Oxkutzcab

Yucatán, Mexico


The wholesale fruit market in this town never closes, which makes it vibrant, lively and full of colour. The town looks like a replica of Valladolid, a typical provincial colonial town of Yucatán.


The arches of the Town Hall.
Cathedral de San Ildefonso. Left: The Montejo House.
 

The town is a very good option for spending the night when you want to do the Convent Route one day and the Puuc Route the next, or visit Hacienda Tabi. We came to Oxkutzcab after visiting the Loltún cave. And what a surprise! Our visit was on Sunday, just a couple of days before Mexican Independence Day (16 September) and the town was already celebrating. The park in the main plaza had a fairground, the market was busy, the church had a service on and it felt like the whole city was out, celebrating. And the colours! Not just the colonial buildings (predominantly yellow), but colourful people as well!

 
The fairground at the main park.
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Under the arches of the Town Hall.

Under the arches of the Town Hall.

Food stalls around the main square.
 

The streets with colonial buildings around the main square give the place an old-world charm. We loved the packed square and the buzzing atmosphere. 

 
The fairground at the main park.
The murals in the Town Hall.
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We even witnessed a game of baseball a few blocks away, with live reporting. What fun!

Oxkutzcab dates back to pre-Columbian times. The name of the town consists of three Mayan words: Ox (ramón tree), Kutz (tobacco), Cab (honey). It clearly indicates what was important for the subsistence of the ancient Maya here.

The ramón tree, native to Latin America, was of particular interest for the Maya. We learnt from our guide Miguel (he was our guide in Loltún cave but he lives in Oxkutzcab), that this tree has hard wood and was used for construction but, above all, it was pretty crucial for the ancient Maya as a source of food. Known by its full name as yaxox in Mayan, the ramón tree was particularly important at times of drought, as it still provided nutrition even if all other crops failed – the Maya learnt to make tortillas from it. The tree produces orange fruit (sweet and edible) and bright green seeds, called alternatively ramón nuts, Maya nuts, or bread nuts. It is the nuts that were ground up into a thick porridge-like drink called 'atole' or mixed into tortilla meal. I learnt when we came back from our trip that the use of ramón seeds is now being revived in the rainforests of Guatemala, helping create new jobs for women and better food security.

 
The Government Palace. Left: murals inside the Palace.
A local reporter with live coverage of the baseball match.

A local reporter with live coverage of the baseball match.

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The colonial town was founded in 1550 by the Spaniards after the fall of Mayapán (which was ruled by the Tutul Xiu family). Today it has over 30,000 inhabitants, mostly of Maya ancestry.

From the 15th century onwards, the fate of Oxkutzcab was pretty dramatic. With the fall of Mayapán in the 1440s, Oxkutzcab became a regional capital ruled by the Xiu family. After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán it was established as a Spanish colonial town; the Maya temples were demolished and a large Franciscan church was built (between 1640-1693). It is noted mainly for its ornamental façade, with a stone statue of St Francis, the patron of the mission.

 
The church is right opposite the Town Hall.

The church is right opposite the Town Hall.

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In 1879 the city was linked to the capital of Mérida by railroad. Yucatán state had approximately 4,500km of tramway track, more than all the other Mexican states combined. It was a colossal network, unequalled by any other in the world. Most of the lines were on plantations, or ran from the plantations for henequén (sisal hemp) to the railroad stations and towns. The majority of Yucatán trams were horse drawn. A few were powered by steam engines, storage batteries or gasoline motors. None drew electricity from overhead wires. The railways also transported workers and, later, the general public. Today the rail track is no longer in use and the stations are abandoned. Apparently, the Mexican government plans to invest about $100 billion in new railroads including Mexico’s first high-speed rail link between Cancún and Mérida (the plan has been postponed a few times though).

 
Yucatán rail map. Source:  tramz.com .

Yucatán rail map. Source: tramz.com.

Map of the town; the railway station is at the top left corner.

Map of the town; the railway station is at the top left corner.

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Today Oxkutzcab sits in the so-called 'citrus belt' and focuses on the cultivation of tropical fruits such as citrus, zapote, avocado, mango, papaya, mamey, huayas, saramuyos and plums. It has all the services like hotels, restaurants, and medical services.

If you find yourself here for the evening and the night, do stroll about the main square and just absorb the ambience. The market in the centre sells a lot of tropical fruit; it serves as a wholesale venue for fruit and vegetables but you can buy a small amount for tasting here. After all, Oxkutzcab is a market town. The adjacent food stalls offer plenty of Mexican street food (a variety of tamales). We visited the market on Sunday late afternoon, and it was still busy. Apparently it is open from pre-dawn until late night every day of the week. The town seems to be prospering, thanks to the fruit industry, and also to the large number of locals who emigrated to the USA (primarily to the San Francisco Bay area, like our guide Miguel and his wife), and who have subsequently returned with dollars in their pockets, or who remain there while sending regular remittances to their families.

 
Colonial buildings on Paseo Montejo.
Colonial buildings on Paseo Montejo.
 

Each year at the end of November, the city hosts the Festival of Oranges (introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards), but Oxkutzcab is well worth a visit at any time of the year. There are a few small hotels; we chose Puuc Hotel, a few blocks from the main square. It was a bargain, we paid 400 pesos for a double room, which had aircon and cable TV with plenty of channels. It was clean and we could not ask for more. The hotel also has a restaurant where you can have breakfast. In addition, there is a lovely large pool set in a nice garden. You may be lucky like us and have it to yourself.

 

Plenty of oranges for sale even in September.

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Pelican sculpture by the hotel pool.

Pelican sculpture by the hotel pool.

 

How to get there:

If you want to go by bus, there are colectivos (minibuses) from Mérida to Oxkutzcab that leave from the north side of Parque San Juan, about three blocks south of the main square and cathedral. In addition, there are second-class buses from the Noreste bus station, on Calle 67 between Calle 50 and Calle 52. If you are travelling by car, drive along highway 180 and then turn off on road 184, going via Acanceh and Tecoh. You can also turn off to side road 261 at the village of Uman.

From Cancún the buses depart from the Central Bus Terminal. The bus takes 7.5 hours and costs $302 MXN (2017 prices). By car from Cancún it takes 4 hours. Drive along highway 180 and then turn off on the road 184, going via Acanceh and Tecoh.

 
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Mix & Match:

The nearest place of interest is the Loltún Cave, only 8km away. It is also on the route to such pyramids as Uxmal, Labná, Sayil, Kabáh, and Xlapak; all on Route Puuc. Last but not least, it is also on the Route of the Convents, such as Acancéh, Tecóh, Telchaquillo, Tekit, Mama, Chumayel, Teabo and Tipikal. 

Sources:

Margaret Badore: Reviving the ramón nut

Caste War of Yucatán