Aldea Maya Ahau Chooc
Quintana Roo, Mexico
Meet the Maya. Meet the real Yucatán. Meet the indigenous jungle village of Aldea Maya.
Think of it as an introduction to Yucatán grassroots style. Think of it as ethical tourism. If such villages open their doors to us, we should embrace it. And why? For two reasons. It will enrich your understanding of their culture, to see how humbly people still can live today and how they learnt to live in a symbiosis with nature. And it will enrich them, as you will provide an income for them.
Don't get me wrong. They will not charge you anything. They just allow you to visit them, and expect a small tip. And they are very hospitable. They will take you around to see their jungle garden, the pen for the chickens, the bee husbandry, their bedrooms and the kitchen. They will offer you to taste their home-made tortillas, with squash seed sauce (delicious) and eggs scrambled with chaya, known as tree spinach.
One needs to see this visit in a larger context. The low level of investment and high degree of marginalisation in the indigenous areas over the past 50 years in Mexico is reflected in the limited availability of wage labour. A lot of indigenous people live on and off their ancestral land; no other work is available to them. While the Maya villages often keep to themselves, as they don't want outsiders in their homes, some villages do now open their doors for that exact reason, the income opportunity. Not that they have doors, mind you; it is just a figure of speech. They need to make their communities sustainable. This is the case of Aldea Maya, near the Cobá ruins.
And while they don't have doors, nor electricity or running water, it is not all doom and gloom. They live modestly but they possess a level of pride and, above all, tranquillity within themselves that is difficult to see among the urban folks. Their happiness comes truly from within. They are naturally humble. They learnt to live from what the nature around gives them. They make houses from wood and roofs from dried palm leaves (called palapa). Once you visit, you will never get upset when your shower does not have hot water because the boiler broke down. Well, you shouldn't. It is not important, really. Come and learn some tranquillity here. What matters and what does not.
So let me describe my own experience of this village. I came here a few times; I bring friends and clients in (I sometimes work as a guide). Ángel or one of his brothers always welcomes us on arrival. Three families live here on this ejido (communal) land. And what is ejido land? Before the Mexican Revolution of 1910, most of the land was owned by a single elite ruling class. The agrarian reform after the revolution tried to rectify this. The government took land away from large Spanish-owned haciendas that had acquired it illegally and placed it in trust to the indigenous people who had lost it. This land is technically owned by the Mexican Government (so it is not a full resolution of the land issue) but used by local indigenous communities. They can live and farm on this land. In recent years, laws have been enacted that allow the heirs of the original families to whom the land was entrusted, to privatise and sell. However, they like to stay on their land, and I can't blame them. That of course means many of them don't move to cities where there is more work.
So how do they live here? Interestingly, their houses are oval. The shape and size can be attributed to two main factors. If they had a square house, the roof would have four corners. It would be a problem for thatch and would cause leaks in the house. When you have an oval house, the roof thatch is in a continuous circle and overlapping. Another reason is wind. An oval house would stand up better to strong winds because there is not a flat side taking the full force.
As for the roof, it can be made of grass or palm leaves. Grass palapas can last for about 3-4 years before they have to be replaced. Palm roofs can last from 8-20 years. In both cases, bunches are gathered with string and tied to the wooden structure of the roof (always starting at the bottom and going circular to the top).
The walls are made of wood posts around the oval rock foundation. The door openings circulate the air and the walls have gaps for the same purpose. The airflow keeps the houses cooler. However, in some cases, mud clay mixed with grass is added to the walls to make a plaster. On the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, they use wooden planks for houses. They paint them to protect them from termites. This makes such villages very colourful, like for example San Felipe, which is probably the most colourful village in Yucatán.
As for water, they dug out their own well (in the absence of a cenote on their land). They use buckets for showers (and flushing the toilets). For drinking they boil the well water. They grow herbs for medicine and cooking, on raised beds, called canché. The canché has the advantage over the beds on the ground in that it's harder for animals to get at the plants. They grow chili peppers, cilantro, garlic, lemongrass and some beans here. But don't expect green manicured lawns here. It is just the jungle with stones and a few paths. They have a lot of trees, some wild papaya and a platano tree (banana) in the garden around their houses. The wild papaya is used for medicinal purposes, against snake bites.
The ground beds (in Maya called eras) are used for medicinal plants. Here you can find rosemary, which relieves muscular and period pain, oregano against rheumatism, aloe vera against inflammation of the kidneys or boldo (peumus boldus) against liver diseases. I particularly like Mimosa Pudica. In Latin Pudica means 'bashful' or 'shrinking', alluding to its shrinking reaction to contact. The leaves indeed fold inward and droop when touched. It is fascinating to watch this. Try this Youtube video: youtube.com. The plant has antioxidant and antibacterial properties and it is used against disease caused by threadworm and against cobra venom.
For a complementary diet, they keep chickens and turkeys and they are hoping to have a pig one day. They keep bees to produce honey. The bees here are the Melipona species, truly tiny, and they are stingless. The beehives are tree trunks from the jungle that they find in the forest from the colonies that exist in the wild. They keep them under a palapa roof, near their dwellings. The hive is a convoluted mesh of waxy secretions and labyrinthine cavities. They extract the honey with injections from it. The village only produces 12 litres a year and only uses it as medicine. Other villages around them produce more and sell it. The honey is truly delicious. If you try it, you will never buy honey from a supermarket again. Well, I don't.
Each family has one bedroom and they have one hut that serves as a shared kitchen. The bedroom is a wooden palapa house with no doors or windows. Just two door openings opposite each other, to provide a breeze (no aircon for them). They sleep in hammocks. For the couples, they have double hammocks (impossible to get into, trust me). They weave them themselves and also sell them in the village of Cobá down the road, to the village co-operative. The hammock keeps them off the floor (not cemented, just a dirt floor) and the insects. They say beds give them back pain, while hammocks allow them to fall asleep faster (the rocking motion) and to relax into a deeper sleep (there is no tossing around). I remember my son being on a boat in Brazil on the Amazon river and he slept in a hammock on the deck for a few days. When he came back, he could not sleep in a bed again; it took a while to adjust. Mind you, you have to lie in hammocks in the proper position. Ángel will demonstrate to you how to do it right, with your back diagonal to the side of the hammock. And I believe them when they say it is a healthier way to sleep although I never mastered that skill myself.
They disinfect the palapa roof by fire with some herbs. That keeps spiders away. The suspended basket from the roof serves for keeping their possessions away from the insects too. I peeped into one of them; they keep some crisps there for children, and some personal belongings. They have no wardrobes, just a rope across the room for their clothes, or use a beam for the same purpose.
In the kitchen they have fire between three stones. This is a very traditional hearth and each jungle village keeps this tradition. The first step to building a home is a ritual known as 'planting the stones'. The tradition comes from Maya mythology, from the times when the sky had not yet been raised at the time of creation. The three hearth stones were set. These hearth stones are carried on the back of the Turtle, as they called the constellation Orion (This is the triangle formed by the two feet of Orion, and the tip of his sword). The ancient Maya knew that the universe and new life was created in that space of the Orion triangle. And indeed, there is a nebula there where new stars are born even today. The triangle of the three hearth stones is the very foundation of the traditional Maya home. This is not only the place to cook the food but also the centre for household rituals.
On top of the three stones sits a smooth, flat griddle called comal. This is where they fry the tortillas. The women from the three households make them jointly or in turns, depending who is helping the children with their homework or who is washing up (which is done outside the kitchen, in a tub) or washing the clothes, by hand (no washing machine). During your visit, you may try to roll the tortillas yourself. A big lump of dough is always ready by the fire. They teach this skill to their daughters from a young age. If a Maya woman wants to marry, she has to know how to make them. No question.
Sometimes they cook in a pib, which means a 'hole in the ground'. It is a traditional method of cooking. The hole is filled up with firewood and when it is lit, rocks are put on the fire. They remain hot for a long time and meat covered in banana leaves is put on top of them, to be cooked (for 2-3 hours). This is how the Yucatec specialty cochinita pibil, my favourite local meal, is made. Pibil basically means barbequed. If you are interested in the Maya ways of cooking and their recipes, I do recommend the Mexican-Mayan Cook Book by Alejandra Bolles.
While the women cook and attend to the children, the men work in the milpa, the corn field behind their houses.
The women also embroider blouses, for sale. A Maya blouse is called a huipil. These are made traditionally, by stitching three pieces of cotton cloth together. They were worn by the Maya women in ancient times and they still wear them, in everyday life, and not just in the countryside. The more embroidered ones are used for festive occasions.
And where else can you see such Maya houses in jungle communities? From the villages that I have visited so far I can suggest the following:
Near the Cobá ruins, about a 15-minute drive, there is a village called Campamento Hidalgo. They also open their doors to visitors. This village is larger, with about 31 families (200 inhabitants), but you will find the same set-up of the dwellings and the kitchens. It is large enough to support a proper church building. If you were to drive a bit further, you would arrive at Punta Laguna, a lake where you can swim or kayak.
A small Maya jungle village can be also seen at the Cenote Hubiku eco park (near Ek' Balam ruins). You will see only a few wooden houses here, an altar and some turkeys and chickens kept by the villagers.
The village of Chunyaxché, by the ruins of Muyil, is full of jungle communities, but they are mostly behind a closed fence. My visit here was arranged by a Maya elder, Caamal Pastor. You can meet him at the Muyil ruins and you can possibly ask for the same favour but be prepared to pay some tip for the villagers who will allow you to enter their village and their houses.
How to get there:
When you get out of the Cobá ruins, turn immediately left on the road along the Laguna Cobá. This road takes you to the other side of the lake, where the village of Cobá continues. You will be heading south-west towards Nuevo Durango. Outside the village you will see a sign to three cenotes (Choo Ha, Tankach Ha and Multun Ha). Turn left on this road and in a few minutes you will see the village on your left. It is clearly marked on the road.
If you wish to contact Caamal Pastor, here is his phone number: 984 105 8220. He uses the What's Up app and speaks English.