Travelling through the Yucatán countryside means discovering places with unique local flavours. And indeed, Uayma certainly has a strikingly unique colonial church.
When I saw a photo of the church for the first time, it caught my eye and I knew that one day I would have to come and see it for myself. And finally I did so. I came here with my husband Rhod in May 2018, after four and a half years in Yucatán. Uayma is a small village (with less than 4,000 people), just outside Valladolid. It is certainly a tranquil place. During our stay we saw only a few locals in the village. A man on a bike with a child, three or four teenagers at the main park, a couple of older men sitting on a bench, and a young man walking fast (to catch a bus) who directed us to the village cenote.
In the past, Uayma was quite well known for its pottery but most of the younger people now choose to leave for Cancún, Mérida, and Valladolid, for better-paid jobs. You can feel nostalgia here big time. Don't expect any services for tourists at this sleepy place either. The village has an open cenote, just past the church, but while its entrance is open, we could not find a path or steps leading to it, and the pool water was covered with leaves. Obviously nobody cleans it or expects visitors.
Uayma in Maya means 'not here' (uay means 'here' and ma means 'no'). I am really intrigued why such a name was chosen. Who said it? It can't refer to the Maya refusal to bow to the Spanish because it is an ancient name, from before the conquest. This was Maya land from ancient times and by the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century it was ruled by the Cupules dynasty. Hence the whole chiefdom was called Cupul. When we saw the broken stone letters of the town in the village green, it was somehow symbolic. It seemed the locals were taking the town name's letters apart (do NOT place them HERE).
After the conquest the Franciscan monks took over the Christianisation of the native people. They built Catholic churches and monasteries from the stone of the Maya temples, which they destroyed. It was a symbol of the change of power, and it seemed to work.
Uayma is not on the convent route in Yucatán, but if you add the churches of Valladolid (the cathedral of San Servacio and the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena), you will create a special convent route on the Eastern side of Yucatán. If you have more time, add Yaxcabá south of Chichén Itzá.
I have browsed the Yucatán countryside a lot. On different trips throughout the years, I have zigzagged here and there; so now I can confidently recommend the best routes, which are worth your time. The most popular convent route starts in Acanceh and ends up in Maní. Another route I like is Maxcanú to Oxcutzcab, which takes you along the foothills of the Puuc past Uxmal and Santa Elena. Yet another route could start at Izamal, with its enormous monastery, then to Tixkokob and Conkal. The convent routes in Yucatán are not just about the churches. It is an interesting way to get to know the countryside and the village lifestyle.
Each of these routes means that you will go to a few villages with interesting and unique churches. Each church stands at the zócalo (the main square), usually with a park in the middle and a village hall. Here you will see the locals sitting on benches and chatting. Very often a football pitch is right at the centre of the village. In places, on your way from village to village, you can see the farmers working in the fields or just admire the country houses. The typical Maya house has a stone platform but wooden sides and a roof made of palm leaves, called palapa. Sometimes they are maintained well; other times they are in a poor state. Most of the countryside houses have a stone wall around them. At times, you can see the Spanish architecture present in a village, which is certainly the case at Uayma. In addition, during our visit the village was full of the forthcoming election posters. One of the politicians was several times bigger than human size, a bit scary when he suddenly pops up above your head.
In Uayma the former convent church of Santo Domingo is certainly the focus of life for the villagers, although I saw two other small churches in the village as well. The first Catholic commission was established here in 1579 and Santo Domingo built in 1646. The church was burned in 1855 by the Maya rebels during the so-called Caste War of Yucatán. The bloody rebellion was a response to the cruel and unjust working conditions imposed on the Maya by the Spanish, who also took the Maya ancestral lands and created their own haciendas/farms on them. The situation was made worse as the success of the henequén industry grew; and the hacienda owners continued to practise the feudal system, keeping the Maya peóns in servitude to their masters. The presence of rebels was strong here between 1848 and 1887. After the rebels burned the church, it remained a roofless ruin until 2003 when the restoration process took place. The original colours and the stucco were also repaired.
The church is unique because of its decoration. The starbursts and rosettes give a feeling of happiness, in contrast to the troubled past. The predominant red colour represents the martyrdom of Christ. The green, of course, is the colour of hope. The white stars and the roses relate to the worship of the Virgin Mary. There is also a double-headed eagle on the façade. An eagle has always been a symbol of power and dominion and a double-headed one is associated with the concept of an empire. It was used by many ancient civilisations: Christian Byzantine Empire, Roman empire, Russia, Nubia… For Franciscans it could have been a symbol representing the Catholic union between the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. The monastery has a large atrium and patio, because the work of the friars required large gathering places.
Other colonial structures in the village include some pretty residential houses around the village green, of which the prettiest is the Piano House. It is a pension hotel with four different rooms, all sharing the same kitchen and communal space with a piano. We knocked on the door but the house seemed to be closed during our visit.
There are a few other colonial houses around the village green and a couple of old houses that remain in various states of disrepair. One of them has tree roots that have eaten all the walls of the house. The presence of a railway station also suggests the richer status of the village in the past, in comparison with its status today.
The Spanish presence demonstrated itself not just through the church, but also by the hacienda ownership. Don Gaspar González in 1540 received from Valladolid town hall all the lands of the town of Pixoy, with its inhabitants. In 1606 his son Don Esteban González de Najera inherited the ranch from his father and also bought the Uayma lands, becoming the owner of the entire area west of the city. First the hacienda San Miguel grew corn, beans, cotton and sugar cane and raised cattle and horses, but with the henequén boom in the 19th century it switched to growing henequén for making sisal fibre. The fibre bales, sugar and corn were transported on a narrow gauge railroad system to the port of Sisal (north-west of Mérida), from which the fibre got its name. Hence the presence of the railway station in the village.
Between 1870 and 1920 small entrepreneurs were also providing rail passenger services between the towns and villages in the area. In fact, Uayma was on the famous Camino Real route (Royal Road) that connected Mérida with Campeche town in the south and Mérida and Sisal in the north. At the end of the seventeenth century, the route was intended to continue from Campeche to Guatemala; however, this did not work out well. When standing at the disused village railway station, I was so wishing that this rail network could be restored in Yucatán. Call me romantic, but trains do have an appeal.
During the Caste War, Hacienda San Miguel had the same fate as the church. It fell into the hands of the rebels who, after killing all their inhabitants (perhaps including the owners), ransacked and burned all the buildings, leaving the hacienda desolate. Today the hacienda is restored as a hotel and offers eight cabañas and seven rooms, with a pool in the jungle.
If you want to experience the village in a livelier mode than its usual sleepy pace, come here during the festivals. May is usually the month within which most of the Yucatán villages honour their saints and have fiestas that include the corrida de toros (bullfighting). The bullring is put up fast just for that occasion and it is very simple, made of wood (see my example on the left, from a different village in Yucatán).
Some villages may still have charrería, an event similar to a rodeo, evolving from the Spanish haciendas. The charro was a horseman working on a hacienda (often protecting the property against bandits) and the owners often had competitions of their skills between haciendas. As New Spain had prohibited native people from riding or owning horses, they were mostly of mixed race.
In Uayma there is a festival in honour of the Holy Cross on 3 May and San Isidro Labrador, patron saint of the town, is celebrated on the 15th of May. August 4 is the annual festival in honour of Santo Domingo. Expect religious processions, and a vaquería. At haciendas this was a festival at which the cattle branding and counting of the cattle was celebrated. The women were called vaqueras, and they wore the same hats as the men who were called vaqueros (cowboys); therefore the fiesta was called the vaquería. The vaquería consists of three celebrations: it begins with a mass, then a bullfight, and it ends with the typical Yucatec dance called jarana. It is a tap dance without fixed steps, accompanied by jolly music. During the dance, male dancers spontaneously yell 'bomba' and all music stops. At this point, one man yells out a ridiculously funny rhyme. The orchestra and dancing resumes until the next time 'bomba' is yelled and another rhyme is shared.
How to get there:
Autobuses Centro operates a bus from Valladolid to Uayma every 30 minutes.
If driving, take road 79 east out of Valladolid. It is a 25-minute ride.
Mix & Match:
If you want to make this trip as part of the 'convent route' concept, go and see the colonial town of Valladolid, with its Cathedral de San Servacio on the main square and Convent of San Bernardino de Siena. Or you can combine it with a visit to one of many cenotes in and around Valladolid, such as Zací, Samulá, X'Kekén.