I’m startled to realize how many years ago it was when I first visited Xcalak.

Leaving a bit later than we planned, we drove over the width of the peninsula diagonally on fairly empty roads, all in surprisingly good condition.  Two lane highways between little villages. A lot of cleared land, much of it laying fallow and green. Here and there, enormous ancient trees that gave off a spiritual vibe even as we sped by in an air conditioned steel caballo emblazed “Grand Cherokee.”  A ridge of hills known as the Puuc was frequently seen to the south.

Arriving in Felipe Carillo Puerto around sundown where we’d planned to stay the night, we first checked into an older motel-like place with an internal courtyard for parking. A little cafe on a main street was open, but service was slow even if we weren’t hungry. And we were. Beer would have to do and it wasn’t very cold either. Another please.

Walking around the city to stretch our legs, we went into the old cathedral where books and souvenirs were sold.  This was very near the center of resistance for the Maya against everyone else during the Guerra de Castes de Yucatan. Yucatecos, the Mexican army, Spanish-descended men of priviledge, pardos, creoles, Peninsulares, cholos, mulatos, and on.  Everyone who supported the Spanish-based government in Merida was against the Maya.

The Caste War of Yucatan was the longest lasting armed indigenous rebellion against European colonizers stretching from around 1847 into the 1900s.  Historians don’t all agree on the ending year, some saying 1901, or 1915 and others going up to 1933 when one final area signed a truce.

The Maya-designed and built church has massive walls with an distinct plain appearance. It looks like a fortress built to withstand anything possible and that may well have been the intention.

We sat for a while in the plaza by the church, watching laughing children chase each other in the dark, parents with a half-watchful eye on nearby benches, visiting.  We were the only “gueros” and some parents may have been a bit suspicious of our presence in those days. Off-the-beaten-track tourists were a bit less common then.

The next day we made our way to the coast.  The highway to Majahual didn’t exist yet. And there was no coastal road at all. Thankfully, my friend knew the way to the track that followed the coastline south.

Now I saw why only a four-wheel drive would do for the drive. The way had been smooth sailing until we neared what we call today the Costa Maya. The Grand Cherokee had seemed like gas guzzling overkill. Here on the barely cleared pathway that served as the coastal road, we were in four-wheel drive most of the time. Deep sand, steep rises, then deep potholes the size of a garage saw our windowsills level with the sandy beach a dozen meters to the left.

We’d climb out of one and be on our bumpy way to the next hollow on our way to visit a couple isolated homes, deliver a few packages which had found their way to Merida, and take in the natural beauty all along the way.

Lush palms and tropical plants of all kinds filled the windows to the right. To the left, crystal clear waters sparkled beyond plant-covered sand and a few cocos with curved trunks. We could see the rocks, and a reef farther out, right through the water even as far away as we were from it. Clearest water I had ever seen.

There were no utilities here. At all. We hadn’t seen an electric pole in many, many miles. No telephone lines. No signs of civilization besides the track that wound single file through the dense tropical plants.

Part way to Xcalak, we came upon a plain house with two whining windmills on steel structures. “Internet” read a white sign with red letters. “Charge batteries” said another. There was a tall whip of an antenna on the roof.

Out back were two Maya nah (thatched roof, oval-shape traditional Maya homes), one at each far corner of the large lot.

We stopped for a quick rest from bouncing and bumping on the path and to stretch our legs a bit. It had been hours on the coast and only a few miles’ progress.

Inside must have been an early computer and mobile phone service, but that long ago I had few friends who used Email, even though I did, so I didn’t need it.  I owned a heavy brick of a B&W-screen IBM ThinkPad laptop which I didn’t even bother bringing to Yucatan. There was no point.

The beach in front of this building had been cleared of plants and was a fine white sand broken up with wispy coconut palms curving this way and that.

“Like a postcard” doesn’t do it justice. Breathtakingly beautiful clear water was rolling up in soft waves.

Just as I was contemplating laying out in the sand to soak it all in, “Hey! What do you want?” came loudly from a now open door of the tin-roofed rectangular block building.

Explaining we were making our way to Xcalak, it became known that if we weren’t there to rent the Internet connection this solitary paradise dweller had to offer, well, he’d appreciate it if we just didn’t stay on his property.

Still, my traveling companion went over and talked to him quietly for a while as I kicked around in the clean sand and splashed at bit at the water’s edge.

That’s the only conversation we had with this fellow. As we drove off, he didn’t return a wave, watching us depart as he faded back through the door, and we vanished into the lush green jungle.

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A few months later, word reached Merida that he had died.  Been murdered in fact. Found dead by other Americans who lived closer to Xcalak and were making their way north for supplies.

I didn’t really even know him, but I was shocked to the core.

Murdered?  Here in the safest state in the country? (They’ve been saying that for a long time!)  Well, OK, the state next door? What happened? Why? Who? How can this happen? How did this happen? Are we really safe here?

Our questions were never answered. I kept after friends who were better connected at the time, but they never learned much more.  Apparently the scene had been bloody. It seemed to have been a lengthy struggle.

Speculation about a robbery attempt? Or a land dispute?

Or perhaps drug smugglers had beached on the beautiful cleared sand?  Or just their cargo, and they weren’t friendly when they arrived by land to retrieve it?  Miami Vice was familiar to everyone and routes up the coast were well entrenched even then.

I never have learned anything. The Quintana Roo authorities weren’t much interested. It was a long way from their headquarters to the simple block house in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. They didn’t have a good vehicle to travel that jungle beach path, supposedly. The official report was said to be sketchy; few details at all.

This was my first, barely personal, encounter with violence on the peninsula. And yes, for a while, I felt unsafe. Probably at the time, the newness of Yucatan and all the unanswered questions made it worse. But it did affect my feelings of safety for some time to come.

Beautiful places don’t always deliver pleasant news.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

                  ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956