yucatan

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.


The Church of Hoctun in June

Hoctun (Mayan hoc - ti rip up and tun, stone) is a town best known for its colorful cemetery (considered one of the prettiest cemeteries in the country) that has appeared in this blog at some point, but it also has a photogenic church located in the main square, worth a stop on the way to or from the cemetery, as you continue your trip either to Izamal or on to Valladolid and/or Cancun.

For photographers, visit early, to get the best light in the cemetery and also at the church. These photos were taken in June, when the flamboyan or Royal Ponciana trees are in full bloom and contrast spectacularly with the stone church, the yellow walls and the deep blue Yucatan sky.

Here are some photos (click to enlarge) to whet your appetite.

Chacmultun: the last site on the Puuc Route

At the southern end of the Puuc route, which begins in Uxmal and extends through Kabah, Labna, Sayil and other less-known and some completely unrestored settlements still hiding in the jungle, there sits Chacmultun. Chacmultun means hill of red rock, which is the original name its discoverers gave it as the stone quarries in the region produce red limestone, as opposed to the whiter version in the northern part of the Yucatan peninsula. In fact, many Mayan sites are known by names that probably have nothing to do with their original names; given that there is no text to consult, no stellae to interpret, no record at all. That big hill in Coba? We’ll just call it Nohoch Mul. Big Hill. OK.

Back to Chacmultun. This site is a collection of three or four settlements, with Puuc-style temples and mounds, clustered around a small, fertile valley filled with rich red earth which would have been the agricultural production center at the time (it still is used for farming now).

You will see partially restored buildings complete with friezes, cornices and decorative elements, some of which are cracked, others still intact. You can visit and clamber around most of the site, and will notice some very lame efforts by the INAH to “preserve” some of what is there. Some of the restoration is also quite miserable, the chultun in the main part of Chacmultun proper being a prime example (see photo). In one of the buildings there are paintings on the wall and to preserve them the specialists at INAH have simply plastered over them. To protect stellae on the ground, depicting hieroglyphs and carvings, they have been flipped over so the sun and rain don’t erode them. Very high tech. Parts of the structures have crumbled into ruinous but very recognizable chunks, which would not be that difficult to restore, if there were some will on the part of the folks in charge.

The view from one of the areas visited - Xet Pol I believe - a long walk on a small road through the fertile field and up a small hill, is truly stunning. You feel you can see to the end of the world from there, and the breeze under a shady tree is a most welcome sensation.

The site is stunning and highly recommended if you have any interest in the history of the Mayans in this area. My guide said that the area was populated from the year 300 BC to just before the Spanish arrived at the end of the 1400’s and commercially was important as much of the paper and exotic bird feathers came from the area.

Take a Guide and take Water on Ice

You can hire a guide locally (none at the site, check in Tekax tourism office) and you will get so much more out of the experience than if you go alone. Once at the site, note that you will be required to pay an entry fee of about 50 pesos per person and that there is NO water of any kind for visitors, which included bathroom facilities. None. So make sure you have taken care of your bathroom needs before getting there. When you finish the tour, be aware there is nothing hydrating available, so have that with you in your ice box in the air conditioned vehicle.

There is a lot of walking and if you go in June, as I did very recently, the 2-3 hour visit under a blazing summer sun which feels relentless will make your head explode. That cooler with water, Gatorade or similar and plenty of ice, a vehicle with air conditioning; these will make the trip a far better experience and possibly save you from getting heat stroke.

Lawson’s Original Yucatan Excursions can design a custom and private excursion to the area, which I suggest should be a two day trip with an overnight in Tekax. This way you can enjoy the site on one day, relax in the evening and enjoy the town of Tekax, and the next day hit some caves before returning to Merida. Contact us at lawsonsyucatan@gmail.com for more info or to book this trip.

Photos

Las Coloradas, Salt Production Center of the Yucatan - Day 1

On a good road trip, the journey there should be as much fun as the actual destination. In this post are some of the highlights for a trip to Las Coloradas, the salt flats that are near Rio Lagartos and lately famous for their “pink lagoons” which are man made evaporation ponds vital to the production of salt. The area was used by the Mayans back in the day, and in the 1930’s a businessman from Merida bought the land and began what is now one of the country’s major salt producers, with 80% of the salt produced going to the national market. The commercial brand of the salt produced here is Sal Sol and you can find it in any local supermarket.

Starting in Merida, you can take one of two routes: the toll or free highway to Valladolid and then up through Tizimin and on to the coast; or, the back road which start by heading towards Motul, home of the famous huevos motuleños, served up by doña Evelia in the municipal market. This should be your route and Motul your first stop, for breakfast of one, two or three (or more!) eggs.

With your breakfast completed and sustenance assured for the trip, have a look at the cenote and church before leaving Motul. Definitely worth a look!

The destination on this trip, for Day 1, was Tizimin, where an airbnb rental was waiting for us. Along the way there are plenty of stops to be made here and there and your trip can take anywhere between 2 and 4 hours, depending on how much fun you are having or how many photos you feel inspired to take. In our case, it took most of the day. Notice at kilometer 61, you will feel the need, the urge, to stop and photograph this pink gem. Temax is a good photo stop as well, and Chenché de las Torres is truly out of this world, if you can get in.

Finally, we arrived at Tizimin and after some navigational challenges with Google Maps and the recently changed one-way street system, we arrived around 4 PM at our airbnb.

In the evening a little dinner, walking and exploring downtown Tizimin on foot and by car - it reminded me of Merida 30 years ago - and then back to rest up for the following day, which was to be all about the salt, the beach and a most amazing Tikin Xic lunch!

Calakmul, Campeche

One of the greatest Mayan ruins sites on the peninsula, Calakmul is also a jungle paradise where you can see many local animals; including - if you are very lucky - the elusive jaguar. If you are looking for a "lost city in the jungle" this is definitely it.

The trip I recently did was Merida - Campeche - Champoton (lunch by the sea) - Escarcega - Xpujil where we overnighted in a small but decent enough hotel. The next day was spent at Calakmul and we returned to Xpujil for the evening. On the third day, onwards to Chetumal where I left my guests to take their flight back to San Miguel de Allende via Mexico City. The drive back from Chetumal to Merida takes about 5 hours if not making any stops. 

For a future trip I would spend more time in the area, as there are many other ruins sites to visit. Perhaps 5 days total leaving from and returning to Merida, making stops here and there during the driving portions of the trip.

Art Galleries - Special Merida Tour

Besides all the usual suspects - ruins, haciendas and cenotes - that visitors to the area love to experience, there is a thriving artistic community in Merida comprised of both locals and newcomers to the area. One very special tour can be arranged to see some of these galleries and meet the artists who create pieces ranging from paint to sculpture and beyond. 

On this day, which lasted about 12 hours or so, we visited artisans in their homes and galleries, had some great food in spectacular settings and even threw in a home viewing or two. A great day out with two local experts who I shall call Lucinda and Shirley, who are extremely knowledgeable both about art and where to find it in Merida.

An architectural masterpiece in Merida; yes, it's for sale.

An architectural masterpiece in Merida; yes, it's for sale.

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The first stop on the tour was a magnificent home, now on the Merida market. A true oasis from the noise and heat outside. The attention to detail and each carefully planned square meter of this home make it really worth a visit. And if you like it enough, you can even buy it and make it your new Merida pied a terre. 

After the house tour, a look at some galleries! Some of these you would never know about, as they hide behind an unremarkable and unmarked door on a hot Merida side street, while others stand out boldly, welcoming one and all to peruse their interiors.

Of course, we had to have lunch at some point. Here, the Hacienda Santa Cruz on the outskirts of Merida. Great food, fabulous place.

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.



Playa del Carmen Destination Hotel - La Semilla

Normally I would not be writing about hotels and such but this little 7 month old gem deserves a recommendation. La Semilla is an oasis among the hustle and bustle (especially the hustle) of Playa del Carmen. A couple of blocks from the ocean, under a tree with a backyard that reminds me of a typical Yucatecan home "patio" and an interior courtyard complete with fully grown trees, a waterfall and a creek throughout and even a home for the resident "alux". 

Extremely friendly and professional service, all kinds of commodities included at no extra charge, like the excellent WiFi, bicycles, towels for the beach, parking at the front door (ltierally), breakfast with real, strong coffee and amazing all-natural "jugo de la casa". If you are going to the beach, they will loan you a cooler so you can keep your beers cool. Amazing. 

It's a respite from what's going on outside and your senses are pampered with lemony scents in hallways and rooms, crispy cool air conditioning in the rooms and relaxing music throughout. Soft lighting at night and plenty of shade during the day.

Alexis and Angie have created a paradise and on your next trip to Playa del Carmen, definitely spend a night or three here!


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.

Magical Mystery Tour 3 - Sacred Mayan Moments - Xocen

Yesterday, another Magical Mystery Tour, but this one was less mysterious as I had a destination in mind that I was going to follow through with and I was joined by two lovely ladies: one was my lovely wife and the other our comadre (a comadre is the godmother of your child) both Yucatecans and both excited to see a little of the Yucatecan countryside. 

First stop, tamales. These tamales can be found in Libre Union and were just coming out of the ground, literally. Note in the photos, the large pib or pit where the baking takes place. The rocks were still scaldingly hot enough for someone to walk barefoot across 

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While making a mess of the car eating the tamal (tip: get the tomato salsa - it's the best and extra spicy) we turned off the Valladolid highway and headed towards Uayma via San Francisco El Grande and Tinum. That's the tajonal (yellow flowers) filled road in the photo above.

If you haven't been to Uayma and have only seen the church in photos, it should be on your Yucatan to-do list. Here is a taste to whet your appetite:

Finally, we arrived at Valladolid and the original plan of eating smoked pork tacos at Temozon was shelved due to time constraints as we just spent too much time at the beautiful Uayma church. So we made a quick stop at the Coqui Coqui boutique for some fragrance sampling and a little shopping before heading to our destination for the afternoon, Xocen.

Xocen, aka the center of the world as it is known there, is a small Mayan community with a feel that is hard to describe but not anything I have felt in the Yucatan before, and if you know me, you know I am a cynical old cuss and hard to impress. Xocen impressed me in its "Mayan-ness" and of course I am not the first one to write about it or wax poetic. It was the Yucatan Today magazine that brought it to my attention just a few days ago!

We were going to to witness the Sacred Mayan Moments presentation, which is an outdoor theater production that highlights important moments in Mayan village life, and after driving around the small village and asking, we were able to find the venue. I will not go on and on about how colorful, beautiful or moving this production is - since it could take paragraphs and I would lose my reputation as a hard-hearted Teutonic cynic and reveal my inner mushy self - and will leave you instead with some of the hundreds of photos I took. Admittedly, there are a LOT of photos.

If you are at all interested in or feel an affinity with, the Mayans, the Yucatan and this land, you MUST see this. I cannot recommend it highly enough. More info below the photos.