Before tourism found its roots in the Riviera Maya, there was a prosperous industry that took the coast and jungle by storm. Farming chicle, a tree resin from the zapote tree, was a lucrative industry on the Riviera Maya coast. There is still evidence of the chicleros work found on trees throughout the Riviera Maya, but this is a fascinating industry that just took off in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
Before we share the impact of the chicle industry, we want to tell you about the only company that conducts chicle tours. Manuel, a personal friend, is a local tour operator in Tulum. He is the only tour operator we know of that shares the stories of the Chicleros (chicle workers). The tour takes you into the jungle, shows you how the chicle resin is farmed, cooked down and then shipped off to local industries.
Email him and see if he is offering this tour during your visit. Contact Manuel at [email protected]. He does not have a website and he is off the grid, but he does some great tours, this chicle tour being one of the best.
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the mid 1500’s, the Maya were farming chicle, a white resin from the Zapote tree found in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya had many different uses for the extremely sticky chicle resin but found it to be useful to clean their teeth and mouths. The Chicleros chewed on the white resin once it was processed from a liquid to a solid white resin putty.
The Chicleros became by default, jungle explorers as they were the only workers that traveled through the dense rain forest. They knew the jungle landscape and found deserted Mayan cities throughout the area. Once the Spanish invaded, and explorers arrived in the New America, Chicleros were invaluable guides who lead visitors directly to lost Mayan cities. In the Stephens books, there are countless references to the Chicleros who lead Stephens and Catherwood to many abandoned Mayan cities.
This continued well into the mid 1900’s as new archeologists and historians utilized the knowledge of Chicleros to find more Mayan cities buried throughout the region.
Puerto Morelos, a small town just south of the Cancun airport, was founded during the Chicle industrial era in 1898. Back then it was called Punta Corcha and was the international port where prepared chicle was shipped to buyers. All Chicleros brought their bags full of the chicle resin to a jungle village now called Central Vallarta just west of Puerto Morelos. It was here that the sap was cooked down into a white resin/gum and molded into bricks. Workers brought the chicle blocks to Puerto Corcha (Puerto Morelos) by horse and rail wagon on the old rail tracks for exportation to international buyers in the United States.
This is a fascinating history that few explore in the Riviera Maya. Manuel’s tour will walk you through the history of chicle production, the importance of the Chicleros and chicle camps, while letting you try your hand at working the chicle from a sap to a white resin, otherwise known as chewing gum.
Dig deeper and be rewarded with this Mayan community tour few know about. Email our concierge At [email protected] to book your tour.