Pastor’s Maya live culture and responsible tourism

He is up before dawn driving through Tulum to pick up a couple that had arranged a bird watching ecotour with him. An incredible dawn greets them by Muyil lagoon dock.

Sunrise at Muyil lagoon dock. Photo courtesy of Indigena Maya Ecotours.
Sunrise at Muyil lagoon dock. Photo courtesy of Indigena Maya Ecotours.

Pastor Caamal is a strong, determined, positive attitude fellow and a very active certified trilingual (Maya, English and Spanish) guide that relies on the well maintained shared Sian Ka’an coop infrastructure, to operate his own independent tours, with a twist.

Owl in Muyil. Photo courtesy of  Indigena Maya Ecotours.
Owl in Muyil. Photo courtesy of Indigena Maya Ecotours.

Well, here’s the twist!

He speaks for live Maya culture. This is not “ruins” you’ll be listening about!

Well, first of all, it is about being authentic and frank when addressing his excursion parties to let them in on the key fact that Maya culture lives on and actually want’s be better known.

So you can imagine that for Pastor the often over-used term “ruins”, being the main attraction of a conventional tour  to just visit the archeological site and tick it off a checklist, does not quite cut it. He sees and speaks of these sites on a totally different context, like ceremonial centres that are still part of their Mayan heritage that needs to be rebuilt.  The sites themselves keep being of crucial cultural meaning; these are part of their lives today. You can thus expect a very different speech regarding Muyil archeological site from Pastor, than just a record of facts about “ruins” as if they were just things left from the past. There is a link and the link is alive and evolving in him, his family, his community and his work with tourism.

Pastor’s slogan states this clearly and he strives to put it everywhere he can, now that he’s started to build his Web presence:

We the Maya people of today want to share our culture, history and nature. Come with us and enjoy our unique excursion trips that will show you our values, mysticism and environmental responsibility. You will learn how we envision life.

His approach is actually very much in tune with what Nobel Peace prize laureate (1992) and Mayan leader Rigoberta Menchú has declared many times and has just said again during his visit to Tulum, on the last days of October this year, as a guest speaker for the preservation of the Melipona native stingless Maya bee tradition.

Nobel Peace price laureate 1992 Rigoberta Menchú
Nobel Peace price laureate 1992 Rigoberta Menchú

Personally operated excursion with a real native Maya guide

Another important twist is that Pastor personally operates all of his excursions trips. His company name is Indigena Maya Ecotours, and this is how he has built his presence. Rest assured you are dealing with him at all times.

Pastor comes from an original Mayan family that has lived and worked in the zone many generations back. He lives part of the time in the Mayan village of Chunpón, where his mother and family members live, observes tradition and participates in Maya community chores, roles and celebrations. He is one of 14 brothers and sisters. His father and his grand father were Mayan priests.

Pastor and a senior Chunpón community member . Photo courtesy Indigena Maya Ecotours.
Pastor and a senior Chunpón community member. Photo courtesy Indigena Maya Ecotours.

He knows Muyil and its neighbouring areas very well since he was a child. He has been taking groups out since 1993 when he started informally in the tourism trade, yet he keeps a constant learning attitude out of every excursion he tends to, be it learning more about birds, plants species or ecosystems, as well as from his customers. Pastor is a safe guide; he is always attentive to ensure their clientes safety, much like a dive master sees for its divers, but on the ground!  Keeping an eye for your fingers on the deck of a speedboat approaching a dock or seeing whether you might slip on the algae, lichen or moss growing on rocks by the edge of a pyramid base, that in Muyil’s case might be a few meters higher than its surroundings, is something he keeps track of automatically.

Small parties, relaxed excursions & undivided attention

So how can he operate himself and do business? Well, that’s simple, Pastor’s company is not looking to become a record revenue breaker or a even a big company. This is exactly what he does not want. He’d rather have it be a successful enterprise by the measure of the lasting experiences he creates in his customers, some of which become repeating ones, and what he can convey on them regarding the Maya live culture of today.  His, is a profitable operation, yes and its  infrastructure is very good, but that’s it. No big buses, no loudspeakers or megaphones, bells&whistles, busy large groups, rushed extenuating itineraries, none of these at all.

Pastor favours very small groups of up to 4 to 6 people, which can all get tuned to the peaceful manner in which the excursion happens. Everyone can listen to him and also be looked after, plus he gets to preserve the zone better with small groups and achieve sustainable tourism. It’s really something special, as I witnessed in the Floating with Mayan stories excursion just recently, which I’ll tell you about in just a minute.

The relaxed way in which the excursions take place are not only inspiring, but an original mysticism actually manifests itself as we hear his anecdotes and stories in peace and communion with our jungle surroundings . It simply happens and it does make a difference.

When asked about this, Pastor leaves nothing out, including your own awareness of yourself feeling for the experience:

We do them [excursions] peacefully, take our time and only do them in small parties. We really look for you to fill up your senses with wonderful nature and history you can touch, while listening to the sound leaves make as the wind blows through the canopy of our jungle trees, or the current makes as you float downstream in the lagoon canals. We like to think we allow you to discover us, as you learn more of yourself in the experience.


Contemplation from Muyil dock. Phorto: Juan Ayza 2013 Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Contemplation from Muyil dock. Phorto: Juan Ayza 2013 Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

The “Floating with Maya Stories” excursion

My questions along this pleasant excursion might have offset a bit Pastor’s own Mayan story telling, as he ended up telling me his own story as a result, which I’ll share with you in a moment, but not without describing my experience along this half-day excursion.

I have been living and writing off  Tulum for a nearly a year now, have visited many cenotes (sinkholes), Maya archeological sites in Quintana Roo State where we are and in neighbouring Yucatan, lagoons like Nopalitos and Kam Lu’um, and of course the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve area by the coastal road. Yet, I had not been to Muyil, the most important, oldest, largest but less excavated and rich archeological site within the Sian Ka’an reserve. It dates back to 350 B.C.E to as late as 1500 C.E.  It was quite a discovery, which by the way is clearly underestimated by conventional tourism since we had no queue to make at the entrance gate, on a mid morning weekday arrival, as many tourists only get to see the better known walled Maya city of  Tulum site (peaks 4,000 visitors a day, about 1.7Million a year, recipient of TripAdvisor’s 2013 Traveller Choice recognition).

Earlier that day we met at around 09:30 in town at one of the attending clients hotel. We were a group of four. Muyil is only a 30 kms ride south of Tulum, heading towards Chetumal on the 307 main route. Actually Muyil’s site is just by the road as one passes Muyil village, called Chu-yaxché (Maya for “green trunk Ceiba tree”, a sacred tree for the Maya, present in our native vegetation). The archeological site is actually located strategically along an important Mayan trade route made of canals that got Jade, obsidian, cacao, honey, feathers, chewing gum and salt possibly to what today is Guatemala, Belize and the Island of Cozumel. It is in these canals that we went floating down stream later that day.

After being amicably greeted and having Pastor handle tickets, we came into the site. One realises immediately it is perfectly maintained as all its walkways are easily accesible, neat and grass areas are kept for. Some archeologists were visiting that same day to complete restoration work, so the site is active. Pyramids resemble those of  Guatemala’s Tikal, steep and coastal “Petén” architecture in style common to southernmost Mayan centres.  All we needed were comfortable shoes, a hat and, drinking water that Pastor provided. Long trousers are advisable if you are concerned about mosquitoes, although even with a rainy season were not an really an issue.  The site is within a good patch of jungle so you get immersed in the Maya world and the expectation to let the next spot appear in front of your eyes as you walk along and the jungle clears.

The visit took about 45 minutes and the excavated site is pretty manageable in that time. We had a chance to hear about the civilisation, its period of construction, but then Pastor did an interesting account on how this site as there in the region became suddenly deserted as Maya people migrated further south. His take has to do with a climate change that affected crops (corn, beans, chili, squash mainly) basic to their diet.

The Castle (Petén style pyramid) in Muyil's site
The Castle (Petén style pyramid) in Muyil’s site

Three important buildings to watch for, “7H3” which is a 750 years old sacred temple where you can still observe stucco and red, black and Maya blue colours on it.  Then the big surprise as jungle clears along the walkway, El Castillo building (The castle) which a very high (17 m) and steep pyramid with a tower on top that has been associated with the Ceba sacred tree. On its back side you can see a well preserved frieze with a stucco finish of 2 facing storks. An building “8” which is a late building with vaulted ceiling and columns. The site has several plazas or civic meeting points where priests and other senior members addressed the people.

Behind El Castillo, a hiking trail has just been cleared up (“Sac Be 1” for Maya “white road” as they covered them with seashells to be seen at night) and you will now be able to hike about 700 m up to the lagoon following this route with a guide. Pastor lean over the Sac be sign and reads aloud its Maya version. Then he added:

As a result of colonisation destroying over 5,000 Maya codex,  we lost our written language. Today we use latin alphabet; but we used symbols before.

Maya is a only a spoken language an this is endangering it as fewer youngsters want to speak it, though they do understand it.

A short way into the jungle after leaving el Castillo we came to a cave area. To our surprise, Pastor entered the cave and comes out with a handful of “Sascab”, a moist limestone soil you can shape as a putty which forms with filtrating rainwater. This is the origin of a “cenote” as with time the dissolving soil gives way under its own weight, leaving a sinkhole into the many underground rivers in the zone.  He gives each a piece and asks us to search for seashells.

Sascab. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Sascab. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

Pastor explained to us about X’jolol is the name of a very sticky tree sap that the Maya people mixed with sascab – the moist putty-like limestone soil in shallow caves found in the jungle in the Peninsula -, that our ancestors used to build pyramids as an ancient equivalent to cement to keep set stones together.  Another amazing construction method of the Maya, employed Ficus trees planted around their pyramids, so that its hanging roots would provide for an tight external framing hat together with the cement would render the buildings resistant to the ever present hurricanes of the region.

Muyil Ficus. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Muyil Ficus. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

We got to learn about other important plants like the Chiit palm (Thrinax radiata) and its relatives, with which you do the roofing of widely used thatch cabins or palapas. Harvesting those a couple of days prior to or after full moon is essential for their long lasting application, he said.  Pastor is knowledgeable of certain plants with properties such as the “Azul” leaf he gathered from a bush. It is still used as a pigment for ornamental painting of walls. Just mash and add some water and you get a vivid cardinal red dye and a few hours later a steady purplish blue liquid.

"Azul" dye is initially red.  Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
“Azul” dye is initially red. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

Among the many endemic trees in the jungle we could also spot Copal, used largely for its fragrant combustible sap utilised in cleansing rituals and other purposes in many ceremonies pre-hispanic cultures in Mexico. The jungle around Muyil and also the wetlands are a wonderful habitat for Orchids such as the one in the photo gallery accompanying this article. A botanical garden worth of knowledge in a few minutes walk!

Orchid at Muyil archeological site jungle. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Orchid at Muyil archeological site jungle. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Copal tree trunk. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013, Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Copal tree trunk. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013, Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

Before leaving the archeological site, Pastor called on our attention to a Trogon bird he had just seen in the jungle canopy by the civic plaza area on the way to the exit. Trogons were considered sacred and Mayas collected their stripped feathers for royal ornament.

Spotting a Trogon

Trogon bird in Muyil jungle. Photo courtesy of Indigena Maya Ecotours.
Trogon bird in Muyil jungle. Photo courtesy of Indigena Maya Ecotours.

A five minute car trip got us to Muyil Lagoon’s dock where more people from the Sian Ka’an cooperative help us embark in brand new speedboats, after putting on perfectly functional life vests. The cooperative built the dock recently.

We crossed the lagoon at reasonable speed in about 5-10 minutes. The view was gorgeous.

Across Muyil Lagoon.     Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Across Muyil Lagoon. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

As we neared the shore on the other side, the boat captain did not slow down but, to my relief we got right into a canal whose entrance was not so evident. The canal is part of a network that was used for merchant purposes in pre-Columbian times. This first one in particular was artificially made by the Maya.

Three ecosystems from Muyil's canal. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013 CC NDA v3.0 license.
Three ecosystems from Muyil’s canal. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013 CC NDA v3.0 license.

We stopped the boat for a while canal between Muyil and Chu-yaché lagoons. It was a unique feeling; we were surrounded by three very different ecosystems: The boat floated in a stream of crystal clear water with plants and fish, mangroves and orchids on the sides, less than a meter above water our sight got lost in the horizon of a beautiful savannah perfectly combed by the wind. In the distance we could watch a higher spot of medium deciduous jungle forest tress like an oasis in a Petén rock formation. Above it all an intense blue sky with large scattered white clouds that puffed as I thanked them for their pleasing shade. No noise. Silence and nature. An epiphany.

Just take the savannah area as a biodiversity example; it is home to species like the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), tapir (Tapirus bairdii), puma (Puma concolor), jaguar (Panthera onca), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), margay (Leopardus wiedii) and the little spotted cat (Leopardus tigrinus), many of which are endangered species.

White-tailed deer in Muyil's savannah. Photo courtesy of Indigena Maya Ecotours.
White-tailed deer in Muyil’s savannah. Photo courtesy of Indigena Maya Ecotours.

Pastor says mockingly:

Hundreds of years ago my pre-Columbian ancestors used this canal as a route for commerce. About sixty to eighty years ago my grandparents used it to move sapote gum payloads to ships at sea. Today we wear life vests and use these off-board engine powered boats…

He then stops and laughs. The speed boat moves again.

As I snap photos off the boat’s stern and we traverse the canal, suddenly the view opens to the five times larger Chu-yaxché  lagoon  Quite impressive. We go across it as well and get into a natural canal where we arrive shortly to a docking area by a small ceremonial temple also believed to be used as a customs area during the active merchant period of this route.

Customs and Temple by Muyil-ChuYaxché lagoons canal. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013 CC NDA v3.0 license.
Customs and Temple by Muyil-ChuYaxché lagoons canal. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013 CC NDA v3.0 license.

We visited the temple, which has coloured stucco remains still in its interior walls.

As soon as we finished that visit, we got into our life vests for the floating part of this wonderful excursion. But then, this exercise was not trivial. You thought you knew how to wear a life vest, didn’t you? Well not quite.

The sumo and hammock life vest techniques. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
The sumo and hammock life vest techniques. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013. Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

If you have flown, been on a boat or similar craft, or done water sports, you’ve surely been taught how to wear a life vest. Me too. I pretty much thought I had a good idea on how to use them, that is until I saw two ingenious new techniques, of course, both Pastor’s style. Floating along the Muyil canals and enjoying the mild and steady current with your head up and comfortably above water got me to appreciate this diaper-like way to use the life vest – nicknamed the Sumo style – , plus you relax and laugh more. Speaking of diapers, there is also the hammock technique of happy floating with a vest, simply place it unfolded in the water and sit on top of it balancing your legs to get into a horizontal position, much like being in a Maya hammock!

And then the absolutely relaxing part came. You just let the mild but steady current carry you over the 1 to 1.5 km long stretch of the channel until you get to a second dock and from there to a fantasy looking wooden walkway, thin as a thin line drawn in a vast savannah, that allows you to hike back to the temple dock.

A most comprehensive experience in all, which we topped by having a wonderful snack of juices and fruits served chilled by Pastor on the boat before making our way back. And, yes, you guessed, he always brings fresh fruit native to the the region. We had a heart full of refreshing Dragon fruit (Pitahaya in Spanish), dominico bananas and limes.

The finish line. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013 Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
The finish line. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013 Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Dragon fruit snack. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013, Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Dragon fruit snack. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013, Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

We were back in town by 14:30 h. So it took us half a day to enjoy all of this without rushing at all. I did not feel tired at all.

Other Indigena Maya Ecotours

Pastor’s portfolio right now consists of five excursions all based off Muyil, a mere 20 minutes drive from Tulum. Reservations are handled by Pastor in his mobile (+52 +98 4105 8220) and detailed information (pricing, what to take, schedule) can be found in his website and Facebook pages, as well as many photos and videos.

Excursions are:

Float with Mayan Stories

Mayan Treasures

Sunset Relaxing Float

Kayaking Expedition

Mayan Bird Watching

Pastor’s story

So how did Pastor, a kid in the Chunpón town that only spoke Maya, get to be a several programme certified trilingual eco tourism guide?

That is the story I got while floating in the canal. His path was actually made out of a series of steps other than tourism that connected into it in the end. It was long, hard work yes, but above all, Pastor had to cope with new stuff every time. It is his own way to adapt to changes that got him here and you can still see his learning attitude every single day.

About 20 years ago getting to Chunpón meant walking 16 km into the jungle. In the village there was no electricity, they had no hospitals, or any service like we know them.  Just their Maya church.

You survived out of the natural resources. Most of us worked in the sapote chewing gum trade, getting the sap during its four months rainy season. One man would average 900 kg. The rest of the year they worked the fields for crops like tomato, chili and chayote, to feed on.

We stated building rustic wooden furniture which we carried to be sold in Muyil. That is how he came to know the the town. My life had nothing to do with Muyil, says Pastor. Since we did not sell frequently, my family decided to bring more furniture into a store by the road in Muyil. So we all came to live in Muyil at least part time.

He later lived in the city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, about 60 km south, where he became a taylor. He discovered he had a natural talent to see garments and reproduce them without using patterns. He had a knack for it. Pastor loved fine cloth. His business grew and he moved into Tulum where he bought a semi-industrial sewing machine and worked in the trade for ten years.

But nature kept calling him, and he started spending more time in the Muyil lagoon area, as he saw an opportunity in growing tourism. He only spoke Maya and did not know how to swim. So he first had to learn Spanish and English intensively. He noticed he was a good learner. So courses kept coming to prepare to be a guide, biology, ornithology, and archeology basic knowledge. As he got into these trainings he decided to pursue it fully ad left the taylor business. He started with the Sian Ka’an cooperative formed for this purpose, but soon went independent as he wanted to do it well and protect the area from being polluted or altered much. He says,

I want to keep it small. I am not after getting rich. I want to do this personally.

Along the way, Pastor had to take several certifications over the years, from regional institutions like Cenlatur (Latin American Tour Guide training agency) in 2002, U.N. Foundation/UNEP/RARE Nature Guide training Programme (since U.N. World Heritage is involved in the area) and Sedetur/Conanp (Secretaría de Turismo) Ecotourism in 2003. He flew in an airplane for his first time to give a presentation (Universal Cultures Forum) in Monterrey city, in 2007.

I hated flying, I was very afraid!

Photo courtesy of  Indigena Maya Ecotours.
Photo courtesy of Indigena Maya Ecotours.

The Sian Ka’an tourism cooperative built the Muyil lagoon dock in 2012.

It was a long journey, but he loves what he does for a living!

Nat Geo’s latest mention of Pastor

Pastor Caamal has been mentioned in many publications regarding the Muyil site and lagoons, along these years. the most recent of which is National Geographic’s August 2013 issue article “Secrets of the Maya Otherworld” performed under Society grant by Alma Guillermoprieto, a well known long track record Mexican born world journalist frequent contributor, won an Overseas Press Club award for her May 2010 story on Mexico’s new saints. Photographer Paul Nicklen underwent extensive cave-diving training for this story. Shaul Schwarz traced Maya culture in the Yucatán above water.

August 2013 Cover . Source:
August 2013 Cover . Source:

Alma Guillermoprieto follows the trail of the rituals associated to the ancient Maya rain god Chaak who was believed to resided in caves and natural wells called cenotes. Fact is Maya farmers today in Mexico’s parched Yucatán still appeal to Chaak for the gift of rain. In doing so, he visits Chunpón in the company of “a man named Pastor Caamal. During work hours he is a proudly independent tour guide, and like many of his neighbours and Luis Un Ken, he is a Cruzoob, or believer in the Talking Cross, a relic from the 19th-century uprising known as the Caste War. A descendant of Maya warriors who fought government troops, he still does round-the-clock guard duty at the cross’s sacred garrison two weeks out of every year.”

“The Cruzoob are basically the Maya who survived,” [the Caste Wars back in 1847 thru 1930’s] Caamal said to me on a summer afternoon as we zipped down a flat highway in the Zona Maya toward his hometown.

Chunpón and the Caste War

Chunpón is part of a government-designated Zona Maya that covers a sizeable portion of the Yucatán Peninsula. So is the neighbouring Chun-Ya village and Chun-Yakché (this latter by the 307 road just in front of the Muyil site).The “Chunes” Maya people live here autonomously observing their religious and military hierarchy and organisation much like 500 years ago. Keeping independent has cost them a lot. They are not really politically important in government agendas, as cab be proven for their many years lacking healthcare services, medicines or electricity, until recently, and the fact that even humanitarian aid to them in hurricane season has been blocked in the name of municipal governments jurisdictions. Families only get seed subsidy from Procampo (farming financing agency) for about eighty dollars a year and have to spend about $18 just to get to collect it. These people might still be paying a price for having organised an armed movement and initiated the Caste Wars in 1847 to fight for their land and autonomy, conflict that came to an end around the 1930’s.

It was the Caste War that also got us distracted from rebuilding our Maya ceremonial now archeological sites as we should have.

mentioned Pastor to us as we listened to him setting in a wooden bench in the shade inside Muyil site, when we went for the Floating excursion.

So, “Who you gonna call”?

Yes, I thought so. If you are in for an authentic, mystical, hassle-free excursion experience that blends nature to Maya live culture, Pastor’s Indigena Maya Ecotours excursions are one thing you should not miss on your trip.

Savannah cotton flower.    Photo: Juan Ayza 2013, Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.
Savannah cotton flower. Photo: Juan Ayza 2013, Creative Commons NDA v3.0 license.

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Pastor’s Maya live culture and responsible tourism by Juan Ayza M. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Photo credits and licesing as detailed in each photo caption.



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