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Thursday, June 30, 2022

The history of the noble bicycle in Yucatán celebrated with new exhibit

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is best known for its permanent exhibits highlighting the beauty of contemporary and ancient cultures.

The architecture of the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya has always been divisive as well as striking. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But a new temporary exhibit delving into the history and cultural significance of bicycles in Yucatán has recently opened to the public.

“The exhibition is designed to raise awareness of the historic importance of the bicycle in Yucatecan life,” said Noemí Villanueva of Yucatán’s culture ministry. 

A large metal dome adorned with bicycles and a map of Mérida’s bicycle infrastructure cover the floor of a large section of the exhibit. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The exhibit is titled T’ íinchak’ balak’ ook, which in the Yucatec-Mayan language translates to “push with the foot to make it turn.”

The typeface for the exhibit’s logo creatively utilizes bicycles and street signs to spell out its title in the Yucatec-Mayan language. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Nobody knows when the first bicycles came to Yucatán, but by the late 19th century they had become a popular transportation method, work tool, and recreational gadget — quite advanced for its time!

A group cyclist club based in Mérida was photographed in the late 19th century. Photo: UADY archives

Mexico’s most recent national census found that nearly 40% of homes in Yucatán had at least one bicycle, the highest per capita number nationwide. 

All text displayed at the exhibit is presented in Spanish, English, as well as Yucatec-Mayan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the highlights of the exhibition includes artifacts loaned to the museum by Mérida’s city museum and other institutions such as the state university. 

A children’s tricycle is on exhibit directly in front of a photo of the same model mounted by a little girl in the early 20th century. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the most immersive aspects of the exhibition is the use of recognizable audio samples of bicycle bells and whistles used by sweet-bread and fruit vendors as well as junk collectors. 

Work tricycles have long been ubiquitous in Yucatán and are used as taxis in rural areas, as well as to collect wood for traditional stoves and other sorts of cargo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is surprising how nostalgic and engrained the sound of a sliding whistle can be. In Yucatán, it’s a sure sign of the proximity of a bicycle-mounted afilador, or a door-to-door knife sharpener. 

Afiladores (knife sharpeners) were once a staple of life in Yucatán. Though they can still sometimes be heard on Mérida’s streets, they are now most active in villages where they work sharpening machetes for agricultural workers. Photo: Courtesy

Bicycles also have taken on a religious dimension in Yucatán and across México and even have their own widely venerated Catholic saint, San Germán.

Bicycles are often used during religious processions for festivals such as La Candelaria. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As is the case with all exhibits at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, the museography is excellent and makes effective use of multimedia presentations.

Lit-up bicycle tires adorn the roofs of several of the installations. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But aside from simply exploring the past, this exhibit also actively promotes the use of cycling as an alternative to automobiles and motorcycles, as well as promoting Mérida’s new bicycle lanes. 

Cyclists enjoy the Bici-ruta, which runs on Sundays along several avenues in Mérida, most famously on Paseo de Montejo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The exhibit also displays several infographics detailing safety rules for drivers and cyclists alike.

A section of the exhibit reminds drivers that cyclists have rights too and that their safety and lives must be respected. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As a sport and recreational activity, cycling is now more popular than ever in Yucatán, with dozens of active groups, teams, and clubs.

Over the past couple of years, six friends have cycled through Yucatán and come upon several undocumented Mayan ruins in the process. Photo: Courtesy

The temporary exhibit is open from Wednesdays to Sundays and is included in the 100-peso general admission ticket to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. Entrance is free on Sundays for residents of Yucatán able to present an INE or driver’s license. 

A section of the exhibit shows the evolution of the bicycle over the 19th century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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