More about Mexico

When I was planning the final installment of Secrets of the Tombs I knew I wanted to take Cleo and Ryan to the heartland of the Maya civilization. My first step was to read everything I could about the Maya so that I could pick the perfect archaeological site for the story's main location. Luckily it was coming up to Christmas, so I asked Santa for lots and lots of books. Here are just a few of them (sorry, reindeers, I bet these made the sleigh a bit heavy!)

I also visited lots of museums to look at Maya art and artifacts - like these magnificent stone lintels at the British Museum.
What's the seated lady doing, you ask? Only pulling  a rope of thorns through her tongue for a blood sacrifice!

I soon decided upon the ruined city of Calakmul in the southern part of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

The emblem of Calakmul, the Snake Kingdom: Ryan calls it 'smug snake with stones on its head'.

Two things made me pick Calakmul. The first was some intriguing mentions of a mystery about the identity of a burial inside the temple pyramid. It seemed to be King Jaguar Paw, and yet, other evidence suggested that Jaguar Paw had been killed and sacrificed following a battle with a rival king. A mystery man! Just the thing I needed to start my story!

The second was this photograph.


Calakmul is in the middle of the jungle. I imagined sitting at the top of that enormous flat-topped temple pyramid, looking out over a sea of trees. Then I imagined Cleo and Ryan sitting at the top and looking out over a sea of trees . . . that's when I knew that this was the place.

Several months later I was there! My husband and I flew to Cancun, a popular tourist holiday resort on the North coast of the pennisula. After a couple of days lounging by the pool (well, it would be rude not to!) we hired a car and set off for Calakmul. It took a whole day to drive to the nearest town, Xpujil, where we stayed the night.

The next day we had a long drive along a single track road through the jungle to reach the site. We were the only ones there - apart from wild turkeys and monkeys.

trees growing through the stone
We had the best day ever, poking around all the ruins. I loved the way the jungle seemed to be claiming the ancient city back. Strangler figs grew up right through the stones, their roots writhing like nests of snakes (which gave me a rather mean idea, of course. Poor Ryan, he never gets a break!).
Guess what Ryan runs into as he climbs the pyramid in the middle of the night!
I took lots of notes for scenes in the story. There were hundreds of these stone tablets - called stelae - some standing, some toppled over. They were once covered with writing. You can still see it, but it's badly eroded by wind and rain.

My husband helped by taking photographs.
At last we climbed to the top of the pyramid . . .

those steps are very steep!

 and looked out over the trees.

It was just as I imagined it,  only even better. I couldn't have imagined the sight of black cloud shadows scudding over the sea of trees. Nor could I have imagined the terror that struck us when the trees suddenly filled with a deafening growl. Jaguars! we thought. Then we saw the trees swaying. It was howler monkeys. Just like the ones in this video.

I couldn't resist including it all in The Serpent King.

After our visit to Calakmul we drove north again to spend some time at Chichen Itza. This is the most famous Maya site in Mexico. It's easy to get to, and the trees have all been cleared away. It's always busy with crowds of tourists, there are stalls selling souvenirs -  and nobody is allowed to climb the pyramid.

El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza
And when I heard about the snake of light that can be seen descending the steps as certain times of year I knew I wanted to include this site too . . . so I decided I'd send Cleo and Ryan to Chichen Itza to visit an expert called Professor Wynne to ask for his help in deciphering some ancient Mayan glyphs that unlock an ancient secret . . .


Lots more information about Mexico coming soon, but for now, here are some FAQS.

Q: Ryan and Cleo always seem to run into some dangerous animals. Are there any in The Serpent King?

A: Oh yes! Ryan has a very close encounter with a snake (or course!) and then there's the jaguar. Oh, and bats, of course. There are always bats.
Jaguars are very important in Maya mythology
Q: In The Phoenix Code and The Dragon Path Cleo and Ryan come face to face with The Underworld, curses, and booby trapped tombs. Any of that in The Serpent King?

A: The Maya believed the Underworld could be reached through deep underground sinkholes or pools called cenotes.  The called it the Place of Fear and it was inhabited by the Lords of Death, Of course Cleo and Ryan end up stuck down there!
The Lords of Death dance in the flickering light on the cenote wall
There are many cenotes in this part of Mexico. They are often very beautiful, with clear turquoise water and amazing stalactites, and you can climb down and swim in them. Others are a little spooky - they even have bats flying around, as Ryan finds out, of course!
Light beams down through a hole in the roof of a cenote

Q: Does Cleo fall down any holes this time?

Yes, two very big ones (although, as Cleo would point, neither is technically a hole)

Q: Did you spend a lot of time researching the local food in Mexico?

A; Oh yes, I watched the old ladies making tortillas on a pan over an open fire (just like Rosita in the book). Best of all, I discovered Mexican biscuits. The British are famous for our biscuits but I think Mexico beats us! Anyone for a Sponch?

Ryan takes a liking to Mexican Sponch biscuits - and one even makes it to The Underworld!
Q: In The Phoenix Code, Ryan made friends with a stray cat called Snowball. In The Dragon Path, he persuaded Meilin to look after the stray dog, Bao Bao and her puppies. Does he adopt an animal in The Serpent King?

A: Let me introduce Shadow, the baby anteater. He looks like this.
Shadow uses his long claws to open the fridge and steal cheese and beer!
Q: Do Cleo and Ryan finally find out who is framing Cleo's mum for stealing treasure?

A: Yes. But I'm not telling you who it is!

Q: Do Cleo and Ryan kiss? Really? Ever?

A: I'm not telling you that either! You'll have to read The Serpent King to find out!
All the black and white drawings on this page (and, in fact, all this website) are illustrations from Secrets of the Tombs books by the brilliant Leo Hartas,

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