Blog 2: Escape from Cancun

Blog 2,  1 December 2012

            Ek Balam, our second destination, was a nice contrast to Cancún. For one thing, it is smaller: 750K in Cancún, 75P in Ek Balam

 (P = people). Where Cancún has beaches and surf and boutiques and high-rise hotels, Ek Balam has trees and trees and trees and homey guest huts in a swath of jungle called “Uh Najil Ek Balam Centro Ecoturístico Cabañas Ecológicas.” Where Cancún tempts with a thousand designed-for-tourists eateries and drinkeries, Ek Balam has one restaurant, Las Delicias, on the plaza, which advertises itself as Italian and opens on random other days but not today. The main reason to go to this village is the ruins of the massive Mayan temple-city of Ek Balam, built by the current villagers’ great-to-the-Nth-power grandparents, which lies a five minute walk east of the village. Protocol, however, requires one drive four kilometers round about so as to enter through the gate with the ticket office. 

            We found the cabañas easily on the web. Uh Najil is conveniently located halfway across the peninsula between Valladolid on the Cancún-Mérida toll road and Río Lagartos on the northern coast, where we are going next. Finding the cabañas in the jungle was a little harder, as signage was near nil and the entrance road to the village narrowed and rutted with each successive bumpy kilometer. Eventually we did find the village, and a friendly carpenter pointed out the dirt road that took us a little further to Uh Najil.

            The

village of Ek Balam in an ejido, which is the Mexican term for land owned communally by an indigenous group (in this case Maya), and managed by them under regulation and protection by the federal government. The concept is something like tribal reservations in the US, except that ejidos tend to be village size, not nation size, and they house at most a couple of hundred people, not thousands or tens of thousands. And since there is no provision in Mexican law for their running casinos, they tend to be dirt poor, not slot machine rich. As the INAH, the government ministry in charge of cultural patrimony like archeological sites, was restoring the monumental central cluster of the Ek Balam ruin, a sibling agency assisted the village in creating a eco-friendly full-service lodge to help foment tourism in the region. For their cultural excursion, most short-term tourists visit only the ruins of Chichen Itza on a day trip from either Cancún or Mérida. With more sites developed, more hotels, more restaurants, coastal tourists might be induced to spend three or four days in the interior, presumably to the benefit of the interior economy. Like the way the Spanish government pumped the Compostela pilgrimage as a vehicle for getting people in off the coasts.   

Our cabaña, one of about ten scattered among the trees, was an upscale example of the north Yucatán oval house style. The walls were poles of wood, each about 1.5 inches thick, laced together with lianas. The rafters were wood beams resting on a frame anchored to four sturdy forked tree t

runks, lashed together again with lianas. The roof itself was of tightly folded palmetto fronds clamped to horizontal bars by the folded and crimped palmetto stem; tight as any shingle roof in New England while allowing the house to breathe. All of this just like every other home on Ek Balam’s grid of four or five streets.

There were differences, too. Our cabaña had a wooden door that closed, shutters that closed, and mesh screens over the windows: the houses in the village were all open. Windows were holes in the walls; doors were sometimes only curtains; and some areas of the house had no walls at all, just the thatched roof resting on poles. We know what Ek Batanos had in their houses, because we could see into them with ease. Our cabaña had beds; everybody native to the village slept in hammocks. Our beds were draped with mosquito netting. Theirs?  No windows, some walls, hammocks hung in any space reached by a breeze, take your chances with the mosquitos. Our cabaña had a little mini-cabaña attached to one end that housed a sink, shower, and flush toilet in 3 separate little rooms. Cold water only, of course. Some of the Ek Batan homes may have had indoor plumbing, but we didn’t see any. They all had running water, usually into an outside sink which was next to a concrete outdoor washtub with one side corrugated for scrubbing the soapy clothes against. Our cabaña had no kitchen; they mostly cooked with firewood either in outdoor kitchens or in some hidden spot we could not see. We both had electricity, but ours was eco-friendly: solar collectors on a skeletal rack at one side of the clustered cabañas.

Ours was neat as an operating room; staff cleaned it every day and we only used it for sleeping. Theirs were maelstroms of constant activity: women weaving hammocks (the town’s principal source of funds) while caring for five or six kids from newborn to pre-teen; older children playing, studying, dancing, helping the adults, coming and going from school; dogs greeting every passerby and each other. We came in a car; most locals seemed to ride bikes, or 3-wheeled bike-trucks in which they transport foodstuffs, firewood, farm implements,

and their aged parents and young kids. The cacophony in the village was constant; our corner of the woods was silent except for loud insects and birdcalls. The only real clamor was when we were momentarily besieged by some flock of parrots or parakeets.  Now THAT’s loud! One more note: we had no TV, while every home in the village did, mostly flat screen.

During our one-day visit to Ek Balam ejido we talked with lot
s of people, some directly, and some through an interpreter. Our guess is that about half the villagers were bilingual in Spanish and Mayan. The other half were monolingual speakers of Mayan. Kids in the street played in both languages. Women in the houses chattered in both (remember, everything was open, and overhearing conversations was easy (I was about to write eavesdropping, but nobody in the Yucatán has ever seen an eave). The adult Spanish speakers always marveled at our ability with the language. To everyone else we were just another couple of foreigners, as exotic and incomprehensible as the tourists from Veracruz or Mexico City. Outsiders.

All in all it was a wonderful experience, with only a couple of  minor points we might have wished to improve upon. While our windows were meshed, there was a three quarter of an inch gap between the door and the floor. Linda wasn’t fond of the incoming. I claimed the biggest one was a cricket, but she fixated on cockroach. Well, it was, but one of the jungle variety, big and pretty and nonpolluting, so what’s not to like? Then there was the fact that while we had water, we had only cold water. Good for one’s character, to shower like that, I say. Lastly there was the business about dinner. The restaurant on the square was dark. The larder in the Uh Najil Cabañas was bare, and there was no way for them to get more (I think they may have left the actual shopping until it was too late). There would be breakfast –somebody’s chickens were bound to lay during the night— but no dinner. Fortunately, we had some fruit, and we keep a loaf of bread and a couple of jars of this and that in the car larder for such occasions, so we didn’t go to bed hungry.

And breakfast was delicious.

By the way, if you ever take the road from Ek Balam to Río Lagartos you will be obligated to drive through the center of the small city of Tizimín. Save up your hunger for a lunch stop at the Restaurante Tres Reyes (you know, Melchor and company, those three kings), directly across the plaza from the church. There’s a sign on the highway as you approach town proclaiming that the restaurant offers “¡La mejor comida del mundo!” (The best food in the world!). It’s a big globe, after all, and with a claim like that we had to stop. The atmosphere belies the restaurant’s presumed fame: six or seven wooden tables, at the largest of which, in the center, sits the owner, going over his accounts and keeping his eye on the yellow shirted cook and wait staff. On the wall are bullfight photographs, a blow up of the National Geographic pair of portraits of an Iranian woman, 30 years apart; some plaques with the usual half-witty sayings. A statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe on a shelf over the bar next to even more signs  (“Don’t drink and drive!” “Please do not smoke”  “La major comida del mundo!”). Next to the sink in the hall outside the bathrooms are several framed poems by the restaurant’s owner, Willy Canto M, and some photos of his chanteuse wife, Nidia Elena Rejón.

Surprise! The lunch really WAS good: grilled fish in garlic sauce, chicken fillets sautéed in garlic, fresh tortillas, perfectly refried beans, a shredded cabbage salad, fresh pico de gallo of onions and tomatoes, little plates of hors-deuvres (sausage and sweet pepper and pasta; a squash and red and orange pepper compot with an ali-oli dip); all washed down with fresh-squeezed mandarin orange juice (Linda) and horchata (David). The motto on the napkin holder summed it all up: “We serve regional, national, international, worldwide, and intergalactic food!” You bet!! As Michelin would say: “Worth the journey.”

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