Quintana Roo and its Mayan Arts (a.k.a. CANCUN and its Mayan Food)

Quintana Roo and its Mayan Arts

© Cyril Belshaw

NOTE in 2001 :  This was intended to be a chapter in a travel-food book. Details will have changed enormously since 1990, but the general principles, the distinctions between foods, will be much the same. HOWEVER I would be most interested if you can send me information about those changes and what you find.  Do so by email here — appropriate comments will be incorporated into the text.  I Will add images when I find them !!!!   You can submit images too…………..

Quintana Roo, as a phrase, probably doesn’t mean much to you. The Yucatan Peninsula probably means more. Cancun is that place in the sun that is touted as Mexico’s greatest shopping spree, the centre of the best scuba diving in the world, the resort you are planning to go to some day. They are all linked together.

The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico has a line drawn through it, more or less NE to SW. On the western side is the State of Yucatan, capital the old Spanish-colonial city of Merida, most famous archaeological site Chichen Itza, where the Toltec observatory and pyramid do fabulous tricks at the equinoxes and solstices, attracting visitors like circus performances.

The indigenous people, and majority population, of Yucatan are Mayan (the Toltecs conquered them and were rulers for a time until the Spaniards put them in their place.)

On the eastern side of the line is the State of Quintana Roo, which contains the magnificent Mexican Caribbean coastline, with its resorts, beaches, reefs, environmental parks and non-Toltec ruins, each in competition, mostly destructive. Quintana Roo has only been a state since 1974. The people of Q.R. are Mayan too, but Mayan with a difference. They have been, and in some respects still are, determined separatists. Like the Indians of British Columbia, Canada, they do not consider themselves to have been legitimately conquered; but they lack the means to make an independence stick.

To understand this, you must know some things that are not in most of the history books. I looked through all the history books in English that were available in the poorly stocked book shops of Cancun (when you go to Cancun, the theory seems to be, you don’t go to read), many of them classics. Most of them do not even have Quintana Roo in the index. They give chapters to the wars and the twentieth century revolution; and the works of Presidents constitute the organizing themes, like the works of Renaissance princes (who did a lot better). But the Mayans of Q.R.? Zilch.

(There is a monograph I have not been able to consult by Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatan, Stanford University Press, 1964; and a good summary of many features, but mainly dealing with events outside of Quintana Roo, in Demetrio Sodi Morales, The Maya World, published by Minutiae Mexicana, third edition, 1989.)


The Spaniards made their influence felt, I won’t say dominant, from the very earliest years, from the sea. The first Spanish explorers were scared stiff at what they saw, sailing past the coastal fortress and religious city of Tulum, afraid of its extensive population. For years after some of the coastal islands became playgrounds of Caribbean pirates, literally. But eventually, by persistent efforts, the Spaniards prevailed, on the surface. From time to time they were faced with Mayan armed protest, sometimes small, sometimes massive, not only in Quintana Roo, but in Chiapas and Yucatan

In the middle of the nineteenth century, from 1847 to 1901, when their leader Santa Cruz de Bravo was captured and executed in the mystically famous town of the Talking Crosses, Chan Santa Cruz, the Mayans were in full fledged politico-religious revolt, known as the war of the castes. That was a long long time to be omitted from the history books. And long after the death of Santa Cruz there were forceful and psychological resistances in Quintana Roo. In all parts of Mayan country there are major examples of continuing religious syncretism, many with significant political overtones.

But then even by comparison with other states, to Mexico  Quintana Roo and its Mayans were marginal. There wasn’t much of an economy — a little fishing, and great copra estates on the coast. For the rest, the Mayans were, and to some extent still are, hidden in the forests of the great limestone plain.

Once the revolt was officially quashed, the Mexicans didn’t quite know what to do. They named Quintana Roo, not after a geographical or ethnic entity, but after a nineteenth century leader who was on the side of joining the Mexican State. The name continues to rankle among some. They gave Chan Santa Cruz the new name of Felipe Carrillo Puerto after a Mexican Revolutionary Governor, and made sure eventually that the streets of new towns honoured national Mexican patriots and archaeological sites, rather than Mayan heroes. They recognized that the Mayans of Q.R. were less tractable than those of Yucatan, within whose boundaries the territory formally lay, or at least they were less overlaid by Spanish-Mexican power — sporadic revolts were still going on. The solution was to create the present boundaries and establish a political Territory, directly ruled from Mexico.

It didn’t work. As I say, I don’t have a history book to tell me why. The period is an embarrassment to officials, politicians and historians. All I know, and of all things it comes from the text attached to a poorly drawn map of the area, is that in 1913 Q.R. was attached to Yucatan, in 1931 it was moved into the State of Campeche, and in 1935 after only four years it became a federal Territory again — until 1974. That does not sound like an easy-going peaceful kind of place.

If you cull the guide books carefully you occasionally get other snippets of information. You learn that much of the resistance was centred on the archaeological sites of Tulum and Cobal, and that Mayans still hold Tulum in religious awe, using it for ritual.  Read the rest