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Izapa: A Point of View

12.19.19.2.5; 13 Pax 1 Chicchan; 314 days left

If you want to crack a code, start with the letter “A”. Thus I began my investigation of the Mayan calendar by traveling back to the ancient site of Izapa—a place “where time began” (according to Dartmouth geographer Vincent H. Malmström).

It might have taken me a whole day of short flights and layover to reach Mexico’s southernmost city of Tapachula, but the next morning, I reached Izapa’s brown cluster of cobbled pyramids in less than fifteen minutes.

The green lawns were carefully mowed around the precise square and rectangle ruins. Inside the clearing stood ceremonial platforms that looked down upon ancient ball courts. All around stood stelae (stone-carved monuments), some eroded away and others with very distinct Mayan images that have withstood the test of time.

I had the place to myself, perhaps since midday is not the best time for roving about stone ruins down here in sunny, tropical Chiapas. The sun was hot and smart people were taking a siesta in hammocks on shaded porches. I, on the other hand, was standing in the middle of the ruins, gazing towards the horizon, where giant white clouds clustered around two magnificent peaks.

Volcán Tacaná (4,093m; 13,425 ft) is the closest peak to Izapa and lies due north of the site, whereas Volcán Tajumulco (4,220 m; 13,845 ft) is the highest volcano in Central America. Both mountains lies across the border in Guatemala. From the point of view of Izapa, the sun rises directly over the peak of Tajumulco on the summer solstice, which means the volcano I was staring at is actually a gigantic calendar representing the solar year (365 days). The Mayan solar calendar is the Haab.

But what makes Izapa truly fascinating is how the sun passes directly overhead twice a year—on August 13th and then again on April 30th. This is known as the zenith passage, or in other words, if I were standing at Izapa at noon on either date, there would be a moment when I would have no shadow.

August 13th to April 30th marks a period of 260 days, which for the Maya, became the length of their sacred calender—the Tzolk’in. (That number also corresponds to the period of human gestation, a significant measure of time for the Maya.) What all this means is that Izapa is the geographical manifestation of the beginning and end of the sacred Mayan calendar, as well as the solar calendar.

August 13th coincides with the first day of the Tzolk’in—a date that is directly connected to Izapa. And December 21st—the winter solstice—marks the end of the Haab. Remember—both these dates coincide with the beginning and end of the longer 5,124-year period that falls within the third Maya calendar—the Long Count.Long Count.

Izapa is where the Maya started counting—at least this is what the current theories say. They also say that it wasn’t the Maya who started counting, but rather their predecessors, the Olmec. Either way, so much of Mayan numerology originates right here in Izapa.

The Tzolk’in calendar comprises twenty different days in a cycle of thirteen (tercena), resulting in 260 unique days, each with religious meaning. For example, today’s Tzolk’in date is 1 Chicchan, which means the serpent day of the first day in the current tercena.

The Haab calendar comprises eighteen months of twenty days each, totaling in 360 unique days (the extra five days were an ill-omened “free space” occurring once a year). Today’s Haab date is 13 Pax, which signifies the thirteenth day of the “planting time”.

Unlike our culture, 13 is a very good number for the Maya.

I reflected on the relativity of lucky and unlucky as I walked from one group of ruins to another. Izapa is the largest Maya site in Chiapas—more than a mile and a half in length—and yet you wouldn’t know it today, since most of it is hidden beneath the ground. Only certain “groups” of Izapa’s ruins have surfaced, and these are spread out among a vague network of long dirt roads that wind past people’s houses.

I wandered through the jungle on a dirt road, past front yards of packed dirt where barefoot children played, busy chickens rustled in the leaves and skinny dogs barked up at me. Over the course of the afternoon, I visited three groups of ruins in the Izapa site, most of which have yet to be restored. Don’t visit Izapa looking for grandeur—come to Izapa for what it means.

Time begins only when we begin to measure it. The sun may rise and fall, the earth can spin round that same sun, and babies may be born, but until humans can count these moments, they become almost impossible to define.

As the sun lowered in the sky, I returned to the main group of ruins at Izapa. I sat back down on a set of ancient stone steps and looked towards the volcano by which the Maya had measured time—but it had disappeared completely. Tropical clouds had erased it from view.

Like a traveler takes the first step in his journey, the meaning of a number depends on where it originates. Today’s doomsday theorists are focused on the final number: The End. But that number originated here — the ancient Maya started counting right here at Izapa due to the very specific latitude and the sun’s positions over time. They made sense of their world from this very particular point on the planet and thousands of years later, I had traveled to this same point to make sense of the world today.

Such is the gift of travel—that for one small instant, we can travel to someone else’s world and quite literally, share the same point of view.


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