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.)