After three hours by luxury bus from Mérida, Jane and I arrived at the ADO, Auto Transportes de Oriente restaurant and terminal where we disembarked with our folding bicycles.
We were now in the state of Quintana Roo at the town of José María Morelos, formerly known as just Kilometer 50. This is half way between the capital cities of Mérida, Yucatán and Chetumal, Quintana Roo, which is just about its only claim to fame and its reason for existing.
Sixty years ago, in 1947 a young German journalist, Lilo Linke, made this journey leaving Mérida by the only transport of the time, a narrow gauge railway train that first took her to the end-of-the-line town of Peto in the state of Yucatán, an all day adventure that made several scheduled jungle stops where only a trail came to the railhead. Peto had just two hotels then and calling them austere, bleak bear-bones basic would be heaping praise upon them.
Here is what Lilo Linke had to say about her 1947 train ride;
The little train rattled along between henequen plantations and fields of Indian corn. Soon we were covered by the dust that blew in through the open windows. That jungles could be anywhere near was difficult to imagine. Wherever we stopped, fruit was offered for sale. In the afternoon we came to the end of the line, a village called Peto. A single long street led from the station to the market-square and the church.
In the 1980’s my wife Jane and I made the above mentioned train trip and the conductor told us that he had been working on the train for 26 years and we were the first foreigners that had ever taken the train all the way to the end of the line at Peto. We have photos, original tickets and even the time table from that memorable trip which we will be soon incorporating into an expanded story.
Here is what Lilo Linke had to say about the Peto hotels of the 1940’s;
Señor Mendoza had friends at Peto, but they were away on a journey and we were forced to stay at a hotel. In fact we had the choice between two, and Señor Mendoza selected the one run by a toothless Chinese. It was rapidly getting dark—as always in the tropics about six o'clock—but I could make out in the fading light that the sheets on the tumbledown bed were extremely soiled. I remembered how once in Turkey in similar circumstances the hotel-keeper had remarked that only four other people had so far used them. But the Chinaman raised no objection when I asked him to change them. Perhaps the lack of teeth made arguing difficult for him. He whipped off the offending sheets, and to my horror I saw three fat bugs scuttling for shelter. Unperturbed, he shuffled out of the room, to return with a single sheet that was as undistinguishable from the first as one Chinaman from another. With a deadpan face he smoothed it over the mattress. I rushed off to Señor Mendoza's room. He looked at me over the rim of his spectacles when I explained my trouble. "I warned you,” he said. "Now listen: no luxury, all right; no comfort, all right; but no bugs either. I just can't stand them." He uttered a gentle sigh and scratched his head. "The other hotel is worse," he said. "It couldn't be," I replied firmly. "I told him to give you the best room in the house. You even got a wash-basin, he told me. Still, I'll buy you a hammock. What else do you need?"
Believe it or not in early 1980’s, Jane and I stayed in the very same hotel room at Peto after our train trip there…it was the last vacancy in town at the time.
(I describe this train trip and hotel experience in the story; Peto as an end destination, on our web site.)
Day two of Lilo Linke’s trip to Kilometer 50 was by motor vehicle over an unimproved dirt trail to the end of the road in this place that had only territory status because of the animosity and tension still smoldering between the Mayan people and the Mexican government. The fifty plus year Caste War had raged and this was part of the front line of battle.
Here is what Lilo Linke had to say about her 1947 trip from Peto to Kilometer 50;
We were off in a "taxi", one of the ancient cars one can get for hire anywhere in Latin-America where there is a semblance of a road. We were six passengers with our baggage, including some chickens and cooking-pots. The ingeniero came along with us, it was his road. "The fool, my predecessor,” he said, "he let the road funds be pilfered by dishonest clerks and overseers while he drank himself to death at headquarters. If anyone is going to make a profit out of this road while I am here, believe me I'll make sure that it's no one but .myself. And I’ll see to it that whatever happens, the road will be built. I don't believe in individual profits while the country gets nothing in exchange." He said it so seriously that I could not believe him to be a cynic. His attitude, if I understood it correctly, was a peculiar brand of progressiveness adapted to Mexican reality. I could not fail to appreciate its advantages. All along the road the driver was playing the popular game of chasing another car. It was a lorry in which road-workers were piled like upright sticks. The dust their car and ours raised on the as yet unpaved highway enveloped us all in thick clouds often blocking our vision. It all added to the fun. At a place provisionally called "Kilometre 50" our expedition came to a halt. It was almost the end of the road. We would stop there for the night and then continue on horseback. Between us and the edge of the jungle stood half a dozen wooden shacks and a whitewashed wattle building with two rooms. It had formerly belonged to the road camp and was now the school. I would sleep there while Señor Mendoza hoped for hospitality in one of the shacks. All he needed were two hooks to fix his hammock.
Over sixty years later Kilometer 50, now José María Morelos has more than just half a dozen shacks on the edge of the jungle and yes, the road is paved and finished all the way to the state capital of Chetumal.
In the above photo you can easily see that even though this is the main street and highway through town, bicycle and tricycle traffic dominate; there is a noticeable lack of motorized vehicles. In the would-you-believe-it could be true department Jane and I encountered an old friend from Tulum here. He is selling home made natural yogurt from his roofed over tricycle.
Like the rest of Mexico José María Morelos has grown exponentially in recent years and now has over 20,000 inhabitants. The above bust located at the city hall and across from the central park depicts the town namesake José María Morelos who helped lead Mexico to independence in the early 1800’s.
Again José María Morelos is depicted in this huge wall painting in the band shell of the city center park know as the zocolo in Spanish.
The public walls of José María Morelos are adorned with numerous storytelling murals like this one found at the municipal market.
Just opened and inaugurated is the Parador Turístico also situated on the main street where local arts and crafts of the areas Mayan ladies are sold.
Jane and I arrived at the Parador Turístico with perfect timing when the inaugural speeches concluded and it was time to partake of a Mayan style one-pot dinner of chicken, potatoes and rice accompanied by a generous stack of piping hot tortillas…gratis…thank you all!
We were stuffed, happy and satisfied. The friendly group was brimming with enthusiasm.
What originally appeared to be confusion over the provisions distribution turned out to be well organized and everybody was fed and content.
Exquisite handy work, one of the natural talents of the Mayan women was in plentiful supply at the craft shops of the new Parador Turístico. The young director Maricla Dzoi Loeza is drumming up enthusiasm and promoting participation by the local ladies which is what it will take to make a success and develop repeat tourist trade.
Before Quintana Roo achieved statehood it was a territory with tax free status and José María Morelos had shoppers flooding into town from all over Mexico to capitalize on bargain priced tax exempt merchandise. The main street was stacked with retail goods as eager shoppers clamored to make purchases.
The last gasoline station for 225 kilometers on the way to Chetumal was here and many times had no gasoline or sometimes gasoline but no electric service and couldn’t even pump the gas out. Stranded motorists became part of the local economy searching our food and accommodations. Now with statehood there is gas.
Two blocks south of the Parador Turístico we found Hotel Aura Elena; clean, neat, new, bicycle friendly and reasonably priced. We stayed three nights using it as our home base.
Owner of Hotel Aura Elena, Doña Lupita is a politically connected business women, with a retail store in nearby Dzuche and director of tourism for the area. As you can see from the hotel behind her, she runs a very clean and neat operation that is expanding. José María Morelos for its size has an overabundance of hotel accommodations so prices are competitive.
Lots of competition for eating places keeps the prices down and locally produced authentic Mayan style foods are served up that make this stop well worth the whole trip.
Around the municipal market and up and down the main street interesting private entrepreneurs set up mobile street kitchens where they concoct delectable natural dishes.
José María Morelos is still blessed with no franchise chain eateries or hotels and is out of the tourist loop making it a slice of the real Mexico, a place to see before it is gone.
At the small municipal market venders stock the locally produced fruits and vegetables that change with the seasons.
Neat and clean, the municipal market reflects the local pride in their growing community.
Jane and I have lived here in this part of the world for over a quarter century and had never sampled the delectable seasonally produced baked fresh corn cakes or fresh corn tortillas, tortillas de maiz nuevo. Besides being scrumptiously mouth-wateringly delicious these things were nutritionally sustaining.
The problem with the fresh corn was that you can only get these products late in the fall and in the active milpa country far removed from the city life.
The neatly dressed young man in the above photo came into José María Morelos with just these two buckets of fresh corn products to sell and when it was gone, and so would he be gone until the next crop of fresh corn was harvested in the following fall.
Here is a loaf of fresh new corn bread and fresh new corn tortillas. They have a chewy mealy rough ground consistency, a wholesome tantalizing aroma and a flavor that requires no additives. This is a heavenly treasure not found in any mass-marketing establishments.
Situated in the city center of José María Morelos, this unimaginatively designed recently constructed stacked stone church reveals the towns relatively young age.
The church interior is ablaze in dangling doodads and the permanently open upper side vents let you know that this truly a tropical environment.
From in front of the church looking easterly the city’s central park is seen.
The quiet little frontier town of José María Morelos has 175 licensed taxis and 95 tri-cycle taxis like the two you see in the above photo circulating around the park The park also has a veleta or wind powered water pump. There are no stop lights or pushy traffic here where motorized vehicles are noticeably lacking.
Jane and I were told by several people that we needed to check out the lagoon just four kilometers north of downtown José María Morelos easily reached on the neat new bicycle path. Here is what greeted us. The sign says; Private property; for your security do not climb over the wires, open Saturdays and Sundays, DANGEROUS WATER!!!
The bicycle path was very nice but the sign at the entrance to the lagoon did not in any way entice us to enter.
A short distance down the bicycle path we encountered this local gentleman out collecting vines to feed his rabbits and we asked him about entering the lagoon. He told us that we would be crazy to go in there. The attributes of the lagoon were; huge alligators, tall grass loaded with poisonous snakes and to top it off, quick sand. We decided to forego the pleasure.
The bicycle path seemed to have more traffic than the adjacent highway. This young man from Mérida dressed like an Eskimo was part of a team of bicyclers headed for Chetumal over two hundred kilometers to the south. In celebration of the tradition of Guadalupe day on the 12th of December, runners and bicyclers from across Mexico make long pilgrimages carrying torches and statues in adulation to Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe.
After three nights and four days at José María Morelos we generated enough adventures to write three stories and will definitely have to return to further explore this wild frontier out of the tourist loop.
José María Morelos is a rare gem like none other and makes a fascinating home base…not for everybody.
Coming soon on the web: our side trips from José María Morelos to Polyuc, Dzula, and the route of the churches that includes Saban, Sacalaca, Huay Max and Tihosuco.