Why in the Land of the Maya, I didn’t have a clue where I was

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Throughout the videos on Mexico in my People of One Fire Youtube Channel, you will hear me say, “I didn’t have a clue, where I was.” This was no exaggeration. AAA sold a Mexican road atlas in the United States, but it was too large to carry on one’s person in the jungle and only showed the location of maybe five archaeological sites in all of Mexico. For unknown reasons, in Mexico the AAA Road Atlas for Mexico was only sold at the famous Sanborns Restaurants in Mexico City, which at that time was owned by the Walgreens Pharmacy chain.

Accurate street and highway maps were generally unavailable to the public and tourists in Mexico, except in the largest cities. Topographic maps were completely unavailable to the public. The Museo Nacional de Antropologia had topographic maps that staff members could copy on a blueprint machine, but they were bulky and faded away to nothing when exposed to sunlight or humidity.

Well! . . . yesterday I found the actual guidebook that I carried in my camera bag, while exploring the Lands of the Mayas. That was the ONLY source of information I had to find Maya sites, but (as you will see below) left out most of the Maya cities. I was assigned to visit 14 Maya cities in Campeche, but the guide book only shows one. I actually visited 21 Maya cities in Campeche.

The guide book is 52 years old, yet is still in surprisingly good condition . . . considering that it was carried through the jungle for a month . . . and that I was give three days notice in 2009 to vacate my house on Christmas Eve. It measures 5″ x 8″ and contains 85 pages. One of those pages was the only map I had to locate the Maya cities. The museums in Merida, Campeche City and Villahermosa sold “Maya maps,” but they were just inaccurate cartoons, produced by commercial artists.

I guess, the reader is now wondering why good maps were not sold in Cancun, Quintana Roo, a city that has about a million people. Well, no . . . below is a color slide that I took of the Maya village of Cancun in 1970. In 1970, Quintana Roo had too few people to even be a state. It contained nothing larger than essentially a village.

Now you know!


  1. Hi Richard,

    Your post reminds me of my first trip to Mexico with my folks in 1967. One highlight was crossing paths with Jackie Kennedy and Bob MacNamara at the Miami airport as they were returning from Merida.

    We went to most of the sites on your map, some in Land Rovers, others on horseback, and Chichen Itza and Uxmal from nearby hotels. As you mentioned, this was back when Quintana Roo was but a territory. I remember a festival in Merida where I stood in the zocalo crowded with Mayans where I could see around me unimpeded with th height difference between my gringo self and the crowd. Back then many Mayans were living in the ruins back in the jungle and using original Mayan cisterns.

    I still have my familia hammocks purchased there and treasure them. Turns out, for better or worse, that Jackie’s trip was a real boon for tourism in the Yucatán, so I was glad, in retrospect, to have been there prior to that.

    Enjoying your posts, and yes, maybe the Lowery connection is via the Lumbee.




    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think that Mexico changed much between 1967 and 1970. There was a rash of construction in 1966, 1967 and 1968 to prepare for the 1968 Olympics, but very little was done in Yucatan to attract tourists. Have you read my articles on Palenque? I toured the ruins with David and Linda Schele. David is an architect. Linda at that time was an art student, but the visit to Palenque inspired her to study anthropology. I held Linda, so she could lean over far enough to photograph the lid of the sarcophagus underneath the Pyramid of the Inscriptions. Linda went on to be the one, who first translated that lid! She and David Stuart are the ones who finally cracked the Maya Code. We ran into David’s father, George at Palenque. He was photographing stone carvings in the plaza of the Palace. George and I became friends in the mid-1980s, when he came to my NC mountain farm to photograph it for a National Geo book. He had a vacation home over the mountain from my farm, but soon convinced me to move our operation to the Shenandoah Valley. George and his wife, Gene then did a lot to promote both our goat cheese creamery and my architecture practice. Life goes in circles.


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