Early Explorers of the Yucatan

© by Jeanine Kitchel

Early explorers in Mexico brave mountain paths.

Braving the jungles of Yucatan, Guatemala, and Honduras 170 years ago, John Lloyd Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood became the first English-speaking travelers to explore this region originally known only by the Maya.

A New Jersey native, Stephens gained fame for his well-known travel classics, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843).  Stephens was a lawyer by profession, but he  had a slight health ailment that gave him the perfect excuse for a two-year sabbatical in Europe and in Egypt.  His first encounter with the Egyptian pyramids prompted him to write about his travels and in 1837 he published a book that earned him a nickname: the American traveler.  By this time he’d become addicted to archeology, and the desire to continue his explorations led him to London.


In London Stephens met Englishman Frederick Catherwood, famous for his drawings of archeological digs in Egypt and Jerusalem. Catherwood’s talent, as illustrated in Stephens’ books, was in his ability to portray ancient monuments with great accuracy.  When Stephens was appointed as special ambassador to Central America in 1839 to negotiate treaties, he immediately contacted Catherwood and asked for help on the project.  They set out for Central America.  This journey generated Stephens’ first work on the Maya, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan.  Because of its popularity, twelve  editions were printed the first year, creating a new phenomenon: a bestselling author. This status freed Stephens from his law career, and allowed him the leisure to follow his bliss –exploration.

Stephens’ first book contains accounts of forty-four ruined cities where antiquarian remains were found, and in the preface, Stephens explains his journey into Central America as the most extensive one made by a foreigner to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Stephens writes that, odd as it seems, most of these sites were unknown to the residents of Merida, Yucatan’s capital.  Few had been visited by outsiders.  Desolate and overgrown with trees, the ancient structures appeared as grass-covered mounds.


When Stephens, Catherwood and their physician, a Dr. Cabot of Boston, began their journey from Merida, they bucked convention and traveled, “with no servants in attendance.”  This was considered a travesty for explorers at that time.

They had no map of the Yucatan as none existed.  The closest thing they could find that would point them in the right direction was a manuscript given to them by Doña Joaquina Peon, with the disclaimer that it was inaccurate.  Ominous beginnings for their journey into the unknown.  To assist those who followed in their footsteps, they logged the number of hours from pueblo to pueblo, as well as the pace of their horses.

Occasionally Catherwood shot the latitude in an area — for the record—and the expedition measured distance in leagues, not miles.  They also brought along a Daguerrerotype camera to record events.  Since neither man knew how to use it, on arriving in Merida they set up a portrait-taking business in their hotel before heading into the field.  This familiarized them with the camera and after developing confidence, they changed hats, became explorers again, and headed into the Yucatan jungles.


The once grand  city of Mayapan, forty-seven miles south of Merida, was their first ruin sighting.  Now linked to the end of the Post Classic period, Mayapan was founded in 1007 by the great ruler Kukulkan.  After the fall of Chichen Itza around 1200, Mayapan became the dominant force in the Maya world, their center of civilization before the Spanish arrival.  As no large temples existed in Mayapan, scholars say this was an era when rulers favored war over appeasing the gods with extravagant structures.

Stephens states that before the Spanish invasion, the region was known only as Maya.  The Spanish named the region Yucatan coming, according to Stephens, from one of two sources—either from the word for the plant “yucca” and “thale” which is the earth in which the yucca grows, or possibly from a simple language misunderstanding: When the Spaniards asked, “What is this country?”, the answer in Mayan was, “I do not understand these words”, which, according to Stephens, sounded like “yucatan”. Either way, the local population never accepted this name and continued to call the land “Maya”.


After 14 months of exploring, both men regularly came down with tropical fevers.  Hounded by biting insects and fever at Uxmal, Catherwood in particular had a bad time.  But in spite of his affliction the artist worked on, standing on top of crude scaffolding or standing in mud, veiled in a net and wearing gloves to protect his hands from mosquitoes.

At first Catherwood had difficulty depicting the designs on the Maya monuments. He was floored by their complexity and their uniqueness.  But with the aid of the Daguerrerotype and then a camera lucida (precursor to the modern camera) he developed a technique for fine-tuning his drawings. His renderings were so accurate that many are considered the best reproduction to this day.

Eventually Catherwood collapsed and Stephens and Cabot came down with malarial chills.  When they departed from Uxmal, Stephens said they never looked back.  Both Stephens and Catherwood would later return to Yucatan in 1842 to complete the work they’d begun, but their first corroboration ended sooner than expected due to tropical disease.

Stephens’ Maya explorations took him to many famous pyramid sites—Uxmal, Labna, Kabah, Mayapan, Chichen Itza and Tulum—and many obscure sites.  He covered thousands of miles in his journeys, explored numerous caves and cenotes, met hundreds of Maya, heard countless tales of adventure, flirted with the Maya calendar, slept in pyramids, and from these excursions, two famous books evolved, still popular 170 years after first publication.


After his adventures in Yucatan Stephens  went on to become director of a U.S. steamship company in Panama.  In 1849 he became chief negotiator and spent two years supervising the surveys there.

John Lloyd Stephens died in New York City in 1852 after contracting a tropical disease in Panama.  Although one of the forerunners in the U.S. excursion into excavating Panama and laying groundwork for the future canal, Stephens will always be remembered as the explorer who, along with his accomplished artist friend Frederick Catherwood, toiled through the jungles of the Ycuatan bringing the world its first view—in artist sketches—of this ancient civilization.

Shortly after their return to the U.S. in 1842 the Caste War of Yucatan broke out, closing the Yucatan’s borders to foreigners for nearly eighty years.  But the writings and renderings of these two men stoked the imaginations of countless minds on two continents as the world clamored to know more about this little-known, advanced civilization.  Their tale, this incident of travel in Yucatan, kept the world hanging on for half a century until the next installment would come on the mysterious Maya, by yet another explorer of the Yucatan.



This is a chapter from the upcoming book, Explorers of the Yucatan:  Visionaries or Madmen, by Jeanine Kitchel.  Kitchel writes about Mexico, the Maya and the Yucatan.  Her non-fiction book, Maya 2012 Revealed: Demystifying the Prophecy, investigates both sides of the 2012 end date debate and is available in paperback and e-formats on Amazon. Com, iTunes and Nook.  Her first book, a travel memoir, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, is also available on Amazon.com, iTunes and Nook or can  be accessed through her website: www.jeaninekitchel.com. Also find her on Facebook.