Archive for March, 2008

SOTUTA BY BIKE AND BUS

March 22, 2008

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SOTUTA BY BIKE AND BUS: Historical crossroads of the Mayan civilization.

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We began this unusual out-back Yucatan day-trip with our usual 7 kilometer bike trip to the local bus terminal on the corner of 50 and 67 in the city center of Mérida.
We rolled east-bound out of the bustling city traffic with our folding bicycles stowed aboard to the out of the tourist loop history laden diminutive town of Sotuta.
Our first visit to little Sotuta had been nearly twenty-five years earlier at the end of the thriving henequen era when Sotuta was at the end of the still functional narrow gauge railroad line. In those days the town was renowned for being the stronghold for a dissident populist democratic movement in Yucatan and even had one of the most powerful radio stations blasting out their autonomous egalitarian message. The Mexican military maintained a fortified barracks prominently placed on the main city plaza from the beginnings of the Caste War that begin in 1848 and was not relinquished until 1998 when indigenous rights were at a proverbial boiling point. This heightened indigenous rights movement was brought about by the EZLN or the Zapatistas who squared off and took on the Federal government January 1st 1994 forcing their issue of human rights into international news.
A quarter of a century ago when traveling across Yucatan small villages could easily be spotted off at a distance nestled under a grove of fruit bearing shade trees adrift in a sea of henequen fields extending far out to the horizon in all directions.
Amazingly now on our 80 kilometer ride from Mérida to Sotuta we spotted but one small area of cultivated henequen, a token patch in a miniscule village of Huhí, 20 kilometers northwest of our final destination of Sotuta. This is bicycle paradise.
The quiet narrow paved country roads of the Sotuta area are scarcely two meters wide and have a conspicuous lack of motor vehicles and you can hear them coming from five kilometers off.
Sotuta is a strange little place whose complicated and poorly recorded history speaks to us today through the structural remains of its few antiquated edifices that are anthropological memorials.
Discover the detailed history in the following books; Inga Clendinnen’s Ambivalent Conquests, Richard Perry’s marvelously documented book Mayan Missions and Nelson Reed’s fact filled compendium The Caste War of Yucatan. Current political history of Mexico’s indigenous is brought to life in John Ross’s outstandingly powerful book; ¡ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible. It is a must read.
Now look at this out of the way Yucatan town through our captioned photo story;

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This is Sotuta’s downtown main street adjacent to the city central plaza with its conspicuous lack of motor vehicles. Sotuta is clean, quiet, friendly and poor.
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This bare bones meat market is definitely a low overhead operation catering to drive up bicycle riding clients on the main street of Sotuta.
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Tall trees, brilliant flowers and time worn statuary adorn the central plaza park.
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Meticulously clean traditionally dressed Mayan ladies carry their ground corn home from the molino in the style of Yucatan, on their head. This corn is from local milpa farms.

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This is one of four retablos dating from 1550 to 1730 to be found in the Sotuta church.
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From the church you can view the alleged historical home of Nachi Cocom.
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This is a memorial in Sotuta’s central plaza to the gallant Mayan king and war-lord Nachi Cocom who stood his ground against the Spanish conquistadors in the mid-1500s.
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Above is an interesting and paradoxical memorial to the Mayan king Nachi Cocom with his alleged home in the background. For whatever it is worth the above structure was definitely built upon a Mayan temple. It was constructed in the 18th century and Nachi Cocom died in 1561. Cocom was supposedly converted to Christianity but continued to worship his ancestral Mayan gods. From the sixty year Caste War that began in 1848 until 1998 the above structure was a military barracks.
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Looking west from the church door tranquil fresh air with no motor traffic or stop lights offers a blessed contrast to Mérida’s horn-honking high-powered aggressive neurotic pushy packed streets.
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Friendly old “El Goyo” keeps the city plaza spotlessly tidied up. He shows us his treasured watch, a gift from his 45 year old son that immigrated to the US and now-days seldom returns to visit. Many local families are divided by this economic immigration.
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Real wealth is found in the smiling faces of these otherwise economically depleted locals.
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Sotuta’s centuries still speak out in the ornate stone work gleaned from the now non-existent Mayan ruins. The Spanish utilized the temples of old for building materials.
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Under heavy political pressure generated by the Zapatista uprisings in the state of Chiapas, on January 23, 1998 Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo came here to personally give this property back to the people of Sotuta to be used as a museum.
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The Sotuta museum building has an interesting but cloudy history. It is obvious that it stands upon a Mayan temple and the structure is constructed from materials taken from it. The dates of subsequent construction at this site are purely conjecture. It is likely that the famous Mayan king Nachi Cocom had his home here when the Spanish took Sotuta in 1542 and made a prisoner of him in 1549. The Spanish built a military barracks at this spot in the 18th century and it became an armed garrison in 1848, occupied until 1998.
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Within the museum building is found a photo presentation by Humberto Suaste Blanco depicting time honored Mayan rituals from prominent centers of indigenous heritage. Also some history of the Spanish influence with their wars and occupation is explained. An exhibition of many colorful typical regional indigenous costumes from various Mexican locations gives a prospective of diversity like this colorful one from the west.
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Looking out from the museum toward the church gives a panorama little changed over the centuries of colonial Spanish influence.
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Looking down from the same museum balcony to the seldom traveled street below that circles the cities central plaza gives some idea of the tranquil remoteness of Sotuta just 80 kilometers remover from the hustle and bustle of Mérida. The entrepreneurial street vendor has set up a very portable covered kitchen and dining area which is typical of enterprising Latinos.
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In front of the municipal building non-polluting quiet taxis queue up for prospective customers. Few motor vehicles and no stop lights give the place a pleasant charm.
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This is our no frills lunch spot housed in an ancient colonial building on the city plaza.
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Our lunch spot owner Margarita Rejon, seated and her friend Mirna Cocom jovially entertain us with hilarious accounts of local happenings…the food was great.
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Speaking of Cocom, a family name synonymous with nearly five centuries of Sotuta history, here in the central plaza is a stone bust of Nachi Cocom…still a legend.
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Beauty in a smile and friendly pleasantness give this lovely lady bedecked in her typical Mayan hand stitched dress a special charm that make Sotuta a nice place to be. She keeps the park spotlessly and maliciously clean.
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With a Mayan smile this young couple represents Sotuta’s next generation.
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More than just a family, this group has something unique in their backyard. Only three blocks removed from the city plaza they have a cenote and gruta where neighbors come to cool off and swim in its refreshing waters. In years gone by the cenotes were crucial sources of water here in Yucatan where there are no rivers or lakes.
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Above is located the municipal market and the city museum and in the foreground awaits the meat fresh for the morning market. Here there are more bicycles than motor vehicles.
Cocoa or chocolate was cultivated here and used as currency by the Mayan people when the conquistadors first arrived.
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I load our bicycles aboard our bus back to Mérida and get a snooze along the way.
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Our Dahon folding bicycles collapse in twelve seconds and fit in a space the size of a traveling bag easily stowed onboard a taxi, train or airplane. With seven gears they effortlessly roll along with the big bikes.

Here is a short synopsis of chronicled local history;
The peaceful Mayan people ruled the Yucatan until around the year 1000 AD when the Itza invaded giving such names as; Chichen Itza.
The Cocom family dynasty displaced the Xiu at Mayapan around the year 1200.
In 1460 the Xiu family dynasty killed the Cocom leaders and their families.
This led to a war dispersing the family Chels to Ah Kin Chel;
The Cocom family from Mayapan to Sotuta
And the Xiu family to Mani
Below is a painting with historical information found in Mérida’s municipal building.
MAYAN RESISTANCE

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NACHI COCOM;
Nachi Cocom was one of the Mayan leaders during the conquest. His strong, rebellious spirit contributed to his heroic resistance to the Spanish, inflecting many losses on the conquistadors. It was several years before he finally surrendered his arms to the enemy. Now an old man he was forced to accept Christianity, and was baptized in the name of Juan Cocom. However, in secret he continued to worship the stone gods he had never really abandoned.
The following excerpt is from my recommended reading list; Inga Clendinnen’s “Ambivalent Conquests”;
Page 81: “Not long after the, (auto de fe), Landa was urgently called to Sotuta. The heavy summons probably had to do with the suicide in prison before interrogation of Lorenzo Cocom, chief of the head village, lord of the province, and brother and successor to Juan Nachi Cocom, Landa’s old informant, who had died the previous year. Cocom’s suicide was interpreted as proof of his guilty involvement in idolatries.
Certainly fear ran before the friars. When Pizarro and his brothers arrived in the head village they found the villagers had fled, to return only when some of their encomenderos – now identified as their protectors against the assaults of the friars – arrived. In Kanchunup, a village only half a gigue from Sotuta village, two Indians had hanged themselves at word of the friars’ coming. Such proof of ‘wickedness’ strengthened the friars’ resolve and the vehemence of their interrogations. One Spaniard forced to serve as constable to the Inquisition in Sotuta recalled that some chiefs and lords were flogged while they hung suspended until the blood ran. But it was of Hocaba-Homun, with Fray Miguel de la Puebla in charge, that the darkest tales were told. While the Spaniards pressed to serve the inquisition in the other provinces carried out their duties with aversion, the enlisted constable in Hocaba-Homun seems to have taken some pride in his work. Dissatisfied with the hoist, he constructed a version of the ‘burro’, extensively used by the Inquisition in Spain for the administration of torture of the water and the cords. The victim was secured face up on a wooden frame, and cords were twisted around thighs and upper arms. The cords could be tightened by the turning of a rod inserted between the flesh and frame. The victim’s mouth was forced open, and quantities of water were poured in, usually through a cloth to increase the sensation of drowning. In the careful protocol observed by the interrogators of the Spanish Inquisition the accused was given ample time between each ‘turn’ and vessel of water to confess his guilt, but the Hocabá constable observed no such niceties. His individual contribution was to trample on the distended belly of the victim, so that the swallowed water was violently discharged. At least one Indian died lashed to the ‘burro’.
Inga Clendinnen’s Ambivalent Conquests is filled with numerous pearls of insight into the world of Yucatan and the Maya. I will condense analogy she made regarding the relationship between the Maya and honey bees. The Maya had a sense of the mutual benefits of inter-dependence, of the enhancement of the individual through membership of a complex of groups. The Maya had an attachment to collective life between age and youth, male and female, and greater and lesser rank and of man within the natural order. Those routines were to prove durable when subjugation had swept away the external material signs of rank. (This is part of the reason that the Mayan collective community has survived nearly five centuries under conquistador oppression.)

Peaceful places have no history, so Sotuta’s history is packed with incredible events from the conquistadors to the Caste War and the henequen revolution.
If you are interested in history that shaped Mexico you will find each book of my recommended reading well worth the effort.
If you are interested in bicycle adventures then you must cycle this end of the planet.
Try this web site: www.bikemexico.com

The name of Nachi Cocom is from the Maya and “Naal” refers to his mother’s family; thus Na-Chi or mothers name Chi.

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Mani, Yucatán

March 7, 2008

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A visit to Mani, Yucatán by John M. Grimsrud
Mani is a small quaint, quiet and tranquil Mayan village 80 kilometers south south-east of the capital city of Mérida. Nearby is the shoe and pottery manufacturing city of Ticul plus the garden market capital of Yucatan, Oxkutzcab.
Mani is also situated on the age-old seldom traveled but famous “Ruta de Los Conventos’.
This seemingly unpretentious diminutive settlement has the incredible distinction of being continuously inhabited by one of the most technically advanced civilizations the world had ever known for the past 4,000 plus years… an astonishing and impressive claim to fame that few places on this planet could proclaim.

Today minute and modest Mani is serenely passive but this off-the-highway rural community was once the tragic site of one of the most heinous degradations of cultural heritage and spiritual annihilation that this world has ever witnessed.
January 6th, 1542 the Spanish conquistadors established a permanent encampment on the Yucatan peninsula at the height of their fanatic inquisition fired religious rampage.
This was a mere fifty years after the first Spanish explorer; Christopher Columbus set foot upon the New World at the Bahamas Islands.

Between 1549 and 1559 under the tyrannical direction of Fray Juan de Mérida the enslaved indigenous Maya were forced to pull down their ornate astronomically oriented sacred temples that pre-dated Christianity by thousands of years and with the remnants build a Catholic church and convent upon their native soil.
The inquisition crazed conquistadors inflamed by self-righteousness were mandated by their God to plunder the Yucatan’s indigenous residents whom they deemed to be heathen heretics that worshiped ancient pagan gods in false temples indulging themselves in unholy sacrifices which they had been doing for more than three very un-Christian millenniums.
The Spanish inquisitionists were by this point in time well practiced in ethnic cleansing and imperialistic expansionism having successfully purged the Iberian peninsula of the Jews and Moors.
In spite of the 500 years of degradation, slavery and absolute plunder of the Mayan civilization it is a remarkable attribute to these long suffering original inhabitants of Yucatan that they still to this day perpetuate the sacred rituals of their ancestors, speak in their original Mayan tongue and even dress in their traditional custom.
To this day the Mayan daily partakes of the culinary specialties of their ancestors.
These Maya are the people that brought the human race such things as corn (maize), tobacco, chocolate, cotton, tomatos, pineapple, peanuts, chili peppers and turkeys that have all impacted mankind monumentally to this day.
Besides a myriad of food products the indigenous of the Yucatan introduced to global humanity they also were the hemispheric healers armed with thousands of medicinal plants that even now enhance more than 500 American prescription drugs.
Quinine and ipecac are still standards of the pharmacy but cannabis and hallucinogenic mushrooms eased pain and altered the mental state that were but a few in the huge inventory of medicinal remedies dispensed by these technologically advanced original inhabitants.
What the Mayan received in return from the Spanish conquistadors were horses, rats, cockroaches, pigs, weeds, fruit trees and thousands of men all infused with diseased petulance that unleashed a pandemic that rapidly dwindled the indigenous populace.
Smallpox murdered more native Americans than several hundred years of systematic Spanish slaughter.
There definitely was some pay-back involved when the Indigenous of America sent home to Europe syphilis with Christopher Columbus that became epidemic by 1495, along with tobacco and cannabis to smoke. The great exchange saw winners and losers on both sides.
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Former convent San Miguel Arcángel in Mani, Yucatán as seen today.
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THIS PEACEFUL COURTYARD IN NEAR THE ATRIUM WHERE FRAY DIEGO DE LANDA BURNED THE MAYAN BOOKS AND THEIR RELIGIOUS ARTIFACTS WHILE BRUTALLY TORTURING HIS VICTIMS.
To further plunder these overrun indigenous, in 1562 Fray Diego de Landa burned and destroyed 5,000 Mayan figures of their God, 13 altars, 27 parchment books made of deer hide and 197 decorated pottery containers of worship.
All of this was done to drive these “heartless heathens” to Christianity.
From the book “Genesis” by Eduardo Galeano; 1562: Mani page 137

The Fire Blunders

Fray Diego de Landa throws into the flames, one after the other, the books of the Mayas.
The inquisitor curses Satan, and the fire crackles and devours. Around the incinerator, heretics howl with their heads down. Hung by the feet, flayed with whips, Indians are doused with boiling wax as the fire flares up and the books snap, as if complaining.

Tonight, eight centuries of Mayan literature turn to ashes. On those long sheets of bark paper, signs and images spoke: They told of work done and days spent, of the dreams and the wars of a people before Christ. With hog-bristle brushes, the knowers of things had painted these illuminated, illuminating books so that the grandchildren’s grandchildren should not be blind, should know how to see themselves and see the history of their folk, so they should know the movements of the stars, the frequency of eclipses and prophecies of the gods and so they could call for rains and good corn harvests.

In the center, the inquisitor burns the books. Around the huge bonfire, he chastises the readers. Meanwhile, the authors, artist-priests dead years or centuries ago, drink chocolate in the fresh shade of the first tree of the world. They are at peace, because they died knowing that memory cannot be burned. Will not what they painted be sung and danced through the times of the times?

When its little paper houses are burned, memory finds refuge in mouths that sing the glories of men and of gods, songs that stay on from people to people and in bodies that dance to the sound of hollow trunks, tortoise shells, and reed flutes.

***
As atonement for destroying the books of one of the greatest civilizations the world had known obliterating their art, literature, mathematics, astronomy and medicines Fray Diego de Landa wrote a document of the conquers view entitled; “Relation de Cosas de Yucatan”.
***
Disembarking the local bus from Merida on a week-day morning at the central plaza in modest little Mani we were pleasantly struck by the hushed quiet and unhurried tempo of life so seldom found anywhere in the world today.
Jane and I spent an incredibly interesting day at Mani, shooting 350 photos between the two of us, had a very memorable meal of the traditional Mayan Poc Chuc at one of the smaller restaurants named “La Conquista” on a side street less than two blocks from the church and laid plans to incorporate Mani into our cross-country bicycle touring.
(We have made our return to Mani by bicycle and it again proved to be a very special place that somehow generates haunting sensations of the great Mayan civilization that called this place home for over 4,000 years and to this day has not lost its grip.)
If you are looking for quiet, peaceful and serene, then week-day visits are a must.
I must add here that in this world of rapidly changing times you owe it to yourself to visit this minute look into the past at Mani if for no other reason than the winds of change have piped-up and are spreading fast.
Consider this; in the early 1970s when I first visited the Yucatan peninsula over half of the inhabitants lived in thatched roofed palapa houses as they had since they first settled here 4,000 plus years ago.
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MANI HAS A CONSPICUOUS LACK OF MOTOR VEHICLES AND STREET NOISE. OBSERVE THE CONTRASTS; THE PALAPA THATCHED ROOF HOUSE, (RIGHT) THE MAYAN LADY,( MESTIZA) IN HER TRADITIONAL DRESS, (HUIPIL) AND CARRYING ON HER HEAD IN THE TRADITIONAL WAY HER MAIZE, (CORN) TO BE GROUND AT THE MOLINO, (CENTER). WITH THE EXCEPTIONS OF THE PLASTIC BOWL ON THE HEAD OF THE LADY AND THE TIENDA, (LEFT) WITH ITS GAUDY COCA-COLA SIGNS THIS SCENE COULD HAVE TAKEN PLACE SEVERAL THOUSAND YEARS AGO.
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BEDECKED IN GOLD THE RETABLO OBSCURES THE RECENTLY RESTORED ORIGINAL PAINTED FRESCOS PARTIALLY VISIBLE ABOVE THE ALTAR.
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THE MASSIVE CHURCH WALLS ARE THE REPOSITORY FOR THE STONES THAT FORMERLY COMPRISED THE MAYAN TEMPLE THAT HAD ORIGINALLY STOOD UPON THIS VERY SPOT.
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WE SPENT REFLECTIVE MOMENTS AND TRANQUIL TIME HERE IN THIS ANCIENT CONVENT AND CHURCH CONVERSING OF THE HAUNTING EVENTS THAT TOOK PLACE WITHIN THESE VERY WALLS.
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THE MASSIVE MANI CHURCH AND CONVENT BUILT UPON THE SITE OF THE FORMER MAYAN TEMPLE AS IT IS TODAY AND LITTLE CHANGED FOR THE PAST 450 YEARS.
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THIS IS THE CORRIDOR OF MANI’S MUNICIPAL BUILDING WITH ITS COLONIAL SPANISH ARCHES AND EXPOSED WOODEN “VIGAS” OR CEILING RAFTERS BUILT WITH STONE FROM MAYAN TEMPLES.
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THIS PAINTING HANGS IN THE CORRIDOR OF THE MUNICIPAL BUILDING. IT DEPICTS THE “AUTO DE FE” OF 1562 WHEN THE SACRED WORKS OF THE MAYA WERE DESTROYED. IN THE SAME CORRIDOR IS A DISPLAY OF RECENT PHOTOS OF THE MAYA OF MANI MAKING A CEREMONY TO CHAK, THEIR GOD OF RAIN.
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WITHIN THE MUNICIPAL BUILDING IS LOCATED THIS SCHOOL THAT PROUDLY PROCLAIMS; “NO TOBACCO SMOKE SCHOOL”.
OBSERVE THE ORNATE MAYAN HAND CARVED STONE DOOR JAMBS THAT ARE BUT SMALL REMINDERS OF THE GLORIOUS TEMPLE THAT THEY WERE TAKEN FROM AND THE IMMACULATELY CLEAN SURROUNDINGS.

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A LOOK AT THE OLDER SIDE OF MANI WITH A PALAPA THATCHED ROOF HOME THAT IS QUICKLY BECOMING A THING OF THE PAST. THIS TRADITIONAL STYLE OF HOME CONSTRUCTION DATED BACK THOUSANDS OF YEARS HERE IN YUCATAN.
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A STREET VIEW FROM A SMALL CHAPEL REVEALS MANI’S TRANQUILITY.
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PLAYFUL YOUNG GIRLS OF MANI ARE DESCENDANTS OF CONQUISTADORS AND THE MAYA MIXED.
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HERE IN THIS OPEN AIR KITCHEN ON THE SOUTH WEST CORNER OF THE ZÓCALO PLAZA A WOMAN IS PREPARING PUCHERO OVER AN OPEN FIRE ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE MUNICIPAL BUILDING. PUCHERO IS A TRADITIONAL THICK MEATY SOUP WITH LOTS OF VEGETABLES. THIS LUNCH IS FOR SCHOOL CHILDREN AND IS DISPENSED FOR TWO PESOS PER PERSON OR 20 U. S. CENTS.
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OUR TALENTED WAITER AT THE LA CONQUISTA RESTAURANT PROUDLY DISPLAYS ONE OF HIS MANY PAINTINGS THAT ADORN THE DINING AREA ALONG WITH WORKS DONE BY HIS FATHER.
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OUR AMPLE AND DELICIOUSLY SAVORY LUNCH OF POC CHUC
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THIS IS OUR BUS BACK TO MERIDA BEING LOADED WITH A PAY-LOAD OF LOCALLY GROWN PRODUCE DESTINED FOR THE MARKETS THERE.
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So dear reader as you can see a day-trip out of Merida can be action packed, fun filled, informative, educational and extremely unusual…like a trip into another time and place.
After this day-trip you will be back to Merida in plenty of time for a leisurely dinner and an evenings worth of entertainment.

For more on Mani and our later bike trip there, click the link below: http://bicycleyucatan.blogspot.com/2007/08/kaxil-kiuic-yucatan.html

CUZAMÁ VIA TECOH, CHIQUILÁ, SABACCHÉ, OCHIL AND CHUNKANÁN

March 4, 2008

CUZAMÁ VIA TECOH, CHIQUILÁ, SABACCHÉ, OCHIL AND CHUNKANÁN BY BIKE, BUS AND COLECTIVO TAXI  by John M. Grimsrud

map cuzamaQuiet country roads through picturesque Yucatan are well worth the effort and pay back with early morning tropical birds, plus brilliant tropical flowers that change season by season sweetly perfuming the air.

Escaping Mérida’s pushy-shovey horn honking, tail-gating belligerent bumper-to-bumper neurotic drivers is like flushing the proverbial toilet…and it feels so good when it is finally gone.

Our escape Mérida bicycle trip is only a little over 30 kilometers long from Tecoh to Cuzamá but the narrow little road coupled with a brand new paved section connecting Ochil to Chunkanán, that is not even on the map makes a neat cycling  loop with plenty of photo opportunities.  For the complete story with photos in a word document, click here.

For the story on published on our other blog, click here.