Discover Mayan history along Mexico’s first trek

West of the tourist-packed beaches of Cancun, a network of old walking trails and disused rail lines has been transformed into the Camino del Mayab (the Mayan Way), Mexico’s first long-distance trail.

Developed with local Mayans, the trail tells the story of Mexico’s indigenous people 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 a five-day hike takes visitors into the heart of the Mayan world in the Yucatán, from Dzoyaxché, a small community built around the faded yellow walls of a 19th-century hacienda, about 15 miles west. south of Mérida, to the excavated temples of Mayapán, one of the last great Mayan capitals.

“The main objective of the Camino del Mayab is to protect the culture, history and heritage of the Mayan communities, everything that is in danger of being lost,” explains Alberto Gabriel Gutiérrez Cervera, director of EcoGuerreros, the environmental conservation organization that helped to build and drive the road. “Camino del Mayab is a project that is not just for tourists, it is a project for all people from all communities.”

After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century, the Maya were left at the bottom of a racial caste system imposed by European colonizers. The Mayan language was second only to Spanish, while the Mayan temples were torn down and the stones were used to build Christian churches.

The Mayans remain at a disadvantage in their homeland today, says Gutiérrez Cervera, who is of Mayan descent. The lack of opportunities in rural areas forces many to seek construction work in Mérida or hotel jobs in Cancún, which continue to erode Mayan culture.

He hopes that the Path of the Mayab can begin to change that. “We want to offer an opportunity through tourism so that people can choose to stay in their community,” he says.

A history of farms

Nearly 3,000 years ago, the first Mayan cities were carved out of forests like the ones at Dzoyaxché, where I join a small group on a bicycle along the Camino del Mayab. By the 7th century AD, the Mayan civilization had spread throughout Central America and southern Mexico, building monumental temples such as those at Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala.

Drought, war, and overpopulation caused the Mayan empire to collapse in the 9th century. When Europeans arrived in the Americas in the late 15th century, the Mayan civilization had recovered, only to find itself under attack by Spanish colonization. Spanish conquistadors began ravaging the Yucatán in 1527, and in 1542 the Spanish established Mérida on the site of a Mayan settlement called Ti’ho. Colonialism and old world disease ravaged the Maya, and their land was parceled out and given to European settlers.

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Today, the Mayan communities along the trail are located on and near haciendas, haciendas located around large central houses that were created by Europeans after the Spanish conquest. “The history of modern Yucatan is the history of the haciendas,” says Israel Ortiz, community manager and trail guide for EcoGuerreros.

By the 19th century, Yucatan haciendas were growing large amounts of henequen, a fibrous type of agave that can be woven into rope. This “green gold” allowed Mérida to become rich, but it did so at the expense of the Mayans, who were forced into a system of contract labor.

The hacienda system persisted until synthetic products replaced the need for henequen after World War II. Now many of the great houses once occupied by landowners (owners of haciendas) are ghostly and abandoned ruins where cyclists like us seek shelter from the sun.

Some, like Hacienda Yaxcopoil, where we stop for a history lesson shortly after beginning our journey, have been converted into museums or boutique lodges. However, “nothing has really changed,” says Ortiz, “because Hacienda Yaxcopoil is still owned by the same family as it was 200 years ago.”

Life on the Mayan Trail

After a short rest at Hacienda Yaxcopoil, we spend our first night in traditional thatched-roof cabins in San Antonio Mulix before leaving early the next morning for Abalá. Following old henequen transportation routes, we pass beekeepers in the forest, where Ortiz points out markings on the trees used to guide hunters. In a moment of pure joy, we pause in silence as a motmot, or Toh in Mayan, a turquoise bird that the Mayans believed led travelers to water sources, emerges from an abandoned well.

As we go, we stop at some of the 3,000 cenotes that dot the peninsula. These freshwater-filled sinkholes have become one of the region’s most enduring tourist attractions, providing money for local families who collectively own the land.

But given that they were traditionally dedicated to Mayan deities such as Chaac (the rain god) or seen as entrances to Xibalbá (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 see cenotes as sacred,” says Ortiz.

It’s a challenging situation, but Ortiz says he would rather the communities manage tourism themselves, rather than sell their natural resources to the highest bidder.

(These are some of the most impressive underwater caves in the Yucatan..)

When we arrive in Abalá, we see another way that the locals are re-establishing their culture. At José Pech Remi’s Casa de los Artesanos de Abalá, traditional Yucatan products, including Huipil dresses, hand-sculpted statues of jaguars and locally sourced honey, line the shelves. “A lot of people work the land here, but they don’t make a lot of money,” says Remi. “Sale [traditional] crafts give people extra income [and] It helps protect our culture and our roots.”

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That’s important as Remi talks about the community’s problems with alcohol and addiction stemming from a history of economic disadvantage. In addition to the craft store, Remi established 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 also showcasing the culture of Abalá.

“Traditions, traditional knowledge and the Mayan language are the most important features of Mayan culture,” adds Gutiérrez Cervera. “Being Mayan means preserving the forest, the water, the animals and the plants. It means preserving the Milpa [crop growing systems] and teach it to the next generations, to perform the Chaa Chaak [a religious ceremony] to ask for rain, and to celebrate Hanal Pixan [“Food for the Souls,” the Maya version of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead] to remember the deaths.”

(This centuries-old British tradition could soon be lost.)

On our third and final morning, we fuel up at the Community Restaurant, a previously abandoned building that has been converted into a local restaurant run by the women of Mucuyche. The restaurant offers down-home 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 like papadzules (rolled corn tortillas stuffed with boiled eggs and bathed in sauce), Tamales (steamed corn dough with meat and vegetable fillings), and poke chuuc (grilled pork marinated in citrus). “To be Mayan is to be proud,” says Neydi Bacab, adding that offering these dishes, in addition to dressing in a handmade huipil and continuing to speak the Mayan language, is another important way of preserving traditions.

Strengthened, we pedal along overgrown trails, teeming with vegetation and wildlife, making our way towards Mayapán, the end point of the Camino del Mayab. There, we leave our bikes at the gate and, with burning legs and aching muscles, climb the steep stone steps to the top of the Temple of Kukulkan, the centerpiece of this ancient Mayan capital. From this elevated vantage point, I can see the forests of the Yucatan and the route we cycled laid out before us.

There is no doubt that the Way of the Mayab is a challenge, a challenge, says Ortiz. It’s also a glimpse into a part of Mexico that few travelers see, one that’s a far cry from the all-inclusive hotel mentality of other, more familiar Mexican destinations. Gutiérrez Cervera plans to extend the Camino del Mayab to a network of trails that surround the entire Yucatan Peninsula, so that more travelers can experience this ambitious style of community tourism.

“With Camino del Mayab, you are not just traveling,” says Gutiérrez Cervera, “you are giving something back to where you are going.”

Richard Collett is a UK-based travel writer who focuses on off-the-beaten-path destinations and cultural tidbits. Follow him on Instagram.

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