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Pomoná: Solitude

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Standing alone on Building I at the ruins of Pomona (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

I like going where nobody else goes.

It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that I live next to about four million of them at home—so it’s nice to pull away from the crowds when I travel.

Parts of Mexico are the most crowded places on Earth—and parts of Mexico are so empty you can turn in circles and see only blue sky and brown earth and maybe a tumbleweed or two, if you’re lucky.

Down in this far southeast corner of Mexico, the world is brilliant green: the intense opaque green of unripe bananas and bendy palm trees. The sun is omnipresent, too. Even in the evening, when the sun has slipped away, you can feel the day’s heat rising up from the ground like a big warm sigh.

Cows and horses outnumber the cars on the road twenty to one. Chalk white, chestnut brown and mostly in-between, the animals follow the shade like a sundial, waiting for that earliest moment of twilight when they can emerge to graze in the cool. Wide-open ranches and farms seem to fill up all the land. The world-famous “Tabasco” sauce was invented using red chili peppers that first grew in this area.

The hilly hinterlands of Tabasco lie at the far steeper edge of Chiapas. Driving south from Villahermosa, I began to catch short glimpses of the distant mountains—a faded indigo line of the highlands where Maya civilizations like Palenque once thrived.

With traffic and construction, it took me nearly three hours to reach Pomoná, well marked by the iconic blue sign and white pyramid symbol. It was late—almost four o’clock in the afternoon—and a locked gate suggested that I had missed my chance to see this rare set of ancient ruins. My whole day had passed by like a wonderfully slow morning. Time always passes so slowly in Mexico—until it’s too late.

Enter the ruins of Pomoná!

An old man sat behind a desk parked on a dirt floor beneath a thatched-roof shelter. He seemed extremely bothered that I had showed up so late in the day.

“You only have one hour,” he yipped, making a show of checking his watch.

“I know,” I nodded, “but I would still like to see las ruinas.”

The caretaker shifted his shoes in the dirt and set his hands upon his big metal desk. In some countries, a man feels powerful when armed with a sword or a gun. In Mexico, all it takes is a desk.

But the man with the desk finally waved me through and I headed off on foot, jogging along the raw red tire ruts of the grassy road. The towering kapok trees made me feel tiny and when I finally happened upon the ruins themselves, I felt smaller than a squirrel.

An organized pile of grey stones rose up like a long and sudden mountain, known simply as “Building 1” by archaeologists. Steep rows of tumbledown stairs invited me to climb to the top, high up to the level of trees and the vocal birds who had begun to announce the approaching evening.

From the top of Building 1 I could see Building 2, a true “pyramid” with a flat, square top. I could also see my tiny shadow sticking out from the massive shape that I was standing on.

I was utterly alone—the only human left among the remnants of a dead city. The silence was framed by bird chirps, a faraway horse whinny, my own long breathing and the slip of my shoes against the hand-hewn limestone where I was standing.

That’s when I slowed right down again, back to my very slow pace of that morning. When there are no crowds to battle, there is no rush. I had Pomoná to myself and I could enjoy exploring the ruins by myself.

Pomoná’s heyday coincides with the late classic period of the ancient Maya (600 to 900 A.D.). Although the stone ruins span almost a full square mile, only this one small group of temples has been excavated. This is the norm in El Mundo Maya, so that whenever I see an out-of-place hillock or knoll, I suspect it is actually just a buried temple of the Maya.

I also suspect that I was alone at Pomoná because these ruins lack the kind of publicity of Palenque or Chichén Itzá. Travel posters have made us all hungry for the biggest ruins on the block and although it’s high enough to fall and break your neck, Pomoná is by no means the highest of Mexico’s Maya temples.

What Pomoná has is total solitude. The modern world, with its mechanical noise and spread-out cities has made luxuries of silence and nature. Nowadays, true silence is elusive, while accessing real, unadulterated nature can be outrageously expensive.

But at Pomoná I had both silence and nature, along with a deeply emotional sense of these forgotten ruins. When you are alone among ruins, it is much easier to imagine these cities of the past—to stare into a stone-walled room and with your own eyes, dress the walls with what it might have looked like so long ago.

In the silence of the fading afternoon, I explored the ruins of Pomoná, using my imagination to paint a living city among the sky-filled gaps that time had erased. Scrambling up and down the stone ruins, I lost track of time myself, until I realized that the shadows had gone away and with them, the sun.

The metal desk sat unmanned at the gate. The caretaker had abandoned his post at closing time but he called to me from afar and told me let myself out. I closed the gates behind me and hooked the chain around the doors.

As the sky turned violet, I drove away from the silence of Pomoná and back to the sounds of the main road.

There were no signs and the sun was gone, so I asked directions from an old man sitting on a very old horse.

“Which way into town?” I asked.

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Caballero on a caballo, Pomona, Mexico (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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