15-22 Dec 2016. We travel by bus from Playa del Carmen to Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan. We’ve rented an Airbnb apartment in Merida but are told to go to the home of the renter first. We climb into a taxi at the bus station and hand the driver a piece of paper with the address written on it. It looks like this: Calle 51 517 70 x 72
It’s totally confusing. Later we find out that there is a logical pattern to the numbered streets. All north-south streets are even numbers; all east-west streets are odd numbers. Thus the above address means house number 517 on street number 51, between streets 70 and 72. Once you understand how it works it all makes sense, and soon we become quite nonchalant when giving instructions to taxi drivers.
The woman who has rented us the apartment is ill so we are met by a teenage boy with no English. We follow him through the streets, trundling our cases over rough sidewalks, arriving after about five minutes at a tall wooden door in a blank white wall. The door has an equally tall metal gate in front of it. He unlocks the gate and the door and we step into the most wonderful shabby-chic Spanish colonial house. It has twenty-foot beamed ceilings, and tiled floors, and a courtyard garden out back. There’s a huge “medieval” stone seat in the bathroom, and the owner’s paintings on all the walls. It’s thoroughly charming.
The boy shows us around. We have enough Spanish to grasp most of what he tells us, except where to find grocery stores. Later we discover that we’d really rather not use any of the pots, tableware, and cutlery in the kitchen until we’ve washed them all first. And there are holes in the screen to the garden so I’m dinner for mosquitoes every day until I cave and slather myself in bug dope.
Using Google we discover there is a Mega in Merida. It’s a supermarket chain we’re familiar with from our time in San Miguel de Allende and Playa del Carmen. Later that first afternoon we take a taxi to Mega, do a huge grocery shop, and then go out onto the street expecting to get a taxi home the way we always did in Playa and SMA. In SMA taxis would frequently pull into the Mega parking lot, and in Playa they would always be lined up so we never had to wait for one.
There is an attendant in the Mega parking lot in Merida, but no taxis. We ask for the best place to get a taxi. He points towards the street. We are facing two major four-lane roads overflowing with rush-hour traffic. There are infrequent taxis going by and all those we see are occupado. For twenty minutes the man tries to help us flag down a taxi, but to no avail. We decide to go back into the store and ask the woman at the service counter to phone us a cab. She spends five minutes or more on the phone only to tell us that it’s not possible. We are truly stranded. We have no idea where we are really. We certainly have no idea how to get home by public transport.
Back outside the parking lot attendant continues to help us flag down a cab. After another twenty minutes one finally pulls up in front of us. The trunk pops open and the driver gets out of the car. I’ve already started loading our groceries into the trunk. He says to me Señor Ortega? No, I say, as I continue loading groceries. Possession is nine tenths of the law and all our groceries are in the trunk. After some rapid-fire discussion with the parking lot attendant the driver agrees to take us home. With great relief we tip the parking lot attendant and climb into the cab. Apparently Señor Ortega had been able to phone for a cab, and I hope one arrived for him eventually.
All in all it is not an auspicious start to our week in Merida.
Our apartment is about a twenty-minute walk from the centre through mostly deserted streets. A couple of them look like this.
The rest are all in the same traditional Spanish colonial style but much shabbier with peeling and very faded paint. It’s not unattractive, but there is little feeling of life on the streets in our neighbourhood. It feels almost deserted. Everyone is enclosed in privacy behind solid walls, and traffic is sparse.
On Friday evening, and again on Sunday evening we go to the zocalo, or town-square, looking for life. There are plenty of people around but not much happening, although on Sunday night there is a group of kids showing off their hip hop moves to loud music. We watch for a while entranced by their athleticism and bravado.
On Saturday night we go for a stroll along the imposing Paseo de Montejo. It was built during Merida’s prime at the end of the 19th century to emulate the grand boulevards of Europe like the Champs Elysées, and the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. Here the wealthy families built their mansions when Merida flourished from the sisal trade. Sisal was used for making ropes but with the invention of artificial fibres the wealth of the city declined, leaving behind this remnant of a more affluent time.
Christmas decorations on the way to Paseo de Montejo,
some unexpected street art,
and some lovely small green spaces in the central core.
The zocalo in Merida is very typical of Spanish colonial towns: a wide green square where people come to meet, to hang out, to catch up on gossip, to while away the time with friends and neighbours, sitting in the shade of practically the only trees in town. Almost always on one side of the zocalo is the cathedral, and on the other three sides colonnaded government buildings with banks, cafes, and restaurants at street level.
On one side of the zocalo is La Casa de Montejo built in 1549 and now a museum. We wander slowly through the opulent rooms that are displayed as they would have been when the Montejo family lived there.
One day passing by in a taxi I see this charming plant shop.
The zocalo, and the beautiful architecture, and the lovely green spaces are also very charming, but nevertheless we are not charmed by Merida.
There are a number of things about Merida that leave us disappointed. We are outside the central core and walking is very painful for me. We don’t feel like we can just set out on a long walk exploring the town. Taxis are always a problem. I suppose we’ve been spoiled by the mad abundance of taxis in SMA and Playa del Carmen where you get one within seconds. In Merida it almost always takes us ten minutes or more, and feels like a crapshoot as to whether or not one will come by on the almost deserted streets. I know ten minutes is nothing, but we are expecting it to be easier so it is an adjustment, and always feels faintly problematic.
I read a brilliant account of the Merida markets. This sentence sums it up: It was chaos. Mérida had taken the jigsaw puzzle called “Shopping”, hacked up the pieces with scissors, stuffed them into a piñata, and then hit it with a rocket launcher. So of course I want to go to the markets! We wander around for a while, but again we are disappointed. I suppose I’m not in a mood to be much pleased by anything. I was hoping for, expecting, something like the Tlacolula market, something more exotic, more indigenous. Despite my lack of enthusiasm I still find plenty worth photographing though I feel little inspiration or confidence.
If there is no life on the streets in our neighbourhood, we certainly find it in and around the markets. The streets are overflowing with people, heaving humanity all full of life and errands and Christmas shopping.
Don especially is looking forward to going to the Museum of the Mayan World. This is his Trip Advisor review:
The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is located a long taxi ride from the centre of Merida. My wife and I had been looking forward to getting a primer of Mayan history before going to visit some of the Mayan cities like Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, but the Gran Museo failed to provide that. The one video we saw was in Spanish only, and the general layout of the museum was not helpful towards our goal of learning more about Mayan history. After we finished seeing the exhibits we wanted to have a coffee, but the coffee bar, which is hidden away on the 4th floor, was closed. Overall it was a big disappointment.
I suppose I am wanting to see something like the full-size dioramas of the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt that really brought to life the traditional lifestyle of the Nubians.
We very much want to see the flocks of flamingoes at Celestún, an easy day-trip from Merida. I’ve read online that some tours, after a two-hour journey from Merida, only include one hour on the water watching the flamingoes and other birds, and exploring the mangrove swamps. Don finds the Nomadis Hostel, and a man at the reception desk there speaks good English. He can book a tour for us. I ask him first will he phone to confirm that there will be more than an hour on the water. After phoning he assures us that we’ll be out in the boat for two or two and a half hours. We are delighted and book the trip. But no. We are only out on the water for one hour and are then taken to have lunch and play on the beach at Celestún for two hours. It’s pleasant enough but not what we’d signed up for.
The woman who owns the apartment is not well, and we understand this, but we nevertheless feel a bit abandoned, and when we phone to ask her to order a taxi for us to get back to the bus station on our final day in Merida we can’t get her to understand even though we’ve had previous conversations with her in English. So we walk to the Nomadis Hostel and asked if they’ll phone for a taxi for us, and they basically say it can’t be done, and that the taxi company they use wouldn’t necessarily be reliable. So on our last day we trundle our cases to the nearest intersection and wait. Hopefully. Anxiously. Trusting as best we can. Sure enough within less than 10 minutes a taxi appears and gets us to the bus station in plenty of time.
We ride the bus to Valladolid, a two-hour journey.
Over the week in Merida my head becomes increasingly itchy. I put it down to mosquito bites, and resist scratching. Finally in the bathroom in Valladolid there is enough light for me to see it is not mosquito bites but some heinous rash, all over my head. Ewwwww. I can only think it came from the pillow in Merida. Don carries an anti-allergy pillowcase with him and it probably saved him from the same fate. Thank God it’s not contagious. I swab my head daily with antiseptic shampoo. It takes a week to wash Merida out of my hair.
And finally – that first evening in Valladolid I discover I’ve left not only my spare camera battery, but also the battery charger plugged into a wall socket in the house in Merida! As soon as I realize what I’ve done I get that sinking feeling. We all know that expression, but it’s the first time for me that I actually feel it. There is a visceral sense of sinking in my guts. I didn’t know it could be so literal. So we spend our first full day in Valladolid on the bus to and from Merida to retrieve them. Merida couldn’t please us, and then it didn’t want to let us go.
Next post: From Valladolid we do an overnight trip to Rio Lagartos and this time we get to spend three hours on the water. Flamingoes! Pelicans! Crocodiles! Yeah!
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.