A popular concept in the world of travel of late – at least in this part of the world – is something called rural tourism: a direct translation from the Spanish “turismo rural.” This is when visitors forego the usual bus tours, creature comforts, and a pampered hotel environment to instead experience an up-close and personal look at how a local family lives. While it seems a little paternalistic and almost colonial in its focus, the actual experience is quite enriching and not just for you, the visitor; but also for the family or community with whom you are interacting. They receive a direct economic benefit from your visit and you become more than just another tourist passing through with his or her camera.
Up in the hills just outside Tekax there are many tiny communities living in a rather alarming state of poverty that one would be hard-pressed to reconcile with the flash and concrete of Mérida. Pure Maya, the families in these communities have precious little to do beyond traditional farming, bee-keeping, and activities related to the forest. The future that awaits their children if they are to continue this lifestyle, is precarious at best.
What “rural tourism” proposes is to introduce visitors to Yucatán to these communities, to experience first-hand what life is like in a traditional Maya community: how people live, how they farm, what they do to survive and even thrive.
Visiting San Marcelino involves a rather long and somewhat tedious trip up the side of the hill, on a barely passable and very rocky road. You need to arrange this trip ahead of time so the seven (yes, seven) families that make up this tiny village are prepared and can be there to receive you, the visitor. Part of this arrangement includes transportation because unless you are on a motorbike or have a high-clearance vehicle, you will not be able to get here.
Once you have made the journey, you will be met by the sight of a few “chozas,” typical Maya dwellings made of sticks and guano (palm) thatched roofs. Muscovy ducks, a few dogs, and quite an impressive number of large pigs freely roam the bare red earth. There are no streets. What you are seeing is how rural Maya lived for the past century, and in this case, continue to live today. In the middle of the village are an ancient-looking chapel and two very unattractive modern buildings: one housing the school and the other a water plant. These last two elements might have been planned in a somewhat more integrated fashion, but modernity being what it is, they stand out among everything else, and not in a particularly appealing way.
Guided Hike to “El Monte”
A guided and not especially strenuous walk through the forest nearby reveals stones and foundations of ancient Maya structures, and even a chultún, which is a cistern excavated and fashioned by the millennial civilization. You will learn about the shrubs and trees, still used to this day for medicinal purposes, construction, and food. You will see areas planted “milpa”-style with corn, squash, and beans, depending on the season.
Please make a mental note that it will be very hot if you are visiting in the summer months, starting in April when the dry season is at its apex. Having a cooler with water on ice is highly recommended, as in the village itself there will be no convenience store, nor will there be a refrigerator you can just pull open to extract some refreshments. And bring plenty to share!
At the end of this walk, you will come back to the village and a traditional meal will have been prepared for you by the women, who are dressed in their finest and whitest, crisply ironed “huipiles,” hand-embroidered by them and worn on this occasion for you. I mention the white part of their dress simply because it is so incongruous that any item of clothing can be so white when everywhere around you is the omnipresent and dusty (or muddy if it is raining) red earth.
The meal is served at a tiny knee-high table surrounded by simple log seats in what is the kitchen, a stand-alone choza with stick walls that are open to allow the movement of air and to enable the smoke from the cooking fire next to you to waft out. A seemingly unending supply of hot, thick and delicious corn tortillas is being prepared by hand as they have been for generations, for you to enjoy with the rich, black “chilmole,” accompanied by “agua de fruta” – served in a “jícara” – which could be mamey, sour orange, or something else, depending on the time of year and what fruit is in season.
There is not much interaction with the ladies; they are smiling but concentrating on their cooking and they speak Maya amongst themselves almost exclusively. The children, curious and who seem to enjoy the attention, also do not speak Spanish and once you have gained their confidence, are happy to show you the village, chattering happily in Maya while you follow them around, trying to understand what it might be they are telling you. I find that repeating what they say is helpful and can also cause some hilarity when you inevitably say it wrong. Your guide in the village will be the intermediary between you and the inhabitants. It is he who will introduce you, show you around, and make the necessary translations of your exclamations of gratitude for the food and the glimpse into a soon-to-be lost way of life.
While the project is praise-worthy in that it provides these people with a new means of earning an income, it is probably not something that will be permanently sustainable, simply because there will come a time when the villagers will want to perhaps improve their homes to modern standards; when they will want some of the creature comforts we take for granted. But for now, it is a fascinating glimpse into rural Maya life, and if you come into it with respect and an open heart, you will be rewarded with an experience that will definitely broaden your horizons.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Photography by Oscar Góngora and Arturo Sánchez for use in Yucatán Today
Who to contact to reserve your experience:
Luis Góngora, Comisario de San Marcelino
FB: Chultún San Marcelino
Cel y Whatsapp: 9971 32 88 66
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