Yucatan Byways (1 of 5) – Mexico

Fred and Dave at 'The Snail'

Father and son at the El Caracol observatory in Chichén Itzá.

One frosty February my son David and I spent two weeks in Mexico’s Yucatan State, the central one of three which make up the peninsula of the same name. While “Yucatan” makes most people think of Cancun and Cozumel in neighbouring Quintana Roo State, we weren’t seeking the usual beaches and crowds of tourists that you find there. We wanted to see the historic state capital Mérida, the region around it, and at least two of the great Mayan archeological sites. This first article in the series describes the state’s geography and provides a background for others about the capital itself and the most famous Mayan sites.

Like most of the peninsula, Yucatan State sits on a flat limestone shelf extending from southern Mexico northward into the Caribbean. Topsoil is neither abundant nor rich, so anyone expecting to find it covered in dense jungle like some Indiana Jones movie, will be disappointed. There is some arable land suitable for market gardening south of Mérida, and nearby is an area of low wooded hills called the “Puuc” region. Aside from that, most of the state is arid and barely suitable for hardscrabble farming. Nevertheless, this was where the Mayas established many settlements, including some of their most important ones.

The only rivers are underground, beneath the limestone, but in some places the shelf has collapsed, giving access to water through sinkholes called cenotes. It is known that the Mayas often abandoned their cities and built new ones nearby, but sometimes came back to the former ones later. One theory for this behaviour is that they moved around as the cenotes dried up, but we’ll never know for sure, because all their records were destroyed by the conquering Spaniards.


Country market south of Mérida.

We found the small area of market gardening to the south of Mérida interesting. That’s because it seemed that everyone got around in canopy-shaded pedicabs, large enough to carry both people and produce at the same time. The most important crop the State has ever produced, though, was its “green gold”, an unexpected and visually unimpressive treasure. There has always been a great worldwide demand for good quality rope, and until nylon replaced it around 1930 the very best was made of fibres from one species of the lowly sisal plants grown all over the State. For this reason, by the end of the 19th century this was one of the wealthiest regions of Latin America with, we were told, more millionaires per capita than anywhere else on earth. Today the market for sisal rope is small, but other native materials are still used in handicrafts such as rug weaving and the making of panama hats (jipijapas) and hammocks.

Not far from the market gardening area we visited an enormous church, practically bare inside. It stood in a desolate field, probably on the site of a former Mayan temple destroyed by the Spaniards. It obviously had not been one of the people’s cherished landmarks, and it provides a clue to the Mayan temperament: they still consider themselves first and foremost Yucatecan Mayas rather than Mexicans. (Historians someday may remark that it’s similar to the situation between Quebec and the rest of Canada.)

Bishop at Convent

A statue of Bishop Landa stands at entrance to a convent in Izamal, the “yellow city”.

About 40 miles (70 km) to the east of Mérida lies the “yellow city” of Izamal, so called because of the colour of its most important buildings. It’s a place that travelers can easily overlook in their haste to visit great archeological sites farther afield, but this clean and tranquil small town of 20,000 has one institution of great cultural and historical significance.

Adjacent to its main square is a Franciscan monastery or convent (1533) which boasts the largest courtyard in Mexico. It is reputedly able to accommodate 200,000 people, which is why Pope John Paul II chose it as the site for an historic Mass. At the rear of the courtyard stands the Virgin of Izamal church, with gilded altar and a glorious stained-glass window. Fortunately, unlike many churches it was not ransacked during the country’s fight for independence from Spain.

Another interesting artifact is the statue of Bishop Landa in front of the monastery. A fanatical Spanish cleric who arrived shortly after the conquistadors, he vowed to eradicate Mayan culture by burning their books and destroying their temples to build churches, and he almost succeeded. A plaque on his monument says (my translation) “Landa, who tirelessly promoted his own culture by destroying ours”. I wonder if the Pope noticed it when he visited.

Can't get 'em all, fortunately

Landa missed this temple, which is gradually being restored.

In his rush to destroy Mayan artifacts, Landa missed some. Today, just a few blocks from his statue, one can view a temple pyramid being excavated. Of the dozen small ones within the town it is apparently the best candidate for restoration. I spoke with the archeologist, and he showed me what had been accomplished, and ventured that it would take months or years to complete his work. As I walked back to the bus station I noticed a neat Mayan house, simply built with available materials, without a floor, but with that one all-important item, a big TV antenna.

If you come to this part of Mexico some day, I hope you will take time to visit not only the better-known places which are the subjects of the next articles, but also the surrounding countryside. That’s where you’ll really get a feel for the Mayas’ ability to survive and thrive in spite of an unfriendly environment and an imposed “foreign” culture.

Also in This Yucatan Series:
Yucatan Byways
Beautiful, Historic Merida
Chichen Itza
Uxmal & the Puuc Region
Photo Gallery

If you want more information about this area you can email the author.

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