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Hunting for Hammocks in Tixkokob

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On paper, it sounded like a foolproof plan. Pop over to nearby Tixkokob, find someone who makes hammocks, snap a few pictures, head home. In and out, 60 minutes max. But it turns out that despite Tixkokob’s status as Mérida’s “Hammock Central,” it’s not all that easy to find someone making them.

Hammocks are an essential part of life in the Yucatán. The majority of locals sleep in them, and not just for a short afternoon siestas, but every single night. In fact, we met a couple people who claim to have never slept in a bed at all. Yucatecans swear by the health benefits of hammocks, which are supposed to be especially good for the spine.

We had already bought ourselves a nice, cotton hammock and now we wanted to see one being produced, so we went to Tixkokob and found its hammock factory. But after a frustrating discussion with its unaccountably paranoid manager, we were refused entrance. Strike One.

That was alright, a factory might have been fun but it wouldn’t have offered the kind of romantic images we were really looking for. So we went back into town and found a small hammock shop. The guy working there explained that his hammocks are handcrafted by neighborhood women, but he refused to give us one of their addresses. That’s totally legit, but still: Strike Two.

Undaunted, we returned to Tixkokob’s main square with another plan: hire some local kid. Soon enough, we met Fernando and had taken seats in the back of his trico. “My whole family makes hammocks, so you picked the right guy!” And now began a ridiculous tour of Tixkokob. His hammock-making cousin wasn’t home (Strike Three). His hammock-wizard aunt wasn’t home (Strike Four). His friend the hammock-master had just finished one and wasn’t about to start another (Strike Five). Another aunt had a hammock half-done there in her courtyard, but was eating and wouldn’t let us in (Strike Six).

Eventually, we ended up at the house of his great aunt. She was busy grinding corn into pozole and when Fernando explained what we were looking for, she went into her house, dragged out a giant loom with a half-completed hammock, grabbed her shuttle and started weaving. Perfect! I turned to give Fernando a thumbs-up, but he was already snoozing away. In a hammock, of course.

It had been a difficult day, but also a lot of fun. At the very least, we got to know every square inch of Tixkokob. If you want to undertake a similar quest, skip the factory and the stores, and seek out Fernando. He (or another guy with six thousand hammock-making aunts) will probably be hanging out in the main square.

Location of Tixkokob on our Map

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February 16, 2014 at 2:54 pm Comments (3)

Sotuta de Peon

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During the Yucatán’s henequen boom, there were close to a thousand haciendas (plantations) in operation across the state. Today, they’re nearly all in ruins. And in the area surrounding Mérida, only one still manufactures henequen: Sotuta de Peon. We joined a tour of the hacienda which led us through a mansion, the factory, a Maya house in the agave fields, a cenote, and ended at a restaurant serving up Yucatecan specialties.

Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Our tour started in the hacienda’s main residence, which was filled with antique furniture and framed, faded photographs of the family who once lived here. Like all other henequen plantations, Sotuta de Peon closed up shop after the introduction of synthetic fibers in the mid-twentieth century. It was only recently purchased by a local businessman, renovated and restored to working operations.

Outside the mansion, we were introduced to the henequen-making process. The fiber comes from the leaves of an agave plant, similar to that which produces tequila. We saw both the old, labor-intensive method for producing the fiber and then moved to the more modern machinery. I use the term “modern” in a relative sense; these massive, roaring machines date from the early 1900s. We watched as stacks of henequen leaves were deposited into the machine, which broke them and “combed” the fiber out of the plant’s flesh.

Next, we boarded a cart hitched to a mule and set off into the fields where, at the top of a hill, Don Antonio was awaiting us in his palapa. He’s been living and working at Sotuta de Peon for most of his life and, since retiring from field work, has become a part of the hacienda’s tour. After explaining the process of cutting henequen, he showed us around his home, expressing his wonder and gratitude about his lot in life. Years ago as a simple henequen cutter, he couldn’t have imagined that he’d ever meet so many people from all around the world, and he seemed as interested in us as we were in him.

After saying “ka’a xi’itech” to our new friend, another short mule ride brought us to Sotuta de Peon’s cenote, where we had an hour to swim and enjoy a drink at the mobile “Wagon Bar”. The water was warm, and the underground cenote was more beautiful than we had expected. During our three months in the Yucatán, we saw many cenotes, and kept waiting for one to disappoint us. But it never happened.

Our tour ended with lunch in the hacienda’s restaurant. The food was excellent, and the prices reasonable. The tour itself, in fact, is a major bargain considering everything that it entails. If you have time to visit just a single hacienda during your time in the Yucatán, you’d be well-advised to make it the Sotuta de Peon.

Location on our Map
Sotuta de Peon – Website

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February 15, 2014 at 4:06 pm Comments (0)

The Forgotten Ruins of Oxkintok

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Okay, so the ancient Maya site of Oxkintok is not “forgotten” in any true sense of the word. It appears on maps and in guidebooks, and there are people waiting at the entrance to collect your fee. But once you’re inside, wandering about ruins half-reclaimed by the jungle, so distant from the next town, Oxkintok feels forgotten. And you’re allowed to feel like the intrepid adventurer who discovered it.

We’ve learned that, in terms of quality, the place you’re visiting and the experience of visiting it are often completely distinct. I mean, Rome is essential, but visiting it can be excruciating. It’s tiring, dirty, crowded, overwhelming. In contrast, the tiny town of Sandpoint, Idaho has nothing specific to recommend it, but it’s so beautiful, peaceful and remote, that it’s hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with it. But if someone came to me and said, “I can spend a week in either Rome or Sandpoint, which should it be?” Obviously, the answer is Rome. There’s no doubt. But really, you’d probably enjoy yourself more in Sandpoint.

This is what I was thinking about while picking my way among the ruins of Oxkintok, found in the southeastern corner of Yucatán State. We were visiting soon after our trip to Chichén Itzá, and the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. To reach Oxkintok, we had embarked on a long trico ride along unpaved and increasingly bumpy roads from Maxcanú. Although the ruins here weren’t anywhere near as glorious as those we’ve seen elsewhere, they were far from unimpressive.

Oxkintok looks just like the crumbling Maya cities of my imagination. We were the only tourists here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn we were the first in a very long time. The place just feels abandoned, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word. We had a blast hiking from temple to temple, free to climb around many of them, occasionally spotting strange sculptures or statues sticking out of the jungle, often spooked by a loud rustle from some bit of undergrowth near our feet.

Unlike our visits to other Maya sites, I largely disregarded the information which was posted in front of the most important buildings. Here, I didn’t really care whether this was Structure B8 or A3, or in what year it was built. I simply enjoyed the sensation of adventure and discovery, unconcerned about committing dates and facts to memory. We appreciated Oxkintok not for what it used to be, but for what it’s become: the most atmospheric ruins we saw during our time in the Yucatán.

Location on our Map

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February 3, 2014 at 11:17 pm Comments (0)

The Plazas of Mérida

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Though they’re beginning to blend together, Mérida is still largely defined by its neighborhoods, each with its own personality and history. Neighborhood life is almost always centered around a central plaza, where friends and family gather to meet, eat, chat, and just hang out. Here are five of our favorites.

Plaza de Santa Lucia

Just a couple blocks north of the Plaza Grande, Santa Lucia is the cultural heart of the city. Every Thursday night, you can grab a seat for a free traditional trova concert, but all throughout the week you’ll see people dancing, singing, playing guitar or doing Zumba on the stage which sits in the corner of the plaza, ringed by busts of famous Yucatecan artists. A couple of excellent restaurants fill out the plaza with tables in the courtyard. Apoala is one of our favorites, serving excellent modern Mexican cuisine. There’s no better way to spend a humid evening in Mérida, than sitting down for a margarita and watching whatever happens to be going on in the plaza. And there’s always something going on. [Location]

Plaza de San Cristóbal

Cristóbal was our “home” plaza, so although it hardly ranks as Mérida’s finest, it’s our favorite. Because it’s ours. That’s our laundromat, right between our office supply store and our habitual cheap-lunch station. Our laundry girl knows us collectively as “Miguel”. I am Miguel, Jürgen is Miguel, and together we are The Miguel. Over the course of 91 days, she’s become intimately familiar with every piece of clothing we own, and could easily pick our underwear out of a lineup. Oh that? That’s our church, not that we’ve ever attended a service. Whoa, who’s sitting on our bench? That’s alright, go ahead and enjoy yourself, we weren’t using it anyway. Ahh… we’re going to miss you, San Cristóbal (but you’ll always be ours!) [Location]

Plaza de San Juan

The Plaza de San Juan, found a few blocks southeast of the Plaza Grande, is perhaps best known for the ancient arch which once formed part of the barrier separating the city proper from the colonias of indigenous people. But in the early nineteenth century, under the direction of its liberal priest, the church of San Juan was the meeting spot for an enlightened group known as los Sanjuanistas, who fought against the Spanish Crown on behalf of the belabored Maya and creole populations. Continually persecuted by the landed elite and the clergy, los Sanjuanistas were prohibited from meeting and often tossed into jail. But in the end, they and their allies managed to achieve a brief period of Yucatecan independence. [Location]

Plaza de Santiago

The Plaza de Santiago is just as gorgeous and refined as the neighborhood surrounding it, which is perhaps Mérida’s most desirable. The plaza boasts a grand old church built in 1637, but it’s the modern life which most commands attention: the kids on the playground, the old men sitting around the fountain, and especially the bustling market with its range of excellent and super-affordable loncherías. This is Mérida at its most colonial and, unsurprisingly, the area most attractive to expats. [Location]

Plaza de Santa Ana

Although Santa Ana is found at the foot of the Paseo Montejo, it shares none of that boulevard’s ritzy atmosphere. This is a simple plaza and park with a beautiful little church, a popular market and a few places to grab some cheap eats. In the center of the plaza is a statue of Andrés Quintana Roo, one of the heroes of Mexican independence. And this was the scene of an important moment in Mexican history. In 1867, supporters of the ruling, royalist regime clashed with Mexican republicans loyal to Benito Juarez. The republicans earned a decisive victory, which helped bring the Napoleon-backed Mexican Empire to its eventual end. [Location]

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February 3, 2014 at 6:57 pm Comment (1)

The Legend of the Makech

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Jürgen and I aren’t the types to spend much time thinking about jewelry. Neither of us owns a single piece, not a ring nor a bracelet, and I very rarely notice the jewelry worn by others. But when the piece in question is a living beetle, it’s a little hard to ignore.

The Yucatan Makech

The Makech is the strangest fashion item we’ve ever seen. These large beetles, found only in the Yucatán Peninsula, have broad shells that can be decorated with gemstones. They feed on sporophores which grow on a specific type of wood endemic to the Yucatán, and can live for up to eight months. Attached to a golden chain, they’re worn as pendants by Maya women and kept as pets.

According to legend, a Maya princess was destined to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom, but instead fell in love with a noble warrior from her own village. Enraged, her father announced his intention to kill the warrior. The fear-stricken young woman wailed, and pleaded with the king for the life of her beloved. If he were spared, she swore, she would willingly marry the prince as had originally been the plan.

The king listened to his sobbing daughter and consoled her. Her handsome warrior would live. And the promise was kept… in a way. A wizard was called in and, before the eyes of the court, turned the handsome young man into a wretched beetle. Horrified, the princess scooped him into her hands and ran off to her room. She adorned the beetle with the most beautiful jewels she could find and placed him on her breast, so he would always be near her heart.

The Makech is a custom on its way out. Today, it’s exceptionally rare to see women actually wearing one, and finding a store which sells them can be tricky. We asked around Mérida’s Mercado de Artesanias, on Calle 65/58, and eventually tracked down a shop that had a few richly-decorated makeches stumbling around a little cage. I held one briefly. They’re quite large and powerful, and I couldn’t imagine it crawling around my chest all day, even if it were my lost beloved.

Location of the Mercado de Artesanias

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February 3, 2014 at 6:01 pm Comments (3)

The Ruins of Aké

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On the way home to Mérida from Izamal, we swung by the small village and archaeological site of Aké. Requiring a long drive off the main highway, it’s a town which feels forgotten by the march of time.

Ake Yucatan

The ruins are not the most impressive that we saw during our time in the Yucatán, but are found so far off the beaten path that visiting them is quite fun. The site was completely empty, as I would venture is usually the case, and we had the run of it. We climbed to the top of the main structure, the Edificio de las Palastras, and walked along the walls which form the perimeter, all alone under the heavy sun.

Before leaving, we noticed a path leading into the jungle, and followed this for a couple hundred meters to yet another set of ruins. At the top, two deep caves were hollowed out into the rock. Alone in the woods and standing atop an ancient ruin which must have served as a dwelling for Maya holy men, it was hard not to feel the rush of adventure.

Next to the site is an old henequen factory, which we assumed had long been abandoned. But on our way out, we could hear the hum of machines emanating from within. Peering through the window, we saw that the old machinery of this factory was still in operation. Apparently, it’s possible to tour the plant, although this is something we unfortunately didn’t have time to do.

Location on our Map

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February 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm Comments (0)

The Pink Water and White Salt of Las Coloradas

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The tiny community of Las Coloradas certainly picked an appropriate name for itself. Found at the end of a bumpy road about 30 kilometers east of Río Lagartos, it is a town defined by its colors.

Las Coloradas Salt Flat

Piles of white salt greet visitors on their way into Las Coloradas. They look just like mighty snowbanks, and it takes awhile to remember that you’re in Southern Mexico, and not Iceland. Since the days of the Maya, this area of the Gulf Coast has been known for its salt production, which remains by far the biggest industry in town.

These hills of salt looked so inviting and soft, we were sorely tempted to climb and perhaps lick them a little, but they were fenced off. Instead, we journeyed farther into town, drawn by the strange pinkish glow emanating from it. The estuary that surrounds Las Coloradas is rich in red plankton, and the water has a deep pink tint.

We didn’t stay long in Las Coloradas. This isn’t a touristy type of town, and besides admiring the strange nature from your car window, there isn’t much to do. But if you’ve got some time to kill, it’s worth the short detour from Río Lagartos.

Location on our Map

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February 1, 2014 at 5:26 pm Comments (2)

A Creepy Day in Río Lagartos

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A small town on the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, Río Lagartos is most well-known for the abundant bird life of its lagoon, a protected natural reserve which is named, somewhat confusingly, Ría Lagartos. But unpleasant weather during our visit spoiled any bird-watching plans we might have had. (Which was fine, since we didn’t really have any).

Rio Logartos

After arriving in the evening, we immediately noticed something strange about Río Lagartos: an almost complete lack of people. This is supposedly a town of 2000 souls, but the streets were empty. The stores and restaurants closed. The boats anchored along the shore untended. Fine, the weather was bad, but the level of abandonment made me suspicious. Apart from the woman who checked us into our hotel, we hadn’t seen a single person. And even she had seemed a little… off. A little too dim-witted, perhaps. Her movements a little too wooden. Her eyes a little too hungry.

The brewing storm didn’t help us feel any safer. We walked up and down the main, ocean-side road, and eventually found the only place in town serving food. Inside, a rowdy group of men were passing around bottles of rum. Sailors by the looks of them, and now I was certain we had landed in a zombie movie. This restaurant would be the place of our first bloody encounter, and we were about to watch a lovable group of drunk oafs have their heads ripped off. Lovable drunk oafs are always the first to die.

We waited, fork and knife clenched in hand, but nothing happened. The sailors said goodbye and stumbled out of the bar. We were served a delicious dinner of fresh fish and shrimp. And we went back to our hotel where our vacant receptionist was watching a telenovela and didn’t even look up to say “good night”.

The next day the weather had not improved and we skipped on a tour of the reserve, which is the only reason to visit Río Lagartos in the first place. Anyway, it’s supposed to be similar to the tour we took of Celestun. We walked around the town long enough to verify that it was still lifeless and then hopped in the car, happy to put creepy Río Lagartos in the rearview.

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February 1, 2014 at 5:05 pm Comments (4)

Ek Balam: The Home of Black Jaguar

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Just twenty minutes north of Valladolid are the ruins of Ek Balam, a fantastic archaeological site which boasts some of the peninsula’s best-preserved Maya sculptures.

Ek Balam Ruins

Mayan for “Black Jaguar”, Ek Balam was a powerful king who arrived in the area on April 7th, AD 770. The city which he founded would prosper for little more than a century, and was abandoned shortly after September 23rd, 896.

You might have noticed that the exactitude of these dates; in contrast to many other ancient cities around the peninsula, a lot is known about Ek Balam because of its wonderful state of preservation. Protected by the jungle and lost from knowledge for much of modern history, it was only excavated in the 1980s. The level of detail is astounding; we were sure that some of the sculptures must have been recently reconstructed, but that’s not the case.

There’s a lot to see here, but the highlight is undeniably the grand Acropolis, reaching 31 meters into the air, high above the jungle canopy. We climbed the difficult, irregularly-stepped staircase and surveyed the scene, pausing at a terrace halfway up, where white stucco decorates the structure’s facade. In almost perfect condition despite an age of over 1200 years, the sculptures depict a monstrous mask with jaw agape, symbolizing the gate to the underworld. In the monster’s eyes and atop its nose sit full-size human figures in strikingly lifelike poses.

We loved Ek Balam. The details on its ruins are simply amazing, and the site itself is so compact that it’s easy to see in just an hour or two. Definitely worth the short drive from Valladolid.

Location on Our Map

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January 31, 2014 at 11:25 pm Comments (4)

The San Bernardino Convent in Valladolid

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The Calle de los Frailes, or the Street of the Friars, cuts diagonally across Valladolid, completely ignoring the otherwise strict grid-plan. A little fresh, but we’ll allow it. This is one of the Valladolid’s most historic streets, home to specialty shops and popular restaurants, and it ends at the steps of the San Bernadino Convent.

Valladolid Convent

Construction started on the San Bernardino in 1552, under the auspices of Franciscan monks who had settled in the newly-formed city. Local Maya laborers were politely asked to help build the immense convent, and were happy to do so, as they were well-paid for their efforts. (Or, was it that they were obligated to work like slaves, and then forcibly converted to a foreign religion under threat of torture… I can’t remember.) Today the convent serves as both a church and a museum.

During the Caste Wars of the nineteenth century, the San Bernardino was repeatedly attacked and lost much of its priceless artwork. But inside, you can still find a few surviving paintings, as well as weapons from the war recovered from the large cenote that sits directly underneath the building. The water of this cenote was used in the convent’s kitchen and bathrooms, and was extracted using a large stone waterwheel which can still be seen in the unkempt back garden.

In front of the San Bernardino is a large flat park which, when we visited, was being used as a soccer pitch by a group of local kids. It was early in the evening, and the whole place was conspicuously quiet, especially in comparison to the jam-packed Plaza Grande of Valladolid. The convent is apparently just far enough outside the town center to discourage most tourists, but don’t let the distance discourage you. This was among our favorite places in the city.

Location on our Map

-Where we stayed in Valladolid: Casa Hamaca

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Hunting for Hammocks in Tixkokob On paper, it sounded like a foolproof plan. Pop over to nearby Tixkokob, find someone who makes hammocks, snap a few pictures, head home. In and out, 60 minutes max. But it turns out that despite Tixkokob's status as Mérida's "Hammock Central," it's not all that easy to find someone making them.
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