Saturday, February 9, 2008


HUNUCMÁ is an ancient Mayan city whose name means “agua de ciénega” or water of the lagoon. This Yucatán city of 22,000 inhabitants is an outpost on the way from the capital city of Mérida to the old Spanish seaport of Sisal. Sisal gave its name world wide to the henequen fiber that was produced in Yucatán and then shipped out of that isolated minuscule town, then the port of Mérida. The only access from Hunucmá to Sisal with its lighthouse and tiny fort was a 24 kilometer well worn sacbe road still in use to this day.
Previously Hunucmá with its 16th century Spanish colonial church abounded with fruit trees that yielded an export crop but in 2002 hurricane Isidoro flattened many of those trees.
The well maintained Hunucmá church built in the 1500s of mamposteria, stacked stone construction consumed the materials of a Mayan pyramid and five years ago it got a new roof.
This is all that remains of the rail station that linked Mérida with Hunucmá and its surrounding haciendas. The decline of the henequen industry put an end to this transit facility. Still visible is the ancient Mayan sacbe road that was in use long before the Spanish conquistadors ever set foot on Yucatán. Note the stones neatly lined in the dirt near the center of the photo and a second parallel faint row three meters to the left; these are a legacy of the first peninsula road builders, the Maya of Yucatán.
Hunucmá is still just a crossroads town and not an end destination but that is one of the many charms that keep it out of the hurried push of the big city and its traffic.
On the quiet streets of clean and easy going Hunucmá, the Mayan traditional parade mixes the religious ceremonies of Catholicism with classic indigenous tradition that has persisted here in Yucatán for countless years extending back into antiquity.
This week in Hunucmá the Virgin de Tetiz has made its annual pilgrimage to the church. The Virgin de Tetiz was escorted by a group of several thousand for its pilgrimage where it will be daily paraded to visit different neighborhoods accompanied by festively dressed citizens bedecked in their traditional costumes like these above. Tetiz is a nearby town.
Through the streets of Hunucmá the daily procession of the Virgin de Tetiz parade consists of mostly women who are dressed in both their traditional Mayan huipil costumes adorned by hand embroidered embellishments and the women that have chosen to dress in the modern city style referred to as “catrina”. Tricycle taxis make up the wheeled portion of the entourage and there are many. For the full story of the Virgin of Tetiz, click here.
Hunucmá still has its colorful active street market conspicuously lacking in motor vehicles. Shopping here has changed little over the centuries and locally produced meats and garden produce are found fresh daily.
Friendly faces on happy people are reminiscent of years gone by and a simpler life.
This is the cities meticulously clean zocolo park with the clock tower of the municipal market building in the background. Jane and I park our bicycles in the unhurried shade.
From atop the Hunucmá church with its recently rebuilt roof the jungle view looking east in the direction of Mérida reveals the colonial buildings surrounding the church that were all built of materials salvaged from ancient Mayan temples that once stood here before the conquest nearly five-hundred years ago.
The church front looking west from behind the belfry reveals the massive thickness of this mamposteria, stacked stone construction that has survived the centuries. One of the inherent weaknesses of this old construction technique was the roof known as vigas and bovedilla. Vigas are wooden beams that support the stone, (bovedilla) placed between to fill the spaces that are then plastered over to complete the roof. A problem is caused by the wooden beams if they ever are allowed to become damp by water seepage and rot. This rot will eventually cause an avalanche of cascading rock when the supporting vigas, “beams” collapses and that is the end of the roof. Anybody unlucky enough to be beneath will suffer the horrible consequences. Yucatán abounds with old buildings lacking roofs.
Looking north from the church top you will see far off on the distant horizon a thin slice of blue that is the Gulf of Mexico in the direction of the port of Sisal.
From the peak of the church top looking westerly first you see in the foreground the city zocolo park of Hunucmá and far off to the west on the horizon is the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the Hunucmá church, on the altar this is the Virgin de Tetiz for its yearly visit.
Looking down from the choir loft to the altar where the statue representing the Virgin de Tetiz is placed gives a prospective of the size of this structure. The new roof with it’s freshly painter vigas, (wooden beams) could be possibly ready to last for another five centuries like its predecessor managed to do.
The Hunucmá city building on the west side of the Zocolo Park seems a century or two out of place together with the bicycles and tri-cycles that take the place of motor vehicles.
23 year old Luis Antonio Fritz Romero pictured above in red is the owner of this new home a benefit of his employment at a chicken ranch. Private home ownership has been one of the better goals of the Mexican government. You will notice that the modestly small house has no provision for car parking and just enough yard space to plant a small garden and a couple of fruit trees. We met Luis in the city park where he eagerly wanted to practice his English; he goes each week to Mérida to take English lessons.
Young Luis with his beautiful daughter and happy father-in-law are the town’s future.
Friendly and inquisitive young English students eagerly examine Jane’s business card.
Señor Soberanis proudly displays a part of the Yucatecan history that he was involved in when Fidel Castro came to town back in 1955 as a liberating hero as he did in New York.
Grinding yellow corn for tortillas in this molino across the street from the city center zocolo emits an aroma and sound that is unmistakable. The aroma never ceases to entice Jane and I into making the purchase of a quarter kilo to snack on. Hot out of the machine and rolled up with a light sprinkle of salt we find fresh corn tortillas positively addictive.
This is the land of the Maya where their language is still spoken and understood. We had a filling, savory and satisfying mid-day meal in this cocina economica with its Mayan sign that in English means; “This is the place-come on in and eat”.
The price is right and the quantity and quality won’t be beaten elsewhere. This is the local specialty known as “Poc Chuc” that is thinly sliced pork grilled along with onion and served with tortillas, rice and a thin black bean soup. Freshly made hot sauces usually need to be tested before spooning on because some is “comatose hot”!
On a narrow paved side road south of Hunucmá is this quiet hacienda town of San Antonio Chel where activity appears to be in some sort of suspended animation.
This is one of several humble abodes of San Antonio Chel that is bedecked with a hand painted Virgin of Guadalupe which is uniquely Mexican.
This is the ancient and neglected main entry gate to the hacienda San Antonio Chel that was actively part of the henequen industry until nearly twenty years ago when the business nearly collapsed. Look at the adornment inside the arch that is unmistakably of Moorish influence dating back in time to when the Iberian peninsulas classic structures that had Middle Eastern influence.
Check out the map at the beginning of this story for other area haciendas.
These buildings housed the working part of the hacienda that is now slipping into a state of apathetic neglect just waiting for salvation by some entrepreneur who will bring it back to life again.
Somehow these hacienda gates appear to have been abandoned for thousands of years but less than twenty years ago all of this area was fully cultivated with henequen plants to the extent that it actually altered the climate of this end of the Yucatán peninsula making it semi_arid.
The ruins of Sihunchen on the road from Hunucmá to hacienda San Antonio Chel sport this ersatz likeness of something Mayan but somehow present just a gaudy kitschy appearance. Government money has dried up on this project that will soon slip back to jungle status like the henequen fields that two decades ago abounded here.
Within the ersatz pseudo-Mayan wall entrance is this likewise garish edifice that obviously has some significant importance to somebody.
If by chance you hike the trail around the outer perimeter of these ruins this lovely jungle path abounding in unspoiled native vegetation and innumerable birds will make all your efforts worthwhile. Twenty years ago these woods did not exist because the area was fully cultivated in henequen that can still be seen hanging on in the woods.
After over four hundred years of being quarried for building materials these heaps of rock rubble are all that remain of the Mayan temples of Sihunchen that even had a celestial observatory similar to the one at Chichén Itzá. Known locally as, “los cerros” or the hills the rock debris that still remains on this site is astonishingly huge and has to be seen in order to grasp the vastness of these remains that came to be carried on the backs of the ancient Maya without any machinery of any kind.
Biking, bird watching and photo ops abound in this area around Hunucmá. It is so close to Mérida but so far removed in out-back tranquility proliferated with seldom traveled roads and innumerable classic haciendas haunted by history that await your visit…don’t spoil the ambiance…bike it!
Getting There:
Hunucmá. Colectivo Taxi Terminal - Mérida
Calle 64 between Calle 65 and 67

Noreste Bus Terminal - Mérida
Calle 67 between Calle 50 and 52
Oriente has frequents buses to Hunucmá.

To explore the Yucatán and discover the place tourists miss most, read our book:
Yucatán's Magic - Mérida Side Trips: Treasures of Mayab
Available at Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and iBookstore in paperback, Kindle, Nook, and ePUB


anna ruth laite said...

Excellent work, make very proud to live in Hunucmá, and you are welcome to stay with us if you want to come back to our city !!!!

Leekhat said...

I visited Yucatan a few years ago with my Guatemalan wife and am intrigued with the history of the area. Thanks for showing me a little more. I want to return someday and live there (and it has finally occurred to me how the flatness of the area is good for bike riding!)