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 - www.yucatantoday.com 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 - http://www.chixfoodbank.com/
For more information on the Progreso pier, check these websites:
Report on the construction of the Progreso pier - this is in English
Why live at the beach?
Read Sharon Helgason's article, Lure of the Beach.