Friday, July 18, 2008


Leaving Mérida and heading south by bicycle we have found the quietest route, not necessarily the fastest, taking you through an assortment of interesting neighborhoods. Even from the north of the city you can be out past the “periferico” or rim route overpass in less than an hour poking along at a leisurely pace. There are only five stop lights the entire length of calle 42, but scores of “topes”, speed bumps, which we easily glide over on our slow moving bikes.
Calle 42 may not be an interesting trip by car but by bicycle neat shopping places like this simple little sidewalk shop will conveniently fill your traveling needs.
One hour of biking will take you out of the city and two more hours to Acanceh or Tecoh. Convenient return transportation is no problem with folding bicycles from any of the cities you see on the above map. The optional (red) routes are all on quiet roads.
This is a very historical map reproduced from a British Admiralty chart dating 1840. It was used by John L. Stephens on his epic expedition of exploration when he and his partner Catherwood journeyed across Yucatán visiting the Mayan ruins and making priceless sketches of the peninsula. The classic book Stephens wrote, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan is still in print and we consider it one of our all-time favorites and a must read.
This 1840 chart was three hundred years after the Spanish conquest and just a few years before the catastrophic Caste War broke out. John L. Stephens’s route is overdrawn in blue and the bold print names represent places where they made sketches. One very significant thing to be noted from the above chart is the conspicuous lack of highways and designated roads.
Remember that this was the beginning of the industrial revolution and steam power had not yet reached Yucatán.
Another interesting thing of note is the fact that the very straight roads in use at that time were built by the ancient Maya and were still in use by the Spanish who wrecked the smooth paved surfaces with their wheeled carts.
Well, believe it or not Jane and I were amazed as we made this bike tour that our excursion took us on the exact same route as John L. Stephens took one hundred and seventy years earlier. We rode the now paved ancient Mayan sacbe roads where the neatly cut side stones are still visible after countless centuries of use.
Here in John L. Stephens own words from his epic book; Incidents of Travel in Yucatan is an excerpt describing his departure from Mérida and journey south, the exact same road that Jane and I had bicycled;
Pages 65, 66, 67, 68; subject 1842 trip to Tekoh 8 leagues from Mérida.
It was our intention to resume our exploration at Uxmal, the point where we were interrupted by the illness of Mr. Catherwood. We had received intelligence, however, of the ruins of Mayapan, an ancient city which had never been visited, about eight leagues from Mérida, and but a few leagues aside from our road, by the haciendas, to Uxmal. The account which we could obtain were meager, and it was represented as completely in ruins; but, in fulfillment of our purpose we at that time entertained going to every place of which we heard any account whatever, we determined to visit this on our way to Uxmal. It was for Mayapan therefore, that we were now setting out.
Our saddles, Bridles, holsters, and pistols, being entirely different from the mountings of horsemen in that country, attracted all eyes as we rode through the streets. A friend accompanying us beyond the suburbs, and put us into a straight road, which led, without turning, to the end of the days journey. Instead of the ominous warnings we were accustom to in Central America, his parting words were, that there was no danger of robbers, or any other interruptions.
…I would remark that no map of Yucatan at all to be depended on has ever been published…
At a distance of a league we passed a fine cattle hacienda, and at twenty minutes past one reached Timucui, (on modern maps spelled Timucuy), a small village five leagues from Mérida. The village consisted of a few Indian huts, built around a large open square, and on one side was a shed for a casa real. It had no church or cura, and already we experienced a difficulty which we did not expect to encounter so soon. The population consisted entirely of Indians, who in general throughout the country speak nothing but Maya; there was not a white man in the place, nor anyone who could  speak in any tongue that we could comprehend. Fortunately, a muleteer from the interior, on his way to Mérida, had stopped to bait his mules under the shade of a large tree, and was swinging in a hammock in the casa real. He was surprised at our undertaking along a journey into the interior, seeing that we were brought to a stand at the first village from the capitol; but, finding us somewhat rational in other respects, he assisted us in procuring ramon leaves and water for our horses. His life had been passed in driving mules from a region of country called the Sierra, to the capitol; but he had heard strange stories about foreign countries, and, among others, that in El Norte a man could earn a dollar a day by his labor; but he was comforted when he learned that a real in his country was worth more to him than a dollar would be in ours; and as he interrupted to his nearly naked companions, crouching in the shade, nothing touched them so nearly as the idea of cold and frost, and spending a great portion of a day’s earnings for fuel to keep from freezing.
At three o’clock we left the hamlet, and at a little after four we saw the towers of the church of Tekoh. (On recent maps spelled Tecoh)

In the following captioned photos you will visit those haciendas and interesting seldom visited towns that we biked through following the route of Stephens and Catherwood.
Our first stop 5 kilometers south of the periferico is the silent little Tahdzibihén park.
Haciendas and ranchos along our way are quietly reminding us of this area’s history.
The straight old Mayan sacbe road beds are still functional and used to this day and as you can see there is a conspicuous lack of motor vehicles. The city noise is left behind.
This is biker’s paradise with almost no traffic and absolutely no stop lights.
These little road side chapels are a remnant of the days of the Caste War when the Maya broke away from Spanish domination and salvaged what was left of their ancient traditional religions and commingled it with Catholicism. For more about the Cult of the Santa Cruz, check our blog:
Speaking of spin-off commingled religions this house is adorned with just about every possibility to fend off evil spirits. With three types of Mayan crosses, the green, triple and stone they even have the Zionist star and for good measure the political party logo to boot! Check out the no frills 15 amp electrical service entrance next to the door.
This tranquil little town of Tekik de Regil seems to be waiting for something to happen but little of consequence will take place until eleven o’clock when this molino opens to crank out hot tortillas for the mid-day meal. Yucatecan dogs do not sleep in the sun.
From the heyday of the henequen era in 1908 when Yucatan was awash in money for the privileged few this decadent hacienda church was put up in this poverty stricken little town. The architect that was brought in for this job also did the main concert hall in downtown Mérida.
This is the business end of the hacienda where the machinery that processed the raw product of henequen into sisal rope needed in the WWI war effort rained in untold wealth.
We are out in the country here at the silent diminutive town of Timucuy about six kilometers from our original planned destination of Acanceh or Tecoh. We are very flexible on these out-of-town pleasure trips and only influenced by the wind direction and heat of the day. Well, the temperature was lovely but the wind was on the nose so we naturally did what was necessary and slowed down. The net result was that when our pre-determined turn around time came at ten AM this is where we were.
After leaving Mérida it is a welcome relief to come to a place that is so laid-back that the only noise comes from chirping birds. Being bicyclers we naturally enjoy places with no pushy-shovey traffic or smoky-noisy motorized vehicles. After Mérida these nearly vehicle free towns are almost shockingly quiet.
In front of the Timucuy church and across from the central town plaza Jane and I enjoy our morning iced coffee under the shade a kind old tree situated in the middle of the boulevard. This is just wonderful and well worth the effort.
When our coffee was finished the Mérida bus pulled into the plaza, we boarded and 30 minutes later we disembarked in downtown Mérida. We were home for lunch completing a 40 kilometer bike ride and a spirited bus trip back. (The TV in the bus didn’t work.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Here is another out of the travelers loop road trip to the places that tourists miss most.
Twenty five years ago when Jane and I first ate in this Tizimin restaurant called Tres Reyes, we arrived by train from Mérida. Well that train has been out of service for over twenty years now but this fixture of downtown Tizimin still hasn’t changed. Over those years the town went from third largest in Yucatan to second largest and it is a mystery to me because the place has no alluring magnetic cultural attractions. To the north of town is Yucatan’s only real cowboy country complete with huge ranchos and lots of beef cattle.
Yucatan’s birth rate is the biggest in all of Mexico and that might help to explain this areas population explosion.
The towns we visited this trip don’t even make the feeblest of attempts to attract tourists.
The façade of this 1588 Tizimin Tres Reyes or Los Santos Reyes church is totally devoid of adornments and unpretentious to the point of being downright drab. Some years ago sitting upon the top was a small simple cross but even that has been taken down now.
Restoration within has produced some photo opportunities like the gilt retablo, the now encased Tres Reyes, the carved pulpit and below neatly refurbished statuary.
Here comes tropical wave number five that will dump tons of rain in Tizimin this night. The tropical waves are numbered beginning with the hurricane season that starts June first and hurricanes are named.
Jane and I planned our out of town excursion to coincide with these tropical waves that seem to appear every three days this season. Global warming and the thirty percent decline in the Gulf Stream Caribbean water flow that transports its heat north to Europe now leaves all that extra warmth here totally upsetting our weather patterns. The problem was that these tropical waves took several days to clear out and then there would appear the next one. Well we positively lucked out and did not get rained on one time in five days on the road, though every afternoon and night deluges of rain flooded Yucatan.
We were well satisfied with our lovely and immaculately clean Tizimin accommodations that overlooked a splendid tropical garden courtyard. The place was quiet and centrally located with very agreeable bicycle parking.
The twenty first century may have arrived but it hasn’t impacted Tizimin totally. At the bus terminal you can still hire this hand drawn cargo cart to lug your luggage home.
Half way from Tizimin to Mérida is located this quaint little and seldom visited out of the tourist loop town of Buctzotz. If avoidance of tourist traps in a place with no traffic lights or franchise eateries is your objective, this could be worthy of your consideration. The area topography is nondescript at best being a low flat plain sparsely wooded by squat scrub that tends to have spiny pickers on everything in the wild. Heading west from here across the rest of northern Yucatan you can expect more of the same uninterestingly monotones low semi arid bush countryside. It makes for good bicycling if you take the seldom traveled back roads but the only sights and points of interest are the small towns with their Mayan and Colonial Spanish structures that span countless centuries. Every day in Mexico is an adventure and after all our years here we find this to still be true.
Our choice of accommodations is simple because of the limited selection. It turned out that this place was just great for us because of the ample spotlessly clean rooms with hammock hooks and natural cross ventilation. “Nicte-Ha” in the Mayan language means water lily. The antiquated but fully functional accommodations brought back to us many fond memories from our first adventures across Yucatan in the days of rail travel.

Civic pride is apparent everywhere you look and the conspicuous lack of motorized traffic makes us long for those tranquil times in bygone years.
Not elegant but elegantly maintained Buctzotz is part of the quiet charm we found awaiting us here out of the main stream of the jet-set world.
Every time we encounter one of these ancient Colonial period Spanish churches we automatically have to think back to the great Mayan temples that went to furnish their building materials.
To the left is an icon of the saint Niño de Atocha

In Buctzotz we were met with smiles, smirks and varying degrees of curious bewilderment, but all were friendly as you can see by this foursome who greeted us with more questions than a thousand wise men could answer.
This is one of a few mamposteria; (stacked stone) constructed buildings from colonial times that still has its roof intact. What holds up these bovedilla or stone roofs are wooden vigas as you can see exposed in the above church ceiling. Even if these vigas are made from the most enduring wood, if moisture is allowed to dampen them they will sooner or later fall victim to rot and cause an avalanche of tons of stone destroying the roof and killing anyone unfortunate enough to be caught under the bombardment. Every rainy season in Yucatan many of these old structures become saturated and even a birds nest blocking up a roof drain can cause huge amounts of water to compound the weight of the already very heavy roof and down they come.
San Isidor the farmer illuminates the nave through a bright stained glass in the west wall of the church..
Buctzotz main plaza is clean, quiet and well shaded, just the perfect place to partake of the unhurried pace of life that seems to have escaped the rest of the world.
Quiet streets coupled with a clean and well maintained town are rare treasures these days.
This is not the Ritz, but for copious quantities of savory Yucatecan style cuisine we hit the jack-pot here in this unpretentious restaurant across from the municipal market less than one block from the central park.
Parking is no problem in Buctzotz and we managed to get stuffed beyond capacity here.
Where in the world can you find streets devoid of traffic these days…come to the out- back of Yucatan and see for yourself?
Being a tourist in Buctzotz you automatically become a curiosity and these young men just had to satisfy their inquisitiveness because strangers were just plain weird here.
Early the next morning Jane and I cycled northwest out of town on deserted streets and into the open countryside still wet from the previous nights downpour caused by the tropical wave that had passed. The air was cooler and fresher but the humidity was so dense it felt like we were biking into a wall of water, believe it or not our speed was actually diminished. Our next stop was here at Dzilam González., a town that hadn’t managed to consume a Mayan temple in the city center after salvaging its stone to build their church and community even after nearly four-hundred years of continuous looting of material. The ancient church suffers from paint pealing apathy and speaks of lackluster poverty.
Destruction and looting since the Caste War of the1840s has left many of these churches devoid of any elaborate adornments as you can see in this meagerly furnished edifice.
Dzilam González apparently lacks whatever it takes to maintain its original pre-revolution, pre-Caste War standard of religious decadence. The local economy must have played a big part in the near stagnation status that now exists here.
Graphic statuary appears to be the standard here. Only with this picture that says more than a thousand words can I convey the message of these above figures.
Looking west out of the main church doors, it is apparent that even with over four hundred years of looting materials from the Mayan temple across the street, it still presents a formidable presence and a monumental message of those original Yucatecan’s.
Still in the city center and conspicuous from everywhere downtown the towering pile of stone remains a powerful reminder of the ancient Maya and their homeland.
Where is all the traffic?
Where are all the people?
This is not off-season in Dzilam González because there is no tourist season here and this kind of quiet tranquility would drive many to positive distraction. We enjoy it just the same knowing that there is still someplace on the planet like this out of the loop, off the main road that we can easily get to by bike and bus from our home in Mérida.
The Dzilam González government building has got all the paint. It still feels strange to find a town of this size with no traffic lights and little or no street commotion…we like it.
Biking down the road our next stop was at Dzidzantún that actually has made its mark in media hype. In the book Mayan Missions by Richard and Rosalind Perry you will find a wonderful descriptive account of the history, construction and art work laid out along with interesting sketches that make their book a must-have Yucatan travel guide. The book will get you to the places that made real history and are out of the tourist loop.
Over the years Jane and I have passed this huge structure often, each time exclaiming that one day we would return to investigate. The Mayan Missions book finally got us here.
The huge church was dedicated in 1567 and completed by 1580.
These frescos you are seeing here were recently restored and refurbished. Take a close look at the exotic art work depicting caricatures of animal/human faces like the dogs face sporting horns and human eyes. This is fascinating stuff that may have been painted by Mayan artists centuries ago. The churches of Yucatan were all constructed using Mayan slave labor.
Touted to be the largest church in Yucatan this single room is an incredible 250 feet long. Like most other mamposteria (stacked stone) buildings from the early colonial period this roof finally took a trip to the ground. A flat provisional roof was put on but that was a real esthetic setback to the classic style of the original design.
Over the years the building has been severely looted and vandalized but this stone piece was evidently just too heavy and massive to be disturbed.
Token restoration like this gives an inspiring sensation of the original ornate intricate artwork that adorned the entire structure.
This photo represents the position and size of the ornate art work.
In this photo Jane gives a scale of size to these lovely ancient frescos and the mammoth dimensions of the walls. It stagers the imagination to contemplate the colossal size of the Mayan temple required to furnish the materials for this enormous church that is over two hundred and fifty feet long just on the inside of the nave.
In this document it is not possible to do justice to this incredible building completely constructed of stacked stone. Here is a view of the adjacent cloister which is but a small part of the building complex. Come take a look for yourself.

In the town of Dzidzantún were located many of these distinct water wells with their large cylindrical cone topped gantry supports used to fasten the pulleys for retrieving the water. This style well was unique to Dzidzantún and now a large old hacienda is being restored adjacent to Dzidzantún named San Francisco and this well is a part of that restoration project.
We bused back to Mérida from Dzidzantún in time to have lunch at home.
It was a lovely out of the tourist loop trip and we continue to search for similar excursions, so stay tuned!
John M. Grimsrud