A Travellerspoint blog

March 2012

A Peek Behind Merida’s Shutters

sunny 33 °C

At first glance most of the city streets of Merida appear to be a Mexican version of the Victorian terraces of working-class England; meager two up/two down houses with a communal bathroom at the end of the street and an open sewer running down the middle. There are no open sewers, (or public bathhouses), in Merida today, but there are blocks after blocks of innocuous, even ugly, concrete terraces jammed tight to the narrow sidewalks. Every street the same; thousands of seemingly identical single-story houses crammed shoulder to shoulder without an inch of space for trees, lawns or flowers. Cement grey and whitewash are the predominate colours although the drabness is occasionally broken by a sun-faded pastel, a brightly hued door, or a touch of inartistic graffiti…
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Unlike its distant neighbor, Izamal, Merida has never been tarted up to welcome a regal visitor, but some of the householders have broken ranks and put on a bit of a show…
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However, we had heard tales of magnificent Spanish villas; of opulent mansions oozing with colonial features and simply bursting with objets d’art and antiques from the old world. But we roamed the city’s narrow streets in vain as we looked for stately homes. We imagined lofty houses, shaded by flame trees and banyans, sitting majestically behind massive wrought iron gates. Merida was built by Spaniards, (albeit on the ruins of a Mayan city), so we expected to find wonderful and whimsical architectural treasures like those that line the great boulevards of Madrid and Barcelona. Where could all these magnificent houses be? In desperation we enquired at the English Library where for a donation and some of James’ novels we were taken on a city tour and found an incredible hidden world. Behind the simple stark facades of the city’s streets are expansive houses complete with swimming pools in tropical courtyards …
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…huge bedrooms…
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…fabulous bathrooms…
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…massive, high-ceilinged, reception rooms
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And even a replica of a traditional Mexican street scene complete with a fountain and artistically arranged litter…
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It was significant that all three houses we viewed had been restored by American owners and it was evident as we looked across the city from the rooftop patios of these grand houses that not all of the buildings have been so well taken care of. Rusty corrugated iron, spalled concrete and rampant vegetation is still the norm, but as we again walked the stark streets we saw them in a different light. Never judge a book by its cover for, as Shakespeare wrote, So may the outward shows be least themselves; The world is still deceived by ornament.

Posted by Hawkson 10:32 Archived in Mexico Comments (4)

Relaxing Under a Banyan Tree

sunny 30 °C

The journey back to our Chicxulub home from the outports of Rio Lagartos and San Felipe took us through the colonial city of Izamal
The conquistadores arrived here more than 500 years ago and whipped the locals into good Christian slaves by flattening the Mayan’s sacred pyramid and building a giant cathedral and convent in its place…
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Pope John Paul II visited Izamal in 1993 in order to apologize to the natives; too little too late one might think, although judging from the number of papal souvenirs on offer in Izamal today the local traders aren’t complaining. In order to commemorate the Pope’s visit the whole city was painted egg-yolk yellow and it has stuck…
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Why yellow? Maybe it was the Pope’s favourite colour, or maybe it was on ‘special’ at the hardware store that week. Whatever the reason, this colour co-ordination has placed Izamal in the ranks of the blue Indian city of Jodhpur and the pink city of Jaipur – without the stray cows and camel carts. There are, however, horse carts…
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And these are some of the colonnaded buildings surrounding the central square…
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Every city, town and village in the Yucatan has a central square in front of its cathedral or church. While many have been transformed into soccer pitches and basketball courts over the years some, like the one in Valladolid near Chichén Itzá, are park-like piazzas with palm trees, manicured gardens and fountains…
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There are few things more relaxing on a hot afternoon in Mexico than sitting in a love-seat under a banyan tree in a town square watching the world pass by…
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Hasta luega for now.

Posted by Hawkson 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

A Short Sojourn through the Yucatan

sunny 30 °C

During the past six weeks we’ve marguerite’d with the party-goers on the Caribbean shore at Playa del Carmen and day-tripped our way around the well-trodden Mayan ruins and colonial towns of western Yucatan, so we thought it was time for a break - time to pack our bags and take the less travelled path to a couple of sleepy fishing communities on the northernmost tip of the peninsula. Rio Lagartos and San Felipe are on the tourist maps, but they are several hours drive, and at least 50 years away, from any major conurbation. The thin ribbon of tarmac that stretches, arrow straight, through the seemingly endless jungle and mangrove swamps to these villages starts in the colonial town of Tizimin and leads past the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam. This city, about the same age as Chichén Itzá, has cunningly hidden itself in the jungle a few miles off the road so has escaped the rampant commercialism of its more brazen cousin. We left our hotel early to beat the heat and caught the handful of guides and venders napping. We almost had the place to ourselves as we climbed the hundred plus steps up this giant pyramid…
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But what a view from the top…
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Then on to Rio Lagartos where the main attractions are the flocks of pink flamingos that feed in the salt pans, (salinas), carved out of the mangrove swamps. The water colours were spectacular and contrasted sharply with the roadway made of salt…
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But where were the flamingos? We know what you’re thinking…”Once you’ve seen one flamingo…” and we had certainly seen our share at Celestún, but flamingos are like shooting stars and killer whales - you can never see enough of them. However, casting a net for tourists is clearly more lucrative than angling for fish for the local boat owners so we were mobbed by guides’ touts from the moment we entered the village. Some leapt out of the bushes to flag us down while motorcyclists raced alongside as they tried to corral us to their boats. But we had been warned, so we relied on our hotel to find us the ‘right’ man. Wrong! Our man was named Jesus, but he was no saint, and the conniving devil persuaded us that a three hour boat ride into a howling gale in the midday sun was the perfect time to see the birds. We certainly saw birds…ibis, herons, pelicans, white pelicans and dozens of others…
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And we even got a close encounter with a very large saltwater croc…
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But the promised flamingos? We should have gone at dawn as we had wanted. No matter, we had time to visit the neighbours in San Felipe and admire their quaint little houses that reminded us of English beach huts…
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And their immaculately tended cemetery where every grave was lovingly adorned with plastic flowers …
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Stay tuned, dear blog reader, for more about our Yucatan Sojourn.

Posted by Hawkson 13:14 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

Shopping - Down Mexico Way

sunny 28 °C

Times are a changing in Mexico and American style big-box stores and glitzy shopping malls are quickly replacing traditional markets and street vendors. The numerous stores and supermarkets are well stocked with a wide variety of local and foreign products and the parking lot at our nearest WalMart (known as Aurrera Bodega) in Progreso is nearly always full, while the recently constructed market hall in the heart of the old town is barely 25% occupied. Here is just a glimpse of the extensive food section at the Mega hypermarket in Merida…
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However, there are still plenty of ‘mom and pop’ corner stores offering everything from fresh tortillas to a bottle of beer, a single cigarette or a pair of cheap plastic flip flops. But, when it comes to poverty, this area of Mexico is not like India and there is little obvious sign of penury. However, there are plenty of people scratching a living by collecting empty cans and bottles or panhandling off the cruise passengers, and there is still a smattering of tuc-tucs and tricycle rickshaws that wouldn’t be out of place in Delhi. Just as in many rapidly developing countries, a segment of society is getting left behind and for many Mexicans it is still a make-do and mend world. There are many old cars and trucks that are held together with chicken wire and bits of corrugated iron, and grimy backstreet stores offering repairs to anything that we would discard in our throw-away world. Everything is fixable here – manual sewing machines, old typewriters, ancient computers, down at heal shoes, clapped out electrical goods, and broken teeth – fixed for a fraction of the price at home. So, if you are in the market for an implant or new pair of choppers – this is the place to be.
While food prices are generally about half of what we pay in Canada, Mexico is not a third world country and non-food items in multinational stores are priced similarly to those throughout North America – some imported products even appear to be more expensive. But clothes – especially women’s clothes – are an exception. It seems that about half of all shops are fashion stores (and a fair proportion of the remainder are pharmacies – no prescriptions necessary) so the competition keeps prices low. The Sunday market in Merida is a good place to buy traditional clothing…
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But the market is a great place for all kinds of tourist trinkets…
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We are not shoppers: we don’t trudge around the streets looking for bargains; we simply buy what we need if the price seems reasonable. But we do enjoy the hubbub of a busy market, complete with local food, street entertainers, and a chance to hone our Spanish as we bargain for the odd item. ..
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“Muy caro” means “How much? You gotta be kidding.”

Posted by Hawkson 17:34 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

The Great Chichén Itzá Bazaar.

sunny 35 °C

For hunters of bargain-basement tourist trinkets in the Yucatan there is no better place than the Chichén Itzá bazaar. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of stalls laden with all manner of Mayan flavoured products shelter from the scorching sun under umbrellas of palms and banyans.
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Enthusiastic stallholders eagerly informed us in broken English that the variously sized and vibrantly painted pottery dishes had each been individually hand decorated by their ancient, arthritic, Mayan grannies. We wanted to believe them, despite the fact that every stall had identical pots which had obviously been knocked out in a pottery manned by robots. However, unlike Mexican DVD’s which all appear to be fakes, some of the goods on display in the market were the real McCoy. But even when we spied a guy sitting behind his stall carving a face mask or a Mexican jaguar, (the cat not the car), we still couldn’t tell the difference...
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Were these tasseled blankets painstakingly hand-woven by Jose’s ageing grandmother in a thatched cottage like this one in rural Yucatan…?
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or were they spun up in a few seconds by one of Mrs. Chow’s relatives in Shanghai? And what of all the embroidered blouses and dresses? Could they possibly all be hand-stitched…?
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But wait. What is that giant stone thing peeking out from behind the clothing stalls?

Goodness - It’s a pyramid, but not just any pyramid. This is the Kukulkan Mayan pyramid which has been named as one of the new 7 wonders of the world. We had been so sidetracked by the plethora of souvenir stands that litter the grounds of Chichén Itzá that we had almost overlooked the pyramid – rated as one of top 100 sights in the world to see before you die. Here’s a clearer shot…
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But where are all the tourists? Buying little plastic models of the pyramid in the market of course. Who wants the real thing when you can take home an exact miniature copy to put on the bookshelf? But there is more to Chichén Itzá than a 1,500 year old pyramid. There’s an ancient observatory…
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An ancient market hall…
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And a ball court where the ancients used a ball made from a human skull wrapped in rubber to play a game similar to basketball, (without the Coca-Cola and hotdogs)

Chichén Itzá is, according to the tourist guides, a must-see place, one of the last great cities of the Mayans, but we can’t help feeling that much of the hype is driven by the thousands of vendors who vie to fleece the tourists and, in the process, turn this important archaeological site into a zoo.

Posted by Hawkson 15:40 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

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