MAXCANU /OXKINTOC BICYCLE TOUR
Jane and I left the house at 5:30 AM riding our 20 inch folding bikes and an hour later we were departing Mérida aboard a local bus heading southwest 60 kilometers across the low flat semi-arid scrub brush country of Yucatán to the colonial town of Maxcanu situated at the beginning of the Puuc hills on the border with the neighboring state of Campeche.
This diminutive town seldom visited by tourists seems to be lost in a time-warp far back in the past century. Maxcanu is one of countless Yucatán villages still maintaining the traditional palapa thatched roof homes of the ancient Maya that are still widely in use as they have been for many millennium.
As recently as the early 1970s over half of the population of Yucatán lived in these traditional style thatched roof homes called “palapas” or “casa de paja”.
A special tranquility is maintained in this place where bicycles and the three wheeled tricycle taxis quietly outnumber motor vehicles.
We struck off on our folding bikes to get the general lay-of-the-land and begin our photo-op country tour when we mysteriously found ourselves on the road to Oxkintoc…our map was not an accurate depiction of the roads. As it turned out we were in luck because we did not have to go out on the main road to reach our destination…every day in Mexico is an adventure.
The following story is presented with captioned photos;
It is quiet, quaint and serene on the side streets of Maxcanu but at the zócalo where we had our breakfast the resonating echoes barked out from an obnoxious ear-splitting brain- rattling megaphone grated on our nerves with repetitious tacky boom-boom-boom music interspersed with useless annoying repetitively screechy advertisements.
With our fourteen speed home made folding bikes, Jane and I luckily find ourselves on the route to our end destination of Oxkintoc.
(Spelling continuity in this part of Mexico is totally non-conforming from maps to road signs to tour books so you have to do your own detective work and be mentally flexible.)
This milpa in the country on the way to Oxkintoc is where corn, (maize) and calabaza is grown. From ancient times the Maya have sustained themselves with the perfect food group consisting of corn, beans and calabaza.
This low impact farming is very labor intensive. Using slash and burn agriculture as his ancestors have done over the past several thousand years this farmer planted his calabaza at the beginning of the rainy season and now harvests the fruits of his labor.
The seeds are collected and dried and then used in the preparation of a local Mayan dish called “siquilpac”. This is a flavorful nutritious dish with the ground seeds mixed with diced tomatoes, onions and cilantro and served cold and eaten with tortillas or tostados.
(The spelling in Yucatán of almost everything that originated in the Mayan language and was translated to Spanish has no set spelling standards or continuity.)
One interesting piece of wisdom we gleaned from these dirt-poor farmers was that that there was a big bank in town full of money that you couldn’t eat, but even though their crop had little monetary value at 25 pesos per kilo, they could at least eat it.
These are the Mayan ruins of Oxkintoc that were visited and vividly described by the famous explorer and excellent story teller; author John L. Stephens in 1840, INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN YUCATÁN. Amazingly the two volume books are still in print and selling well to this day. We highly recommend them to anybody even remotely interested in Mayan, Yucatecan or American history to read and enjoy.
(See the end note of this story for an excerpt from these incredible volumes.)
We have the place to ourselves this A.M.
Seldom visited and lightly excavated these mysterious ruins give haunting sensations of the Mayan civilization that flourished here for several thousand years.
That these ruins survived the inquisition crazed conquistadors who zealously enslaved the indigenous Mayas forcing them to pull down temples such as these and then construct cathedrals and monasteries in their place, which is so common a sight across all of Mexico. Every time we gaze upon a Mexican church we are saddened by the terrible trail of tears that fell upon this land of ancient cultural individualism.
Unique to this sight are the many extensive chambers known as a labyrinth that were measured, explored and described by Stephens in his 1840 visit and subsequent books.
No standard form of construction is evident in this photo of pyramid, wall and building that may all have vastly different time periods.
We have this pristine end of the world to ourselves, a reward of an early start.
Nearly forgotten and seldom visited this lonely place did not suffer the fate of so many Mayan temples that were pulled down and re-cycled into cathedrals.
This Puuc hill region of Yucatán is sparsely populated and unbelievably tranquil.
Though these ruins still stand after nearly five hundred years of abandonment they have been unmercifully picked of any interesting artifacts worth the effort of carrying off.
Nature stands ready to return these beautiful Mayan temples to unrecognizable jungle.
El Laberinto or the labyrinth so named by John L. Stephens in 1840 when he explored these rare expansive inner chambers and colorfully described his unusual encounter with the local populace who were direct descendants of the original builders.
This is what traffic looked like on the road heading back to Maxcanu. Our bicycle gearing makes our little folding bikes keep ahead of the local competition.
The man on the tricycle wears typical white long cotton clothing and sandals of the “campesino” or country farm worker typical of Yucatán. This was universal attire just a few years ago.
We stop to chat with the man that had been harvesting his calabaza seeds and you will see the meager results of his mornings efforts in the white bag on the back of his bicycle.
Back in town huge families live in open air compounds like this typical tropical shaded living room in the suburbs of Maxcanu.
At the neighborhood molino women bring in their cooked whole corn to be ground into masa and made into tortillas. Conversation and town gossip are the by-products. Jane and I have become alert to the sound of the molino as we bike through the small towns and villages always stopping to by a couple hundred grams of the delightfully fresh hot tortillas still steaming out of the machine.
Maxcanu is immaculately clean and well kept in almost every detail showing civic pride
A Mayan temple once stood here but is long forgotten replaced by this.
Noon in the zócalo plaza is busier but quieter than the early morning with its megaphone blasting.
Puerco and frijol (pork and black beans) is tastily prepared and amply served at this reasonable market restaurant.
A happy kitchen crew produces a joyous dining extravaganza.
No glitter and glitz just honest food bring in the hard working and hungry towns folk to get fed-up!
We loaded our fold-up bicycles into the cargo hold of the bus to Mérida and leaned back to dream a dream of our days adventures as we rolled the 60 kilometers back home after thoroughly enjoying another fun filled day trip. February 26, 2007
An excerpt from the book;
INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN YUCATÁN BY JOHN L. STEPHENS
Page 124 Maxcanú and the ruins of Oxkintok
La Cueva de Maxcnaú, or the Cave of Maxcanú, has in that region a marvelous and mystical reputation. It is called by the Indians Satun Sat, which means in Spanish El Laberinto or El Perdedero, the Labyrinth, or place in which one may be lost. Notwithstanding its wonderful reputation, and a name which alone, in any other country, would induce a thorough exploration, it is a singular fact, and exhibits more strikingly than anything I can mention the indifference of the people of all classes to the antiquities of the country, that up to the time of my arrival at the door, this Laberinto had never been examined. My friend Don Lorenzo Peon would give me every faculty for exploring in except joining me himself. Several persons had penetrated to some distance with a string held outside, but had turned back, and the universal belief was, that it contained passages without number and without end.
Under these circumstances, I certainly felt some degree of excitement as I stood in the doorway. The very name called up those stupendous works of Crete and on the shores of the Mæritic Lake which are now almost discredited as fabulous.
My retinue consisted of eight men, who considered themselves to be in my employ, besides three of four supernumeraries, and all together formed a crowd around the door. Except the mayoral of Uxmal, I had never seen one of them before, and as I considered it important to have a reliable man outside, I stationed him at the door with a ball of twine. I tied one end around my left wrist, and told one of the men to light a torch and follow me, but he refused absolutely, and all the rest, after one another, did the same. They were all read enough to hold the string; and I was curious to know, and had a conference with them on the interesting point, weather they expected any pay for their services in standing out of doors. One expected pay for showing me the place, others for carrying water, another for taking care of the horses, and so on, but I terminated the matter abruptly by declaring that I should not pay one of them a medio; and, ordering them all away from the door, which they were smothering, and a little affected with one of their apprehensions of starting some wild beast, which might be making his lair in the cave, I entered with a candle in one hand and a pistol in the other.
The entrance faces the west. The mouth is filled with rubbish, scrambled over which, I stood in a narrow passage or gallery, constructed, like all of the apartments above ground, with smooth walls and triangular arched ceiling. The passage was about four feet wide, and seven feet high to the top of the arch. It ran due east, and at the distance of six or eight yards opened into another, or rather was stopped by another crossing it, and running north and south. At the distance of a few yards, on the right side of the wall, I found a door, filled up, and at a distance of thirty-five feet the passage ended, and a door opened at right angles on the left into another gallery running due east. Following this, at a distance of thirteen feet I found another gallery on the left, running north, and beyond it, at the end, still another, also on the left, and running north, four yards long, and then walled up, with only an opening into it about a foot square.
Turning back, I entered the gallery which I had passed, and which ran north eight or ten yards; at the end was a doorway on the right, opening into a gallery that ran east. At the end of this were six steps, each one foot high and two wide, leading to another gallery, which ran north twelve yards. At the end there came another gallery on the left, which ran west ten yards, and at the end of this another on the right, running north about six feet. This passage was walled up at the north end, and at the distance of five yards from this end another doorway led into a passage running to the east. At the distance of four yards a gallery crossed at f=right angles, running north and south, forty-five feet long and walled at both ends; and three or four yards further another gallery crossed it, also running north and south. This last was walled up at the south, and on the north led to still another gallery, which ran east, three yards long. This was stopped by another gallery crossing it, running to the south three yards, when it was walled up, and to the north eight yards, when it turned to the west.
In utter ignorance of the ground, I found myself turning and doubling along these dark and narrow passages, which seemed really to have no end, and justly to entitle the place to its name of El Laberinto.
I was not entirely free from the apprehension of starting a some wild animal, and moved slowly and very cautiously. In the mean time, in turning the corners, m twine would be entangled, and the Indians, moved by the probability of getting no pay, entered to clear it, and by degrees all came up with me in a body. I got a glimpse of their torches behind me just as I was turning into a new passage, and at the moment I was startled by a noise which set me back rather quickly, and completely routed them. It proceeded from a rushing of bats, and, having a sort of horror of these beastly birds, this was an ugly place to meet them in, for the passage was low, and there was so little room for a flight overhead, that in walking upright here was great danger of their striking my face. It was necessary to move with the head bent down, and protecting the lights from the flapping of their wings. Nevertheless, every step was exciting, and called up recollections of the pyramids and tomes of Egypt, and I could not but believe that these dark and intricate passages would introduce me to some large saloon, or perhaps some royal sepulcher. Belozni, and the tomb of Cephrenes and its alabaster sarcophagus, were floating through my brain, when all at ounce I found a passage choked up and effectually stopped. The ceiling had fallen in, crushed by the great mass of superincumbent earth, and further progress was utterly impossible.