Sunday, April 27, 2008

The last lingering moments in Mérida

Morning finds us motoring up Calle 60, heading for the Hyatt. We need to return the car to our rental place. We're taking advantage of the car rental's proximity to the Hyatt to drop into their fancy restaurant, a bit of a divergence from our regular morning meals at Maison LaFitte. They have a fabulous buffet laid out--with everything from sweet rolls to omelettes to every kind of pork you could imagine. Mom and I both get to finally try Pork Pibil, a local treat, pork marinate in sour orange juice, anchiote, peppercorns, garlic, cumin and salt, wrapped in a banana leaf and baked. It's succulent and rich. Done just right. Mom's been such an adventurer in food--really intent on trying all the local delicacies. I think she got through her whole list of "To Eat." She marvels, too, at the honey comb chunk they have sitting in a slanted metal support that allows the honey to drip out of the combs and right into the bowl from which you serve yourself. I think if we'd had more room, we would have stayed there for hours tasting this and that. I definitely recommend it!

One of the many restored mansions on the Paseo

On Sundays the Paseo de Montejo is barricaded off on one side to traffic so that families can enjoy rolling down the boulevard on bikes. On one side of the wide avenue artists have set up their paintings, mixed media pieces and sculptures. You can stop and chat with any of them, or just keep strolling, taking in the colors and textures as you go. As I mentioned, the Paseo de Montejo was built in the style of the Champs de Elysees--broad avenues, bordered by trees and grass, those ringed by large colonial houses, many of them restored by private companies, now used as banks and offices. There are events all up and down the boulevard--yet again evidence of a very well-planned tourism industry. There's painting booths for kids, moonwalks, too. We pass a group of tumblers demonstrating their expertise for a circling crowd.

To the left is one of the S-shaped chairs so often found in colonial cities in the Yúcatan. They're quite comfortable, and make it easy to converse with a companion. To the right is a sculpture from the Paseo de Montejo riffing on the same shape and design. These white chairs can be found all over the city in parks and plazas.

Here's one of the many mansions that line the blocks of the Paseo--this one, however, is not restored.

We circle back into town, passing our hotel, dropping into a few shops along the way. We've left this, our last day, to wander the city and check out anything we felt we missed. Mom's interested in local grafts or galleries. So I mark a few on my map and we head down into the main Plaza. We have yet to see the inside of the main cathedral, as it's been closed every other time we've walked by. But now mass is in progress, so it's easy to slip in a spy a bit of the simple stones walls, vaulting huge above the pews, a giant crucified Jesus at the front behind the altar. This isn't the gold plated shrines like in Oaxaca. More attention is paid to the architecture of the building, the shapes of walls, the curve of ceilings--rather than the adornments that sit on those walls.

This makes it look like Mom is trying to break in.
But I assure you she was an upstanding citizen whilst in Mérida.

We sit down for a bite to eat at Amaro, a place that boasts vegetarian fare. A margarita for us both. An order of guacamole to begin. We both order fish, mom's dressed in a cilantro pesto, mine with garlic and lemon. Secretly, I wanted the cilantro pesto, too--but I have a strict rule about ordering the same thing as someone else when I'm on vacation. It just seems wrong--like you're wasting the opportunity to try numerous delicacies the house has to offer. Anyone else do this?

I must confess that my tourism bug is wanning at this point. And perhaps that margarita was a bit strong, too. I have little desire to see much more--let alone trek around in the heat. I've run out of steam, or curiosity, or both! So I beg off from the remainder of the walk--and head back to our hotel, leaving the map with the pinpointed galleries, in Mom's hands. I make a quick stop at Casa Balam--I'm curious what their rooms look like. But then I quietly take a seat next to the pool in a sunny spot at our hotel. I read a bit--and when the heat gets to be too much, I submerge into the pool, palm trees and flowers ringing its edges. Mom returns a bit later, and does much of the same. Perhaps we're both getting a little tired.

However, sticking to our regular schedule, we find energy later that night to pretty up and head out on Calle 60--which again is lined with bands, outdoor spots to imbibe something, as well as tons of people. We pick a place that sits across from a park, two guys playing guitar in the corner. We each have a drink, a gin and tonic for Mom (she's pleasantly reminded how much she likes this refreshing drink) and a beer for me.

It's our last night in Mérida--so we linger at the table a bit, taking in the warm air, the energy from all the people strolling about, the music dancing from every corner. Looking back, writing all this down, I realize how much we did in a week. It was really such fun! Mérida, and her environs have renewed my interest and delight in the Yúcatan peninsula. After such horrid weather back in January, I was reluctant to return. But now I can see what draws so many people here throughout the year. And what luck to have the chance to spend a string of days with my mom--venturing out together, tasting this, dipping our toes in that. It's a rare opportunity, and one my mom was so generous to afford me. Thanks, Mom.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sun and sand, capped with a drink

Well, after such a long and exhausting day--we don't rise too too early the following morning. We're not sleeping in until noon. But the frequent 7 AM wake-up doesn't happen either. Breakfast again at Maison LaFitte. More of the same. And while this isn't a very elaborate breakfast--it's served us well in that it's filling, convenient and free! Today's journey will take us directly west to Celestún.

Celestún is a fishing village about 2 1/2 hours from Mérida. ,It is known for it's protected Biosphere, Ría Celesún, but also for it's seafood restaurants, and fresh water springs and calm beaches. The route to Celestún, once we get on it, is very straightforward. When we circle into town, it's small enough that we find the coast pretty easily. We hire a lancha to take us on a guided tour for the afternoon through the biosphere. Another nice Greek couple (Xeta and George) join us--making it a small and manageable group. It turns out that our guide doesn't speak any English (or Greek); and George and Xeta don't speak much Spanish. So I serve as translator for our tiny team.

We pile into the narrow, fiberglass motorboat. The water is pure aqua, calm and flat at this hour. We situate ourselves into four of the 8 swiveling white chairs aboard. The wind in our faces, the sun nicely deflected by an overhead cover. We head out at high speeds. The main thing to do when you contract a boat and guide, is to hunt down different water fowl species. The most famous in this area, the one that really brings in the tourists with it's promise of a flash of color and exotic look, are the flamingos. However, these guys are our first sighting.

Our guide takes us around a few beach heads, staying close to shore to offer us the maximum view of the coast and it's wildlife. He points out where we cross the invisible water border between the states of Yúcatan and Campeche. Little thin sticks poke through the water's surface, with tattered fabric tied to the tops, swaying in the breeze. Some of these mark where shrimpers have left nets, or a site they will return to to plunge for the little gray shellfish. Other denote shallow waters, marking the way for boats to motor with care.

Our first stop is at the petrified forest. These trees were once a large and towering forest of cedars. But salt water intrusion, due to a hurricane, killed off the trees years ago. Our guide warns us that there is a possibility of crocodiles here; but says that due to the heat, they're most likely in deeper waters. George ventures out first to take some pictures closer up. Mom tells him to throw his camera back first if he spots one--to which Xeta laughs and says, "Good bye, my love." Then I disembark--quickly followed by Xeta and Mom.

We board again and cut around a beachhead to enter what is called Ría Celestún. It is a river that slices into the peninsula, separating mainland from direct contact with the Golf of Mexico. It is called a ría, rather than a río (the actual word for river) due to the fact that is a salt water river, we learn. Soon the unbroken aqua-colored water is spotted with tiny patches of dark water--or what looks like shade. But there's nothing around to provide shade. The guide tells us that's collections of algae. He edges the boat further down the ría, receiving hand signals from a fellow boatman heading in the opposite direction; there aren't many flamingos today. When we edge up to the group, it is small--maybe about 20 in total. He tells us that this is the nesting time of year. Thus, the only flamingos we'll see are the young ones. The adults are further down the ría in a protected area. No boats or people are allowed to trespass into what is an important part of their cycle of life. Still this small groups is beautiful and strange. There pencil-thin legs, holding up tall bodies with huge noses. They are this strange mix of elegant and goofy-looking. After a short spell, they all take off, save one. The water is getting high where they are perched. It throws their tiny legs off balance. So they must fly for shallower waters.

From their we head into a tunnel made of mangrove trees. The guide tells us it is naturally made. It winds back and forth. He says sometimes, when early, and if you are lucky, you can spot rare wildlife like jaguars in this grove. He points out a few termite nests, hugging around tree branches. I make a "icky" face, remembering my termite ants at home. But he informs me that they are healthy for the forest and the trees. They don't eat live wood. They prefer the dry and hollow wood of the dead trees. And what is food for them, is a clean-up job for the forest, making room for new growth.

When we come out on the other end, we circle around and head for a cenote. That's right, even out here, in the middle of ocean and estuary, there are cenotes. There's a large group sitting on the planks that surround this sinkhole. I think the crowd makes mom decide to keep her shirt on and forgo this little pool. It's called Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water). You can even see the mouth of the spring where the water enters. I jump in, followed by George, and then, reluctantly, Xeta. It's warm. But this water is salty and shallow. My feet keep touching muddy bottom. I feel nostalgic for the pretty pools in the caves in Cuzamá. After a quick 20 minutes, the boatman signals us it's time to go. We'll dry off with the wind. He winds around, back around the shores towards our original launch point.

Mom and I decide we haven't had enough water and sun. So we walk down the shore a bit and plop ourselves down. It's time to play in the waves. This beach is far less trafficked than anything I saw in Cancún--so it's easy to find a spot for ourselves. We dally a bit in the waves. However, the wind has picked up now; the waves are rolling in at a faster pace. And when we try to dry off on the beach--there is so much wind that we just get sand blown.

We change back into clothes--though, I think both of us are feeling a bit gritty at this point. We enjoy a quiet lunch at la Palapa--a huge restaurant under a, whaddya know, a palapa. I'm not a big fan of this place. It is convenient, and was mentioned in one of our guide books. But it's huge inside--and almost every table is occupied. There's an army of waiters scurrying about. Thus, service isn't great. Mom and I both get shrimp dishes. I think her's was dressed in a light lemon and olive oil sauce. Mine, and I wasn't prepared for this, was dressed in this creamy chaya sauce. With the heat, it made it difficult to finish. Mom has her Coke. I order a piña colada--but it comes in one of those giant glass bowls--yuck. That's just too much coconut milk and alcohol for this gal. But we are satisfied when we depart.

We lay towels and suits in the trunk, or under the back window to dry. The wells under our feet fill with the sand we've tracked into the car--remnants from our trip. We traverse our way back to Mérida. I feel at this point like I'm getting to know the streets of Mérida pretty well. I feel oriented with how streets are laid out, and where our hotel is located. Of course, there's an occasional unmarked one-way street that throws me off. But people are always so nice to inform you right away when you are headed in the wrong direction.

I take a dip in the pool while Mom showers upstairs. I guess I felt like I wanted to get rid of the first layer of sand before I stepped into the shower. We rest a bit, read our books beside the pool. Then we decide to head out and see what the town has to offer on the weekend. Saturdays and Sundays find Calle 60, the one that streaks right in front of our hotel, and down into Plaza Grande, blocked off from car traffic. Only pedestrians are allowed. Restaurants along 60 pull their table and chairs out onto the cobblestones, where various bands set up to strum for the public. It's all well-laid out so that one band isn't sitting right on top of another. We stroll the gamut to check out what's on offer. Families, many with their small children, are meandering along the paths of the central square. This is really a night when all Merideñas go out to see and be seen. All the shops along the way are open and lit--taking advantage of the foot traffic to sell. Mom picks up a few little things.

Then we head back towards our hotel and pop a squat in front of the band we like most. We order wine and guacamole--as we watch, little by little, as a crowd forms around the band, and couples start to dance. First it's an older couple in their sixties, singing about elegantly. Then a younger couple, quickly running through spins. Soon a large group has congressed. What's great is that it's not just for couples. Many show up and troll the crowd for a partner. An older mustachioed man asks me to dance. He reminds me a bit of Rafael from back in Oaxaca. I seem to be able to follow as he leads me around the "floor." No fancy turns, or odd passes with this guy. So frankly after the second song, I'm ready to sit down; it's a bit boring when you don't mix it up.

After a long spell of sitting and people watching Mom and I head back towards our hotel. Right out in front a stage has been set up. We take a seat to see what's going. Eventually a great acoustic trio gets up--singer, guitarist, and percussionist. They all sing, and have splendid harmony. They play a few modern diddies. But for the most part they sing older standards (some even Mom and I recognize) that are popular with everyone. They play their last song--and even though the crowd shouts "otra! otra! (one more!)", they are quickly ushered off stage, and the mics are cut off. They're about to open up the street again. So the schedule is keep pretty strictly.

We, too, must retire, our energy fading. Tomorrow there are more adventures, in town this time. See you then!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Adventure Divas

We awake early again, anxious to get on the road and out to the cenotes (sinkholes) of Cuzamá quickly. We know to allow for more time today as twists and turns on the highway, as well as the inevitable getting lost that will occur, can increase the time of the journey. So after a few cuernos (Mexican croissants), fruit and juice, we pile into the Volkswagen, our various maps and guidebooks in hand, and speed southeast.

It definitely takes us some work to maneuver the car along narrow paved roads leading from one pueblo to the next. It's often not totally clear the best way to keep to the highway in order to head directly to Cuzamá, rather than sort of zig zagging through small villages. But get there, we do! The route is bordered by these short stone walls (pictured above), some newly painted white. It reminds Mom of Ireland. We speculate whether or not those stone walls indicate the presence, or the former presence, of haciendas in the area.

The idea for today's journey is courtesy Victoria, my fellow fellow. It was in her Top Three to do while in Mérida. Secretly, I'm a bit nervous that Mom won't enjoy this trip. She's always game to try new things. But I also know she's not a huge fan of fancying around in her swimsuit, or scaling down rocky cave walls. I'm not sure in what state these cenotes will be--and I forgot to ask Victoria if they are mom-friendly. It's kind of a selfish endeavor since I know, even if scaling is required, I want to do it. It was just so fun at Ek Balam in January!

When we spot the first sign for cenotes, I pull the car into a rocky drive, leading up to a small home with palapa roof. We disembark from the car, and a fairly pregnant young woman meets mom and me. I say we're looking for cenotes--and the woman, soft-spoken, leads us about 10 feet away to a small one right there on the property. What we're looking at here is what I can only guess is Mom's worst nightmare of what there cenotes will be like. A small, jagged opening, drops away into a dark and dank cave about 15-20 meters below. And the ladder, of the ladder, looks like it's homemade, fashioned together out of old railroad ties and coat hangers. My stomach drops. I don't even know if I can do this. One look at Mom's face, and I know she can't, that's for sure. I ask again, "So where do we get the cart that takes us to the others?" She motions me further down the road to a hacienda. We thank her and leave, hoping that there's something more promising along the way.

Turns out, that wasn't the group of cenotes we were looking for. That was just someone's private home, which happens to sit atop a cenote. For 10 pesos, apparently, the pregnant gal will let you shimmy down the ladder and take a gander. The "tour" we're looking for is a bit more organized.

When we pull into the gravel parking lot, a young guy with a notebook, motions for us to pull into a spot. There's a small group of local men, most donning straw/palma cowboy hats, each with his own flatbed cart, and small horse. For 200 pesos one of these fellows will hitch his horse onto the cart, settle the cart onto narrow rails, and take you some 7 kilometers onto the land of the hacienda Chukanan to visit three consecutive cenotes. The young guy warns us to take water or soda (motioning towards a store next to the parking lot) because the ride takes about 2 hours. There's some sort of argument amongst some of the drivers before we take off. Later we learn from Victoria and her friend Charlie that not too long ago there was no organized group offering tours to the cenote. It used to be that you'd have to know someone, or get a recommendation. Then go knock on that local's door and ask him to take you out to the sinkholes. He's charge you whatever the market could bare that day. But then came along a group of young guys who said to the community, "We're going to form a group. We're all going to convene here to take tours in. We're all going to charge this much. Period." And if one farmer didn't agree, they would bully him into it. I'm guessing this morning's argument may have something to do with that structure...

But we don't know that, at this point. All we know is that we're sitting in the back of a platform cart, heading through a narrow tunnel of trees, further into the forest. We're excited. We arrive at the first cenote. There's a shockingly nice bathroom in which to change into suits and wash hands. And unlike the cenote we happened onto first--this one has a reasonable an sturdy wood staircase that descends into a cavern. About a third of the roof of this cavern is open and exposed to sun, tree limbs reaching down to take a drink from the crystal blue waters below. And the water is deep. There's one platform you can jump off of, and another one that snakes down to the water's edge so you can lower yourself in the water. It's so crystal clear--I can see the bottom--so I think it's not safe to jump. Another couple has arrived with their personal tour guide from Mérida He tells me it's almost 40 meters deep in the center. So I can jump with no problem. And while the wife of the couple quietly whimpers as she touches the water's surface with her toe, I cannonball in. I mean, c'mon, let's do this!

It's amazing! The water is fresh, but not freezing. It's actually warmed than the pool back at our hotel. And my god, we're swimming inside this huge cavern. Mom worms her way in slowly--and is immediately sold on this cenote thing. We swim to the other end of the pool, to the dark end of the cave, touching it's wall--like we'll win some prize for braving it. I try several times to dive down, pulling with arms and legs, trying to find the bottom. There's no way. Eventually a larger group arrives, so Mom and I decide to depart for cenote #2. There our guide is, lounging in the cart, his horse off to the side taking some shade. He hoists the cart back onto the rails and we're off.

This is actually cenote #2. But it's just meant to give
you an idea of how more people = less fun

It's another 15 minute ride to the next cenote. These rails were once used to transport henequen from far reaches of the hacienda, out to where it would be processed and then transported again across the country. It's a bumpy ride. We've got a few cushions protecting our bums from bruising--but you definitely have to hold onto your things--or off they will tumble.

The second cenote called Chasinic'che in maya (tree with small ants) is up and off to the right from the rail track. There's a much smaller opening here--where you have to kind of duck your head down as you descend the stairway. Mom learns this the hard way. The other couple has already departed when we arrive--so we have this one all to ourselves for at least 30 minutes. This cave doesn't seem as deep as the last--but the roof is taller. Roots are dangling from one of the openings, trying desperately to sip from the sweet water.

I've been told that the closer you get to the coast, some of the cenotes have salt water in them. Mom thinks she can float better here--so maybe there is a bit of salt. Though, I can't tell. It's sweet to the tasty--and not stingy to the eyes. It's perfect! I jump several times off the high platform. Mom does some laps. I'm including this series of photos I really like where mom swims to spot where the sun had peeked through a tiny crack in the ceiling, and focused it's energy on a tiny surface of the water.

Doesn't it look like she's being anointed by the sun? Maybe she came out of there with super powers? She's not telling.

I try to snap this short of both of us. See my Mom in the background?

We eventually head to the third cenote. There's more people on the route now that it's later in the morning. We've really taken our time at the first two; we're lucky our horse guide hasn't rushed us. The third one I've been warned by the young guys is "not recommended." In fact, our guide queries, "You want to go to the third?" Me: "Yes." Him: "Really?" Me: "yes." We find out why. This cenote has the tiniest opening of all, about 3 feet wide, a ladder descends into the underground opening. We can't even get a glimpse of what the cavern looks like from the opening. Mom says she's not sure. I scurry down the ladder in front of an Italian pair. It's dark down below. But once my eyes adjust--I can see this may be the prettiest cenote of all. There are small openings in the ceiling, allowing driplets of light to sneak in and play off of the clear azure water. I scamper back up the ladder. Mom seemed to have a bit of hesitance in her voice--but wasn't totally adverse to descending. Perhaps she needs some prompting. I tell her of the beauty--but she looks again at the opening--the possibility of falling--and there's no net here--keeps her at the top. So I descend again and plunge into the cool water.

I see some guys scaling one of the side walls so they can jump from a greater height. I decide--I need to do that. I swim over to the side and start bear clawing my way up. But I can't figure out how they got up and around this massive rock face. One guy yells to me that I have to go up to the right into a dark cave that will wind around and let me out further up where they are tip toeing along the edge up above. I get up to the narrow cave--and it's pitch black. There's no light. So I have to feel around the wet rock for toe and hand holds. Honestly, at this point, if I could have, I would have climbed back down. I'm scared. I'm alone in this cave. I can't see shit. And while there are edges of rock to grab onto, they are wet--and I'm uncertain, without the additional help of vision, if they can support my weight as I try to lift myself up onto the next rock shelf. But there is no safe way down. My curiosity and adrenaline got me into this--so I'm hoping I can get myself out. I eventually scramble up, knees muddied and scraped by the cave walls, onto the small ledge about 20 feet from the water's surface. I can't jump from where I am--there's rocks right under me. I need to scale along this narrow lip so I have a clear leap into the deep part of the cenote. How? Yea, I don't know. At this point I'm audibly squealing from fear. My feet are shaking, which is no help. The guys sort of shout to me where there are a few hand holds I can use. But they're already down below in the water, swimming off to the platform--so there's no moral support there. I take a few deep breaths and then bear hug this stalactite to my right, as I inch my feet over. I move my hands to the next hold, and then shuffle my feet some more. I'm so relieved to make it to the spot that there's not hesitance in jumping or not--I just want to get back in the water and off this cliff edge. I emerge from the water with a smile on my face. I did it!

Meanwhile Mom is going through a harrowing climb of her own. Unbeknownst to me, mom had started a conversation with a nice older Mexican couple up top. The husband kept trying to chide his wife into climbing down to check out this natural wonder. He sort of looped mom into the persuasion. So when the wife at last did descend, mom looked at her and said to herself, "Well, if this woman can do it, I can do it!" And down she camp, wooden step by wooden step. I high five her as I climb out of the pool. How cool is my mom?!? Look what superstars we both are!

We do a few laps around, enjoying the cool water. There's a small stack of boulders in the very center of the water, so that you can almost stand on tip toes right in the middle of the pool--get a little breather.

When our hands finally get pruney, we put on our shoes, make our way up the ladder and signal to our guide that we're ready to go. It's a bumpy, but pleasant ride back. We stop at the bathrooms again to change into dry things. Our car, steamy and hot inside, is awaiting our arrival. What fun! I think mom would agree this was one of the best moments of our whole trip. A true adventure.

Mom suggests that we make our way over to the village of Izamal for lunch. It's may be the oldest city in the Yúcatan, and its history is very attached to religious events. The most recent being a visit in 1993 by Pope John Paul II. The entire city center is painted in the same gold-yellow hew, rimmed in eggshell white. A local tells us this is to reflect the colors of corn and rice. Izamal sits right atop an old Mayan pyramid--like many of the Catholic churches in Mexico. It was a domination strategy.

We pull in to Kinich restaurant before visiting the church; our growling stomachs, outvote our curiosity. It's a beautiful and quite large restaurant, sitting underneath the pyramid of Kinich-Kakmó, a palapa roof shading customers from the sweltering sun. Mom orders the poc chuc at last, a famous Yucatecan dish of chicken or pork marinated marinated in sour orange juice and served with a tomato sauce and pickled onions. I get the lime soup, another Yucatecan specialty of tortillas strips and shredded chicken swimming in a lime juice broth. They say it's good for you if you aren't feeling well--and honestly, I wasn't at this point. Recently recovering from a small bought with stomach villains (as I will call them), and also very tired out from all the swimming. I follow the soup up with salbutes, very similar to the panuchos, except without black beans baked into the tortilla dough. This place makes their tortillas by hand. Just off of mom's right shoulder I have a view of the small hut where a woman is mashing corn masa into individual balls, and then pressing them into flat discs, laying them on the comal to cook.

We drive over to the main Convent and traipse around it's large interior. A little midget (no kidding) stops me as I enter the cathedral and starts giving me an unsolicited tour. We're too polite to excuse ourselves. So he intermittently takes each of us by the hand and pulls us around the church grounds, explaining in broken English about the Franciscan origins of this giant place. He wants to explain to us about a prayer wall they have. People come and pin pictures and letters about loved ones that are injured or ailing to this wall. And in the explanation is says, "They have broken legs," he touches my leg. "They have broken arms," he touches my arm. "They have, sometimes even, a broken heart," he touches my boob. Uh oh. Did that just happen?

We eventually depart. Mom generously tips him for the tour, and you know, the groping of her daughter. I snap a few pictures. Then we pile in, pull out the maps, and circle our way around town plaza to head back north to Mérida.

We're tired. But have a moment to take a nap and laze around a bit when we return to the hotel. Then we shower and dress, heading down to the garden of our hotel to await my friend Victoria and her pal, Charlie. When they arrive, we all head over to Piedra de Agua, a new boutique hotel in Mérida only a short block from the Plaza Grande. It's got a beautiful courtyard out back, a pool with hammocks, a waterfall, and a whitewashed, modern-style bar that has a view of the tippy top of the Cathedral, which is lit up at this hour. Charlie and Victoria are full of news about the area. We recount or cenote adventure, the places we've been eating. We stay so long chatting, that Mom and I miss the regional dance group across the way at Yúcatan University. I think Mom hits her wall--'cause she stands up and announces she's heading back to the hotel. It's midnight, after all. I stay on a bit longer with V and Charlie. We head over to a bar called Maya pub where there's a younger crowd, few tourists, and live jazz. But once Charlie starts breaking down the events of 9/11, my mind starts to wander. The two escort me back to Maison LaFitte, where I retire. What a day. Head hits pillow; I'm out.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A day like queens

Mom and I both decide that a day of total relaxation is called for after our previous afternoon of climbing large Mayan edifices. We rise leisurely, our hotel room ensconced in darkness, our one window shuttered for privacy. We amble down to breakfast at the hotel--it's something complementary at Hotel Maison LaFitte--so we take advantage every morning, except our last, to nibble on what's provided. It's remarkably filling--and holds us both each day until the 2/3 PM Comida hour. Perhaps the sun and heat has killed our appetites a bit--though, you wouldn't guess by the grand meals we've been consuming up to this point.
Museo de Arqueología

Mom heads to the Archeology Museum--housed in a huge colonial building along the Paseo de Montejo. I opt to stay in, and lounge by the pool of our hotel with an easy book (thanks, Aubrey!) and a lemonade. Mom's wowed by the museum; it also offered her a chance to practice her Spanish, reading most of the placards in Mexico's national tongue. And me, I worked on my tan. woohoo!

We pack up and head north of Mérida to Xcanatun (pronounced Ssh-kana-toon). Xcanatun is a small town, but also is site to one of the many Haciendas that still remain in the Yúcatan. Back in the 17th century the Yúcatan was peppered with large Hacienda estates that were built around the cultivation of henequen, an agave plant, similar to the maguey (from which comes mezcal and tequila). Strong fibers were pulled from the henequen plant that could be used to make rope or twine. That industry is largely non-existent now. However, Mérida's economic foundation was built on that successful trade--and I'm sure has something to do with her current economic status. Mom and I frequently wondered how Mérida, and much of the Yúcatan has stayed so prosperous. There's a fishing and shrimp trade--but it's not enough to carry the state. Certainly tourism plays a large roll (and mind you, Mérida has an immense and well-oiled tourism machine. It is unbelievable in comparison to Oaxaca.) But you need initial money to invest in tourism. My guidebook says that the Yúcatan now owes it's prosperity to a swath of maquiladoras (assembly plant operations) in the region that opened in the 80s and 90s. But I've heard yet another reason, and it borders on gossip, more than history. My friends who are locals have said that the families of drug traffickers live in Mérida. Certainly there are some wealthy Merideñas. According to this rumor, the traffickers made a pact that Mérida was off limits for crime--it would be a safe haven for all of their loved ones. That would certainly explain the fact that there is little to no crime in the streets of Mérida. Who can say what is true?

The Spa at Xcanatun
We make the quick 15 minute drive north out of town to this restored Hacienda. Xcanatun means "tall stone house" in Maya. And after a 5-year restoration, it opened again in 2000 as a luxury hotel, restaurant and spa, set on 9 acres of land. Mom and I made massage appointments. And they are awaiting us as we pull into the parking lot opposite the yellow main building, the color of butter. We both selected the spa's specialty, a Mayan-influenced massage with honey scrub and rose petal oil. This is México, so sometimes spa treatments can be a little different. I can confirm that by mentioning that I've never had someone in the States massage my boobs before. Woah. Just another part of the body here!

After emerging from the spa, smelling sweet, relaxed and soft to the touch--we head over to the hotel's 5-star restaurant, Casa de Piedra. Mom and I are the sole pair courageous enough to brave the outside veranda. Neither of us feels the heat that much, so we're content to have a beautiful view of the sprawling gardens, amber-colored neighboring buildings and a spot all to ourselves. They even were nice enough to pipe some soft music out onto the porch for us (those inside were treated not only to AC, but to a live pianist).

Lunch was no disappointment. We each order a crisp margarita on the rocks. I follow mine up with a citrus salad, donned with grapefruit and avocados. It's duck paté for mom, followed by a grilled shrimp dish served atop wild rice. My main course is the local catch, Medregal. I'd include a picture of our meals--but frankly we were too famished and excited to wait for me to get my camera out. But I will offer a few shots of our dessert. Really we had no stomach room left--but who could turn down tequila-infused key lime pie and a light lemon mousse? Who, I ask?

We get a small tour of the grounds by a kind English-speaking gentleman at the resort. He shows us their gardens, a few of the suites, complete with individual porches festooned in hammocks. And then he sends us on our way saying, "Please stay with us your next visit; we'll give you a very good price!" Right.

Back into town we go. And once again we rest a bit, shower and head out on the town. It's Thursday, so there's a myriad of activities on the streets. Live concerts occupy city parks. There's regional dance around, as well. We head just across the street to Santa Lucia Park to check out the night's program. There's a regional orchestra just finishing up when we plop ourselves into bleacher sheets just set up for this occasion. A declamador (basicaly a spoken word performer, reciting poems) struts the stage for a few pieces. Next out, and one of my favorites, is the Yucatecan dancers. Men and women bejeweled in the region's traditional garb, agilely glide and hop, spinning around each other in unison. There's even one dance in which the couples all place trays on their heads, bedecked with glasses filled with liquid. They hold their heads upright, twirling and weaving around the stage--not one tray falls. Then a trio takes the stage and plays a set of songs--my favorite a Bolero called Duda (doubt). And finally a soloist takes the stage to sing old favorites, in the style of Pedro Infante.

What's surprising to me is two things: 1)The whole event is extremely well organized. We transition from one act to the next so fluidly, there's no time to get distracted or bored. The men operating the sound system, fly in and out between acts, quickly setting up mic stands and monitors, only pausing the program for seconds before it carries on. Oaxaca has never been so well put together in her open concert nights in the Zócalo. 2)There is a real collection of people out at this tiny park. And it's not just the tourist and foreigners you'd expect. There's tons of locals. In fact, Mom and I are flanked by Merideñas on all sides. The locals enjoy this too--which makes me guess that the program often changes. If it were the same every Thursday--no one would come back.

When the final note is strummed, and the Emcee takes a bow, we shuffle out with the rest of the crowd. It's not a long commute--our hotel is just across the street. What a nice cap to a relaxing day. Tomorrow, Cenotes! Stay tunes...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Above Uxmal

We rise early again to go rent a car nearby. There's much to do just outside the city--and Mom and I figure it'll be nice to do it at our own pace in a rental, then to depend on scheduled tours. We return to the hotel with shiny Volkswagen Jetta. I've never rented such a nice car before. I think we're both pleased that we'll be comfortable in it for the next four days. A quick breakfast of eggs, fruit and yogurt, pan and fresh squeezed juice--the standard fare at our hotel. We gather our things and head out.

The Magician's Pyramid

Today's destination? The Mayan city of Uxmal (pronounced Ooosh-mahl). Uxmal is part of a series of mayan archeological sites on the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route). It is theoretically about an hour-and-a-half from Mérida. We, of course, get a bit lost as we pass the first town coming out of Mérida (Uman). And because it is the first (but not the last) time we get lost, Mom secretly curses Uman under her breath. When we pass through it later, she keeps muttering, "Damn you, Uman, damn you." Mérida and its environs are actually really well organized. Unlike the signage I've seen in Oaxaca, or west of Mexico City, the Yúcatan is organized and well-marked. And yet, in some of the smaller towns, they still have failed to indicate when you approach a fork in the road, which way is a continuation of the highway you were on, and which diverts to somewhere else. I suppose they all think, "Well, every knows the right fork just heads to a backwoods trail, while the left fork is highway 181. Everyone knows that." But for us it wasn't always clear. So we travel a good 10 minutes out of our way, and then backtrack. I think our first lesson in driving here is--ask people. My friend Victoria warned, "When you ask directions here everyone says 'Todo derecho, todo derecho (straight, straight).'" So I know when I hear that same familiar phrase from everyone I encounter, that I need to probe a little further. Have no fear, though--we find Uxmal.The Governor's Palace

It is an amazing site. Our intention was to arrive early to avoid the hottest part of the day. But we find ourselves climbing the stone steps of this impressive Mayan stronghold around 1. That does not divert us, however. We spend 3 hours trekking, climbing, reading in our guidebook about the intricate shapes patterned on every wall and surface, the rain god Chac. This site is so much more ornate and detailed than Oaxaca's Monte Alban. It's similar in scale--but unlike the pyramids in my home state, these ones are surrounded by trees and brush--giving you a sense of what it must have looked like centuries ago.

That's me up top the Great Pyramid, what a view!

And someone left their water--or maybe died from the climb...
Below is a shot of the House of Doves, from a bird's eye view, ha!

Another fun element to climbing pyramids is that you hardly ever get a chance to get above the horizon. The Yúcatan is flat flat, Chicago flat. There are no large highway structures, of hills that afford you the opportunity to see beyond your immediate surroundings. Thus, when I climb to the top of the Gran Pirámide, and turn to face outward, it takes my breath away. You can see for miles, which of course, was the point oh-so-long ago. From that vantage, the Mayans at Uxmal could protect themselves from secret attack.

House of Doves, named for how the arches resembles the nests that doves and pigeons make

Uxmal also happens to be peppered with iguanas. They're all over the place. When Mom and I see the first one scurry out into the courtyard of the Nunnery Quadrangle we a bit taken aback. As it edges towards us, unafraid of humans, Mom whispers to me, "Do you think we can convince it to back off?" But throughout our trek around the site we become so accustomed the the presence of these little dragons, that when one later suddenly appears, camouflaged in the grass--we hardly break our stride. We ask, "Do you think the Mayans ate these poor guys?"

We exit out the main gate and head for a nearby palapa-roofed restaurant called Lodge de Uxmal. No iguana on the menu. I order a pitcher of naranjada so we can cool off. Mom and I share an avocado-stuffed shrimp salad, panuchos (small hand-made tortillas with black beans cooked into the masa, topped with shredded chicken, lettuce, onion and raddishes), and a small mixed green salad.

Sated and cooled, we head for nearby Kabah, another Mayan site, only 20 minutes down the road. We meant to hit a few sites along the Ruta Puuc--but the sun is descending, and time is running out. So we take a quick walk around Kabah, which was connected to Uxmal years ago by the famous white Mayan roads, called sacbe. Aaron, Sarah and I walked along one of these still in tact on the island of Cozumel.

On our way back to Mérida, Mom and I attempt to make a detour into Ticul, a small village on the Convent Route that is known for shoe making. I'm eager to get myself a pair of leather huaraches. Unfortunately, Ticul is very confusing. Our guide book warned us about narrow, criss-crossing streets. But we can't seem to easily find the center of shops. Plus, it's a bit after 5, so things are closing down, and we're tired from a day of hoisting ourselves into the seat of Mayans. We call it a bust, and circle out of town--or at least, we try to circle out of town. Getting on the right track is a bit challenging. But eventually we get some reliable directions to Muna and then on to Mérida.

A wall of Chac faces. The Mayans sculpted their rain god with this giant elephant nose.

We pull into town and park our car at our hotel--thank goodness for the hotel parking garage! We're located so close into town center that it would have been a real pain to circle each night looking for a spot. As becomes our custom from here on out in Mérida, mom and I shower and rest after a morning and afternoon outside the city, and then head out on the town around 8 or 9 to enjoy the music and events the city has to offer. Tonight, however, we content ourselves to just walk to Alberto's Continental Patio, a favorite of our friend Rick Bayless. The building itself is a historical monument. Originally it was a Mayan mound; the original owners used the stones from the Mayan site to build some of the columns of the building, that still stand today. Then it became the home of the Familia Ruz y Ruz, whom constructed th first secondary school in Mérida. Later the Familia Salum acquired the house, turning it into a restaurant. As I mentioned before, foreigners have a long history of colonizing in Mérida, including Lebanese families. I can only guess that the Salum's were one of those families, as Alberto's in known for its Lebanese fare. Mom opts for something Yucatecan, while I order the shish kabobs and humus; I'm excited for different food. We have the patio almost entirely to ourselves. The waiter nicely brings me some bug spray when he notices my constant fidgeting under the table. He jokes that Mom and I have selected the most romantic corner of the restaurant--since our table is located a bit in the shadows. I try to rebut with something about how by the end of the night we'll find ourselves married, mother and daughter. Incest humor doesn't go over very well here, FYI.

I sit on your head, Chac! ha ha!

Our cooling cocktails and delicious fare fill our bellies. We stroll back home to our hotel, full in every sense of the word. Sleep comes easily.