Discover Maya history along Mexico’s first thru-hike
Three years in the making, the 68-mile hiking and cycling trail visits almost forgotten Maya cultural sites.
Published September 9, 2022
11 min read
West of Cancun’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 Yucatan, from Dzoyaxche, a small community built around the faded yellow walls of a 19th-century hacienda some 15 miles south of Merida, to the excavated temples of Mayapan, 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 Gutierrez 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 Yucatan in the 16th century, the Maya were left at the bottom of a racial caste system imposed by the European colonizers. The Maya language was second only to Spanish. Maya temples were destroyed and stones used for Christian churches.
The Maya remain disadvantaged in their homeland today, says Gutierrez Cervera, who is of Maya descent. Many are forced to look for work in Merida and Cancun as hotel jobs, which continue to erode Maya culture.
He hopes the Camino del Mayab can begin to change that. He says, “We want to provide an opportunity through tourism so people can choose to stay in their locality.”
A history of haciendas
Almost 3,000 years ago, the first Maya cities were carved from forests like the ones in Dzoyaxche, 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 Yucatan in 1527, and in 1542 the Spanish established Merida 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.
(Who were the Maya? Decoding the ancient civilization’s secrets. )
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. Israel Ortiz, EcoGuerreros’ community manager and trail guide, says that “The history modern Yucatan is also the history of haciendas.”
By the 19th century, Yucatan’s haciendas were growing vast quantities of henequen, a fibrous type of agave that can be spun into rope. Merida was able to become wealthy thanks to this “green gold”, but it did so on the backs the Maya who were forced into an indentured labor system.
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 Abala. We pass beekeepers in a forest as we follow old henequen transport routes. Ortiz points to marks on trees that were 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. Cenote Kankirixche still has human remains and relics of Maya rituals. Ortiz says that the Maya consider cenotes sacred.
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.
(These are some of the Yucatan’s most breathtaking underwater caves. )
When we reach Abala, we see another way that locals are reestablishing their culture. Jose Pech Remi’s House of the Artisans of Abala sells traditional Yucatan products such as Huipil dresses and hand-sculpted jaguar statues. Local honey is also available. Remi says that although many people work on the land, they don’t make a lot of money. “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. Remi also established a foundation to organize opportunities such as regular cultural events that feature live music, food and market stalls. This will provide immediate work for the community while also showcasing Abala’s culture.
“The traditions, the traditional knowledge, and Mayan language are the most important features of the Maya culture,” Gutierrez Cervera adds. To be Maya is to preserve the forest, water, animals, and 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 Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead] to remember deaths.”
(This centuries-old British tradition might soon be lost. )
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 serves homemade alternatives to Hacienda mucuyche, a tourist spot that is popular and filled with cenotes. It is owned by Xcaret, which also runs the Riviera Maya theme parks.
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). Neydi Bacab says, “To be Maya means to be proud.” She also adds that offering these dishes, along with dressing in handmade Huipil (and continuing to speak Maya language) is another important way to preserve Maya traditions.
Fortified, we cycle along overgrown trails, thick with vegetation and wildlife, pushing through toward Mayapan, the endpoint of Camino del Mayab. We leave our bikes at the gate and climb the steep stone steps up to the Temple of Kukulkan, the center of this former Maya capital. From this high vantage point, I can see Yucatan’s forests and the route that we have ridden.
There’s no question that Camino del Mayab is un reto, a challenge, says Ortiz. It also offers a glimpse into Mexico that few tourists see. It is far removed from the all inclusive hotel mentality of more familiar Mexican destinations. Gutierrez Cervera hopes to expand Camino del Mayab to include a network trail system that circles the entire Yucatan Peninsula. This will allow more people to experience this type of community-based tourism.
“With Camino del Mayab, you are not just traveling,” says Gutierrez Cervera, “you are giving something back to where you go.”
Richard Collett is a U.K.-based travel writer focusing on off-beat destinations and cultural curiosities. Follow him on Instagram.
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.