excursions

Wild Lunch at Codornejo - Akil, Yucatan

If you are in the area around Oxcutzcab, Akil, Tekax you might want to stop in at Codornejo (a combination of codorniz - quail, and conejo - rabbit) which features - surprise! quail and rabbit as its specialities.

The non-air conditioned restaurant is nicely set up, the service is friendly the platter with rabbit and codorniz is tasty, if a bit dry. The best part of lunch here is the natural agua de mamey, which on a hot day is superbly refreshing. You can even buy the frozen concentrate to take home.

There’s a small pool if you are with kids, so they are not screaming about how hot it is - just toss them in the water. There are tables nearby so you can eat and keep an eye on them at the same time. Coconut ice cream for dessert is served in a little jicara (gourd) which is cute.


Magical Mystery Tour 5 - There and Back Again. Valladolid that is.

Valladolid and back.

There was a tourism fair announced for Valladolid and at the last minute, I decided to go. Too late for company and I always enjoy some stress-free exploring, being able to turn down any road I find appealing without worrying that there will be nothing to entertain my guests at the end of it.

Taking the regular highway, I stopped where a sign advertised a cenote, but the person in charge said they only open it later that afternoon (Saturday) and on Sundays. Could stop by later, I thought and continued on.

Then I saw a sign for Chankom, which sounded vaguely familiar from a book I am translating and so decided to visit this obviously sleep little town a few kilometers before Valladolid. There, I found a lady selling tortas and tacos and so that's where I had breakfast. Also, the town has a gorgeous little cenote, that is not of the swimming variety, but potentially could be. No access to be had, though.

After Chankom, I headed directly into Valladolid and found that what was going on was a food expo in the main square which was right up my photographic alley and so I took some shots. I also chatted with the author Rafael Chay Arzápalo who has published a great dictionary that features photos of almost everything you can imagine, with their names in Maya, Spanish and English.

After not seeing a whole heck of a lot else, it was time to go back.

I stopped at the town of Cuncunul, driving the back road from Chichimilá. I was looking for an elusive home restaurant serving what is purported to be the best poc chuc ever, but alas, I never found it. What I did find was a tidy little town with plenty of photo ops. Here are a few of the photos of downtown Cuncunul.

After Cuncunul, I zipped through a few more towns or maybe not, can't remember and pulled into a vivero to check out plants. The name alone is worth stopping for: Mr. Collis Mystical Nursery. I bought a cacao tree, a coffee bush and a Yucatan tobacco plant to add to my garden. I also took some photos (of course).

Finally, just before Merida, I stopped at Holca to check out the church which in all these years I had never done, and have some roadside chicken, one of my favourite meals.

At the end of the day, I was rewarded - for what I don't know - with a beautiful fall sunset.  

Magical Mystery Tour 4 - Homun Adventure

The fourth Magical Mystery Tour took place this week, and the destination turned out to be Homun, an area that is like a piece of swiss cheese: full of caves, cenotes, as well as a whole lot of history dating back to Mayan times and then the colonial era as well.

For those unfamiliar with the Magical Mystery Tour concept, in a nutshell it's this: you sign up for a tour which is practically free - you share in cost of gas and any tolls (vehicle rental if there a whole bunch of people) but you have no say on where the tour goes. These tours are designed to explore potential destinations for more formal tours in the future and may involve birding, photography, cave crawling, hacienda exploring, food tasting, cenote dunking and whatever else occurs to me. You have the option of participating in everything or nothing, but once you are along, you're along for the day! No whining, no special requests and a sense of adventure is a must. 

On this tour, Angel (the internationally renowned Lawson's guide) and Jose Luis (professional driver and all-around go-to guy) were on the tour to Homun, to check out an hacienda and other attractions on a large property on the outskirts of Homun, way off in the Mayan jungle. This was not off the beaten path, there was no path.

First stop, after Starbucks, was breakfast in the town of Tahmek, just off the Merida-Cancun highway. Poc Chuc sandwiches amidst villagers and colorful chickens. Across the street, a very unusually named kindergarten.

A few minutes later, we were on a back road, leading out of Homun into the forest. As often happens, there is a bit of garbage along the side of this road, and while it looks disgusting, it did give us an opportunity to see and photograph the largest flock of turkey vultures I had ever seen. 

After some time, we arrived at this former cattle ranch, which saw a little of the henequen action but is not at all built up in the sumptuous way some of the over-the-top haciendas are. The building itself is very modest, but it sits on top of a cenote. Note the giant arch over the cenote, holding up the hacienda building. In the forest, falling to pieces, are more buildings. There is cow poop everywhere so you have to watch your step!

After checking out the hacienda and grounds, we walked about 25 minutes into the jungle to check out an opening in the ground which was really a cave. Inside, enormous rock formations, strange little critters and shards of pottery probably dating back to the Mayans, who used these cool underground spaces for both ceremonies and burial purposes. There was indeed evidence of Mayan actitvity in this cave.

After the caving, it was time to get into the underbrush and check out something else that is on this property: a Mayan ruin and a dry cenote. There are no more carved stones of any kind on the largish building structure, and there is a nearby Mayan graveyard that used to have stone tablets, all of which are now gone; stolen apparently. In the dry cenote, evidence of a Mayan garden, including a raised platform with earth and a cacao tree, which the Mayans cultivated back in the day. Also the skeleton of some poor cow that got too close and slipped into the hole and died there.

The day was a resounding success. Cenote, cave, Mayan ruin and cow poop. What more could you ask for? Muddy and dirty, we returned to Merida with yet another Yucatan adventure under our belts and Magical Mystery Tour #4 complete. Stay tuned on Facebook (Lawson's Original Yucatan Excursions) for the next outing.



The Convent Route - Day Two

The day started with a stop at Uman, which is nowhere near the so-called convent route, but since we were going to Ticul and Mani and had been the other way before, I thought the Uman-Muna route would provide some interesting views along the way. The large small town, our first stop, is where there is a giant church as well as all those insect-like mototaxis buzzing about.

Done with Uman and ready for more driving, we continued on to Muna. No church pictures there, but a huge procession/demonstration to do with Earth Day perhaps judging from the signs blocked traffic in Muna's main square while every citizen from the surrounding 17 mile radius marched in the parade. Mostly kids of school age, and in uniform.

There wasn't much to do in the traffic, limited though it was and while waiting I snapped a shot of this beautiful old home, probably once owned by some rich fat cat and now a school.

Finally, we made it to Ticul. There, after checking to see which was the best way to Mani we snapped a few shots of that church (and the surrounding street area) as well.

And then, at long last, we made it to Maní, site of the infamous auto da fé, where the charming Friar Diego de Landa, burned as much of an entire culture as one man with a mission can, effectively wiping out the great majority of the Mayans legends, stories and cultural and religious icons. Later, and in his defense when put on trial for overstepping his mandate, he wrote a book about what he had seen and how the Mayans had lived which is now the only record historians have of that time. And to put the proverbial cherry on the sundae, he was absolved of any wrongdoing by the courts in Spain and sent back to the Yucatan and was named "Protector of the Indians". Nice job, Diego.

After Maní, what else is there in the world of churches, right?  Well, how about the church at Oxcutzcab? This town is famous for it's fruit market and the mural over it, but the church also has it's particular charm.

The Convent Route - Day One

Wooden cross in stucco on a church wall in Mama (that's the name of the town, really)

One of the routes that is promoted among tourism organizations is the so-called Convent Route or Ruta de los Conventos. I refer to it as "so-called" as it is really just a list of towns that have churches in them, dating back to the 1600's and that are full of history, but there is no real coordination of the touristic kind and if you arrive after the last morning mass, you are out of luck. No convent for you! 

So, to do it right, you have to get up early. Our intrepid little group of three left Merida at the ungodly (no pun intended) hour of 7 AM and found that that is the perfect time to visit at least 4-5 of the churches on the route before they close for the day.

First stop? The furthest point of the day's travel: Teabo. Teabo sounds like what you say when you love someone, in Spanish, and have a cold. Te amo. Teabo. Get it? The photos will speak for themselves; a very picturesque little church that was closed but a little chat with the gardeners trimming the grass outside and they found someone with a key and it was opened just for us. 

After we had our fill of Teabo and purchased some fresh tortillas at the tortilleria for breakfast, we moved along to our next stop, Chumayel, famous for its black Christ figure which was saved by a local villager named Severo who hid the wooden statue in his home when Salvador Alvarado's troops came to town with orders to burn the insides of the church. Salvador Alvarado was determined to break the church which had far too much power for the politicians of the day and ransacking and burning churches seemed like a good way to go about it.

Next stop: Mama. That's "no, no" in Mayan unless someone tells you otherwise. Then, you let ME know what it means. Mama in Spanish of course means female breast (where do you think mammary comes from) and if you add an accent ie. Mamá, then you have Mom. But I digress. Enjoy the photos of Mama's church, one of the larger churches of the day, so far. By the way, if you are on this tour, you might be feeling the urge to visit a bathroom at this point - feel free to use the bathroom at the municipal hall across the street.

Just at the entrance to Chumayel is a very colorful and photogenic cemetery that's worth a stop. So stop we did.

Tekit was the next stop on the day's tour, making it church number 4, and miraculously none of the churches were closed up to this point! Note that there are a lot of towns in the Yucatan that begin with the prefix "Te" (Tekit, Tekik, Tecoh, Tekax, Temozon, etc. etc.) and that is because the word "te" means something along the lines of "place of". Temozon, for example is Te = place of and Mozon = whirlwind. Anyway. Back to Tekit (no idea what a kit is). 

The church itself is fine, a little run down compared to the others. The town looks like it has some money, but it is pretty sad looking. The mangy and hairless dog in the main square, standing dejectedly and in obvious pain waiting for some kind of relief, the dusty streets, graffiti next to the Jesus statue in the church; everything looks run down. Compared with a place like nearby Tecoh, where the residents seem to have some pride in their town and it shows, Tekit looks like no one cares. 

Now the sun was shining in earnest and so we stopped for lunch at the Nah Luum hotel and restaurant, just across the street from the Tecoh exit off the highway and I was pleasantly surprised to find not only an attractive little restaurant and hotel, but smiling, gracious servers and good food!

Then, a small backtrack to a refreshing cenote on the way before returning to Merida - tired but satisfied with the day's achievements.

Uxmal, again. It never disappoints!

Uxmal is probably the most popular destination for day trips from Merida, for cruisers and non-cruisers alike. The great thing about Uxmal is that besides being the best Mayan ruins site on the peninsula in my opinion, the road to and from Uxmal offers so many interesting places to stop for a photograph, a banana or some exploration. 

First stop is usually the town of Uman, and on this day, that is exactly what we did. There was a small mass happening in the enormous church so we didn't go in, and later a large Mercedes hearse pulled up with Jalisco license plates for some kind of funeral.

After stolling around Uman, having that banana in the market (you haven't tried a banana until you have tried a platanito dominicano) and taking a ride on the tricycle taxi, the next stop this day was Muna, where we visited Pedro (aka the Gourd Man) on his hilltop vantage point with the great view of the surrounding area.

A little shopping, a sip of fresh squeezed orange juice and we are on our way to Uxmal.

After Uxmal it was off-roading time and we rushed to get to the cenote in the middle of the jungle where thankfully no one else was around and no oncoming traffic on the tiny one way dirt path into the underbrush. You see, when you are in the middle of this tiny road and you see an oncoming vehicle, someone has to back up the entire distance traveled so it can be a bit hair raising.

Feeling refreshed and just a little peckish, we crossed the highway and made a quick stop at the Hacienda Ochil for a bite and found them ready to close for the day, but a little cajoling (and the fact that I have been here numerous times and the waiters took pity on us) enabled us to wrangle a couple of cervezas and some delicious sopa de lima which really hit the spot. Also, we were able to see that they really do make the cochinita pibil in a fire pit and don't cheat by sticking the pig in an oven. 

Chunkanan Cenote Update

While I love the 3 cenotes of Chunkanan (aka the Cuzama cenotes) and they are indeed magical, potential visitors should know that this attraction is in the midst of some serious problems that will come as a rather unpleasant surprise unless you read this update.

Initially started as an attraction based in the village of Chunkanan, the folks from nearby and larger Cuzama realized that many tourists passed their town without stopping and decided they wanted a piece of the pie as they alleged that one of the cenotes was on their land. They therefore created their own access to the cenotes, building a rail track that intersected with the original tracks from Chunkanan. This caused some conflict, but after a few fisticuffs and much negotiation, an uneasy truce was arrived at.

At the Cuzama entry point, red-flag waving men attempt to make tourists stop, telling them that the other entry point is "closed". Just beyond them are green-flag waving people from Chunkanan waving to continue on to their village and take the tour from there.

Now it seems that the even larger village of Acanceh, the one before Cuzama (are you still with me here?) has gotten into the act, alleging that one of the cenotes is actually on their land and, since Cuzama was collecting a "fee" from the Chunkanan folks, has asked the Cuzama people to hand over a portion of that "fee". Cuzama has so far claimed that this is not correct and they will hand over no funds to Acanceh. Acanceh has retaliated by not allowing access to "their" cenote.

Therefore, there is no access at the time of this writing to the last - and most spectacular - cenote, the one with the vertical ladder down a small tunnel-like hole. According to the folks from Cuzama, when asked, the cenote is having some "maintenance" done. Not true, according to a Chunkanan rail cart driver I talked to who then went on to explain the whole thing.

A last report from a tour guide in the field one week ago, states that the Chunkanan folks are now offering only ONE cenote - the first one, Chelentun - while the Cuzama folks are taking their tourists to "their cenote" which is the middle one for those who have been before.

So if you are planning to visit Cuzama/Chunkanan for the "three" cenotes, be aware that you may not visit all three, or even two, of those magnificent cenotes until someone steps in and mediates a solution that will bring the tour back in a manner fair to all parties involved.

A Taste of the Rey Pakal Sculptures on the Paseo de Montejo

Along the Paseo de Montejo, the powers that be often install art exhibitions for all to enjoy (or hate, in some cases) and at the time of this writing, the magnificent avenue is lined with decorated busts of the Mayan king K'inich Janaab' Pakal aka Rey Pakal, whose tomb was discovered in Palenque by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. The discovery of this tomb is not only unique but must have been an exciting moment when he discovered a hollow space under what he determined was a throne for royalty. Upon removing the covering stone, he discovered a stairway leading down into the pyramid and, after much removal of debris and collapsed stone, came upon the chamber which contained the tomb. The year was 1952. Can you imagine what that must have been like?  (June, 2014 update: these sculptures are now on the grounds at the Museo Maya in northern Merida)

Mayan ruins, flamingos AND cenotes in one day!

Often I am asked if I can arrange a tour to the three cenotes of Chunkanan/Cuzama, and while the cenotes are still there, the fantastic little tour is not. You can read about that original tour by clicking here

Short-sighted squabbling by villagers with no long-term vision of the benefits that this attraction was bringing to their communities, combined with a complete lack of any intervention by any competent authority has led to the demise of the tour, although it is still being advertised and promoted in many magazines, websites and brochures. At no point was the final user - the visitor - taken into account. He or she has to find out about this through websites like TripAdvisor or by actually arriving at the site only to find that some of the cenotes are having "maintenance" done and the tour is completely different from what is advertised. I could go on about this for hours, but don't want to bore you completely to death.

Luckily, there are hundred if not thousands of cenotes in the Yucatan, of every imaginable shape and size; open to the sky, hidden in caves with just a tree root to scamper down from the jungle surface into the refreshing water below.

Homun is in the heart of cenote country and right next to the the aforementioned villages of Chunkanan and Cuzama, and have their own cenote attractions - and this past weekend I took some visitors out to see a few of them.

Picking them up at the beach where they were staying, they mentioned they wanted to see flamingos so we took the Xcambo - Baca - Merida road and were able to see quite a few, in small clusters,  just beside the highway. Their coloring was pink with white still visible, indicating these were juvenile flamingos as their feathers don't turn completely pink until they become adults.

After stopping at the Xcambo ruins for photos and a quick walk through (free admission) and some flamingo photos, we continued on through Baca and visited its large church in the middle of town. Baca was an important city back in the day and while it is somewhat deteriorated since the henequen industry crashed, you can still see evidence of it's relative wealth in the colonial era and turn of the century buildings along the main street.

After Baca, a straight shot out to Homun, where we hired a local guide - a 12 year old who swore she was 16 named Barbie - who rode with us to all the cenotes and made the introductions at each one. It is not necessary to hire someone local to visit the cenotes if you know where they are, but why not spread the wealth and help folks in Homun out a little? For $200 pesos you have a chatty local guide who knows everything about everyone in the town (just ask) and you are helping an entire family. Barbie has been doing this since she was 8 years old, and while for us North Americans it is a bit disconcerting to think that you are sending your 8 year old daughter to ride around with strangers to caves, it seems to not raise an eyebrow here. I think if an evil-doer ever tried anything, the villagers would see to it that he had a particularly nasty end.

A little bit of Merida, a little bit of Yaxcopoil

Susan and her husband were back in town with their parents and they wanted to see one of the Yucatan's many haciendas. The original idea was to go to Sotuta de Peon but since the House and Garden tour they were on finished too late to make that happen, I thought it better that we visit the Yaxcopoil hacienda. 

I caught up with them at the last house of the House and Garden tour, run by the pioneer Yucatan magazine, Yucatan Today.  It was a beautiful old home, and unlike many of the older homes in Merida, is still lived in by its' owner. Have a look:

With the tour behind us, we drove to the nearby hacienda Yaxcopoil, but of course, as always happens on one of our tours, there was a diversion. A detour, a small stop, a side road; these are the things that make the trip memorable and today was no exception. Everyone was hungry and wanted to eat before visiting the hacienda where Doña Nica most likely was no longer making panuchos under the tree on her makeshift griddle over a fire, and so a quick ride around the block in Uman yielded the La Margarita restaurant, on the main square, serving home cooked meals. The menu? Bistek con papas and espelon con puerco, a version of frijol con puerco (pork and beans) that is very special as the espelon is the tender, new version of the black bean and gives the dish a particularly delicious consistency.

Energy restored, we continued on to Yaxcopoil and enjoyed this immensely photogenic hacienda in the warm glow of afternoon light, before returning to Merida for a well deserved nap.

Santa Rosa Hacienda, Maxcanu, Granada and Oxkintok

With no one at home and a free afternoon, I decided to take an exploratory trip to the Oxkintok ruins which I had previously only caught a glimpse of on my way to some secret caves in the area with local guide Victor. 

However, on the road to Maxcanu where I would be turning off towards Oxkintok I saw signs for the Santa Rosa hacienda, one of the Starwood properties here in the Yucatan and decided that I would like to check it out instead and pehaps hit the ruins afterwards. 

What I found was an absolutely gorgeous property, not unusual for the Starwood hotels, along with really friendly and welcoming service and perfect afternoon light for some photographs. The lunch, served for the only visitor in the hacienda - yours truly - was delicious and served in a professional and courteous manner that the Temozon hacienda can only dream of.  

With a delicious lunch in me, I continued on to Oxkintok, via Maxcanu and a curious town called Granada, a name I had never heard of in the Yucatan so of course I had to check it out. Not much there, except another grand hacienda, unrestored and full of villagers watching a baseball game in what used to be the main corral of the building.  

The road from Santa Rosa to Maxcanu. Granada? Really?

The bright blue church (facade) in Granada, Yucatan.

A quick drive through Maxcanu where the Sunday afternoon drinking activity was fully in session with groups of drunken men on many street corners. Maxcanu deserves a more detailed photographic study, but the clouds were moving in and I had precious little time to get to the ruins before a) they closed and b) the rain started, so I quickly continued on to Oxkintok.

The drive to Oxkintok from Maxcanu takes about 10 minutes if you take the old highway that goes right through the ruins. It is a pot-holed, unpaved mess in most parts and will take out a tire if you are not careful, and those holes are hard to see with all the rain. I arrived at the ruins in time to spend about 20 minutes before they closed, and after 5 minutes, the skies opened up and a torrential downpour had me soaked to the skin in just a few seconds. The photos are not great but you can get an idea of what is there - which is probably bigger than some of the other, more popular sites around such as Chichen and Uxmal. The place is HUGE.