Peto is not the average tourist’s intended objective.
Jane boards the packed to capacity narrow gauge train to Peto with its 1890s vintage wooden coaches that were still rolling in 1985. The toilet was a hole in the floor.
The adventure trip to Peto makes Peto worth while.
Twenty-five years ago Jane and I disembarked Mérida on the narrow gauge train for one of our most memorable Yucatan adventures…we still have the original time-tables and tickets.
We set off from Mérida aboard one of the last narrow gauge trains still operating in the world headed into an unknown realm departing for the end of the line.
Back then Peto enjoyed a thriving export economy based on chicle, used in chewing gum which was extracted from the sap of the towering zapote tree forest surrounding this jungle area and also wild bee’s honey.
Riding aboard that long forgotten relic of the past that made 6 scheduled stops where there was only a foot path from the jungle, the conductor told Jane and I that he had been working onboard this train 26 years and that we were the first foreigners to ride it all the way to the end of the line at Peto.
(Read more about the history of transportation in Yucatan on our web site page Yucatan Roadways.)
At Peto the entire train just pulled to a stop for the night in the serene city center blocking intersections.
We were in another world so quiet it made you want to whisper. This sleepy colonial hamlet was dimly lit by sparse incandescent street lamps while the faint aroma of spicy wood smoke from neighborhood cooking fires trailed through the pristine jungle scented evening air.
Occasionally a dog would bark or a distant car started that could be heard putt-putt-putting slowly along and then silenced. Tranquility was at its optimum here.
We dispersed on foot with the rest of our fellow passengers into the eerie dimness of Peto’s silent night unhindered by traffic save the occasional bicycle.
The first of the two hotels in town was fully booked and the second had but one room remaining…we took it. The night clerk proudly signed me in as Mr. John and went out to get us a bar of soap, something normally not included in the accommodations inventory.
My first impression of our startlingly stark room was that it must have been of pre-Mayan origins. The stacked stone structure known as mamposteria was in the evolutionary process of returning to the earth from which it had undoubtedly originated untold centuries beforehand. It appeared to be leaning in six directions at the time if that is at all possible.
In the corner of our primeval room stood a small battered gray baked enamel wash basin on an ornate antique metal stand undoubtedly forged by a blacksmith eons before. A single pipe dangled down from the ceiling with a garden spigot valve to fill the washbasin…there was no drain. We deduced that in order to discharge the wash water you merely pitched it out the barn door sized window that had no glass or screen, where the birds were free to flutter in and out. Some discretion was in order because of a make-shift movie theater set up next door where a bed sheet was stretched in the trees for the screen and several rows of wooden benches were placed directly beneath our window.
A single bare light bulb equipped with a pull string hung starkly at face level and our bed was a metal four-poster with a lumpy-bumpy mattress of questionable origins.
One toilet with no seat and a huge gate valve to flush it satisfied the needs of the entire hotel.
On a large spike in that bathroom, driven into the cement wall were neatly impaled quarter sections of the Diario de Yucatan newspaper; that was to be our toilet tissue.
This experience was not for the fainthearted luxury lover, but then this is what true adventures are made of. At least there was this one remaining lodging in Peto for us.
The years have passed and it was time to re-visit Peto again. As before, just the trip getting there would make Peto worth while.
Here is what the explorer and author John L. Stephens had to say about Peto in his 1842 classic book; Incidents of Travel in Yucatan;
Page 180 from volume 2
Peto is the head of a department, of which Don Pio Periz was jefe politico. It was a well built town, with streets indicated, as at Mérida, by figures on the tops of houses. The church and convent were large and imposing edifices, and the living of the cura one of the most valuable in the church, being worth six of seven thousand dollars per annum.Look over our bike and bus route using the LUS second class bus that departs from the Noreste Bus Station located on Calle 67 between Calles 50 and 52 in Mérida). It took us on a scenic out of the tourist loop back country adventure route to Peto. Here is the map;
(Also from Stephens 1842 book, volume 2, page 173 the reproduction of a Spanish map dating 1557 makes no mention of the existence of Peto.)
The following travel log story is told with captioned photos;
Consider this; all of the towns depicted on this map have daily public transit and most have several per day that will transport you and your bicycle to Mérida or many other destinations.
This is downtown Peto in 2008 where most street traffic is still un-motorized. Though the pace of life here is still unhurried, the noise level has skyrocketed and their export economy has changed from chicle and bee’s honey to migrant laborers who journey to the U.S. to bring back hard fought for green-back dollars.
Peto’s municipal market is still a family type enterprise as you can see here even a toddler gets into the act.
The streets of Peto speak volumes of the old and new where here a centuries old colonial dwelling houses a store hawking numerous plastic Chinese imports.
Little Peto has been a military outpost since the days of the 60 year Caste War that began back in the 1840s but the military is still here and now it is to control the drug gangs or “narcos” as they are now known in Mexico.
Our first night in town we find a superbly located hotel in the city center. The bare-bones basic San José is definitely not scrubbed to death but boasts cable T.V., hammock hooks and indoor first floor bicycle parking. We off-load our packs and venture out in search of the best meal in town.
This cocina económica in the city center did not cater to tourism but provided us with a huge ration of frijol charros or pork and beans. In a cocina económica usually only one dish is prepared each day and when it is depleted, they close. You have the choice of eating in or carry out. Most of the trade is carry-out and nearly every Yucatecan home relies on a neighborhood cocina económica.
This is our frijol charros or pork and beans that come with all the tortillas you want.
From Peto this lovely little paved bicycle path leads out of town to a very quiet back road that will take you to Xoy, Chaksinkin, Tixmehuac and finally Tekax. This is a lovely jungle route past ancient haciendas, tranquil Mayan villages and intriguing missions, which Jane and I plan to do soon. Richard Perry’s book Mayan Missions is a good field guide on this route.
Perry gives a lengthy description about the, Virgen de la Estrella, “Peto” church but was not as impressed as we were. Jane and I found this to be one of the most formidable and massive ornate examples of dedicated attention to detail that we have encountered in Yucatan. You must come and pass your own judgment.
From the choir loft some perspective can be gained of the mammoth size of this structure that is nearly four meters thick. The Mayan temple that the materials were salvaged from had to be colossal. Recent restoration work has been carefully done but is still lacking.
The following photos were taken from the dizzying height of the roof top and I get dizzy with thick socks on!
Looking east from the church roof top you will see near the center of the photo behind the ball court a structure that was part of this church complex and it by itself consumed a monumental amount of building materials. Below is a close-up of that structure that gives the appearance of being built just to consume tons of stone.
Nearly four meters thick walls still stand but the roof has long ago returned to the earth.
Looking south west from the church roof you can easily discern the Puuc hills near to the town of Tekax far off in the distance. The above jungle previously consisted of zapote trees from which the chicle for chewing gum was extracted. The fruit of this tree is wonderfully savory and also known as custard apple. Those lovely trees whose wood is among the hardest and most enduring of all woods of the world became too irresistible for the greedy timber barons who have harvested then almost to extinction.
Looking down the roof you get a perspective scale of size with Jane at the other end.
Peering down from the base of the bell tower on the front façade, the altitude is apparent.
Looking west across the zocolo park the view of tree tops is far below.
This is downtown Peto’s business district where motor vehicles are in the minority.
As you can see Jane and I go to great lengths to get these interesting photos especially when you consider that I get dizzy with thick socks on.
This building represents a huge amount of rock and when you consider that all of the building materials previously went to build a Mayan temple and were taken down and then reconstructed into this colossal church; the back breaking man hours of toil becomes unfathomable.
The church is named; “Virgen de la Estrella” or virgin of the star and for this reason the façade is adorned with numerous stars like this one that perforates the wall.
This is where some of the lumber from Peto’s zapote forest wound up. These ancient hand hewn steps form a spiral staircase leading from here at the roof top all the way down to ground level.
After a few turns going down this spiral staircase it is as dark as being in a closet with the door closed and we had to feel our way along in the pitch darkness trusting that the steps were all there and well. This photo was taken with a flash and so we got a look at what we couldn’t see in the dark.
I found this Christ with his crown of thorns most curiously wearing a silk lace trimmed mini slip. There just has to be some convoluted story behind this.
Seated with me is Isabel Tec Canto the helpful and friendly church warden and the man who opened the doors to Jane and I so that we could take all those lovely roof top photos.
A recently restored side chapel complete with ancient wooden vigas; roof beams.
This must be a modern innovation, smokeless electric candles that you light by inserting a coin directly into the coin-slot…how very clever conserving all that wax.
Peto’s population turns out in mass for community functions like this cheer-leader competition that lasted several hours with loud speakers blasting everyone senseless.
The following are jewels of the jungle we encountered on a short side trip from Peto to the town of Ichmul where you are even less likely to find tourists. Ichmul is covered in the next post.