-meter-high structure. At that point, I made a huge mistake — I looked down. That’s when my fear of heights kicked in. The steps are steep and narrow. I was overcome by panic. I didn’t make it to the top.

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House of the Magician

To put it in perspective, Queen Elizabeth II has climbed the Magician’s House — in a rainstorm. It was in 1975. A footman held an umbrella over her head as she ascended.

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Nunnery Quadrangle

I came to Uxmal determined to climb to the top, but they don’t let people climb it anymore. Back in the day, there was an iron chain people could hold on to as they crawled up the west side. The chain is gone now. Today the officials are trying to protect the structure from tourists and probably protect the tourists, as well. I want to believe I could have made it to the top this time.

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Chaac carving, Nunnery Quadrangle

For a place so timeless, Uxmal has changed a lot in the past two decades. For one, it’s a much bigger tourist destination and the government is squeezing from it every peso it can. There are two separate tickets to go in, and an array of state-run services and shops at the entrance. I don’t remember all that being there before.

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Governor’s Palace

The site is better organized now, with signs in Spanish and English for the major structures. Highlights are the Nunnery Quadrangle — so named because the first explorers said it reminded them of a nunnery — as well as the well-preserved ball court, the Governor’s Palace on the hill overlooking the ruins, and the nearby Templo Mayor. I may have been thwarted at the Magician’s House, but I make it to the top of the 30-meter-high temple with its great views across the site.

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Templo Mayor

Still, as I flip through the day’s photos, I can’t help thinking about what might have been. I’ve shot images of the Magician’s House from every angle and location. And there are my friends, the lizards, in every variety and color. I envy them being free to climb.

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“Rising is Dangerous,” a sign says on the way to the cemetery. Not rising is disappointing.


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