Friday, January 29, 2010

Progreso, Yucatan or El Puerto de Progreso

Progreso is on the north coast of the Yucatán peninsula. Five hundred miles of coke bottle green Gulf of México stretch out in all directions from the beaches of Progreso. The sea breezes are fresh and briny and make this relatively new town in old tropical México positively

These waters have been a link to the outside world from ancient times when the Chantal Maya of Tabasco with their large sea-going sailing canoes came to collect solar dried sea salt* from the extensive lagoons that rim this coast.
One of the few semi arid tropical regions of the world this dry northwestern side of the Yucatán with its natural lagoons is made to order for salt production from sea water. The salt industry here is active to this day. From a large lagoon at Las Coloradas east of Progreso railway-car loads of sea salt are shipped.

The ancient Maya with their sea going sailing canoes had trade routes that ranged as far as Veracruz, Central America, the Caribbean Islands and Florida. Some of their many export items included, cotton, cacao, medicines like quinine, and their heaviest article; salt from the Yucatán coast.
In the days when the Maya plied this coast before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors Progreso did not exist.
An old British Admiralty navigational chart of Yucatán dating from 1840 and on it where present day Progreso is located the chart merely listed; “Huts”, which were only accessible by boat. On that same chart numerous Mayan temples ranging in height from seventy to one hundred-sixty feet are designated along with mahogany and zapote tree forests seventy feet tall. The significance of these coastal Mayan temples was that they marked a landing port that linked to different major Mayan settlements inland by one of their famous paved sacbe roads that were amazingly straight. For example the port of Sisal, west of present day Progreso linked with Mérida, through Hunucmá.
On the streets of present day Progreso we have a chance encounter with an old friend Lino Palma who we met on a vacation trip here in the early 1980’s. Lino, in the above photo with my wife Jane, is now the owner of the oldest cantina in Progreso; El Aguila.
In the heart of quiet present day downtown Progreso Jane poses for a photo with the El Aguila cantina in the background, (green) and the municipal market to the left.
The above photo contains several interesting items that require an explanation including one of the world’s strangest curiosities;
First, Jane is seated at the seashore of Progreso with our Dahon folding bicycles that we came from Mérida with. The secret to this easy trip is that we took the Auto-Progreso bus stowing our bicycles in the luggage compartment under the bus for the forty-five minute ride in air-conditioned comfort that leaves every twelve minutes from 5 AM to 10 PM..
Next the long pier extending 6.5 kilometers out into the Gulf of México links Yucatán to the entire world of maritime commerce with container and bulk freight.
Cruise ships also call at this pier two times a week bringing thousands of tourists with each visit.

A brief synopsis of the history that lead to the establishment of the Port of Progreso officially known as; El Puerto de Progreso de Castro;
From the time of the ancient Maya until the mid 1800’s the port of entry for Mérida had been thirty kilometers to the west at Sisal where a small Spanish fort and light house had been constructed from the materials scavenged from a Mayan temple.

When the Spanish American War closed off the access of manila rope to the Americans, prices of sisal (henequen),the raw material for making rope, rose drastically and Yucatán became the only option to the American’s as a supplier.
In a rush to market sisal to the American’s, the Mérida business leaders saw an opportunity and they took it.
Progreso, due north of Mérida and much closer than Sisal was established and a commercial wooden pier was built.
Revenues avalanched in and it was said that there were more millionaires in Mérida than any other place in the world at that time thanks to war-time henequen demand.
Awash in henequen money later these Mérida millionaires saw WWII approaching and they positioned for yet another opportunity to capitalize.
In 1937 the Danish firm of Christiani and Nielsen was contracted and began work on a new state of the art commercial pier that they completed in 1941 just ahead of Americas involvement in WWII.
War time demand for henequen continued until the end of the Korean War when synthetic rope out produced and under priced natural fibers and thus ended an era.

Now some seventy years after its completion that state of the art pier has become an object or world wide scrutiny.
This 1.752 kilometer long initial portion of the pier in now the oldest surviving reinforced concrete structure submerged in sea water in the world.
Built upon bedrock and reinforced with 220 tons of number 304 stainless steel reinforcement bars, a recent survey had determined that no damage exists from corrosion to the sub or super structure from salty sea water has occurred.
In the 1980’s the pier was extended out to 6.5 kilometers using rip-rap rock to form a causeway.
Also in the above photo an amazing contrast can be easily observed; Looking straight out from shore is a number of protruding pilings, some covered with perching birds. This is all that remains from a commercial fishing pier built in 1960 using conventional steel reinforcement rods. The old 1941 pier continues on to this day unscathed by time and taking a heavier pounding than the original builders had ever imagined… one of the world’s strangest curiosities
Above is a an oil painting by Mario Trejo that hangs at El Cordobes restaurant in downtown Progreso depicting the old wooden pier dated around 1920. Ships were loading a continuous flow of henequen bails pulled out onto the pier by horse drawn carts on a narrow gauge rail while ships waited their turn to load.
Today Progreso is a world port with a population of nearly 50,000 and the conduit for maritime shipping commerce. Commercial fishing based at the dredged port west of downtown and tourism spurred by the huge influx of cruise ship visitors give Progreso a solid economic base.
Cruise ship day brings out the street venders that even spill over onto the Malecón promenade along the beachfront.
The streets fill with bewildered newcomers, many of whom have never before set foot in a foreign country. Not speaking Spanish and having heard bizarre stories hyped to scare people out of their wits about anything alien many visitors opt for the relative safety of a guided tour.
Directly across the street from where the cruise ship people disembark their shuttle bus you can rent bicycles, scooters and cars. Believe it or not they are reasonably priced and give the visitor an opportunity to strike off and expand their horizons. We have found that the further you get from the tourist crowded areas the friendlier the people are.
So, give it a try and my advice is to get a copy of the monthly updated free magazine, Yucatan Today - This user friendly bilingual magazine will make your Yucatán visit an adventure in fun, fine foods and fabulous accommodations.
Traffic congestion has yet to arrive in Progreso and here Jane and I stop to check out one of the many tributes to social conscience; a bust of martyred governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto and the fascinating historical story behind this man.
After México’s nearly three hundred years of slavery, the Mexican-American War, the Yucatan fight for sovereignty, the protracted Caste War that begun in 1847 and next the turbulent revolutionary war that lasted about ten years laid the ground for social reform. Felipe Carrillo Puerto then became governor of Yucatán with a platform of workers rights, land reform and equality for the indigenous Mayan people. Elected in 1922 Felipe became governor and was assassinated by a firing squad in January 1924
(As a good friend of ours always says; “peaceful places have no history”.)

With the momentum that his efforts generated, two schools were constructed in Progreso by labor unions. The school; “Maniobras Maritima”, by the dock workers union and the school: “Martiers de Chicago”, funded and constructed by the henequen workers union.
These schools are still in operation and now have government support.
(The Martyrs of Chicago were so named after the 1886 anarchist bombing at a Chicago labor union rally that ultimately began the worldwide celebration of “May Day”.)
Here is an abridged account of what the author Lilo Linke had to say about her 1946 visit to the labor union schools in Progreso;
El Progreso lies only twenty-four miles north of Mérida, connected by a smooth highway. Chicle, the raw material of chewing-gum, and henequen are exported from there, while imports consist mainly of manufactured articles. Before the revolution all the luxury goods for Mérida’s millionaires arrived at El Progreso.
The workers of the port are organized in unions which resemble castes. Mule-drivers belong to one union; their well-fed animals drag the wagons laden with henequen bales down to the quay. The men who handle the bales on land belong to a different union and those who load them on to barges and steamers to a third. And always there is a lot of jealousy between them.
But those men have one thing in common: ambition for the future of their children. As if it were a watchword to be passed on to me, any worker to whom I talked would end the conversation by throwing back his shoulders and saying, "I want my son to have a better life than I.” And that did not simply mean an easier life. They thought of books, of art, unsoiled clothes, travel, of all the fine and delicate things that civilization offers to the educated, and which are so far beyond the reach of their own rough hands.
Being rivals, the two biggest unions each maintained their own school. We went first to that of the "Martyrs of Chicago”, the Association of Henequen Workers, who deal with the henequen until it reaches the docks. Their school was poor. Each hard-used piece of furniture wore a pathetic look…
Through room after room of the humble building the headmaster conducted us. He was of slight build, with the earnest, eager face I had seen so often at summer schools of the British Labour Party.
"We have two hundred and sixty pupils, boys and girls, in the six different grades of primary education," he explained, anxious to be exact and forestall all questions. "The 'Martyrs of Chicago’ have one hundred and fifty-eight members. Each of them may send his children to be educated here, and if he has no children of his own he may put forward two from any working-class family. The Federal Government is now helping us by paying the teachers' salaries, but the "Martyrs' still carry a heavy burden; they attend to the maintenance of the building, get all the books for the children, etc."
He continued the detailed description. Behind the dry words he hid the story of a slow, painful progress of which he had become the heir. It was his task to make the men's sacrifices worth while. Listening to him I felt convinced that he would not fail them.
The children had the tired faces so typical of the tropics. Heat, lack of sleep, intestinal parasites, and poor food sap the strength of the young.** They looked at me yellow-skinned, pinched, blue rings under their eyes, wearing the mask I knew so well from the long years I had spent in South America.
The little ones were at their arithmetic lesson. The teacher, a curly-haired girl, handed each of them a bit of maize dough such as Mexican housewives prepare for the making of tortillas. Kneading, dividing, and putting together the dough, the children worked out the answers to the world-wide questions:
"How many halves in one? How many quarters? Two plus one makes? Three minus two makes?"
They were too busy to pay attention to us. But the older children recited, full of importance, the tale of the martyrs, Chicago working-class leaders who were executed in 1886, and in whose memory both the school and the union had been named. I could not hide my surprise. An international class-consciousness was not what I had expected to find in this small, almost shabby port, little more than half a dozen streets squeezed in between the water's edge and the flat, grey land.
It was at this same school that I heard for the first time of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Yucatan's Socialist leader, who was shot in 1924. I had heard German children pronounce the name of Hitler— metallic, triumphant, a dagger raised into the air. But the people of Yucatan, even these fourteen-year-olds, grew quiet as the name of their hero rolled softly off their tongues. It was with grief and pride that they thought of him, but above all with the tenderest love for one who—father and friend—had never betrayed their trust.
In patches, the children now remembered his story and told it as legends have been told throughout the ages, each one adding a sentence, contributing another detail, until at last the teacher nodded, "Yes, that is how it was." It was as good as Amen.
In his office the headmaster showed us an album the children had made some years ago to illustrate the life of Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
"I saw him once, the headmaster said”; I was still a peon then, on a big hacienda not far from here. He encouraged me to become a teacher. Later I wrote this book." He handed me a small volume, Heroinas Anonimas. "It is dedicated to him, and to my mother. She was a pious Catholic, but the priest refused to hear her deathbed confession because her marriage had not been sanctified by the Church. My parents were too poor to pay the fees."…
I was getting a little tired of schools, in spite of my belief that they are the clearest mirror of a country's present conditions and future hopes.
I could not call on the "Martyrs" and shun the dockworkers’ school. They were the aristocrats of the port. In fact, one member of the "Martyr’s Union had bitterly remarked that the men from the Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores Maritimos seemed to consider themselves the owners of El Progreso!...
The exercises were over, and "Viva la Escuela Maniobras Maritimas!" shouted the happy father. "Viva! Viva!"

Still operating in 2010 and located on the same street one block south the municipal pier on Calle 82 is “Escuela Maniobras Maritima” or the dockworkers union school.
Still operating in 2010 the Martyrs of Chicago school or Escuela Martiers de Chicago located between streets; “Calle” 84 and 86 on 31.
Located on the west side of the city center park is the elegant and stately municipal building that reflects the sudden surge of henequen revenue that flowed through this little port town.
Inside the stately municipal building, pink marble stairs and elegant cast statuary are but some of the many adornments that port commerce has generated.
The mezzanine balcony contains an interesting collection of oil paintings by Favila depicting port related historical events like the above arrival of the president, Porfirio Diaz in 1906.
This municipal building oil painting depicts the founding of the “El Puerto de Progreso de Castro” when Juan Miguel Castro Martin, the mayor dedicated it in the 1870’s.
This is the other half of the above oil painting; note the sailing ship anchored off shore before any pier had been built and the sea turtle waiting butchering along side two huge pompano fish grilling over an open fire.
This collage painting that hangs in the municipal building reveals several aspects of “El Puerto de Progreso de Castro” and its maritime history from the old wooden pier and small open off-shore sailing fish boats with no motors in relatively calm waters to the huge seagoing freighters and the ravages of the wild untamed sea.
This lovely oil painting by Mario Trejo that hangs in El Cordobes restaurant depicts Progreso in the 1920’s looking north from the city center park. We still remember the bakery on the left hand side of the street across from El Cordobes from our 1980’s visits.
This is El Cordobes restaurant in 2010. It has had a major makeover since the arrival of the cruise ships and the throngs of tourists they bring. Believe it or not but the furniture is exactly the same as it was back in the 1980’s.
El Cordobes is one of the oldest establishments in Progreso but it has been recently upgraded with the canopy covered simulated cobble-stone sidewalk, outdoor service and a bright eye catching paint job. The service remains about the same and would you believe it the waiter we had back in the 1980’s is still working there and remembers us.
This classic oil painting by Mario Trejo from El Cordobes tells much of the story of the old wooden pier of the 1920’s: Small open sailing boats catching the afternoon on-shore breeze to bring the fishermen home, henequen bails carted out to be shipped to distant destinations, Diamond Rio buses that miraculously stayed in service until the 1980’s and the little horse drawn rail carts shuffling passengers and freight up and down the pier.
Another oil painting by Mario Trejo from El Cordobes restaurant depicts the original overpass of the lagoon leading into Progreso from Mérida. Flamingos, fishermen and old cars plus the large globed light standards that are still in use in the park and municipal building adorn the bridge.
A short bicycle ride from the city center and the beaches become quiet and inviting. In the background is the approach to the 6.5 kilometer municipal pier that makes Yucatán a world port.
Here I am squinting in the bright tropical sun happily enjoying the fresh sea breezes. This view is looking east and you can see off shore the distinctive coke bottle green color of the Gulf of México. It is five-hundred miles to the distant other shore.
Progreso beach; on the left the pier, center a distinctive octopus fishing vessel with its long poles and of course our Dahon folding bicycles that make this kind of trip fun.
The dead of winter and no snow! Yucatán attracts many visitors this season.
Bicycling the coastal roads out of Progreso you need not go far for sight seeing. Six kilometers east of Progreso is the interesting little village of Chicxulub most noted for the fact that this is the epicenter of the meteoroid that struck 65 million years ago with such an impact that it disrupted life on earth and caused the end of the dinosaur era. Chicxulub has a small farmers market, minimal shopping that includes a pharmacy, hardware store and several tortilla shops. One thing that they have several of are cantinas that specialize in beer and botanas plus a local specialty of deep fried fish.
This is the central park in Chicxulub and you will notice a lack of activity because this is a quiet out of the way spot until July and August when the summer crowd overwhelms it.
Back in the early 1980’s when Jane and I first visited in Progreso we used to beach-comb and stroll over here to Chicxulub from Progreso and have beer and botanas for lunch, then take the bus back to our hotel in Progreso for our afternoon siesta.
The paradox of Progreso is the vast difference in living standards that seem to be separated by more than a century. This is a common sight on these streets, the little horse carts that deliver everything including ice.
Notice Jane on her bicycle keeping pace with the cart. We jokingly refer to our little bicycle as our caballito or little horse.
Every day in Mexico is an adventure just waiting for you to discover.
So come for the fun, the sun, fine foods and fabulous accommodations.

*Recommended reading; SALT by Mark Kurlansky

**Poor food and lack of food is still a problem in the area. You can help. Chix Food Bank was formed in November of 2005 by a group of individuals who came together to respond to an identified need in Chicxulub. Check out the website of the Chicxulub Food Bank -

For more information on the Progreso pier, check these websites:

Why live at the beach?  
Read Sharon Helgason's article, Lure of the Beach.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Using José María Morelos or Kilometer 50 as it had formerly been called for a home base Jane and I struck out to retrace the steps of author Lilo Linke’s 1947 journey to the outpost of civilization, Polyuc and Dzula.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.”
The Dzula plaza, the old and the new, an internet shop and a thatched palapa home;
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.
"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.)

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.
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: