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

Monday, March 3, 2008


Quiet country roads through picturesque Yucatan are well worth the effort and pay back with early morning tropical birds, plus brilliant tropical flowers that change season by season sweetly perfuming the air.
Escaping Mérida’s pushy-shovey horn honking, tail-gating belligerent bumper-to-bumper neurotic drivers is like flushing the proverbial toilet…and it feels so good when it is finally gone.
Our escape Mérida bicycle trip is only a little over 30 kilometers long from Tecoh to Cuzamá but the narrow little road coupled with a brand new paved section connecting Ochil to Chunkanán, that is not even on the map makes a neat cycling loop with plenty of photo opportunities.
A suggestion to anybody interested in this trip is to do it in reverse of the way we went. The reason being that if you are inclined to dine after your bike ride as we customarily do Cuzamá has positively nothing in that department, however the town just before, Chunkanán does have a cocina economica, but we cannot attest to its quality. Tecoh on the other hand does have a rustic cocina economica that serves ample portions of wholesome savory daily specials at affordable prices.
We began this trip by bicycling seven kilometers from our home in Mérida to the bus terminal on Calle 50 and 57 in the city center.
An hour later we disembarked the bus at Tecoh with our little folding bicycles ready for the fresh air and tranquility that awaited us touring wild Yucatan outback interspersed with quaint Mayan villages and aged haciendas along our “Gruta Ruta”.
This is Tecoh where a few months of absence have seen many changes. The quiet streets filled with silent bicycles and tri-cycle taxis now have converted over to motorized taxis as you can see in this photo where the back of a motorcycle is attached to an old tri-cycle
A new government required a new paint job of all things municipal and it was out with the old and in with the new. Above is the city hall complex that last year was neatly painted in a distinctive buff color…this political color change took place in every municipality over the entire state of Yucatan. Added to the environmental degradation was the ear splitting noise emitting from a new supermarket named, Super Willies, situated on the central plaza blasting the downtown into nerve rattling oblivion.
It is actually happening…at least the sign is up and that is a first step. We have yet to see the first of the bicycles or bikers participating in ecologically friendly touring of the cenotes that I jokingly named the “Gruta Ruta” because almost all of the cenotes are accompanied by caves or “grutas”. Note the spelling of the town Sabacche. On various maps you will find various spellings, such as Sabacché or Sabacchén…the standard of the industry in Mexico is that there is no standard.
This is where we make our turn to the north(left) onto the new road not yet on the map. For this insider piece of useful bicycling information we must thank our friends Basil and Alixa who conduct superb Yucatan bicycle tours.

This is one of over one-hundred cenotes in this area designated on the map as; “Zona de Cenotes”.
Cenote Chonkila is very close to this new road, but most of the area cenotes require a long trek through woods by meandering foot path.
I must say here that most of these cenotes are situated in deep depressions in the rock with steep abrupt sides and no guard rails or warning signs. Cuidado mucho! “Be very careful” because the fall into unknown depths of water is only half of your problem…rescue could possibly be a very long time in coming.
On this eight kilometer stretch of new highway we may have seen one motor vehicle.
As you can see in the below photo of Jane standing on the rim of this cenote the abrupt drop of over eight meters or twenty-seven feet is straight down with nothing to hinder your decent and no way out.
Hanging from within the cave entrance on the north side of this cenote was a number of huge very active bee hives vigorously in operation. Swarms of busy bees find this location a nearly perfect environment protected from the weather and predators with a ready supply of water at hand.
The aromatic perfume of sweet honey scent was magnificently pervasive around the cenote where the multitudes of bees became aggressive enough to send Jane wheeling down the road swatting the busy little critters away while speeding into a strong headwind. She only received one sting because she was able to get them off her face as she speedily escaped.
These cenotes can be spotted by the experienced person from a great distance because around them are found tall trees watered by their long tap roots extending down into the water.
These cenotes made it possible for the ancient Mayan people to prosper and thrive in this otherwise waterless place devoid of rivers and springs.
Air plants cover the surrounding trees that are sending long roots down to siphon up cenote water. Jane lends scale to the cenote size as she stands on the rim.
Chunkanán is a very special because this is one of the last places in Yucatan still actually using the old Decauville narrow gauge railroad. By the late 1800s more than 4,500 kilometers of this one foot 7½ inch wide track had been laid across the Yucatan peninsula that used horse drawn carriages. 1,000 henequen haciendas were owned by just 30 families that were made wealthy on the backs of their Mayan slaves.
This is the narrow gauge railroad leading into Chunkanán with its well worn tow path along side the century old rail system still actively in use today.
Jane pictured with her Dahon twenty inch folding bicycle gives some prospective to the small size of the Decauville narrow gauge railroad track.
These tracks branch out to various cenotes while meandering past old haciendas and active henequen fields. This area is much the same as it was in the heyday of that industry that made Yucatan the richest state in Mexico around the time of the WWI.
Quiet downtown Chunkanán has its railway tracks leading through the neighborhoods.
The poor little old hacienda town of Chunkanán is finding a rebirth in its economy attracting busloads of tourists all the way from the port city of Progreso from tour ships to ride the antique rail system that generates enough cash to sustain the local economy.
This photo was taken in the early 1980s when Jane and I first visited Chunkanán with friends, arriving by a narrow dirt road before tourism became an industry here. What made this trip memorable besides our visit to a cenote with a deadly dangerous crumbling staircase was our race with a two meter, six and a half foot long rattlesnake, cascabel. As we rattled along at a fast horse trot the huge fat snake confined by a stone wall parallel to the track was actually slithering over the rough terrain faster than we were traveling.
Like a page out of the last century little Chunkanán reflects images of a time in Yucatan history when hacienda life was a prospering enterprise.
Gliding through the city center a horse drawn cart clanks rapidly along the narrow Decauville railroad tracks that were installed here back in the late 1800s and are still being actively pressed into service.
This is a small glimpse back into the unhurried past before the days of a motorized world when the horse set the speed for travel.
This is one of the many railroad spurs traversing quaint little Chunkanán.
From his office here on the street, the boss or “jefe” of the Chunkanán rail service, Bolas, busily dispatches the one car horse drawn carriages on tours ranging from half hour up to three hour long guided trips. Visiting customers arrive by tri-cycle taxi from Cuzamá, a distance of four kilometers on a very quiet little paved road.
Here comes one of those little one person powered tri-cycle taxis from Cuzamá.
In Cuzamá this road sign directs tourists to their number one attraction…cenotes.
Cuzamá has nearly nothing to offer in the way of shopping or dining but it is a connecting point with cross-country buses and colectivo taxis to Mérida.
Mérida might be filled with pushy-shovey horn honking, tail-gating belligerent bumper-to-bumper neurotic drivers but dining is no problem.
When we arrived at this cocina economica, Las Delicias de La Abuela on Calle 52 north at 41 and 43 it was nearly closing time and we were the last customers of the day.
This is Yucatecan style thinly sliced and brazier fried pork that makes a scrumptious meal that I stuff into tortillas yielding tantalizing tacos. I soak up the thin bean soup with the light French bread. The above meal set us back $30 pesos or three dollars and we got fed-up.
The day wasn’t complete without a stop at our favorite coffee shop, Caffé Latté in Itzimna on the way home for a iced coffee frappe…Our bicycles seem to run best when charged up on coffee beans.