Friday, January 15, 2010

Ruta de Las Iglesias (Church route) of Quintana Roo

Jane and I, using José Maria Morelos also known as Kilometer 50 as a home base began this seldom traveled route. On the way to begin the Ruta de las Iglesias, “Route of the churches” we passed two points of interest. The town of Dziuché with its one hotel is situated near the Laguna Chichancanab, fifteen kilometers in length with a swimming beach, pavilion and dock.
Two kilometers down the road is a very bizarre local tourist attraction at Kantemó. As the tourist brochure clearly stated about Kantemó; “you will encounter the spectacular cave of hundreds of hanging serpents clustering in the ceiling that snatch bats as they leave every day.” This weird tourist attraction is begun with a guided bicycle tour. The tour guide is equipped with a venomous snake bite kit and protected face covers for all visitors to keep out diseases carried by the bats. In addition to this bicycle tour there is a foot path through the marsh with a wooden pier, a cenote, kayak rentals and a bird observation tower that overlooks the lagoon.
Rural Kantemó has a population of Mayan subsistence farmers.
(This attraction is not for everybody.)
Because of the distances and time constraints Jane and I hired a taxi to carry us to the furthest extreme part of the Ruta de las Iglesias to begin our bike tour at the tiny isolated village of X-Querol near the Yucatán border. We did not want to rush through this beautiful out of the tourist loop area without having enough time to thoroughly enjoy the many nearly forgotten little villages.
On the map below the town of X-Querol would be located near the “n” in Yucatán and is on the border in Quintana Roo. X-Querol is on the same road as Sacalaca and our third stop of Sabán heading towards Tihosuco and ultimately the end of the Ruta de las Iglesias at Tepich.
This is the end of the line in the jungle at X-Querol where Jane and I disembark our taxi with our folding bicycles and packs to visit a strange world where we were the only tourists.
Our jovial taxi driver Armando entertained us continuously with hilarious stories of his wives, problems with women and stories of his children.
The road we are parked on is part of an ancient Mayan sacbe highway that within a few meters becomes impassable where it enters the dense jungle. Last spring Jane and I attempted to bicycle across this same road but from the Yucatán side in the tiny town of Ichmul and quickly discovered that it would even be a difficult trip by horse so we took a different direction.
This forlorn little church was never completed because of the bloody Caste War that raged for over half a century beginning in 1847 and this was on the battle front.
Traffic through the little outpost town of X-Querol is nearly non-existent and that is one of the attractions for our tour group of two on our ongoing search for the places tourists miss most.
A sheet metal roof with skylights held up by wooden poles lashed together as they were done in the traditional Mayan palapa homes built here for thousands of years thriftily serves this poor little village.
Here in the state of Quintana Roo the people were isolated because of the Caste War and for that reason they maintained their self-sufficiency.
Viewed from the church you can see the town plaza which it tranquil in the extreme.
Here in the quiet as a tomb city center of X-Querol the main plaza casts an eerie spell as if holding its breath waiting for something to happen. Little changes here.
The rest of the world may self destruct but here in X-Querol the residents will continue to feed themselves in the way they have since the days over four hundred years ago when the Spanish arrived to disrupt their lives. In the above photo corn from the milpa is dried.
Here is what the author Lilo Linke had to say about these milpa farmers and their corn, “maize” farming on her 1947 visit to this remote jungle area before the first roads arrived;

The zapote trees could be bled only during the rainy season. The rest of the year the men worked in their milpas. This was often an even harder task than the gathering of the chicle gum, an endless struggle against the jungle which stretched greedy arms towards the maize. Every few years the men had to move on to new plots since the poor topsoil was soon exhausted. The bush was burnt down— which had the additional advantage of eliminating ticks and other vicious insects and a good many snakes—and then the slow labour of sowing started. For each seed a small hole was drilled into the soil with a short pointed stick, and the seed covered by pushing the earth over it with the feet in a dance-like movement.
Then followed anxious months of weeding and waiting. Birds had to be scared away, beetles and their grubs destroyed, the approaching armies of ants watched and diverted. Often the men had to carry water from miles away. And right to the end it was never certain whether there would be anything left to harvest. What triumph when the men at last could walk from plant to plant to break off the cobs and throw them into the baskets strapped to their shoulders! The stalks were left standing and burnt. And a few months after the whole weary process started all over again.
Every morning, sometimes before sunrise, I could hear the men troop out of Dzula, could see them through the chinks of my hut move past like shadows. Most of them had miles to go on narrow paths hacked out of the bush and quickly overgrown again. Singly they returned throughout the afternoon, the old ones first, the younger ambitious ones not long before dark. They walked slowly then, their clothes sweat-soaked and covered by dust. The eight-shaped water gourds dangled empty from their belts; the bush-knives in their leather sheaths were like so many swords that had been wielded in battle, the relentless battle between man and jungle. Was it surprising that their faces looked so glum and smiles were rare?

The same processes are used today.
A government program for rural assistance after the last hurricane that devastated many homes here brought these little cement block houses. As you can see they are simply nice but very small so additions were added. The kitchen cooking room and laundry utility area neatly melded together. Another very noticeable thing here is the conspicuous lack or garbage. Nearly every thing consumed here comes from the jungle and is biodegradable.
Another government program instituted here is to furnish ecological cooking stoves to ten homes at a price equivalent to about $200 US per stove. These stoves are designed to burn wood much more economically and also keep the smoke out of the cooking area in order to improve the women’s health.
Nice roads with no traffic are a big draw to us and are hard to find in this day and time. The fresh air and wild jungle make our bicycle tour here well worth the effort especially when you consider that anywhere we are on this trip if we decided to we could be back home in Mérida before the sun went down
Heading south along the quiet jungle road to our next adventure town of Sacalaca (sometimes spelled with a Z).
The Mayan meaning of the name Sacalaca is; the place of white grass and refers to the tall grass with broad leaves that grows abundantly nearby. Every day in México is an adventure.
During the hundreds of years of Spanish occupation the town was segregated onto two groups. There are still two churches but after the protracted Caste War only the Maya people remain.
Time, Mother Nature and the forces of gravity are relentlessly returning this church to ground level.
The only congregation we found here was a gathering of the village drunks assembled under a tree in the front yard of this roofless dwelling, a relic of pre-Caste War times.
The little town of Sacalaca quietly waits for something to happen.
With two old churches, a museum, and cenote it would seem that curious visitors would be packing the streets but it is so quiet and still it appears to be totally forgotten.
Well, this is just the kind of place that Jane and I dream of finding for one of our bicycle/bus/taxi excursion adventures.
When you see the crowd rushing off in one direction if you look close you are bound to see us sneaking off on the opposite route.
On the main street of Sacalaca, houses of sticks, stones and palm thatch are the standard.
This is the main and only road heading north on the Ruta de las Iglesias to our next destination of Sabán. Again you will notice the conspicuous lack of motor vehicles. Except for the chirping birds it is so quiet here you can hear a car coming from five kilometers away.
When you see a church of this size you know that there had to be a sizable Mayan temple nearby to mine for building materials. During the Caste War these symbols of Spanish imperialism were not maintained and as a net consequence many of the roofs came crashing down and have never been rebuilt. Sabán was an abandoned ghost town as late as 1950. During the war the church and fine colonial homes were all sacked and left.
This is the lovely park in front of the old church and it appears idyllic but across the plaza the small shops in the market area are emitting an ear splitting racket with megaphones turned up beyond their useful range. This was not music but obnoxious noise.
The baroque style columns and other ornate adornments of this massively built structure are classic examples of 18th century Yucatecan frontier architecture.
Carved in stone above the entryway is St. Peter, the namesake of this Sabán church.
The massively thick walls of this roofless building consumed an enormous quantity of building material so naturally the Mayan temple that previously stood here had to be sizeable.
When this structure was erected in 1795, Sabán had a Spanish population of 2,259 and was only second in size in this area to nearby Tihosuco.
Smirky smiley street urchins of Sabán tagged along and wanted their photo taken.
Continuing on the Ruta de las Iglesias our next stop was at nearby sister city Huaymax. The barefoot children ran along with our bicycles raising a cloud of dust and their number increased as if we were the Pied-piper.
Another victim of the Caste War; this church still has remnants of its charred ceiling beams in the choir loft.
The roofless building had been left to Mother Nature and time until recently when some of the villagers cleaned it up and began worshiping here like their converted ancient Mayan ancestors had done centuries previously.
Resurrected from the dead, this altar with paint, adornments and electric lights lives again.
Plaster, paint and a bell, among other things, brought the old war torn structure back from its 1848 snooze.
After 162 years of neglect the place is back in business and it looks like the sky is still the limit with no roof to intercede.

On our way north to Tihosuco we encountered another obstacle and that was a road totally torn up with new re-surfacing. We luckily found a taxi, got the driver out of his hammock interrupting his afternoon siesta, and loaded our folded bicycles in his trunk.
We certainly were lucky because we hadn’t gone but a couple of kilometers and the sky opened up with a torrential tropical downpour.
As we rolled into Tihosuco the weather cooperated like magic and the rain ceased. We again had another stroke of luck. The Mayan Caste War museum that we were heading for had been temporally closed for renovations but a special class was being held for neighborhood children and an employee was there who called the Carlos Chan Espinosa the administrator. Carlos is the man who makes this place work and also coordinates the local community bringing such valued services as food and lodging to visitors. Area homes are opened to travelers so that they can sample the real home life of the region. This was positively splendid and Jane and I had a very wonderful evening in a lovely cabin and stuffed ourselves on traditional food that included hand made tortillas, our favorite.
This is Carlos Chan Espinosa the administrator of the Mayan Caste War Museum of Tihosuco along with his knowledgeable assistant Antonia Poot.
Antonia was featured in one of the stories we published on our web site entitled; The Caste War Route as she demonstrated the ancient Mayan technique for spinning cotton.
This museum is a highly recommended place that you must visit: you will not want to miss it. Besides the extensive presentation on the Caste War they have a Mayan herb garden complete with many medicinal plants still used worldwide to this day.
Ongoing seminars and lectures plus numerous interactive community events keep the museum a vital part of the public information exchange.
Shortly after our arrival at the Museum in Tihosuco, Carlos had us situated in a private home that proved to be a highlight of our out week long backcountry fact finding excursion.
Here in a typical Mayan palapa dwelling considered the cocina or kitchen. Agustina, the home owner pictured above, quickly prepared a hardy meal suited to sustain active bicyclers…and it was delicious! There were a few innovations here like a gas stove, electric lights and running water, modern things not available to many country dwellers even to this day.
Watermelon juice was our beverage, black bean soup, rice, eggs a la Mexicana, habanero chili sauce and all the hand made tortillas we could stuff into our bodies were provided.
Nestled into a heavily wooded lot just three blocks removed from the central plaza is our tourist cabin on the left and to the right the cocina or kitchen where we were treated to an Mayan meal. A spacious very clean and modern bathroom adjoined our thatched roof cabin.
Like something out of a storybook, our neat little cabin was a slice of paradise.
Above is our very private and comfortable cabin where we had the option of sleeping in a conventional bed or hammocks. We naturally chose the hammocks because these were huge and custom made for the ultimate in easy going relaxation.
Our long day on the road got us into our hammocks early and we listened to an audio book on our MP-3 player. The MP-3 is the perfect traveling companion on bicycle trips because it is small, light and stores more stories than we can listen to in a couple of weeks.
Here is the quiet Tihosuco street in front of our slice of paradise cabin looking north.
Looking south in front of our cabin you can see that this is ideal bicycle country.
Doña Agustina, our gracious hostess and wonderful cook made our stay in Tihosuco enjoyable and memorable.
She is dressed in the typical Mayan huipil hand embroidered dress complete with fancy lace hem that is still the standard garment worn throughout Yucatán. Because they are hand made, no two are exactly alike.
Early in the morning Doña Agustina is on her way to feed her chickens that were housed next to our cabin. Later she will go to the molino to have her corn ground into masa for tortillas. The magic of this corn, maize was discovered more than three-thousand years ago here in Mexico when nixtamalization, a process of boiling the corn in lime water the night before it was ready to grind not only softened it but added the essential component that unleashes protein and this gave a balanced diet that led these pioneering people to the building of an advanced society.
Jacinto Pat, a Mayan leader of prominence and large hacienda owner was one of the driving forces that inspired the Mayan people to fight for their homeland, independence and liberty beginning with the protracted Caste War begun in the 1840’s.
In the 1700’s Spanish Tihosuco, a key frontier outpost, was a prominent town of 50,000 with a huge church and many outstanding mansions.
Jacinto Pat is eternalized with a commemorative statue in the main plaza of Tihosuco.
For an in depth look at Tihosuco, its important history and the Caste War go to the Valladolid section of this web site and open the story; The Caste War Route. There you will visit the old war ravaged church, the museum and some of the interesting people that make Tihosuco their home.
Continuing our bicycle tour on the Ruta de las Iglesias from Tihosuco to our last stop at Tepich we pause for rest and hydration at a roadside Mayan chapel. This is where a spin off of the Caste War cult of the Talking Cross still worships in their own way.
A typical Mayan huipil hand embroidered dress adorns a symbolic wooden cross on the stone altar of the palm thatched palapa chapel. The Mayan chapel is fitting on this route.

TEPICH, Our last stop on the Ruta de las Iglesias has but one claim to fame and that is their home town hero, Cecilio Chí who rallied his fellow Mayan towns people in May of 1847 to rise up against the Spanish land owners in order to gain their freedom and liberty.
The inscription on his statue reads; Glory to Cecilio Chí! Liberator of the Mayan nation and immortal symbol of justice and liberty.
This drab monument is in a small downtown park adjacent to the main highway that intersects to the north with Valladolid in the state of Yucatán, west to Tihosuco, east in the direction of Tulum and a new paved road now goes northeast to the Mayan ruins of Cobá.
The no frills grave yard is the resting place of the town hero Cecilio Chí.
Tepich has been carved out of the encroaching jungle and lies on the border with Yucatán. The contrast between the two states is striking, Yucatán is semi arid and has low scrub brush where farming is marginal and Quintana Roo by contrast benefits by its proximity to the warm Caribbean Sea that regularly sends welcome rain to keep it green.
One block west of the little memorial park to Cecilio Chí is this ancient church perched upon the remnants of a Mayan temple. The church originally had a palm thatched roof but now has one of corrugated sheet metal. Adjacent to the rustic unadorned church is a forlorn overgrown grave yard where the town hero is interred.
The best thing to be said about no frills little Tepich is that bus and colectivo taxi service are excellent especially if you have a folding bicycle.
A new paved road connecting Tepich to Cobá has recently been opened and we have had the pleasure of riding most of it from the other end and it was extremely nice with countless tropical birds and dense jungle. If you do decide upon this route we recommend you start very early in the morning from the Cobá end with the sun on your back and be sure to take along all the provisions you will need because this is nearly uninterrupted jungle.
We ended our week long fact-finding tour into the state of Quintana Roo here and took a colectivo taxi north to Valladolid, had lunch and then boarded a first class ADO bus for Mérida and were home in our house before the sun went down.

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