by John M. Grimsrud
In distance this trip is not far but in time reference it is a quantum leap back to centuries gone by.
This is the scene of Hacienda Xcanchakan that greeted John Lloyd Stephens and his traveling partner Frederick Catherwood back in 1842 as they ventured to the outback of the Yucatán jungle on their epic adventure into the world of the ancient Mayan civilization.
One hundred and sixty-five years later in 2007 the Hacienda Xcanchakan is little changed outwardly. This is the view that greeted us upon our arrival at the hacienda.
Here is what John Lloyd Stephens had to say about the Hacienda Xcanchakan in his 1842 book Incidents of Travel in Yucatán which is still in print;
“It was nearly dark when we reached the stately hacienda of Xcanchakan, one of the three finest in Yucatán, and containing nearly seven hundred souls. The house is perhaps one of the best in the country, and being within one day's ride of the capital, and accessible by calesa [carriage], it is a favourite residence of its venerable proprietor. The whole condition of the hacienda showed that it was often subject to the master's eye, and the character of that master may be judged of from the fact that his major-domo, the same who was attendant upon us, had been with him twenty-six years.
I have given the reader some idea of a hacienda in Yucatán, with its cattle-yard, its great tanks of water and other accessories. All these were upon a large and substantial scale, equal to any we had seen; and there was one little refinement in their arrangement, which, though not perhaps intended for that purpose, could not fail to strike the eye of a stranger. The passage to the well was across the corridor, and, sitting quietly in the shade, the proprietor could see every day, passing and repassing, all the women and girls belonging to the estate.
Our friend the cura of Tekoh was still with us, and the Indians of the hacienda were within his curacy. Again immediately upon our arrival the bell of the church was tolled to announce his arrival to the sick, those who wished to confess, marry, or be baptized. This over, it struck the solemn note of the oracion, or vesper prayers. All rose, and, with uncovered heads stood silent till the last note died away, all, according to the beautiful injunction of the Catholic Church, breathing an inward prayer.
Then they bade each other a buenas noches, each kissed the cura's hand, and then, with his petata, or straw hat, in his hand, came to us, bowing respectfully, and wishing each of us also the good night.
The cura still considered us on his hands, and, in order to entertain us, requested the major domo to get up a dance of the Indians. Very soon we heard the sound of violins and the Indian drum…”(Pages 79-81 of Volume One)
Established in the mid-1500s Hacienda Xcanchakan had the unique distinction of being one of the very first land grants awarded to the recently arrived Spanish conquistadors and actually pre-dated the city of Mérida by two years. Initially the hacienda produced Indian corn and cattle.
The Spanish conquistadors wasted no time in imprinting Yucatán with their churches and haciendas considering the fact that only five years earlier in 1535 the indigenous Maya had succeeded in completely driving every last Spaniard out of the peninsula.
When John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood arrived at this spot back in 1842 the sugar industry was just beginning, henequen production hadn’t yet begun, and the sixty year Caste War was only a fermenting time-bomb waiting to explode and Yucatán was considering the status of an independent country.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards this location was unique in all of the Americas as having been one of the largest Mayan cities with more than 4,000 stone structures that encompassed the adjacent beautiful Mayan ruined city of Mayapan.
The woods are literally full of these structures that are easily recognizable, viewed from the narrow three meter wide main access road into Xcanchakan especially while bicycling leisurely along.
Check out the conspicuous lack of motor vehicles entering Xcanchakan from the east on this one and only road off the highway into town.
At the city center cross roads this is the view of what remains of one of the many Mayan temples severely looted for building materials to construct the Hacienda and church.
Xcanchakan is not only rural but totally out of the pathway of visiting tourists and has no hotels or restaurants though it is possible to have a meal prepared for you in the home of Doña Adela Navarro. If there is any more than a small group advance notice is required. Doña Adela has no phone and her address is “domicilio conocido” or her address is known, but, you must ask around.
Above is the view of the main road leading into the downtown area looking at the backside of the church with the wooden scaffolding of the bull ring ready for the afternoons Christmas festival bullfight.
Across from the church on the entry arch of hacienda Xcanchakan is the above banner
Mass in honor of Santo Niño Dios festival is under way in this pitiably underprivileged town. At the church service there was not a single person who arrived with a motor vehicle but dutifully gave all they could. There was one exception to the motor vehicle scenario and that was the priest who arrived in a chrome bedecked late model automobile and left town with the collected proceeds.
After the service the congregation takes to the street to parade through the town. They are accompanied by a rag-tag musical group blasting earsplitting out of tune notes and led by a slightly inebriated pyrotechnic who positively delighted in sending his smoking skyrockets blasting into backyards where they expired in a reverberating crescendo explosion. Check out the inventory of pyrotechnics ready to terrorize the tranquility.
(The man leading the group.)
A view from the rear of the smoky procession led by the skyrocket demon that terrorized the serenity of festival frenzied Xcanchakan. Jane hangs back in an attempt to escape the blue air-fouling firework fumes.
Jane and I are the only two tourists in attendance at the Xcanchakan traditional fiesta.
Xcanchakan streets were built for single file carriages nearly five centuries ago and haven’t been up graded since.
Dressed in her elegantly adorned huipil traditional Mayan dress with brightly colored hand embroidered flowers this aged lady appears to witness the passing festival procession from her weather worn humble abode.
With high priced cooking gas the local forest is heavily harvested for fire wood.
A Xcanchakan street devoid of motor vehicle traffic and tourists is a breath of fresh air.
Hacienda Xcanchakan reflects the atmosphere of “the land of take it easy”.
Hacienda Xcanchakan is light years removed from the humble community in which it is located with its bourgeois decadence. Constructed of materials looted from the Mayan temples this three story Moorish style mansion was only intended as a country home and seldom visited by the owners.
Hacienda Xcanchakan fronts on the tranquil village zocalo little changed over the centuries. Recent electrical service now casts illumination removing much of the charm of soft oil lamps.
Waiting for public transport, these ladies gather near the church, most heading for Mérida. Two buses and several colectivo taxies make the journey down the quiet three meter wide road to Hacienda Xcanchakan each day.
Departing Xcanchakan and heading south to Mahzucil down an even less traveled road you will pass this ancient “noria” or square orifice water well that is still functional and stands as monument to this rural community’s many centuries of existence.
This quiet early morning is made even more serene by the light fog that blankets the area south of Mérida where the trees grow taller because of increased precipitation as you near the Puuc hills.
This road is one of three optional bicycle routes out of Xcanchakan.
If you go east to Telchaquillo and Pixya you next can take a Mayan sacbe road across to the road to Tekit which I write about in the “Tecoh, Tekit and Ticul” story.
If you go west from Xcanchakan there is a Mayan sacbe road all the way through the unmarked jungle to the Hacienda Mucuyché…take a compass or better yet a guide.
If you head south out of Xcanchakan as we are doing here your first village will be Mahzucil. At Mahzucil you have the option of taking a Mayan sacbe road twenty kilometers to Sacalúm. From Sacalúm you continue on to Ticul on a narrow paved road like the one above. That trip from Xcanchakan to Ticul is more than 40 kilometers and you will need to carry extra water and plan to make it an all day trip.
On the road from Xcanchakan to Mahzucil this neatly kept chapel with candles burning is in the Mayan tradition of the travelers. It has been explained to me that the travelers will stop here and place a small stone on the altar ritualistically to insure a safe passage. I had my on-the-road-breakfast here in the jungle silence.
This is the chapel altar with its travelers stones. On our return trip there were four candles.
Mahzucil downtown and the end of the pavement meets the road leading off to Sacalúm and Ticul.
The friendly folks of Mahzucil offered us tacos as a gesture of hospitality which I had to politely refuse. The man with the shotgun slung over his shoulder was on his way out into the jungle in search of wild game that includes deer, turkey, wild boar and anything big enough to warrant the cost of a shotgun shell.
This is a typical Mayan palapa on the outskirts of Mahzucil where jungle is only steps off the main road. Thirty years ago over half of the homes in Yucatán peninsula were these palapas.
In our explorations of Mahzucil we met this man headed out to hunt bedecked with his shotgun, machete and belt loaded with shells. When we said we were looking for a place to eat he took us to his home only accessible by a footpath into the jungle
This is our jungle country kitchen where we were treated to excellent and delicious turkey salbutes prepared over the wood fire by hand in a centuries old tradition of the ancient Maya.
When we asked what the tab would be we were told there was no charge…and they meant it, but we gave generously and thanked them ever so much for their open and friendly hospitality.
This is the living room of the country kitchen where we were treated to all we could eat and made to order turkey salbutes. Over the beam is slug a hammock and when it is siesta time they are unfurled to convert the space into a bedroom. Those are fresh cut flowers along with a lit candle adorning the living room chapel…common in Yucatán.
A Mexican stand-off! This is our road back to Xcanchakan and the Brahma bulls are passing judgment on our presence. I am no expert on this kind of confrontation but I know that tranquility accompanied by very slow movements set the pace for the bull’s actions. We waited to be accepted and allowed the occupants of our passage way to exit the road at their own unhurried leisurely pace…we were definitely outnumbered and out weighed.
Back on the streets of Xcanchakan the Mayan ladies in their meticulously adorned native dress carry their boiled corn off to the mill for grinding into masa for tortillas.
Street cooking in a soot blackened pot renders pork into chicharra or fried pork skins.
A rolling tienda with ear splitting megaphone atop works the streets of Xcanchakan. The lady wants to give me bananas as a friendly gesture…the kind of human kindness only found in the outback of Yucatán.
If you go west from Xcanchakan it is on a Mayan sacbe road all the way through the unmarked jungle to the Hacienda Mucuyché…take a compass or better yet a guide.
For the adventuresome outback bicycle enthusiastic this route across a centuries old trail is the same route taken by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood back in1842.
This is one of the most unchanged wild places in the Yucatán peninsula and it is very close to Mérida. Here is an excerpt from their book Incidents of Travel on Yucatán page 83;
After breakfast the cura left us to return to his village, and we set out to continue our journey to Uxmal. Our luggage was sent off by Indians of the hacienda, and the major domo accompanied us on horseback. Our road was by a bridle path over the same stony country, through thick woods. The whole way it lay through the lands of the provisor, all wild, waste, and desolate, and showing the fatal effects of accumulation in the hands of large landed proprietors. In two hours we saw rising before us the gate of the hacienda of Mucuyché (Figure 4). To the astonishment of the gaping Indians, the doctor, as he wheeled his horse, shot a hawk that was hovering over the pinnacle of the gateway, and we rode up to the house.
This pen and ink drawing by Frederick Catherwood depicts the Hacienda Mucuyché that greeted Stephens and Catherwood after their two hour horseback journey across the Mayan sacbe road from Xcanchakan.
This is one of several gates along the Mayan sacbe road from Xcanchakan to Hacienda Mucuyché.
The road is rough and a slow go but the wilderness environment with only the hushed sounds of wild creatures makes it well worth the effort.
The surrounding jungle is filled with monuments to the generations of Spanish conquistadors with their haciendas and the ancient Mayan stately temples. In the above photo you will see the remains of an entry gate to a Spanish hacienda long forgotten and in a state of returning back to nature.
The road presents the trekker with a number of unmarked diversions that make the use of a compass a worthwhile traveler’s companion in this desolate place devoid of watering holes.
If you have the good fortune to procure yourself a guide that speaks your language I strongly suggest you solicit his services. Many of the locals only speak Maya.
Our little Dahon folding bicycles pay big dividends and give us amazing options when connecting up with local transportation like buses and colectivo taxis. We can take almost anything that comes along and be back home in Mérida from nearly anywhere in Yucatán in an hour of two.
Day trips are loads of fun but overnight trips give even more options for early starts in some of the remote outback of Yucatán and you have the option of traveling light because of the many little tiendas that will have fresh fruit and something to drink…except along the desolate sacbe roads.
This is some of the best adventuresome bicycling to be found anywhere…so come on and take part…see it before it is gone!
For more information on Xcanchakan: http://www.colonialmexico.com/Yucatán/xcan.html