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The Caste War Museum in Tihosuco

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The Spaniards may have conquered the Yucatán with relative ease, but destroying the spirit of the Maya proved a far more difficult task. From the very beginning of the conquest and up into the twentieth century, the Maya fought back against their oppressors, bending but never breaking. The stories of their struggle are told in the Museo de las Guerra Casta, in the village of Tihosuco.

Caste War Museum in Tihosuco

The Yucatán is a large peninsula with vast stretches of jungle, and it provides plenty of cover for those who know the territory, which explains in part why the Maya resistance proved so troublesome to the Spanish (and later, the Mexicans). For centuries, attacks flared up, cities were taken and re-taken, semi-independent territories were established, and vicious retaliations inflicted. The Conquest of the Yucatán is not a story of a docile, vanquished people, always the pitiful victims. The Maya were not to be trifled with.

During what’s come to be known as the Caste War, one of the most successful indigenous uprisings in the history of humanity, the Maya very nearly succeeded in taking back the entire peninsula. In 1847, Maya troops who had been stockpiling arms in Quintana Roo set out on the march. They took Valladolid. They took Izamal. They marched within 24 kilometers of Mérida, gaining momentum and support every step of the way. The white landowners and clergy were in panic, and those who could had already fled. There’s little doubt that, had they proceeded, the Maya would have conquered the capital and won the war. But then the rains came.

The rains! At the very heart of the struggle for independence was a respect for ancient traditions, which had been under attack for centuries. And these traditions called for men to return to the farm during the milpa, or corn harvest. Although victory was within grasp, the men abandoned the front. By the time they were ready to rejoin the fight, the Yucatecan troops had been bolstered with reinforcements from Mexico. The tide of the war had turned irrevocably.

The small museum in Tihosuco does a nice job of illuminating this story with paintings, artifacts and a top-notch guidebook in multiple languages. Tihosuco itself played an important part in the war as the scene of a major early battle. The church in the town square, the Iglesia del Niño Dios, is still in ruins, and serves as an evocative reminder of the conflict.

It’s not near any other touristic sights, but an excursion to Tihosuco is worth the considerable effort of getting there. If you’re feeling hungry after visiting the museum, ask around for Doña Nachita’s, near the church. The “restaurant” isn’t anything more than a table in her living room, but the food is great.

Location of Tihosuco on our Map

For This Trip We Rented A Car From Sixt

Caste War Museum in Tihosuco
Caste War Museum in Tihosuco
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February 13, 2014 at 4:02 pm Comments (4)

A Quick Trip to Historic Maní

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After visiting the ruins of Mayapan, we made our way south to Maní. This tiny town is famous across the peninsula for its cuisine, but it was also the scene of one of the Yucatán’s darkest moments.

Mani Yucatan

If you’re about to tour the Yucatán by bus, make sure it’s not a Sunday. Or at least, not the Sunday before Christmas. Getting from Mérida to Mayapan wasn’t bad, but continuing to Maní was a nightmare. The 24-kilometer journey took more than two hours of waiting and transferring; the service was not just infrequent, but achingly slow.

Our eventual return to Mérida took three hours, since the bus looped into every tiny town and stopped for anyone who waved. There were people waiting for the bus on almost every corner. So we’d stop and pick up new passengers, and then ten seconds later, stop at the next corner. And then again, ten seconds after that. It was infuriating. Designated bus stops seem to be a concept absolutely unknown to the Yucatán. (Hey people, I’ve got a crazy idea that will save you so much time.)

When we finally arrived in Maní, we were starving, and made a beeline straight to El Principe Tutul-Xiu, a well-known and popular restaurant. On this Sunday afternoon, the crowd was considerable and we had to queue for quite a while before getting a seat. While we waited, the classically-attired waiters carried plate after plate of poc-chuc right under our noses, and I was driven to a state of almost violent hunger.

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Just as I had made up my mind to pounce, we were seated. Immediately, we ordered two portions of poc-chuc, sopa de lima and, allowing hunger to conquer judgement, an extra order of panuchos. Tutul-Xiu has been cranking out authentic Yucatecan food since 1973, and has expanded to Oxkutzcab and Mérida. The restaurant’s popularity is well-deserved; not only was it the best poc-chuc I’ve had, but the prices are unbelievable considering the size of the portions. And the festive atmosphere inside the beautiful palapa is unbeatable. Tutul-Xiu, by the way, was the name of the Maya kingdom which encompassed Maní, Mayapan and Uxmal, at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Ah yes, the Spaniards. The peninsula’s new rulers were never shy about committing atrocities against indigenous populations, but Maní was the scene of perhaps their most wanton. On July 12, 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa ordered an auto-da-fé here, burning every Maya book, idol, and codex that had been gathered from across the peninsula. With their strange and indecipherable symbols, he declared these works to be “of the devil”. Thanks to a single religious crusader’s closed-mindedness, practically the entirety of Maya literature was lost, irretrievably. Without de Landa’s interference, our understanding of the ancient culture would be incalculably greater.

So I was in a combative mood when we visited the Convento de San Miguel Arcangel, built in 1549, in the center of Maní. But as much as I was hating on everything Catholic, the convent was so lovely and peaceful, my rage soon dissipated. We were all alone in the cavernous structure, free to wander at will through the courtyards and out into the back gardens. They might have brought ruin upon the Maya but, boy, do those Catholics know how to build a convent.

Location of Maní on our Map

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January 19, 2014 at 11:39 pm Comments (4)

Uxmal: Thrice-Built Home of the Dwarf King

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An expansive city with soaring buildings that have somehow retained much of their detail, Uxmal is among the most important Maya archaeological sites. It’s about an hour south of Mérida in the Puuc Valley, and we showed up early in the morning after spending the night in nearby Santa Elena.

Uxmal Maya Ruins

Uxmal, which means “Built Three Times”, was at its most powerful between AD 875 and 900. When the Spanish arrived the Maya who were still living among the ruins shared the story of their city’s creation. Of course, just because it came straight from the mouths of the Maya, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should trust it…

According to the legend, Uxmal was ruled by a magic dwarf from nearby Kabah. The dwarf’s mother was a witch who managed to goad the king of Uxmal into a contest against her son. The king challenged the little man with a series of tasks; the final one being to build, in a single day, a structure taller than any other in the city.

When the king awoke the next morning and found a towering pyramid outside his door, he was forced to abdicate, and the dwarf ruled the city for the rest of his days. Today, the stunning Pyramid of the Magician is the first structure you see when entering Uxmal. This five-story temple is notable for its steep incline and elliptical base.

Uxmal Maya Ruins

Just past the pyramid is a set of buildings arranged around a spacious courtyard. This is the Nunnery Quadrangle: the central gathering place of the ancient city. Surrounded by buildings boasting exquisite sculpted motifs of snakes, Maya thatch-roofed houses and the Rain Gods of both the Maya (Chaac) and Aztecs (Tlaloc), the plaza is gorgeous. Its current name was provided by the Spanish. Nunneries, it scarcely needs said, were not a concept which existed among the Maya.

Other highlights include the reconstructed ball court, where the sacred Maya game would be played before ritual sacrifices. The House of the Turtles, a pleasingly simple house with a frieze full of turtles. The House of the Doves. The Great Pyramid. The House of the Witch. And of course, the Palace of the Governor, set atop a hill, whose intricately detailed facade is the longest anywhere in Maya architecture.

Our strategy to arrive as early as possible at the gates of Uxmal paid off handsomely. Just an hour south of Mérida, it’s a popular site with tour groups, but these tend to arrive around 11am. So it wasn’t until the end of our three-hour visit that the site was swarming with other tourists. And by then we didn’t mind. We were on top of the Great Pyramid, looking down on Uxmal as though we were the Dwarf Kings and the people below, our subjects. Just for fun, I picked one out for sacrifice: a strapping lad of twenty, with a strong and healthy heart. Almighty Chaac would be pleased!

Location on our Map

Neat Cabañas Where We Stayed in Santa Elena

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January 2, 2014 at 11:55 pm Comments (4)

Sayil

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The third ancient city which we visited on our trip along the Yucatán’s Ruta Puuc was Sayil. Long since abandoned to the jungle, this extraordinary site is still paying silent testimony to the magnificence of the Maya civilization.

Sayil Maya Ruin

Sayil rose to prominence between AD 800 and 1000, toward the end of the florescence of Maya culture. The city was completely desolate by the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico, but recent excavations suggest that at one time up to 10,000 people lived here.

Before our move to the Yucatán, I had never given much thought to the complexities of the Maya. I suppose I had just considered them to be a single powerful kingdom that eventually collapsed. But this is so far from the case that it’s laughable. At best, the term “Maya” is extremely vague. It refers to a people who shared a counting system and certain cultural aspects, but were never unified. The Maya consisted of innumerable kingdoms, each with its own history and identity, and over twenty completely different languages. The biggest enemy of Copan was Kalakmul, for example; two totally distinct, warring empires we now refer to under the blanket term “Maya”.

I tried to keep this in mind while visiting Sayil. Here was a major city of the Terminal Classic era, which ascended only after the collapse of the grand civilizations of the southern highlands. The people who lived here traded with Uxmal, spoke Yucatec Mayan, and were as far away in time from the pre-Classic Maya of Guatemala, as we are today from Sayil.

The most imposing structure is found right at the entrance: the Great Palace, boasting three stories and nearly a hundred rooms. Unlike the compact site of Labná, Sayil is an expansive place, stretched out on a long, straight sacbé, or road, which leads into the woods. Eventually, we reached a flat structure called The Mirador and, farther down the path, we found a strange phallic statue.

Sayil was our third set of ruins in a single day and we were starting to feel a little fatigued by the time we finished here. But there was no opportunity for rest; the hour was growing late, and the nearby site of Kabah still remained on our list…

Location on our Map

Great Hotels In The Yucatan

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December 28, 2013 at 11:29 pm Comments (0)

The Eco-Museum of Cacao

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We weren’t sure what to expect from the Eco-Museum of Cacao, found between the archaeological sites of Labná and Xlapak. Apart from a flier we’d picked up in a tourism office, we hadn’t read a thing about it, and that’s usually a bad sign. But the museum turned out to be excellent, with nicely-presented information, a chocolate-making demonstration, animals and even a re-creation of an ancient Maya rain ritual.

The Eco-Museum of Cocoa

In a world of Hershey’s and fine Belgian pralines, it’s hard to remember that the West didn’t even know about chocolate until the conquest of the Americas. When Christopher Columbus first encountered American natives, cacao beans were among the treasures he received as a gift. Ignorant to the magic contained within, he disregarded them completely. But the Europeans would learn and eventually come to consider themselves masters of a plant that won’t even grow in their land. And here come the patents and the factories and the Cadbury and the Nestlé, and everyone’s getting rich… except, of course, the Maya.

The word “chocolate” comes straight from the Mayan “Xoko-atl”, or “hot water”. In the Yucatán, it has always been a highly-venerated luxury, considered the food of the gods. The beans were even traded as currency; 100 could buy you a slave. The Yucatecan Maya were the first to develop cacao plantations, and consume their chocolate as a drink. After roasting and grinding the beans, the powder was brought to bubble over fire and then made frothy by either blowing into it or stirring it violently.

The Eco-Museum, located on the grounds of the working still-operating Tikal Cacao Plantation, presents this information in a series of lovely thatch-roofed huts that lead into the jungle. Midway through, we had a chance to see a Maya ritual to honor the rain god. It began with just a single man blowing into a conch shell. These noises were echoed from the woods surrounding us, and soon five other musicians emerged from the trees to join their leader at the altar. Their ensuing performance was bizarre and riveting.

In the final hut, we got to see how the Maya prepared their favorite drink, and then sample it. It was a great conclusion to a museum we really loved. A definite highlight of our trip along the Ruta Puuc.

Location on our Map
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December 27, 2013 at 12:42 am Comments (0)

Cozumel’s Museo de la Isla

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When preparing to explore Cozumel, a logical place to begin is the Museum of the Island, found near the ferry pier. I know, I know… the weather is great, the water is crystal blue, and the amount of things to do outdoors is overwhelming. Who wants to spend time in a museum? But the overview of Cozumel’s history, geography and ecology is brief and well-presented, and afterwards you can reward yourself with an excellent breakfast in the museum’s restaurant.

Cozumel Museum

The Museo de la Isla is separated into four sections, dedicated to the island, the ocean, Cozumel’s history and contemporary life. Hey, snap snap, stop staring out the window at the shimmering Caribbean Sea, I’m explaining important stuff here. About learning and history and stuff. I promise it’s worth your time.

Within minutes of stepping into the museum, your attention should be wholly absorbed by the fascinating history of Cozumel and its unique ecology. The island has never been a place of heavy settlement; when the Spanish first arrived, only a smattering of Maya farmers remained. And for most of Mexico’s history, it was almost entirely neglected. This was great from an ecological point of view as, today, Cozumel is still home a lot of endemic animal life.

In the museum, you’ll learn about pivotal moments in Cozumel’s history, see pictures from before and after the devastating 2005 Hurricane Wilma, and admire some underwater dioramas introducing the island’s unique sea life and corals. And there are usually a couple temporary exhibitions featuring local artists.

After you’ve met your culture quota for the day, head over to the restaurant on the top floor. The breakfasts here are good, as are the ocean views and the reasonable prices. Really, there’s no excuse not to check this museum out. Even if you’d rather spend your time on Cozumel in the great outdoors, you’ll have a better appreciation for the island after having learned about it.

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December 15, 2013 at 12:20 am Comment (1)

Dzibilchaltún – The City of Writing on the Rocks

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The longest continuously-inhabited Maya city on the peninsula, the site of Dzibilchaltún is found just a few minutes outside of Mérida. The Maya occupied this spot from roughly 500 BC to AD 1500, and left behind ruins which, though badly eroded, are a wonder to behold.

Dzibilchaltún
An eroded stele, and the Temple of Seven Dolls in the background

Dzibilchaltún means “City of Writing on the Rocks”, and was the name bestowed by the Spanish in 1689. Only recently did archaeologists uncover the original name of the city, Ch’iy Chan Ti’Ho, but the Spaniards picked a suitable replacement; although today the detail has been lost from most of the ruins, this was indeed a place in which the Maya did a lot of writing on rocks. A couple of the more important stele, or hieroglyph-inscribed columns, have been preserved in the onsite museum.

Having just visited the Casa Catherwood, we were in high spirits for our visit to Dzibilchaltún. The ruins are fascinating, particularly the Templo de Siete Muñecas. Found at the end of the town’s main sacbé, or road, this temple is named for seven small clay dolls which were buried inside, presumably as an offering. The building was probably built as an observatory; it’s aligned so that, during the spring equinox, the sun will appear to rise through its doors.

Not far from the temple, we found the ruins of an entire city, including remnants of houses and even a pyramid which we were able to ascend for a view over the forest canopy. You can hire a guide to introduce the various features of the city; we passed on this, but were second-guessing our decision throughout the day. There isn’t a lot of explanation on the ground and it would have been nice to have an expert on-hand to point out the different facets of the ruins.

Dzibilchaltún Cenote

One area for which we needed no explanation was the Xlacah Cenote. Hundreds of cenotes pockmark the Yucatán Peninsula, but this was the first we had seen. These pools are the result of sunken caverns or sinkholes in the limestone terrain, which have filled with fresh water from underground cisterns. They’re popular places for swimming, and were historically used as a clean water source.

Apart from the ruins and the cenote, Dzibilchaltún has an excellent museum preserving some of the relics found here, such as the seven clay dolls from the temple. We spent almost as much time in the museum as out among the ruins. Less than twenty kilometers from the city center, Dzibilchaltún makes for an easy day trip from Mérida.

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November 27, 2013 at 12:06 am Comments (2)

The Casa Catherwood

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A few blocks west of the Plaza Grande and across from the Iglesia de Santiago, you can find the Casa Catherwood. Hanging on the walls of this gorgeous old home are the drawings of Frederick Catherwood, an English artist who was one of the Yucatán’s first modern-day explorers.

Partnered with the American adventurer and author John Lloyd Stephens, Catherwood embarked on a series of expeditions into the jungles of the Yucatán between 1836 and 1844. Together, the two men uncovered Maya ruins which had never before been seen by western eyes. They found temples, pyramids, statues, bizarre hieroglyphs and cryptic engravings of unknown gods, covered by a thick layer of jungle overgrowth and all but neglected by the farmers who still lived on the land.

Forget Indiana Jones, Catherwood and Stephens were the real thing. It’s not difficult to imagine how thrilling it must have been to discover ruin after ruin, building an ever-expanding picture of the ancient Maya. Catherwood was an excellent draftsman, and took the time to produce detailed sketches of the ruins. Their books, written by Stephens, were massively successful across the Western world.

Today, around 25 prints of the Englishman’s drawings adorn the walls of the Casa Catherwood, along with detailed and well-written explanations of each. The collection itself seems small at first glance, but it takes quite some time to read through all of the material.

We toured the Catherwood House the day before visiting our first Maya ruins. Although it was doubtful that we’d be hacking our way through the jungle to discover a never-before-seen temple, Catherwood’s drawings helped to put us into an adventurous state of mind.

Location on our Yucatán Map

The Lost Cities of the Mayas: The Life, Art, and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood

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November 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm Comments (2)

A Concise History of the Yucatán

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The phrase “Yucatecan History” inevitably conjures images of the ancient Maya, who constructed out of limestone and ingenuity one of the most fascinating civilizations mankind has ever known. The Maya might be the most brilliant piece of the puzzle, but there are others. Here’s our concise rundown of the peninsula’s story.

66 Million BC The dinosaurs are wiped out by a massive meteoric impact, which creates the Chicxulub Crater just off the coast of the Yucatán.
13000 BC Having crossed over the Bering Land Bridge, humans arrive in the Yucatán in search of big game.
1500 – 400 BC The first established settlements on the peninsula are thought to belong to the Olmecs, who were in many ways the precursors to later Maya civilization, already possessing achievements like the calendar and written language.
AD 250 – 900 The civilization of the Maya reaches what is referred to as its Classic Period. The culture is at its pinnacle, exhibiting remarkable sophistication in fields like astronomy and architecture.
900 – 1500 The fabled Maya civilization which stretched to Guatemala had fallen, likely due to drought and overpopulation, but the Yucatecan Maya continue to thrive during the Post-Classic Period. Chichén Itzá is the most important city of this era, which also saw the arrival of the powerful Toltec from the north.
1517 An expedition led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba arrives on the shores of the Isla Mujeres, in the first appearance of the Blue-Eyed Bearded Men on the peninsula. The initial encounter does not end well for Córdoba, whose company is attacked and badly defeated by the bewildered locals. Córdoba dies of his wounds.
1542 Try as you might, you can’t keep a determined conquistador down. The Spanish eventually subdue a surprisingly resistant Maya population and Francisco de Montejo founds Mérida on the ruins of T’Hó. As will happen later to native populations farther north, the Maya are devastated by disease.
1562 Terrified by their strange, “demonic” hieroglyphs, Catholic bishop Diego de Landa gathers up every Mayan text and document he can find and burns them. This was a people who had carefully documented their own civilization, and very little survived de Landa’s ignorant wrath. The good bishop also considered himself a “historian” and would later write a book about the Maya.
16th – 18th Centuries Spain basically enslaves Mexico, and those not of Spanish blood have a very difficult time in the Yucatán. Haciendas are established around the peninsula, and a very few people live very, very well.
1841 Twenty years after Mexican independence, the Yucatán declares independence of its own and becomes a full-fledged country. The Republic of the Yucatán lasts for a glorious seven years.
1849-1901 Across the peninsula rage the Caste Wars, one of the most successful indigenous uprisings in world history. Fed up with harsh treatment, the Maya rise up and succeed in creating an independent state which lasts for 50 years.
1800s – 1940s The Yucatán grows fabulously wealthy with the success of henequen, a fabric made of agave which can be made into rope, rugs, strings and more. Once Mexico’s poorest state, Yucatán is suddenly the richest, and Mérida flourishes.
1960s For the first time, the Yucatán is linked to the rest of Mexico by highway. So long in isolation from the rest of the country, and often semi-autonomous, the peninsula had developed its own culture and traditions.
December 21st, 2012 The world ends.
… and beyond What? We’re still alive? Guess that ridiculous doomsday prophecy didn’t pan out (not too surprising since the Maya themselves believed no such thing). Far away from the drug violence and official corruption which plagues so much of the country and blessed with an extraordinary heritage, the peninsula is developing itself as a prime touristic destination. More and more foreigners are discovering the warm sun, amazing history, delicious food, fascinating culture, and friendly people who call the Yucatán home.

Travel Insurance For Your Yucatan Trip

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November 19, 2013 at 4:50 pm Comment (1)
The Caste War Museum in Tihosuco The Spaniards may have conquered the Yucatán with relative ease, but destroying the spirit of the Maya proved a far more difficult task. From the very beginning of the conquest and up into the twentieth century, the Maya fought back against their oppressors, bending but never breaking. The stories of their struggle are told in the Museo de las Guerra Casta, in the village of Tihosuco.
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