Yucatan Culture

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Should you be afraid of the Xtabay?

smiling skeleton

Who's Xtabay? And where does she fit into Yucatan culture?

I'll tell you in a minute, but first...

Do you mind if I drop a bomb? In Yucatan culture, a bomba is a small poem with a funny twist and (often) a double meaning, like this one:

Eres preciosa mestiza
pero una cosa da pena
que aunque seas alta y fina
tienes cuerpo de ballena

I won't aim for a translation, but think of it as a not-too-subtle way of telling a woman she should go on a diet!

These "bombs" don't leave scars or amputations. (Only if you tell them to the wrong woman. For diclaimer please read my Site Policies). They are just the Yucatan way of making fun of life!

Now meet José and Mariano from the market at Valladolid.

two old friends

Like many, especially older people, José and Mariano speak their native Mayan language. To ask them for their permission to have their picture taken I needed someone to translate my question from Spanish into Maya. I'm able to pronounce a couple of standard phrases but the rest is like Chinese to me! Just the opposite is true for many Mayans: they can say something in Spanish but then quickly return to their own lingo.

Yucatan culture in the kitchen

Who makes the best apple pie (or whatever's your favourite dish) in the world? Mom, of course! Well, in Yucatec families mom makes the best tortillas, called Wa. She learned it from her mother and her grandmother.

Mayan women used to grind corn on a metate, a flat, slightly curved grindstone, after cooking the maize overnight. Like molding clay the woman takes a golfball-size of dough and on a piece of baking paper skilfully transforms it into a perfect round pancake. Eight to ten tortillas are placed on the comal, a flat metal or clay griddle placed on 3 hearthstones with charcoal (the cosmic centre according to Maya myth). The tortilla is done when it 'pops' just like popcorn. Believe me, if you haven't tasted a handmade tortilla you haven't tasted a real tortilla!

No doubt Mom has other tastful dishes on her repertoire, like papadzules, pavo en escabeche, cochinita pibil. For All Saints Day, she bakes a special bread called Pib.

Yucatan Culture Dress Code

yucatan women

Mom likes to dress in the traditional Yucatan Ipil or Huipil. She says the embroidered flowers on her shoulders and skirt symbolize fertility (guess it worked, having had 7 children...)

On Sundays she goes to mass in an inmaculate white Ipil. Dunno how she keeps it so white, but there's bicarbonate involved and a lot of scrubbing! Dad prefers his guayabera, a cotton or linen garment that is something of a mix between a men`s shirt and a jacket. Men wear their guayabera on top of their trousers. In Yucatan culture it´s perfectly OK to show up for a formal occasion in a guayabera.

You´ll find it surprising how cool it stays inside our thatched house, called palapa in Spanish. People use palm leaves from the guano palm to cover the roof construction. Because of this even on very hot and humid summer days in the rainy season they don't need air conditioning (too expensive anyway). On the other hand it never snows or freezes on the Yucatan Peninsula, but in winter it does get cold at night, like 10 °C (50 °F). That's pretty cold without any heating!

The garden is full of tropical fruits: papaya, mango, oranges, lime, zapote, nances (like a yellow cherry), pitaya (dragonfruit), guaya, guanabana and...chilipeppers. Did you know the habanero is one of the hottest chilis around? If you want a quick manicure, this is the way to go. Just bite into one, and you`ll find yourself scratching the walls outside!!

If you're a belly-sleeper you'll find sleeping in a hammock a bit uncomfortable.

In Yucatan villages everyone sleeps in hammocks. It's cheap and cool, and also safer against creepy insects or snakes. Kids are born in one (probably made in one too...now that got you thinking, didn't it?!).


Local transport is a tricycle nicknamed a Mayan limousine by tourists. People use them as a moveable takeaway for selling tacos, ice-cream or any stuff worth selling. A Maya limousine is a fun way to move around like any local and see the village from a more non-tourist perspective (allright, your camera and hawaiian-print shirt will probably give you away).

Of course there is soo mucho more to write about Yucatan culture than these few things, too much to fill one page on this site. I guess you'll just have to come down and dive in yourself, that's the only way to really experience "culture".

Now about the Xtabay...

She's like the Maya version of Marilyn: a mysterious woman who seduces young men when they walk alone through the forest at night. It is said she lives in the trunk of an old Ceiba tree. The Xtabay will charm the man (duh) with her radiant smile and of course the idiot will go chasing her, only to get lost in the jungle (serves him right!). His soul will be forever trapped in the underworld (read: he meets Hillary Rodham-Clinton and gets tangled-up in Health Care Budgetting politics).

The real story of Xtabay. What does she have to do with certain psychedelic substances?