Following the Path of the Setting Sun that Leads to El Dorado and… The Mysterious Cities of Gold! (Central American travel for 80s cartoon geeks)
It may well only be because I grew up in the 1980s and therefore have nostalgia for that time, but it seems to me that the 80s were something of a golden decade for kid’s cartoons – Transformers, Ninja Turtles, and Thundercats, to name a few, are the stuff of childhood memories. The slew of recent big screen movie versions of 80s cartoons is evidence of how cherished they are by a generation – Hollywood knows this and seeks to cash in, though unfortunately they put douchebags like Michael Bay in charge and the results are predictably shit. But actually, having said that, going back and watching most of those cartoons again today is also pretty disappointing – aside from the pleasant feelings of nostalgia they induce, they do tend to be a bit crap. All but one:
The Mysterious Cities of Gold
There’s one 80s cartoon I’ve watched again as an adult and still absolutely loved, and it was the one that made the greatest impression on me as a kid; in fact, I honestly think it’s one of the reasons I ended up so obsessed with travelling and exploring the world (it was certainly the earliest influence I can recall for my wanderlust, perhaps along with The Hobbit). More specifically, it made me want to go to Latin America and see the ruins of the ancient Mayan and Inca cities – those readers who know it will probably already be humming the tune in their heads by now:
The Mysterious Cities Of Gold was a Japanese-animated, French-written & produced, historical mystery adventure which in places veered wildly off into the realms of science fiction. Set in the 1500s during the Spanish conquest of Latin America, it told the story of Esteban, a young Spanish orphan in possession of a mysterious gold amulet who goes to South America on a Spanish galleon, picking up his companions Zia (who also has a medallion) and Tao plus a few others (trustworthy and otherwise), and going on a quest to find the fabled cities of gold and, hopefully, the meaning of his amulet and the answers to his identity and destiny. Along the way they acquire a solar powered galleon and a solar powered aeroplane in the form of a golden condor, the gold-obsessed conquistadors pursuing them at every turn, and end up in Central America doing battle with the Olmecs – a pointy-eared alien-looking race with a volcano-housed solar power array, cryogenic chambers, and a death-ray equipped flying saucer in the form of a giant Olmec Head (the Olmecs were actually an early Mesoamerican civilisation, and the Olmec Heads are large stone carvings that they left on the east coast of what is now Mexico).
But I know if you’ve read this far and you’re feeling the nostalgia, the thing you really want to see is the first flight of the golden condor. So, here you go:
I hope that sends shivers down your spine! And how about that music? The same music plays during all the most awe-inspiring scenes throughout the series, and it still triggers that childhood sense of wonder when I hear it… and I’m surely not the only one – the above video is actually a fourteen minute edit someone made of bits of the cartoon featuring that music, the “song of mysterious awesomeness” as they call it. Once you’re done watching the flight of the condor, I suggest playing the video from the start as you read the rest of this post!
And here are the reimagined sci-fi Olmecs:
So yeah, it was all pretty far-fetched! It was also very dark in places, with first the avaricious conquistadors (looting and plundering the Inca lands) and then the Olmecs providing some pretty nasty bad guys – the Olmecs at one point capture the children and intend to use their cells to bring back the cryogenically frozen members of their people, which was some pretty full-on stuff for a 6-year old! But this giddy combination of the mystery of ancient civilisations (portrayed broadly accurately) with these utterly bonkers sci-fi elements invoked a sense of wonder which really struck a chord with my childhood self (and so many other kids at the time), and I really am not joking when I say it’s at least partly responsible for my wanderlust today.
And before I continue to the travel tips part of this post, if you didn’t already realise it the entire series (39 episodes) was released as a DVD box set a few years ago and you can buy it on Amazon here. It has absolutely stood the test of time and deserves its status as a classic, and it’s well worth watching again.
Who knows, it may even inspire you to book a trip! As I said, it definitely inspired me to travel, and this is especially true of course for my desire to travel around Latin America; I’m yet to visit South America (it’s at the top of the list along with Nepal & Tibet), but I have backpacked the length of Central America from Mexico to Panama. It’s a great region for travel, with so much to offer – beautiful beaches, towering mountains (many of which are active volcanoes), steaming jungle (and all the teeming wildlife therein), great food, even greater coffee, rum & tequila, gorgeous lakes, the faded grandeur of the old colonial architecture, great hiking and scuba diving opportunities… pretty much everything I love in a destination other than snowboarding… but the jewel, for me, was the chance to visit the Mayan ruins that I’d first seen in the Mysterious Cities of Gold and had dreamt of ever since.
My companion on this trip was my then-girlfriend, who was a great sport about me insisting on planning our route through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to include all of the Mayan sites that were depicted in the Mysterious Cities of Gold. After much reading around fan forums, viewing of clips and googling of photos for comparison, I had a list of the ancient sites depicted or visited in the cartoon.
Which Ancient Cities Were in the Mysterious Cities of Gold?
The first part of the series takes place in South America, where they visit the Inca sites of Machu Picchu and Winay Wayna in what is now Peru. It’s near Machu Picchu that Esteban and pals obtain their golden condor flying machine, which it turns out they can control using their mysterious medallions; it flies them on autopilot up to Central America, escaping the clutches of the Spanish conquistadores and bringing them to the ruined Mayan cities, their eventual confrontation with the Olmecs, and the truth about their own pasts.
The specific Mayan cities featured in the cartoon are:
In Mexico: Chichen Itza, Palenque, and Uxmal
In Guatemala: Tikal
In Honduras: Copan
Check out these comparison shots:
Palenque doesn’t feature in the intro sequence, but its buildings are clearly depicted in one of the episodes; likewise, Copan doesn’t feature in the intro sequence but is one of the sites they visit in an episode (Copan is particularly noted for its steles, and we see Esteban chancing upon them as he runs through the jungle).
How to Access the Mysterious Cities of Gold Sites
This map shows our route in red, and the Mayan cities featured in Mysterious Cities of Gold are blue numbers 1 – 5. Green numbers 1 & 2 are two other Mayan sites we visited which weren’t featured in the cartoon:
Chichen Itza is located near the Mayan Riviera region (Cancun & Playa del Carmen) and can be visited as a day trip from either – bus loads of cruse ship passengers do exactly this, and it’s by far the most heavily touristed Mayan site. It’s also one of the most impressive, but the large crowds of visitors and vendors of tatty souvenir junk unfortunately rob it of any deep sense of mystery. We actually visited as a stop en route from Tulum (another Mayan site – see below) to Merida; catching the first bus from Tulum to Chichen Itza, we left our backpacks at the luggage office in the bus terminal there while we checked out the ruins for a few hours, then jumped onto another bus to Merida, arriving in the evening.
Uxmal is located near Merida, but the only way we could find to visit it was on a guided tour; not usually my thing, but I just had to see it because it’s this:
We booked the tour through our guesthouse in Merida, and it was a full-day job including two more minor Mayan sites in addition to Uxmal itself. Seeing the main Uxmal pyramid was awesome, but I didn’t really enjoy being ferried around in a minivan on a group tour by a guide who monotonously recited his information as though on autopilot. Due to the less straightforward access, I’d probably only recommend this one if you’re a serious history buff or Mysterious Cities of Gold fan!
Palenque is very straightforward to visit, being just outside the modern town of the same name. We simply caught a public bus from Merida to Palenque, and took a colectivo (shared taxi) to the ruins in the morning. Palenque was also the first site we visited to really spark the sense of childhood wonder I was chasing; although the buildings are less impressive and imposing than those at Uxmal and Chichen Itza, the location on a steamy jungle-clad hillside gives it a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere.
Tikal, deep in the rainforest of northern Guatemala, was the most impressive of the lot. The city itself has the best collection of pyramids we saw – of similar stature to the Uxmal pyramid, but greater in number – and is surely the most impressive ancient site I’ve yet personally seen after Angkor Wat. The remote jungle location gives it an atmospheric setting, and the wildlife alone would have been worth the visit on the day we went – we saw monkeys, tropical birds, vultures, army ants (my feet and legs got swarmed all of a sudden and I copped a few painful bites before I managed to sprint out of their way), and even a snake eating a frog – the victim was still alive and struggling when I snapped this pretty useless blurred photograph:
The pyramids of Tikal rising enigmatically above the forest canopy is quite a famous image, and one which will be familiar to Star Wars geeks as well as Mysterious Cities of Gold geeks (there’s a lot of overlap there, I know) – it was used as the rebel base on Yavin IV in the first Star Wars movie (and again in Rogue One):
Tikal is near the town of Flores (a town built on an island in the middle of a lake in the middle of the jungle, which is a pretty cool place for a town); from Flores, it’s about 90 minutes by road to Tikal. You’ll want at least two nights in the area, and you can stay at one of the lodges at Tikal or a Flores hotel; we stayed in Flores for two nights, making a day trip to Tikal from there.
Copan is the name of both an ancient Mayan site, and a modern Honduran town in the same location (its full name is Copan Ruinas). To visit the ruins, simply take a bus to Copan and stay in the town for a couple of nights, and you can walk to the ruins from your hotel. Copan can be visited as a stop en route between Guatemala or El Salvador and Honduras’ Bay Islands (Central America’s main scuba diving Mecca). Travel between Copan and San Salvador is a bit of a long-winded faff, see my Honduras and El Salvador pages for more details on the bus routes involved.
The Copan ruins are also home to some boisterous and colourful locals:
All these sites are great and all worth visiting, with Tikal and Palenque the stand-outs for me. Uxmal is probably only worth going out of your way for if you’re a massive Mysterious Cities of Gold geek though!
Another point of interest for movie buffs is that Predator was partly filmed in the Palenque area, and the waterfall where Arnie has his final showdown with his alien opponent is Cascadas de Misol-Ha, located between Palenque and the beautiful mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas; we took a minivan from Palenque to San Cristobal via Misol-Ha and another nice waterfall called Agua Azul, which was a nice little route (though I recall it being quite a long day).
Other Mayan Sites we Visited
In addition to the above Mayan sites that featured in The Mysterious Cities of Gold, we also visited the sites of Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coast (south of Cancun), and Coba in the jungle a short distance inland from Tulum. Although not seen in the cartoon, both are also worth visiting if you’re in the area and (despite its modest size) Tulum is particularly photogenic thanks to its cliff-top coastal location; it’s also home to lots of ctenosaurs (a large species of iguana) and these lizards are quite happy to pose for you:
Have you been to the Mayan cities in Central America? Are you a fan of The Mysterious Cities of Gold? Got any questions? Leave me a comment below!
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