For Jane and I the contrast that over sixty years had made was totally astonishing. We actually met people still living in this outpost today who were adults back in 1947.
So, come journey along with us deep into the tropical jungle out of the tourist loop.
On the above expanded map you will see Yucatán’s relative position in the world and the cities pertinent to this story with red place dots on the map to the right..
We were advised to take the twenty minute bus ride the twenty-two kilometers from José María Morelos to Polyuc because of a stretch of steep hilly curves that were considered dangerous. A major problem in traversing this stretch of highway was the huge doble-remolque or tractor-trailer trucks with two trailers that the local motorists find irresistible to pass especially on hills and blind curves. The above photo is of the seldom traveled main highway in downtown Polyuc, known as via larga or the long way. Just before Polyuc the highway divides, and via corta, or the short way to Chetumal, the capital goes the other way, thus little traffic here.
Here is what the author Lilo Linke had to say about her all day horseback ride from Kilometer 50 to Polyuc in 1947. It took her two days travel just to get from Mérida to Kilometer 50;
I embraced the schoolteacher, who had tears in her eyes. She thought it brave of me to ride off into the unknown. White women were not built for hardships. She did not understand what strange fascination the jungle had for me. Now at last I was getting near the real magic of Yucatan!
We cantered for half a mile to the end of the road and plunged into the jungle. A narrow path was barely distinguishable underneath the creepers, the fallen leaves and twigs. We were riding in single file, behind Fernando Castillo, who acted as guide. It was astonishing how for him every tree was a signpost while I saw only the pattern of trunks and leaves repeated as in a cabinet of mirrors: the same image thrown back from all sides in thousand fold bewildering repetition.
As usual, I abandoned myself completely to the wisdom of the guide. He knew where we were going; his was the worry about food and drink and shelter. I was a creature without responsibility, an anonymous child, innocent, ignorant, unperturbed. Tomorrow was infinitely far away, yesterday had never existed. I was aware only of the present, and that present was our progress through the jungle.
Though I had made trips of this kind frequently during the last ten years, they never lost their fascination. Once, of course, I had considered them to be dangerous, had pictured all sorts of ferocious beasts waiting to attack us. Now I knew that they were clever enough to hide as soon as they felt us approach. It would need patient stalking to see even as much as a monkey's tail swinging a hundred feet up in the tallest tree. They could be heard screeching and chattering at dawn or late in the afternoon, along with parrots and other birds. During the long hours of the day no sound was audible but the thud of the horses' hoofs on the soft ground and the breaking of twigs. And on this particular journey our constant accompaniment was Fernando's voice, which brought a homely atmosphere into the jungle.
If the jungle was less dangerous than I had thought, it was also less colorful, less romantic. The glowing flowers, the orchids, the insect-eating plants could be discovered only by experts among the dense foliage. For the ordinary traveler, the mysterious attraction of the Jungle lay in the overwhelming sameness of a world that had neither end nor outline.
Walls of trees shut in the traveler on all sides, curtains of leaves and creeping stems, one plant strangling the other in deadly silence, but with relentless determination. Occasionally a giant butterfly may cross the trail, the only distraction for hours. The silence and the green darkness pull the traveler forward into the unknown as if he were a fish trailing along the bottom of the sea, with water all around, and only rarely a sun-ray pushing through.
One begins to feel like a victim in one of the old mermaid stories in which one loses all sense of time and of direction. Civilization, Europe, home, become so many words, and nothing matters but the slow progress on horseback, on and on, without any thought of return. That, to me, is the real magic of the jungle, the green arms it stretches out to hold man, if possible, for ever.
The jungle offers variety, of course, once the eye begins to focus on detail. I had never thought it possible that there could be so many tints of green, from near-black to near-white. Sizes, too, differed; some leaves were big enough to serve as cape or umbrella, of others three or four would be needed to cover a fingernail. As to shapes, the list would be endless.
Yet I had little chance to concentrate on these things. Though there was no need to guide my horse, I had to keep it from stumbling. I was also busy ducking my head. Low, often thorny branches and aerial roots tried to entangle us all the time. Fallen trees blocked our way, lying on the ground or leaning across the path.
The horse would stubbornly push past the overhanging branches, not realizing that my head was so much higher than its own. If I did not slip off quickly I would receive a dangerous blow on my forehead or, bending down, would have the skin scraped off my back. It was all part of the journey, and Fernando's voice always cheered me and lured me on.
At three o'clock we came to a clearing. The sun beat down fiercely as we left the shelter of the trees. I felt dazed. We had had no food since early morning and only a sip of rum from the bottle the municipal president of Peto had so providently sent us.
Dotted over the clearing were a dozen huts.
“Llegamos!” Fernando exclaimed. “This is Polyuc."
Jane and I could hardly conceive of the tremendous all day horseback hardship that Lilo Linke had endured back in 1947 to get from Kilometer 50 to Polyuc because our air-conditioned bus ride had taken us less than an hour.
We set out to tour the town with our folding bicycles and take photos. This is a typical paved side street passing the town sports park. The quiet old back country ways are quickly being transformed as new cement block homes replace the traditional palapas.
The neighborhood grocery store, tienda thrives in this Mayan neighborhood of Polyuc where little has changed in a half century except for the paved roads and electric.
Smiling faces and friendly people poured out to see the strangers in this place that gets no tourist traffic. As a car passed a man at the tienda jokingly said; “that’s the only one this year.”
This church was nearly abandoned and seriously neglected back in 1947 when Lilo Linke visited here on horseback through the dense jungle before roads arrived.
Here in Lilo Linke’s own words is her impression of Polyuc back then;
Pablo was anxious that Polyuc should make a good impression on me, though he himself had only been there since the school was opened six months ago. To prove that Polyuc had once been a big flourishing place he showed me the ruins of a large church. Jungle trees wrestled amidst the gaping walls.No attempt to put a roof the church has been made and as you can see a sizeable royal palm has taken root in the nave, but still a few people use the place that has been falling down for a very long time. Many of the Mayan people living here today have taken up their own versions of religion. They are mixing their pre-conquest conviction with some Spanish Catholicism.
"It was burnt down last century, during the War of the Castes," he said, "when the Indians rose against the white settlers and landowners all over Yucatan. In this region the war was especially fierce, because the Indians wanted to keep at least the jungle for themselves. Thousands, some say hundreds of thousands, of people were killed. In fact, the whole of Yucatan was almost depopulated."
In his bragging way the snake expert had already told me how the white people would lock themselves in the churches, how the Indians would use quicklime to dissolve the walls, how the bells would come tumbling down. They dragged off the bells to melt them into cannon-balls, but often, pursued by stubborn whites, they had to leave them behind, or, growing weak from hunger, would abandon the massive domes amidst the tangle of greenery.
Pablo pointed to some coffee trees which had reverted to their wild state. "They had big plantations here, but they were abandoned with the rest nearly a hundred years ago. We ought to grow coffee again. There is no lack of laborers now. New settlers are coming to Polyuc almost every month. The more progressive ones establish themselves half a mile away in the new colony. They have quite decent cottages, not just huts of sticks. I'll take you there to have a look round."
By the time we reached the new colony it was night and a brilliant full moon had risen. The air was damp and seemed cold, and mist was lying on the ground. Some twenty houses stood along well-traced streets where not even a dog stirred. I shivered. "A ghost town!” I said.
The protracted Caste War led to strong animosity in this battle front area that smolders to this day.
The Mayan residents of the state of Quintana Roo were not under an oppressive hacienda system and therefore became noticeably self reliant not like those in neighboring Yucatán where the indigenous depend upon a patron to make all their decisions to this day.
Here is a good example of three different types of home construction found around the Yucatán peninsula. On the left is the traditional Mayan style palapa thatched roof home that has existed here for thousands of years. On the right is a mamposteria stacked stone dwelling that was popular before the arrival of cement blocks and could be completely constructed from materials at hand. In the center is the modern cement block home that uses steel reinforcement bars and pre stressed cement roof beams. These cement block structures are jokingly referred to as; Tio Sam houses because they began springing up when workers returned to Mexico with dollars earned from working in the US.
A long enduring government sponsored program to better the lives of rural residents remains active today with a new twist…computers and internet have arrived.
Jane and I were on a fact finding tour and had lots of unanswered questions so we thought it was time to search out a guide. We got lucky, we found a man whose family was at least four generations in Polyuc. His wife has the doctor at the town clinic for nineteen years and he fluently spoke both Spanish and Maya.
Manual J, Chimal Balam, pictured above with his taxi agreed to take our folding bicycles and we were off for another adventure into the back country and out of the tourist loop.
The transition from bicycle to taxi is so simple, the bikes fold in just twelve seconds and as you can see easily fit into the trunk of a compact car.
As we started off our driver and guide Manual reached for a C-D and asked if we wanted music. We emphatically responded, no! We want to pick your brain, and so we did.
Once we got Manual started answering questions the flow of information erupted like a pent up volcano.
Riding in the taxi, it was less than twenty five kilometers away on a paved road to the tiny town of Dzula. As it turned out our decision to take the taxi ride was a good one. The side road off the highway was in the process of being widened and resurfaced so cycling it would have been a very nasty push through the mountains of mounded sand and gravel.
Dzula housing is little changed over the centuries with the exception of electric service and a paved road to the outside world.
Here is what Lilo Linke had to say about her day long horseback journey from Polyuc to Dzula in 1947;
AGAIN everybody was up and bustling before dawn: Pablo to teach his parrot, Fernando to sing, Señor Mendoza and the peddlers to round up and saddle our horses. I sat shivering on my hammock, and felt desperately sorry that I had got myself into all this. We rode off with the moon still bright; but only rarely could we catch a glimpse of it through the dense growth. The horses stumbled, but stubbornly pushed on.The Dzula plaza, the old and the new, an internet shop and a thatched palapa home;
"Look out, look out!" Fernando would shout at brief intervals, as a low branch almost knocked our heads off.
"Did we have to leave at this hour?" I grumbled.
"It's cooler early in the morning,” Señor Mendoza’s voice lectured from behind.
"Cooler? We might be at the North Pole." My breath touched by a beam of moonlight whirled like a cloud. "I can hardly hold the reins."
"In two hours you’ll be dripping with sweat."
The beasts of the jungle, the monkeys and the birds called to each other in the rosy dawn: dark roars and weird wailing, ghostly shrieks and cackling laughter. Such an entertainment was easily worth an hour of freezing.
We rode on, rarely exchanging a word. The animals’ cacophony melted back into the deep green silence. Fernando stopped singing. Nowhere did we find signs of human beings, no hut, no cultivated plot, no zigzag cuts down the zapote trunks. What trees had fallen had done so by their own weight; no man had swung his axe against them. The trail disappeared and I began to think that we were lost, when Fernando exclaimed:
"There's that lopsided tamarind tree! Now we're half-way and can have a rest.”
This time I took care to spread a mackintosh on the ground. I wanted no more ticks.
Midday was approaching, but the heat was less intense than Señor Mendoza had prophesied. We passed eight or nine ditches with low walls of stones piled up alongside.
"Trenches from the War of the Castes,” Fernando explained. "They kept on fighting here until early this century. Up to a few years ago no white man would have dared to pass here without a safe conduct from one of the Maya chiefs. Only Indians live in this region—apart from the mission, of course.”
Suddenly from behind the last of the trenches two boys jumped into the air. I cried out in alarm, and they turned and fled. Fernando laughed.
"Don’t be afraid. They were sent as scouts to report our arrival.” He spurred his horse. "Come on, Dzula is round this corner."
The village seemed abandoned under the glare of the sun, but from most of the doorways white-clad women watched mutely as we passed at a smart trot. The huts were distributed without plan and pattern, a few round a flat patch in the centre, others on mounds which cropped up irregularly all over the place. Most Indian villages are like this, in contrast to the Spanish settlements with their symmetrical outlay. But Dzula was beautiful, the huts leaning against the rugged trunks of ancient trees, now losing their leaves in the dry season.
"That’ the temporary home of the mission up there,” Fernando said. It was the largest building, like the rest made of sticks only, with a thatched roof. Few of the houses could boast the luxury of whitewashed mud walls.
A mixed-breed youth, his round head covered by a soldier's cloth cap, ran towards us and gripped the bridle of my horse. “Bienvenido!” he said with a pleasing soft voice and a smile in his brilliant shoe-button eyes.
"That's Claudio, our agricultural expert." Fernando introduced him. "You had better stick to him. He's the one who rules Dzula. Though I shouldn't say that before Carlos, who's the leader of our mission.”
A westerly view of the Dzula plaza with its significant lack of motor vehicles still has its thatched roof palapa homes. Other than electrical service these dwellings are the same and have been built exactly like the Mayan people have done for thousands of years.
Leading from the plaza all streets are dirt except for leaving town.
Here is what Lilo Linke had to say about her 1947 visit to Dzula;
We walked past the old silk-cotton tree which marked roughly the centre of Dzula. It was nearly midday and stiflingly hot, and most people seemed to be resting in their hammocks from their heavy labors since dawn. Carlos pulled out his big red handkerchief and for the fiftieth time mopped his brow.Where the freshly cut zapote tree logs lie in the above photo is exactly where the old silk-cotton tree stood back in 1947. The huge silk-cotton tree that stood here was three meters in diameter and sacred to the Mayan people. It was cut down by some government agency in order to pass some electrical wires that could have and should have been diverted a few feet to save the tree.
"And to think that it's going to be hotter still once the rains start" he groaned in despair. "No escape from it, no cold shower, no iced drink, no air-conditioning, just sweat pouring from you all day long. There!” He thrust out his hand in anger to show me his handkerchief. "Soaked!”
Yet again, in a futile gesture, he passed it over his brow. But then his face brightened. "That’s the new mission headquarters up there. We've only just finished it.”
He pointed to a white house on top of a mound. On its facade, in large black letters, was painted, Mision Cultural, Nr. 36, Secretaria de Educacion, Mexico. It was a most impressive sight in this illiterate wilderness.(In 2009, the church stands on the mound where Cultral Mision 36 was in 1947.)
The freshly cut zapote logs you see above are being shipped to Cancun to build a bar at a resort.
This tall zapote tree with its clearly distinguishable slash marks from many years of harvesting the white milky sap used in making chewing gum stands alone along side the new road amplification project like a solitary sentinel to the past. According to an old British Admiralty chart I have from 1840 much of the Yucatán peninsula was covered with zapote and mahogany trees standing seventy feet tall. Those trees were taken away by the timber barons and never replanted. Ironically there are still three men in Dzula that make their living collecting the zapote sap for the American chewing gum industry.
For literally thousands of years the Mayan Indians have harvested this sap for the production of natural rubber that they also used in their export trade. The delicious fruit of the zapote tree was eaten, the sap harvested and the towering trees provided shade enough to permit cacao and later coffee to be grown here.
This is the governmental school the was new in 1947. Cultral mission number 36 previously stood atop the mound in 1947 where the church now stands. Rural communities have benefited from these missions that were established for the betterment of the people
Self sustaining people here have lived without outside influences for so long that they take it in their stride to get whatever they require to live from the surrounding jungle.
The town men gathered to get a demonstration of my folding bicycle that miraculously snaps into operation in twelve seconds and is ready to ride away.
This is the new church in downtown Dzula that did not exist in 1947. In 1947 it was the site of Cultrual Mission No. 36. We met an eighty year old gentleman here who told us of his journey as a young man when he and a group of town citizens made a four day trip and transported cement on pack horses through the dense jungle from Kilometer 50 to Dzula to construct this church.
The little town of Dzula has a diminutive church colorfully appointed. If you consider the fact that the cement for this structure was transported by pack horses through the dense jungle before there was a road and that two of the men, now in their eighties that preformed that task still live here you can get some prospective of the thick jungle that so recently isolated this outpost of civilization.
In this photo, men from Dzula with our driver and guide Manuel J. Chimal Balam, second from left. In the tan hat is Eugenio Chan Chan who was in Dzula at the time of Lilo Linke’s visit. He also told us the story of making the trip to Km 50 for 20 sacks of cement to finish the church. The round trip with ten horses took 4 days, 2 days each way with 2 sacks of cement on each horse on the return trip. This was in 1955 and at the same time Hurricane Janet at 175 mph was ravaging the coastal town of Chetumal leaving only 4 buildings standing and resulting in the loss of many lives. Eugenio said it was a windy wet trip but worth it as he is very proud of the church that they built (photos above).
At this tiny town of Dzula perched in the jungle fringes where dense tropical forest only gets more impenetrable as you leave on the single paved road contrasts collide. From palm roofed palapa houses to cyber space internet it is like day and night.
We made a wonderful connection when we found our taxi driver and guide Manuel J,
Chimal Balam at Polyuc. Besides a wealth of information we were treated to a trek into the jungle that was totally local knowledge. The jewel that awaited us was spectacular.
Side trip to a cenote
The only semblance of civilization we found here was the seldom used foot path behind Jane who is in the process of taking the next photo you see.
The remote cenote you see behind me shows no sign of any human presence and its water is clear as the air. The water in the cenote is at the water-table depth of this region and is far less deep than areas to the west in Yucatan that receive much less annual rain fall.
Our guide Manuel J, Chimal Balam made our adventure trip to the outposts of civilization of Polyuc and Dzula even more spectacular by bringing us here to one of the gems of the jungle not visited by any tourists and few locals.
For more adventures in the area of Jose Maria Morelos, check out our Mexico page on our blog: