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Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, by Diego de Landa, tr. William Gates, [1937], at


There is a marsh in Yucatan worthy of mentioning, since it is seventy leagues in length, and entirely saline. It begins near the coast of Ekab, which is near the Isla de Mugeres, and continues, very close to the seacoast, between the coast and the bushy woodland, on to near Campeche. It is not deep for lack of soil, but it is bad to cross going from the towns to the coast, or coming thence, because of the trees and much mud. This marsh is saline. created by God with the finest salt I have seen in my life; when ground it is white, and a half peck of it salts further than a peck from other places. Our Lord created the salt in this marsh from the rain water and not from the sea, for this does not enter because of a strip of land the whole distance, between the marsh and the sea.

In the rainy season these waters become swollen, and the salt coagulates in large and small lumps that look like nothing other than sugar candy. Four or five months after the rains have ceased and the lagoon somewhat dried. the Indians in the early times had the custom of going to gather the salt, taking the lumps from the water and carrying them off to dry. For this purpose they had places marked in the lagoon where the salt was richest and there was less water and mud. It was the custom not to harvest this salt without the license of the chiefs near by, who had thereby control; to these all that came to gather salt gave some tribute, either of the salt itself or of things from their own region. Inasmuch as a leading man named Francisco

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[paragraph continues] Euan, a native of the town of Caucel, made proof of this, and showed that his ancestors on the coast had received from the administration of Mayapán the charge of this matter and of the distribution of the salt, the Audiencia of Guatemala commanded him to give the same today to those who went to this district for the purpose. Still today a great deal is gathered to carry to Mexico, and to Honduras and Havana. This marsh at some places breeds very fine fish, of good taste although they are not large.

There are fish not only in the lagoon but also along the coast in such abundance that the Indians care little for those of the lagoon, except those of them who have no nets; these capture many in the shallows with their arrows, while the others carry on their extensive fisheries both for their eating

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and to sell throughout the whole country. It is their way to salt and cook them, and then to dry them in the sun without salt, having their reckoning of what is here needed by each kind of fish. Those that are cooked they keep for days, and carry twenty to thirty leagues to sell; for eating they then season and dress them, so as to be both savory and wholesome.

The fish they kill there are skates (lizas), very fat and good; trout no more or less in color, speckles and taste, yet fatter and savory to eat, which they call izcay; very fine bream (róbalos), and sardines; also flounders, saw-fish, horse-mackerel, mojarras, and an infinite variety of other small fish. On the Campeche coast there are very good cuttle-fish, three or four kinds of pike (sollos) that are good and wholesome, especially one kind with a different head from the others; these have a round head, remarkably flat, with the mouth inside and the eyes on the sides of the circle; these they call alipechpol. They capture some very large fish that look like mantles, which they slice and salt; it dies around the edges, and is very excellent; I do not know whether it is a ray-fish.

There are many manatí on the coast between Campe(che) and La Desconocida, which apart from the amount of flesh they give also yield a great deal of oil useful for preparing the food. These manatí they regard as marvels; the author of the Natural History of the Indies relates that an Indian chief in the Isla Española raised one in a lake that was so tame that it came to the shore when called by the name he had given to it, which was

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Figure of manatí<br> from the Fuentes y Guzman
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Figure of manatí
from the Fuentes y Guzman

What I can say about them is that they are so large as to provide much more meat than a large calf, and much oil. They beget their young like the animals, having their male and female parts; they have two at a birth, and never more; they do not lay eggs as do other fish. They have two fins like strong arms for swimming; the face is much like that of an ox, and they thrust it out of the water to eat the herbage on the shore. The bats bite them on a round flat snout they have, turning up on the face, and this kills them, for they are very full of blood and bleed to death in the water from a cut. The flesh is good, especially when fresh, when with mustard it tastes like good beef.

The Indians kill them with harpoons in the following manner; they hunt for them in the streams and low places (for it is not a fish that swims in deep water), carrying their harpoons tied to lines with floats on the end. When found they spear them and then release the line and floats; the fish from the pain of the wounds seek to escape this way or that in the shallows, never going into the depths of the sea; being so large they stir up the mud and leave a trail of blood, which the Indians then follow in their boats until they capture them with the line and float. It is a fish of great value and much appreciated, since it is all flesh and fat.

There is another fish on this coast which they call ba, broad and round, and good to eat, but risky to kill or to come against. It also does not go into deep water, but swims in the shoals, where the Indians hunt it with bow and arrow; but if they are careless in their walking, or step on it in the water, it comes up at once with its long narrow tail, and gives such a wound with a saw it carries that it cannot be removed without greatly enlarging the cut, the teeth being set backwards as in the sketch here given. These small saws the Indians use to cut themselves with in their sacrifices to the evil one, and it was the office of the priest to have them. Thus they had many very fine ones, for the bone is white and curiously shaped like a saw, so sharp and pointed that it cuts like a knife.

There is a small fish that is so poisonous that no one who eats it escapes death, very quickly swelling all up. Although it is known, yet at times it deceives people through its being slow to die out of the water; the whole body swells greatly. There are also very fine oysters in the Champotón river; also there are many sharks along the coast.

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Beside the fishes that live in the water, there are other creatures they also use, living both in the water and on the land; such as the number of iguanas, which are like the lizards of Spain in shape and size, and also in color save in their not being as green. These lay many eggs, and always keep near the sea or where there is water, staying in either element; thus the Spaniards eat them in the fast periods, finding them a special and wholesome food. There are so many of them that they supply everybody during Lent. The Indians catch them with lassos as they lie on the trees or in their holes, and it is incredible how long they can go without food, even for twenty or thirty days after they are captured without eating a mouthful, and still not getting lean. I have also heard as a fact, that if their stomachs are floated with sand, they fatten up. Their excrement is an admirable medicine for curing clouds over the eyes, applied to them while fresh.

There are turtles of great size, much larger than immense shields, of excellent eating, and satisfying. They lay eggs as large as a hen's, in number up to fifty or a hundred, or even two hundred; for these they scoop out a great hole in the sand wherein to lay them, then covering them up and leaving them until they hatch out. There are other kinds of turtles on the land, in the dry forests and in the lagoons. One fish I saw several times on the coast, which being completely in a shell I left to put here. It is of the size of a small turtle, covered above with a delicate round shell of beautiful shape and a very bright green; it has a tail covered in the same way with a shell, very slender like a gimlet, and some six inches long. Underneath it has many feet, and is filled with eggs, which are the only edible part; these the Indians eat much of, calling it in their language mex.

There are many fierce alligators which, although they live in the water, come out and stay much on the land; they eat while on the land, or with the head out of the water, since they lack glands and cannot chew in the water. It is a heavy animal, and does not go far from the water, moving furiously in attack, or in flight. It will swallow any kind of strange thing; to my own knowledge one killed one of our monastery Indians while he was bathing in a lake. Then one of the friars quickly went with some Indians to kill it; to do this they took a small dog, running a pointed hard stake through the body from mouth to tail, then fastening a very strong rope to it inside they threw it in the lake; at once the alligator came out and seized it with its teeth, and swallowed it. Then the people that came with the friar pulled hard, while the stake turned crosswise in its body; and then on opening the belly they found inside the half of the man, with the dog.

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These alligators beget their young like the animals, and lay eggs; these to the number of three hundred, and larger than birds’ eggs; they lay them in a large hole in the sand very near the water, where they leave them until the time when nature has taught them they are to hatch; then they come and wait until the young are out. These are the size of the palm of the hand, and they wait for a wave of the sea striking close to them, whereupon they leap from where they are into the water, and all that do not reach it stay dead on the sand, hot as it is from the sun; they being so tender that they burn up and die at once. Those that reach the water begin all to swim immediately until they meet their parents and follow them. In this way very few escape, in spite of the number of eggs that are laid, by the favor of the divine providence that looks out more for those things that are beneficial to us than for those that injure us, and could do harm as would these beasts if all of them came to life.

Next: XLVI. How There Are Serpents and Other Poisonous Animals