2001-08-25

Chelem, Yucatán, México

Grabbed a bus north to Progreso to go to the beach. While it was beautiful weather and the ocean looked great, there were no palm trees on the beach, so it was impossible to find any shade. We’d heard that in the next town over, Yucalpetén, there were some great beaches, so we asked around and finally found a colectivo headed out in that direction. The one we found stopped by a bathing centre and the town of Chelem. Now right now I’m going to come straight out and say it: if someone ever tells you a story about the amazing beaches at Yucalpetén, just back away slowly and do not make any sudden moves — the person you are talking to has probably escaped from an asylum.

We wandered around for a few hours, but we never did find a beach in decent condition. In the end we sat on a grass embankment close to the ocean, observing what appeared to be the remains of a house that had been bulldozed across the beach and into the ocean; there still were big chunks of concrete wall strewn all over the place. It was sort of post-apocalyptic looking. On the bright side, there was a nice cool breeze.

Progreso, Yucatán, México

Half an hour north of Mérida is the port town of Progreso. Though it’s on the gulf side of the peninsula, the water is still a beautiful turquoise-blue; it puts Canadian beaches to shame. On a hot weekend, Progreso makes a fun day trip. The wind keeps you cool, and as long as you keep ordering drinks, the food comes free at the palapa huts on the beach.

The one thing that is impossible to miss in Progreso is the pier. At its original length of 6 km, it was the longest in all of México, and with its new 3km extension for cruise ships, it’s now the longest in the world. The reason for its size is that the Yucatán Peninsula is in essence a huge, flat limestone shelf that continues to extend long past the waterfront. At 6 km out, the water is still only 7 or 8 m deep. As a result a 3 km extension was added in 2001 to allow cruise ships to dock safely.

When we asked friends in Mérida about the beach in Progreso, they mostly told us that it wasn’t that nice. When we got back, I told my class that in Canada we put beaches like that in beer commercials. I guess when Cancún is only a few hours drive away, you can afford to be picky. The only downside is that most of the palm trees are tiny. The previous ones were all ripped out during Hurricane Gilberto a few years ago. As a result there’s very little shade, so your only option is to hide under a palapa.

2001-08-21

Izamal, Yucatán, México

Took a trip a few towns to the east this morning, to Izamal. While Mérida is known throughout México as the White City, Izamal is referred to as the Yellow City due to the preponderance of yellow buildings. With a population of 15 000 or so, it’s much quieter than Mérida, and horse-drawn carriages are still used as transportation by some of its residents. The two big tourist attractions here are the ruins of Kinich-Kakmó, one of 12 Mayan temples that originally stood at the site of this town, and the Franciscan Monastery, one of the first in the New World, built from the stones of the largest Mayan temple in Izamal after it was torn down by the Conquistadors.

The Convento de San Antonio de Padua sits on one side of the Plaza Principal, a block from the city’s bus station. Climbing up the ramp in front brings you to a large flat terrace and the entrance to the buildings themselves. From there, you can enter the chapel, visit the arboreum or climb up to the top levels of the monastery. If you look carefully, some of the stones in the walls and arches have Mayan designs on them — these were part of the temple that originally stood at this location. Facing away from the monastery, you can see Kinich-Kakmó towering over the jungle six or seven blocks away.

Kinich-Kakmó, which is about 200m x 180m, was built between 300 and 600 A.D. and was recently restored. From the top levels, the temple provides a great view of the city. Following a narrow dirt path around the back affords a spectacular view of the surrounding jungle and the vast, Saskatchewan-like flatness of the Yucatán peninsula. All over the place, big, lazy iguanas sunbathe on the rock walls of the temple. Just beside the entrance, at the base of the front side of the pyramid, is a great-smelling tortillería.

We ate at the Kinich-Kakmó Restaurant, and it was delicious though a little pricey. We each had a Montejo beer and lime soup, followed by Poc-Chuc¹ and Rellenos Negros², along with some fresh handmade tortillas. As with many restaurants, homemade tortilla chips and salsas are served with the meal. The total came to about 160 pesos, which is enough to buy you several days worth of groceries at Wal-Mart or San Francisco in Mérida. The main dining area is outdoors under a thatched Mayan style roof (and yes, lots of people still live in traditional Mayan huts — some have corrugated metal roofs these days, but just as many use the traditional palm fronds). The waiters even offer bug-spray if you need it. Fortunately, due to some creative engineering by the staff, you don’t need it. Clear plastic bags of water dangle by threads from the roof and, in the words of the waiter, “when the bug sees his reflection as he gets closer, he sees himself reflected so big and ugly that it scares him away.” It seems to work — we didn’t see a single fly or mosquito during lunch, and there were tons outside. Royal Thai in San Rafael, California does the same thing, so there’s got to be something to it.

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring the memory card for the camera, so no pictures, but it was well worth the trip.

Glossary

¹Poc-Chuc: A Yucatecan dish made with pork marinaded in orange juice.
²Rellenos Negros: A spicy, black Yucatecan soup made from beans, with pieces of chicken and a hard boiled egg bathing in it.

2001-08-17

Mérida, Yucatán, México

Arrived in Cancún on Friday at about 6 pm, took out some money from the bank machine, and hopped into a colectivo¹ for Ciudad Cancún, — the city itself — a twenty minute drive from the long strip of hotels between the lagoon and the ocean that the outside world refers to as Cancún. By the time the colectivo got to the bus station, it was 9 pm, so after checking out the schedule and booking tickets, there was just enough time to grab some dinner and get some sleep before heading off to Mérida first thing the next morning.

Sitting in a Mexican bus station is an activity in itself. Drenched in sweat and surrounded by hundreds of other sweaty people carrying bags, backpacks, and cardboard packages held together with twine, in heat and humidity well above what any sane person would tolerate, you gain an appreciation of just how patient a people the Mexicans are. Buses come and go as they please; to the Mexican bus driver, the posted schedule is only a guideline. Buses are notoriously late, and ours is no exception.

When it does arrive, the bags are loaded, everyone climbs into their seats and, once the bus driver has got his drinks and snacks ready for the trip, he throws it into reverse and we´re off. After a four hour ride through the Yucatecan jungle, we arrived at the Fiesta Américana terminal in the north end of Mérida. From there, we grabbed a taxi into town and unloaded everything at Hotel Mucuy, on calle 57 between calle 56 and calle 58, where we stayed while we searched for jobs and a place to live.

This might be a good time to explain the mysterious numbering system for the addresses in Mérida. Odd numbered streets run east-west and even numbered streets run north-south. For streets that run diagonally, the ones that run from SE to NW are even, the rest are odd — usually. Another challenge is that street addresses are not often consistent; number 499 might be three or four blocks from 498. Because of this, addresses are usually given as a street number and a cross street (for corner addresses) or a street number and the two cross streets between which the address lies.

Mérida is the capital city of México’s Yucatán state and, centuries ago, was the capital of the Mayan empire as well. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the city in the mid-16th century, led by Francisco de Montejo, they discovered the Mayan city of Tihó. Its temples and limestone architecture reminded them enough of Mérida, Spain that they promptly renamed the city and began dismantling the Mayan structures. While you won’t find any of the original Mayan buildings remaining today, the cathedral in the Plaza Principal² contains blocks from the Mayan temple that once stood in the same location.

In any case, the city today is gorgeous. Its narrow streets and colonial architecture give it a traditional feel. Every Sunday, all the streets within several blocks of the main plaza are shut down to vehicle traffic while musicians play live music near the Plaza Principal, and people dance in the streets.

28 August 2001
In Mérida, most people sleep in hammocks. Walk down any residential street and look in the windows and you’ll see hammocks strung all over the room. What I’m getting at is that I finally caved in and bought a hammock. Now sit back and listen, ’cause here’s my advice… If you’re in Mérida, you’ll be approached every five minutes by someone wanting to sell you a hammock off the street. Do not buy it! That man is crazy! The quality of hammock you get from a wandering hammock guy is a mystery until you try it out. And you’re not going to be trying it out until after you’ve paid for it. Generally speaking, they’re pretty bad. Locals refer to them as ‘hospital hammocks’ because that’s where you end up if you use them. Go to a hammock shop with a good reputation. If they can show you a photo album of them and their grandparents chopping down sisal (henequen cactus), stripping the fibre, and making hammocks, it’s a pretty safe bet that the hammocks are good.So Julio Armando pulled out a few hammocks, strung them up, proudly displays the threading to show there were no flaws, and got me to jump in and take it for a spin. Hammocks come in lots of sizes: single, double, matrimonial, and matrimonial especial. The difference is the number of pairs of end threads. Matrimonial has about 150 pairs of end threads, whereas a single has about 50 and a double has about 100. Keep in mind that these sizes were designed for people of Mayan stature, which is a lot smaller than your typical Canadian, or Mestizo Mexican.

Unfortunately, the walls in the apartment must be the only ones in the whole city that doesn’t have hammock hooks! Even a lot of hotels in Mérida provide hooks! I ran across the street to the Tlapalería³ and using hand signals and pantomime, bought exactly five metres of nylon rope. Using those engineering skills I spent so much effort learning at UVic, and some knots I learned in Boy Scouts, I rigged up a makeshift hammock hookup. Unfortunately, the only available post to string a rope around was the chunk of wall between the balcony door and the window, which meant that both the door and the window had to be open to use it, and I had to pull the mosquito screen out of the window anytime I wanted to use the hammock.

About Mérida’s weather: Maybe you people back home have looked at the temperatures in Mérida and thought “Wow! They spend the whole summer in the mid to upper 30s! It’s just like Cancún!” True, but it’s also insanely humid, which means you’re covered in sweat 24 hours a day — imagine waking up sticky and sweaty every morning; that’s why most people use hammocks. What’s more, unlike Cancún, there are thunderstorms every afternoon between about four and seven. You can set your watch by them. During these thunderstorms, it rains. A lot. So much, in fact, that having the window or door open even a centimetre spells certain doom. In short, the hammock is no longer up. Back to the drawing board.

A curious side note here. If you wander the streets of Mérida enough, you’ll notice an inordinate number of people with one or both eyes missing. The reason for this is quite interesting. Mérida is famous around the world for its hammocks. And to make hammocks you need henequen fibre. The sisal cactus from which you get it has very, very sharp, needle-like barbs. You get the point.

Glossary

¹Colectivo: a communal taxi, usually a VW van, into which the driver packs as many people as the laws of physics will allow. For example the last one we used had 16 people stuffed into it.
²Plaza Principal: the main square found in almost every Mexican town.
³Tlapalería: A sort of little roadside hardware store.

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¡Hola México!

After a year and a half in San Francisco, California, I’ve moved to Mérida, Yucatán, México. So far so good! The heat is scorching, the humidity is sweltering, and the mosquitos are biting. But Mérida is a beautiful city, and the people are wonderful.