|We had so much fun in Mexico last 4th of July that we decided to plan another trip to the Yucatan. Merida, which we had first heard about from Maria Jose, a teenager that we met in Guatemala, seemed to be a good choice. There are lots of Mayan ruins in the area, plus the city is said to be beautiful, clean, and have the lowest per capita crime rate in Mexico. We started to do some research on the Yucatan Today web site, which had some excellent information about the area. We saw an ad for a hotel with the following quote, which really piqued our curiosity: "Amazing how well the place runs considering the lack of obvious business structure." We followed the link to the Luz en Yucatan web site, and were quite taken with what we saw. Luz is a boutique hotel right in the historical heart of the city. Accoring to their web site, "Hotel Luz En Yucatan is housed in a Colonial edifice, built in, on and around what was once the convent to the neighboring Church of Santa Lucia." The ambiance sounded wonderful, and the web site showed that the owner, an American named Madeline, had a terrific sense of humor. And the room rates are scaled so that you pay what you can afford. Those who can afford to spend more actually end up subsidizing the stays of those who can't afford as much. Room rates vary from $30 - $80 per night, depending on the room and whether you consider yourself "not at all", "moderately", or "exceedingly" successful. The whole idea seemed very charming, and we were immediately interested. We sent an email to Madeline and she responded right away, recommending her "penthouse". We made the reservation, and also asked her advice on how best to make the most of our few days and see as many sites as possible. She recommended Trudy at Iluminado Tours. We sent mail to Trudy and explained what we hoped to do, and she set up a fantastic two-day itinerary for us with a guide and a driver, to see as many Mayan sites as possible. She was really very helpful and responsive. We would have one additional full day. We had heard great things about Celestun, a small fishing town where there was a flamingo preserve. You hire someone to take you on a boat ride to see the flamingos (March-August is prime flamingo season). We decided that this would be a good activity for the day when we would be on our own. So we headed for Mexico knowing that we had planned things well and that we would get to see as much as our time allowed.|
We took the day off today, and woke up at 4:00 am after going to bed relatively late the night before. We showered, put out the trash, etc., and left the house just as the living room clock clicked to 5. We drove to the airport, parked in Central Parking on level 4AA, and went to terminal E. We arived at 5:30, and were the fourth and fifth people in line at the AeroMexico desk. Their computers were down, so we ended up waiting in line for about 45 minutes, but once things were up and running we passed quickly through security at 6:15. Terminal E is a lot more modern than the rest of Logan, with high ceilings and a very spacious feel. We ate breakfast at McDonald's (Craig got a sausage, egg, and cheese McMuffin and I got a sausage, egg, and cheese McGriddle). Knowing that the chances of being fed on the plane weren't very good, we also bought bottles of water and asiago cheese bagels with cream cheese at Au Bon Pain. They only gave us one bagel, though we had ordered two, but by the time we realized it we didn't feel like getting into line again, so we decided we would either share the bagel or go back for another one later. Our gate was right in the middle of the hallway, and there were only about eight seats. It didn't take long for us to realize that we wanted that second bagel, so I went over to Au Bon Pain. We ate our bagels at the gate, and our 8:30 flight boarded at 8:00.
We were seated in row 20 near a bunch of teenagers going to do mission work in Mexico. Of course, after having already eaten a breakfast sandwich and bagel each,we were indeed served breakfast on the flight. Craig had an omelet and sausage. I had pancakes and bacon. We each got a roll, a cranberry muffin, and fruit salad. I had apple juice and Craig had orange juice. We got free headsets and watched "Be Cool", which was pretty cute and fun. The only annoying thing was the edited dialogue (lines such as "Get his sass in here."). After the movie, we were served drinks. I had a glass of white wine and Craig had a Modelo Especial beer. We were served a snack which we later learned were called "Japanese-style peanuts". These were roasted peanuts inside a crispy soy shell. They were intriguing and we enjoyed them.
We landed in Mexico City. The airport was under construction, which made everything pretty confusing. We were toward the beginning of the immigration line, so we got through that quickly. We were confused as to where to go through customs as we had no checked luggage. We went through and then found ourselves not knowing where to go. We eventually saw Merida listed as terminal B. After a long walk, we found terminal B, but there was no gate assigned yet. We went through security, and they made us take a sip from our water bottle to prove that it was water. We went to the bathroom, which was near the cigarette-smoke-filled food court. Craig saw a weird baby reptile in the toilet. It looked like it had just hatched, and he wondered if somebody had been trying to smuggle it out of the counrry or something. Regardless, he came out of the bathroom quite perplexed, with no explanation for what he had just seen.
We went to the gate and were told to go to gate 14A downstairs. When we got there, it looked like a normal gate, but it didn't attach to a walkway to a plane. Instead there was a large vehicle. There were four rows of seats which ran the length of it, and standing room in between. The vehicle remained parked there until all of the passengers had boarded. Then it drove out onto the tarmac to where our plane was parked. Our plane was a Mexicana Airlines jet. Apparently, their planes each have a name. Ours bore the name "Ciudad del Carmen." Our vehicle drove right up next to the plane and a hydraulic lift jacked it up until the doors were equal in height to the airplane doors. We boarded the plane directly from the vehicle. We were in row 6 of this new plane, and we each ate a granola bar thinking there was no way that we would be served food on such a short flight. Then, soon after we were in the air, along came the food cart. It was amazing how many meals we had gotten so far. We were served ham and cheese sandwiches, Japanese style peanuts, and orejitas con chocolate cookies. We arrived in Merida at around 4:30. We were struck by how lush and green everything was. Being summer, I guess we had expected things to be more brown and dead. This couldn't be further from the truth.
The airport windows looked out on green grass and plants, as well as bright, cheerful bougainvilleas. Even though it was late in the day, the weather was still very hot. We stopped at the taxi stand and hired a cab to our hotel for $11. When we arrived at Luz en Yucatan, we were immediately struck by how much Merida reminded us of Antigua, Guatemala with its narrow streets, brightly painted colonial buildings, balconies, wrought iron work, and parks. The hotel was a cheerful blue, with Spanish tiles proclaiming its name. There was an angel over the door. Our taxi driver rang the bell for us, and we were met by Vanessa. She led us through the lobby, out to the courtyard, up a flight of cement stairs, across another courtyard, and up a narrow metal spiral staircase to our penthouse room, the "Casa de los Dioses".
The room was fantastic. The whole hotel had a sort of fun and funky feel to it. Stained glass windows bathed the room in late afternoon light. Our bedroom had two beds: one twin and one full. Terra cotta pots were used as bedside tables, and on one of these was a metal pyramid with holes punched in the surface and a lightbulb inside. When you plugged it in it made interesting shapes on the walls and ceiling. There were hammocks attached to the wall at one end. You could untie them and string them across the room, hooking the other end onto a metal hook. A narrow antique glass and wood door separated the bedroom from the bathroom. The bathroom had a shower which had mosaic tiles inlaid into the wall and a shower curtain with tropical frogs on it. We had a kitchenette with a small fridge, hotplate, water cooler, sink, table, and chairs.
There was a door which led to the "sala", a roof deck overlooking the street. Vanessa told us about the pool and the free bar downstairs. She gave us keys to our various doors, and left. We wandered out onto the roof deck and a black cat with half a tail was meowing and waiting for us. We sat on rocking chairs on the roof, petting the cat. Our room shared a wall with the Santa Lucia church next door. There was a row of broken bottles along the top of the wall to prevent you from entering the churchyard from above. We noticed that across the street was a restaurant called "Chez Stephanie". The late day sun was hot, and after a while we retreated into the air conditioned room to unpack. Madeline had asked us via email what we wanted in the fridge. We said that Craig would like to try some local beer, and she said she would get us some. In the fridge were a Gallo beer (like Craig had in Guatemala) and five Sol beers, free of charge. Madeline really worked hard to make this a home away from home. We could see why people sometimes rent these rooms by the month. It would be easy and comfortable to live here on an extended stay.
After unpacking, we headed downstairs to the common kitchen and dining area for the guests. There we met Michael and Kay from wine country in California. They were just finishing up a multi-week trip in Mexico, and had been to Celestun for the day. They were absolutely raving about it to us, and they were kind enough to give us their notes about the location of the bus station, times of buses, recommended restaurants, etc. We thanked them for their information and wished them a safe trip home. Next we went into a small porch-like room that had games, books, and a love bird. We went over to say hello to the love bird and he was really showing off, climbing up and down the inside of his cage. When we went to leave the room, he started squawking as if he wanted us to come back. We passed a hallway to another courtyard where the pool was located. The courtyard was bedecked in lush rainforest foliage, and there were about 5 cats wandering around, sitting beneath the outdoor furniture. There were several little trays of cat food on the steps. Going back into the building, we passed a little office. We correctly guessed that one of the women in there was Madeline, and we introduced ourselves. She gave us some welcome information and recommended that we head down to the zocalo (main square) for dinner and nightlife.
We watched as people entered Santa Lucia Church for evening Mass, and then headed down Calle 60, which led to the zocalo. As we passed the University de Yucatan, I remembered that this was where Madeline had mentioned that there is a folkloric ballet on Friday nights. A young Maya man standing on the corner heard me say this, and told us that this was indeed the same folkloric ballet. He told us it would begin at 9:00. He said that he was from a Maya village but worked in town, and that he wanted to practice his English.We chatted with him and told him we were from Boston. "Massachusetts," he replied. He told us about a friend of his who moved to New Hampshire. He said that his name was Miguel, and we asked what he did for work. He said that his family were craftspeople, making the indigenous crafts of the area. Merida is known for products made of henequen fibers: hammocks, "Panama" hats, shirts, and rugs. Henequen is also known as "sisal", named after the port town near Merida from which it is exported. Miguel's family made all of these crafts, as well as silver jewelry. They sold them at a Maya-run and owned co-op, where all money from sales goes directly to the villages. This sounded right up our alley, so we asked where the co-op was. He said he would take us to it.
He led us down a side street to a nice two-story building. He said that the government allowed them to use this prime real estate as a sort of restitution for wrongs previously committed against the Maya. There were some beautiful things in the shop, and he introduced us to his cousin Enrique. We talked with them abouts the benefits the co-op brought to the Maya community of the Merida-area. We wandered around the shop, looking at the beautiful items. We felt that we wanted to buy something from these people, as they were so nice and their cause seemed so worthy. They showed us some photos of Mayans weaving hammocks, and of their own grandmother weaving henequen fibers into Panama hats in a cave (the fibers are more pliable underground). A Mayan calendar made of different colored carved inlaid wood caught our attention. There were a variety of different sizes. All had basically the same design, but they were done in different colors, and some had more detail than others. I pointed to a small one (about 10 inches in diameter). I asked how much this size would cost. They told me that they weren't priced by size but by intricacy. The one I had selected was 4800 pesos ($480 USD). This was just so much more expensive than we had even imagined that we were stunned. There was no way that we could spend that much, nor did we want to. They said they would throw in a photocopy of translations of the symbols "for free". We said that it was just too much to spend, and they tried to bargain with us. They went down to $350 USD and then $300 USD.
They insisted that we could afford it: they take credit cards after all! The co-op is only open Wednesday to Friday, this would be our last chance to buy it, and tonight they would be catching the bus back to their village and would not be back until after we had left Mexico. They decided to take another tactic, trying to capitalize on the fact that we were American. They said that we should buy from their co-op rather than the stores on the zocalo "run by Lebanese Arabians who give money straight to the terrorists." Enrique said that we should name a price. We were sure that any price they would accept would still be more than we were willing to spend. We told them that we weren't comfortable with that. We weren't trying to get something for nothing. It was truly out of our price range. And I had only innocently asked about the price anyway. It wasn't as if we were in love with the thing. Enrique laid it on thick telling us that the babies in the village can't eat a wooden calendar, but that any money we gave them could be spent on food. They said we would likely be their last sale of the night and that we should make them an offer so that they would at least go home with some money. They said that we needed to act fast. A rainstorm was coming and they needed to catch the bus home. If it was raining the bus wouldn't go all the way to their village. At this point we wanted nothing more than to be out of this store, but we were stuck. They wouldn't let us go. By this point we had lost all desire to buy anything from these people. Nothing had a price tag, and we were afraid to ask lest everything else was as expensive as the calendar. I can only imagine what he would charge for a Panama hat made by his dear abuela (grandmother). In a last ditch attempt to get something out of all the time they had wasted on us, Enrique then showed us some of his cheaper items. They were nothing we were looking for. Even if they had been, we wouldn't have bought them from them. As we walked down the stairs and out the door, they called after us, insisting we could afford the calendar. They offered it to us for $100 USD. We said no thank you and left. After this I was feeling rather frazzled. It was our first night of vacation and I felt like I had just spent half an hour at a used car lot.
We wandered around the zocalo, admiring the Cathedral of San Idelfonso (1556-1599). This is the oldest cathedral on the American continent. When the Spaniards arrived in the Mayan city of T'ho in the mid-1500's, they founded the city of Merida. They tore down the Mayan pyramids which had been found here, and used the large stones as the foundation for this cathedral. As we took some pictures of the cathedral, a young man came up to us and said that we could get excellent photos of the square from the second floor of this particular building, and that there were "some nice things up there." Uh-oh, what was he trying to sell us? We felt guilty for immediately being suspicious of him, but that co-op experience had left us a bit gun-shy. The young man turned around and walked into the building, without looking to see if we were following. We saw a courtyard with rooms around the perimeter. There was a large staircase flanked by a mural. People were walking around looking at the mural. It looked innocuous enough, and we passed into the courtyard. We admired the mural as we went upstairs: it depicted scenes from the Popol Vuh. At the top of a staircase we walked around the perimeter of the courtyard and into a room with high ceilings. All of the walls were adorned by paintings of Mayan and colonial history. These were all done by the same painter: Fernando Castro Pacheco . The buiding is the Palacio de Gobierno, or Governor's Palace, and it houses 27 murals. The man who had suggested that we go into the building was upstairs in the gallery, moving some signs around. When he saw us he began to chat. It turns out that he worked at the Governor's Palace at night. He chatted with us about the art, which was all painted without the use of paintbrushes. The young man's name was Gianluca, and he spoke to us about Merida. He told us about a Mayan festival that would be going on in the zocalo the next day.
He asked if we had been to the cathedral yet. We said that we hadn't, and he started to tell us how to go in, etc., but then he decided he would just take us there. We cut across the street to the cathedral and went inside. There were a lot of people praying. Near the front doors was a picture from when Pope John Paul II visited in 1993. He said that it was a dark day in Merida when the Pope died earlier this year. Above the altar was the largest carved wood crucifix I have ever seen. It was 20 meters tall, and the vertical part of it had been hewn out of a single tree, and it looked as thick as a tree trunk. There was a little chapel to the left of the altar where people were praying to the Cristo de las Ampollas, or Christ of the Blisters. This wooden carving of Christ was originally displayed in a church in the village of Ichmul. The church was destroyed by fire, and the only thing that survived was this Christ, virtually unscathed except for some blistering of the wood. This figure of Christ was brought to the Cathedral of San Idelfonso in 1654. Gianluca said that it has been known to bleed. We saw the baptismal font where Gianluca had been baptized 26 years ago.
He told us about a Mayan co-op (which he called "The Warehouse") and we were afraid that it was the same one that we had been to earlier. We told him that what we really needed was dinner. He started to explain directions to a place, but then ended up just taking us there. He brought us about a block away to the "Main Street Restaurant Bar." We were a little put off by the name; it sounded too "American", and we were in the mood for something truly Yucatecan. But Gianluca showed us the menu and pointed out a few traditional dishes. He said that he was going to stay for a drink. We decided to take his recommendation, and got an outdoor table. Gianluca sat with a group of his friends, which, to our surprise, included Miguel and cousin Enrique from the co-op. I guess they hadn't been in such a hurry to catch the bus back to their village after all. Instead they were enjoying a few drinks and fiddling with their cell phones. It made us glad we hadn't fallen for their schtick. Despite the fact that Gianluca was sitting with them and kept yelling over to our table to chat with us, neither Miguel nor Enrique were ever caught glancing our way.
Craig got Montejo beer and I had margaritas. Craig got the Poc-chuc, which is a Yucatecan pork dish. I had the Chuleta Yucateca, thin pork chops in a very spicy red rub. Our meals were served with corn tortillas, rice, and black beans. It was absolutely delicious. As we were eating, a nut vendor came by and put a small handful of nuts on the table as a free sample. Soon Jose, the owner of the restaurant, stood near our table and chatted. He was a very sweet man, and we gave him lots of compliments about the food. He suggested that we go to Celestun one day. We had been planning on it anyway, but this was the second rave review we had heard about it today. It seemed to be solidified that this would be where we would go on Monday. A party bus drove by with music blaring. We assumed it was a bar crawl. Looked like the people were having a blast. The restaurant served pre-fab Nestle desserts. Craig got a frambruesa y crema sundae and I had lemon sorbet inside a frosty lemon rind. Toward the end of the night, when they were leaving, Miguel from the co-op made eye contact with me and kind of shrugged as if to admit that he was busted.
On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at a bodega to get something to eat for breakfast the next morning (we would be picked up by Iluminado Tours at 7:15, and wouldn't have time to eat a proper breakfast). We found some packaged muffins. As we were looking around, my bag came dangerously close to knocking something off one of the shelves. When we turned around to see what had nearly been dislodged, we found it to be bottles of El Yucateco chile habanero hot sauce. Our friends Tyson and Dan from Arizona had sent us some of this exact stuff for Christmas. We had fallen in love with it, and were almost out. We had looked on the label at home and it said it was made in Merida, so we had made a mental note to look for it while on vacation. And here it was! The bottle of hot sauce and the two three-packs of muffins cost us a grand total of $2.30 USD. We walked around the corner to Luz and went up to our room. I wrote in the journal and we went to bed at 10:45, after a long but satisfying day.