Wednesday, June 25, 2008

El Cuyo, Yucatan


We have discovered the mysterious vanishing Mayan temples of El Cuyo.
Colonia Yucatán has nothing to entice the passer-by to even slow down for except a couple of speed bumps. This is the heart of the downtown business district with the municipal building on the left where the entire police force soaks up the tranquility in the nothing happens shade.
The ancient Maya had several temples here that were mostly salvaged for their stone but not much worthy of mention happened until the areas towering mahogany and zapote forests were noticed. The below British Admiralty chart dating from 1840 tells much of the story of this out of the way by-passed spot. At the time of the 1840 chart publication Yucatan had been under Spanish domination for nearly three-hundred years and the Spanish were in the process of arming the Mayan Indians to keep the Mexicans out under governor Barbachano who was a separatist formerly of the neighboring state of Campeche. Yucatan had also contracted with the Texas Navy to patrol their coast for a monthly fee of $8.000 to ensure their sovereignty.
The British admiralty chart reveals that the barrier peninsula had one hut and six Mayan ruins visible as aids to navigation, one of which was 100 feet high. The chart also shows the peninsula was forested with trees sixty feet tall and across on the mainland the trees were seventy feet tall. (The dashed line denotes John L. Stephens 1842 coastal trip of discovery that he so aptly described in his classic book; Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.)
The chart clearly shows our next destination of “Monte Cuyo Artificial Mound”. That artificial mound happens to be one of the former Mayan temples that eventually evolved into the base for El Cuyo’s light house. Further west along the coast you will notice numerous “Peaks” that were all Mayan ruins. Less than ten years after this chart was printed the Yucatan was plunged into their Caste War that lasted nearly sixty years. In this period of time clear-cut deforestation began in this area and lasted until the 1950s when the last mahogany tree was hacked down. Also notice that in the 1840s when this chart was printed there were no roads and the place known then as Rachel is approximately where present day Colonia Yucatan is located with its sawmills that finally fell silent when the trees were all gone. The timber barons are a very efficient lot.
Colonia Yucatán has no hotels or regular restaurants and their bus terminal is part of this open air variety store with the waiting room situated on the street front patio. We were the only tourists headed out of town this day.
The 38 kilometer road north to El Cuyo is the most picturesque and best suited for bicycling that we have found in northern Yucatan.
The bus trip from Mérida to Colonia Yucatan took five hours and we then had several options for going on to El Cuyo, bus, colectivo taxi or bicycle.
This is downtown El Cuyo with its limited attractions. Behind me is the little church and further back is the lighthouse prominently perched upon the remains of an ancient Mayan temple. The town has no stop lights and there are no tourists except for two weeks around Easter and then six weeks in July and August when it is packed.
The accommodations are numerous and range from two-star modest to zero-star stark, so take your pick. If you come off season which accounts for ten months of the year you can choose any room in town that suits your fancy.
The municipal building goes unguarded in this land of take-it-easy.
Just west of town is this little Puerto del Abrigo or protected fishermen’s harbor that seems to still be hauling in fish and it is just about the last place on the Yucatan peninsula where fish are plentiful, though the un-iced catch appeared to be less than wholesome. (The Mérida newspaper ran a story a few days after this photo was taken relating that there was a huge fish kill offshore from El Cuyo west to Progreso caused by a “red-tide”.)
The tally-man is tabulating the incoming catch that tends to be mostly on the small side and not especially fresh.
As we rode our bicycles around town we were approached by this jack-of-all trades who was in the process of painting the decorative wall behind him. He pitched us for a boat ride to visit the famous flamingos that inhabit the area lagoons and do an early morning fly-by along the beaches.
We were the only tourists in town so we were easy to single out and if we didn’t buy there was no market at all.
Here at 21.5 º N Latitude we were actually more than two degrees south of the sun
There are several significant things in the above photo; 1. I am the only tourist on the beach. 2. There is absolutely not a whisper of a pre-dawn breeze under the clear skies only painted a pasty-pink to the north by global pollution. 3. The remains of the city pier in the background haven’t been repaired since the last hurricane hit.
On the lagoon side of the island gossamer clouds are reflected in the glassy sunrise stillness.
Looking south from El Cuyo the substantial elevated causeway stretches off to one of the most beautiful stretches of roadway in northern Yucatan. Jane casts long shadows while the early morning sun creeps up over the Gulf of Mexico where it is actually north of our latitude this time of year.
Note; if you take another look at the British Admiralty chart dating from 1840 at the beginning of this story you will notice two significant things. One there was no causeway back in 1840 and secondly several Mayan temples were depicted as high mounds visible from the sea. The mysterious disappearance of those Mayan ruins could only be accounted for by this colossal causeway stretching off across this huge lagoon and the building materials to build the town of El Cuyo.
The sun is up and the world is beginning to stir here in this out of the loop bastion of tropical peace.
This is our seaside cabin. It is not the Ritz but here in El Cuyo Cabañas Mar y Sol are at least shaded shelter and a place to swing our hammocks directly in front of the beach. We were the only clients and somehow that made the trip worthwhile.
El Cuyo lighthouse is definitely an eye catching attractive allure that beckons you to explore. It is perched atop the remains of an ancient Mayan temple and the few town structures have been built from the materials of these pre-conquistador monuments that have mostly mysteriously vanished.
Capt. Russell Rene Garcia Sanchez is harbor master and holds the keys to the lighthouse.
As Capt. Russell handed me the keys his parting advice was to be extra careful on the stairs.

A spectacular view looking southwest over El Cuyo and across the lagoon gives a good perspective to the size of the sleepy little place and the huge expanse of the lagoon.
Looking southeast the lack of traffic and the vastness of open space diminish the perception of the human footprint in this undiscovered outpost.
The view east carries your eye off to the distant end of this sparsely populated peninsula that had been connected to the mainland according to the 1840 British Admiralty chart. Today there isn’t a trace of those Mayan temples that were so numerous. Also those 60 foot trees depicted on the 1840 chart have been long ago been cut and exported.
Northwest El Cuyo makes a small impression on the landscape all the way to the fish boat harbor whose jetty can be slightly seen in the upper left side of this photo.
Looking due west if you strain your eyes you might see the thin dark line at the end of this island that happens to be the remains of a Mayan ruin four-hundred feet long…all the rest have disappeared.
Due south of El Cuyo the view of the road crossing the causeway and leading off to Colonia Yucatan 38 kilometers distant doesn’t begin to reveal the horrendous change to the topography that has taken place in the past one hundred and fifty years. When the British surveyed this coast for their 1840 navigational chart they showed this island covered with trees sixty feet tall and across the lagoon trees seventy feet tall. Countless hurricanes have seriously altered the coastal profile but nothing can compare to the destructive damage of the clear-cut deforestation that didn’t leave a tree for a bird to sit in and has now after more than a half century since produced only a low scrub forest.
The big news in the local newspaper today was that at Colonia Yucatan 2,000 hectares of “jatropha curcass” trees were to be planted in order to produce bio-fuel, no doubt to fuel all of those four wheel gulf carts at the beach.
This is not the worst of the stairs leading up to the top of the lighthouse and Capt. Russell grossly understated his warning to be careful on the stairs. It was a frightening experience when I was half way up to discover that the stair treads that were intact were rotten to the core and I was committed to complete my trip to the top just to turn around…enough!
Quiet little El Cuyo will be a terrorized when these and scores more are revved up and raising sand filled with drunken holiday thrill seekers out to impress who knows who.
The holiday thrill seekers that throng to this El Cuyo hotel to enjoy the beach scene more than likely won’t notice that the view out of their apartments is of the parking lot.
This is the Yucatan that tourists miss most.
It could be missed intentionally.
It is refreshing today to find a tropical beach still nearly deserted with no traffic lights or pushy traffic to contend with and we truly appreciated the slow pace with the easy going atmosphere at El Cuyo.
Like my favorite German author Herman Hesse likes to say; “not for everybody”.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saturday Morning in Caffé Latte, Mérida, Yucatán

What do we do on Saturday mornings? We go to visit our favorite coffee shop, drink an iced coffee, read the newspaper and visit with friends. We often can be found here also on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday morning. Did I mention that Caffé Latte is our favorite coffee stop!
Inside Caffé Latte. They roast organic coffees from Chiapas and Vera Cruz, Mexico
Rosario May Pech is the owner of Caffé Latte. In this photo she is with the man who was her first customer when she opened the the shop 14 years ago.
Christian Santamaria is one of Rosario's younger customers. His parents used to bike here on Saturday mornings for years before he was born.
Danny and Martin are the coffee brewers, roasters and servers.
This table is reserved for this group who meet every morning at 10:30. Today they were celebrating the birthday of one of the group.
Today Don Herbie celebrated his birthday and was given hugs by two of his favorite girls, Rosario and her daughter Carmen.
They serve more than coffee at Caffé Latte. They have delicious sandwiches and burritos. And Carmen says the homemade brownies are delicious too! They also serve teas and smoothies.
John is enjoying a special brew of iced coffee created by Martin of Caffé Latte.

For the best coffee and ambiance in Mérida, visit our favorite coffee shop, Caffé Latte in Colonia Itzimná. Calle 18 Av. Perez Ponce No 96 C Itzimná, It is near the corner with Calle 21 and the church.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sunday in Merida

La Casa del Español is a small cocina economica located on Circuito Colonias on the corner Calle 23 in Col. Aleman. It is about 3 blocks east of where Ave. Aleman and Circuito Colonias cross. Paella is their special on Sundays. This is mainly a takeout place although they have a few tables. The paella is delicious with plenty of seafood and chicken. The paella is ready around noon and they are open until the paella is gone!

A beautiful June Sunday in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. Good food and sunny skies!

Monday, June 2, 2008

10 Year Old Juan Carlos bravely stands up to adversity

Ten year old Juan Carlos after several radical surgeries to correct a life threatening spinal deformity must undergo yet another operation due to bodily rejection. The surgery is scheduled for June 11.

His desperately poor poverty stricken parents have mortgaged everything and now are at the mercy of those that can be benevolent.

This brave little soul feels the heavy burden his condition has placed on his family. Juan Carlos and his family live in the village of Telchac Pueblo in Yucatan, Mexico

Please help them. Here are some ways you can help:

  • If you live in Mexico, you can make a donation at any Scotia Bank to the account number 1546821, K.L.M. Wingate, Scotia Bank Inverlat, 04 Campeste, Merida 170 (clave interbancario 044910170015468215) Please confirm that you have made a deposit by sending an email to:
  • From anywhere, you can send funds through Paypal to
  • Place an order with Amazon by originating your order through the Amazon search box on this site and a percentage of the purchase price will go to the fund to help Juan Carlos.
You can see Juan Carlos and his family at: Once on the site, just click on Juan Carlos on the left.

Sunday, June 1, 2008



Our inspiration and motivation for this innovative out of the tourist loop trip we owe to our bicycle friends Basil Yokarinis and Alixa who conduct superb Yucatan bicycle tours that happen to extend into far reaching ends of Mexico.
When it comes to researching their itinerary they are tops!
Computer savvy Basil combines GPS positions with Google-Earth to get the very best routes and studies mountainous quantities of research material to compile into itineraries especially tailor-made for excursions for their individual tour groups
Jane and I made our first of many trips through the state of Tabasco back in the mid-1980s when there were no bridges along the Gulf Coast…only rusty old ferry boats that sometimes were laid up for repairs or shut down for lack of fuel. We have driven the beach or ambled through coconut plantations when the road was washed away. We have put our faith in a string of wooden sticks extending out into a pond of floodwater extending off to the horizon across Tabasco’s wetlands supposedly marking the submerged road below.
Many innovative upgrades have been made over the years like all new bridges replacing the dilapidated old ferryboats but last year Mother Nature again played her trump card and submerged more than 80% of the entire state of Tabasco under hurricane season rainwater.
Basil and Alixa, our bicycle buddies, also put us on to a book that absolutely primed our inquisitive pump and whet our adventurous appetite for another dimension in Mexican travel.
The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. This must read compendium of historical fact coupled with intriguing well illustrated chronological stories begins here in our very own back yard…southern Mexico seven thousands years ago when the Olmec of the Tabasco region first cultivated and consumed “cacao”.
The Olmec melded into the Maya who continued with cacao and brought it to the Yucatan even using it as currency.
A few weeks ago Jane and I had the good fortune to make a bike and bus trip to the Mayan town of Sotuta and there we discovered the last pre-conquest Mayan link to cacao that was being cultivated at the time by the chieftain Nachi Cocom.
When the Spanish arrived with their cattle they completely changed the ecology and the agricultural habits of Yucatan and the indigenous Maya.
Ironically our next step in this adventure story led us to the furthest western Mayan settlement of Mexico in the state of Tabasco at Comalcalco.
To make this story even more interesting, this is the very spot where seven thousand years ago the first Olmec settled, “The cradle of American civilization”, and became the first to cultivate cacao.
To this day cacao continues to be produced in this same region!
Here is our bike and bus back-country tour story with captioned photos;

On the street of our first stop in tropical Tabasco, we are in the river city of Frontera.

South of Frontera along the mighty river Grijalva, this quiet road meanders through extraordinarily beautiful lush and exuberantly green tropical wetlands where bananas grow everywhere like wild weeds.

Street food is first quality and reasonable. A few steps from our hotel in the central park we eat our fill of tasty “tacos al pastor”…habanero sauce, the green stuff, is lethally hot!

Paletas”, are popsicles and here in the land of cacao chocolate is a standard item…the chocolate cream paletas are worth the effort of the trip.

Early morning on Frontera’s placid waterfront. This is the expansive delta country where numerous mighty meandering rivers flow down to drain the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala. This river system has countless tributaries dotted with isolated villages perched in small savannahs only accusable by boat in a prolific ever flowering wetland.

Looking south and upstream behind Jane you can see numerous small floating islands of flourishing foliage drifting down in a never ending procession of tropical growth.

The old boat bone-yard eventually pulls down all things that float and not all vessels die with their boots on.

Frontera’s waterfront market puts out an ample breakfast of, “huevos a la Mexicana” or Mexican style eggs…beans and rice are standards with almost all meals.

Our first stop in Comalcalco is a restaurant and Ismael Suarez Rodriguez and his happy crew go overboard to please us with hospitality and elegant Tabasco style cuisine that beckons us to return.

In the world of chocolate this modest little candy store in the heart of Comalcalco’s downtown can’t begin to relate the intriguing story behind an eco-friendly family industry that has it roots in a several thousand year old area cacao production beginning with the ancient Olmec.

Ing. Vicente A. Gutiérrez Cacep is the director general and driving force behind “Cacep Chocolates” and he has dedicated his life to the highest standard of quality beginning with the seedlings and each and every step of production to the finished product you see here.

Jane and I bicycled out along a perfectly lovely country road, reminding us very much of Holland through lush green farmland for our early morning guided tour of the Cacep Chocolate Hacienda Jesús Maria and processing facility.
We began our tour at the root of the process in the nursery where several types of cacao plants are germinated and also grafted varieties are created that produce special fruit on specific sized and shaped plants.

The small plant on the left is a cacao started from seed and all the rest are the same age, but grafted and the difference is obvious. The seedling require up to seven years to produce and the grafted varieties begin in four years.

This is the beginning of the fruit, this tiny flower requires a certain insect, known as midges to interact in the germination process. A thick carpet of decaying leaves covering the ground is essential for this delicate process to be carried out.

The young fruit grows directly out from the tree trunk similar to papaya.

For cacao production a thick canopy tropical jungle is required with natural composted leaf mulch to work in harmony with the insects and bacterias that make the cycle complete.
This is a completely eco-friendly plantation where no insecticides or herbicides are used, only naturally prepared plant substances are administered for nutrients and repellents.

Harvested cacao fruit awaits the extraction of the precious seeds.

Within the cacao fruit pod are located the seeds packed in a white creamy ooze that is wonderfully flavorful and it is a delight to suck that creamy covering.
I am surprised that nobody had made a market for this heavenly ambrosia that is only washed away in processing.

Discarded fruit pods are put aside for composting.

In the above photo of cacao being sun dried you will notice two different colors. The light brown beans in the foreground are called “lavabos” or washed. The darker brown beans in the background are known as “fermentados” or fermented, a process that takes up to seven days and causes sprouting to occur changing the flavor aspect completely.

Cacao beans smoking hot out of the roaster are done for a special order. This is but one of many steps in a very complicated process that transforms the cacao into various end products that range from candy bars to chocolate for drinks and various powdered foodstuffs.

In days gone by chocolate was made by hand ground on a stone metate like the one above and various ingredients were added such as vanilla, cinnamon and different types of sugar.

At the Cacep cacao hacienda Jesús Maria they have preserved many historical items from their beginnings like this original open air kitchen using clay pots, an open wood fired stove and hand grinder.

Smiling, efficient and helpful production manager, Mariana Triano Cupil guided us through the hospital-clean final manufacturing facility, part of Cacep chocolate.
Learn more about this incredible operation at in English or Spanish and see first hand the many types of eco-friendly one-hundred percent natural products produced here where it has been cultivated several thousand years.

After a wonderful time with a special friendship formed Jane and I pose with the owner of Cacep Chocolates Vicente A. Gutiérrez Cacep and his retired but still active father.

On our week long Tabasco tour Jane and I visited numerous cacao plantations, haciendas, markets and retail outlets. Our conclusion; Cacep Chocolate is the very best in every way.

Here at Comalcalco in the land of the ancient Olmec Indians, “The cradle of American Civilization” is located the western most Mayan temples of the later Chontal Maya.
Third from the left in the above photo is archeologist José Jacobo Mugarte Moo, the director of these historically important ruins, the only Mayan ruins ever built of brick. View video of The Mayan ruins below:

Every afternoon on this downtown Comalcalco street corner this man sets up shop selling his collection of live land-crabs ready to take home and steam up.
We have also seen this fresh food business in the Bahamas Islands, but it only flourishes in tropical places with extensive unpopulated beaches.
Little investment is required, they are caught by hand and as you can see the no expensive merchandising is required to make the sale.

An early morning taco breakfast at an open air restaurant on the streets of Comalcalco.

Chicken panuchos dazzlingly presented and deliciously delectable.

Fresh milk is still delivered on the streets of Comalcalco by bicycle and dispensed in a tin measuring cup by the smiling milkman.

Owner and operator, Victor Fuentes del Lizama of Hotel Pat Mal, where we enjoyed our clean, quiet, cool and convenient room where we were able to roll our bicycles right into our room.

We were frequent visitors to the clean municipal market in Comalcalco. Scenes from the market are below:

More information from the True History of Chocolate

THE TRUE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe

A few memorable quotes from this history/text/story book;

Pages 59-60

“As for the possibilities of raising cacao trees in Yucatán, there are major natural obstacles. Firstly, its rainfall is relatively scanty, and gets progressively more so as one moves to the northwestern part of the peninsula. Secondly, being a limestone karst plane, there are virtually no rivers, and the rich alluvial soils favorable to cacao growth are absent. Only in the lands bordering Chetumal bay in the southeast, and along the Belize River, were commercially viable cocoa plantations possible. Yet cacao had so much religious and social prestige among the Yucatec Maya that they found means to grow it anyway. This was through the exploitation of humid, soil-filled sinkholes, known locally as cenotes (corrupted from the Maya dznot). Our important early Spanish sources on 16th-century Yucatán, such as Fray Antonio de Ciudad Real and the famous (and infamous) Bishop Landa, mention these mini-plantations, Landa even describes them as “sacred groves.” They seem to have been the private property of wealthy lineages, but they never could have produced very much cacao- in fact, Ciudad Real assures us that they gave “very little fruit.”

Page 93

In summery, given all the foregoing information, we should be convinced that the Aztecs rang many more changes on the chocolate theme than do we, who are so indissolubly tied to drinks that are sweet. The mere idea of chocolate without sugar seems incomprehensible to most of us.

Page 167

Such was the context in which English men and women first took up the three great alkaloid-bearing drinks; tea, coffee, and chocolate. Although these drinks originated in three different continents- Asia, Africa, and America respectively-and came to England by different routes, they arrived virtually simultaneously (coffee being the earliest by only a few years).

Page 201

So, in a market report of 1991, Africa was now the source of 55 percent of the world’s cacao, while Mexico (where not only chocolate was born, but the word cacao itself) accounted for only 1.5 percent.