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Southern Yucatan State Yucatan

South from Merida: Visiting Churches, Sinkholes, and Maya Ruins

Internet and magazine articles tend to recommend journeys south of Mérida by subject: “The convent route” or “la ruta Puuc”: the latter a string of Maya archaeological sites outside the must-see ruins of Uxmal. I’ve done these circuits a couple of times, but it makes more sense to me, for maximum enjoyment and diversification, to visit sites geographically: archeological sites and churches, markets and museums, along with the region’s famous cenotes: crystal-clear limestone pools. So on my latest southern Yucatan sojourn, I decided on a theme-free jaunt of several days. Traveling alone, I had no timetable or hotel reservations.

After gassing up the car and satisfying morning coffee cravings, I didn’t hit the road until nearly 10:30AM. Although traffic wasn’t particularly heavy, it does take some time to get out of Merida, a city of more than a million people.

Following the advice of professional drivers, I headed southeast toward Acanceh. (In my experience, it’s best to note the names of the towns along your route instead of highway numbers, which are usually absent or confusing.) An ardent admirer of saints of all religions and holy places in general, I hoped to see many of the region’s colonial churches. These tend to have erratic hours, but most close during the hottest part of the day, from noon until 5 or 6PM.

It was close to noon when I reached my first stop; I was happy to find the church at Tecoh open. Snapping in the breeze, bright paper flags lead to the church’s cool interior. The single-nave temple dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption was relatively plain except for a carved and painted main altar and two side altars.

About 12 kilometers to the south, I stopped at Telchaquillo, whose plain, small church needs a good scrubbing. It was closed. Facing the church was the town plaza, and directly below it, is an underground cenote. The water was so clear that I inadvertently walked right into it as I descended the steps to this natural cistern.

Continuing south from Telchaquillo, I passed the entrance to Mayapan archaeological site, but didn’t visit. At this point I was into seeing as many churches as possible before they closed midday. I cruised through Tekit (whose side altars full of saints had been recommended), but its church was shut tight against the midday sun.

Less than 10KM down the two-lane road free from potholes, the lovely temple at Mama was also closed. Prime visiting time had passed. I bought a bottle of cold water at a mom-n-pop store and headed toward Ticul, one of the larger towns in southern Yucatan State. Just outside Mama, I gave a lift to two ladies returning to their home in Chapab after a morning in their cornfield. The tiny church in that town was closed. I should have gotten an earlier start.

After another 13 kilometers I was in Ticul, where I dodged trici-taxis (bicycles outfitted with a bench for a couple of passengers) and people of all ages zipping around on motorbikes. Since friends had recommended both sleeping and eating at Valerie Pickles’ place, The Pickled Onion, I continued 15KM past Ticul to Santa Elena. It was early to stop exploring for the day, but I’d had nothing for breakfast and the lunch menu looked fab. After renting an adobe cabin and enjoying a large comida with several courses, I decided to zone out and take the afternoon off from sight-seeing.

Although I myself spent the afternoon reading a novel by the pool, there’s a lot to do in and around Santa Elena, used as a base by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood during their mid-19th century explorations of Maya ruins. You can walk, drive, or call for a trici-taxi into town to see the church or the mummies and artifacts at the municipal museum. Santa Elena locals can show you rarely visited archaeological sites like Mul Chic and Nohpat, as well as caves and underground tunnels where the Maya hid during the War of the Castes.

I would have happily prolonged my stay at The Pickled Onion, but all of the Maya-style huts were booked. Instead I returned to Ticul and settled into the Plaza Hotel, where I’ve stayed on previous visits. Pottery stores are found here and there along the prosperous town’s main street, but since many had tourist-grade items in gaudy colors, I went instead to Arte Maya, where señor Luis and his wife have been making museum-quality reproductions of artifacts for decades. Prices aren’t cheap; an intricately carved, toothpick-shaped tool was US$25, while other pieces easily go for US$1,000. In the outer showroom there are less expensive items for sale, but as my budget was limited and my car full, I browsed only.

I returned to Mama, whose church was closed when I stopped by the day before. This morning the church was not only open, but the long-time sacristan, Feliciano Hernandez, showed me around. The spry old fellow affectionately called me “mami” and produced a rambling discourse in which Spaniards and devils and evil priests took ambiguous parts in his own version of Yucatan history. I didn’t understand the whole thing, but it was certainly riveting.

The rust-red church at Teabo was closed, but the temple at Maní (where in the 16th century Bishop de Landa burned mountains of irreplaceable Maya codices) was open when I arrived at 1PM. Under restoration, the outside is still stained and unpainted, but inside there were half a dozen lavish side altars. On the beautifully painted and gilded main altarpiece, each of six saints posed under a golden scallop shell, symbol of the Franciscan order.

From Maní I headed south past las Grutas de Loltún. I almost missed turning onto a secondary road leading to the Puuc archaeological sites, my next destination. This road was narrow and patched. I made a brief visit to Labná, with several beautiful structures more than 1,000 years old. Shortly afterwards, I stopped at the Ecomuseo del Cacao. Connected by paths lined with botanical plants of the region are Maya-style huts with quality displays and signage in English and Spanish. The highlight of the chocolate museum was a lecture about the history of cacao followed by tasting in which participants can add vanilla, chilie, or other ingredients to their drinks. The small shop sells sandwiches and chocolate candies, which are not as extraordinary as European-style chocolates.

My next stop was Sayil, a once large and important city allied with Uxmal, with whom it shares architectural similarities. Situated in a narrow valley surrounded by low hills, this Maya city attained its height of population and importance in the Late Classic era, AD800 through 1000. In addition to me and the ticket-seller there were only three overheated dogs on site. In the glaring midday sun, I walked a short way along a dirt path to admire the elaborate façade of the ruined city’s “northern palace.” I blame a lack of signage for missing the rest of the archaeological site’s structures. On the south side of the grounds along a half-kilometer-long path are a lookout point, another palace, and several other buildings. As there was no indication that this unsigned dirt road was anything more than a service path (and to be truthful, also because I was hot and tired and possibly grumpy), I skipped exploring the rest of the zone. Note the map by the entrance desk before entering; it will show you everything the site has to offer.

Done for the day, I returned to Ticul and a visit to its pretty church, where I prayed for something other than the pizza for dinner. For its size, Ticul seems to have an alarming lack of restaurants, and on every visit locals point me to a popular downtown pizza parlor. My prayer went unanswered, however, and I had pizza for dinner, wistfully remembering my multi-course meal and chocolate brownie from The Pickled Onion.

On my last day in the area, I headed out in the morning hoping to take a dip in one of the area’s lovely cenotes. As a solo traveler, visiting museums and churches and making small talk with the locals suits me fine, while soaking in an underground or al fresco limestone pond seems like something best done with friends. Still, I hoped that I might have a soak in one of the Yucatan’s iconic waterholes.

Heading northwest from Ticul, I made a brief stop at the Franciscan church in Muna, with butter cream walls almost devoid of decoration but wall niches boasting plenty of saints. From Muna I continued to Hacienda Ochil. Now primarily a restaurant serving Yucatecan food, the former henequen (sisal) plantation has several small shops selling quality handcrafts. Restaurant guests can swim in small pool at the back, while an amphitheater offers space for weddings and other events.

I next drove to Hacienda Yaxcopoil, a 17th-century cattle ranch and later, massive henequen plantation. Today it serves exclusively as a museum. I visited the old machine room, chapel, and room after room of period furnishings (although not necessarily the original ones) in the high-ceilinged main house. Surrounding the ruined plantation is a neighborhood of houses and tienditas that looks eerily like a movie set.

At Uman I headed south on Hwy 180 toward Campeche. The church at Chochola was charming, with a ribbed ceiling vault of thin, rough-hewn beams painted rust red, and unsophisticated statues of some of my favorite saints. A few streets away from the church I found Cenote San Ignacio, a lovely, clear sinkhole tucked into a cave a couple dozen steep steps below the surface. A group of Italians with snorkels and fins took up plenty of space, while a family with lots of kids bobbed around in bright orange life preservers. I decided this space was a bit too crowded for me, although I surely would have slipped in to enjoy the beautiful blue water if I’d been with a friend.

I drove south to Maxcanú. Its old red church was closed. I walked around town and talked to a man whose high-ceilinged restaurant intrigued me. I didn’t eat, but the friendly owner accompanied me to the side chapel of the town church, which was open. There he showed me an important image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, donated by a famous soap opera star.

By now it was getting late and I wanted to return to Ticul before dark. I hadn’t swum in any cenotes in my three-day tour south of Merida, but I’d seen a lot. On my next trip, I’ll bring a friend. And my swimsuit, of course.

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