West of Cancun’s tourist beaches, a network of old footpaths and disused railroad lines have been transformed into the Camino del Mayab (the Mayan Way), Mexico’s first long-distance trail.
Developed with Mayan locals, the trail tells the story of Mexico’s indigenous peoples and aims to lift the 14 communities that live along its 68-mile route from a history of colonial exploitation and cultural erosion.
A three-day bike ride or five-day hike takes visitors into the heart of the Mayan world of Yucatán, from Dzoyaxché, a small community built around the faded yellow walls of a 19th-century hacienda about 24 km south of Mérida, up to the excavated temples of Mayapán, one of the last great Mayan capitals.
“The main objective of Camino del Mayab is to protect the culture, history and heritage of Mayan communities – all things in danger of disappearing”, explains Alberto Gabriel Gutiérrez Cervera, director of EcoGuerreros, the conservation organization of the environment that helped build and manage the course. “Camino del Mayab is a project that is not just for tourists, it is a project for all people in all communities.”
After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century, the Maya found themselves at the bottom of a racial caste system imposed by European colonizers. The Mayan language came second to Spanish, as Mayan temples were demolished and stones used to build Christian churches.
The Mayans today remain disadvantaged in their country of origin, explains Gutiérrez Cervera, who is of Mayan origin. The lack of opportunities in rural areas forces many people to seek construction jobs in Mérida or hospitality jobs in Cancún, which continue to erode Mayan culture.
He hopes the Camino del Mayab can begin to change that. “We want to provide an opportunity through tourism, so people can make the choice to stay in their community,” he says.
A history of haciendas
Nearly 3,000 years ago, the first Mayan cities were carved out of forests like Dzoyaxché, where I join a small cycling group on the Camino del Mayab. By the seventh century AD, the Maya civilization had expanded across Central America and southern Mexico, building monumental temples such as those at Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala.
Drought, warfare and overpopulation caused the collapse of the Maya Empire in the 9th century. By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas in the late 15th century, Maya civilization had rebounded, only to meet the onslaught of Spanish colonization. Spanish conquistadors began ravaging Yucatán in 1527, and in 1542 the Spanish established Mérida on the site of a Maya settlement named Ti’ho. Colonialism and Old World diseases devastated the Maya, and their lands were parceled out and handed over to European settlers.
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Today, Mayan communities along the trail are located on and near haciendas, estates around large central houses created by Europeans after the Spanish conquest. “The story of modern Yucatán is the story of the haciendas,” says Israel Ortiz, community leader and trail guide for EcoGuerreros.
In the 19th century, haciendas in Yucatán cultivated large quantities of henequen, a fibrous type of agave that can be spun into rope. This “green gold” allowed Mérida to grow rich, but it did so on the backs of the Mayans, who were forced into a system of indentured labor.
The hacienda system persisted until synthetics replaced the need for henequen after World War II. Today many of the grand houses once occupied by hacendados (hacienda owners) are ghostly, abandoned ruins where cyclists like us seek shelter from the sun.
Some, like Hacienda Yaxcopoil, where we stop for a history lesson shortly after the start of our trip, have been transformed into museums or charming accommodations. However, “nothing has really changed,” Ortiz points out, “because Hacienda Yaxcopoil is still owned by the same family as it was 200 years ago.”
Life on the Mayan Way
After a brief rest at Hacienda Yaxcopoil, we spend our first night in traditional thatched huts in San Antonio Mulix before departing early the next morning for Abalá. Following the ancient henequen transport routes, we pass beekeepers in the forest, where Ortiz points out the marks on the trees used to guide hunters. In a moment of pure joy, we pause in hushed silence as a motmot, or Toh in Maya, a turquoise-colored bird that the Maya believe led travelers to water sources, emerges from a well abandoned.
As we continue our journey, we stop at some of the 3,000 cenotes that dot the peninsula. These freshwater-filled sinkholes have become one of the region’s longest-lasting tourist attractions, providing money to local families who collectively own the land.
But since they were traditionally dedicated to Mayan deities like Chaac (the rain god) or seen as entrances to Xibalba (the Mayan underworld), it can be difficult to reconcile their development as tourist attractions with past traditions. . One of them, Cenote Kankirixche, still contains human remains and relics of Mayan rituals. “The Mayans consider cenotes sacred,” says Ortiz.
It’s a tough situation, but Ortiz says he’d rather see communities manage tourism themselves, than sell their natural resources to the highest bidder.
(Here are some of the most breathtaking underwater caves in the Yucatan.)
When we reach Abalá, we see another way the locals are reestablishing their culture. At Jose Pech Remi’s Abalá Craftsmen’s House, traditional Yucatán products, including Huipil dress, hand-carved jaguar statues and locally sourced honey, line the shelves. “A lot of people work the land here, but they don’t make a lot of money,” explains Rémi. “Sale [traditional] crafting gives people extra income [and] helps protect our culture and our roots.
This is significant as Remi speaks to the community’s alcohol and addiction issues stemming from a history of economic disadvantage. Besides the craft store, Remi has created a foundation that organizes opportunities, such as regular cultural events, where there is live music, food and market stalls, creating immediate work for locals, while showcasing the culture of Abalá.
“Traditions, traditional knowledge and the Mayan language are the most important characteristics of Mayan culture,” adds Gutiérrez Cervera. “To be Maya means to preserve the forest, the water, the animals and the plants. It is to preserve the Milpa [crop growing systems] and teach it to the next generations, to perform the Chaa Chaak [a religious ceremony] ask for rain and celebrate Hanal Pixan [“Food for the Souls,” the Maya version of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead] remember the dead.
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On our third and final morning, we refuel at Restaurante Comunitario, a once abandoned building transformed into a local restaurant run by the women of Mucuyche. The restaurant offers homemade alternatives to Hacienda Mucuyche, a popular cenote-filled tourist spot across the street owned by Xcaret, the same company that runs theme parks along the Riviera Maya.
Here, Elsie Maria Neydi Bacab helps prepare dishes such as papadzules (rolled corn tortillas filled with boiled eggs and topped with salsa), tamales (steamed corn dough with meat and vegetable toppings), and pok chuuc (grilled pork marinated in citrus fruits). “To be Mayan is to be proud,” says Neydi Bacab, adding that offering these dishes, in addition to dressing in handmade huipil and continuing to speak the Mayan language, is another important way to preserve the traditions.
Fortified, we cycle along paths overgrown with vegetation and wildlife, pushing towards Mayapán, the end point of the Camino del Mayab. There we leave our bikes at the door and, with burning legs and aching muscles, we climb the steep stone steps to the top of the Temple of Kukulkan, the centerpiece of this ancient Mayan capital. From this high vantage point, I can see the forests of Yucatán and the road we traveled ahead of us.
There is no doubt that Camino del Mayab is a return, a challenge, says Ortiz. It’s also a glimpse into a part of Mexico few travelers see, a part far removed from the all-inclusive hotel mentality of other, more familiar Mexican destinations. Gutiérrez Cervera plans to expand the Camino del Mayab to a network of trails circling the entire Yucatán Peninsula, so more travelers can experience this ambitious style of community tourism.
“With Camino del Mayab you don’t just travel”, says Gutiérrez Cervera, “you return something where you go”.