What is it About Xcalak?
One of the questions that I am most often asked about our first year retirement adventure is, “What is Xcalak”. Well, on the surface that is a pretty easy question to answer. Xcalak is a small fishing village in the municipality of Othón P. Blanco (kind of like a county), Quintana Roo (state) on the far southern Caribbean coast of Mexico. It is the last inhabited place on the coast before you get to Belize. Although sources disagree, the population is currently somewhere between 350 and 400 full time residents. Below the surface it is much more than that.
Historically Xcalak (“ish’-ka-lak” is the most common pronunciation but there are many variants) has been a busy place for well over 2000 years. Pottery shards from the Mayan pre-classic period are numerous on the beaches, especially after rainstorms. Yes, you can just walk on the beach and see these enigmatic ancient artifacts. There are also tantalizing but inaccessible jungle covered hillocks that can be seen from rooftops that have not been explored in contemporary times. There are many other ruins nearby but it is widely believed there are many more to be found.
During the early 1500’s, the Spanish undertook to wrest control of Yucatán against the Late Post-classic Mayans. Although Spain’s although they largely succeeded within a few decades of their arrival, it was not until 1697, and only with help from the Xiu Maya, that the last of the great Mayan cities fell.
During the mid to latter part of the 16th Century English pirates, in cooperation with some Mayan groups, controlled much of the area around Xcalak. Taking advantage of natural hiding areas, they attacked Spanish ships before they could carry their plunder back to Spain. In the early 1700’s, Spain commissioned forts in response to the raids but the pirates, again with the help of indigenous people, remained until the end of the 19th Century. The Mexican military took control of the area in the late 1800’s. In 1897, the territorial boundaries of British Honduras (Belize) and Mexico were settled, cutting domestic access from the Caribbean to Chetumal Bay. Accordingly a program was undertaken to establish a port near the southern reaches of what is now called Quintana Roo, establish a permanent presence and stop the flow of arms to Mayan rebels fighting toward the end of the Caste War.
The site of Xcalak, which is Mayan for “the twins”, references two natural cuts in the reef offshore. It sits on a very flat shelf of limestone and is situated at the end of a narrow peninsula. Because of the lost natural domestic access to nearby Chetumal Bay, in 1899 the Zaragoza Canal was built to provide direct access.
Things continued to grow and in the 1950’s Xcalak was the largest city in Quintana Roo. Copra (dried coconut meat) plantations and a healthy fishing industry supported an electric plant, a movie theatre, an ice cream plant and even a short railroad to take coconut products from the city (then population 4,000) across the peninsula to boats on Chetumal Bay for export. Xcalak however was still not accessible by land and on September 27, 1955 Hurricane Janet, packing winds over 200 kilometers per hour arrived and decimated the city killing many of the residents. It wasn’t until 1980 that a land route to Xcalak was completed.
In 1995 a state decree was issued establishing the “Xcalak Reef National Marine Park” with the ultimate goal of preserving the beautiful reef and creating a toehold for a struggling Ecotourism industry. The reef is part of the second largest reef system in the world and is home to a proliferation of wildlife including many endangered species. Kayaking, bird watching, SCUBA diving and just general beachcombing are just a few of the many activities available to enjoy.
In a couple of weeks I will write more about present day Xcalak and give you my opinions of what I think about this beautiful place.