Discover Maya history along Mexico’s first thru-hike
West of Cancún’s tourist-filled beaches, a network of ancient walking paths and disused railway lines has been transformed into the Camino del Mayab (the Maya Way), Mexico’s first long-distance trail.
Developed with Maya locals, the trail tells the story of Mexico’s Indigenous peoples 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 Maya world in Yucatán, from Dzoyaxché, a small community built around the faded yellow walls of a 19th-century hacienda some 15 miles south of Mérida, to the excavated temples of Mayapán, one of the last great Maya capital cities.
“The main goal of Camino del Mayab is to protect the culture, history, and heritage of the Maya communities—all things in danger of being lost,” explains Alberto Gabriel Gutiérrez Cervera, director of EcoGuerreros, the environmental conservation organization that helped build and manages the trail. “Camino del Mayab is a project that’s not just for tourists, it’s a project for all of the people in all of the 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 the European colonizers. The Maya language came second to Spanish, while Maya temples were knocked down and the stones used to build Christian churches.
The Maya remain disadvantaged in their homeland today, says Gutiérrez Cervera, who is of Maya 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 Maya culture.
He hopes the Camino del Mayab can begin to change that. “We want to offer an opportunity through tourism, so people can make the choice to stay in their community,” he says.
A history of haciendas
Almost 3,000 years ago, the first Maya cities were carved from forests like the ones in Dzoyaxché, where I join a small group cycling the Camino del Mayab. By the seventh century A.D. Maya civilization had expanded across Central America and southern Mexico, building monumental temples such as those at Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala.
Drought, warfare, and overpopulation brought about the collapse of the Maya empire in the ninth century. By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas in the late 15th century, Maya civilization had rebounded, only to meet the onslaught of Spanish colonization. Spanish conquistadors began ravaging Yucatán in 1527, and in 1542 the Spanish established Mérida on the site of a Maya settlement named Ti’ho. Colonialism and old-world diseases devastated the Maya, and their land was parceled up and handed over to European colonists.
Today the Maya communities along the trail are located on and near haciendas, estates set around grand central houses that were created by Europeans after the Spanish conquest. “The history of modern Yucatán is the history of haciendas,” says Israel Ortiz, community manager and trail guide for EcoGuerreros.
By the 19th century, Yucatán’s haciendas were growing vast quantities of henequen, a fibrous type of agave that can be spun into rope. This “green gold” enabled Mérida to grow wealthy, but it did so off the backs of the Maya, who were forced into an indentured system of labor.
The hacienda system persisted until synthetic products superseded the need for henequen post-World War II. Now many of the grand houses once occupied by hacendados (hacienda-owners) are ghostly, 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 turned into museums or boutique accommodations. However, “nothing has really changed,” Ortiz points out, “because Hacienda Yaxcopoil is still owned by the same family as 200 years ago.”
Life on the Maya Way
After a brief rest in Hacienda Yaxcopoil, we spend our first night in traditional thatched-roof cabanas in San Antonio Mulix before setting off early the next morning for Abalá. Following old henequen transportation routes, we pass beekeepers in the forest, where Ortiz points out marks on trees used to guide hunters. In a moment of pure joy, we stop in hushed silence as a motmot, or Toh in Maya, a turquoise-colored bird that the Maya believed led travelers to water sources, emerges from an abandoned well.
As we push on, we stop by a few 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 the local families that collectively own the land.
But since they were traditionally dedicated to Maya deities like Chaac (the rain god) or seen as entrances to Xibalba (the Maya 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 from Maya rituals. “The Maya see cenotes as sacred,” says Ortiz.
It’s a challenging situation, but Ortiz says he would rather see the communities managing tourism themselves, rather than selling off their natural resources to the highest bidder.
When we reach Abalá, we see another way that locals are reestablishing their culture. At Jose Pech Remi’s House of the Artisans of Abalá, traditional Yucatán products, including Huipil dress, hand-sculpted jaguar statues, and locally sourced honey, line the shelves. “A lot of people work the land here, but they don’t make much money,” says Remi. “Selling [traditional] handicrafts gives people extra income [and] helps to protect our culture and our roots.”
That’s important as Remi talks about the community’s problems with alcohol and addiction stemming from a history of economic disadvantages. Besides the crafts store, Remi established a foundation that organizes opportunities, such as regular cultural events, where there’s live music, food, and market stalls, creating immediate work for locals, while also showcasing Abalá’s culture.
“The traditions, the traditional knowledge, and Mayan language are the most important features of the Maya culture,” Gutiérrez Cervera adds. “To be Maya means to preserve the forest, the water, the animals, and the plants. It means to preserve 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 deaths.”
On our third and final morning, we fuel up at Restaurante Comunitario, a formerly abandoned building turned local restaurant run by the women of Mucuyche. The restaurant offers homemade alternatives to Hacienda Mucuyche, a popular, cenote-filled tourist spot across the way owned by Xcaret, the same company that runs theme parks along the Riviera Maya.
Here, Elsie Maria Neydi Bacab helps prepare dishes such as papadzules (rolled corn tortillas filled with boiled eggs and smothered in salsa), tamales (steamed corn dough with meat and vegetable fillings), and pok chuuc (grilled pork marinated in citrus fruits). “To be Maya is to be proud,” says Neydi Bacab, adding that offering these dishes—along with dressing in handmade Huipil and continuing to speak the Maya language—is another important way to preserve traditions.
Fortified, we cycle along overgrown trails, thick with vegetation and wildlife, pushing through toward Mayapán, the endpoint of 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 former Maya capital. From this lofty vantage point, I can see the forests of Yucatán and the route we cycled arrayed before us.
There’s no question that Camino del Mayab is un reto, a challenge, says Ortiz. It’s also a glimpse into a part of Mexico few travelers see, one that’s far removed from the all-inclusive hotel mentality of other more familiar Mexican destinations. Gutiérrez Cervera envisions extending Camino del Mayab into a network of trails encircling all of the Yucatán Peninsula, so more travelers can experience this ambitious style of community-based tourism.
“With Camino del Mayab, you are not just traveling,” says Gutiérrez Cervera, “you are giving something back to where you go.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.