We have discovered the mysterious vanishing Mayan temples of El Cuyo.
Colonia Yucatán has nothing to entice the passer-by to even slow down for except a couple of speed bumps. This is the heart of the downtown business district with the municipal building on the left where the entire police force soaks up the tranquility in the nothing happens shade.
The ancient Maya had several temples here that were mostly salvaged for their stone but not much worthy of mention happened until the areas towering mahogany and zapote forests were noticed. The below British Admiralty chart dating from 1840 tells much of the story of this out of the way by-passed spot. At the time of the 1840 chart publication Yucatan had been under Spanish domination for nearly three-hundred years and the Spanish were in the process of arming the Mayan Indians to keep the Mexicans out under governor Barbachano who was a separatist formerly of the neighboring state of Campeche. Yucatan had also contracted with the Texas Navy to patrol their coast for a monthly fee of $8.000 to ensure their sovereignty.
The British admiralty chart reveals that the barrier peninsula had one hut and six Mayan ruins visible as aids to navigation, one of which was 100 feet high. The chart also shows the peninsula was forested with trees sixty feet tall and across on the mainland the trees were seventy feet tall. (The dashed line denotes John L. Stephens 1842 coastal trip of discovery that he so aptly described in his classic book; Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.)
The chart clearly shows our next destination of “Monte Cuyo Artificial Mound”. That artificial mound happens to be one of the former Mayan temples that eventually evolved into the base for El Cuyo’s light house. Further west along the coast you will notice numerous “Peaks” that were all Mayan ruins. Less than ten years after this chart was printed the Yucatan was plunged into their Caste War that lasted nearly sixty years. In this period of time clear-cut deforestation began in this area and lasted until the 1950s when the last mahogany tree was hacked down. Also notice that in the 1840s when this chart was printed there were no roads and the place known then as Rachel is approximately where present day Colonia Yucatan is located with its sawmills that finally fell silent when the trees were all gone. The timber barons are a very efficient lot.
Colonia Yucatán has no hotels or regular restaurants and their bus terminal is part of this open air variety store with the waiting room situated on the street front patio. We were the only tourists headed out of town this day.
The 38 kilometer road north to El Cuyo is the most picturesque and best suited for bicycling that we have found in northern Yucatan.
The bus trip from Mérida to Colonia Yucatan took five hours and we then had several options for going on to El Cuyo, bus, colectivo taxi or bicycle.
This is downtown El Cuyo with its limited attractions. Behind me is the little church and further back is the lighthouse prominently perched upon the remains of an ancient Mayan temple. The town has no stop lights and there are no tourists except for two weeks around Easter and then six weeks in July and August when it is packed.
The accommodations are numerous and range from two-star modest to zero-star stark, so take your pick. If you come off season which accounts for ten months of the year you can choose any room in town that suits your fancy.
The municipal building goes unguarded in this land of take-it-easy.
Just west of town is this little Puerto del Abrigo or protected fishermen’s harbor that seems to still be hauling in fish and it is just about the last place on the Yucatan peninsula where fish are plentiful, though the un-iced catch appeared to be less than wholesome. (The Mérida newspaper ran a story a few days after this photo was taken relating that there was a huge fish kill offshore from El Cuyo west to Progreso caused by a “red-tide”.)
The tally-man is tabulating the incoming catch that tends to be mostly on the small side and not especially fresh.
As we rode our bicycles around town we were approached by this jack-of-all trades who was in the process of painting the decorative wall behind him. He pitched us for a boat ride to visit the famous flamingos that inhabit the area lagoons and do an early morning fly-by along the beaches.
We were the only tourists in town so we were easy to single out and if we didn’t buy there was no market at all.
Here at 21.5 º N Latitude we were actually more than two degrees south of the sun
There are several significant things in the above photo; 1. I am the only tourist on the beach. 2. There is absolutely not a whisper of a pre-dawn breeze under the clear skies only painted a pasty-pink to the north by global pollution. 3. The remains of the city pier in the background haven’t been repaired since the last hurricane hit.
On the lagoon side of the island gossamer clouds are reflected in the glassy sunrise stillness.
Looking south from El Cuyo the substantial elevated causeway stretches off to one of the most beautiful stretches of roadway in northern Yucatan. Jane casts long shadows while the early morning sun creeps up over the Gulf of Mexico where it is actually north of our latitude this time of year.
Note; if you take another look at the British Admiralty chart dating from 1840 at the beginning of this story you will notice two significant things. One there was no causeway back in 1840 and secondly several Mayan temples were depicted as high mounds visible from the sea. The mysterious disappearance of those Mayan ruins could only be accounted for by this colossal causeway stretching off across this huge lagoon and the building materials to build the town of El Cuyo.
The sun is up and the world is beginning to stir here in this out of the loop bastion of tropical peace.
This is our seaside cabin. It is not the Ritz but here in El Cuyo Cabañas Mar y Sol are at least shaded shelter and a place to swing our hammocks directly in front of the beach. We were the only clients and somehow that made the trip worthwhile.
El Cuyo lighthouse is definitely an eye catching attractive allure that beckons you to explore. It is perched atop the remains of an ancient Mayan temple and the few town structures have been built from the materials of these pre-conquistador monuments that have mostly mysteriously vanished.
Capt. Russell Rene Garcia Sanchez is harbor master and holds the keys to the lighthouse.
As Capt. Russell handed me the keys his parting advice was to be extra careful on the stairs.
A spectacular view looking southwest over El Cuyo and across the lagoon gives a good perspective to the size of the sleepy little place and the huge expanse of the lagoon.
Looking southeast the lack of traffic and the vastness of open space diminish the perception of the human footprint in this undiscovered outpost.
The view east carries your eye off to the distant end of this sparsely populated peninsula that had been connected to the mainland according to the 1840 British Admiralty chart. Today there isn’t a trace of those Mayan temples that were so numerous. Also those 60 foot trees depicted on the 1840 chart have been long ago been cut and exported.
Northwest El Cuyo makes a small impression on the landscape all the way to the fish boat harbor whose jetty can be slightly seen in the upper left side of this photo.
Looking due west if you strain your eyes you might see the thin dark line at the end of this island that happens to be the remains of a Mayan ruin four-hundred feet long…all the rest have disappeared.
Due south of El Cuyo the view of the road crossing the causeway and leading off to Colonia Yucatan 38 kilometers distant doesn’t begin to reveal the horrendous change to the topography that has taken place in the past one hundred and fifty years. When the British surveyed this coast for their 1840 navigational chart they showed this island covered with trees sixty feet tall and across the lagoon trees seventy feet tall. Countless hurricanes have seriously altered the coastal profile but nothing can compare to the destructive damage of the clear-cut deforestation that didn’t leave a tree for a bird to sit in and has now after more than a half century since produced only a low scrub forest.
The big news in the local newspaper today was that at Colonia Yucatan 2,000 hectares of “jatropha curcass” trees were to be planted in order to produce bio-fuel, no doubt to fuel all of those four wheel gulf carts at the beach.
This is not the worst of the stairs leading up to the top of the lighthouse and Capt. Russell grossly understated his warning to be careful on the stairs. It was a frightening experience when I was half way up to discover that the stair treads that were intact were rotten to the core and I was committed to complete my trip to the top just to turn around…enough!
Quiet little El Cuyo will be a terrorized when these and scores more are revved up and raising sand filled with drunken holiday thrill seekers out to impress who knows who.
The holiday thrill seekers that throng to this El Cuyo hotel to enjoy the beach scene more than likely won’t notice that the view out of their apartments is of the parking lot.
This is the Yucatan that tourists miss most.
It could be missed intentionally.
It is refreshing today to find a tropical beach still nearly deserted with no traffic lights or pushy traffic to contend with and we truly appreciated the slow pace with the easy going atmosphere at El Cuyo.
Like my favorite German author Herman Hesse likes to say; “not for everybody”.