Not in the Hernán Cortés sense of course, but rather Mérida is the next stop on our journey through this country that is Mexico.
Greeny was feeling decidedly unwell the day we left Holbox, so from Chiquila, we took a taxi directly to Mérida rather than the return journey (via Cancun) on the Hades Express . As a result we got 4 hours of pure unadulterated, air-conditioned comfort, as opposed to 9 hours of sweaty hell.
We reached the centre of town and after negotiating the street grid system (me that is, not the taxi driver), we arrived at what is to be our home for the next 3 weeks. We dumped our bags in the grand entrance hall and were shown around by our lovely neighbour (and part-time property manager) Nora. The house is quite something, a sprawling, faded old colonial gem that looks completely nondescript from the outside. It’s bloody huge, with 5 large bedrooms, 4 reception rooms, an inner courtyard complete with (non-working) fountain, 18ft high ceilings throughout and a mahoosive pool.
This faded charm costs the princely sum of £714 for the month.
We fell in love immediately, an unfortunately all too brief affair that lasted only until the next morning when we woke up to realise that we had all been absolutely ravaged by MOSQUITOES. When I say all, I mean everyone apart from Belle. She had slept peacefully and had been left well alone, receiving only 1 or 2 Mozzy love-taps during the night- hardly a mark on her.
Luca and Greeny on the other hand, had been gorged upon Henry the Eighth style, whilst I was somewhere in the middle. Poor Luca came off worse with a face that resembled a heavily acned teenager.
This situation was made worse by the complete lack of mosquito nets at the property- despite the pictures on the website showing them and the welcome pack mentioning them. The delightful American owner was completely unrepentant when we complained. “Well it’s Mexico, what do you expect”, was her initial response. When I explained that we’d been in Mexico for a while now, and these Mosquitoes were something quite different, she retorted “Well I did mention the Mosquitoes in the Welcome Pack” .
I asked her if she expected visitors to her property to bring their own mosquito nets (along with almost everything else I might add, as the house was devoid of any basic provisions at all). Needless to say, she finally got the message and the next night our beds had makeshift nets (thanks to our neighbour) and the problem was lessened although somehow, despite all manner of precautions the little bastards still manage to get you.
So what of Mérida itself?
Well, we went out to sample the city the very evening we arrived. Within 5 minutes of hitting the streets there was a huge grin on my face, this is the real Mexico (Holbox and to a lesser degree Playa were in truth, parodies), this is what I’ve come to see and experience on this trip.
People, noise, hustle, bustle, lights, the smell of taco stands wafting through the early evening air, music and ice cold air-con blasting out of shops as you walk past.
Walking through the streets you feel an electric buzz in the atmosphere, a busy city getting ready for night-time. It’s full on sensory overload and I love it.
We headed towards the Plaza Grande aka El Zocalo in Centro Historico and you immediately get the feeling of being stuck in a time warp. It was just like looking at the pictures my Dad took of his travels in the 60’s. Fifty years on, you get the impression that not much has really changed. The fading concrete facades, shop signs with old-fashioned fonts and designs, little shops catering for specific needs. A bread shop, a model toy shop, a shoe shop with a guy making leather shoes inside , a little restaurant, a shop devoted to knock-off DVDs and music, queues of people buying school uniforms from another.
No rampant modernisation here, no relentless commercialism, or corporatism.
In the UK that Petrol station would sell a thousand and one other items, trying to squeeze maximum revenue from every square inch. Here it sells petrol and employs people to fill up your tank and clean your screen when they’re done. Want some fags? Go to the shop that sells fags. Want some bread? Great, there’s a bread shop down the road.
You get the sense (on first glance at least) that there is a different set of values in operation here. It’s not all about having the next/best/newest thing, or maximum profit/ shareholder returns and there’s something to be said for that way of living. It seems like society tries to make room for everyone, at least to have a job to try to make a living.
Which method is best?
The key question I guess is are people happier?
Haven’t a clue about that either, sorry.
The Mexicans are a bit like their houses, the outside gives no clue to what’s going on in the inside. It’s a place of contrasts, a modern day economic powerhouse (it will be firmly in the top 10 world economies by 2050), looking forward, with one foot still in the 3rd world and the other in its rich historical past.
The more commercial aspect of life exists of course, and Mérida has all the modern elements that you’d expect from a city of c.1m people (shopping malls, huge supermarkets, new housing developments) but the Centro Historico and much of the city thankfully, seems to be devoid of that.
Merida was once a Mayan city named T’ho. The Spanish arrived, immediately knocked down the main temple, using the blocks to build a Cathedral (the oldest in Latin America) and renamed the city Mérida.
POW! They didn’t muck about them Conquistadors fellas.
So the Zocalo (main square) has a familiar European feel to it albeit with a Mexican twist.
Still in Centro Historico, and a few blocks away from the shops and Zocalo are to be found the identikit houses (this is where we are staying). Same facade, same height, same structure-individualised only by colour, small design details, state of dilapidation, and fancy wrought iron window grilles.
At least that’s from the outside, the true character, as with the city itself, lies behind the sterile frontage.
Merida is quite a hard place in some ways, most notably with the weather, which at this time of year can be particularly brutal.
It’s incredibly and uncomfortably hot during the day, bar far the hottest place we have visited, and most evenings there is some rain. On more than one occasion this rain has turned into a hardcore storm.
A grumbling baritone drum-roll in the distance is your first warning sign, then the wind picks up and the sky begins to darken- the storm is about to begin. Thunderclaps that startle you with their sheer power, lightning that seems to illuminate the entire sky for an instant, and rain, rain that falls so hard you think it will never stop.
One such evening the rain decided to pay the inside of the dining room a visit.
Another evening we were stranded in a restaurant when the storm began. The worst one yet as it turned out, at one point it sounded as if the sky was trying to tear a hole in itself right above our heads- we absolutely
shat ourselves jumped out of our skin.
Maybe thanks to this evening rain the nights are mercifully cool and we’ve found it’s the best time for us to walk around and explore this city.
On our first day we paid a visit to the local market- a huge two storied affair that covers an entire block- to buy some provisions. You can find anything here, all manner of exotic fruits and spices, live animals (pets or lunch- I’m not completely sure which), people selling clothes, jewellery, old vintage cameras and equipment and various stands serving food.
In our younger more adventurous years we would have sat down at one of said food stands and tucked in without a moments thought. Mindful these days, of hygiene and delicate child stomachs, we decided to give these a wide berth. I think that we need to get over this mental obstacle… the food at these places is tasty and cheap, we need to be brave and take the plunge.
EDIT: Since I started writing this we have visited a couple of Taco stands that were quite delicious, exceedingly cheap, with no stomach/ bowel mishaps!
The market was a real eye opener and a window into the everyday life of the people and the city. This is what I like about slower travelling, you get to experience a bit more of the life of a place. Often time constraints render your visit something of a visual tick-box exercise. seen that, done that, been there, right let’s move on.
There is an element of that of course but, by staying put and just living for a bit you get to feel something of the real rhythm of a place.
Another key factor I’ve realised is that comfort is an important element to the whole experience (obvious I know). If home doesn’t feel homely then the experience is in danger of becoming tainted.
After love at first sight, the house actually became a bit of an issue. The Mozzies, suspected bedbugs, constantly being bitten, no hot water, quite a few times no water at all, poor/sporadic internet connection, kids getting an ear infection from the less than 100% clean pool. But, it’s not a holiday for us, it’s about living in these places and experiencing them. That’s why we came, that’s why we are travelling slowly,warts and all, you have to see beyond the niggling issues and just get on with it.
Mérida has a lot to be getting on with too. There is a fantastic market in the Zocalo on Sundays where artisan goods can be found, all are cheap, some are really beautiful and well made.
She went for that one! Looks good, no?
Hand made, lovely quality, fits the ‘Jack Pumpkin’ like a glove and cost 70 MNX Pesos- £3.18.
The local council do a great job with the City. They make it easy to get around and do stuff. WiFi in the parks and public squares is free, almost all museums and galleries are free too.
We went to the Anthropological one and there was a pottery exhibition on.
There are always musical and theatre events and every night, dotted in different places around the city are free events that showcase and preserve the traditional way of life here, from Mayan Pelota game re-enactment to traditional singing and dancing.
It’s not just some trumped up tourist gimmick to keep ’em coming either. The traditional dance night has been going in the same place since 1965. Although it was rather amusing to see every single one of these dancers, in their traditional garb, upon finishing twirling and whirling, sit down, get their smartphones out and start texting/ whatsapping / surfing the net! (what was I saying earlier about different set of values!?)
The food here is good too and very reasonably priced indeed. We’ve eaten traditional Yucatan fare, food from Oaxaca, Tacos (natch), classic Mexican, Thai, Italian and believe it or not we stumbled upon a really tasty Korean restaurant. Two of the three best food experiences were stumbled upon and were not in any guide or on any review site- get back in your hutch Trip Adviser (Advisor).
Follow your nose, keep your eyes peeled and trust your gut!
The third best experience was a fabulous Taco stand at one of the little local squares dotted around town which we found out about by reading a fabulously acerbic US interior designer’s blog. The lady only opens her stand on a Sunday, bright and early, and she closes when she runs out of food. It was a delicious lunch, and including drinks, came in at £7 for us all.
A bargaino and no mistake.
We leave for Oaxaca on Sunday (24th), so speak soon and take care.
The Tortilla Time Travellers.
Random other stuff from our time in Mérida.
are pretty cool…
I saw this sign and realised that I needed to get mine cut, it was about time.But rather than the fancy place pictured, I went for the cheaper option, just around the corner from our house. A hairdressers-cum-beauty parlour as it turned out.
I walked in, there were 3 people in the family run ‘salon’. A lady, her hubby and kid. As I gestured to my head and said “cortes” (still working on my Spanish as you can probably tell) the lady looked up, and put here hubby’s bare feet down- she was giving him a pedicure in between clients. Without a moments pause she set to work on my Grade 1 all over.
50 MXN (£2.27) for the haircut, her husband’s foot epidermis was thrown in for free.
We are managing to relax and enjoy ourselves (hard to imagine I know)
Remember the Piano Bars in Holbox?
I reckon I’ve found one of the resident entertainers.
We were having a wander and came across an old junk shop guarded by this fella…
It had a pretty cool sign though.
We saw this place, thought it looked great and decided to stop for a drink. It said Cafe/ Bar/ Restaurant.
We ordered an expresso and a beer, they had neither.