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My wife Jane and I began this three day excursion busing with our folding bicycles to the seldom visited out of the tourist loop town of Santa Elena formerly known as Nohcacab.
A fascinating chain of events took place in the early 1840s when the famous world traveling explorer and author John L. Stephens and his graphic artist associate Mr. Catherwood struck off into unexplored regions of tropical Yucatan landing at Santa Elena.
Following closely in the footsteps of Stephens and Catherwood, Jane and I set out to bicycle and photograph a portion of that historic 1840s adventure.
The following story is told with captioned photos plus excerpts from John L. Stephens classic book of exploration Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.
We begin this chronicle in Santa Elena where we disembark our bus from Mérida looking at a side of Yucatan seldom seen by visitors.
This is the Nohcacab, (Santa Elena) church as sketched by Mr. Catherwood in 1840 from page 260 of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.
Nohcacab now known as Santa Elena has kept this small corner of town virtually unchanged over all these years as you can see by the above photo we took in February 2008.
Stephens and Catherwood resided in this building, on the east side of the church during their 1840 visit. Attached to the church was their Nohcacab apartment which is now a museum. Here is an excerpt from their book;
“Death was all around us. Anciently this country was so healthy that Torquemada says, “Men die of pure old age, for there are none of those infirmities that exist in other lands; and if there are slight infirmities, the heat destroys them, and so there is no need of a physician there; “but the times are much better for physicians now, and Dr. Cabot, if he had been able to attend to it, might have entered into an extensive gratuitous practice. Adjoining the front of the church, and connecting with the convent, was a great charnel-house, along the wall of which was a row of skulls. At the top of a pillar forming the abutment of the wall of the staircase was a large vase piled full, and the cross was surmounted with them. Within the enclosure was a promiscuous assemblage of skulls and bones several feet deep. Along the wall, hanging by cords, were the bones and skulls of individuals in boxes and baskets, or tied up in cloths, with names written upon them, and, as at Ticul, there were the fragments of dresses, while some of the skulls had still adhering to them the long black hair of women.When Jane and I arrived in February 2008 the skulls were all gone from outside the premises but the museum situated within Stephens’s old apartment featured the mummified remains of cadavers excavated from beneath the floor church.
The floor of the church was interspersed with long patches of cement, which were graves, and near one of the altars was a box with a glass case, within which were the bones of a women, the wife of a lively old gentlemen whom we were in the habit of seeing every day. They were clean and bright and polished, with the skull and cross-bones in front, the legs and arms laid on the bottom, and the ribs disposed regularly in order, one above the other, as in life, having been so arranged by the husband himself; a strange attention, as it seemed, to a deceased wife…”
On a brighter side of the old Nohcacab, (Santa Elena) church is this view of the city central plaza and the municipal buildings adorned for the carnival festival.
Just a half block removed from the central plaza is this humble abode little changed by time and perhaps very similar to the scenes that greeted Stephens and Catherwood upon their 1840 visit.
South of the city center only a kilometer and a half removed in a dense jungle setting was our lovely home base in Nohcacab, (Santa Elena) at the Sacbe Bungalows These rustic immaculately clean cabins commingle with nature and are cooled by the shade of a tropical forest and assisted by ceiling fans. Chirping native birds and fragrant flowering plants make this our kind of place…a jewel to us. Our extremely knowledgeable ecology friendly bicycle group leading friends Basil and Alixa put us on to this rare gem. For the adventure of a lifetime visiting the best that Yucatan has to offer see their web-site; www.bikemexico.com
With eighteen years of dedicated efforts building Sacbe Bungalows into a unique one-of-a-kind jungle escape here in the Ruta Puuc region of Yucatan, the owners Annette and Edgar maintain a high standard. Back in the years when Annette and Edger first settled here obtaining water and electric service was nearly impossible and took a determined persistence. Their deep water well had to be carved through solid rock and undoubtedly cost more than the land. For information and reservations: http://sacbebungalows.com.mx
After depositing our traveling equipment in our cabin at Sacbe Bungalows Jane and I bicycled south seven kilometers through gently rolling hills along the quiet and seldom traveled road. This is part of the Ruta Puuc leading to the Mayan ruins at the archeological site of Kabah and several others.
The above drawing done in 1840 by Mr. Catherwood depicts one of the ceremonial buildings at Kabah after several days of labor had been expended clearing the rank jungle vegetation.
In the background amongst country club style manicured premises you can see the cleared and restored ceremonial buildings at Kabah depicted in Mr. Catherwood’s above drawing along with countless other structures and rubble at various stages of restoration. The drawings of Mr. Catherwood have been of an enormous assistance to archeologists piecing together what nature has brought down in centuries of abandonment.
Ornate adornment of the façade from Kabah is depicted in this portion of a Catherwood drawing used in modern restoration work.
A monumental amount of meticulous effort went into bringing these ruined temples to this present state of order. Consider that Catherwood’s drawings were done 167 years before this photo and in that interim the jungle trees coupled with countless hurricane rains worked destructively doing dedicated damage.
Back in the jungle along a tropical forest path behind the main ruins Jane and I came upon this interesting stand-alone building. One of the points of interest was the six meter deep unguarded hole alongside our path. Upon inspection we recognized it as one of the cisterns constructed by the ancient Mayan people to collect rain water in this area with no rivers, lakes or springs While rereading Incidents of Travel in Yucatan I came across this entry colorfully describing this nearly inconspicuous hole.
“My first visit to this place was marked by a brilliant exploit on the part of my horse. On dismounting, Mr. Catherwood found shade for his horse, doctor Cabot got his into one of the buildings, and I tied mine to this tree, giving him fifteen or twenty feet of halter as a range for pasture. Here we left them, but on our return in the evening my horse was missing, and, as we supposed, stolen; but before we reached the tree I saw the halter still attached to it, and I knew that an Indian would be much more likely to steal the halter and leave the horse than vice versa. The halter was drawn down into the mouth of a cave, and looking over the edge, I saw the horse hanging at the other end, with just rope enough, by stretching his head and neck, to keep a foothold at one side of the cave. One of his sides was scratched and grimed with dirt, and it seemed as if every bone in his body must be broken, but on getting him out we found that, except some scarifications of the skin, he was not at all hurt; in fact, he was quite the reverse, and never moved better than on our return to the village.”Jane and I positively lucked out upon our arrival at Kabah being the only visitors but soon the tour buses started to roll in and the ruins began to take on the atmosphere of a Disneyland theme park. This is the famous Ruta Puuc with half a dozen ancient Mayan archeological sites all grouped within fifty kilometers. Tour groups with busloads full of camera clicking sight-seeing travelers often cram all of these curiosities into one day. The net result is ruin burn-out caused by cerebral overload often leading to blurred dysfunctional recall. Too much too fast and often too many people tends to give a total disconnect to the inspiring spiritual ambiance emitted by the Mayan ghosts haunting their sacred ceremonial temples.
Undisturbed silent tranquility can be attained by the early morning and late afternoon visitors and is well worth the effort.
This Kabah resident’s ancestors have witnessed the arrival of the Maya, conquistadors and now throngs of international jet-setters and for him and his offspring to come not much will change.
Back at Bungalows Sacbe biker Mike is one of the regulars and has made the place his home base for his many Yucatan bicycle transits. Mike has not owned an auto in 30 years.
A new arrival in Santa Elena at the health department is our friend Dr. Carlos Cabrera May in this photo with his assistant and nurse Berny. In this bicycle friendly town Jane, I and Dr. Carlos cycled out to dinner at Valerie Pickles new restaurant the Pickled Onion almost across from our Bungalows Sacbe. A downpour of rain came while we dined but relented to let us get home dry…so ended day one of our Yucatan outback bicycle adventure.
Day two; we are off to an early start with savory scrumptious chicken tacos at a taco stand on the central plaza before striking off to the Mayan ruins, Uxmal.
Clean, neat and quiet, Santa Elena also has a conspicuous lack of motor vehicles making parking easy. The little taco stand is named; El Pollo Vaquero or “The Cowboy Chicken”.
This is the famous ruins of Uxmal and the temple named The House of The Dwarf as drawn by Mr. Catherwood in 1840, three-hundred years after the conquest of Yucatan by the Spanish.
"The House of The Dwarf” photographed in 2008, one hundred and sixty-eight years after Stephens and Catherwood’s visit. Jane and I were early arrivals but we were beaten by a busload of energetic Germans. An interesting phenomenon is the fact that if you clap your hands together in the place where Jane is standing the echo loudly comes back off the ruins sounding like the crack of a rifle.
The House of The Dwarf in 2008; these temples represented an astronomical amount of humans to build especially considering that no modern mechanical equipment was used. The restoration work alone presented a monumental amount of intense dedicated effort.
Mr. Catherwood titled this; “VIEW FROM LA CASA DE LAS MONJAS, UXMAL, LOOKING SOUTH” and you can see in my 2008 photo below the vast improvements recently brought about by present day archeological restorations and renovations. (Note the many additional structures in the background that will give some idea of the enormity of the Uxmal complex.)
A manicured lawn and bank of modern-day lighting equipment concealed beneath the metal panels used in a spectacular nightly light and sound show are but a few of the upgrades featured at present day Uxmal. A curious thing of interest is the intricate and elaborate bas-relief carvings adorning the façade above each door in the above building. Each carving depicts a slightly different Mayan traditional palapa home exactly the same style as those still found throughout Yucatan today and obviously in use for countless millenniums.
You now have a very small sampling of the many Mayan ruins that make up Uxmal. It would be exhaustive to present it all here, so I will just encourage you to come and take a look for yourself and before you do I strongly recommend reading the fascinating book; Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John L. Stephens.
Returning from Uxmal to Santa Elena, (Nohcacab) on our bicycles this interesting sight came into view; ahead is the distant church of Santa Elena perched above the central plaza and Stephens described this very same place in his book.
Here is an excerpt from Incidents of Travel in Yucatan;
We found Stephen’s description of this place amazingly accurate and the only noticeable change since 1840 when it was written was the fact that now there is a new paved and smooth road from Uxmal to Santa Elena. Even using our brakes prodigiously we soon attained 40 kilometers of speed on our decent.
That I might take a passing view of one of these places on my return to Uxmal, I determined to go back by a different road, across the sierra, which rises a short distance from the village of Ticul. The accent is steep, broken, and stony. The whole range was a mass of limestone rock, with a few stunted trees, but not enough to afford shade, and under the reflection of the sun. In an hour I reached the top of the sierra. Looking back, my last view of the plane presented, high above everything else, the church and convent which I had left. I was an hour crossing the sierra, and on the other side my first view of the great plain took in the church of Nohcacab, (Santa Elena) standing like a colossus in the wilderness, the only token to indicate the presence of man. Descending the plain, I saw nothing but trees, until, when close upon the village, the great church again rose before me, towering above the houses, and the only object visible.
We ended our day two dining on typical Yucatecan cuisine at the Chac-Mool restaurant with this group of dedicated long-haul cross-country bicyclers who were next on their way across Mexico and up the mountains to the San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas 8,000 feet above sea level.
This is the group from bikemexico.com finishing their breakfast the next morning at the open air jungle dining area at Bungalows Sacbe.
Beginning day three and our 65 kilometer bike ride north toward Mérida and home.
Biking down out of the Puuc hills, through Ticul and north through the citrus country to Sacalum where we turn east and the road become perceptively smaller.
Neglected and nearly forgotten by the world this is the main street of Citincabchén.
Citincabchén has one claim to fame and it is the product of this quaint little off the road tortilla shop that turned out the best tortillas of our trip and perhaps as good as we have ever had…worth the trip just to sample.
This outpost of civilization is money poor but rich in clean fresh air and tranquility.
Down the road we continue to slip into a seldom visited realm of un-motorized quiet.
This is the Hunabchen railway station that we had passed a number of times in the past riding the old narrow gauge train from Mérida to Peto. That train went out of service back in the mid-1980s and now nature is reclaiming the right-of-way.
Hunabchen doesn’t even rate a mention on our map and the road gets smaller.
This six kilometer stretch of road took us an hour and a half to transit: we did walk.
I said it can’t get any worse and it did! Jane called it “camino feo” or ugly road in English. We did meet other travelers on this stretch and they had this to say; “No es lejos” and “falta poco” or “it is not far” and “just a little further”.
On our 65 kilometer trip back to Mérida this little six kilometer stretch took more out of us than the rest combined. Our bike riding ended in X'canchakan where we boarded a bus for Mérida. At 3PM we were in our favorite coffee shop in Mérida, Caffé Latté enjoying a cold frappe and letting the shadows get a little longer before we sauntered home.
Looking back at this three day outing it seems like we packed three months worth of activities into just three days adventure.