Saturday, March 22, 2008


SOTUTA BY BIKE AND BUS: Historical crossroads of the Mayan civilization.

SOTUTA BY BIKE AND BUS: Historical crossroads of the Mayan civilization.
We began this unusual out-back Yucatan day-trip with our usual 7 kilometer bike trip to the local bus terminal on the corner of 50 and 67 in the city center of Mérida.
We rolled east-bound out of the bustling city traffic with our folding bicycles stowed aboard to the out of the tourist loop history laden diminutive town of Sotuta.
Our first visit to little Sotuta had been nearly twenty-five years earlier at the end of the thriving henequen era when Sotuta was at the end of the still functional narrow gauge railroad line. In those days the town was renowned for being the stronghold for a dissident populist democratic movement in Yucatan and even had one of the most powerful radio stations blasting out their autonomous egalitarian message. The Mexican military maintained a fortified barracks prominently placed on the main city plaza from the beginnings of the Caste War that begin in 1848 and was not relinquished until 1998 when indigenous rights were at a proverbial boiling point. This heightened indigenous rights movement was brought about by the EZLN or the Zapatistas who squared off and took on the Federal government January 1st 1994 forcing their issue of human rights into international news.
A quarter of a century ago when traveling across Yucatan small villages could easily be spotted off at a distance nestled under a grove of fruit bearing shade trees adrift in a sea of henequen fields extending far out to the horizon in all directions.
Amazingly now on our 80 kilometer ride from Mérida to Sotuta we spotted but one small area of cultivated henequen, a token patch in a miniscule village of Huhí, 20 kilometers northwest of our final destination of Sotuta. This is bicycle paradise.
The quiet narrow paved country roads of the Sotuta area are scarcely two meters wide and have a conspicuous lack of motor vehicles and you can hear them coming from five kilometers off.
Sotuta is a strange little place whose complicated and poorly recorded history speaks to us today through the structural remains of its few antiquated edifices that are anthropological memorials.
Discover the detailed history in the following books; Inga Clendinnen’s Ambivalent Conquests, Richard Perry’s marvelously documented book Mayan Missions and Nelson Reed’s fact filled compendium The Caste War of Yucatan. Current political history of Mexico’s indigenous is brought to life in John Ross’s outstandingly powerful book; ¡ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible. It is a must read.
Now look at this out of the way Yucatan town through our captioned photo story;
This is Sotuta’s downtown main street adjacent to the city central plaza with its conspicuous lack of motor vehicles. Sotuta is clean, quiet, friendly and poor.
This bare bones meat market is definitely a low overhead operation catering to drive up bicycle riding clients on the main street of Sotuta.
Tall trees, brilliant flowers and time worn statuary adorn the central plaza park.
Meticulously clean traditionally dressed Mayan ladies carry their ground corn home from the molino in the style of Yucatan, on their head. This corn is from local milpa farms.
This is one of four retablos dating from 1550 to 1730 to be found in the Sotuta church.
From the church you can view the alleged historical home of Nachi Cocom.
This is a memorial in Sotuta’s central plaza to the gallant Mayan king and war-lord Nachi Cocom who stood his ground against the Spanish conquistadors in the mid-1500s.
Above is an interesting and paradoxical memorial to the Mayan king Nachi Cocom with his alleged home in the background. For whatever it is worth the above structure was definitely built upon a Mayan temple. It was constructed in the 18th century and Nachi Cocom died in 1561. Cocom was supposedly converted to Christianity but continued to worship his ancestral Mayan gods. From the sixty year Caste War that began in 1848 until 1998 the above structure was a military barracks.
Looking west from the church door tranquil fresh air with no motor traffic or stop lights offers a blessed contrast to Mérida’s horn-honking high-powered aggressive neurotic pushy packed streets.
Friendly old “El Goyo” keeps the city plaza spotlessly tidied up. He shows us his treasured watch, a gift from his 45 year old son that immigrated to the US and now-days seldom returns to visit. Many local families are divided by this economic immigration.
Real wealth is found in the smiling faces of these otherwise economically depleted locals.
Sotuta’s centuries still speak out in the ornate stone work gleaned from the now non-existent Mayan ruins. The Spanish utilized the temples of old for building materials.
Under heavy political pressure generated by the Zapatista uprisings in the state of Chiapas, on January 23, 1998 Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo came here to personally give this property back to the people of Sotuta to be used as a museum.
The Sotuta museum building has an interesting but cloudy history. It is obvious that it stands upon a Mayan temple and the structure is constructed from materials taken from it. The dates of subsequent construction at this site are purely conjecture. It is likely that the famous Mayan king Nachi Cocom had his home here when the Spanish took Sotuta in 1542 and made a prisoner of him in 1549. The Spanish built a military barracks at this spot in the 18th century and it became an armed garrison in 1848, occupied until 1998.
Within the museum building is found a photo presentation by Humberto Suaste Blanco depicting time honored Mayan rituals from prominent centers of indigenous heritage. Also some history of the Spanish influence with their wars and occupation is explained. An exhibition of many colorful typical regional indigenous costumes from various Mexican locations gives a prospective of diversity like this colorful one from the west.
Looking out from the museum toward the church gives a panorama little changed over the centuries of colonial Spanish influence.
Looking down from the same museum balcony to the seldom traveled street below that circles the cities central plaza gives some idea of the tranquil remoteness of Sotuta just 80 kilometers remover from the hustle and bustle of Mérida. The entrepreneurial street vendor has set up a very portable covered kitchen and dining area which is typical of enterprising Latinos.
In front of the municipal building non-polluting quiet taxis queue up for prospective customers. Few motor vehicles and no stop lights give the place a pleasant charm.
This is our no frills lunch spot housed in an ancient colonial building on the city plaza.
Our lunch spot owner Margarita Rejon, seated and her friend Mirna Cocom jovially entertain us with hilarious accounts of local happenings…the food was great.
Speaking of Cocom, a family name synonymous with nearly five centuries of Sotuta history, here in the central plaza is a stone bust of Nachi Cocom…still a legend.
Beauty in a smile and friendly pleasantness give this lovely lady bedecked in her typical Mayan hand stitched dress a special charm that make Sotuta a nice place to be. She keeps the park spotlessly and maliciously clean.
With a Mayan smile this young couple represents Sotuta’s next generation.
More than just a family, this group has something unique in their backyard. Only three blocks removed from the city plaza they have a cenote and gruta where neighbors come to cool off and swim in its refreshing waters. In years gone by the cenotes were crucial sources of water here in Yucatan where there are no rivers or lakes.
Above is located the municipal market and the city museum and in the foreground awaits the meat fresh for the morning market. Here there are more bicycles than motor vehicles.
Cocoa or chocolate was cultivated here and used as currency by the Mayan people when the conquistadors first arrived.
I load our bicycles aboard our bus back to Mérida and get a snooze along the way.
Our Dahon folding bicycles collapse in twelve seconds and fit in a space the size of a traveling bag easily stowed onboard a taxi, train or airplane. With seven gears they effortlessly roll along with the big bikes.
Here is a short synopsis of chronicled local history;
The peaceful Mayan people ruled the Yucatan until around the year 1000 AD when the Itza invaded giving such names as; Chichen Itza.
The Cocom family dynasty displaced the Xiu at Mayapan around the year 1200.
In 1460 the Xiu family dynasty killed the Cocom leaders and their families.
This led to a war dispersing the family Chels to Ah Kin Chel;
The Cocom family from Mayapan to Sotuta
And the Xiu family to Mani
Below is a painting with historical information found in Mérida’s municipal building.
Nachi Cocom was one of the Mayan leaders during the conquest. His strong, rebellious spirit contributed to his heroic resistance to the Spanish, inflecting many losses on the conquistadors. It was several years before he finally surrendered his arms to the enemy. Now an old man he was forced to accept Christianity, and was baptized in the name of Juan Cocom. However, in secret he continued to worship the stone gods he had never really abandoned.
The following excerpt is from my recommended reading list; Inga Clendinnen’s Ambivalent Conquests;
Page 81:
“Not long after the, (auto de fe), Landa was urgently called to Sotuta. The heavy summons probably had to do with the suicide in prison before interrogation of Lorenzo Cocom, chief of the head village, lord of the province, and brother and successor to Juan Nachi Cocom, Landa’s old informant, who had died the previous year. Cocom’s suicide was interpreted as proof of his guilty involvement in idolatries.
Certainly fear ran before the friars. When Pizarro and his brothers arrived in the head village they found the villagers had fled, to return only when some of their encomenderos - now identified as their protectors against the assaults of the friars – arrived. In Kanchunup, a village only half a gigue from Sotuta village, two Indians had hanged themselves at word of the friars’ coming. Such proof of ‘wickedness’ strengthened the friars’ resolve and the vehemence of their interrogations. One Spaniard forced to serve as constable to the Inquisition in Sotuta recalled that some chiefs and lords were flogged while they hung suspended until the blood ran. But it was of Hocaba-Homun, with Fray Miguel de la Puebla in charge, that the darkest tales were told. While the Spaniards pressed to serve the inquisition in the other provinces carried out their duties with aversion, the enlisted constable in Hocaba-Homun seems to have taken some pride in his work. Dissatisfied with the hoist, he constructed a version of the ‘burro’, extensively used by the Inquisition in Spain for the administration of torture of the water and the cords. The victim was secured face up on a wooden frame, and cords were twisted around thighs and upper arms. The cords could be tightened by the turning of a rod inserted between the flesh and frame. The victim’s mouth was forced open, and quantities of water were poured in, usually through a cloth to increase the sensation of drowning. In the careful protocol observed by the interrogators of the Spanish Inquisition the accused was given ample time between each ‘turn’ and vessel of water to confess his guilt, but the Hocabá constable observed no such niceties. His individual contribution was to trample on the distended belly of the victim, so that the swallowed water was violently discharged. At least one Indian died lashed to the ‘burro’.

Inga Clendinnen’s Ambivalent Conquests is filled with numerous pearls of insight into the world of Yucatan and the Maya. I will condense analogy she made regarding the relationship between the Maya and honey bees. The Maya had a sense of the mutual benefits of inter-dependence, of the enhancement of the individual through membership of a complex of groups. The Maya had an attachment to collective life between age and youth, male and female, and greater and lesser rank and of man within the natural order. Those routines were to prove durable when subjugation had swept away the external material signs of rank. (This is part of the reason that the Mayan collective community has survived nearly five centuries under conquistador oppression.)

Peaceful places have no history, so Sotuta’s history is packed with incredible events from the conquistadors to the Caste War and the henequen revolution.
If you are interested in history that shaped Mexico you will find each book of my recommended reading well worth the effort.
If you are interested in bicycle adventures then you must cycle this end of the planet.
Try this web site:

The name of Nachi Cocom is from the Maya and “Naal” refers to his mother’s family; thus Na-Chi or mothers name Chi.

Written by John M. Grimsrud March 2008