Epiphany in Mérida

Our penthouse atop the Casa Alvarez

GOING ON a Mexican vacation is much easier for us Mexicans than it is for Gringos.

Here’s why:

1. We don’t need a passport.

2. We don’t need to strip, bend over, and spread our cheeks at the airport.

3. We don’t have to be afraid to travel in Mexico because we know better.

Our Mexican vacation started on January 10 when we took an ETN bus from the nearby state capital. ETN buses are very nice with extra-wide seats and legroom galore.

vacationThe bus only got us to Mexico City where we spent the night at our little condo. The next day we flew on Interjet to Mérida in the Yucatán. Interjet is a very nice airline that we had used once before when we celebrated our 10th anniversary in the communist dictatorship of Cuba.

(Yes, sometimes we do odd things.)

Then we checked into a very nice small hotel called Casa Alvarez where they gave us — without our even asking — the Penthouse Suite! The brother and sister who run the Casa Alvarez are named Alvarez, and they are very nice people.

It was my first visit to Mérida, and I was surprised to see such hordes of tourists. At times I felt I was back in downtown Havana, the only differences being that Mérida is far better maintained, and there were smiling faces due to capitalist prosperity.

We did typical tourist stuff. We rented a car for three of the seven days we were there. We drove to the beach at Progresso on the tip of the Yucatán peninsula. We visited a cenote in a mangrove swamp. Another day, we drove to Uxmal (Ooosh-mal).

Uxmal is my third set of major Mexican pyramids. The other two were Teotihuacán north of Mexico City (2002) and Palenque in the State of Chiapas (1999).

A photo display at the Uxmal visitor center shows shots from the early 20th century, before and during the renovations. This was very educational in that it makes clear that what we see today at these sites are, to a great degree, reconstructions.

These are not just sweep-and-patch jobs.

No matter. They are fascinating. And that main Uxmal pyramid is one tall mother.

Lucky for us, there were very few other visitors on the Thursday we showed up. I doubt that would have been the case at Chichén Itzá, which is why we didn’t go there.

Back in Mérida, the mobs of tourists were off-putting. Tourist mobs are a mixed bag. They help the local economy, sure, but they really screw up the atmosphere.

Near Mérida’s Plaza Grande, you’ll find lots of store employees standing in doors hawking their goods and yapping at you in half-assed English. Buy our guayaberas! Buy our Panama hats! You wanna buy my leetle sister, meester?

Well, not that last one.

But it wasn’t that different from passing hawkers outside strip clubs on Bourbon Street, or outside stores on Puerto Vallarta’s flashy, hyper-touristy malecón.

* * * *

One fine afternoon I was sitting alone on a bench in Mérida’s central plaza while my child bride shopped. The January air was cool, and lovely Latinas walked by. Out of the blue, it hit me. A shocking epiphany!

* * * *

The Mérida epiphany

I had been there before. Not to Mérida specifically, of course, but something similar, very similar. A light bulb blazed right there over my head, a revelation from on high.

All Mexican colonial cities are basically the same.

If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. Why repeat yourself? Of course, there are differences, but they’re mostly trivial details, often having to do with topography.

I was sitting in the plaza of Mérida, but it could just as well have been a large plaza in Guanajuato, Mexico City,  Guadalajara, San Miguel de Allende, Taxco, Zacatecas, Puebla, Morelia, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, all of which I have visited.

But not just Mexican colonial cities. Also, San Juan, Puerto Rico; Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; Havana, and so on. The Spanish came, and they built cities, large and small, in the New World, and they built them from the same template.

The differences are in the details. Mérida, for example, will melt the skin off your bones during much of the year. Mexico City and Guadalajara are huge. Zacatecas looks more like Spain than Mexico. Taxco has silver. San Miguel has hordes of goofy, old Gringos with ponytails, and I’m talking about the guys.

But if you’re dropped onto a major plaza in any colonial city, you’d be hard-pressed to rapidly identify the town from your wrought-iron bench.

The “charming” part of colonial cities is right downtown, El Centro. On the outskirts, you will invariably find cinderblock shacks but also modern residences. You will find upscale shopping in Gringo big-box stores like Costco, Sears and Best Buy.

You will find Burger Kings, T.G.I.F Friday’s, Chili’s, Subways, Sirloin Stockades, IHOPs, and many other eateries of that ilk, courtesy of Gringo enterprise, God bless it.

As the epiphany fell on me, I thought: Why am I spending so much lucre and time to come here when I can just go downtown where I live and see the same thing?

No more of this. Better to visit Paris.

* * * *

(Note: Here are two restaurant recommendations. First, in Mérida, on Calle 62, just two or three blocks north of the Plaza Grande, is the Chaya Maya. Second, a seafood restaurant the name of which I forget, but it’s the first restaurant you see on entering Progresso’s one-way malecón, and it’s directly next door to La Casa de Pastel, where Pedro Infante, the late Mexican movie star once spent time with his girlfriend. Great grub at both.)

31 thoughts on “Epiphany in Mérida

  1. You made the right decision by going to Uxmal and skipping Chichen Itza. Did you go to Izamal? I thought Merida was distinctive among colonial cities, if for nothing more than the Paseo Montejo and that vaguely Cuban air.


    1. Red Shoes: We almost went to Izamal, but did not. And yes, the Paseo Montejo does lend Mérida a different air. It was, more than anything, what reminded me of Havana.


  2. “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. Why repeat yourself? ”
    Yup! Also pretty much the same story in Amerika – except different same cities. Vacation = a hammock at home with a good book and a cocktail.


    1. Señor Calypso: While I agree with you to a point, I think there is far more difference between, say, San Antonio and Atlanta or Miami and Chicago that one finds between Mexican colonial cities.

      Since Paris ain’t gonna happen (I was there just once, in 1976), I think the next couple of years will see our cash going to more practical matters here at home. Yes, and a good book and cocktail except my cocktail will be of the virgin variety.

      In another three years, we will likely visit the U.S. again. Not soon because I don’t want to set foot in Obama’s America. It’s a matter of principle. I want to hop right over his eight miserable years.

      Now stop it right now with that AmeriKa business. You sound like an aging hippie. But … hold on … you are!

      No matter. I accept you.


    1. Debi: Well, maybe I shoulda. But how many tourists know anyone there? Perhaps on some level I wanted the genuine tourist experience.

      I was very surprised at the tourist level and influence. Didn’t care for it at all. The weather was nice, though. We had initially intended to be there last March. Even had the hotel reservations and plane tickets paid for, but my wife came down with a really nasty head cold two days before the departure, so we cancelled everything. Probably was a blessing in disguise because I think it starts to stoke up the furnace thereabouts in March.


  3. “Be it ever so hu-umble, there’s no-o place like home.”

    On Tuesday, we got back from an 18 day trip to Oaxaca, also via Mexico City. As you may imagine, we ate our way through the city. But there was also daily swimming, in a heated, roofed pool for the Señora, long long walks and two great, hour long massages for me. We saw tourists, but being a tolerant sort of guy, I paid them little attention, except for a pair of doozies, on our last morning in Oaxaca. http://tinyurl.com/qfhon7s

    Don Cuevas


      1. Of course we ate our way through the city. That is what we do well. Well we did go to several restaurants two or three times. Given a couple of more weeks, we would have nearly covered the culinary highlights.

        As for you, mi viejo, what were you in Mérida, if not tourists? Ambassadors Plenipotentiaries or something?

        And these lines: HAH!
        “1. We don’t need a passport.

        2. We don’t need to strip, bend over, and spread our cheeks at the airport.” (Except if you draw the undue attention of the airport security people.)

        Well, neither do we, and we are merely humble Residentes Permanentes.

        Gracias, we were and are happy.

        Don Cuevas


  4. I have not yet tired of Mexico’s colonial cities. But you know how I like to compare and analyze. They still fascinate me — probably because there are no buildings in Melaque older than I am.

    That may explain, though, why I am off to Spain and France in August and September, and to the Mediterranean lands in May and June.

    As far as archaeological sites go, I love them all. Well, not Chichen Itza with its Disneyland atmosphere.


    1. Steve: I have not tired of our colonial cities either. Quite the contrary. I am quite fond of the one in which I live, for instance. But I see this stuff daily, and it’s been going on 14 years now. The newness, the “magic” wears off, and it becomes the norm. And it certainly makes not a lick of good sense to fly across the country simply to see it sitting on a different patch of real estate. Don’t know why this has not dawned on me sooner. Color me slow.

      You reinforce the wisdom of my decision not to visit Chichén Itzá.


    1. Christine: Those are my travel duds. Both the pants and the shirt are some high-tech, light material that you hardly feel. Plus, you can wash it in the evening, and it’s quite dry by dawn. I wore it every day. It’s reportedly a sun-block fabric too. I am very sensitive to the sun, having had low-grade skin cancers about 30 times.

      Nope, did not swim in the cenote. When we set out that morning in the rental car we did not know we would be there, so no swim suit with us.

      The cenote reminded me of a spring-fed swimming hole in the woods not far from my maternal grandparents’ farm in southwest Georgia. My sister and I swam there a lot in our young years. We just did not call it a cenote. We called it a swimming hole.


        1. Christine: My online translator says cenote means sinkhole. I’m not sure that’s entirely correct. If I’m not mistaken, cenotes are invariably spring-fed. I think sinkhole is a broader concept.


    1. Patzman: Yes, we are famous for that odd thing. However, as you know, there is a church just one block up the hill. Plus, there is (or was) one on the small plaza. It’s the library now.


  5. I don’t think I would like Merida. I don’t like places where one is going to melt. I haven’t tired of Central America or Mexico yet. However, I am setting off to a different continent this year – Africa.


    1. Laurie: Merida, from what I saw on the brief visit, just has two major flaws. Too much tourism, which is good for the economy, but not so much for the downtown ambiance. And even worse, the heat much of the year. I blessedly dodged it by going in January. It was delightful. I cannot imagine living there year-round. I loathe heat.

      Hope you don’t get scalped in Africa. It’s one continent I have never had the slightest interest in visiting. Not even a smidgen.


  6. Many places have their similarities, but it’s the time spent that is different. It sounds like you and your señora had a good time.


  7. Well, it’s true that Mexican Colonial Cities are built around a pretty similar template — big main square with big main church, along with other squares — they all look different, have different kinds of buildings, and most importantly, different people with a different vibe. But as you note in the comments, you’ve definitely been soaking up “ye olde Mexico” for some time now, so these cities obviously will have less appeal to you than to a foreigner or someone who lives in a place like Monterrey or Cancún, both of which are pretty modern.

    So is La Guapa Señora going to be happy with this new no-more-colonial-cities plan?


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Which is colonial with churches and plazas too, but very different than anything in Mexico.


    1. Kim: They all look different in the details. If you stand back and look, they’re pretty much the same. At least, that’s my take. All great places to see, but all very similar.

      As for my bride’s take on this thing, she has not ventured one.


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