Calakmul, Campeche

One of the greatest Mayan ruins sites on the peninsula, Calakmul is also a jungle paradise where you can see many local animals; including - if you are very lucky - the elusive jaguar. If you are looking for a "lost city in the jungle" this is definitely it.

The trip I recently did was Merida - Campeche - Champoton (lunch by the sea) - Escarcega - Xpujil where we overnighted in a small but decent enough hotel. The next day was spent at Calakmul and we returned to Xpujil for the evening. On the third day, onwards to Chetumal where I left my guests to take their flight back to San Miguel de Allende via Mexico City. The drive back from Chetumal to Merida takes about 5 hours if not making any stops. 

For a future trip I would spend more time in the area, as there are many other ruins sites to visit. Perhaps 5 days total leaving from and returning to Merida, making stops here and there during the driving portions of the trip.

Art Galleries - Special Merida Tour

Besides all the usual suspects - ruins, haciendas and cenotes - that visitors to the area love to experience, there is a thriving artistic community in Merida comprised of both locals and newcomers to the area. One very special tour can be arranged to see some of these galleries and meet the artists who create pieces ranging from paint to sculpture and beyond. 

On this day, which lasted about 12 hours or so, we visited artisans in their homes and galleries, had some great food in spectacular settings and even threw in a home viewing or two. A great day out with two local experts who I shall call Lucinda and Shirley, who are extremely knowledgeable both about art and where to find it in Merida.

 An architectural masterpiece in Merida; yes, it's for sale.

An architectural masterpiece in Merida; yes, it's for sale.


The first stop on the tour was a magnificent home, now on the Merida market. A true oasis from the noise and heat outside. The attention to detail and each carefully planned square meter of this home make it really worth a visit. And if you like it enough, you can even buy it and make it your new Merida pied a terre. 

After the house tour, a look at some galleries! Some of these you would never know about, as they hide behind an unremarkable and unmarked door on a hot Merida side street, while others stand out boldly, welcoming one and all to peruse their interiors.

Of course, we had to have lunch at some point. Here, the Hacienda Santa Cruz on the outskirts of Merida. Great food, fabulous place.

Puuc Route Day Trip

There are some die-hard Maya-philes that want to see all the sites on the so-called Puuc route or Ruta Puuc en español and these generally comprise Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna, in that order as you are heading out from Uxmal. 

There is also Sabacche, which has ruins and a small regional animal preserve, including an ocelot what is friendly and will let you join it in its cage (enter at your own risk) and a really interesting feature that showcases the air currents blowing around in the caves beneath your feet. Opening times there are sporadic so it's not always a sure thing. 

If you are really determined, you can also visit the LolTun caves, which kind of make up the end of the route and take you into citrus growing country. Very scenic and photogenic around there, with lots of fruit trees from mangos to oranges to limes and bananas, due to the excellent kankab or red soil.

A day out here, including Uxmal and LolTun, can easily be a 10 to 12 hour day, depending on how interested you are and how much time is spent at each site.

Here are a few shots of the ruins of Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna, in that order.

Kabah (above) is known for it's long facade of Chaac sculptures covering one entire wall and it's beautiful arch, leading to a sacbe that once went all the way to Uxmal

Sayil (above) is stunning

Xlapak (above) has one pretty building that has been restored and several mounds. There is so little here in terms of restored or reconstructed buildings that the site has no entry fee

Labna (above) has probably the most beautiful Mayan arch in all of the Puuc. It would be fantastic if the INAH could restore the small square around it

From Maxcanu to Chunchucmil

An 'amateur' photographer and I took the route that goes from the formerly wealthy town of Maxcanu to the hacienda Chunchucmil where president and authoritarian Mexican de facto dictator Porfirio Diaz had a pleasant lunch hosted by one of the most prominent hacienda owners of the time and intimate friend of then governor Olegario Molina, Rafael Peón Loza.

An interesting note is that of all the money spent on the dictators 1906 visit to Yucatan, and of all the important people who came to attend the event, the whole Mayan thing was completely ignored, except to acknowledge their presence in pre-colonial times.

To introduce the Mayans, who knew little about the dictator of the faraway land called Mexico, to their illustrious leader, a neo-mayan arch was built, one of many under which Porfirio Diaz' procession would pass while entering the city of Merida. The neo-mayan arch featured the rain god Chaac, but whose face was made to resemble that of Porfirio Diaz. And at the luncheon in the Chunchucmil hacienda, a Mayan was called upon to welcome the dictator and express his gratitude for coming to the Yucatan and giving the Mayans of the area the opportunity to set their eyes upon his face. (De la imagen, al poder y la vanidad. Porfirio Díaz en la tierra de los Mayas - 1906. Dr. Jorge Victoria Ojeda)

This at a time when the Mayans were working in slave-like conditions at the haciendas/slave camps run by Molina, Peon and others who made their fabulous fortunes (which live on to this day in Merida thank you very much) on the whipped backs of the little brown people whose lives they have done nothing to improve (also to this day).

Magical Mystery Tour 5 - There and Back Again. Valladolid that is.

Valladolid and back.

There was a tourism fair announced for Valladolid and at the last minute, I decided to go. Too late for company and I always enjoy some stress-free exploring, being able to turn down any road I find appealing without worrying that there will be nothing to entertain my guests at the end of it.

Taking the regular highway, I stopped where a sign advertised a cenote, but the person in charge said they only open it later that afternoon (Saturday) and on Sundays. Could stop by later, I thought and continued on.

Then I saw a sign for Chankom, which sounded vaguely familiar from a book I am translating and so decided to visit this obviously sleep little town a few kilometers before Valladolid. There, I found a lady selling tortas and tacos and so that's where I had breakfast. Also, the town has a gorgeous little cenote, that is not of the swimming variety, but potentially could be. No access to be had, though.

After Chankom, I headed directly into Valladolid and found that what was going on was a food expo in the main square which was right up my photographic alley and so I took some shots. I also chatted with the author Rafael Chay Arzápalo who has published a great dictionary that features photos of almost everything you can imagine, with their names in Maya, Spanish and English.

After not seeing a whole heck of a lot else, it was time to go back.

I stopped at the town of Cuncunul, driving the back road from Chichimilá. I was looking for an elusive home restaurant serving what is purported to be the best poc chuc ever, but alas, I never found it. What I did find was a tidy little town with plenty of photo ops. Here are a few of the photos of downtown Cuncunul.

After Cuncunul, I zipped through a few more towns or maybe not, can't remember and pulled into a vivero to check out plants. The name alone is worth stopping for: Mr. Collis Mystical Nursery. I bought a cacao tree, a coffee bush and a Yucatan tobacco plant to add to my garden. I also took some photos (of course).

Finally, just before Merida, I stopped at Holca to check out the church which in all these years I had never done, and have some roadside chicken, one of my favourite meals.

At the end of the day, I was rewarded - for what I don't know - with a beautiful fall sunset.  

The New Choco Story Combines Mayan History and Culture and Chocolate

The Chocolate and Mayan exhibit is now across the road from Uxmal

As many of you may know, I am a big fan of anything done in the private sector that promotes the Yucatan and the Eco Museo de Cacao, Plantacion Ticul, was one of my favorite places in the world. However, thanks in part to zero help from the authorities entrusted to promote tourism at the government level, this attraction which is not blatantly commercial and does a fantastic job of describing and promoting all things Mayan in the Yucatan, suffered from a lack of visitors. The new location is now across the street from Uxmal, making it easier to get to, even for cruisers that are in the area for only a short time.

A recent trip where we were given the official welcome tour. 

A recent visit to the new, somewhat unfortunately named Choco Story chocolate museum proved to me that they have done a great job of recreating the original attraction. Many of the original ideas that made the place so attractive have been recreated at the new location including the monkeys, the chocolate drink preparation and sampling and the exhibits on Mayan history and cacao in the area. There have been some additions made as well, to make the experience more complete, including two new chozas or Mayan huts that describe the chocolate experience when it came to Europe, and the making of chocolate bon bons or pralines, again in Europe. The music in each exhibit is now appropriate to the theme, rather than a general musical theme throughout. There are now two jaguars on display as well, animal rescues from owners who thought they could handle having a jaguar as a pet until they grew into adults. These cannot be released back into the wild as they have really no idea how to go about surviving in the wilderness, much like the spider monkeys which are also rescues from circuses and private owners.


These monkeys are not on display 'just because'. They are animal rescues and have been mistreated and are being cared for. They cannot be released into the wild as they have been among (sometimes abusive) humans for much of their lives.

The popular Cha Chaac ceremony is there, as are the stinger-less melipona bees and the orchid garden. The biggest item missing is the cacao tree plantation, but that is because the trees take at least 5 years to get to the point where they are flowering so that is something that is in the works. An 'archaeological dig' for kids in a sand pit is also planned. And of course don't miss the gift shop where you can buy all kinds of things 'chocolate'. Don't miss the liquid chocolate frappé that is so delicious and decadent that it will leave you thirsty for more.

If you would like to visit the Choco Story museum, feel free to contact us and we will prepare a quote for you and your group, as this is one of the many destinations we can include in your private, custom Yucatan tour.

Magical Mystery Tour 4 - Homun Adventure

The fourth Magical Mystery Tour took place this week, and the destination turned out to be Homun, an area that is like a piece of swiss cheese: full of caves, cenotes, as well as a whole lot of history dating back to Mayan times and then the colonial era as well.

For those unfamiliar with the Magical Mystery Tour concept, in a nutshell it's this: you sign up for a tour which is practically free - you share in cost of gas and any tolls (vehicle rental if there a whole bunch of people) but you have no say on where the tour goes. These tours are designed to explore potential destinations for more formal tours in the future and may involve birding, photography, cave crawling, hacienda exploring, food tasting, cenote dunking and whatever else occurs to me. You have the option of participating in everything or nothing, but once you are along, you're along for the day! No whining, no special requests and a sense of adventure is a must. 

On this tour, Angel (the internationally renowned Lawson's guide) and Jose Luis (professional driver and all-around go-to guy) were on the tour to Homun, to check out an hacienda and other attractions on a large property on the outskirts of Homun, way off in the Mayan jungle. This was not off the beaten path, there was no path.

First stop, after Starbucks, was breakfast in the town of Tahmek, just off the Merida-Cancun highway. Poc Chuc sandwiches amidst villagers and colorful chickens. Across the street, a very unusually named kindergarten.

A few minutes later, we were on a back road, leading out of Homun into the forest. As often happens, there is a bit of garbage along the side of this road, and while it looks disgusting, it did give us an opportunity to see and photograph the largest flock of turkey vultures I had ever seen. 

After some time, we arrived at this former cattle ranch, which saw a little of the henequen action but is not at all built up in the sumptuous way some of the over-the-top haciendas are. The building itself is very modest, but it sits on top of a cenote. Note the giant arch over the cenote, holding up the hacienda building. In the forest, falling to pieces, are more buildings. There is cow poop everywhere so you have to watch your step!

After checking out the hacienda and grounds, we walked about 25 minutes into the jungle to check out an opening in the ground which was really a cave. Inside, enormous rock formations, strange little critters and shards of pottery probably dating back to the Mayans, who used these cool underground spaces for both ceremonies and burial purposes. There was indeed evidence of Mayan actitvity in this cave.

After the caving, it was time to get into the underbrush and check out something else that is on this property: a Mayan ruin and a dry cenote. There are no more carved stones of any kind on the largish building structure, and there is a nearby Mayan graveyard that used to have stone tablets, all of which are now gone; stolen apparently. In the dry cenote, evidence of a Mayan garden, including a raised platform with earth and a cacao tree, which the Mayans cultivated back in the day. Also the skeleton of some poor cow that got too close and slipped into the hole and died there.

The day was a resounding success. Cenote, cave, Mayan ruin and cow poop. What more could you ask for? Muddy and dirty, we returned to Merida with yet another Yucatan adventure under our belts and Magical Mystery Tour #4 complete. Stay tuned on Facebook (Lawson's Original Yucatan Excursions) for the next outing.

Playa del Carmen Destination Hotel - La Semilla

Normally I would not be writing about hotels and such but this little 7 month old gem deserves a recommendation. La Semilla is an oasis among the hustle and bustle (especially the hustle) of Playa del Carmen. A couple of blocks from the ocean, under a tree with a backyard that reminds me of a typical Yucatecan home "patio" and an interior courtyard complete with fully grown trees, a waterfall and a creek throughout and even a home for the resident "alux". 

Extremely friendly and professional service, all kinds of commodities included at no extra charge, like the excellent WiFi, bicycles, towels for the beach, parking at the front door (ltierally), breakfast with real, strong coffee and amazing all-natural "jugo de la casa". If you are going to the beach, they will loan you a cooler so you can keep your beers cool. Amazing. 

It's a respite from what's going on outside and your senses are pampered with lemony scents in hallways and rooms, crispy cool air conditioning in the rooms and relaxing music throughout. Soft lighting at night and plenty of shade during the day.

Alexis and Angie have created a paradise and on your next trip to Playa del Carmen, definitely spend a night or three here!

The Convent Route - Day Two

The day started with a stop at Uman, which is nowhere near the so-called convent route, but since we were going to Ticul and Mani and had been the other way before, I thought the Uman-Muna route would provide some interesting views along the way. The large small town, our first stop, is where there is a giant church as well as all those insect-like mototaxis buzzing about.

Done with Uman and ready for more driving, we continued on to Muna. No church pictures there, but a huge procession/demonstration to do with Earth Day perhaps judging from the signs blocked traffic in Muna's main square while every citizen from the surrounding 17 mile radius marched in the parade. Mostly kids of school age, and in uniform.

There wasn't much to do in the traffic, limited though it was and while waiting I snapped a shot of this beautiful old home, probably once owned by some rich fat cat and now a school.

Finally, we made it to Ticul. There, after checking to see which was the best way to Mani we snapped a few shots of that church (and the surrounding street area) as well.

And then, at long last, we made it to Maní, site of the infamous auto da fé, where the charming Friar Diego de Landa, burned as much of an entire culture as one man with a mission can, effectively wiping out the great majority of the Mayans legends, stories and cultural and religious icons. Later, and in his defense when put on trial for overstepping his mandate, he wrote a book about what he had seen and how the Mayans had lived which is now the only record historians have of that time. And to put the proverbial cherry on the sundae, he was absolved of any wrongdoing by the courts in Spain and sent back to the Yucatan and was named "Protector of the Indians". Nice job, Diego.

After Maní, what else is there in the world of churches, right?  Well, how about the church at Oxcutzcab? This town is famous for it's fruit market and the mural over it, but the church also has it's particular charm.

The Convent Route - Day One

Wooden cross in stucco on a church wall in Mama (that's the name of the town, really)

One of the routes that is promoted among tourism organizations is the so-called Convent Route or Ruta de los Conventos. I refer to it as "so-called" as it is really just a list of towns that have churches in them, dating back to the 1600's and that are full of history, but there is no real coordination of the touristic kind and if you arrive after the last morning mass, you are out of luck. No convent for you! 

So, to do it right, you have to get up early. Our intrepid little group of three left Merida at the ungodly (no pun intended) hour of 7 AM and found that that is the perfect time to visit at least 4-5 of the churches on the route before they close for the day.

First stop? The furthest point of the day's travel: Teabo. Teabo sounds like what you say when you love someone, in Spanish, and have a cold. Te amo. Teabo. Get it? The photos will speak for themselves; a very picturesque little church that was closed but a little chat with the gardeners trimming the grass outside and they found someone with a key and it was opened just for us. 

After we had our fill of Teabo and purchased some fresh tortillas at the tortilleria for breakfast, we moved along to our next stop, Chumayel, famous for its black Christ figure which was saved by a local villager named Severo who hid the wooden statue in his home when Salvador Alvarado's troops came to town with orders to burn the insides of the church. Salvador Alvarado was determined to break the church which had far too much power for the politicians of the day and ransacking and burning churches seemed like a good way to go about it.

Next stop: Mama. That's "no, no" in Mayan unless someone tells you otherwise. Then, you let ME know what it means. Mama in Spanish of course means female breast (where do you think mammary comes from) and if you add an accent ie. Mamá, then you have Mom. But I digress. Enjoy the photos of Mama's church, one of the larger churches of the day, so far. By the way, if you are on this tour, you might be feeling the urge to visit a bathroom at this point - feel free to use the bathroom at the municipal hall across the street.

Just at the entrance to Chumayel is a very colorful and photogenic cemetery that's worth a stop. So stop we did.

Tekit was the next stop on the day's tour, making it church number 4, and miraculously none of the churches were closed up to this point! Note that there are a lot of towns in the Yucatan that begin with the prefix "Te" (Tekit, Tekik, Tecoh, Tekax, Temozon, etc. etc.) and that is because the word "te" means something along the lines of "place of". Temozon, for example is Te = place of and Mozon = whirlwind. Anyway. Back to Tekit (no idea what a kit is). 

The church itself is fine, a little run down compared to the others. The town looks like it has some money, but it is pretty sad looking. The mangy and hairless dog in the main square, standing dejectedly and in obvious pain waiting for some kind of relief, the dusty streets, graffiti next to the Jesus statue in the church; everything looks run down. Compared with a place like nearby Tecoh, where the residents seem to have some pride in their town and it shows, Tekit looks like no one cares. 

Now the sun was shining in earnest and so we stopped for lunch at the Nah Luum hotel and restaurant, just across the street from the Tecoh exit off the highway and I was pleasantly surprised to find not only an attractive little restaurant and hotel, but smiling, gracious servers and good food!

Then, a small backtrack to a refreshing cenote on the way before returning to Merida - tired but satisfied with the day's achievements.

Magical Mystery Tour 3 - Sacred Mayan Moments - Xocen

Yesterday, another Magical Mystery Tour, but this one was less mysterious as I had a destination in mind that I was going to follow through with and I was joined by two lovely ladies: one was my lovely wife and the other our comadre (a comadre is the godmother of your child) both Yucatecans and both excited to see a little of the Yucatecan countryside. 

First stop, tamales. These tamales can be found in Libre Union and were just coming out of the ground, literally. Note in the photos, the large pib or pit where the baking takes place. The rocks were still scaldingly hot enough for someone to walk barefoot across 


While making a mess of the car eating the tamal (tip: get the tomato salsa - it's the best and extra spicy) we turned off the Valladolid highway and headed towards Uayma via San Francisco El Grande and Tinum. That's the tajonal (yellow flowers) filled road in the photo above.

If you haven't been to Uayma and have only seen the church in photos, it should be on your Yucatan to-do list. Here is a taste to whet your appetite:

Finally, we arrived at Valladolid and the original plan of eating smoked pork tacos at Temozon was shelved due to time constraints as we just spent too much time at the beautiful Uayma church. So we made a quick stop at the Coqui Coqui boutique for some fragrance sampling and a little shopping before heading to our destination for the afternoon, Xocen.

Xocen, aka the center of the world as it is known there, is a small Mayan community with a feel that is hard to describe but not anything I have felt in the Yucatan before, and if you know me, you know I am a cynical old cuss and hard to impress. Xocen impressed me in its "Mayan-ness" and of course I am not the first one to write about it or wax poetic. It was the Yucatan Today magazine that brought it to my attention just a few days ago!

We were going to to witness the Sacred Mayan Moments presentation, which is an outdoor theater production that highlights important moments in Mayan village life, and after driving around the small village and asking, we were able to find the venue. I will not go on and on about how colorful, beautiful or moving this production is - since it could take paragraphs and I would lose my reputation as a hard-hearted Teutonic cynic and reveal my inner mushy self - and will leave you instead with some of the hundreds of photos I took. Admittedly, there are a LOT of photos.

If you are at all interested in or feel an affinity with, the Mayans, the Yucatan and this land, you MUST see this. I cannot recommend it highly enough. More info below the photos.

Yucatan Today article here. Video of the presentation here.

We will run a tour out to Xocen on Sundays so everyone can see this, or go on your own, but GO. Presentations are on Sundays only and the last presentation is March 8th 2015. 

Please let me know if you are interested and I will send further info as I will be putting something together today for each Sunday. Cost will depend on the number of participants so get your group of amigos together and spend a magical day in the heart of the Mayan culture.

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Let us know what Sunday you would interested in
Self Explanatory, no?
Choose a Sunday

Uxmal, again. It never disappoints!

Uxmal is probably the most popular destination for day trips from Merida, for cruisers and non-cruisers alike. The great thing about Uxmal is that besides being the best Mayan ruins site on the peninsula in my opinion, the road to and from Uxmal offers so many interesting places to stop for a photograph, a banana or some exploration. 

First stop is usually the town of Uman, and on this day, that is exactly what we did. There was a small mass happening in the enormous church so we didn't go in, and later a large Mercedes hearse pulled up with Jalisco license plates for some kind of funeral.

After stolling around Uman, having that banana in the market (you haven't tried a banana until you have tried a platanito dominicano) and taking a ride on the tricycle taxi, the next stop this day was Muna, where we visited Pedro (aka the Gourd Man) on his hilltop vantage point with the great view of the surrounding area.

A little shopping, a sip of fresh squeezed orange juice and we are on our way to Uxmal.

After Uxmal it was off-roading time and we rushed to get to the cenote in the middle of the jungle where thankfully no one else was around and no oncoming traffic on the tiny one way dirt path into the underbrush. You see, when you are in the middle of this tiny road and you see an oncoming vehicle, someone has to back up the entire distance traveled so it can be a bit hair raising.

Feeling refreshed and just a little peckish, we crossed the highway and made a quick stop at the Hacienda Ochil for a bite and found them ready to close for the day, but a little cajoling (and the fact that I have been here numerous times and the waiters took pity on us) enabled us to wrangle a couple of cervezas and some delicious sopa de lima which really hit the spot. Also, we were able to see that they really do make the cochinita pibil in a fire pit and don't cheat by sticking the pig in an oven. 

Chunkanan Cenote Update

While I love the 3 cenotes of Chunkanan (aka the Cuzama cenotes) and they are indeed magical, potential visitors should know that this attraction is in the midst of some serious problems that will come as a rather unpleasant surprise unless you read this update.

Initially started as an attraction based in the village of Chunkanan, the folks from nearby and larger Cuzama realized that many tourists passed their town without stopping and decided they wanted a piece of the pie as they alleged that one of the cenotes was on their land. They therefore created their own access to the cenotes, building a rail track that intersected with the original tracks from Chunkanan. This caused some conflict, but after a few fisticuffs and much negotiation, an uneasy truce was arrived at.

At the Cuzama entry point, red-flag waving men attempt to make tourists stop, telling them that the other entry point is "closed". Just beyond them are green-flag waving people from Chunkanan waving to continue on to their village and take the tour from there.

Now it seems that the even larger village of Acanceh, the one before Cuzama (are you still with me here?) has gotten into the act, alleging that one of the cenotes is actually on their land and, since Cuzama was collecting a "fee" from the Chunkanan folks, has asked the Cuzama people to hand over a portion of that "fee". Cuzama has so far claimed that this is not correct and they will hand over no funds to Acanceh. Acanceh has retaliated by not allowing access to "their" cenote.

Therefore, there is no access at the time of this writing to the last - and most spectacular - cenote, the one with the vertical ladder down a small tunnel-like hole. According to the folks from Cuzama, when asked, the cenote is having some "maintenance" done. Not true, according to a Chunkanan rail cart driver I talked to who then went on to explain the whole thing.

A last report from a tour guide in the field one week ago, states that the Chunkanan folks are now offering only ONE cenote - the first one, Chelentun - while the Cuzama folks are taking their tourists to "their cenote" which is the middle one for those who have been before.

So if you are planning to visit Cuzama/Chunkanan for the "three" cenotes, be aware that you may not visit all three, or even two, of those magnificent cenotes until someone steps in and mediates a solution that will bring the tour back in a manner fair to all parties involved.

A Taste of the Rey Pakal Sculptures on the Paseo de Montejo

Along the Paseo de Montejo, the powers that be often install art exhibitions for all to enjoy (or hate, in some cases) and at the time of this writing, the magnificent avenue is lined with decorated busts of the Mayan king K'inich Janaab' Pakal aka Rey Pakal, whose tomb was discovered in Palenque by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. The discovery of this tomb is not only unique but must have been an exciting moment when he discovered a hollow space under what he determined was a throne for royalty. Upon removing the covering stone, he discovered a stairway leading down into the pyramid and, after much removal of debris and collapsed stone, came upon the chamber which contained the tomb. The year was 1952. Can you imagine what that must have been like?  (June, 2014 update: these sculptures are now on the grounds at the Museo Maya in northern Merida)