Access + Resources
CLOSEST AIRPORT: Mérida, 80 miles west
GETTING THERE: The only regular bus service to Yaxuná runs from Mérida on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons, returning Saturday, Sunday, and Monday mornings. Those looking for a more flexible schedule can rent a car in Mérida (Alamo, Avis, and Hertz have branches at the airport).
WHERE TO STAY: Yaxuná Campamento (doubles, $35 per person per night, including three meals and a guided tour of the town and ruins; 011-52-985-858-1482, manray.csu-hayward.edu/campamento).
WHERE TO EAT: The cooks at Yaxuná Campamento provide traditional Yucatecan meals like pit-barbecued turkey with habanero sauce.
FLICKERING HEADLIGHTS slice through the Yucatán night as our rented van speeds past the spiky gumbo-limbo trees and poison sumac lining the labyrinthine roads. Earlier, in the midday heat, our entouragewhich included my three kids and two brothersleft the Disneyesque Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá and headed southwest into the parched hinterland. Our destination is Yaxuná, a village of a hundred thatch-topped huts where my friend David Freidel, a Southern Methodist University archaeologist, has spent more than a decade excavating a city that predates Chichén Itzá's sixth-century temples by at least 500 years. Here, Freidel told me, life for the Yucatec Maya proceeds much as it did 15 centuries ago. At Chichén Itzá, the deserted pyramids left us wondering about the Maya's daily lifeat Yaxuná, we would witness it.
A chorus of barking dogs, touched off by a lone howl, greets us as we pull into Yaxun's central plaza. A pleasant aroma of warm tortillas and smoke lingers in the night air. We see families sitting around cooking fires in pole-walled huts, while silhouettes of pigs and chickens poke their way around the dirt courtyards, fringed by avocado and banana trees. Up the street, past the 19th-century limestone church, we check into Yaxuná Campamento, a field camp that Freidel's team of archaeologists turned over to the locals in 1996. The enterprising villagers renovated it into an eight-room inn, blending ancient Maya construction with hot showers and comfortable beds. This night, however, we choose to sleep strung up in hammocks like netted groupers.
Fueled by a breakfast of mouth-searing huevos a la Mexicana (onion-and-habanero-laced eggs) and sweet juice squeezed from green oranges, we strike off with Ceno Poot, a Maya man who has worked as an archaeologist, a cook, and, most recently, an eco-guide. Ceno leads us to the log hives of stingless black bees, which produce chardonnay-colored honeya highlight of the Maya diet that is harvested only during full-moon ceremonies. In a recently discovered limestone cave, we crawl 45 minutes down a tunnel to find a room littered with pre-Columbian pottery shards. Later, we hike two miles along a 1,200-year-old sacbé, the raised road that once was Yaxuná's thoroughfare to the city of Cobá, 60 miles to the east, stopping off at a sinkhole to cool off in the cobalt water.
To cap the day, we duck into the hut of a local shaman named Don Pablo. Known for both his classic Maya profile (Roman nose, sloping forehead) and his famously effective healing ceremonies (locals afflicted with everything from depression to viper bites swear by him), Don Pablo agrees to bless my daughter, Irene, motioning for her to sit in a plastic lawn chair facing sacred Maya artifacts. Tracing Irene's aura with laurel branches, he intones 2,000-year-old prayers in conquistador Spanish. As I watch, the ritual strikes me as the consummate melding of the ancient and the contemporary, of pure Maya spirit enduring in a world of relentless change. Which is why I came to Yaxuná in the first place.