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Colonial Yucatan: a driving tour.

Mention history in the Yucatan Peninsula and the great Mayan archeological sites come to mind. But on your way to Uxmal and Chichen Itza, consider visiting relics of a later era-the century after Columbus' New World discovery, when missionary and Maya met.

Little has been written in English about this aspect of the Yucatan. But in colonial towns outside Merida, the 16th century still whispers from bell towers and buttresses of the Spanish missions. A stretch of recently paved road between Teabo and Highway 180 makes it easier than ever to loop through towns on our map; the new road also opened the most direct route between Uxmal and Chichen Itza.

Because of the region's remoteness and limited resources, building styles of the 1500s are better preserved here than in cities, where wealth encouraged expansion and modification over the centuries. Quiet reminders of a sometimes violent clash of cultures, the Spanish churches resemble fortresses, with walled courts, high windows, and crenelated parapets. They rise dauntingly above village and limestone plain, emphasizing the dominance of Franciscan rule that forced the Catholic catechism on descendants of the Maya, whose culture had flourished here from about A.D. 300 into the 800s. In 1988, Merida-based tour operators began offering all-day colonial tours for about $60 per person including lunch; ask at your hotel. Or explore by rental car, available at Merida airport and downtown. Cost is about $60 a day for a midsize model reserved from the US.

Layers of history in and around town Between colonial towns, crumbling stone walls along the roadsides surround henequen plantations, whose spiky gray-green plants (agaves) once yielded fiber that made much of the world's rope. In the towns, you pass whitewashed, thatch-roofed huts amid blazing bougainvillea, palms, and citrus trees. Here, descendants of the Maya tend chickens, turkeys, pigs, and children. Yellow butterflies and canary-like birds flit by.

Mission buildings generally front on their town's central plaza, often the home of a soccer field or a Victorian band pavilion. Around the plazas, you'll get a fuller picture of town life in arcaded civic buildings, open-air market halls, cheerful shops, and cafes of tan and turquoise, red and white, blue and yellow.

Franciscan blueprint of simplicity Missions in the Franciscan-influenced Yucatan are more modest and spare than those in Dominican-dominated Oaxaca, and the flamboyant Guanajuato and Michoacan complexes of the Augustinians. Expect to see churches with single naves, taller than they are wide. Carved-stone ornament concentrates around the doorways beneath paired bell towers or a central bell gable-populated today more often by birds than bells.

Interior details consist mainly of carved stone borders around doors and windows. On walls and vaulted ceilings, you'll see some remnants of murals-didactically depicting the mysteries of the new religion (interiors were heavily muraled in the 16th century). Notice that crosses never included the crucifixion-priests found the fearful scene confusing to converts. Following is a list of colonial towns we found worth a bit of exploring. During siesta time-about noon to 4-you may find buildings locked up.

Izamal, mythical burial place of the god Itzamna, was one of the most sacred cities of the Maya. In 1533 the Franciscans dismantled the Pyramid of Popol-Chac, thought to have been bigger than the great pyramid at Teotihuacan outside Mexico City. They used its stones to build one of the hemisphere's first convents. Climb an entry ramp and pass through one of 75 arches to see the largest church courtyard in Mexico.

Local boys may offer guide service in English for a small fee. The church in the vast complex, painted yellow and white (as is much of town), has a simple interior with rustic chandeliers, a gold-painted altar, scenes of Christ's life, and such 16th-century utensils as a candle mold.

The courtyard is the scene of the major feast of San Idelfonso on April 3, the feast of the Holy Cross May 3 through 5, the fiesta of the Virgin of Izamal August 15, the Festival of Christ of Sitilpech October 18 through 28, and the Festival of the Immaculate Conception November 29. A few blocks from the town plaza is the crumbling pyramid to the Mayan sun god Kinich Kakmo; climb-carefully-to the top for views of surrounding pyramids now disguised by vigorous vegetation. Acanceh's well-preserved Church of the Virgin of Guadalupe has massive, austere buttresses shoring pale yellow walls; its three-tiered twin bell gables still boast two bells. On one side of the church square (also a soccer field) stand the remains of the Mayan pyramid whose stones were used to build the church. If the guard is around (or at home, at 94 Calle 23), he'll unlock the gate for a small fee so you can climb to the top. Mama boasts a large rambling complex-unusual in that the convent is detached from the church (historians speculate that placing it north of the church ensured afternoon shade). An unusual domed chapel also stands separate from the church. Don't stumble over carved wood corbels now used to retain slope terraces. The entry's decorative stonework is particularly pretty and in good shape.

Behind the church, in a tree-shaded triangle defined by three streets, pick your way through stone-block ruins to peer down the mission's deep, vine-tangled well. Teabo's Church of San Pedro and San Pablo has twin bell towers flanking an unusually straightforward triangular pediment. The interior is big and plain. Along the right-hand wall stands a marble table; above it you see a fascinating scene in carved wood and painted plaster: four caryatids-columns in the form of women-separate three niches. Christ is on the left, the Virgin in the center; on the right a pious-looking winged soldier with sword, crown, and shield stands on a figure representing a heathen soul. Below, a relief panel depicts tiny people (souls) caught in the flames of hell.

Mani was the peninsula's largest city at the time of the Spanish conquest; here and at Izamal the Franciscans established their principal monasteries. Mani chieftains had joined forces with invading Spaniards to beat old enemies and, therefore, were permitted to continue their rule-although they still had to adopt the new religion, of course.

Established in 1548, San Miguel Arcingel has pilaster-rimmed doors under carved niches and figures. Plaster relief tableaux are gold and darkly colored-which makes their message more ominous than it seems in similar depiction at Teabo. Mani's sculptures also include the soldier grinding his heel into a horned black devil. Carved bunches of grapes adorn a fairly elaborate pulpit. Arcades in side courtyards retain traces of fresco. Here in the 1560s, Bishop Diego de Landa vowed to root out every vestige of Mayan pagan rites by practicing cruel tortures, trials, and inquisitions. He burned the city's ancient records (destroying the bulk of Mayan literature). Found guilty of excessive zeal" by officials in Merida, he was sent back to Spain. Uman's Church of San Francisco is outstanding for its bulbous sectioned dome topped by a cross-bearing lantern. The white facade of the main church has stone pilasters and a Gothic-looking arch design surrounding the entry. The beginning of a second story is truncated, as if intended towers or bell gables were never completed. Scallop-shell designs in stone top each high window. Look for fruit vendors outside the garden walls if you want to snack on a banana or watermelon.
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Title Annotation:Yucatan, Mexico
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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