Mérida, México

IMG_3892After relaxing in Tulum for a week, it was time to move up to the big city, Mérida.  We had booked eight nights into Nomadas hostel, as I wanted us to get into a hostel atmosphere to meet other people and find out what was going on for the Día de los Muertos festivities in the big city, our whole reason for coming this way. My mom had been to Merida recently and raved about it so we figured why not? Merida is the safest city in Mexico.  And the Yucatan, the state of which it is the capital, is the safest of the 32 states in Mexico, so that also made it an easy choice for a place to spend the big festival!

Our bus from Tulum was uneventful other than me feeling a little nauseous and wondering if I’d suddenly developed motion sickness after all these years. It sat with me like a pit in the bottom of my stomach the entire ride, and got quite terrible near the end. I lost motor control and couldn’t even open my purse to look at my phone to see if we were near our stop. I had no energy, no strength whatsoever, I felt like I was going to pass out or just topple over, unable to move. At one point I fell asleep against Travis’s shoulder, perhaps worn out from the hours of feeling unwell, and perhaps as a coping mechanism to not feel anything at all. Travis helped get my bag off and I shuffled off behind everyone else, happy to have my feet touch the ground and I sat off to the side, deep breathing and fanning myself while Travis waited for the rest of our bags. We hailed a cab and thankfully I was already starting to feel a touch better. It was a short ride to our hostel but our driver was sweet (and patient!) as we chattered away in my broken Spanish, and I translated for Travis.

Once we got settled in, we wandered around the streets and found ourselves in Santa Ana square. Every square in the city, which is every few blocks, is marked by and thus named after a church.  We found a little market set up in Santa Ana square that was celebrating Oaxacan culture (which the government of Canada was a sponsor of!).  There were food stands everywhere, a huge stage for musical concerts and dancing, and booths selling all kinds of wares and treats: tequila ice cream, Oaxacan cheese, mole of every kind imaginable, rompope (similar to eggnog) jelly candy,  handcrafted purses, silver jewelry, and free samples of everything to draw you in. We found ourselves starving and drawn into one of the surrounding food markets and as we were unfamiliar with the food in Mexico, we just sat down and poured over a menu, trying to figure out what was what and finally ordered a delicious dinner of empanadas and panuchos (traditional Yucateacan food of tortillas sliced open, filled with bean paste, fried, and then topped with meat and vegetables). Not realizing the potency of the hot sauce, we put a touch too much and felt the burn for over an hour after lingering on our tender unaccustomed lips.  After dinner, we wandered over to the stage area and saw that an orchestra was setting up! We grabbed some front row seats, but had about an hour to wait until the show started. Not wanting to lose our great seats, I stuck around while Travis ran back to the hostel to grab me a sweater as I didn’t realize it cooled down so much in Merida in the evening. That being said, I soon found out that while it does cool a bit, that night was exceptionally cooler, and usually you don’t need a sweater in the evenings in Merida! The show was phenomenal. Our first night in the city and we stumble on a free full Yucatecan Orchestra?! Each song featured a new singer who was amazing! My favourite was always the line of guitar players who stood up whenever they played their part. It was so exciting to listen to an orchestra of such different music than I’m used to when I think of the word ‘orchestra’. Needless to say, Merida won us over in that first night!

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However… the first night in the hostel was… not the best. In fact, it ranked among some of my very worst, which is saying something, as I’ve stayed in many a hostel and many a questionable hostel at that! The hostel itself is great, don’t get me wrong, but the rooms need some work (no soap, nothing to dry your hands on, no plug ins, lumpy pillows etc.). And we just happened to get the worst room of the bunch. It was a four bed dorm, the bottom bunks being doubles, which is lovely, however our dorm was immediately beside the main common outdoor area, where everyone ate their meals, and hung out together and smoked. Our room had a huge screen in place of a window so every sound and every bit of cigarette smoke pooled into our room from the main common area. That night, some Frenchmen were outside our rooms until 5am chain smoking and talking animatedly. The smell and sounds, despite earplugs and my lavender pouch, kept me and most others awake all night. I felt horrible that this was Travis’s first hostel experience… oh dear! So the next morning we talked to the front desk and got bumped back one room so we would be a little bit more sheltered from both the noise and smells of the common area and this proved to make a much more enjoyable experience, even though we lost the lovely double bunk.

The nice thing about travel is that even if you have an awful sleepless night, it doesn’t ruin you the next day. We had no plans but to explore, and so the lack of sleep didn’t even affect us that much, we were happy and excited to be in a new city and ready to explore! Mérida is a beautiful city and I see why everyone loves it so much. We were staying in the heart of colonial downtown which is undergoing lots of restoration work to resurface the beautiful facades of the colonial architecture to keep it looking fresh. On every street you were sure to see groups of men working hard in the blistering sun, scraping old paint off, repairing damaged areas and applying fresh paint.

Within a day or two at the hostel we had made a couple of lovely friends, Kevin and Judy, a couple our parents age who we took to instantly. The funny thing is, back home, my parents were always our best friends, we hung out with them often and always preferred their company – I guess you could say we are old souls at heart! It’s also nice when you’re travelling to be reminded of your parents, that old familiar family love!  It was our luck to have met them since they have been coming to Mexico for 30 years and more recently to Mérida for the last few years for Día de los Muertos, so they knew just what was going on! So over the next couple of days we enjoyed the magical festivities of Día de los Muertos (of Festival de las Animas as they call it in the Yucatan).  You can read about our experience of Día de los Muertos here!

Travis and I settled in quickly to our little neighbourhood in Mérida. We found a remarkable little gelato place called Pola Gelato just two blocks away and ensured we made a nightly stop here for dessert. Travis for his Pumpkin gelato affogato, and me for an exciting new combination of two flavours each night. From salted caramel and mascarpone, to mojito and maracuya (passionfruit), to oatmeal cookie and marzipan – the flavours and options were endless and we went so often we must have tried nearly all they had to offer!

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Mole, one of México’s greatest inventions!

We would walk the easy five minute juant to Santa Ana Oaxacan market daily to get these amazing huge quesadillas and flautas (similar to taquitos) and empanadas and oh yes – the mole! This was where we first tried it and fell head over heels in love with it! The sweetness, the spiciness, the aromatic chocolatey-ness of it all! One Sunday we wandered to the main square of the city, only a few blocks from our hostel, and had lunch with Kevin and Judy as Sunday’s are when the food market is on.  We had been told by Daniel, the chef at the hostel, to be sure to try the cochinita pibil sandwiches, which is a savoury sandwich of shredded fatty pork in a traditional sauce of citrus marinade and anatto, spread on a fluffy white bun, topped with your own addition of pickled onions and and hot sauce.  We devoured them in mere seconds and of course, ordered another round because one is not enough! It’s hard to pick where to eat at the Sunday market because there are so many options offering much the same, so we just tried to find one that had lots of locals sitting around it. It didn’t disappoint!

We made the trek out to Progresso beach one day by bus which wasn’t too complicated – the hostel told us where to catch the bus, however, I think a couple went passed us without stopping and one finally did only because a nice local señor hailed it down for us! The beach is nothing special; the town is designed to feed off America tourists coming in from cruise ships from Texas, so it’s a little tacky, but we found some chairs we could rent at a much too high price, but we were waited on by Diego hand and foot and Travis got a free beer out of it. It was a hot and sunny day so we lounged, soaked up the sun and read our books beach side. Some Texans came and sat directly next to us, so close that we were now basically sitting with them – huffing and puffing their chain smoking in our faces, and as we had had enough of that the night before at the hostel, we moved immediately. It was a marvel to watch the Texan’s – they literally bought every single thing that was hawked at them! The silliest gimmicks and they forked over their cash without hesitation. So needless to say, business was good for Progresso! I guess that kind of mindless spending will always shock the frugal backpacker! We wanted to find food, so we left the main drag where it would be most expensive and went to a little joint called Coco something or other and ordered way too much food… we just weren’t sure about portion sizes yet, so we ended up over ordering. We got the pescado empanizado (breaded fish), tacos camirones (shrimp tacos) and the frijoles y queso nachos! And as usual, a cold coca cola. It was all oh so delicious!

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Hawking their wares on Progreso Beach

After spending the next several days in town it was time to venture out of the city and see some of the Yucatan’s renowned cenotes. Judy and Kevin were talking about going to San Ignacio cenote, one they’d never been to before, so we asked to tag along. We walked about 20 minutes out of the heart of the old centre to where we could catch our collectivo (van that seats about 15 people) and began to see what life was like outside the tourist hub. Judy asked around and we were pointed in the right direction and only had to wait 10 minutes or so before the van filled up and we were on our way. It was only a half hour ride to the small town of Chocola. After we disembarked the van, we approached a man on a moto taxi and got a price of five pesos per person to take us to the centote. The moto taxi’s are always an adventure – the back end of motorcycle has been attached to a cart that can seat four people in front. How he saw where he was going, I have no idea, but we made it safe and sound!

We had started our trek early enough that we were the first people that day to the cenote! Which was nice because it’s quite a small one, completely underground! It was lit by artificial lighting so you can see all around the cave, and we jumped right in to explore the depths! We were at first quite skittish near the jet black edges, where the rocks drop away and lead to an underground river and another cenote, who knows where. It’s nothing but a black abyss, and your mind plays tricks on you, and you wonder what could be lurking down there. So at first we stayed away from the dark edges, playing in the shallower areas, but eventually we grew braver and explored more. Travis and I turned into little children, swimming and splashing and having the time of our lives! We started to see how deep we could dive down, and then started throwing a peso down to retrieve. I never was good at holding my breath with my tiny lungs, but it was fun to keep diving and trying to hold it longer, and depressurize our ears as we got to the bottom. We were in a world of our own, on a mission to retrieve the peso which, after one successful run, was turning out to be an impossible feat. After over an hour of play in the small cenote we finally admitted defeat and went out to join Judy and Kevin who had left the cave a while ago to get some sun. The grounds to the place were beautiful – a small refreshing pool, a small farm full of pigs and turkeys and chickens, a little restaurant, several areas for eating and a small orchard of orange trees. We took a little walk through the surrounding orange trees and found a hapless butterfly, unmoving, suspended seemingly in midair. It took me a moment to notice the fine gossamer holding the poor thing and I followed the thread upwards to a large spiders web with a hungry arachnid waiting for its prey to fall to exhaustion. I had to intervene. I know it’s not right to play god, the spider has to eat too, but, today was the day of the butterfly! I carefully took a stick and finally got the sticky thread to release the beautiful butterfly and she flew off to safety! Horrah!

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Kevin, Judy, our driver and I (Travis on the other side) heading to the cenote!

We spent a couple more days in Merida, just relaxing and eating.  We found a phenomenal little pizza joint called Raffaelo’s just two blocks away and had a nice Italian date night. The garlic bread is some of the best I have ever had. The pizza was very traditional Italian; perfectly cooked in a stone oven with a thin crispy yet chewy crust. It was divine and a nice break from the daily feast of Mexican food we’d been eating! We took several cooking classes in the evenings with Daniel at the hostel which were offered for free, and for only 35 pesos you could eat the meal that you helped prepare so it was a nice cheap way to eat delicious home cooked Mexican food! One thing I told myself I had to do this time travelling, was take a cooking class in every country I visited where I loved the food (I am waiting until Oaxaca to take a really involved cooking class) so this was a good start! Daniel does most of the cooking but you get to help a bit and see how everything is done and learn so much about Mexican food and cooking skills and hacks in general.

Then of course it was time to get out and see some more cenotes, this time the Santa Barbara cenotes which were fairly newly discovered. It was another 25 minute walk through the heart of Mérida to find the collectivo’s. They called out the name of the place their van was heading on the street, so we just walked until we heard “Homun” called out and waited for the van to fill which took about a half hour, and then we were off. We were dropped in the little puebla of Homun and began walking back towards the Santa Barbara sign, but were soon picked up by a cheap moto taxi which took us right to the cenote resort, which would have taken another 25 min to walk in the already blistering heat.  We had hoped by leaving Mérida early that we would beat the rush and be the first ones there again, but no such luck was ours. The place was full of tourists. It was a bummer, but nothing we could do about it! We paid up and grabbed our life jackets and met our guide. We just so lucked out and got Jesus, who was Judy and Kevin’s guide the day before! Travis and I got a horse cart to ourselves with the driver and Jesus. They have a little rail set up with carts on it that the horses pull along to make it easy for the horses. You hop on, and off you go on your bumpy ride to reach the cenotes in the jungle! It was a novel experience that’s for sure!

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The first cenote was full of screaming children everywhere, so it turned us off a bit from it. It was completely underground, and a bit dark, so there was less to see in the water because of this. We still swam around the whole thing and saw all that we could, but we decided to leave early to get to the next one ahead of the rush. We walked a little ways through the jungle and entered the next one which was hands down my favourite! It was also largely underground but had a bit of natural light coming in through the roof and lightened up the water. The natural light made the whole experience so much more magical and enjoyable! And less terrifying! There were far fewer people in this one so we slipped in right away to enjoy it without the clamour of the crowds. There was so much more to see here! I followed small catfish around with the GoPro, surprised at how close they let me get to them. I marvelled at the huge stalactites that pierced down from the cave roof so far above, some ending just under the waters surface, some going much deeper. I evaded the creepy dark corners of the unknown depths. I dove as deep as I could and tore back to the surface, gasping and in awe of what I saw down below. The underwater world of centoes is just so phenomenal and hard to tear yourself away from. But alas, we moved onwards to the next, the deepest of them all at over 70 meters deep…! This one was the more remarkable looking one we had been to. We had to walk down a steep stair pathway carved deep into the the stone, it felt like entering a mountain side. Then we came through the archway and entered a massive circular cavern, with a huge circular opening above our heads about 50 feet up. At the edge of this opening towered a huge ceiba tree whose roots poured down into the middle of the cenote where they could quench their thirst. It was such a spectacular sight! With the water being so deep, there wasn’t much to see, so I skirted the edges and found a few fish there, and admired the cave formations and searched for creatures hiding in the small holes in the cave wall. 

When we had our fill we hopped back on the horse drawn carriage and made our way back to the beginning. Jesus asked if we wanted to see the last, very small cenote. Of course! I guess not many people go to this one because it’s so small! But the water was cysrtal clear and we were the only ones in it, so the two of us had a grand old time! After all that swimming and playing we had worked up an appetite, and we had paid to include the lunch on Judy’s recommendation so we were excited to fill our bellies with some delicious Mexican food. We each ordered the pollo empanizado (breaded chicken) and it came with avocado, tomatoes, beans, plantains, fresh hot tortillas and salsa piquante. It was delicious and we scarfed it down, forgetting how a couple of hours swimming can make you so hungry!

We caught a moto taxi back to the town and he took us to the central  bus and collectivo pick up where we had about a half hour wait for our ride. The hostel wasn’t quite the same when we returned, because we had said our sad goodbyes to Judy and Kevin that morning as they had to head back to Mahahual, the town where they were living for six months to teach English. We were sad to see them go, as we enjoyed their company so much. I had forgotten how sad these travel goodbyes could be, when you meet someone, connect quickly, has some fun adventures together and mere days later have to say goodbye. This was Travis’s first experience with it, and he was quite sad, and I gently reminded him he would have to get used to saying goodbye because that was the life of the road. On the bright side however, we now have new friends in a new part of the world, and we can some day go and visit them! It doesn’t necessarily mean you will never see them again.

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We had two days left in Merida before we hopped off to an island for some beach in Holbox. We made the trek down to the bus station to buy our second class tickets to Holbox two days before we left, just to be safe, and on the way we discovered the most remarkable flower display for Día de los Muertos. Over 45,000 flower pots, and more than a million flowers were used in the construction of an entire street block to create an enchanting display dedicated to the festival. Huge human figures 20 feet high were created and covered entirely with flowers and foliage, their faces beautiful painted skeleton masks. Some were playing musical instruments made of flowers, while others held giant candles as they approached the ‘white road’ to eternity. It was an absolutely stunning masterpiece of art, made all the more special because we jus stumbled upon it on our walk to the bus station! Eerie but beautiful music, largely drums, a deep steady beat, with a haunting xylophonic melody drifting through the street. The heavy scent of copal burned around us, and you felt transported as you walked among this extraordinary garden. We walked the rest of the way to the bus stop soaked in our own thoughts about what we just experienced. Those are the travel moments I love and live for- the unexpected ones, that just take your breath away.

Our last night in Mérida we treated ourselves to our favourite pizza and some gelato, because once on Holbox, we wouldn’t be able to eat like kings and queens anymore; things were far more expensive on the island. So we savoured every bite! We took a taxi to the bus the next morning, and said goodbye to this beautiful city that we had fallen so quickly in love with.

Adios, Mérida, we’re on to the next adventure!

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