The Secret of the Maya

Volker Tillmann came to Mexico as an employee of a company. But when that company moved elsewhere, he stayed. Because, by then, German-born Volker had fallen in love with the country and its people. Today, he works as a tour guide and shows his guests what Maya culture really feels like.

“Before arriving in Mexico the first time, I did not know how beautiful this country is,” That fact, he says, is what surprised him most about his new home in Playa del Carmen. Situated on the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen is roughly forty-five miles from Cancún and truly resembles a Caribbean paradise. But many tourists do not come exclusively because of the palm trees and the Caribbean Sea: as the name of the coast suggests, the area is home to a large number of ancient Maya cultural sites. Volker saw this as an opportunity. Today, he offers private tours that focus on giving his guests some authentic insight into Mexico – and that includes the Maya, of course.

Photos: Volker Tillmann

The course of life

That Volker ended up living in Mexico is due to coincidence. His employer at that time moved from Tenerife to the Cancún area, and Volker Tillmann and his wife spontaneously decided to move to Mexico with him. Some years later, when the company relocated again, Volker and his wife were already so enthralled with Mexico and its people, they decided to stay. Volker hadn’t planned to become a Mexico tour guide, which is now his vocation: “On one of my excursions through the country, I happened upon some Maya communities where descendants of this ancient civilisation live. “I began to talk to them, and we became friends.” Volker is very fortunate, because to walk “willy-nilly” into a Maya village is not something anyone should do. Visiting and talking to Maya communities requires their benevolence. Volker is one of few who are permitted to do so. The Maya are not people you can bribe, as money means very little to them. Their decision is based on empathy.

A people in sync with nature

To this day, the Maya live their lives in harmony with nature and do not think much of industrialisation. “Of course they no longer run around in loincloths, and some of them even have mobile phones,” Volker reports, “but they still take from nature only what they need; they largely grow their own crops, hunt and foster old customs and traditions.” There are approximately five to seven million Maya in Mexico today. No refrigerators, television or game consoles, but, instead, they are almost autonomous. The Maya are surrounded by memories of their ancestors. Chichén Itzá is probably the most well-known one, and also arguably the most important archaeological site on the Yucatán Peninsula. The massive step pyramid is one of the “New7Wonders of the World” and seen by many as a symbol of Maya culture. An interesting detail: unlike the Egyptians, the Maya built most of their pyramids very solidly. Their purpose was not to serve as burial sites, but as gifts to the gods, which explains why their interiors are not accessible. That said, visitors are permitted to climb to the top of the Nohoch Mul pyramid, which is located in the ancient Maya city of Cobá on the Yucatán Peninsula. Volker shows his guests many other ruins and sites – all of which boast their own building style and story. “I know couples who only wanted to come to Cancún once, to see the culture. Meanwhile, many of them have been back here four or five times. Maya culture is not something you can tick off your list with one visit. Which is what makes it so wonderful,” Volker Tillmann explains.

The tour guide from Germany also takes his customers to less-frequented places, such as Ek Balam, an archaeological site excavated as recently as 1997. With ninety per cent of its original state still largely intact, not much restoration work has been needed. Another case in point is Calakmul, which is the largest ancient Maya city ever to be discovered. Calakmul has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Despite its significance, it is not visited very much and almost untouched. I enjoy being there with my wife,” Volker adds.

Celebrating with the dead

A no less thrilling experience is to discover the subterranean world of the Maya. Indeed, there is such a thing in Mexico, and it comes in the shape of miles-long, natural cave systems. “Very few locals would dare go there,” Volker says and explains why: the Maya believe that, as well as their cave gods, the souls of their dead rest there too. As for the mortal remains of the dead, the Maya bury them underneath their houses. And –nota bene- once a year, on 1st November, they dig them out again, to celebrate the “Day of the Dead” with their perished loved ones. The traditional belief is that the dead come to visit on 1st November, and can talk to their relatives. For that purpose, the inhabitants clean the mortal remains of their ancestors. A necessary ritual to enable the link to Earth. The ritual is followed by celebrations with food, dance and guitar music. This lasts until 3 pm, when the dead must return to the afterlife. The “Día de los Muertos” is still the most important holiday in Mexico. What may seem odd to Europeans is simply another, less sad, way of dealing with death, namely by celebrating it as a new beginning rather than an end.

Fascinating Mexico

“The Maya were always a very advanced civilisation,” says Volker. “Even as far back as 3000 years ago, they conducted trade with jade, salt and incense bowls. They exported their goods to South America in canoes. The Maya had a sophisticated counting system and built incredible buildings. These amazing facts are precisely what fascinate me about the Maya culture.” So much so that Volker Tillmann began to study archaeology and Maya history at university, before offering tours to tourists. Today, Volker is genuinely passionate about showing holidaymakers a different side of Mexico, one that they would not otherwise get to see. As well as his Maya tours, Volker takes his customers snorkelling and dolphin-, manatee- and turtle-spotting, or trudges through the jungle (with the occasional jaguar encounter) and explores the cave systems of the country with them. His ultimate must-see in Mexico: the cenotes, which are limestone holes resulting from collapsed cave ceilings. Cenotes are filled with crystal-clear salt water. Often, the water is so clear, the bottom of the holes, many metres below the water surface, is visible. “Swimming or diving in such a wonder of nature is unique and will never cease to fascinate me. It is a symbol of the amazing beauty that slumbers in Mexico.” And that beauty is worth experiencing!

Text: Malin Mueller