Saturday, June 2, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 11: The Royal Road to Campeche

Statue of La Negrita in the plaza adjacent to Templo de San Juan Bautista. The lovely Grecian style figure stands as part of a fountain, with water pouring out of the pitcher she holds. The statue was imported from Paris in the early 20th Century, as part of the general effort by the sisal plantation owners to beautify and modernize Mérida. In colonial times, this plaza was a small dusty square with a well that provided the water supply for the Maya settlement clustered around the church. Up until 1910, bullfights were regularly held in the square. This old Maya community was one of several clustered around the outside the perimeter of the Centro area. The Maya inhabitants provided masons and carpenters to build the colonial mansions surrounding the Centro area's Plaza Grande, as well as the maids, gardeners, cooks and other servants for the Spanish families who lived in them. The Maya settlements were self-governing (within limits) and each had their own patron saint and fiestas to celebrate their special days. Eventually, Mérida expanded and enveloped the Maya communities and they lost their independent status and character.

In this posting, we'll look at a stretch of the Camino Real (Royal Road) between the Templo de San Juan Bautista and the Ermita de San Isabel. This part of Merida begins 3 blocks south of the Plaza Grande and provides an interesting morning's walk through several centuries of Mérida's history.

Templo de San Juan Bautista

Templo de San Juan Bautista was built in a mixture of styles, including Moorish. The original 16th Century church was a humble, palm thatched affair, but over the centuries it was improved and enlarged repeatedly. Local crops were devastated by a series of locust attacks in 1552, 1616, and 1666. When, in 1769, yet another locust plague threatened, Franciscan friars led their Maya flocks in prayers to St. John he Baptist, asking for his protection. As a way to seal the deal with the saint, the Franciscans erected the current church, finishing it in 1770. The entrance and steeples are Baroque, with white, carved, stucco decorations, while an interior corridor shows Moorish influence. The church and its plaza stand at what was once the southern edge of colonial Mérida. Accordingly, there used to be a public inn behind the church to welcome travelers arriving to the city on the Camino Real.

Carole walks up the center aisle toward the retablo. The walls and pillars of this nave were made from the white limestone so prevalent in Mérida that it is still called "The White City". Notice the rustic poles used to support the arched ceiling when it was built in 1770.

The retablo is magnificent for such a small church. The term retablo literally means "behind the altar." This structure is part of the rich tradition of Mexican religious folk art from the 16th through the 19th Centuries. The statues and paintings of saints in the niches were usually made from tin, zinc, wood, or copper. The San Juan Bautista retablo is in the neo-Gothic style and is one of the few the survived the anti-clerical destruction that occurred during the Revolution. Inside the retablo are mechanical pulleys which can be operated to cover or reveal the saints.

One of several side chapels contained in niches. If you look closely at the pillars, you can get a sense of the white limestone used to build them. Often, the limestone used in Spanish construction was looted from the ancient Maya temples and palaces of the city of T'ho, upon which Mérida was built.

One way of  giving thanks for favors granted. The statue above, which may be of San Juan himself (there was no sign), stands with upraised arms. Over these arms, worshipers have draped multicolored ribbons upon which they have inscribed messages of thanks to the saint.

El Camino Real

El Camino Real begins at this old colonial gate. The gate is located at the southwest corner of Plaza San Juan Bautista, and is one of many that used to guard the various entrances into the city. Throughout its colonial history, Mérida experienced Maya revolts and pirate raids, as well as the 10-year War of Independence. Then, from the mid-19th through the early 20th Centuries, the Caste War ravaged Yucatan. Maya insurgents laid seige to Mérida and came within a hair's breadth of forcing its evacuation.  In the face of all these threats, Mérida authorities fortified the city, and created entrances guarded by gates like this. Of course, Mérida has long since expanded beyond its old limits and what remains of the fortifications are a collection of charming old arches.

A former colonial mansion is now a social services office. Like many colonial and 19th Century buildings in Mérida, this one has only one floor. The salmon-colored, masonry walls contain numerous windows and doors with carved stucco designs above them, a common practice among Mérida's colonial buildings. Today, the Center for Communications and Social Services is housed in the old mansion. Until the last half of the 20th Century, the Yucatan Peninsula was largely roadless. The Camino Real, or Royal Road, was built to connect Mérida with Campeche the second most important colonial city on the Peninsula. Campeche, a fortified Spanish port, is located on the west coast of the Peninsula 156.55 km (97.28 mi.) to the south. The Camino Real was constructed in 1790 under the orders of Colonial Governor D. Lucas de Galvez. Prior to that, communication between the two cities was primarily by ship.

Casa del Culcal Kin. Carole stands next to the home of Culcal Kin a once-prominent Maya. To date, I have been unable to establish exactly who Culcan Kin was or why he was notable enough for the city to have attached a identifying sign. Given the belfry arch and the crosses above the doors, he appears to have been Christianized. Many Maya nobles from the old society were able to continue their privileged positions, at least for a time, by adopting Christianity and collaborating with the Spanish Conquest. Although the identity of Culcal Kin is still a mystery to me, my friend and fellow blogger Debi Kuhn (see Debi in Merida) sent me a charming legend about the house. During the 1862-1867 French occupation of Mexico, fighting occurred in Mérida between the French and the supporters of Benito Juarez. A cannon ball hit a statue of San Antonio (St. Anthony) which was apparently attached to the original house, destroying the image of the child held in San Antonio's hand. This was a great sacrilege and, ever since, a ghost in the form of a faceless priest in flowing vestments has haunted the neighborhood. Some of the decorative elements of the house appear to be identical to those found at the Hermitage of Santa Isabel, a couple of blocks down the old Camino Real.

Hermitage of St. Isabel or Good Travel

Front of the Ermita de Santa Isabel. The Ermita is 7 blocks south of the gate at San Juan Bautista Plaza. It was built by D. Gaspar González de Ledesma in 1748. The title Ermita means "small chapel or shrine." After the completion of the Camino Real in 1790, the Ermita was viewed as the jumping-off-point for the long and sometimes perilous journey through the coastal jungle to Campeche. It was also a spot where tired travelers coming the other direction could find lodging and refreshment before entering Mérida. The gate at the right leads into a cool, shady, botanical garden. Although it is usually called by the name of Santa Isabel, the Ermita has also been known as Nuestra Señora del Buen Viaje (Our Lady of the Good Journey).

The Ermita chapel drew a single worshiper at the time we visited. Under the crucifix is a niche with a small statue of Santa Isabel (1271 AD-1336 AD), a Spanish noblewoman from Aragon. She was very pious and, after marrying the King of Portugal at 12 years old, she became known for building numerous hospitals, orphanages and other institutions to help the poor. Her gentle nature and ability to facilitate agreements led the fractious rulers of Medieval Europe to call upon her to settle disputes, thus avoiding much unnecessary bloodshed.

Choir loft at the back of the Ermita's chapel. Notice the rustic pole and plaster construction, the same that was used in the arches over the nave of Templo de San Juan Bautista. Until the mid-20th Century, it was the usual practice to place the choir area and the organ on a raised platform or a loft at the back of a Roman Catholic church. The presence of a nearby cemetery led to the Ermita being used as a convenient place for funeral processions to stop and hold a final mass for the dead.

The botanical garden gate, looking outward. The tall, leafy palms and other trees of the garden provide welcome shade on a warm, sunny day. Even in January, Mérida at mid-day can get quite warm. At first, we couldn't find a way into the locked garden, but a watchman showed up and kindly invited us inside.

The botanical garden was decorated by several primative-looking statues. Although they are Maya, they have a vaguely Olmec appearance. Nearby is grotto that is the remains of an old cenote.

An unusual tree from an unusual place. The sign below this startling tree identifies it as a Panoplia. It was originally found growing at the Templo del Tigres (Temple of the Jaguars). The temple is located at the top of one of the walls forming Chichen Itza's Great Ball Court. At some point, the tree was transplanted to the Hermitage's garden. Growing from its lofty branches are what first appear to be vines.

The vines of the Panoplia are actually roots. They tangle together and cover the ground under the tree. A number of these trees growing close together would produce an almost impenetrable barrier to passage through the jungle. Three ancient arrowheads were found in the Panoplia, perhaps the result of some ancient ritual, or even of combat when Chichen Itza was finally overrun by its enemies.

An old coat-of-arms decorates the back wall of the Hermitage. As usual, there was no sign, but the coat-of-arms may be the family emblem of the man who commissioned the building of the Hermitage, D. Gaspar González de Ledesma.  The emblem overlooks the ancient well used by travelers to stock up for their journey to Campeche or to refresh themselves after an exhausting return.

Parque del Ermita de Santa Isabel

A lovely little plaza adjoins the Ermita. In its center is a small kiosco with a red-tiled roof, typical of those put up all over Mexico during the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship during the late 19th Century. The park was formerly called Constitution Square, but was popularly known as "Rooster Square" because of the cockfights once held here. A famous Mérida tradition began near here. At one time, an inn facing the park was run by a man known as Don Hucho ("don" being a term of respect). Facing a sudden influx of visitors he scrambled to find a way to feed them all, in the process creating one of Mérida's signature dishes. He threw together torillas, beans, and whatever other ingredients were available and created an instant hit. The dish became widely known as Don Hucho's pan (bread), or--eventually--panucho.

Love seats are found in plazas and parks throughout Mérida. These little seats, known as confidenciales, are a delightful way to pass the time, assuming you have a companion. They all seem to be of the same design and originated during the Victorian era of the late 19th Century when everything European was in high demand in Mérida. Space on the seats remains in high demand, and we rarely found them empty as these are.

The completes Part 11 of my NW Yucatan series. If you get to Mérida, I encourage you to spend a morning exploring this section of the old Camino Real. If you would like to provide feedback or comments, you can do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Wow. What a great historical article on some of Merida's landmarks. I would love to know more about your research and sources. Thanks so much!

  2. The old royal roads in Latin America are the best way to see the back country. The old stagecoach roads were used for the mail and government people to get about so they were "improved", if you look, today you'll see remains of the old track stuck to hillsides where it ran back in the day. I've stayed in hotels that date from the royal road days, they are worth seeking out.

  3. Hola, Jim - The saint with outstretched arms holding ribbons is San Charbel, a Maronite saint whose presence in Mexico is due to the large numbers of Lebanese immigrants. He is known for miracle cures, and we were told that the ribbons represent petitions for healing. We first encountered this image in the church of Zinacantan near San Cristobal, and recently in an esoterica shop here in San Miguel de Allende. - Saludos, Meredith

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  5. We own a house in this area and would add only a few corrections:

    1 - La Ermita's Santa Isabel is Saint Elizabeth, cousin of the Virgin Mary and mother of Saint John the Baptist, not Isabel of Aragón.

    2 - The Coptic robed saint at the church of San Juan is St. Anthony the Hermit. January 17th, is the feast day of St. Anthony, also known as St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Anthony the Great, and the Father of Monks. Not to be confused with St. Anthony of Padua who is at Culcal Kin.

    3 - La Ermita means 'a hermitage'


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim