Family Entertainment, au natural - April 2009

By Mari Pintkowski

If you have ever visited the eco-parks in the Riviera Maya like Xcaret or Yal-ku or the magical cenotes near the Coba ruins, you may have wondered how they were discovered, excavated and are maintained.

On the days that I drive along the Coba Road on the way to and from our boutique hotel, La Selva Mariposa, I pass the brightly painted entrance to Hacienda San Agustin at km. 6. I often wondered what was behind those yellow hacienda walls. A few months ago a new sign appeared in front of the entrance announcing “La Ruta de los Cenotes,” and this intrigued me even more.

My husband and I decided it was time to explore! We stopped recently on our way home and met Luis, one of the workers and soon to be guides for this cultural attraction. He was happy to stop mixing concrete and show us around. Luis said there was no charge until the cenotes were open and ready to swim in, but in the end, we could not resist giving him a tip for his time and enthusiasm.

Our tour began with an explanation that this was an authentic example of a colonial hacienda that was dedicated to St. Augustine. The small chapel is dominated by an altar, covered with delicately embroidered altar cloths and statues of the saint and the famed Virgin of Guadelupe (often referred to as Queen of Mexico), along with an old framed photo of an unknown young woman from this historical period. A large wooden crucifix that leaned against one of the side walls. It was unlike the typical Mayan crosses that are often covered with a huipil. Luis let us know that on August 28th, the Saint’s feast day, a procession is held along the road and through the hacienda grounds before it comes to an end at the chapel where a Mass is said by one of the local Catholic priests. Participants attend from as far away as Playa del Carmen. There is most always a meal that includes cochinita pibil cooked in a pit fire, or the traditional saucy one-dish meal, k’ool or relleno negro.

Adjacent to the chapel is the corrida or bull fighting ring, also neatly trimmed in the hacienda colors of yellow and white. With a gleam in his eye, Luis mentioned that there would be a bull fight on that day. Like “bull fights” in all the Mayan pueblos, the bull is only young local cattle and the “fight” is nothing more than a tease and run. It is never meant to be a bloody spectacle with a fight to the finish. Often the local drunk decides to step into the ring and give it a try.

We then walked over to look at the typical Mayan home with the walls made of thin vertical sticks cut from developing jungle trees that are woven together and bound with a few vines. Many of these same types of huts still exist, but the vines have mostly been replaced by nails and the sticks are not woven. The foundation and floor are made of broken pieces of limestone covered with dirt that is pressed and smoothed. The four pillars inside support the structure. The roof is sharply pitched and covered with palm fronds. Window openings are covered with criss-crossed sticks to allow for ventilation and some privacy and security. Some of the items on display in the house (nah) are antiques and others have been fabricated to show what tools were used in the household for daily living. A fire pit is fashioned on the dirt floor at one end of the house. This area is most commonly used by the woman of the house. The fire is bordered by three large stones, which support the griddle (xmach or comal) while making tortillas (pak’ach), or pots when boiling water or cooking. A net, woven of sisal or henequen, hangs from the ceiling beams in this area and holds an
assortment of bowls made from gourds. Luis pointed out a slanted stone instrument called ka that was used with a rolling pin (k’ab) to grind the achiote or annatto seeds that are used to season the food. The ancient Maya used the ground-up seeds to color the plaster on their structures. If you see this red color when you are visiting ruins you will know of its enduring quality. A collection of other kitchen and household tools are hanging or displayed around the house. The hammock or k’aan that is used for sleeping and lounging is strung at the opposite end of the house. This is an excellent example of the early hammock that is woven of sisal or henequen. Behind the house there is a raised wooden basin set up next to a deeply carved stone bowl filled with water for washing clothes.

Luis showed us a stone well about five feet tall that did not have water in it, but he said something similar to this was used to get water from the underground cenotes for drinking and cooking. There was a larger concrete pond that was connected to the windmill that was actually functioning and bringing up water to feed the animals when there was enough wind power. Many of the trees in the yard are labeled with signs, and when I spotted the orange tree, I asked Luis if it was dulce (sweet) and he replied, “No, agria (sour).” I asked if there were any sweet oranges on the property and he said no, because the soil was very poor and rocky, as it is all over this part of the Yucatan Peninsula. I was curious to see the anona tree and its fruit. I have heard that the anona is a host plant for some species of butterflies. We planted one on our property in order to attract these delicate-winged creatures. There were also wild papaya, lime, and achiote trees.

I was anxious to venture over to the animal pens that housed some of the domestic and bush animals that are found in this part of the Yucatan. Most of them are still being used by the Mayans in their homes or are living in the jungles just beyond our reach. There were rabbits, turkeys, ducks, roosters, chickens, peacocks, ornamental pigeons, colorful little parakeets, a monkey and a family of peccaries (kitam). Just beyond this area there are pens for the tiny horses that are typical of what was used for transportation in the Colonial days in this area. They have a tiny saddle for the horses, and one day when I took my grandson, Kaidan, for a visit, the kind caretaker put a saddle on the one of the horses and offered to take him for a ride. Even the cow was a miniature species. The llama had just given birth, and one of the three goats was expecting momentarily. The cages were clean and most of the animals, besides the sad, lonely monkey, looked content. Louis tried to explain how the municipal and state governments are helping the project by loaning animal
partners for breeding rather than donating the animals. A green field of shoulder high corn (xi’im) called a milpa or in Maya, kol , glistened in the sunny field behind the animal cages. The field is usually planted in the rainy season, because the young plants need constant water in order to grow. The milpa is considered a sacred place where the farmer works very hard and feels secure. It is also quite dangerous. The greatest danger is snakes (kano’ob). The ancient Maya believed the milpa was guarded by sacred forest spirits (in Spanish: aluxes or in Maya: aluxo’ob).

Now that we had finished touring the area where the family and workers might have lived, we proceeded down the yellow and white stone lined path (sac-be) to investigate the cenotes. Luis said the rocks had been painted yellow so that the route would be easy to follow. He and I both agreed that this would have been better left au natural.

To the right of the path was a large rocky looking area that is part of a reforestation project in which 1,000 cedar trees have been planted. It was evident to see that this alone was no easy task. We passed an area with high fences that was being cleared and prepared for deer to soon inhabit. The workers carried the cut branches and leaves on their back to an area where they would burn it at the end of the dry season (May) in order to fertilize the soil.

The first cenote,100 meters along the path, is called Tam Ha. A sturdy set of steps leads down about thirty feet to the base of the cave-type cenote. A pump is set up in the
water to remove the silt and carry it in a tube to another part of the property. A woman was dressed in a diving suit and tanks lay on the ground next to her. Luis explained that she was exploring the underground cenote system that connects to the other cenotes in the park. The bank was lined with several layers of sand bags that had been placed there for protection from flooding caused by sludge removal. Later he showed us a cenote that had no water in it at this time because it was all filtering into the first cenote that was being dredged. They had been working on this area of the park for four months; clearing the vines and unwanted plant growth, moving rocks, building the steps and railings and cleaning the water. Luis thought it would take a few more months to complete this part of the project. I could see progress since I had been for my first visit a few weeks earlier, but suspected that it would take way more than a few months.

The next cenote, Ich tunich, was located another 100 meters down the sac-be (white road). The path leading to the cenote widened and opened up as it led downward to a semi-circular, cave-like area that had been cleaned. Observation benches and trash receptacles were strategically placed along the sandy path. There are plans for a zip line to cross this large indented section, and according to Luis the equipment has already been ordered. Once inside the cave, we were fascinated by the massive tree roots fighting their way through the rock to reach water. Luis showed us an ancient carved stone serpent that had been discovered since my last visit. The serpent-like creature with teeth was recognizable and was now surrounded by a small fence.

He led us to the other side of the large cave and pointed out the stalactites and stalagmites that were created when calcium deposits in the water dripped through the rocks, creating magnificent rock formations. Five childlike, carved round faces were discovered on the wall at the entrance of the cave. When Lou asked their significance, Luis explained that they were carved by Mayans who were entering the cave. He showed us the remains of a rock formation that was believed to collect rain water as it rolled down the hill into the cenote.

The terrain started to get a bit rougher as we hiked up-hill to the next cenote. I unexpectedly stepped into a hidden hole and got a minor scratch, but no importa, we continued on our tour. Luis told us that this part of the sac-be that led to at least ten more cenotes would not be lined with yellow painted rocks, it would be more natural. There was evidence of the original raised sac--bes that connected this site to Tulum and Coba. Luis showed such pride as he talked about the ancient Mayas who inhabited this site long before the conquistadors invaded the area and turned these proud people into slaves.

It is easy to see that there is much work yet to be done and that each day, poco a poco, the park will move a little closer to its goal. I do think it is worth seeing a project like this in the process so that you will appreciate the finished product even more, as well as grow to appreciate how fragile this ecosystem is and how interconnected it all is. If you are contemplating buying property in the Yucatan Peninsula, this project will give you a good idea of the amount and type of work that will need to be done before you can build your home. For now, there are plants to water and weeds to pull back at our own little piece of paradise, La Selva Mariposa, just up the road at km 20.

Mari Pintkowski lives with her husband Lou at their B&B, La Selva Mariposa, in Macario Gomez. Her book Embarking on the Mariposa Trail can be purchased through Her first children’s book about life at their B&B, Molly the Gecko Hunter, is currently being published.

Mari Pintkowski