Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ruta Puuc - Three lovely days in Yucatán

Three lovely days in Yucatán.
We invite you to come along with us on our bike-bus tour where we will share this eco-friendly adventure through a captioned photo story.
Beginning in Mérida after our five kilometer bike ride to the Tikal Restaurant for their breakfast special, we next boarded the 9:30 AM Lus bus at the Noreste terminal at calle 50 y 67 bound for Oxkutzcab. Our folding Dahon bicycles were stowed below and before we reached the outskirts of bustling Mérida the bus was full.
This three hour Sunday morning bus trip is a perfect starter for your Yucatán back country sightseeing adventure.
We traveled the back roads of Yucatán, entered the quaint colonial villages and got a first hand look at the colorful local population, many of whom would be our traveling companions.

Just twenty kilometers out of Mérida at Acanceh we had already left behind the big city rush and our back country sightseeing adventure was just beginning.

 Bustling open air markets, festive circus carnivals, wooden scaffold bullfight rings,  jubilant marching processions, street venders, people powered tricycles (triciclos de carga),  and more all generated a cacophony of bizarre sounds commingled with a tantalizing olfactory enticement of regional cooking generating uncontrollable mouth watering temptations.
This is the real Yucatán that tourists miss most!
Our meandering back road bus route next took us to Tecoh, Telchaquillo, Tekit, Mama, Chumayel, Teabo, Tipikal, Maní, and on to Oxkutzcab.
We are not strangers to these fascinating places and you can see them all in more detail on our web site. We invite you to take a look.

Oxkutzcab is the hub of many interesting adventures that are far too numerous for one visit. Again visit our web site to glimpse these possibilities. They include the market/food court, restored colonial church, hill-top hermitage chapel, plus side trips to the Grutas Lol-tun.
We recommend a taxi to go up to the Grutas Lol-tun and then bike back down the hill making sure that your bicycle brakes are in good working order.

Something else we also find a lot of fun is to rent a tricycle taxi [tricitaxi], (people powered not the motorized kind), by the hour to sightsee the city.

You will find this a fun thing to do everywhere you go in Yucatán.
Yucatán is a strange and interesting place that makes for an outstanding photo opportunity.
This story presents another side trip adventure possibility.

Day two of our journey begins before 7 AM when we roll out of our convenient hotel Trujeque across from the city center park with our fully provisioned Dahon folding bicycles bound for the local taxi stand adjacent to the tortilla shop, “molino” , (west side of the main market).
There was no set or posted prices for our destination of Labná so haggling would be required. This can be a lot of fun if done in a good natured way. Six taxi drivers joined in the negotiation and price quotes began to fly around - 100, 200, 150 pesos were mentioned and I suggested 50. Oh no! The banter goes on and someone suggests 120 pesos…we nod yes and were on our way.
Jesús, our taxi driver, and Jane survey the packed and stacked cargo as we ready ourselves to depart Oxkutzcab. One of our folding bicycles would go inside and the other was lashed along with empty orange crates in the trunk. Jesús had come to town with those orange crates full earlier in the morning.
Jesús had an interesting story to tell. He and his family had left the little fishing village of Champotón, Campeche thirty years earlier when the fishing industry collapsed from over fishing and petrol chemical pollution. Jesús has a heritage of large families and was one of eighteen with thirteen children of his own.  His mother died at the age of 102.
He must have had some pangs of conscience about the fare or actually got to like us because he pulled off onto a dirt road and picked us a bag of fresh oranges, which were a welcome supplement to our cross-country diet. By the way the angelic aroma of orange blossoms in the Puuc Hills this season makes you want to drink in the sweet air and linger.
Here south in the Puuc Hill we were just far enough away from the semi arid northwestern Yucatán with its low spiny scrub and coastal ciénegas used since ancient times by the Maya for their sea-salt production. Here in these beautiful rambling hills of dry jungle form the transitional land between the northern semi-arid Yucatán and the steaming – teaming tall jungle of Central America. Notice the tall trees
Here we were high up in the Puuc Hills at Labná where we would have our breakfast in the peaceful jungle tranquility before the gate opened at 8 AM. As you can see we travel light on our three day excursion. For this day’s travel we did however pack along eight liters of drinking water and 500 ml. of suero, a solution of essential bodily salts necessary for survival when heavily perspiring. All pharmacies stock this product and have it in flavored liquid form and also in envelopes of powder to mix with water.
Jane is unfolding her bicycle, a process that only takes twelve seconds.
Labná in the early morning is worth the effort. Here you can glimpse the ornate stone work of the ancient Maya and their style of arch building.

Jane framed by the famous Mayan corbelled arch of Labná; You can see that the hand work involved in building these structures where each stone was manually shaped and sized to fit before the advent of machinery or even iron cutting tools was an effort of unimaginable proportions.
These buildings had been plastered and ornately painted.

Jane with Felipe Zapata the overseer and manager of Labná; He is from Oxkutzcab and his cousin owns a new hotel there that we had visited the previous week.

Our next stop is at the Mayan ruins of Xlapak, a short way down the peaceful road from Labná. On the back of my bike is the bag of oranges that were a gift from our taxi driver.

These intricately carved stones were in a style unique to this area. We met a man some years ago that maintained that if you imbibed enough of the hallucinogenic morning glory seeds that you too could envision this type of sculpture. He added that if you only ate four seeds that you would feel good, but if you took forty you would begin building pyramids…we never tried.

Our third stop for the morning and our coffee break.
Sayil is impressive and of a similar style of nearby Uxmal which is connected by a straight paved sacbe road as were all of the Mayan temple sites.

Back on our bicycles and a short way down the lovely and quiet paved road where the only sounds were birds chirping and the passing wind in our ears we come to the Mérida-Campeche cut-off.

The Mérida/Campeche bus you see here passes several times a day. There is however no bus service along the Ruta Puuc road we had just traversed.

Pointing to the Ruta Puuc at the Mérida/Campeche cut off intersection these sign give you the kilometers to each of the Mayan ruin sites.

We spotted some shade and went to soak it up at the Yucatán/Campeche border inspection station. The friendly inspectors were from Mérida and proved to be jovial.

With a straight smooth road and a slight tail wind Jane and I were doing at times 38 kilometers per hour heading north to Kabah…biking at its best.
We would recommend that if you are interested in visiting these lovely Mayan ruins that you spend the night in Santa Elena and bike to Kabah very early in the morning. This place is just too good to rush through. You can then leisurely enjoy what this place has to offer without the competition of hoards of tourists that disembark their tour bus with only thirty minutes to climb over everything and snap their photos. You will be richly rewarded for your efforts with an unforgettable memory.
This is what you see when you enter the gate at Kabah…there is a lot more to this place.
Here is the smooth road that sizzles you along all the way from the Campeche cut off to Santa Elena. Jane got a few second head start on me and she is just a small distant speck in the above photo. I had to huff and puff to catch up.
Our rest stop at Sacbe Bungalows in Santa Elena is the perfect place for quiet, tranquility and convenience.
After a cool-me-down shower to take the day’s road stress out of our bodies Jane and I relax in the unhurried jungle atmosphere ambiance.
Cycling options here are great. We recommend visiting nearby Uxmal by loading your bicycle aboard the bus that passes Santa Elena at 7:30 AM. That way you will arrive early, beat the crowd and have plenty of time to leisurely cycle back to Santa Elena for lunch.
The Kabah trip eight kilometers south should also be started early to capture the jungle morning ambiance in the Puuc Hills at its finest time.
Another cycling option from Santa Elena is north to Ticul and beyond. A note of caution; make sure your brakes are in top operating condition before you start down the Ticul hill. If you have any doubts we recommend that you walk your bike down.
We invite you to visit our web site for more detailed stories of bicycling and exploring this one of a kind magical tropical paradise…Yucatán and beyond.
©2011 John M. Grimsrud
Related Links: 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Oxkutzcab, Yucatán - Changing Times

Jane and I originally visited Oxkutzcab nearly thirty years ago when we ventured south out of Mérida on the narrow gauge railway train, one of the last operating in the world. That train has been out of service for more than twenty years now and few people even remember it.  Read about that trip and many other railroad trips on our web site under the heading; Yucatán Roadways.
In those days Oxkutzcab was a frontier town with a vast jungle extending south across the Puuc Hills and off into Central America.
One thing that has hardly changed in all those years is that it is still a frontier. We were pleasantly surprised on this return trip. Even though the area has suffered somewhat from a lack of income due to many of its citizens being expelled from the US where they had worked as undocumented workers, the city seemed to have gained a new invigorating attitude.
The returning workers brought with them money, new found skills and a desire to make Oxkutzcab into their improved home. In what seemed to be a reversal of luck these returning workers have made a positive, miraculous and uplifting change for the better.  First we look at the recently restored church.
Oxkutzcab is still the market town for area produce. The market here bustles from predawn until late night every day of the week.
So, come along with us and visit the new Oxkutzcab through captioned photos.
After our bike trip through Chumayel, Teabo, Tipikal and Mani, we spent the next two nights and days in Oxkutzcab indulging ourselves in a fun filled fact finding tour, and  rediscovering a town we thought we knew well.
The restoration of San Francisco of Oxkutzcab church was carried out in exquisite attention to detail.
This photo is from our collection and was taken several years ago before restoration. Here you have the inner court yard, unpainted, open to the sky and crumbling. The next photos are of the same yard later.

The miraculous transformation is evident and Oxkutzcab now has a real gem to be proud of. They even screened in the court yard making the birds now nest elsewhere.
Posed for post-wedding photos this young couple lavished a small fortune on flowers that filled the altar.
Mexico is on the cutting edge of new technology. According to the above sign using your cellular-phone you can dial up a number and receive a lecture in English or Spanish about the restored church, its history and significance. We tried it and it worked!
Colorful characters help make the Oxkutzcab market interesting and amusing. In the above photo Omar Antonio Barcalar, blue shirt and bushy black hair, who we met several years earlier when Jane and I took a once a day bus trip far up into the Puuc Hills and the end of the road to the little town of Yaxhachen.  Omar, of Cuban origin, has amassed a considerable amount of notoriety from publicity he received since newspaper articles were written about his extensive natural Mayan medicinal cures.
Read that story;
Jane and I have discovered that downtown Oxkutzcab has become like a huge food court from early morning till late night. Some of the most interesting things of all are the continuously changing options and diversity of culinary options that await you.
Oxkutzcab’s  market still features the local Mayan specialty foods but the newly arrived workers  returning from years of expertly gained knowledge in the US make your eating experience more international.
Miguel Pacheco spent more than twenty years of his life as a chef in the US and has brought back to Oxkutzcab the best of the best. His Italian style culinary delights have world class quality but Mexican prices. We fell in love with the place and the owner and dream of a return visit. Jane, pictured with the owner, operator and chef Miguel is in heaven savoring elegant meals especially if someone else   has scrupulously prepared them. As she sincerely said; “I will be back”.

The breakfast burrito creation that combined the best of two worlds was not only savory in the extreme but nutritious and sustaining.
Miguel made me happy. You can’t beat a creative chief who loves to satisfy, gratify and please his clients.
Café la Cocina is located on the north side of the main market on Calle 49 and the tables situated at curb side for pleasant people watching. To top it all off, the place is also bicycle friendly.
Morning, noon and night purveyors of Mayan specialty foods that change with the seasonal commodities arrive at the Oxkutzcab market and quickly sell out their inventory. Some of Yucatán’s finest delights are only available as such places. Until you have partaken of these local favorites you haven’t sampled the real Yucatán.
Tamales are a staple food  throughout Mexico and are prepared in numerous different styles. This one is called torteado (tortilla style and steam cooked within a banana leaf which it is served in). The tamales are then served and topped with as much salsa as you like. Positively delicious!
This tamale is referred to as colado. It has a lighter, fluffier and thicker covering of masa or corn meal.
At the Oxkutzcab market most tamales are filled with chicken meat. Tamales horneado, are baked and can contain either pork or chicken. For whatever it is worth Mexico claims to have more than a thousand different variations of the tamale.
Tamales served with a smile. You can have as much salsa as you like. Habanero hot sauce is optional and you apply as much as you dare.

In Oxkutzcab like all cities of Yucatán tricycle or triciclos de carga are used for transporting anything that will fit in. This sign designates exclusive parking for these people powered freight haulers, here used as taxis.

 Just one block removed from the main market this typical narrow colonial style street is a good example of the centuries old buildings that still give Yucatán its old world charm.
Street vendors sell the seasonal fresh fruits abundant in this area.
Oxkutzcab is proud of itself and this colorful display that adorns the central park plaza depicts an ancient cart. This type was used for transport over the centuries across Yucatán and is still being used in outlying districts. Heaped atop the cart are a representative of locally produced fruits and vegetables. The large red fluted clay vases are the exact same type used to transport water in years gone by.
When Jane and I first visited in out-back rural communities of Yucatán before the arrival of piped to the home water this style vase was manually lugged to and from the village well for every drop of water.
So, there you have a brief glimpse of some of Yucatán that tourists miss most.
If you are interested in an adventure that takes you out of the main-stream and want to explore some of this peaceful, quiet and fascinating world, we invite you to try taking any one of the bicycle tours we have published on our web and blog pages…enjoy!
©2011 John M. Grimsrud
Related links:
Chumayel, Teabo, Tipikal and Mani
Mani field trip starting in Oxkutzcab
To Oxkutzcab via Dzan and Mani
Our website:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


You may travel the world over and never find a stranger or more interesting adventuresome get-away.
After twenty-five years of exploring the back country of Yucatán we find new quests are still abounding.
Here is the real Mexico that tourists miss most.
This route was the key that unlocked the door to a rarely visited out of the tourist loop places and began our three day sojourn.
We boarded a second class bus from Mérida bound for Chumayel with our folding bicycles stowed below. For two hours we sat back whisked along the seldom traveled back roads of Yucatán witnessing the quiet and quaint Mayan villages unaffected by the passing centuries.
Even at our leisurely pace we were packing a month’s worth of activities into just three days.
So, we invite you to come along with us and share this infrequently visited magical paradise through captioned photos.
Above is the municipal building of little Chumayel and the very small street market clearly out of the path of tourists.

Chumayel is clean, quiet and quaint plus it is off the main road and seldom visited. The small village is situated in a typical Yucatecan countryside interspersed with centuries old haciendas and ancient Mayan ruins.
Spanish influence here positively dates from before 1557. According to a map uncovered and copied by the famous explorer and author John L. Stephens on his 1842 visit to nearby Maní that designates the church site you see behind me as having already existed.
This was one of a hand full of churches of Yucatán designated on that ancient Spanish conquistador map. Little has changed here over the centuries in Chumayel except for the coming of electricity and recently paved roads. It is a biker’s paradise as you can see by the conspicuous lack of traffic.
Our little Dahon folding bicycles makes this type of road trip possible and a joyful experience.
In Chumayel this street market was the busiest place in town.
No chain or even convenience stores are here, but hourly bus service links north to Mérida and south to Oxkutzcab.
As small as Chumayel is it can claim to have paved roads of access that make this an ideal place to begin our back country bicycle excursion.
 This is the town meat market. Though the meat is not refrigerated it is indeed fresh. As you can see when the meat hanging in the shop is depleted business is concluded for the day. In the morning this animal you observe tethered to the pole will be converted into inventory for the meat market. In many small towns across Yucatán this type of meat market is a common sight.
After consuming our packed along breakfast in the plaza area we were on our bikes headed for our next destination of Teabo just four kilometers away.
Just four peaceful kilometers down the road we arrive at the outskirts of Teabo. The roads are so quiet you can hear a vehicle coming for many kilometers.

Teabo is relatively metropolitan compared to its rural neighbors.
After biking in the bustling neurotic traffic of Mérida these lovely country roads where chirping birds and the wind in your ears are the only sounds soothes your mind and the fresh flower scented air makes you want to drink it in.
We feel extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful ecologically friendly and healthy environment so accessible to Mérida. These lovely bicycle places are but a short scenic bus ride away. With our folding bicycles one of the nicest things of all is at a moments notice we can change direction and be home from nearly anyplace in Yucatán in about two hours of less.
The tropical climate is another positive consideration which we happen to love. We do however try to do our cycling before the mid-day heat.
Another plus this time of year from November until March is that cold fronts will come through and hold the day-time high temperatures down in the low 20ºC or 70º’s F…ideal for cycling.
This is the vintage colonial church, quiet plaza and diminutive business district of Teabo.
Padre Victor arrived here at Teabo two years ago from the nearby village of Sotuta and earnestly undertook the renovation of this colossal church complex. The project became more than just renovation.  Procuring the funds and assistance needed for restoration from the government that in Mexico officially owns all church buildings and their grounds has been Padre Victor’s toughest job.
Teabo was originally an ancient Mayan settlement. A vestige of the Mayan temples are still very evident on the church grounds and nearby one of the colossal temples is still providing building materials for area construction five centuries after the Spanish conquistadors began their occupation.
Within the Teabo church restoration has been superbly done. Wall painted frescoes, altar pieces and retablos are brought back to their century's old state of splendor.
I will not try to give all the details here or explain the history because it is too involved for this story.
However I do recommend for those of you interesting in learning more to read the splendid field guide and reference book Mayan Missions by Richard and Rosalind Perry.
Truly incredible, the retablos of Teabo have not only survived all these centuries but also the protracted Caste War. In the above photo you can glimpse a close up of some of the fine workmanship that was recently restored.
Here are some of the wall paintings or frescoes that originally lavishly adorned the church and also many of the adjacent buildings of this huge complex.
Here out on the church complex grounds you can clearly see the various stages of restoration work being done. In the distance the red walls of the restored church and some of the different buildings.
Teabo is clean, neat and quiet with little or no rush. Not a single traffic light is needed.
Wood for cooking fires or [leña] is transported in a tricycle or triciclo de carga. The forest is quickly being depleted because of rising cooking gas prices.
The triciclo de carga is used not only for freight but also employed as taxis. They become mini restaurants and purveyors of anything that can be sold on the streets.
Throughout Yucatán you will find many ingenious variations of these tricycles converted to amazingly diverse uses…we continue to be amazed at their creative ingenuity.
Seven quiet kilometers down the road is our next place of adventure.
Today this little settlement has nearly no business.
These people are however self-sufficient producing enough from the small milpa farms to feed them selves but have nothing for export.
Poor to the point of poverty, Tipikal, as you can see, has no extra cash for frivolities like restoration.
Amazingly this church has stood here for nearly five centuries and considering that its condition is remarkably good. The entry gate is of a similar style to those found at the old haciendas across Yucatán.
Thirty years ago when Jane and I first arrived in Yucatán over half of the homes were palapas like the ones you see here…even in Mérida. The palapa was standard home construction for the Maya because all of the materials were available from the land. To this day you will find depictions of these homes carved in stone at area Mayan ruins like Uxmal, thus dating their use back thousands of years.
Five more kilometers down the road took us to the ancient and historical village of Maní. I will not write about Maní here because we have covered that subject extensively on numerous prior visits. See our web site for those stories.
After a brief rest and hydration stop in the shade of the Mani church, we were on our way again.
Eleven kilometers of which most were on a lovely bicycle path adorned by sculpted flowering bushes and we reached our day’s final destination of Oxkutzcab. Thirty-eight kilometers of quiet biking this day was enough for us and it felt good to shower and rinse out our sweaty clothes. Biking we must travel light because the privilege of excess baggage is not an option.
Oxkutcab is covered in the next post.     

A visit to Mani.
Mani field trip starting in Oxkutzcab
©2011 John M. Grimsrud