Travels & Traditions: Yucatan, Mexico - #404

BURT WOLF: The Yucatan Peninsula on the east coast of Mexico juts out into the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf. It is one of the ancestral homes of the Maya who settled here about 4000 years ago.

The Yucatan’s nearness to the islands of the Caribbean and the Maya’s contacts with distant

cultures made it a trading center, but it also produced a culture that valued scholarship, artistic creativity, and a sophisticated lifestyle. Within the Mexican state of Yucatan you will find the most impressive concentration of Maya ruins.

You will also discover some of the finest colonial cities. Merida is the capital of the Yucatan and filled with colonial architecture.

The Yucatan is also lined with coastal communities that are famous for their beaches and their wild life.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The story of how the Yucatan got its name represents one of the classic encounters between Europe and the Americas. As the first Spanish explorers came ashore they were greeted by a group of Maya. The head of the Spanish expedition, in Spanish of course, asked the Maya what they called their land. The Maya replied “Yucatan” which roughly translates as, “I’m terribly sorry but I don’t really understand what you’re saying.” And from that day forth this part of Mexico has been known as “I don’t understand what you’re saying”, or Yucatan for short.

BURT WOLF: At about the same time the Roman Empire was falling the Maya were standing up. They started building magnificent temples devoted to the god of rain. Their palaces and municipal buildings were as impressive as the structures of ancient Greece, Rome or Egypt.

They recorded their history on stone monuments using hieroglyphs.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Maya had a natural appreciation for both mathematics and astronomy. They were fascinated with the idea of measuring time and developed one of the earliest and most accurate calendars. Eventually however, they began worshiping time and their entire life was controlled by a time-based bible. The book told them when a particular god wanted something done and god help you if it didn’t happen.

BURT WOLF: Mayan agriculture was highly advanced. They grew corn, chili peppers, runner beans, tomatoes, and cacao, which was used to make chocolate. The cacao beans were also used as a form of money. The Maya were the largest indigenous group in the Americas. In addition to living in Mexico, there were Maya communities in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. And they lived with rigid class distinctions. Those who had it flaunted it and those who didn’t, didn’t. And to make sure you knew who had it and who didn’t the nobility flattened the skulls of their children so you could tell them from the masses.

The general population who were not part of the privileged classes lived in thatched wooden huts, an architectural style that is still found throughout rural Yucatan. The huts are oval and made of wood frames. The walls are filled in with branches and the spaces between the poles are filled with mud. The roof is made of waterproof palm leaves. The whole thing is about the size of a one-car garage.

Like their post-Columbian ancestors present-day Maya prefer hammocks to beds—having a gentle breeze circulating completely around you is their form of air conditioning. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When Columbus first saw a hammock, he was so impressed that he ordered a version as a space-saving bed for his sailors. The idea was quickly accepted by European fleets and for the past 500 years hammocks have been part of navy gear. Now the trick to sleeping in one is to sleep on the diagonal and that way when you wake up in the morning you won’t be shaped like a pretzel.

BURT WOLF: Today Merida is the center of Maya hammock making and selling. When you’re buying one it’s helpful to know that nylon is better than cotton and silk is the best of all. The larger the hammock the more comfortable. And the more end strings used to produce a given hammock the better—fifty is a minimum, anything less will not be strong enough.

Yucatan’s southern district is known as the Puuc region—which means “hill country”. Archeologists estimate that at one point during the 9th century hundreds of thousands of Maya lived here. These days only the ruins of their classic period remain. 

This is Uxmal. It was the intellectual and cultural center of the Yucatan. Today the site is one of the important tourist attractions of the Yucatan.

Juan Carlos Delgado is of 100% Maya decent and an official guide to the site.

JUAN CARLOS DELGADO ON CAMERA: This is the Pyramid of the Magician or the Pyramid of the Dwarf. According to a legend, this pyramid was built in only one night by a dwarf with supernatural powers. But of course, it wasn’t built in only one night. Actually, we have 5 temples. Each one was built in a period of time of 52 years. Going up this first flight of steps, on the first landing you can see a doorway and that façade pretty well decorated. That’s the 4th one and the 5th temple is just at the very top. This building was used to worship the rain god Chac because by these steps you can see little representations of these gods. 12 on the left side. 12 on the right side as well. You see take a look at the 4th temple. The 4th temple actually it’s a huge mask. You can see that the doorway is a mouth. Over the doorway you can see a broken stone sticking out. That’s the nose and at each side of this nose you can see some eyes. Take a look at the whole façade. That’s a huge mask of the rain god and on the corners of this façade is decorated with those Chac masks as well or the Rain God.

So that’s the Governor’s Palace. This is not a religious building but a civil building. This building is considered the masterpiece of the whole Mesoamerican cultures. Experts believe that the Mayas choose approximately 20,000 carved stones just for the decoration. And take a look at the central doorway. The widest one. Up there you can see a throne and a torso on that throne. That’s considered the representation of the last governor from here. And the name of this governor was Ah Suytok Tutul Xiu.

BURT WOLF: Uxmal is considered to be the purest example of Maya architecture but very little is known about its history. At about 900 A.D. Uxmal was abandoned—probably as the result of a military invasion.

The Yucatan rests on a giant sheet of porous limestone covered by a thin layer of soil. There is a considerable amount of rainfall during the rainy season but all of it quickly drains through the soil and the limestone. As a result there are no above ground lakes or rivers in the Yucatan. But the entire region is crisscrossed with underground rivers.

When a section of the earth above an underground river collapses an underground waterhole is formed. They’re called cenotes. There are thousands of them in the Yucatan and some are hundreds of feet deep. Most of the Maya cities in the northern Yucatan were built near cenotes.: The Maya believe that they connected our world with the secret and magical world underneath the waters.

Today they are no longer a source of water for drinking and farming but an ideal sheltered swimming hole for locals and tourists.

In 1526, Francisco de Montejo, a young Spanish nobleman who had served under Cortes during the conquest of the Aztecs asked the king of Spain for the right to take military control of the Yucatan Peninsula. He planned to advance the interests of the king, spread the Catholic faith and in the process make a few bucks for himself.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And though I have nothing nice to say about his royal evilness, I have a very positive association with his name. It’s the name of my favorite local beer.:: 

BURT WOLF: Montejo chose the name Merida because the ruins of the Maya city that was once here reminded him of the Roman ruins of Merida in Spain. What can I tell you, the guy was into ruins and ruining. Today the city is famous for its architecture.

Carlos Sosa was my guide.

CARLOS SOSA ON CAMERA: This is the zocalo. The plaza. The main one of the city called the Plaza de la Independencia. It’s the place where a lot of people hang out. And also the place where people come to fix and mend all the problems of the world. This is one of the places you can find the architects of the universe and the plaza is a center of the activities that we have on Sunday where all kinds of displays of handicrafts and music and food. Actors that come here to perform. This is happening every Sunday.

BURT WOLF: The park is lined with confidenciales, s-shaped love seats where, at least in theory confidential conversations can take place.

On the east side of the Plaza is the Cathedral San Ildefonso. It was built during the second half of the 1500s and designed to double as a fortress. It was also the first Catholic cathedral built on the American mainland. Like many churches in the Yucatan the architecture is austere—plain rough worked limestone.

CARLOS SOSA ON CAMERA: This is the Cathedral De San Ildefonso that was built by the end of the 1500s. And as most of the cathedrals they were used as a fortress, this one is considered to be one of the oldest of the American continent. Just right after the Cathedral of Santo Domingo. And as most of them were considered to be fortresses and they were working with a double function. This style of architecture as with most of them is very simple, very big buildings, strong ones but practically the decoration is none.

BURT WOLF: The most valued object in the Cathedral is a 10-foot tall statue known as Christ of the Blisters. Legend has it that the statue was made from a tree that had been stuck by lightning and burned through an entire night but was never destroyed. When a second fire engulfed the statue it developed a few blisters but once again survived. It is considered to have miraculous powers.

On another side of the square is the Governor’s Palace which was built in 1892 and still houses the executive government of the Yucatan. Along the walls are a series of murals painted by Castro Pacheco.

CARLOS SOSA ON CAMERA: Fernando Castro Pacheco is a painter from Merida. He depicted the Mayan history in his murals that we can see here at the Governor’s Palace. The one that we see here behind us, the first one in the middle, it represents the creation of man by the Mayan gods. Two gods on the side of the man that you can see on the mural are representing the twin gods. And the corn which is the material of the man was made out it’s represented right here held by a hand that is supposed to be one of the hands of the gods supporting the heaven in one of the corners. One of the four corners which are the cardinal points and on the sides we can see also the other directions. We have South here. North on top. West and East on the sides and each one of these sides are representing different aspects of the Maya life and the Maya religion.

BURT WOLF: On the corners of many buildings you will notice plaques with paintings of people, animals and other objects with their Spanish names underneath. They were put up during colonial times to teach Spanish to the natives.

For thousands of years the Maya have been growing henequen which is a spiky relative of the agave plant. Agave was once used to make a mildly alcoholic beverage. Today it is used to make tequila. Henequen was used to make rope.

During the late 1800s, European planters began to grow henequen and convert it into rope. The leaves are cut from the plant and processed to produce a strong natural fiber. The equipment was somewhat primitive but it did the job.

The fibers which have enormous strength are hung out in the sun to dry. When all the moisture has evaporated the fibers are bailed and shipped off to rope makers.

Europeans called the fiber “sisal” which is the name of the gulf coast port from which the henequen was shipped. At the end of the 1800s and early 1900s the demand for sisal in Europe and the United States was so great that the plantation owners became enormously wealthy. The height of the boom came during The First World War when the demand for rope was greater than the supply. At the time, Merida, the capital city of the Yucatan had more millionaires per capita then any other city in the world.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Looks like business has dropped off a little bit. Seems that synthetics have taken over the market that once belonged to sisal. There’s still a couple of plants left. They only operate a few days a week and their output goes to craft shops to make rugs and handbags.

BURT WOLF: And one of the best places to shop for local crafts is the government craft shop in Merida. They have representative works from all over the Yucatan. There’s a group that reproduces traditional jewelry designs--earrings, pins and necklaces from the Colonial period. Bags made from sisal and dyed in tropical colors. Lots of pottery and glasses to hold the local beer.

The white dresses embroidered with bright colors that you see are called huipiles. They’ve been worn by Maya women since the 1500s. When the Franciscan missionaries arrived they started preaching modesty. And I guess if you’re going to wear something these are pretty good. Simple, light, loose fitting and traditionally made of cotton—they are well suited to the hot climate. And to watch them being made is a trip. I couldn’t resist buying one for my granddaughter.

The sisal wealth is gone but part of its impact is still around, especially when it comes to eating and drinking. The Maya were some of the great cooks of Mesoamerica. And once you have a tradition of good cooking in place and you add big money you end up with a recipe that usually produces excellent restaurants.

The food here is a mixture of native Maya and Spanish influences. They season much of their food with a blend of herbs and spices. The mixture is spread on pork, chicken or seafood which is grilled, steamed or braised.

One of the best meals I had was at the restaurant in La Mission de Fray Diego which is housed in a 17th century villa in the center of town. It’s small. It’s charming. And the food is good.

I started with a lime soup made with a base of chicken stock and seasoned with lime juice and coriander. Onions, tomatoes, chopped chicken and pieces of fried tortilla are part of the recipe.

The main course was barbecued pork seasoned with bitter oranges and served with a tomato sauce, roasted onions and black beans.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And it goes great with the local beer.

BURT WOLF: The second restaurant that was top notch was Los Almendros. This place has been around since the early 70s and is a favorite with local businessmen at lunch and families at dinner.

One of the things I like about this place is “what you see is what you get”. There is a photograph of each of their dishes on the wall and on the menu. Even if your native language is esperanza you can be sure of what you’re ordering.

I started with Panuchos—home made tortillas filled with black beans and topped with shredded turkey, tomatoes, lettuce and sliced onion.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And it goes perfectly with the local beer.

BURT WOLF: Next up was Papadzules—tacos filled with chopped hard-boiled egg and served in a pumpkin seed sauce with tomato sauce. And finally, Cochinita Pibil. Pibil refers to the ancient Maya method of pit-roasting meat in a stone-lined hole in the ground. In this case, pork has been rubbed with a mixture of bitter oranges, tomatoes and onions and wrapped in a banana leaf.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It ends up being baked and steamed and at the same time infused with the flavors of the spices and the banana leaf. And it goes perfectly with the local beer.

BURT WOLF: While I was in the Yucatan I stayed at the Hotel Villa Mercedes. It’s rated as a five-star property. There are only about 80 rooms and suites which make it small enough so the staff can really care for you.

It’s managed by Edith Chablé who has a great sense of hospitality. When she says you are my guest she means it. Of course, the first time she said it to me she said it in Spanish which slowed me down a little but her English is excellent.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: She also told me that my ancient fear of drinking water in Mexico was unfounded in her hotel. All the water used for drinking including the water used to make the ice is filtered. And that’s true for many of the restaurants in the Yucatan that cater to tourists.

BURT WOLF: In 1903, the first consul of France bought a villa that had been around for decades and transformed it into his personal residence. It stayed in the family until 1997 when it was transformed into a hotel, but it still has much of the feeling of a grand villa.

Parts of the family photo album are in public places. And other parts are in private. Breakfast is my favorite meal and Villa Mercedes gets 10 out of 10. Every morning there was a full buffet. They also have a chef standing by to prepare any special dishes you have in mind. They introduced me to Huevos Motulenos—a tortilla coated with black bean paste, covered with a fried egg and topped with tomato sauce, chopped ham and peas. I had a half portion every morning.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Gracias. And it goes perfectly with the local beer.

BURT WOLF: You don’t have to spend much time under the Yucatan sun to appreciate the value of a good hat. Most of the local men and male tourists have succumbed to the baseball cap. But some have held to the tradition of the Panama—the Rolls Royce of tropical headgear. This is the hat shop of La Casa de los Jibis, a hat shop in the market of Merida, and an excellent place to indulge your millinery madness. Contrary to its name, the Panama hat is not a native of Panama.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: North American engineers, who went to Panama to work on the canal liked the lightweight local straw hats and began wearing them and calling them Panamas. But to tell you the truth, workers in Central America, South America, and Mexico had been wearing them for years. During the 1920s, travelers began wearing them and eventually they caught on in Europe and United States as an item of upscale menswear.

BURT WOLF: Panama hat making is a complex and delicate task which in the Yucatan is still done by hand in much the same way that it has been done for thousands of years. Once the weaving has begun the straw must be moist which requires a humid environment and lots of water. The finer the weave, the higher the quality. There are pits and caves in the Yucatan where the great Panama hat makers work. They provide a naturally humid environment which is perfect for weaving.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I was going to take you to the cave where this hat was made but last night the cave caved in—strange but true. The finest example of these hats are called finos and they can sell for over $1000. This one however was $45, but I got it for $40 because I bought five of them.

BURT WOLF: And the hats go perfectly with the local beer. Properly attired with our hats we are ready to head out to the national park of Celestun.

In 1997 Mexico set aside almost 200,000 acres of beach and mangrove jungle and designated the area as the Celestun wildlife refuge. It’s of particular interest to tourists because of the flocks of wild flamingos that come to the shallow waters to feed.

The name Flamingo comes from the Spanish flamenco, which means flaming. It’s a reference to the birds’ bright orange and electric pink plumage which is the result of the carotene in the algae, larvae, shrimp and other minute life that they eat.

To us, male and female flamingoes are identical in appearance but they must have a very reliable way of telling each other apart because when they mate they form a monogamous couple for the rest of their lives which can last up to thirty years.

Just west of the wildlife refuge is the small fishing village of Celestun. It’s perched on a narrow peninsula connected to the mainland by a causeway that crosses over a lagoon which is part of the national park. A non-profit organization, Pronatura, works with Celestun’s 6,000 residents to help preserve the natural resources while developing the local economy of Maya fisherman.

And those natural resources are magnificent. From the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, that’s TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.