Mary cried all Wednesday–the day before our first trip to the interior of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. Upon arrival at the colonial city of Mérida and finding our small hotel, we walked to Santa Ana Square, planning to eat dinner. We quickly learned Thursday is fiesta night.
There were street vendors, live music, and dancing. The restaurant we had chosen was packed. We were relieved to find two inside seats next to a noisy bar at an adjacent establishment.
The waiter took our order, began to turn, shook his head, leaned back toward us and in perfect English, said, “Why?” “I have to ask. Why?” He had recognized we were from the US. This was the Thursday after Donald Trump had been elected President.
A year later, at the small ruin of Becán near the village of Xujpil, a man sweeping some ancient steps, tested our Spanish by asking if we were from the US. When we responded affirmatively, he humbly asked if we thought people in Mexico were bad. He wanted to know if all Americans thought the way our President did. What about us? How did we find the people we were encountering? Did we believe what our president said about Mexicans? We assured him we were ashamed and embarrassed as were many North Americans. Indeed, we were proud to tell him this was our second trip in 13 months to small villages and ruins in the Yucatán, and everyone we met had been “muy amable.”
In truth, before the first trip, we had trepidation. Mexico’s reputation for corruption and violence worried us. I tracked down an ex-pat—a birder who had lived for a decade in Progreso on Yucatán’s northern coast. I called her. We spoke at length. Two comments from her stood out. She said the only murder she could remember in 10 years was between two Canadians. Second, she advised that when driving in rural areas while birding, “if you see a side road you want to try, go ahead and do it. It will be safe.”
Sadly, violence has spread to the eastern coast of the Yucatán. There are too many people and too much money flowing through Cancun and the Riviera Maya not to attract the drug cartels. We had no intention of going near that area. We knew it from trips to Isla Cozumel in the 1980s. To those familiar with the area today: imagine—my 1984 journal entry describes arriving at Playa del Carman on a small ferry and noting only one person, “a nearly naked girl,” sunbathing on the beach. Now there are numerous hotels, even casinos, and people everywhere.
We also visited Tulum in the early 1980s. There were no hotels. There was no entrance fee. No restaurants. There were a couple of local vendors selling handicrafts and a handful of tourists. A quick internet search now yields dozens of hotels. The area is also known for gourmet dining.
We snorkeled at Xel Há. We were the only visitors. The pool was at the end of a potholed, unpaved road. Now, it is part of a major resort with a daily entry fee exceeding $100. The same was true of Akumal. Then, a couple of small palapas served a simple lunch of fish, vegetables, and a beer. Now, besides massive hotels, there is a major residential development with high rises and time shares. Fortunately, as my ex-pat contact had informed me, the interior of the Yucatán has not yet succumbed to the tourism juggernaut.
We rented a car from a local garage in Mérida. They did not require any paperwork beyond what we had provided by email. A man met us at the airport, handed us keys and told us to call when we needed the car picked up. He was walking away. I asked, “Don’t you need to be paid?” “Pay me when you return,” he said over his shoulder. The thought that we had been handed a stolen car did cross our minds, but this business had great reviews. Two years later, we confidently rented from them again.
That first night we arrived hungry, several hours after dark. Our small hotel in Mérida was 5 or 6 blocks from Santa Ana square. “Can you call a taxi; we asked the proprietor?” “It is faster if you walk,” he said. “It is safe.” That was the first of many nighttime walks on those streets during our two visits to Mérida. The streetlights are dim, the buildings tall and mostly dark. Occasionally, some locals would pass us, but mostly there was no one else. Were we lucky? Were we naive? In many US cities, I would have felt less secure. The next year we stayed in Campeche City, on the west coast of the peninsula, and had the same experience.
It is risky to generalize because Mérida shares the same problems with any large city. Nonetheless, it was notable when, two years later, at a small cafe, we talked to the owner-chefs who had recently moved after more than a decade of living in Miami. He was French. She was originally from Mexico City. They had two teenaged sons. They related how they had visited Mérida and decided it was a much better place to raise their sons than in the US.
Our comfort with the people and the countryside only increased as we traveled. On that first trip, we spent most of a day with two young men who had a three-wheeled scooter with which they could carry two passengers in the back. We hired them from a street corner in the village of Homún to take us to some cenotes. They enjoyed it as much as we did, bouncing down the dirt roads, then swimming, telling jokes, all with much laughter.
Some cenotes have concrete steps, some have steel ladders. These boys took us to one with a rickety ladder fashioned from tree limbs. Though shaky, it seemed stout enough. Mary and I gingerly began our descent. One of the young men, impatient with our slow progress, scooted out on a large vine and flipped into the water. We had each of these locations to ourselves. We had agreed on a price but had not discussed how many cenotes we would visit. After swimming in three, it was late; we had to leave. Both of our hosts were visibly disappointed. They had planned to take us to one more.
Another time, at the small ruin of Xlapak, where afternoon birding had been enticing, I asked the guard if it was possible to enter at 6AM, two hours before opening. The gate could easily be stepped over and I promised to pay him as I left. “I’ll meet you,” he said. And he was there at 6AM. Later, the Canadian woman who owned the cabin where we were staying said, “I hope you gave him a big tip!” She enjoyed the local people, she said. Her workers were invariably dependable and honest. As for the guard at the ruin, she said, “They are not paid nearly enough for what they do.” This was true. We had observed how clean and well-kept were these minor ruins. I suppose the guards had little else to do. We usually had to sign a register. Sometimes it had been a week since the previous visitor. Nonetheless, the jungle grows aggressively. Leaves fall throughout the year. There would always be maintenance to perform, besides ensuring that no looting or vandalism occurred.
In the beginning, our exploration of ruins had been the usual. The first one we visited from Mérida was Chichén Itzá. It is magnificent. I had wanted to visit because of its history and a sense of sex and mystery I remembered from an old movie: Against All Odds.
Wary of the expected crowds (~two million annually, pre-covid), we arrived before opening and were through the gate before most tourist buses unloaded. We were able to spend a peaceful half-hour at the famous cenote as I endeavored to listen for the difference in the vocalizations of the nearly identical Tropical and Couch’s Kingbirds.
Vendors were everywhere. There were hundreds. We marveled at how many there were and how so many sold the same wares. How did any of them earn a useful amount of money? As bus after bus unloaded, some portions of the ruins became packed shoulder to shoulder. We were happy to have visited, but also ready to leave.
Next, we visited Uxmal, nearly as famous as Chichén Itzá and deservedly known as the major ruin with the most intricate decoration. Believed to be completed near the zenith of Mayan civilization, the buildings such as The House of Turtles and the House of the Magician have ornate friezes and carvings. The setting, because there are some hills, allows one to comprehend the totality of the site, something inhibited at Chichén Itzá because climbing on pyramids at these sites is now prohibited.
During our trips, we visited several large ruins. For example, Edzna, near Campeche City and Ek Balam near Vallodolid are major ruins even if visitation is sparse. At the latter, a guard at the entrance asked if we were from the US. He said, “no one ever comes here from the US.” In fact, after each of these trips, Mary and I questioned whether we had heard any English spoken so long as we were at a location not frequented by tour buses from the Riviera Maya.
We discovered minor ruins by accident. We had an unexpected free afternoon during our initial visit to Mérida. We were already on the Northwest side of the city having visited a wetland to look for birds. I noted a ruin on our map, Sihunchen, that was only a few miles outside the city. Our gps unit recognized a hamlet, San Antonio Chel, close by the ruin, so we decided to see what we could find.
Once out of Mérida, we found ourselves off pavement driving through tropical dry forest. Road conditions required slow driving and we were rewarded with a perfect view of a Lesser Roadrunner. It obligingly stopped for inspection and a photo before darting into the bush.
Arriving at San Antonio Chel, we saw a small church on a public square but no one on the street. A road from the square seemed to head in the correct direction so we continued, hoping there would be a sign at the ruin. After a few miles, we saw a sign for rental cabins, but otherwise only more dry jungle.
A few minutes later, we chanced upon some men repairing a bridge. We were able to communicate sufficiently to understand that the location with the cabins was our destination. Upon return, we found the gate locked. I was bold enough to climb over the fence. Almost immediately, I spied a workman raking leaves. He waved me back, gesturing that he would open the gate for us.
Once inside, the man pointed at a small interpretive sign and returned to his work. We had a wonderful afternoon. There were a few cabins that appeared in good condition. Possibly these were used at other times of the year or maybe reserved for groups.
Now, however, we had encountered Sihunchen as our first minor ruin available for solo exploration. The trails among the small building sites were clear. There were helpful interpretive signs that we could read with our basic Spanish.
There was limited restoration. We climbed one small pyramid that only had enough vegetation removed for a single path to the top. How amazing to have this place to ourselves.
Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of wildlife. I was excited to see my first flock of Ocellated Turkeys. Considering their riotous colors, this bird may be the Americas closest contender to peacocks. We saw hummingbirds, mixed flocks with up to seven species of neotropical warblers, and many flycatchers including, appropriately, the endemic Yucatán Flycatcher.
It is no longer easy to have such a sense of discovery when traveling. The visit to Sihunchen was a rare example—climbing a fence, having a gate unlocked, and a ruin to ourselves. On a later trip, although entrance to the site was open, the guard opened the fabulous stucco frieze at Balamku. The frieze, depicting Mayan rulers and a sacred mountain is 16.8 m (55 ft) long and 1.75 m (5.7 ft) high.
Our interest in the Mayans had begun with those early trips to Cozumel in the 1980s. I had read John L. Stephens’ famous books (Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán) describing his explorations with illustrator Frederick Catherwood in the 1840s. I had acquired and read translations of books written near the time of the Conquest and several by more recent explorers.
Recent decades have been rich with new discoveries. Mary and I read articles and watched documentaries as they appeared. Indeed, between our early visits in the 1980s and our recent trips, a young researcher proved that the glyphs on Mayan stellae (large rock slabs) and on buildings were language, a history, not simply names and dates as had been assumed.
It was remarkable to learn that the young researcher who had deciphered these writings was spurned until the old guard of Mayan researchers passed away. I have always believed we should listen more to younger voices; here was another example.
All this explains why, on our third trip, we were descending into Aktun Usil with Lourdes. We had met Lourdes at Oxkintok—a small ruin southwest of Mérida. We were fortunate to have good directions. The road was an obscure track. The small sign for the ruin, unattached on one side and hanging sideways from the other, was not visible from the highway.
As with most small Mayan ruins, Oxkintok had a small guard house where a fee was collected. Then, we were free to explore.
For a ruin such as Oxkintok, archaeologists and anthropologists had, of course, been there before us. Thus, from the internet, we could find maps and explanations. From our studies, we understood the differences in the various Mayan periods and could compare architectural styles from site to site. Often some stabilization and restoration had been accomplished, but unlike the highly-publicized and well-known locations such as Chichén Itzá , at minor ruins such as Oxkintok, we could climb the small pyramids and enter most of the buildings.
Most of the locations were safe enough.
Becán has larger pyramids than most of the small ruins but they are so steep that thick ropes are suspended to use for safety. Climbing those was exhilarating. From the top, in the far distance, the great pyramids at Calakmul were visible.
The only time I was fearful was at the ruins of Xpujil. I climbed interior steps to the top of one of the structures. The steps were of such great age and use that they were worn into a downward slant. They were also thick with dust. The ascent was not too bad, but coming down, the fine dust filled my eyes in the already dim stairway. The slippery and thick layer of dust combined with the angle of the steps was precarious. The tunnel was just wide enough that I could not brace myself against the sides. There were no handholds. I was unnerved. If I had slipped, I would have tumbled all the way to the bottom. I was relieved to emerge safely. It was fascinating to wander these sites on our own, giving us both a sense of discovery as well as wonder at the sophistication in construction exhibited by the Maya.
Lourdes, a young lady with strongly Mayan features, had been at Oxkintok’s entry displaying photos of paintings. We believed she was offering to guide us through Oxkintok, so we declined. However, on departure, we realized we had seen nothing like her photos. She was talking to the guard, so we approached and asked where the paintings were. How had we missed them? Finally, we understood they were at a nearby site, in a cave actually. Showing that site was her guiding gig. “Why not?” We thought.
Lourdes had a bicycle but gestured that she needed to board our car. We cleared space for her, and she directed us back down the road about a mile and onto a little-used dirt track. Plants and brush were rubbing against the undercarriage and then we emerged onto a limestone slab. I looked quizzically at Mary, not wanting to blow a tire on the sharp rock and wondering how far we had to go.
Abruptly, Lourdes told us to stop. We followed her through the brush toward a small hill below which was an opening to a cavern.
Ultimately, we learned the site, Aktun Usil, had been featured in an article in National Geographic. With a strong flashlight, we could see carvings and paintings on the ceiling and walls. It became apparent, and as explained to us by Lourdes, this cavern, now dry, had once been a cenote and water source. As we wandered the cave, Lourdes showed us small carved shrines and recent offerings because the cave was still sacred to some of the locals. Certainly, others have seen Aktun Usil, but our unexpected, private tour was a treat.
As we returned Lourdes to her bicycle, we told her we were going to Chacmultun the following day after spending the night in Santa Elena. She suggested we not return to the highway but continue on the road past Oxkintok. We could bisect an area of jungle we would otherwise have had to circumnavigate.
The map on our gps showed no road but depicted the little dot representing our car as passing through a green expanse. A few times, vegetation scraped both sides of our car. Meeting another vehicle would have been problematic. Luckily, we encountered no one and emerged onto the highway, saving considerable driving time.
Chacmultun, in contrast to Oxkintok, was not a collection of buildings on a plain, but several groups of structures including one upon a rare steep hill. Having more natural relief here, building on the heights yielded the advantage of a pyramid without the need to construct one. We spent most of a day exploring and climbing on the buildings. Birding here was excellent and we saw no one else.
Our favorite large ruin was Calakmul. Current studies are revealing both how large the site is and that Calakmul was likely more important than Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and the other more well-known locations. Calakmul is also a Biosphere Reserve; the largest intact forest in the Americas besides what remains of the Amazon. Located on the border with Belize and Guatemala, the site is two hours from a main road and 1 1/2 hours from a hotel. Thus, there are no souvenir vendors nor many visitors. Because so much is unexcavated and unrestored, combined with its remote location, Calakmul combines the sense of discovery of the minor sites with feelings of mystery and magnificence because of its size and complexity.
The tallest pyramid at Calakmul is an impressive 55m, nearly twice as tall as the Pyramid of Kukulkan (30m) at Chichén Itzá. And this pyramid could be climbed. The views were magnificent: a vast expanse of dark, green jungle broken by an occasional mound—signifying another ancient site.
Wildlife was abundant: Ocellated Turkeys, Great Curassows, deer, foxes, agoutis, spider and howler monkeys. I also enjoyed an excellent view of a Black-throated Blue Warbler—a species which nests mostly along the US-Canadian border.
Visiting such a variety of sites allowed us to observe how the architecture became more intricate and then declined in conjunction with the progress and decline of the Mayan civilization. The so-called pre-Classic period began about 250CE. Their civilization reached its zenith about 900CE and then declined precipitously. The collapse occurred before the Conquest resulting in much scholarship to understand why. Overpopulation, overexploitation of the shallow soil and drought have all been blamed and collectively these provide a lesson for hubristic societies today.
Besides the quantity and richness of the lesser-known ruins, we had under-appreciated the Yucatán’s wildlife and birding. Near the small town of Chuburná, we visited wetlands replete with a variety of herons, shorebirds, and large flocks of American Flamingoes. South of Campeche, we found a tiny beach area where, while swimming, we saw an endangered West Indian Manatee.
Jungle birding was excellent. I realized virtually any species found in Belize, a popular destination for birders, is found in this area of Mexico. Examples are near endemic rarities such as Rose-throated Tanager and the poorly named Gray-throated Chat (It has a bright red belly). I found the latter by recognizing the correct habitat off of a side-road near the ruin of Dzibilchaltún.
This area is also the primary wintering grounds for many neotropical migrants such as Magnolia Warblers and Least Flycatchers which were abundant. Besides these, there are also several endemics—species found nowhere else. Many have names beginning, appropriately enough with Yucatán: Yucatán Flycatcher, Yucatán Jay, Yucatán Nightjar and more.
Our most extraordinary wildlife experience, however, was the “bat volcano,” located 1 ½ hours east of Escarcega, almost to the village of Xpujil. More than three million bats emerge each evening. The bats reside in caverns at the base of a steep cylindrical sinkhole approximately 50m deep and an equal distance in diameter. Near dusk, bats pour out of the fissures that surround the bottom of the deep hole. There are so many bats the breeze caused by their wings is felt on the bodies of on-lookers and rustles the leaves in the trees.
As usual, however, it was birding, the elusive Rose-throated Tanager, which led to our memorable visit to the small village of Xocen. Via Facebook, I messaged the “Yucatán Jay Birders Club.” I had noted interesting birds listed by the club posted on eBird. The “Club” was born when some young men from the village recognized there were unusual birds on their lands. They realized birders like me would pay for access and for help finding the birds. The young men from the village were all busy but fortunately, Joel, a young guide from Mérida, worked with the group and was available.
Once Joel and I had agreed upon dates and fees, I asked whether there would be anything of interest to occupy Mary while I was birding. Entertaining non-birders was part of the plan, it seemed. Joel said Mary should certainly come along.
We arrived at the village early one morning and followed Joel to a small traditional hut. As with elsewhere in the Yucatán, traditional Mayan villages are disappearing. Modern buildings already had a significant presence and had lined the entrance road. The little compound we were led to had several traditional huts made of sticks packed with mud and thatched with palm fronds. Mary was introduced to a couple of ladies in traditional Mayan clothing. Joel and I went birding.
The birding was everything I hoped for. We quickly found a female Rose-throated Tanager. I was excited to see the rare bird, even though females are a dull yellow brown. We found many other species, mostly wintering neotropical migrants such as Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers. As noon approached, I was beginning to think that was all we would find. Fortunately, in quick succession we found a male Rose-throated Tanager and my other major target, Gray-collared Becard. I was elated!
As we returned for lunch, I wondered how Mary’s morning had been. She was happy but said she had felt awkward. The ladies showed her crafts and she had bought a few, but mostly, she observed as they performed their normal routines. She learned how the village ladies had pooled scarce finances and purchased their own grinder for corn. Corn tortillas are the dietary staple and each morning, a bag of previously par-boiled corn is ground into masa for use in tortillas. Mary also observed the slaughtering and cleaning of the chicken that went into a pot for our lunch. Mary said she felt warmly welcomed, but that it was embarrassing to have a part in turning an ordinary day of a fading culture into a “show.” In fact, the corn-to-tortillas process was something we were privileged to observe. Although these tasks are performed throughout Central and South America, and have been for centuries, they are disappearing.
There was a small griddle set at an angle over a wood fire. Here is where the grandmother sat on a small stool most of the day. She would grab some of the coarse masa dough and deftly form a golf ball sized piece and pat it down with her fingertips to form a flat thin disk from the center out. The tortilla was then tossed on the griddle as she reached for another handful of masa. With timing learned over generations, she would reach for the tortilla at just the right time and flip it to cook the other side as she prepared the next. When finished, she removed the tortilla from the griddle and tossed it on a pile.
We ate first and were provided with forks. I noticed the family simply used their tortillas as both food and utensil. Although still common throughout Mexico and Central America, it was exciting to participate in the real thing, sitting with the family, watching the tortillas made and eating a stewed chicken as they had done for generations.
How long will these practices persist? How long until it becomes solely a reenactment performed for tourists? Already, one of the younger generation in this family had constructed a separate dwelling—out of concrete blocks and including electric lights.
Others had left for school or for jobs that morning on their motorcycles. What will happen when the grandmother passes away? Will the younger generation simply buy mass-produced tortillas at the local OXXO store that we had passed on the entrance road? Will they buy their chicken there too?
I had seen their milpas, patches of corn, while birding. Among the housing and cooking structures, were herbs and food plants in small pots. But, we also saw encroachment of modernity. Traditionally, bones and inedible trash are thrown in the jungle. Native creatures soon made this human detritus vanish. Unfortunately, now that products wrapped in plastic and foil have found their way into the village, these now fluttered from nearby bushes. While birding, I had observed unsightly piles of garbage dumped randomly. Will the younger generation realize in time how much such practices threaten their future?
That afternoon, Joel took us to meet the head of the village, an elderly man. I should note here that I asked Joel if a tip was expected and he replied, “No, we are just visiting.” As we toured the village, we never saw a hint of anything but pride in their culture and pleasure that we had come for a visit.
The village elder and his family had a compound separate from the rest of the village and town. There were several traditional thatched huts and covered outside basins for doing laundry and cooking. There were a few animals inside of fences constructed of the same native wood as the huts. It was important to our host that we see the cemetery where his ancestors were buried. The “Day of the Dead,” would arrive in a couple of weeks, and here the family would decorate these graves and spend the night celebrating their deceased family members.
The beekeeping was also fascinating. The native bees (Melipona beecheii) are not as productive as are our non-native bees. They reside in a log with small holes. They are endangered, probably because of loss of habitat and changes in flora in the jungle. We may have seen one of the last people obtaining honey in this manner.
What is most important about Xocen, however, is the belief that it is the Center of the World—a conviction honored by The Church of the Three Crosses. The three crosses are central to the cult of the Speaking Cross. The Speaking Cross cult developed during the Caste War* when the Mayans attempted to evict their Spanish opressors. Early in the war, the Mayans might have successfully driven out the Spanish, but they ceased engagement when it was time to return home to do their planting.
Skirmishes continued for more than 50 years (1847 into the early 1900s). Near what is now Filipe Carrillo Puerto, a Maya man found a cross at the base of a tree next to a cenote. The cross spoke to him, giving him instructions on how to battle the Spanish. Over the years, people gave offerings to the cross and eventually a religion grew from it.
Joel introduced us to the priest whose demeaner was grave and respectful. We were welcomed into the small church with only the admonition that photography was prohibited. On the altar, were three crosses–one of stone, one wood, and one painted green. All three were covered with traditional Mayan dresses. and adornments. The altar was filled with disparate objects: plants, clothing, even toys such as a doll. These must have been offerings. On tables in front were lighted candles, apparently serving the same purpose as they do in Christian churches
Afterwards, in front of the church, we bowed our heads as the priest blessed us with fronds of a sacred plant that had been dipped in the nearby spring. We felt solemn and blessed ourselves. After all, we were at Xocen, the “Center of the World.”
*The Caste War was a major conflict. That its occurrence is unknown throughout most of the Americas is unconscionable. Overall, it is a story of native people rebelling against colonialism. Sadly, US business interests played a significant role in the death and destruction. The best single history is: The Caste War of Yucatan, by Neslon Reed, Stanford University Press.