The modern Maya inhabitants of distant Yaxhachén maintain many of their traditional ways of living. They thrive as subsistence farmers, where men cultivate honey and work on small farms called “milpas” to harvest corn, beans, and squash by hand. Women embroider “hipiles,” traditional dresses with flowers and tend to their patios which overflow with herb gardens, coconut trees, and livestock like chickens, turkeys, and pigs. They shuck the fresh corn and carry it on their heads to the local stores for grinding, returning home to cook over the open-fire hearth.
Don Transito, now 80 years old, shares the oral history of the founding of Yaxhachén. His grandfather, like so many others, lived and worked as a “slave” in the nearby Hacienda Santa Rita. In the search of a better life, many of the men carried out missions to find a water source upon which to found a new home as free men. Unlike the north of the state, the Puuc region is high above sea level, making cenotes and natural fresh water sources scarce.
The adventurous founders located a fresh water stream about 80 meters below the surface in the deep heart of a dark cave. They tied wooden ladders together in the form of a zig-zag, and carried the water out in ceramic basins tied to their backs by torchlight. From this humble beginning, the community now has nearly 2,000 inhabitants, and they proudly call themselves Yucatán’s last pueblo.
Visit Yaxhachén and immerse yourself in Yucatecan history and culture. Take a tour of the milpa with Oliberto, and learn about the age-old techniques of the cultivation of the sacred corn crop. Due to the lack of modern irrigation technology, each part of the corn’s life cycle requires tender care, and ultimately the blessing of the ancient Maya god of rain, “Chaac.” In early September, if the rains still haven’t fallen, you can be a part of a traditional Maya ceremony intended to conjure Chaac and blessings of rain.
After the tour of the milpa, return to the village, harvested corn in hand, and learn the patient art of tortilla-making. Sit on the short wooden bench next to Doña Irma in her home, repeating the melodic Maya phrases that she teaches you. Measure the perfect scoop of “masa,” or corn dough, with the tips of your fingers and roll it into a ball in your palm. Slap the dough ball onto the tortilla-sized plastic sheet, and slowly, in a rhythmic, circular motion, flatten the fat disc into a tortilla. Watch Doña Irma as she tenderly flips the tortillas on the hot “comal” with her bare fingertips. Bite into your creation fresh off the flame, tasting the quality of the corn with only a dash of salt and fresh-squeezed lime.
You’ll meet Mariela, the town’s renowned “huesera,” or bone doctor, who receives patients from all over southern México. Her gift was passed down through her family, and she treats patients on a yoga mat on the floor of her traditional, pole-and-thatch home. Lying on her floor, it’s empowering to surrender your body to the strength of her small hands. Although she’s never had official medical training, Mariela cures lifelong ailments and carries the gift of generational wisdom and experience.
The best way to immerse yourself in cultural excursions in the hills of southern Yucatán is by contacting Gerardo at the Millsaps Puuc Archaeological Center (MPARC) in Oxkutzcab. Rather than tours led by guides, MPARC offers specialized tours given by archaeologists and cultural anthropologists, creating authentic experiences which bridge the time gap between the ancient and modern Maya.
FB: MPARC Oxkutzcab Pro Cultura Maya del Puuc
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Pair your trip to Yaxhachén with an adventure in the biocultural reserve and archaeological site of Kaxil Kiuic – one of Yucatán’s best investigated archaeological sites and jaguar conservation projects. Contact MPARC for details.
Editorial by Amanda Strickland
Photos by Oscar Estrada for Yucatán Today’s use
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