excursions

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.