Posted by: ktzefr | July 21, 2010

Birdman of the Yucatan…and musings about guacamole, shoes, and Mexican bikes

Sometimes I hear a piece of music or birdsong or see a particular flower blooming and it, the song or the blossom, becomes a conduit to some other place or time.  Today, sitting beneath the maple in the 90+ degree weather with the birds singing in the trees and only the slightest hint of a breeze, I am reminded of eating guacamole on a similar hot day in the Yucatan.   Sitting on the long, shady veranda of the Hacienda Chichen, enjoying a breeze through the palms, and listening to the birds, I had the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted.  Or perhaps it was the time or the place or the people that made it seem so.

One of my favorite things about travel is the people I meet.  Shortly after sunrise one morning I slipped out of my cottage and headed to the main house to meet Bibiano, my hiking guide — a birdman by day and a balladeer by night.  (Although in other parts of Mexico the loud, trumpet-wielding mariachis are the norm, the Yucatecans, especially those living inland away from the beach hot spots, prefer romantic ballads played by local guitar trios.  The soft music of the balladeers fits with the hacienda’s surroundings — white tablecloths and candlelight, palm leaves rustling in the night wind, the gurgle and coo of birds settling in to roost.) Bibiano and two of his sons had entertained us at dinner the previous night, and I was happily surprised that morning to find his familiar face wearing a different hat and carrying binoculars and a bird book.

Over the years I have discovered that birdwatching requires a great deal of patience — and silence.  While Bibiano slipped around the hacienda grounds and through the adjacent jungle without making a sound, I followed slowly, trying to keep my sandals from flapping.  The trail was surrounded by tall trees laden with bromeliads — dainty ferns, spiky air plants, wild hanging vines.  Cottage rooftops were draped in bougainvillea.

It was February and the amapola trees were naked of leaves but awash with feathery pink flowers.  The papayas were ripening and the zapote hanging full of brown, velvety fruits.   The zapote is very aromatic, the fruit tastes good, and the tree is prized for its exotic hardwood.

Bibiano pointed out the cherimoya, chicle, and acacia trees. (For info and pics of all the hacienda’s beautiful flowering trees and plants click  HERE.) Sisal (henequen) plants still grow wild everywhere, leftover from the days when the hacienda was a thriving sisal plantation.  Before nylon came on the scene, this fiber was used to make rope for the world and made the Yucatan rich.  The hacienda has a rich and colorful history.  Built in 1523 by the Spanish conquistadors, it was among the Yucatan’s first haciendas and operated for centuries as a cattle ranch…

…Above our heads yellow flycatchers soared from treetop to treetop.  I borrowed Bibiano’s powerful binoculars to check out the two “ducks” I’d seen roosting outside my cottage the previous night and quickly discovered they were not ducks at all; they were black vultures.  The vultures are common here, gathering at night in the trees around the cenotes.  Further along we caught two bright green parrots chatting to each other on a tree branch in a streak of morning sunlight as if posing on a spotlighted stage.

Outside the property the land turns from tropical greens to dusty scrub jungle.  Because of the long dry season in this area trees rarely grow more than 10-15 feet tall.  For miles and miles there is nothing but the dusty green cover of these stubby trees crisscrossed with paths from the main cuota road to the villages.  When we were driving to Chichen we saw bicycles everywhere.  Although it’s supposedly against the law for them to use the cuota roads, I doubt they had any worries.   A bike rider could easily leave the paved road one minute and disappear into the thick maze of jungle the next, and the locals are the only ones who have a clue about which way to go.  The bikes have three wheels with the two wheels and a carriage in front.  Many of the people we passed were carrying bundles of firewood.  In this part of the Yucatan searching for firewood for cooking is a daily chore.

The ground is hard, a giant slab of limestone pocked in nearly three thousand places along the peninsula with cenotes.  There are no rivers above ground, but these sinkholes connect the dry, dusty world above with a network of underground rivers.  The ancient Mayan people believed the cenotes were portals to the underworld, the world of the spirits.  Though this world might have long ago been deemed a dark and scary place, the one above was all blue skies, bright sunlight, and birds, birds, birds!  Tropical mockingbirds, trogons, Caribbean doves, great-tailed grackles, mangrove vireos, melodious blackbirds, tanagers, warblers, Yucatan jays, hummingbirds, kiskadees…migrating birds from the US and birds that are found only in the Yucatan.  Listen to Bird Songs of the Yucatan to hear what it sounds like to fall asleep in a cottage in the jungle of Chichen…

In this dusty world the people dress in white.  Thetraditional clothing of the local Maya — white guayaberas for the men and white huipiles bordered by garlands of embroidered flowers for the women.  Their white sandals looked incredibly comfortable, but I couldn’t find a pair anywhere.  I didn’t have a chance to go into Piste, the nearby town, to look in the stores, and the tourist shops along the beaches were filled instead with bins of shoes from Italy, the US, and Israel.  I doubt they would have had my size in any case as even the sandals for men looked tiny alongside mine.  Back home I Googled pictures of various versions of “Mayan sandals” and came up with everything from stiletto heels (didn’t see any of those on anyone), gladiator shoes (ditto), and “Yucatan sandals” by ECCO that didn’t look anything like the ones the Mayan people wear.  If you ever run across a picture of these simple white sandals, let me know.  On a related note, Charles Goodyear is credited with inventing the chemical process for converting rubber, but the Maya and others were adept at making rubber 3,000 years before Goodyear.  The Spanish explorers were amazed at the rubber balls used by the Mayans, and, though no sandals have survived the vagaries of time (or at least haven’t been found), it is interesting that the Aztecs used a compound word that blends the Aztec words for rubber and sandals…

We were almost at the end of our hike when Bibiano stopped suddenly.  We held our breaths.  What spectacular colors!  The artist’s palette of red, yellow, blue, and green before us was a male painted bunting that had alighted in the brush at eye level only a few feet away.  If this had been the only bird spotted on our hike, the early morning wake-up call would have still been worth it!

Before I left the hacienda, Bibiano gave me a swatch of sisal and showed me how to identify and remove the fibers from the yucca-like plants that dot the property.  He emptied his sisal backpack — a gourd to use as a soap dish, other novelties.  Presents for a stranger.  Later, I thought about how this kind, simple man had quite the sophisticated lineage.  In the first millennium A.D. the Maya created the most intellectually and artistically-advanced civilization in the Americas.  Much of their culture and language still survive with more than 30 Mayan dialects being spoken today.  Some are similar; others are mutually unintelligible.


As the sun falls in Virginia I lose more and more shade and have to start thinking about heading inside and cooking dinner.  I don’t have all the makings for guacamole, but I do think I’ve got at least one avocado somewhere…


The Hacienda Chichen offers accommodations for volunteers who are willing to teach English in the local communities.  Learn about the Carnegie Institution’s Maya Research Expedition archaeologists who were housed here in the 1920s.  Read about the Maya Foundation in Laakeech, the opportunities for volunteering, and personal stories from volunteers.  Shelby Emmonds, a volunteer this summer at Chichen, has fun pics and interesting experiences on her blog HERE.  Also Jim Conrad, a fellow Kentuckian and a botanist, biologist, geologist, became an “internet-connected hermit naturalist” more than a decade ago, traveling with a backpack and a laptop.  Jim is currently living and writing from Hacienda Chichen.  Check out his scientific observations, pictures, and a bit of personal philosophy at his weekly newsletter HERE.


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