Returning to Yucatán—After 28 Years

The Plaza Grande in Mérida

The Year 2020 for me began with relief and some elation. The relief because, on the day before I left for Mexico, I had turned 75 and outlived my father, who died at age 74. The elation was because, after 28 years, I was returning to one of my favorite places on Earth. I started coming in 1975, when I was 30, annoying my parents who wanted me to spend all my vacations in Cleveland with them. Then I returned several more times, once during such a fierce heat wave that I had to fly to the mountains of Chiapas for relief. The last time was in 1992, when I came with Martine and three of my co-workers from Urban Decision Systems.

On January 14, I emplaned from LAX to Guadalajara, and after several hours from there to Mérida. No sooner did I step off the plane than I went through a kind of manic shock of recognition. I took a taxi to the Hotel La Piazzetta at Parque de la Mejorada, where I had a simple, clean, and comfortable room. (As with most of my accommodations, particularly at the beginning of a trip, I had reserved in advance.)

My Table and Chairs at the Hotel La Piazzetta

Although I arrived at the airport in Mérida around noon, I didn’t do anything special except walk around the city endlessly (developing a nasty blister) and having a spectacular lunch at the Chaya Restaurant on Calle 59 (whose dining room is shown below). I ordered a meal of Panuchos, fruit juice with chaya (also known as tree spinach), and flan, which is called queso napoletano in Yucatán.

The Dining Room at the Chaya Restaurant in Mérida

My vacation was to last three and a half weeks and take me all around the States of Yucatán and Campeche. I visited many of the great Maya ruins I had seen on previous trips, plus Edzna and Ek Balam. Would I go back? Yes, in a heartbeat.

However miserable this whole coronavirus quarantine is, my year started with a spectacular vacation that lifted my spirits so high that, more than six months later, I am still not back to ground level. That’s only one of the things travel can do for one.

Mexican Folk Art: Museo de Arte Popular

A Delightful Museum of Mexican Popular Art

I began my vacation staying at the Hotel La Piazetta at Parque de La Mejorada. At first, it didn’t seem there was very much to see in the immediate area—at first glance. Then I noticed a museum at the corner of Calle 50A and Calle 57 dedicated to Mexican folk art. So one morning, I started by visiting the Church of La Mejorada, which was right across the square. Then I waited for the museum to open at 10 am.

Masked Skeleton

On the ground floor was an exhibit of colorful textiles. They were nice, but I was was after something less abstract. My wish was fulfilled by the galleries on the second floor. There they were: all the Posadaesque skeletons, religious themes, and indigenous designs.

You cannot go far in Mexico without running into artesanias created, in many cases, by common people and readily available to yanqui tourists. Sometimes the work is so fine that it takes your breath away.  You can find something like this in parts of the United States, but most of the energy seems to go into antiques.

The Birth of Christ with Shepherds, Angels, and the Magi

It seems that wherever I have traveled in Mexico, I have run into what I regard as clearly identifiable Mexican folk art. Much of the folk art in Yucatán isn’t even particularly Maya: It seems to be more of a pan-Mexican thing.

 

Kind Hearts and Blistered Toes

A Mexican Doctor’s Prescription for a Blistered Toe

Whenever I encounter a medical problem in my travels, I go to see one of the local doctors. This trip, I developed a nasty blood blister on my left big toe after just two days in Mérida. As I walked out of the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, I was approached by an English-speaking guide named Rafael. Although I was limping badly, I willingly took his guided tour. As it was winding down, I asked him if he could translate my English into Spanish for me to a Mexican physician. He was willing, and suggested the “Doc-in-a-Box” connected with the big Farmacia Yza on the main square.

So he and I saw Dr. Durán Chacón, a young locally trained physician, with Rafael translating. Using the bandaging, wound cleanser, antibiotic capsules, and antibiotic ointment he recommended from the Farmacia, the good doctor cleansed my wound and suggested that I bandage the toe twice a day, applying the cleanser and ointment. Three times a day, I took a 300mg Dalacin C Clindamicina capsule for about five days.

The Antibiotic I Was Prescribed

Fortunately, the good doctor’s recommendations worked; and my toe healed in record time. And it only cost me a few hundred pesos, a small fraction of what I would have had to pay Stateside.

Not surprisingly, Rafael invited me to a souvenir shop in which he was a partner. I knew I should express my gratitude for his kindness so I purchased a few nice items to take back to L.A.

Do I think he was being mercenary? Yes and no. He was a small businessman with a kind heart, and he saved my vacation from turning into a medical casualty. Again and again during my trip, I met with kindness; and I tried to express my appreciation in a meaningful way, even if it meant dispensing a few extra pesos.

The Tourist Axis

Mérida Is One of My Favorite Cities in the World

When I got off the plane at Manuel Crescencio Rejón Airport in Mérida (aka MID) on January 14, my spirits lifted. I had had a rough flight from LAX to Guadalajara and from thence to Mérida—all after a sleepless night—but my spirits lifted as soon as I found myself once more in “The White City.” The city’s tourist axis runs from the bus station north through the Plaza de Independencia (pictured above) and Calle 60, taking a slight jog eastward and continuing northward along the Paseo Montejo several miles to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.

Along this axis are numerous sixteenth century churches, hotels, museums, restaurants, and shops aimed at the tourist trade. No sooner did I dump my bags at the Hotel La Piazetta at the Parque de la Mejorada than I hoofed it to the Plaza Independencia and had a world class shoeshine. In past visits, I wore a set of custom-made hiking boots of chrome leather which the shoeshining fraternity stationed at the plaza polished to a gorgeous sheen. Then, as it was hot (90º F or 33º C) and humid, I went out for a  beer. My old favorite—Carta Clara from the Cervecería Yucateca—was no more, but Mexico still has good beers that make Budweiser and Coors taste like horse piss.

The Palacio Cantón Contains a Great Museum of Maya Antiquities

On my first full day in Mérida, I hiked to the Palacio Cantón on the Paseo Montejo, home to the Regional Museum of Anthropology. In it are primo examples of Maya sculpture, stelae, and glyphs—the best of the best! They are housed in a century-old mansion belonging to a former army general, who was also a millionaire.

Maya Stela

It is unlikely you will find better examples of Maya carvings anywhere else in Mexico. Even in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, several miles north, there is a slight drop-off in quality compared to the Palacio Cantón.

 

 

Back to Yucatán After 28 Years

I Began My Travels There 45 Years Ago

Yucatán is where I began my travels (in 1975), and I had returned three times because I couldn’t get enough of it (the last time in 1992). You know what: I still can’t. The busy streets of Mérida, the classical Maya ruins of Uxmal, a steaming hot bowl of sopa de lima, and an ice cold Dos Equis cerveza after a sweaty day visiting the ruins—no, I’m still not tired of the place.

Today Martine asked me if I wouldn’t really rather live in Mexico. I told her no, but I don’t mind going there again. And again. And again..

I returned yesterday afternoon after a long two-leg journey that took me from Mérida to Guadalajara, and from Guadalajara to LAX. I was exhausted, as I woke up at 1:30 am Pacific time and didn’t hit the sack until 9:30 pm, at which point I was barely able to pour myself between the sheets. At Martine’s request, I bought her two guayabera shirts and the makings for some great hot chocolate from ki’XOCOLATL in Mérida’s Santa Lucia Park.

Some things I missed from previous trips: Jugos California was apparently no more, as was Calle 60’s Restaurant Express. But I loved Chaya Maya on Calle 55. Passenger railroad service from Mexico DF to Mérida was no more, but bus service was vastly improved. The ratty old second class buses from the Unión de Camioneros de Yucatán were replaced by shiny new air-conditioned vehicles bearing the logos of Oriente, Mayab, ATS, and Sur—and their windows weren’t cracked and broken either!

One thing that hasn’t changed: The Mexican people were great hosts. It broke my heart that I didn’t have the Spanish to carry on a fluent conversation with the men and women I met, but I had no great difficulty communicating with them on a basic level. Plus: Over the years of traveling in Latin America, my Spanish had improved by leaps and bounds.

Okay, I’m ready to go back….

 

Haibun: The Norte

A Norte Storm Lashes the Gulf Coast of Yucatán

A Haibun is a uniquely Japanese medium in which prose and haiku poetry are interspersed. I will attempt to memorialize some of my travel experiences using the Haibun genre from time to time. My intent is to follow the style of Matsuo Bashō:

November norte
White-clad Maya point and laugh
Paper boats bobbing in the street.

It was November 1992. I was in Yucatán with Martine and three friends from work: George Hoole and Jin and Christine Han. On the last day but one of our trip, the peninsula suffered a storm called a norte, because it originated in the United States and gathered strength as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico. The streets of Mérida were flooded: There was no walking without wet stains halfway up the leg. We were staying at the Posada Toledo, an old mansion turned hotel, near the center, worried whether our return flight the next day would be able to take off. Jin Han lightened the mood by carefully folding paper boats and setting them adrift in the street. They aroused considerable hilarity among the passersby.

 

Getting Ready for Yucatán

A Mérida Taxi Receipt from a November 1982 Trip

I finally settled on my date of departure for Mexico to take place around the middle of next month, though Volaris still has not confirmed my reservation. I will be flying to Mérida via Guadalajara both ways. I could have elected to transfer in Mexico City, but I have memories of a flight some thirty years ago while the passengers waited for hours for a well-connected wife of a politician to be boarded ever so fashionably late.

But then, when one travels in Mexico, one travels by Mexican rules. This involves an expectation of the unexpected, and a sharp attention paid to current circumstances, despite conflicting information from supposedly authoritative sources.

In preparation, I have been reading Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Ever since running into his book of a series of railroad journeys from Boston to Argentina entitled The Old Patagonian Express, I have been deeply influenced by his writings on travel. Theroux is profoundly cynical, though perhaps not so much as Tobias Smollett, whose journey of a trip to France and Italy earned him the nickname of Smelfungus by no less than Laurence Sterne.

Theroux provides a nice summary in his book about the land I am about to visit:

I have not found a traveler or commentator, foreign or Mexican, who has been able to sum up Mexico, and maybe such an ambition is a futile and dated enterprise. The country eludes the generalizer and summarizer; it is too big, too complex, too diverse in its geography and culture, too messy and multilingual—the Mexican government recognizes 68 different languages and 350 dialects.

When my best and oldest friend talks about Mexico—usually disparagingly—he really means the border regions, where the drug cartels, police, and army are the major players.  I myself have visited several Mexicos:

  • Border Mexico (Tijuana, Ensenada, Mexicali, and Cabo San Lucas)
  • Pacific Beach Resort Mexico (Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta)
  • Colonial Mexico (Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel Allende, Querétaro)
  • Canyon Mexico (Copper Canyon)
  • Capital Mexico (Mexico City—a world in itself)
  • Gulf Mexico (Puebla, Papantla, Veracruz, Jalápa, Villahermosa)
  • Zapotec and Mixtec Mexico (Oaxaca)
  • Caribbean Mexico (Cozumel)
  • Mayan Mexico

My favorite is the last category, which can be further subdivided into Highland Maya (San Cristóbal de las Casas), Jungle Maya (Palenque), and Yucatec Maya (Mérida, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Campeche).

The White City

Mérida at Night

There are a handful of cities with which I have fallen in love over the years. They include Edinburgh, Scotland; Paris, France; Budapest, Hungary; Lima, Peru; and Mérida, Yucatán in Mexico. Mérida is widely known as the White City for the whitewashed look of its buildings. I don’t know if they have any “glass box” high-rises that have been built since 1992 (when I was there last), but I am willing to bet there are none.

I vividly remember arriving there for the first time in November 1975. The taxi ride from Manuel Crescencio Rejón Airport to the Hotel Mérida on Calle 60 was an entirely new experience for me. We passed a huge Coca Cola bottling plant on the road to the airport and a large number of single-story homes that seemed to be open to the street. I saw families sitting at their dinner table as if there were no fourth wall.

It was warm and humid: We were in the tropics. Everything looked so different. Then as we passed the Zócalo, I saw the scruffy looking old cathedral of San Ildefonso, and the large central square with its confidenciales (S-shaped love seat benches).

Confidenciales: Love Seat Benches in Mérida’s Parks

The next few days were an education for me. I decided to take a few tours, but I was up to the challenge of trying my Spanish. I went through a Spanish-only travel agency called Turistica Yucateca and spent two days traveling to such obscure Maya sites as Acanceh, Dzibilchaltún, and Mayapan with an English speaking guide named Manuel Quinones Moreno, who had his own automobile. I played chess with him at the ruins of Dzibilchaltún, losing all my games. We even visited an old henequén hacienda where rope was manufactured. You may recall that there used to be a kind of rope called sisal, named after the Port of Sisal in Yucatán from where the rope was shipped across the world.

I have nothing but happy memories of Mérida, and I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with the White City.

Unfinished Business with the Maya

The Three States on the Yucatán Peninsula

I have not been to the Maya parts of Mexico since 1992, when I traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula with Martine and several co-workers at Urban Decision Systems. Now I am thinking of going again. My January trip to Guatemala only whet my appetite for more.

On past trips, I have seen the ruins at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, Acanceh, Mayapan, Palenque, Tulum, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak. I would not mind seeing Chichén, Uxmal, and Palenque again, and perhaps even spending a little time at Valladolid and Izamal, which I have not seen. New destinations would include several Maya ruins in the State of Campeche, most notably Calakmul and Edzná, and Bonampak and Yaxchilán in the State Of Chiapas. The latter two can be seen on a tour from Palenque.

The most problematical destination is Calakmul, which may possibly have been the largest Maya city at one time—perhaps even bigger than Tikal in Guatemala. The problem is that the southeastern edge of the State of Campeche has not yet been sufficiently developed for tourism by the Mexican government. I can possibly get a tour from either the city of Campeche or of Chetumal in Quintana Roo.

Maya Structures at Calakmul

There is also the possibility of Cobá in Quintana Roo. I might visit it if I have to go to Chetumal to set up a tour for Calakmul. Otherwise, I would be reluctant to run into the passenger ship mobs that dock at Cancun and the Maya Riviera.

Two cities I would love to re-visit are Mérida in Yucatán and Campeche in the state of the same name. Both are delightful places that positively reek of contemporary Maya culture, with hints of the Mexican mestizo culture and—oddly—an admixture of Lebanese and Syrian, due to the merchant classes that set up there in the 19th Century.