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YAXCABA: A Colonial Gem in Yucatan

The opulent 18th century church at Yaxcabá, 25kms southwest of Chichén Itzá, is one of kind, unlike any other in Mexico. Long before you arrive in town, the extraordinary triple towers herald its presence, soaring above the treetops like the turrets of some moorish castle.

Yaxcabá has had a troubled history. In ancient times, the town rivaled neighboring Sotuta as the chief town of the Cocom Maya, Lords of Chichén Itzá. This rivalry continued throughout the colonial era and into modem times, a thread woven into the brutal Caste War and later, the Revolution.In 1761, the infamous Canek rebellion broke out in a village near Sotuta, sparked by the brutality of drunken Spanish troops from Yaxcabá, who had blundered in to quell a fiesta brawl. The uprising was led by a mission-educated Maya, Jacinto Uc, who proclaimed himself "Canek," the ancient king of the Itzá, returned to liberate his people from Spanish domination. The movement stirred up the Maya in neighboring villages, who besieged Yaxcabá. Exciting near panic among the whites, the revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. "Canek" was caught, tortured, and suffered a gruesome public execution in Mérida's main plaza.

This episode was not forgotten, and with the onset of the post colonial Caste War, Yaxcabá again became a target for the rebels. In mid-August 1848, an army of 5000 Maya burst from the surrounding forest and encircled the town. Dressed in captured uniforms, they mocked the frightened citizens by shouting insults, accompanied by drums and bugles seized from the troops sent out to disperse them. After a close siege, during which the church was fortified, Yaxcabá was eventually abandoned by its defenders, its glory days abruptly brought to an end.

At the time the grand church was finished in the mid-1700s, the rich parishes of the region were competing to build the most lavish church. Although the architect is unknown, this building rivals the churches of Mérida in its cathedral-like scale and extraordinary facade. The triple-towered west front is a unique feature. In a reversal of convention, the central tower dominates; its three stages rising high above its single-tiered companions. Curved baroque balustrades define each tier, ornamented with inscribed friezes and bristling with pinnacles.

The Altarpieces

In addition to its imposing architecture, Yaxcabá boasts some of the finest baroque altarpieces in Yucatan. Although designed in the 1750s, the main retablo is 17th century in style, with carved relief panels set in a framework of simple spiral columns. It has recently been refurbished and regilded. The central niche now holds a statue of St. Francis, replacing the original image of the Virgin Mary. One of the reliefs shows him receiving the Stigmata.

Six other side retablos* also date from the mid-1700s, although designed in the contemporary "estípite" style. Colorful folk shrines line the nave, adorned with crosses dressed in brilliantly embroidered huipiles, and santos decked out in fiesta hats.

Beyond the church, the ornate arcaded chapel and Moorish gateway of the cemetery project to the north. Note also the curious domed blockhouses along the atrium wall, reminders of theviolencia of the Caste War.

text & photograph ©2000 Richard D. Perry

* Outside link to more information (in Spanish) on the side retablos of Yaxcaba

For more on Yaxcabá and its neighbors, check out our guidebook, Maya Missions and Exploring Yucatan, our new anthology of travel writing on Yucatan