Megan picking a coconut with the help of Don Peligro's son.Megan picking a coconut with the help of Don Peligro's son.Before we arrived in Yucatán, Karla and Polly tried their best to prepare us. We watched movies, read legends, listened to horror stories, cooked, and, of course, sampled some delicious Yucatecan food. We were given words of advice and caution. There were many explications and predictions, but nothing could properly prepare us for the journey ahead. It also didn’t help that our grasp of the Spanish language was still quite basic.

And so, we arrived at the peninsula, all of us feeling quite a bit lost and overwhelmed. We quickly learned that no natives speak quite as clearly as Karla, so understanding them would be challenging. Also, no one understood us like Karla did, and for this to happen we would need a lot of practice and we would have to want to communicate and be understood. For the first few days we were involved in activities around the city that required us to communicate with many people. It was difficult to overcome the fear and embarrassment from our poor Spanish and avoid the deception that arises from misunderstandings, but over time we achieved more and more small victories in the language and gradually gained some confidence.

Sharing our experiences with students from CBTA 14 of Tizimín.Sharing our experiences with students from CBTA 14 of Tizimín.It was also challenging adjusting to the sweltering climate, in which I felt I was melting away. Now I know why the people living in southern climes take siestas—the unbearable heat of midday robs the body of all energy.

After our explorations within the city, we headed off on a small adventure around the peninsula. First, we visited a school that specializes in agriculture. It was an incredible experience, and some of my companions expressed that they would love to study in a place like CBTA 14 in Tizimín. We shared our experiences from COA and discussed human ecology as well as what we are doing there in Yucatán.

In return, we were invited to explore the campus and learn about their educational methods, which include direct work with plants and animals. The students showed us how they care for the animals and prepare and store feed, and gave us a tour of the on-site butcher shop.  It was interesting to meet students around our same age and learn about how they think and what their goals are. Most will begin work in a field connected with their studies immediately after graduation. Though they are young, they are certain of their futures while we, in contrast, emphasized the freedom we have in our studies and the romantic indecision that attracted us to COA. 

Kitt and Grace helping the students from CBTA 14 make silage.Kitt and Grace helping the students from CBTA 14 make silage.

For lunch that day we were invited to the home of Don Peligro, in his town of El Cuyo. We helped his family prepare the meal, some of us working with the fish, others preparing salsas and still others picking coconuts. We all got the opportunity to crack open our own coconut, and, I should mention, even though it looked natural and easy for Don Peligro’s son, it was a challenge for most of us! After our hard work, with all of our fingers still intact, we enjoyed the coconut water and delicious meal.

Of course, delicious food brings delicious dreams. We were all very tired (especially since some of us went for an amazing swim in the Gulf of Mexico) but happy to spend the first night in our new hammocks which our host program, Programas de Inmersión Cultural en Yucatán (PICY), had provided as an early Christmas present. 

On day two of our trip, we traveled to Ría Lagartos, a protected natural area with an incredible richness in its diversity of flora and fauna. The biodiversity was incredible! Other than the flamingos for which it is famous, we saw pelicans, cormorants, and herons. Our guide, Don Gato, found a horseshoe crab which he offered to us as a head massager. We also found a crocodile among the mangroves that courteously let us give him a pat.

Our group posing between the estuary and salt flats in Ria Lagartos.Our group posing between the estuary and salt flats in Ria Lagartos.

We saw some salt mountains in the distance, even though Yucatan is generally very flat. The process of evaporating seawater for sea salt harvest had created lots of foam, which looked like snow and gave the landscape a festive appearance. We were also given some mineralized clay to try, which is high in demand in most spas.

Foamy "snow" in Ria Lagartos.Foamy "snow" in Ria Lagartos.

Next we went to the pueblo of Ek Balam where we were to stay the night. We met the president of the ejido which has recently begun a project for sustainable tourism, and spoke with him about their organization. It was interesting to learn about how a small town decided to open its doors, hearts and minds to the world. The organization is sustainable, for it offers organic local foods, solar panels, traditional Mayan houses (where we stayed) and cultural activities which we were invited to participate in. We tried to learn how to weave hammocks, which was exciting at first because it seems easy if you do it for only ten minutes, but we quickly realized that when it serves as your daily occupation, you are required to weave for hours, and it’s a lot of work!

Kitt learning how to weave hammocks in Ek BalamKitt learning how to weave hammocks in Ek Balam

That night we visited the famous Chichén Itzá to see “Noches de Kukulkán,” which is a sound and light show. It was fascinating to see the history of the Mayans and their beliefs, what their worldview is based upon and how the Mayan culture developed. Even more interesting was how people are using modern technology today to portray an ancient story. The Mayan world is changing and evolving, just like every other culture. I can’t say whether it is for the better or worse, but it’s definitely something new and different. 

On our last day, we visited the Mayan ruins at Ek Balam. It was incredible to explore the antique buildings, feel the history and understand more of the Mayan worldview.

Exploring the ruins of Ek Balam.Exploring the ruins of Ek Balam.

We also got to swim in the cenote, a natural well with fresh water which formed after the Chicxulub crater appeared. These wells were considered sacred, and the Mayans used them for swimming. However, along with many other things in Yucatán, this has changed and today many cenotes are open to the public for locals and tourists alike. The people of Yucatán are working to promote these precious places rich with history and culture so as to share them with the rest of the world.

Follow along with the Yucatán trip on the PICY blog here.