It was mid-December and time to escape the winter’s cold. My wife and I booked a flight to Mexico for a two-week stay in the Yucatan. Since this would be our first time there it allowed for plenty of speculation about what we would find.
Once off the plane at Cancun airport-- having walked the gauntlet of hotel-hawkers and limo drivers-- we tacked left as everyone else veered right. (Not an unusual scenario for us.) They were headed to the beaches for fun in the sun while we hopped a city bus to downtown Cancun. It was there that we boarded another bus for a first class, four-hour ride with air conditioning, a movie, and a bathroom, to Merida. Did you say Merida?
The Yucatan peninsula, bounded by the Gulf of Mexico on two sides and the Caribbean Sea on the third-- a somewhat inhospitable lot of land some might say-- is a tropical not-so-paradise. It is a land of rainforests and jungles, prone to hurricanes 6 months out of the year and characterized by extreme dry and wet seasons. The summers are extremely hot and much of the water there is undrinkable. Oh, and just for effect, remember that asteroid that scientists say wiped out the dinosaurs-- it landed just off the Yucatan coast. One has to wonder what the attraction is. Merida, where we were headed, is the capital city of the state of Yucatan.
We arrived at our apartment rental late in the evening greeted by our delightful host who was ready with a welcoming smile and a small repast before bedtime. The neighborhood, in the midst of gentrification, was a mix of newly renovated properties, some still being rehabbed, and others with “For Sale” signs. Many ex-pats from Canada and the States have settled full-time in Merida while others, as snowbirds, have bought and refinished their properties for winter sojourns.
Merida is an extremely walkable city. You can get to anywhere you might want to be within 15-20 minutes by foot. There are also plenty of buses and cabs. Staying on the narrow sidewalks and navigating the crowds in Centro, the primary commercial district, can sometimes be a challenge. But the streets are clean, the city extremely safe, and the cultural venues plentiful. Museums, galleries, theater, a planetarium, the symphony, movies—all are part of Merida’s city life. We attended a concert given by the Orquesta Sinfonica de Yucatan,
Jose Peon Contreras Theater
visited the Museum Peon Contreras, were in and out of a slew of galleries, and strolled the streets filled with boutiques, flower shops, Mayan crafts and arts, fine dining or casual restaurants, street vendors and more. Just be aware that one’s potential downfall comes in the form of consuming too many marquesitas, that Yucatecan delicacy that comes in the form of a hot, crispy, tortilla-type pancake filled with either cheese or Nutella-- or for the true gluttons among us, both.
But Merida is also a city of neighborhoods (called colonias or barrios) adding a local flavor to the city’s overall personality. Since the climate allows for an outdoor lifestyle, the streets are always filled with people and activities. Local churches anchor each neighborhood and are often associated with a square or plaza which provide venues for people to gather. Whether it’s in the main Plaza Grande in the historic Centro district where we spent an evening watching traditional folk dancing or in the plaza Santa Lucia listening to the Serenada Yucateca, there’s always plenty of entertainment to choose from. Merida offers a plethora of cultural activities almost on a daily basis—and all are free. Just bring a chair, a blanket, or your natural padding, and partake.
The diversity of neighborhoods is also striking. You can find older residential barrios where attached homes sport rich hues of primary colors or walk along the elegant promenade of the tree-lined Paseo de Montejo, (named after the Montejos; father and son conquistadors who conquered the Mayas and renamed the city Merida after the city in Spain) where you’ll witness the splendor of restored mansions from the 19th century.
Along the Paseo de Montejo
Once you leave the city you’ll discover a countryside dotted with small towns and villages-- and depending on the direction you take, either a vast swath of Mayan ruins to the south and east, or the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west. We did both, venturing out on day trips in all directions.
If your pleasure is the ruins, it’s easy enough to rent a car, hire local vans or small tour buses, or take one of the many full-size public buses which take about an hour and a half or more depending on your particular destination. We spent a day at Chichen Itza (translated as At the Mouth of the Well…), one of the most popular archaeological sites in the area. Chichen Itza dates back to the period between 600-1200 AD. Be prepared for crowds and vendors galore-- the latter tarnishing in my opinion the profundity of the experience to some degree. But don’t misunderstand, witnessing these pyramids and structures and the history of this amazing civilization moves the soul and the imagination in ways difficult to describe.
Uxmal (pronounced “ooshmal”) was constructed between 850-1000 AD. It’s architectural style, different from Chichen Itza’s, lends a very different feel to the experience. After time spent walking the grounds here and experiencing the calm and contemplative sensibility of the site, it is difficult upon leaving to not feel spiritually altered in some way.
Because Merida is geographically situated at the center of this region, it is possible to have it all. You can gratify your city self in town, your intellectual and spiritual needs at the ruins, and your desire for leisure and nature on the Gulf. We spent a day at Progresso, a less than ideal beach setting given its commercialization and at times touristy crowds-- especially compared to the beautiful beaches on the Caribbean coast-- but nonetheless adequate enough to fulfill one’s draw to sand, sun and waves.
Celestun on the other hand, a local fishing village to the west and home to natural wetlands and the Celestun Biosphere Reserve, puts you right at the mouth of the estuaries. Take a boat ride through the mangroves and settle-in for a while with the flamingos, pelicans, herons, sea turtles and varied wildlife. The beach is expansive, the fresh seafood at beach-side restaurants inviting, and the quaint town replete with local color.
Flamingo Colony, Celestun
By the time two weeks were up our speculation had been answered and our expectations exceeded. Every day was a new adventure and we had only had a taste. One of the signs that you have made a discovery is the desire to return. Although there are many other enticing destinations in the world , Merida and the Yucatan are still on the list.
copyright Paul Rappoport
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Photos from the Yucatan
can be viewed here in the Travel gallery: http://www.prappphotos.com/p198820034#h412919e5