The “Convent Route” – Hwy-18 from Oxcutzcab to Mérida – is a natural extension of the Ruta Puuc, or an easy day outing from Mérida on its own. Every town along the route has an immense fortress church, but the historic highlights are Maní and the late Maya site of Mayapán. The churches date mainly from the seventeenth century or even earlier, as the Spanish were trying to establish their control. They were built so huge partly to impress, as a sign of the domination of Christianity over traditional gods, and partly as fortresses and places of refuge in times of trouble.

Maní

This small town was founded by the Xiu after they abandoned Uxmal, and it was the largest city encountered by the Spanish in the Yucatán, though almost no trace now survives. Avoiding a major confrontation, Maní’s ruler, Ah Kukum Xiu, converted to Christianity and became an ally of the Spanish. In 1548 one of the earliest and largest Franciscan monasteries in the Yucatán was founded here. This still stands, surrounded now by Maya huts, and just about the only evidence of Maní’s past glories are the ancient stones used in its construction and in walls around the town. In front of the church, in 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa held his infamous auto-da-fé, in which he burned the city’s records (because they “contained nothing in which there was not to be seen the superstitions and lies of the devil”), destroying virtually all original Maya literature.

Mayapán

The ruins of the most powerful city in the Yucatán from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries sit right beside the road. It was a huge population centre by the standards of the day, with some fifteen thousand people living on a site covering five square kilometres, in which traces of more than four thousand buildings have been found.

What can be seen today is less than grand – the buildings were crude and small by Maya standards, at best poor copies of what had gone before, and only a few have been restored (a visit doesn’t take long). The Mayapán society was initially dismissed as decadent and failing, but a case can be made for the fact that it was merely a changing one. As the priests no longer dominated here, what grew instead was a more genuinely urban society: highly militaristic, no doubt, but also far more centralized and more reliant on trade than previous Maya culture.

Brief history

According to Maya chronicles, Mayapán, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal formed the League of Mayapán, which exercised control over the entire peninsula from around 987 to 1185. It broke up when Mayapán’s Cocom dynasty attacked the already declining Chichén Itzá and took control of the peninsula. The archeological evidence, however, suggests Mayapán was not founded until 1263, after the fall of Chichén Itzá.

Either way, hegemony was maintained until 1441, when Ah Xupan, a Xiu leader from Uxmal, overthrew the Cocom and destroyed their city. But this led to factionalism, which aided the Spanish Conquest considerably.

Acancéh

A mix of Maya, modern and colonial architecture, the town of Acancéh (pronounced “ah-kan-KAY”) encapsulates Yucatecan history. At the central plaza, beside the sixteenth-century church is a large Maya pyramid, plus two smaller ones, all surrounded by everyday life. At the top of the large pyramid are four huge stucco masks, some of the finest of their kind.

The ancient Maya Palacio de los Estucos is about four blocks away, behind the market (get directions from the booth at the main pyramid). The stucco decoration on the long, low building is far from complete, but there are plenty of easily identifiable figures, animals and glyphs.

Los Tres Cenotes

The trip to three cavernous cenotes is less a detour off the convent route than a separate day outing, as it typically takes at least six hours, including the drive from the main highway to the village of Chunkanán, followed by a 45-minute ride on a truk (or carrito), a rickety, horse-drawn carriage down old narrow-gauge rail lines. But the reward is great scenery, refreshing swims and a taste of bygone hacienda history. You’ll want to bring swimming gear, towels and perhaps a picnic, as locals do on weekends.

The process of hiring a truk is slightly complicated by a business rivalry. Coming from Cuzamá, east of Acancéh, you first reach a large parking area off the right side of the road, signed as Los Tres Cenotes. This is an upstart organization, run by people from Cuzamá and greatly resented by the people of Chunkanán – another 2km south on a narrow road – who have no other income in their village. If you press on less than 1km down the road, you will find the original operation, in front of a multi-storey palapa restaurant. If you’re in a taxi or triciclo from Cuzamá, you’ll get steered to the first, Cuzamá-run truk stop; if you want to go to Chunkanán without raising a fuss, you can always say you’re headed for the restaurant.

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