Treasure Hunting Along the Cobá Road
By Mari Pintkowski
At times the sun, sand and wind are very dramatic along the coast, and you may find that they will drain rather than invigorate you after a few days. This is the time to think about what else this tropical region has to offer the interested traveler. Let me be your guide and introduce you to the wonders that lie beyond the silky white sand and turquoise waters.
Head west from the Tulúm beach toward Highway 307, go through the stoplight and continue along the road that leads to the Cobá ruins. Enjoy the lightly settled forest lining the wide, paved highway, for soon an international airport will be constructed off this road that will change the character of the journey into the heart of the Maya lands along the Cobá Road that you are about to experience.
Let the colorful butterflies be your guides, and keep your eyes open for sights along the way that invite you to discover nature firsthand. I suggest a stop at The Grand Cenote (less than five minutes from the intersection in Tulúm), which is magical, with its white sand bottom and turquoise waters hidden beneath an array of stalactites and stalagmites. Slip into your swim suit in the changing room and slide into the cool waters surrounded by the lush jungle. If the parking lot is full, venture farther and explore the open-air Car Wash and Zacil-Ha Cenotes on your left for an invigorating swim. Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes that opened up during the Ice Age when the underground rivers began to flow, causing the limestone surface to crack and reveal a treasure unique to this part of the world. Cenotes have a mystical feel that fades easily when there is a crowd splashing in the water, so avoid those with parking lots full of tour busses and vans.
Traveling down the paved and widened Cobá Road, look for distance signs in kilometers as you open your eyes to glimpses of life in Maya villages and small rancheros along the way, moving at a very leisurely pace. Maybe you will see a crew of local artisans constructing a palapa roof of either palm fronds or long, slender grass called sacate, a distinctive feature of traditional Maya homes, that has been adopted by many newcomers to the Yucatán. Along the way you may pass figures bent over, intent on clearing the roadside weeds by hand using a sharp machete, or a man pedaling a tricycle filled with wood for open-air cooking, or transporting his family home after working in the milpa or community corn field.
When you see the banners and a neat stone wall on the right at Km 11½, you are passing an up-and-coming gated community, Los Arboles Tulum, with five-acre lots for sale. There are still spider monkeys swinging in the trees above your head and toucans chirping a loud song. Erin or Cameron would love to show you around if you are interested in learning more about this project.
The rural land from Km 13 onward on either side of the road through the first pueblo was deeded to the families in this village by the Mexican government, and is referred to as Macario Gomez ejido land. You will notice small roads leading into the jungle cut in many spots along the road, an indication of development by Mexicans and foreigners setting down new roots.
At Km 15 you will see a surfboard on the right side of the road with the words, Galery, hand painted on it. Stop in and meet Noele and her family, the artisans who have created the furniture, jewelry and one-of-a-kind lamps made from natural materials indigenous to the area. The prices are very low compared to the shops in the neighboring tourist towns. The family also sells and delivers fresh fish and spiny lobster caught off-shore.
Meander down the road just past EcoLuum at Km 19, another new project selling pre-development lots, and you will find yourself in Macario Gomez, the first of the three Maya pueblos along the highway leading to the Cobá ruins. Watch out for the topes (speed bumps). If you are driving, you will soon learn to respect these traffic-calming devices.
Some secluded surprises are tucked back in the jungle, such as our elegant inn, La Selva Mariposa, located just 100 meters off the main road, behind the Sol beer store. Sorry, but only registered guests are permitted on the property in order to preserve their privacy. If you are one of those lucky guests, we will direct you to the entrance of our Bed and Breakfast, which is announced by the carved sign of the butterfly (mariposa). Behind the stone walls three cenote-style plunge pools and five cascading waterfalls sparkle and splash within informal gardens with over 300 different plants. Colorful orchids hang from the towering trees, fantastic vines seem to curl and stretch before your eyes, and butterflies and native birds shimmer in the sunlight. The four suites at La Selva Mariposa are cool (a/c and fans) and tastefully decorated in fabrics and art we have gathered from trips to Guatemala, Oaxaca and local artisan shops along the Cobá Road. A tiny spa with a palapa roof is hidden back on one of the jungle paths.
Back on the Cobá Road, let me introduce you to the artesanía shops I have discovered along this stretch of the highway. They offer a good selection of Yucatecan crafts at the best prices on the Yucatán Peninsula.
On the left side of the road in Macario Gomez, near Km 21, is a large, yellow building with a palapa roof, the local honey co-op, operated by a friendly Maya named Louis. It is worth a stop to explore the natural medicinal and beauty products made from the local honey, created by the bees in the milpas located deeper in the jungle behind the pueblos. Louis also sells the precious miel de melipona (honey) from the tiny Maya bees that make their hives in abandoned trees. The store is open Monday through Saturday, with an afternoon break for siesta. While you are there, pick up a bottle of propóleo made by the bees from nectar found at the heart of the flowers. This remedy, when taken internally, fights off a developing cough or respiratory infection within hours. It can also be used topically as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis or to heal a burn or wound. La Selva Mariposa buys all their soap, shampoo and conditioners from the honey store and our guests love it!
Just as you are about to leave Macario Gomez and enter the second pueblo, Francisco Uh May, (Km 21) you will see an assortment of colorful Talavera pottery displayed in front of a large shop. This pottery is oven- and dishwasher-safe and has a slight texture to it. Beware: there are copies known as cerámica pintada (painted pottery). These are less expensive, but are not as durable; ask Tomas, the owner, to point out the differences. Bring your camera, as you won’t be able to resist capturing the intricate designs and vivid colors of the pottery, which is fabricated in Puebla, Mexico.
In the smaller shops along the road in the three pueblos, you may indulge in a little bargaining with the shop owners, which is an accepted practice. Most stores carry similar crafts, but it is the personal exchanges you have with the Maya shopkeepers and artisans that will guide you in making your purchases. At Chak Mo'ol, Moses and Inez make all their jaguar masks and statues by hand. He is almost blind, but carves them by feel, and Inez paints and adds the decorative touches to each one-of-a-kind piece. When I left, Moses spoke to me in English and said, "I am at your service."
The next shop is very easy to miss because it is set down below the elevation of the road. In front of the house/shop, you will see a hanging assortment of decorative lamps and beaded dividers, all designed and created by a family of Maya artisans. The prices are exceptional and the workmanship is unique. There is no sign on the road for this shop.
Wander a little farther down the road and stop at Los Tucanes and meet Flor. She carries a nice selection of brightly woven tablecloths at the best prices I have found, and also has many other collectables to offer her clients.
In the middle of the pueblo, on the eastbound lane, you will see two tiendas with lots of tablecloths, rugs, carvings, and the only shop on this stretch that offers hand-embroidered clothing. The entire family from grandparents to the tiny babies may come out to meet you, as they did with me. Ask the señora politely for approval to take a few photos of the delightful merchandise at Xa Chilan. The teenage girls are the best salespersons, but are often talking to each other in Mayan, rather than to their customers, for they are a little shy. One of the girls, perhaps more confident than the others, asked if I spoke their native language: Ba'ax ka wa'alik (what's happening?) was all I could say.
The hammock factory is on the eastbound lane as well, and you may enjoy watching the Maya artisans weaving a colorful hammock, using either cotton or nylon string. Pick out one of their creations in your favorite colors to adorn your pool or gardens.
One of the best-kept secrets of places to buy native pottery, glassware, baskets, rugs and decorative pieces of all kinds is in a place, on the eastbound lane at Km 23½, that I have always referred to as the cowboy store. There is no sign on the road or above the door. The señora let me know that the name of her place is called Los Agaves. In the large front yard in front of the shop, there are lots of authentic wagon wheels, metal cows and chickens, as well as old carts with broken pieces of pottery. The front porch is lined with large ceramic pots and items reminiscent of days gone by in Old Mexico. Stop in the large, tidy shop to see all the treasures hidden behind the rustic wooden gate, and perhaps you will find just what you are looking for.
Drive another 7 Km and you will see signs for Casa de las Mariposas (Km 30), a charming and authentic butterfly garden, built with love, incorporating many indigenous medicinal plants and those that attract native and migrating species of butterflies. (Look for a more detailed article about the gardens in an earlier issue of Sac-Be.com.) The butterflies float through the air and perch on plants flourishing under an unusual, towering screened roof located in the rear of the garden.
We are not finished shopping yet, as you will soon be approaching the third pueblo, Manuel Antonio Hay, and the best is yet to come. On the westbound lane, just at the start of the median, pull in at the little palapa stocked full of beautifully displayed treasures. After the road was resurfaced and a median placed in the center, preventing people from turning at the entrance to Itzamna, the owners moved their shop here into this new palapa, so that it would be easier for customers to access. There is a sign, Deutsch Sprechend, under the shop's name at its original location, about 20 meters beyond on this side of the highway. Both Beatriz and Miguel, the owners and artesanías, speak German, Spanish and some English. Beatriz, from Germany, met Miguel, a Mexican, when he was traveling and studying in her country many years ago. They have raised two beautiful teenagers in their little casita next to the shop. Beatriz makes the jewelry and shell creations and Miguel carves the museum-quality pieces from local wood and stone. He also makes smaller, inexpensive poured cement pieces that are some of my favorite gifts as they easily tuck into a suitcase to bring to friends and family in the States.
Itzamna also displays a nice selection of small pieces by Regulo, an outstanding artist from their pueblo, who carves masks, bowls and figures from the beautiful stone he gathers near the Guatemala border. Many of his large pieces are on display at La Selva Mariposa. Beatriz and Miguel have collected many interesting pieces of art and less expensive souvenirs from other parts of Mexico that you won’t find for sale in the other tiendas.
If you have worked up an appetite by now, it is time for a chilled cerveza and a tasty meal, perhaps some well-seasoned grilled chicken cooked and served roadside at one of the places you passed on your shopping tour along the Cobá Road. ¡¡Buen Provecho!!
Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own the popular B&B, La Selva Mariposa, located in Macario Gomez. To order Mari's book, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail, about their move to Mexico, go to www.amazon.com. Additional articles by Mari about life in and around a small Maya town are found at Sac-Be.com.