I am very honored to have been invited to speak to you today, by my…
The story you are about to read is true; it details a personal fable based on Mayan-Huastecan folklore and my personal experiences as an anthropologist. To date, the story spans fifty years and has a life of its own, weaving in and out of my life. When I least expect it, a new episode unfolds, and I am sure that this writing is somehow connected to the next part of the mysterious happenings at the mountain top cloud forest biosphere known as El Cielo Tamaulipas. 
This article was originally written at Texas Southmost College’s field station at Rancho del Cielo in the 1990s. Rancho del Cielo is just a few acres out of the vast biosphere on the mountain. Mysteriously, as I packed up my office to retire, this article was unlocatable and presumed lost for many years, somehow erased from my hard drive on an old computer, until it suddenly reappeared on my hard drive on a new computer more than a decade later. How is that possible?
This story surrounds a long-forgotten event chronicled in Mayan legends of a small group of exceptionally gifted Mayan shamans who were forced to flee their homes in southern Mexico more than a thousand years ago. They traveled northward, settling in the mountains of the coastal Sierra Madre Oriental. This is an area in the Huastecan culture in the northernmost reach of ancient Mayan civilization.
Today this beautiful northern rainforest is designated internationally as El Cielo Biosphere, located in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. A biosphere is an internationally designated ecosystem that promotes and protects its unique biodiversity and is designated a world heritage site.
This story is important because, for more than five decades, the Brownsville community and Texas Southmost College faculty and students have traveled to the area on biological field trips, eventually establishing the Rancho del Cielo biological field station where Frank Harrison once had his little ranch located high on the mountain.
These fantastic trips always produced unforgettable memories for the travelers. From the visitor’s stories, there emerged a pattern of strange and unexplainable happenings in the area of El Cielo, somehow connected to the Mayan Legend of “The Forgotten Ones.” 
The Legend of Los Olvidados, The Forgotten Ones, is a well-known folktale of northeastern Mexico passed down from generation to generation in the region from El Cielo in the north to the Yucatan in the south. Today Rancho del Cielo is an internationally renowned biological field station situated deep in the primal rainforest of Northeastern Mexico, a small part of the El Cielo biosphere above Gomez Farias, south of Ciudad Victoria and north of Ciudad Mante, Tamaulipas.
In many ways, this ancient Legend focuses around one of the oldest known places in the area, Ojo Encantado, the enchanted spring. This is because it is believed that this mountain watering hole provided a resting place and served as a marker for Mayans traveling northward through the area in ancient times.
My travels to the region of the El Cielo biosphere began in the late 1950s. My father’s cousin owned the Hotel Mante in Cd. Mante on the old Pan American Highway, and when we visited there during the spring rainy season, we always picnicked on the banks of the clear waters of the Rio Sabinas. I played in the river with the kids from the nearby villages and hiked with them through the verdant valleys listening intently to their stories. There, I first heard of the mysterious cult that operated in the area north of El Cielo near Villagran, Tamaulipas, and the nearby town of witches called La Petaca.
By 1964, I was a freshman at Texas Southmost College and fully engrossed in Mexico travel and especially the documentation of the unexplainable and fantastic tales of the numerous curanderos and shaman in the area. I befriended many in the region known as La Huasteca.
Two years earlier in 1962, I read with disbelief a series of articles in the Matamoros newspaper, El Bravo, about a strange religious cult operating in the mountains of northern Mexico just north of El Cielo and had met one of the young women in the cult who was working in Matamoros. From the little I knew of Mexico at the time, I imagined the location was near the area I had come to enjoy so much, and it wasn’t far off.
I had always been drawn to the ethereal voices of magical Mexico, as they were described by Anita Brenner in her classic book, Idols Behind Altars.
The following year, 1965, with a small group of college friends in tow, we decided to take a trip from Austin where we were at the University of Texas, down to the El Cielo biosphere, a mountain top area of approximately 560 square miles. The postage stamp size Rancho del Cielo was not yet in existence. The Hunter family of Brownsville owned a few cabins at a bend on the treacherous four-wheel-drive mountain road surrounded by caves, and we were approved to visit.
One sweltering spring afternoon, my friends and I crashed Professor Warburton’s biology lab in the Gorgas Building in today’s TSC Gorgas Board Room and met a short crusty man named Frank Harrison. He was waiting for biology professor Warburton who would later be entrusted with the development of Rancho del Cielo after Harrison’s death. We were not in Barbara Warburton’s class, but our girlfriends were, so we were always close by.
This chance encounter with Frank Harrison on that day would set in motion decades of activity at El Cielo. Before Professor Warburton could invite us to leave her lab, Frank invited us down to his ranch at El Cielo to do some caving. We took him up on his generous offer, and that was my first trip into the bowels of this remarkable cloud forest. We rummaged around in some smaller caves and through debris, including clay shards, broken figurines, and bones, which we later learned were human remains. 
Santiago, our guide that day, was the first to tell us of the mysteries and danger that the forest and caves posed to the unsuspecting. We had to be very cautious because the “living forest,” as he called it, would shift its shape without notice, and we would be lost. Nothing remarkable happened on that first trip. However, the mountain would call me back many times.
By 1972, Frank had been murdered at his ranch on the mountain by disgruntled ejidatarios, and his land was entrusted to Texas Southmost College. That is when the early building phase at Rancho del Cielo began.
In 1975, I was an anthropology graduate student at the University of Texas and knew my way around northern Mexico. I was a student of folklore professor Dr. Americo Paredes, and it was the peak of the Carlos Castañeda craze. My friends and I were constantly in search of shaman-directed experiences along the border and in Mexico.
We planned a spring break trip to the rainforest, heading down to Mexico from Austin. Anthropology graduate students were expected to venture on short excursions to Mexico, returning with tales of adventure that could be shared with professors and students.
One day, a member of our party, a young undergraduate anthropology student, and photographer wandered off from the group and was not seen for an entire day. We finally found him wandering around babbling in the dense tropical forest. He told a fantastic story about how the forest had come alive and attempted to swallow him. He could see ancient Mayans in native dress going about their daily activities. He muttered about flying men, Voladores, and about a sacred cavern. We dismissed his story to hallucinations induced by the magic mushrooms (psilocybe mexicana) common to the area, he ate along the way.
I lost touch with him soon after that. He did not return to school and was rumored to have been institutionalized.
In graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin from 1972 to 1976, I would, from time to time, pick up pieces of information about El Cielo, the region’s history, and its people. Until then, the Legend of the Forgotten Ones seemed to be a cautionary tale passed along to kids to scare them into obeying their parents but not real.
However, in 1975, that all changed. I was writing a graduate paper for Dr. Angel Palerm, which included reading old colonial documents about the Spanish Inquisition and the Catholic Church in seventeenth-century northern Mexico. I spent days in the Latin American Library archives reading about how the Church had sent a group of inquisitor priests to the region to investigate stories of an enchanted mountain in the place of the northern Mayans. The most intriguing part of the story was that a group of Franciscan missionaries set out from their base in Queretaro, was lost in the mountains and never heard from again. They simply vanished, leaving no trace.
I also read about a lost mission in the area of El Cielo, only higher up on the western dryer slope of the range. The priests of this mission also vanished. So now, there was documentation of the second group of priests who had disappeared. They are known in Mexican history as the lost friars or Los Friles Perdidos.
As I discovered from the chronicles, one lone priest did make it back to his home mission at Santiago de Jalpan in the Sierra Gorda of Queretaro-San Luis Potosi and was thought to be mad or possessed by demons. He told a strange tale of the forest coming alive, of trees and stones with eyes, and society of witches and brujos in league with strange flying machines, as well as villages of living Mayans not thought to be in the area.
Throughout my graduate school years, I pieced together the stories familiar to the area: lost Mayan priests, lost Franciscans, lost settlers, and finally, in the 19th century, abducted children associated with flying machines and many other mysterious stories about the mountain. In the 1980s, while hiking high on the west side of the mountain, I located the remains of a centuries-long-abandoned mission at the very top of the mountain. It was totally deserted and over-grown, though strangely, the grapevines the priests had planted were still producing grapes more than two hundred years earlier.
As I was about to take my last required course on the History of Anthropology, a remarkable thing happened. Renowned Mexican anthropologist Dr. Angel Palerm, visiting from the national university of Mexico City, UNAM, was assigned to teach the class, and I was delighted. There were only five graduate students in Don Angel’s class, and he took a liking to me because I could speak Spanish. It was as if he perceived something about me that I had not yet discovered myself. He predicted that I would have an illustrious career as an anthropologist and that I should focus on northeastern Mexico because nobody else was studying it, and the topic was wide open. It was for his class that I wrote that paper. During our brief time together, in the spring of 1975, he pulled me aside and schooled me more profoundly in the mysterious world of supernatural Mexico. He wasted no time filling in the historical gaps for me. Lamentably, he died in 1980, not able to see the results of my work in northern Mexico.
Dr. Palerm was the first to fully explain the Legend of the Forgotten Mayans, Los Mayas Olvidados. He was also very much aware of the lost Franciscans and all of the other legends associated with the rainforest around the El Cielo biosphere.
The Mayas were one of the most advanced civilizations of pre-Columbian America. They were the scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and magicians of ancient Mexico. Mayans held the key to unknown and forbidden knowledge, and much of their knowledge was believed to have been given to them by beings from other worlds.
Volumes and volumes of glyphs and scripts were lost as their civilization disappeared or the chronicles were destroyed by fanatical Catholic priests. During the decline and collapse of the Classical Maya, a priestly caste of Mayan “rememberers” foretold the disaster of the collapse of their civilization and disappearance. They had been accused of witchcraft and forced into exile.
This very special sect of “gifted” priests, possessing prophecy, formed the cult of the Flying Men. This was done in honor of those unusual beings that visited the mountain in their flying vehicles. The priests were as feared as they were revered and were too strange even for the Mayans. They were believed to have developed a ritual algorithm that opened portals to parallel worlds and beyond, through which the flying men could enter.
Unenlightened people call this the spirit world, but actually, it is a parallel world. The two parallel worlds exist today as they have always coexisted one beside the other while the key to gain entry has been long forgotten. Now and then, some unsuspecting visitor to the forest will stumble into one of the doorways of perception in remote places like El Cielo and is never heard from again or may reappear having lost their mind.
Dr. Palerm explained that from reading recently discovered texts in southern Veracruz-Yucatan, this small group of extra-mystic Mayan priests and their families had been instructed by the Flying-Men to seek refuge in the north by escaping from the area around the Yucatan peninsula in the south to Tamaulipas in the north. They were to look for a coastal rainforest and a specific remote cave on a mountaintop. They would know it by a device given to them and placed in a sacred vessel by the chief of the Voladores.
A similar device was hidden deep inside a cavern on the northern mountain, drawing energy from an unknown technology combining ores and the energy produced by reflective calcite crystals native to the mountain. The Legend states that this homing beacon would function for thousands of years but eventually grow weak and then finally fall silent. To my knowledge, the cave containing the homing signal has not been located or identified.
Only 1,500 years have passed since the time of the Maya, and today the signal atop El Cielo remains strong. So common is this signal phenomenon in the El Cielo rainforest that the first commercial airplane pilots flying over the area reported an unknown and unexplainable geomagnetic ping over the Sierra Madre Oriental near El Cielo. In fact, because of its reliability, this marker was used to triangulate flights from Houston to Florida, and it even appears on some flight maps, although of unknown origin. I have had pilots verify this for me.
The escape of the Mayan priests northward required them to free their servants. Only the shamanic elders, the most gifted group of shaman, were allowed to make the trek. The surviving priests had been promised by the flying men that once they arrived at the mountain top sanctuary, physical aging would slow to a stop, and life and death would be no more. They would exist forever between the layers of time, and they are the ones that are seen on the mountain from time to time.
Once they set off, the Mayan priests were never heard from or seen again except for an incidental glyph mentioning their departure on a Mayan stele at Palenque in southern Mexico. So much time had passed that even the Mayan people forgot them. They disappeared into the northern mountains as if they were swallowed alive.
In the El Cielo biosphere, physical evidence of their existence has been found and documented by archaeologists in the form of circular house foundations, middens, stone and clay pottery artifacts, including ritual figurines and burials. The evidence is plentiful and revealing.  
The Mayan Legend describes how these objects should never be moved or touched. The locals have developed a set of rituals used in the purification of those people who accidentally encountered these unusual objects. The slightest brush against the skin by the vegetation surrounding the objects immediately impacts the unprotected human skin producing a strange and unexplainable burning sensation, similar to a nettle. The locals call it La Mala Mujer, the evil woman. The dormant human sensors become energized, and the doors of perception are flung open, revealing the unseen. The most commonly reported effect is a peculiar and inexplicable dream and the feeling of being lifted away and floating in the air. This out-of-body experience is accompanied by reports of being watched by ancient people who are all around but cannot be seen in a usual manner, but their voices are heard. In this way, the events of the parallel world are glimpsed, and in rare cases when this happens to an empathetic person, actual communication with an alternate reality takes place.
The Legend is also a cautionary tale since it is believed that the flying men are actually space aliens searching for uniquely sentient humans for a new colonization. Hence human disappearance and abduction are also part of the Legend.
While the physical body remains intact, the spirit is lifted by the gifted ones and altered. The Legend states that when this occurs, strange facial expressions and uncontrolled giddiness are sure signs that the process has begun.
The people who live around the El Cielo biosphere have become so accustomed to these strange effects that they have learned to live with them and now mostly ignore them. However, if left unattended, the strange and bizarre dreams develop into a behavior pattern, which is sometimes irreversible. The proper antidote of herbal plants must be administered to the victim within 12 hours of contact, or the process of soul extraction is completed and irreversible. After which, it is too late to retrieve the soul of the afflicted person. At this point, the cure for fright sickness or susto can be attempted but is rarely successful.
I remember long ago, both Dr. Palerm and Dr. Paredes telling me that as a “native” anthropologist, which is an anthropologist derived from the culture he studies, I would have a responsibility to continue their work in northern Mexico and document whatever I could during my time as a professional. Recounting this story is part of that fulfillment. Most importantly, they told me that it was my responsibility to see that the information I collected was added to our knowledge of Mexican culture and passed on to the next gifted student. To that end, I was invited to describe my studies at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, a great honor, where I was awarded the Premio Ohtli, the Pathfinder Award by the Mexican government.
I was also to learn about the plants of the forest and among them their sacred antidotes. This was also part of the Legend and told to Palerm, as he told it to me, and I to you. Failure to comply with the pact of knowledge could result in significant harm to those who disregard it.
After graduate school, I joined the faculty of Texas Southmost College and, for a short while, forgot the words and admonitions of my old anthropology professors. However, drawn back to the mountain in 1976, I soon resumed my trips to the enchanted forest with new, unsettling knowledge mixed with foreboding caution. That is when I began to collect my thoughts for this article.
Almost immediately and on my first return trip to the mountain, I happened upon the curandera Doña Eulalia. “Lala” (her name has been changed) lives alone high up on the mountain on the road to a stone formation known as elefante. Ambling past her little jacal on the road to Julilo, Lala was working in her herb garden, and as we slowly passed, our eyes met.
Instantly, I recognized the variety of medicinal plants in her magic garden, and I was compelled to meet her. From that first encounter, it was as if we had known each other forever. I introduced myself, and she remarked, “I’ve been waiting for you.” I replied, “I got here as soon as I could.” And with that, we went right to work, she the master and me the apprentice.
Only later would I learn that her neighbors considered her a witch, a bruja. However, she referred to herself as a healer or curandera. I apprenticed with her for the next ten years, looking for every opportunity to visit. Sometimes I would spend as much as a week learning about her plants, their use, and her healing rituals. Occasionally, other apprentices would stop by, or we would trek off through the jungle to the home of a sick neighbor.
During those years, I learned the art of spiritual observation and how it was an essential part of the healing paradigm. From my point of view, I was glad that observers are not always enactors. That is, it is vital to do by not doing. I also learned during the next 40 years (1980-2020) about the many people who have trekked to El Cielo and the many strange and unexplainable occurrences on the mountain.
The Mayan calendar predicted that the world would end, that the Flying-Men, or alien Voladores, would return, and there would be numerous flying object sightings over Mexico; flying beasts called Chupacabras would appear; there would be unusual markings in the fields called crop-circles; mutilated cattle and the bloodthirsty cult of Yerba Buena in the Municipio of Villa Mainero near the border with Nuevo Leon, would emerge. All these things have come to pass as predicted without the end of our world. Only the Mayan world ended.
The mountain people have long talked about a peculiar forest beast, but only recently has it been named chupacabra by cryptozoologists. This creature is a shape-shifter and mostly harmless as it leaps through the forest canopy. Its favorite delicacy is the juicy treetop bromeliad common to the forest that it shreds with its claw-like appendages.
However, we must beware because these curious beasts are attracted to the ground by flashlights forming beacons of light in the forest night. Most often, they will not attack anything their size or larger. Over the years, the disappearance of many local dogs from isolated forest homes and some errant children has been blamed on the chupacabra.
Doña Lala, being very familiar with the Legend of Los Olvidados, knew indeed that the forest was alive and that it could shift its shape at will, changing the location of essential markers. She knew well of the Mayan priests that lived in a parallel world, walking the same paths as contemporary humans inhabiting the same rooms we do when visiting the mountain. Lala considered the whole mountain a living being. We were simply like fleas on its back.
The Legend states that the Flying-men discovered this magic forest thousands of years ago attracted to the mysterious homing beacon on their migration to this place. So important is this secret spot that the Voladores shared these secrets with the Mayans, with whom they also shared their genes.
Doña Lala told me about the lost children and that they and the Maya are all living around us in their continuing parallel world. Now and then, when we least expect it, we catch a glimpse of them. The children usually take the form of forest gnomes called duendes. The Legend refers to them as duendes, a familiar Mexican folk creature. Forest dwarfs like to play in the homes and cabins of people who live in the area. Being mischievous by nature, they frequently move or remove the personal belongings of visitors to Cielo. You cannot leave essential belongings unattended, or they might disappear.
Around 1983, Doña Lala told me that it was not safe to visit her until I was told it was safe to return because she was caught up in a “War of the Witches” that would continue for decades until one of the principal antagonists died. It simply became too dangerous for outsiders like me who could be attacked, and several were. The war had to do with the Mayan millenarian prophesy. During the conflict leading up to the changing of the millennium (2000-2001), there was constant spiritual warfare between the primary witches of the region resulting in numerous deaths. Any outsider associated with the witches was vulnerable to attack. After my last visit in 2000, I saw her only rarely during the next ten years. Now and then, when in Mexico, and it could be anywhere, I will perceive a signal or a sign that I know is from Lala. Sometimes it is a person that I notice. Words are rarely spoken. It is not necessary, and I am pleased that she survived all these years.
When I least expect it, she will send me a message. One day while shopping in Brownsville, an unknown woman approached me and said, “Lala says hello,” and then quickly moved away, not allowing me to ask her any questions.
While spiritual warfare has declined dramatically in recent years, it does continue in different forms. The brujos mayores, or primary witches, and their apprentices still employ the technique of shifting to an animal form. This is for survival but also for spiritual combat. Most often, witches’ apprentices take the form of birds like the owl or lechusa, while the maestro or master always prefers the shape of a large jungle cat, such as a jaguar. These magnificent and sacred Mayan cats still wander the trails of El Cielo, making no sound. They see us, and only if they want to be seen do we see them.
Jaguars appear or disappear into the forest, and any encounter with them should be considered a spiritual sign. If you were their adversary, you would not know it was there was a jaguar near until it was too late. When one of these shape-shifters, or naguals, has been near, there is often the report of a nauseous feeling. A feeling similar to that of a captured soul as it leaves the spiritless body.
So feared are these highland witches/cats that the lowland witches hesitate to even speak of their existence. They referred to all that goes on up in the mountain forests as the work of Los Olvidados, The Forgotten Ones.
Doña Eulalia, her full Huastecan name is Ox-Chul-lala-na, is an ancient spirit, a master of the living forest. Like so many who have come before her, she patiently awaits the promised return of the Flying-Men. The mountain’s visitors amuse her, remarking that the Flying-Men need all kinds. For the most part, the Americanos do not get in the way and are mostly unaware of their close encounters with the supernatural at El Cielo. Encounters are brief, uneventful, and only remembered as the unexpected rustling of branches and leaves in the dark forest, sometimes strange and unrecognizable footprints are seen.
However, now and then, one of the sojourners to El Cielo inadvertently steps into the unexpected, feeling or even seeing something more. Sometimes the visitors are actually “gifted,” and for them, significant ambiguity is created. The Legend says that soon all will gather to welcome the return of the Voladores. I share this story with you because I am bound to. In addition, so that you will know and be aware of the unexpected if you ever visit El Cielo.
Many years after these initial experiences at El Cielo (1965-1975), I returned home to teach at Texas Southmost College and then became the first Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. It was in 1991 that people were amazed that I had such a wide range of experiences at Cielo to the point that my stories were often not believed.
I had researched every detail early in my graduate career at the behest of Dr. Palerm and Dr. Paredes, and as such, had all of the details of disappearing priests and strange pinging sounds documented. Many of the things people refused to believe. Years later, I was able to revisit Doña Eulalia and was received with open arms and with the comment, “I’ve been expecting you.”
When I last saw her, she looked the same, not having aged in the least. When I mentioned this to her, my comment was reciprocated with a grin. She also said that she had sent her emissary to greet me in the grocery store in Brownsville. Lala informed me that the “War of the Witches” had ended with the death of her opponent, un brujo malo, and that all was now peaceful on the mountain, safe to return.
Over the course of more than 50 years of studying shaman throughout Latin America, the one thing that amazes me the most is the shamanic ability to see things other people cannot.
It has now been almost five years since I last saw Eulalia, but now and then, she will pop into my head, or I think I see her in a crowd, and I know that is her way of telling me she is all right.
Since 2010, the highway from Matamoros to Cuidad Mante and over to El Cielo has become very dangerous, with ongoing battles between drug cartels trying to control their routes. Much too risky for me to drive, I can only hope that someday before the end of my time, I will visit there once again. I long to walk the trails of the tropical rainforest atop the Sierra Madre Oriental where the Jaguars roam and ancient Mayan spirits go about their daily work, not aware that they lived in the past.
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