Reflections on Merida and Yucatan

Been meaning to write down my impressions on Merida and the surrounding region after a few days there in January. After only a few days, the trip caused such an impression on me that I wanted to share it with you all and encourage you to visit if you have the chance.

The drive from Cancun to Merida is about 3.5 hours and with my “faves” playlist on, I thoroughly enjoyed the near empty road flanked by greenery on both sides. From the moment I reached town, one of its main vocations announced itself from people’s homes: “hay panuchos”, “hay cochinita”… As I came to find out later, food here is not just something you encounter 3 times a day if you are lucky. Food is an all-day thing, food is how you connect to your past, helps you communicate your identity, and helps you express your point of view.

I stayed at a beautifully renovated house, called Diplomat Hotel, owned by Neil and Sarah. Perhaps some of my cynicism is eroding with age, but while their story is the perfect cliche about expat life (Canadians who left Toronto to follow a dream to have a hotel in South America), their passion and bliss in their new condition was as genuine as it was contagious. Their attention to details in decoration and service and their pride in their achievement was so great that I found myself marvelling with them at the chandeliers they designed and the tiles they chose to line the bathroom.

In Merida I learned that there is less of a national identity than a regional one. Someone I spoke to said that it was hard to find certain recipe ingredients over there in Mexico. I nodded thoughtlessly guessing she meant the US but no, she meant Mexico as in anywhere outside the Yucatan. You see, they have food from the region delivered to the capital because you just can’t recreate certain things like food cooked in a hotbox wrapped in banana leaves underground. Those things you can’t recreate back in the capital city. Even if you have a backyard.

Driving through small towns like Tecoh, I was amazed at how perfectly picturesque the set up was. Terracotta colored churches, kids playing with kites on an open field. Scenes that you see in old movies, like Amarcord. I know I run the risk of romanticizing poverty, but there was such a primordial innocence in these scenes that one cannot help but be touched by them.

It was on one of these drives that I found a little town with a cenote right in the middle of a square locked by a metal gate. Where a shopkeeper across from the cenote entrance keeps the keys. Where said man will open the door at your request for free. For free. On top of it all, he will take your pictures if you ask him to. It could not have been more surreal as the man with the keys had a severe speech disability, which did not stop him from asking me where I came from, giving me recommendations on what to do and wishing me well on my travels.

On a Friday night, I saw groups of teenagers congregating on a well-lit plaza on two occasions – one of them was a rock band playing to a group of 20 or so audience members, no doubt their friends who clustered in small groups under the blue fluorescent lights. A second time, two boys with scraggly chin hairs engaged in a rap duel each of them flanked by their fans and supporters. I remembered my early teenage years listening to Nirvana and other grunge bands, helping my brother figure out the notes on a song by playing and rewinding certain excerpts on the tape recorder. I remembered going to amateur rock festivals, where we would be filled with teenage angst and bang our heads until we felt a mild high. Do kids do these things nowadays?

It was driving that I saw people in Yucatan take their pedestrian crossings very seriously – drivers failing to yield are not fined a random amount, no… they are fined 16 times the minimum wage. In my research, it seems Colombia also uses that reference which makes you very aware of how relevant that measure is when so many of the city’s inhabitants get by on that ($4.7 a day if you are curious).

While I do not have first-hand experience on their own personal sense of direction, I can safely say that giving directions to others is definitely not a particular strength. I was easily offered instructions when I asked, but more often than not ended up in wild goose chases… “alli no mas” they would say, “aqui a la vuelta”, they would repeat; as if I were just steps from my intended destination. Walking in literal circles with a light and open attitude made the detours so enjoyable that I would sometimes forget what I was looking for in the first place. A craving for “bunuelos”, fried yuca fritters served in sugary syrup, something I used to eat as a treat and that I rediscovered in a Yucatan cooking book, led me to finding out that in Merida, yuca is cooked in a dark sugar syrup with spices and eaten as dessert, the way you would poach a pear. Although the bunuelos remained elusive, another craving proved successful when I saw styrofoam containers with various liquids being carted around and asked to be taken to the source. An older man offered to guide me through the snakey alleys until we found a young lady offering two kinds of pozoles (sweet or savory, a white corn drink mixed with coconut flakes, which she prepared to order.) The corn and coconut mix was as delicious as it was filling, and I felt a pang of guilt when I returned my unfinished drink to the vendor as a messenger man arrived and dove into his serving with enthusiasm, stating that the drink would stand for his lunch. 

Walking through the market in Merida, I remembered going through the many markets in Managua and those in other Nicaraguan towns when my mother would take us for weekend drives or on vacation. The abundance of the produce, the colors and smells. Merida is probably a lot more Central American than it is anything else. Certain words are the same as in Nica spanish and the climate is such that it is no surprise that the many of the fruits and vegetables are the same. Merida is somehow richer in both variety and depth, I attribute it to being closer to center of the Mayan empire while Nicaragua was like an outer borough. Like how Staten Island is probably just a watered down version of Manhattan (never been, but I imagine the reference holds)

So much of this trip seemed like a return to where I was from. While I have favored traveling away from Latin America in the spirit of exploring what is more exotic and unknown, this trip was like a concentrated, intense version of some of my memories growing up. Some of them were buried so deep down below more recent experiences, places, people; that I did not even know there were there until I lived them again.  It was like traveling back in time to an undiluted version of the past. Somehow Merida in 2018 is like the Managua of the 90s. At least in my mind.
I searched and was lucky to find incredible handwoven textiles and wore my Mayan-inspired shirts on my days there. Embroidered by hand with an x-pattern on white linen, the blouses are decidedly feminine while retaining a practical spirit with a comfortable fit. You can imagine mayan women wearing these a few centuries ago to go to the market, where they would sell their wares all day. Or by a woman on a weekend trip. I’ll be wearing mine in NY this summer.

sleep: Diplomat Hotel

eat:Apoala for upscale pan-Mexican, Chaya Maya for every day Yucatecan

drink: La Negrita for messy but fun local environment, Malahat for a speak easy Manhattan vibe

buy:Coqui Coqui for pricey but beautiful candles and perfumes; Taller Maya (inside Museo Casa Montejo) for homeware and textiles; Casa T’Ho for local designer clothing, jewelry and homeware (personal fave!); Casa San Angel (gift shop inside hotel) for ceramics, textiles, clothing, Ki Xocolatl (for you guessed it… get the one with cacao nibs); Kukul Boutik for textiles, clothing, jewelry; Lucas de Galvez market for spice mixes (called “recados”)

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