October 20 – November 17, 2016 (End of rainy season)
Currency: Peso ($)
Visa: 180 days
Cost of living: Low
About three hours west of the Riviera Maya is Mérida, the largest city on the Yucatán Peninsula. The drive is short, but the city feels worlds apart from those coastal resorts. Much of the Old Town was built from the stones of the Maya city of T’hó, giving it roots even further back than its (already mind-blowing for a New World city) 1542 founding. Unlike the simplified version of history we were taught in school, the Maya people were never fully conquered or assimilated. Their culture is still prominently felt in modern life, and especially in the local cuisine. It was a logical choice for us to visit, the perfect home base for exploring the best ruins on the peninsula and a more local experience than our stints in Playa del Carmen and Cancún.
Where we stayed
Mérida was the first time we rented an entire house for a month stay on Airbnb↗. It turned out to be a fabulous decision. Our home had a pool and turned out to be on the route of the Day of the Dead procession. The house was split into two parts: the kitchen and dining area in the front and a living area, bedroom, and spacious deck overlooking the pool in the back half. They were separated by a small center courtyard. We had to go through it even to go upstairs to the bedroom, which made the lines between indoors and out feel very fluid.
It was unsurprising to find Mérida, set down in the middle of the tropics, both humid and hot. To keep air flowing, the kitchen walls were porous. Every room had a ceiling fan to push the hot air around and help keep mosquitoes at bay. The lack of screens and solid walls did mean the bugs gladly let themselves inside. Fortunately, it took the ants a remarkable 3 1/2 weeks to figure out where our food was, and they never really cracked trying to make off with it. They mostly stuck to the frying pan that seemed to cling to a hint of cooking oil despite our best efforts at scrubbing. They also exhibited a bewildering fetish for Q-tips, just like the ones in Malaysia↗.
Mosquitoes, however, were constant companions. Pants and shoes were necessary to keep the monsters off our ankles, despite the heat. We doused ourselves with bug spray the moment we woke in the morning, and re-upped several times throughout the day. They bit us anyway. These were easily the most aggressive mosquitoes we’d seen to date. We barely got to use the pool, as they’d dive at any flesh above the surface. After dark we would hole up the living room and sit with fans pointed straight at us – not for relief from the heat, but from their hounding buzz. Bed was the same recipe: blankets pulled up to our faces and heavy airflow from hefty fans to supplement our chemical defenses while we were unconscious. It seems such a minor thing to complain about little bugs, but dealing with it day-to-day, day after day can be pretty draining.
In contrast, our brush with the region’s giant flying cockroaches was almost amusing. A pair of the shockingly-large creepy crawlers showed up in the courtyard between our buildings and wouldn’t take “go” for an answer. We tried Raid (a lot of Raid), but that really only slowed them down enough to whack. Those were the only two we ran into, thankfully, and never indoors.
On that subject, our kitchen was pretty incredible. It had a generous amount of counter space for one thing. A stovetop, oven, and microwave gave us all the cooking options we needed. We didn’t even mind using the oven in the heat, since it didn’t affect our living space. The only time it was inconvenient to step across the center courtyard for snack or to check on dinner was during the occasional downpour.
Both living room and bedroom had air conditioning, which we used liberally in the evenings and at night. The house’s tile floors always felt cool underfoot. During the hottest hours of the afternoon, the pool in the back yard did save us from roasting. By then, it was largely in shade. We were often joined by iguanas skittering along the tops of the glass-spiked walls. The downstairs porch was enclosed by screen; with a citronella candle or two, it was almost tolerably free of bugs.
Our neighborhood was a blend of residences and small business. We were surrounded by colorful pastel houses, an auto repair shop, a florist, and a delicious little chicken place that put out the most amazing smells (drawing the attention of hungry pups on the street, too). Nearby tiendas carried snacks and beer. The only large supermarket was a 20 minute walk – treacherous in the midday heat – so we tried to make that trip early, before the pavement started to bake. We were a lengthy but pleasant walk from the city gate, which was just fine by us. Best was how close we were to Terminal de Autobuses and ADO CAME, the twin bus terminals that made our arrival from Playa del Carmen↗ and trips to Maya ruins a breeze.
What we did
Though we knew the dates of our visit long before, we somehow forgot our October stay overlapped with Hanal Pixán, the Day of the Dead. This is not the same as Halloween, with candy and black cats; rather there are three holidays celebrating and remembering the dead more thoughtfully. October 31 is for remembering children, All Saints Day on November 1 is for the souls of adults, and November 2 is a day for families to go to the cemetery to clean and decorate loved ones’ graves. In Mérida, one night is set aside for a more lighthearted public celebration. Hundreds of families set up altars along the streets and sidewalks. They would decorate them with photographs of the deceased, candles, flowers, and sweets. Some families sell homemade dishes and snacks alongside the altars. The crowds are massive, but even so, the event was extremely moving. We watched the Paseo de las Animas, the Passage of Souls, a procession from the Cementerio General to the Chapel of Santa Isabel. Hundreds of men and women dressed in white and with painted faces carry flickering candles the down Calle 66, immediately outside our front door. Musicians performed on several stages and a group of men demonstrated pok-ta-pok, the Maya ball game.
On Sundays, the Plaza Grande gets a complete makeover. Streets are closed to traffic and vendors selling food and all types of goods appear in an impromptu open-air market (not to be confused with Mercado San Benito or the Municipal Market on our map). Certain streets transform into bicycle routes. Our favorite part was the food. The entire square filled with the wafting smells of pork, lime, peppers, and chorizo. For just a couple of dollars, we could fill up on pulled pork sandwiches or tacos, with sauces to add as much or little spice as we wanted. Casa de Montejo, the home of the conqueror Francisco de Montejo, was built in the mid-1500s and sits directly on the plaza. A free tour though the ornate rooms of revealed gorgeous mural, intricate ceilings and period furnishings.
We visited two very enjoyable and free art museums, the Museum Fernando Garcia Ponce-Macay and the Museo de Arte Popular or Folk Art Museum. The former is located on the Plaza Grande, right next to the Cathedral. Its focus is on contemporary art. Our favorite paintings were a series of corn husk dolls by Carlos Nuñez. The Folk Art Museum was next to Parque de la Mejorada, on the other side of town from us. The lineup here was even more eclectic, mostly sculptures ranging from traditional to creepy to playful and surreal. There were also lots of skeletons. Lots and lots of skeletons. Neither museum was terribly crowded, but we were especially secluded at the Folk Art Museum.
Slightly away from the center is the Parque Zoológico del Centenario. The shady park was a nice place to get away on a sweltering day, with ice cream and drink vendors dotted around. Several small rides cost just a few pesos each – we tried out a chairlift that went through the middle of the park. It swayed and bumped precipitously through the trees and over the top of each pylon. The Zoo is in the same park and completely free. All kinds of animals are represented: tigers and turtles, cute parrots and cuter deer, even a flock of demon birds. Most of the critters were just resting and trying their best to stay cool. Coupled with the small cages, we certainly felt bad for some of the critters. Still, there were some bright spots.
Since we were going to be spending quite a bit more time in Latin America after Mexico, we put a lot of effort into improving our Spanish. Armed with the basics from Duolingo and YouTube►, we enrolled for a week’s worth of language classes from Calle 55 Spanish School↗. Our small class was made up of students from the US and Germany, plus our fantastic teacher. Twenty hours of intense practice expanded our vocabulary and understanding far more than months of undirected learning had. But more importantly, it gave us the extra confidence to try and make ourselves understood anyway. We took advantage of language exchange nights at the Mérida English Library to get some extra practice.
During our stay in Mérida, we visited Chichen Itza and Uxmal, two well-known sets of Maya ruins. Barely an hour from either and well-connected by bus, we found this was a much better base for experiencing them than tours from the coast. These ancient cities are an impressive story in their own right, which we shared in a photo journal here↗.
Food & Drink
Mérida is a wonderland of flavors and local dishes. It was hard to go anywhere without the wonderful scents of grilled or slow-cooked pork or chicken tempting us. The relatively low cost of food also let us splurge a bit and eat out more than normal.
Our house was just a few feet away from one of dozens of chicken take-away places around the city. Pollos Asados El Rey may not have had the naming panache of Chicken Itza, but the food was certainly fit for a king. Most of the building was made up of an enormous, blistering grill. It was too hot to sit around, but that’s okay, since there were no spots to eat in anyway. For about $5 US we got a family-size meat and sides for multiple rounds of leftovers – an entire chicken, stacks of soft taco shells, salsa, rice – all perfectly prepared. It was sometimes hard to follow through on our home-cooked dinner plans. Every time we got home a little too tired or heatstrokey, El Rey was there, nearly impossible to resist.
The sandwich and taco stands downtown proved equally enticing. Most kiosks were barely bigger than a push cart. Despite their small size, eateries didn’t expect you to eat and walk with such rich and messy food. Little plastic tables and chairs (or more likely, stools) were usually set up nearby. It was the perfect meal/people-watching combination. A recommendation of our Spanish teacher’s, El Marlin Azul, may have been our favorite sit-down restaurant. Their ceviche mixto was incredible. Shrimp and white fish cooked in lime juice, with plenty of onion, tomato, and cilantro. Unfortunately, it was too tempting to photograph until after the dust had settled.
Mexican food is of course extremely diverse, and the local specialties of Yucatán were a unique treat. We tried the light but tasty sopa de lima, made with chicken, crunchy tortilla strips, and plenty of lime. Panuchos, tortillas stuffed full of refried beans and topped with chicken, onions, and avocado, are incredibly filling. And papadzules are especially popular – tortillas in a pumpkin-seed sauce and filled with hard boiled eggs.
Lime flavor still permeated most snack foods, but Pake Taxo was an exception and quickly became Danielle’s favorite. This was also one of the few places we were able to find distinctly American flavors of Doritos like Cool Ranch. Even better were the many holiday baked goods the panaderías put out for Hanal Pixán. Pan de muerto was everywhere, and a nice sweet snack to balance the savory and spicy street food.
The sprawling markets of Mercado San Benito and the surrounding fixtures were great for catching deals on produce and, as usual, street food. Lots of folks offered pretty stacks of rambutan, a tropical fruit similar to lychee. We stopped for a lunch of pork tacos, which were delicious but also the only time in our whole stay we were overcharged for being tourists. The markets were nice but a long trek to reach. Bike vendors were much more convenient, plying the streets of our neighborhood with breads, sweets, or oranges. They clapped, hooted, or played earwormy tunes to catch our attention even from deep in the recesses of our quiet home.
Our host employed a woman to come clean once each week. Though she didn’t speak any English, we got to know her a little better as our Spanish improved (with a little Google Translate to smooth out the rough patches). Our last weekend in town she stuck around and taught us to prepare a meal some favorite dishes. Together we assembled a spread of fried pork, bean soup, mashed avocado, and more. It was, of course, incredible. And the pièce de résistance: Coca-Cola. We don’t usually drink soda, but when she tapped away at the translator and out popped “a meal like this goes best with a nice cold Coke,” how could we refuse?
As in Playa, we tried to stick to local wine and beer, with mixed results. Once again, Cuatro Soles was the best cheap localish wine, though we did get a few more at-bats this time. It was easier to find a broader range of cervezas artesanales here. One of the nicest places to experiment was La Bierhaus, a very German bar off the main square that somehow also offered an extensive selection of top-shelf Mexican craft beer. Brews like Amnesia, Primus, and Ceiba were certainly a welcome relief from the macro brands that dominate the local landscape, but still fell a bit short for us.
We used ADO to get from Playa-Mérida and from Mérida-Cancún↗. These were full-sized coach buses with air conditioning and entertainment: a couple movies or TV episodes playing on the main screen, with sound over the bus speakers. There are three levels of service, ranging from standard to GL to Platino. Standard was exactly like any decent bus service in the US or Europe and good enough for us. Tickets could be purchased online↗, but we found it just as easy to stop in to a station a day or two in advance. The routes to and from Chichen Itza and Uxmal were operated by other local lines, the former from the same ADO CAME station while lines to Uxmal only ran from the bigger Mérida Bus Terminal across the street. These tickets were only purchasable at the station or on the bus. We found that it was easier to wait on our return tickets and buy from the driver so we weren’t locked in to a specific time or line to get back home.
Uber↗ is also readily available in Mérida. Rides were cheap and plentiful, and we used it several times to cover long distances after dark or to help tote groceries across town. Our drivers were all happy to converse with us, despite our limited Spanish and their limited English. It was a great way to pick up additional food recommendations around town.
Stuff of interest
We had Telcel SIM cards from Playa, and we added data as needed with recargas from any local shop with their logo in the window. Data is still very expensive in Mexico, more in line with US prices than a developing country. It was also a good case study for anyone curious about the effects of losing net neutrality – branded packages and promos that enticed with free use of one preferred social network or music app, while paying though the nose for general-purpose use. Luckily, the municipal government steps up to improve accessibility by offering free wifi in parks and key areas throughout the city.
Mayan is still a living language, spoken by some locals. There are schools dedicated to reviving it further. Though it’s far from universal, it is interesting that it was offered as an available translation at some museums. Additionally, we learned that the term “Mayan” applies only to the language. Phrases like “Mayan ruins” are incorrect, the right term would be “Maya ruins.”
Speaking of correct terminology, Chichen Itza is pronounced with the accents on the second syllables (chi-CHEN it-ZA), not on the first like we estadounidenses say. And we love that Spanish offers that word, which essentially means United States-ian, to avoid confusion with the rest of the countries on the American continent. Though it comes full circle and gets a little silly again in that Mexico is officially the United States of Mexico, so… yeah.
What we learned
Mérida was hotter and buggier than the resort towns, with no ocean in sight. And yet, it was our favorite stop in Mexico by far. Beautiful and charming, authentic and accessible; it was a surprise, but a welcome one.