How Mayans Live | Mexico | Living in Mexico

How Mayans Live

I spent a day driving back roads in the Yucatán to get a feel for how the descendants of the Mayans live. The short answer is that some of them live much the way rural Mexicans live anywhere, while somewhat fewer live the way their forebears did centuries ago.


This marvelous house in Tikinmul, southeast of Campeche is not distinctively Mayan, although the two pitched-roof houses flanking it are. The false arches and the scalloped parapet with Dairy Queen ornaments caught my eye, as did the Christmas decorations (four weeks after Christmas) capped with a plastic Santa Claus.

(I find the image of Santa in his fur-lined coat and hat particularly incongruous here in the tropics.)

Traditional Mayan houses are less common than concrete ones, but you still can see plenty or them.


Walls consist of a palisade of thin poles cut from the jungle, often caulked with mud and increasingly, in modern times, plastered and painted. Roofs are palm thatch. Floors often are dirt. Many have no running water or electricity.

I find it jarring when I come across one of these huts with a TV antenna. What must the inhabitants think, watching telenovas while swinging in their hammocks. And hammocks are what they sleep in. They're the only sensible bedding in tropical heat.


Inside this house above we see a dirt floor and a hammock and, if you look closely, a large stereo speaker. Gotta have tunes, man.

Mayan houses typically have doorways on both of the longer walls, providing much-needed cross-ventilation. Many do not have actual doors that shut, although some have fabric hanging over the entrance—for privacy I guess. On the right, you can see where the red mud of the Yucatán was mixed with dry grass and used to fill gaps in the walls. Sort of. On the left, you can see where the mud was once whitewashed. What realtors call pride of ownership.

These people live in circumstances more primitive than I do when I go camping. Yet they stay spotlessly clean.


I have no idea how women keep their huipils looking so crisp and fresh. This woman looks more prosperous than her hut-dwelling campesinas, but I never saw any women in dirty clothes. When I go camping, I look like one of the homeless in Santa Monica after 24 hours.

I am intrigued by the notion that these houses are built by their occupants, working with only shovels and machetes, using whatever materials they find on the land. Below, we see a homeowner and his son edging cautiously into modern times, using the advanced technology of tricicletas to transport materials.


Mayan homes don't have kitchens. No stove, no gas, no refrigerator, no sink. Mayans have to cook over open fires. So Papá is toting firewood for cooking. He's also carrying palm fronds, for patching his roof.

If you look closely, you can see that el hijo is carrying a shotgun. These people don't go down to the local carnicería for meat. In fact, they don't even live anywhere near a carnicería. If they want meat, they have to hunt. Pheasants and quail are plentiful. The sacks in the son's tricicleta appear to be full, so I guess the day's foraging was successful.

Hunting is so important that along the highways that you often see dozens of men pedaling along, shotguns slung across their backs.


These guys didn't forget to collect firewood to cook their game.

I'm not particularly a fan of hunting for sport. But these men are not out for sport or trophies. They're trying to put some protein in their diets.

If town is far away, Mayans who need to go there take the bus. Ratty old buses ply the back roads all over Mexico and they're dirt cheap. There are no real bus stops; you flag one down and get the driver to stop when you reach your destination.

One problem in the Yucatán is that along the highways, one place looks pretty much the same as any other. The road passes straight as an arrow through level terrain, monotonous dry jungle crowding in from the sides.


So, if you live out here, how do you know where home is? How can you tell the bus driver where to stop?

What you do is, you build a bottle tree.


Then you tell the bus driver, "Let me off at the three clears and one green bottle tree." You see them all over the back roads, each one unique. Obtaining bottles is no problem: any twenty feet of Mexican highway will yield a half-dozen. Mexicans are unreconstructed litterers.

A kind of Mayan-Catholic fusion religion provides moral and spiritual structure, in sharp contrast to the growing secularism of the cities. Every pueblo has its little colonial church. (The Spanish needed to do something with all those stones after they tore down the great Mayan cities.) I found an abandoned church near the settlement of Telchaquillo, south of Mérida.


No doors or windows occupy the church's openings. Holes in the roof let in sunlight and birds.


So I was surprised to find a Virgin and flowers inside. It looks like this church isn't abandoned after all. A few Mayan families worship here. Christmas decorations are still up. Apparently people here like to extend the season. A Christmas tree stands in front of the altar.


The stand is an old tire. Some of the festive red ornaments are—Coke cans. Mayans are poor. They make do with what they have.