Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ruta de las Iglesias, Quintana Roo, MX

Felipe Carillo Puerto/ Chan Santa Cruz,1858
The church in the Quintana Roo town of Felipe Carillo Puerto, formerly Chan Santa 
Cruzhas the distinction of being the only church in Mexico built by white slave labor. What is unknown to most tourists is that a good part of the area of what is now Quintana Roo,  during the Caste War (1847-1901), was a purely Mayan state. The history is vibrant, exciting and visibly alive here and in the other towns of the Ruta de las Iglesias. Today part of Quintana Roo is called the Zona Maya, an area dedicated to the protection and preservation of Mayan language and customs,  and it is within this area that the Ruta de las Iglesias is found. It is located around what is now Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in Caste War days called Chan Santa Cruz.

Zona Maya in light green 

The Ruta de las Iglesias, the Church Route,of Quintana Roo is cousin to the better known Convent Route (Ruta de los Conventos) in nearby Yucatan.  The churches of Quintana Roo's "Ruta"  are easily accessed from popular tourist destinations like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, and seeing most of them is a day trip from these places.  What binds the churches of the Ruta de las Iglesias is their involvement in the 19th century Caste War, the long-enduring battle between the Mayans and the Mexicans of Spanish descent. 

The Caste War (Guerra de las Castas), was the culmination of an on-going struggle of the Mayas against the tyranny and of the Spanish settlers and their descendants.  There had been resistance movements throughout the first 300 years of colonial occupation, but by the 19th century the resistance was better organized and armed. In 1847 a rebellion planned by Mayans was set into action when one of their leaders, Manuel Antonio Ay, was executed.  Two other main leaders, Cecilio Chi and Jacinto Pat, and troops attacked the town of Tepich which marked the beginning of the long and complex conflict that ended only in 1901.  

Tepich, Quintana Roo, burial place of Cecilio Chi 

Tepich, Church consecrated to Holy Cross and San Jose

Tepich church, as above

Tihosuco, located about 20 minutes away from Tepich, during colonial times had been the center for  the Franciscan evangelization (conversion to Christianity) of  the area.  It  was also the home of Jacinto Pat, one of the leaders of the Caste War insurrection.  The Church of the Divine Child and monastery were located there and had finally been completed in 1839, a few years before the start of this war. During the conflict the church was dynamited by the Mayans in an attack on the Spanish settlers of the town.  In the 20th century the interior has been rebuilt in a spectacular way.  

Church of the Divine Child, Tihosuco, Quintana Roo, MX

Here is a peek at part of it's interior; the church itself will have a separate post in the near future.

Church of the Divine Child, Tihosuco, Quintana Roo  MX

In prehispanic times, Sacalaca was a Mayan settlement belonging to the province of Cochuah.  During the Caste War the village was destroyed and abandoned being used only as a staging area for battles between the Mayans and the government.  The church which is dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi originally had a roof which decayed over time.  

St. Francis of Assisi Church, Sacalaca, Quintana Roo MX

Sacalaca church interior, Sacalaca Quintana Roo, MX
The church interior has been restored, including the roof, and when I was there a service was in progress.  A short video of this church can be seen at

There is a second church in Sacalaca, that of the Virgin of the Assumption, that is still in ruins although it is used for worship.  A local man told me that it is now the church of the Three Kings, which would seem to be confirmed by the figures on the altar.

Virgin of the Assumption Church, Sacalaca

Virgin of the Assumption, altar
Altar Detail

During the Mayan onslaught of the Caste War the church in Saban, below,  was turned into a fortress containing a large arsenal.  In 1853 Saban was lost and abandoned, being resettled in the 1930's.  The church, St. Peter Apostle,  was in the process of being built in the years prior to the beginning of the Caste War in 1847 and was never finished.  Today the church has a functioning congregation with a covered interior chapel within the impressive outer facade.

San Pedro Church, Saban

There has not been any interior construction apart from a corrugated metal roof that has been installed over the small interior chapel.  A video of this church can be seen at . (clickable link). 


Huay Max is a small village deep in the outback of Quintana Roo. Although there is no written evidence,I have been told that it  shared a  similar history with the other churches- abandonment during the Caste War and later reconstruction as inhabitants returned to the area in the 20th century.

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Huay Max

Huay Max, Q Roo

There is a small covered chapel within the open ruins in which there is a functioning congregation.  A video of this church can be seen at:

Huay Max church interior

Xquerol is in another small village with a partly-destroyed church rebuilt in Mayan palapa-style with a thatch-roofed church within.

Xquerol, Church of the Holy Family

Altar, Xquerol

The church in Xcabil, another small village, dates from the 17th century and has an intact  roof and an interior that has been renovated during modern times. The church is dedicated to  Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose festival is celebrated in Xcabil. Interestingly, there is also a festival of the God of Rain in June. The dressed crosses in the photo below are typical of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo and are a topic in themselves.   I was told by the church sacristan that they are not "Mayan crosses" related to the cult of the Talking Cross, which will be covered in a future post, but entirely Catholic ones.  A video of this church can be viewed at

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Xcabil
Xcabil interior showing dressed crosses

The Ruta de las Iglesias also includes a few other churches that were not covered.   These include Bacalar (further to the south of Quintana Roo), as well as San Antonio Tuk, and Chunhuhub which are in the same vicinity as the churches in this post. 

What the churches of Quintana Roo's Ruta de las Iglesias lack in the glitz and visual opulence of the churches of  much-wealthier central Mexico they make up in history.  Each of these churches tells a story of destruction and resurrection through the faithfulness of their parishioners and has coped with adversity, lack of funds and the destruction of the Caste War in its own unique way.  Visually, the churches are exotic and in their own way are another sort of Mayan ruin which I have covered in more depth in my July 2 post "The Other Mayan Ruins".

Driving the roads of the church route also offers tourists an unparalleled opportunity to observe rural Mayan life.  All of the churches are located in small Mayan villages where the inhabitants still live in a traditional manner.  I will offer a look at some of them in a future post.

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