A Travellerspoint blog

Whistling in Isla Mujeres

semi-overcast 28 °C

This was our favourite restaurant in Isla Mujeres - the Mango Cafe. It serves an exceptional breakfast and lunch, there is always a line-up and we always managed to snag a coveted upstairs table.

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Unfortunately, on two out of our three visits, we were tormented by the worst singer we have ever encountered; his off-key renditions of gringo oldies verging on parodies. He punctuated "Knocking on Heaven's Door" with plunking chords for emphasis, followed by a whistled version. Our erstwhile entertainer summed up a lot of how we felt about Isla Mujeres - confused, surprised, at times annoyed, at times charmed, and still at a bit of a loss as to the attraction.

Isla Mujeres, (Island of Women), is a bony finger of land 13 miles from Cancun that is just seven kilometres long and less than a kilometre wide - we walked the length and breadth of the island a number of times. It is so named because of the goddesses the Mayans used to celebrate fertility and childbirth.

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I don't know if it was the luscious reference to women, but we had imagined powerful swelling waves, fertile valleys and a magnetic appeal. Isla Mujeres has turned out to be kind of like that, but with less polish and a rougher edge. It's taken us the full week to get a feel for it.

The island is divided into three parts - the south end, which is populated by large homes and beach clubs; the north end, where the ferry spills out visitors every half hour onto the hotel zone, beaches and shopping areas; and the centre - where the locals live.

This is where we rented our Airbnb from Maria and Rolando, a warm-hearted, hard-working couple who have three sons, a restaurant, and a family compound at the end of this alley. They live on the first floor, Maria's parents and one sister on the second floor, another sister on the third floor and our place was on the top - the one with the palapa and the blue walls. There are also two dogs, several birds in cages, at least a half-dozen motorcycles, two golf carts and a chicken that appears to be a pet.

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We also met the neighbourhood kids - they play in the alleyway. They are like children from another era - beautiful manners, curious, and self-possessed. These two little girls, Renata (on the left) and Rowena were quite taken with us. Renata wanted an English lesson every time we met, so she dutifully repeated "dog", "cat", hair" ,"t-shirt", "shoes" etc.

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We tried the same thing with the boys, but after repeating "dog", they gave up and got back to the business of throwing stuff against the wall.

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We arrived home yesterday afternoon to a 6-year-old birthday party in full swing, complete with SpongeBob SquarePants, fully mic-ed entertainers, and a very stubborn SpongeBob pinata that despite the best efforts of the party-goers, would not break. One of the organizers, in the interest of keeping the party going, finally had to bring it down and it took two adults to manhandle the thing open. Out flew the goodies and it was every man, woman and child for themselves as they dove in.

The somewhat glum-looking party-goers:

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There is lots of life in this neighbourhood and much of it lived outside. Doors and windows are open, kids run from house to house, neighbours stop to chat - an effective and comforting Neighbourhood Watch. We were locking our door until we realized that you could slide open the window beside the door and undo the latch, so we just closed the door and left knowing all would be as we left it when we returned.

Coconuts are ripe for the picking. We watched this two-man effort at dislodging them onto the pavement.

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Local restaurants like Dona Mari's chicken place are typical. A few tables, a big plate of barbecued chicken and a big bottle of Coke for about $6 and take-your-chances seating. All the seats are doubled up and when I attempted to take them apart, the young man quickly came over and warned me to keep them together. A few minutes later a trio from West Virginia arrived - one of those big boys got those chairs undone and he sat down before we could warn him. Flat on his backside he went, as the four legs splayed out - a batch of defective plastic chairs that in Mexico, cannot go to waste.

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A typical street in mid-island.

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The water surrounding Isla Mujeres is easily described this way: the body of water facing Cancun (calm, good for swimming and snorkeling), the north end (the best beach on the island), the east coast (the Caribbean - wild, dangerous currents, strong surf), and Punta Sur ( the southernmost part of the island where the two bodies of water meet and soften).
We chose to walk south to Punta Sur on our first full day on Isla Mujeres. Our place is a block and a half from the east coast, so we set out along the paved path for a number of kilometres.

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Mainly, the water is somewhat inaccessible, as there are cliffs to navigate and surf that rumbles right up to shore. But in spots, the land dips down and small beaches emerge.

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We spent an afternoon under one of these palapas - going no further than our knees in the surf, but just enjoying the peace and quiet.

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Eventually, the paved path disappears and is replaced by a rugged dirt path that veers away from the road and runs between the sea and some very fine real estate.

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And then, finally we reach Punta Sur. This is the easternmost part of Mexico - the very first spot in the country where the sun rises each morning. It is also the meeting point between the wild waves on the east and the photogenic, emerald crystal waters of the southwest.

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And now, I will take you out of the life and colour of the local Mexican neighbourhoods, the calm well-bred vacation homes of the south into a whole other world that is just not our cup of tea. However - big but here - we have talked to a number of tourists who either live here each winter, or have been coming here on vacation every year and simply adore this place. I've come to realize there are distinct differences between travelling around Mexican towns and cities and traveling around beach towns. What we are looking for during extended travel and what someone on a much-needed break hopes to find are two very different things.

A little tipsy on watered-down margaritas by 11:00 a.m., sun-burned in your beach coverup and hanging onto the back of a golf cart might not be anybody's best look, but you need to get away from winter and your job and your life. But - another big but here - if Holbox was the hang-out of the cool kids, Mujeres is far more middle-of-the-road, and all of this is hugely amplified by a bombardment of day-trippers from Cancun. They come over by ferry, sail over on party boats, even hop on jet skis (illegal on the beaches, but they try until the navy shows up), and then once here, swarm the small island in golf carts.

This is a typical parking scene:

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Playa Norte is considered Isla Mujeres' best beach. It is beautiful - talcum powder sand, crystal water. We sat beside folks from Kelowna who have been coming here for eight years and according to them, the beach experience has been ruined in the last few years by this:

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When we first arrived, about 11:00 a.m., there were just a few boats out there. A couple of hours later, it was like a parking lot - boats backed up to the buoy line and many of them blasting their tunes. Each of these boats are from Cancun - each of them filled with between 10-30 passengers. Most of those boats arrive stocked with food and liquor, so there is very little financial benefit to the beach clubs and restaurants. The passengers hop out, swim around a bit, make a lot of noise and then leave. It is a gong show. As well, the buoy line is really close to shore, so there is a very small area in which to safely swim, and then that small area is filled with drunk people playing drinking games.

We decided another day to try our luck at one of the beach clubs on the south shore. Zama Beach Club had good reviews, so away we went; confident we would be free from the hordes. The beach clubs vary in price and quality and amenities, but generally you either pay a small fee for sunbed and umbrella rental and food is on top of that, or you pay a higher fee and most of the price goes back toward your restaurant bill. In this case, we paid roughly $5 for our rental for the day and we ordered food and drink.

Zama has a gorgeous setting, and at first glance, appeared absolutely perfect. And for the most part, it was - we spent several hours there, chatting with other tourists, eating good food, swimming and reading.

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The pools were cool and clean, and as it turned out, the only place we swam while we were there. The sea water in this area was quite murky and footing was unpleasant - mucky and filled with seagrass.

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And there were a number of boats that came ashore, but we hardly noticed them. No music, the passengers who all filed off to one side were quiet - they were a non-issue.

Who could resist jumping on this swing for a photo? I tried to smile and point my toes like Esther Williams might have done, but was somewhat impeded by the sheer weight of that swing, so this was as high as I could muster.

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And finally, the north end of Isla Mujeres - where there are most of the hotels, restaurants and shops. On first impression, the centro of Isla Mujeres is not immediately attractive. There are not impressive government buildings, nor are there photogenic little parks. This is a typical small street:

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These small streets are lined with stores just like this one, hawking their "handcrafts" - not one authentic Mexican souvenir in sight. It is depressing to see shop after shop after shop filled with tourist tat, and it is also depressing to be aggressively hassled by merchants wanting to sell stuff, tequila, cigars, massages - whatever. The quality Mexican goods are not here - we are walking wallets -period.

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Something that struck us about Isla Mujeres is the infrastructure has not been maintained; much more so than the financial devastation that Covid has wrought over the past two years. Buildings and sidewalks are crumbling, everything needs a coat of paint, a bit of love. We were told that for many years Isla Mujeres languished under a corrupt mayor and council and that in the past while, their dynamic new mayor has begun to make very significant changes. One of the first things she did was to remove the open landfill that was in the south end and that is in the process of being totally cleaned up.

You can see major work going on in the main square:

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I was shocked by the state of the malecon. In most seaside places we have visited, the malecon is a showplace; a natural gathering place to stroll, eat ice cream and stop for photos. With the sea as a natural backdrop, the malecon is usually enhanced by sculptures, monuments, and a line-up of waterfront cafes and restaurants. We passed one small cafe, but otherwise, this could have been a back alley. Many buildings boarded up, piles of rubble - a few stalwart walkers, but this could be so much more. Perhaps that is on the mayor's agenda as well.

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We did pass this delightful place - home to Timothy Fisher art. He has utterly transformed this building with his 3-D ceramic art, and it is a glimpse into what incredible potential exists here.

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Back in town, we came upon this installation - perhaps it is a collection of shoes found on the beach? I often walk by one flip flop or a single slipper and wonder how it is the owner didn't notice them missing.

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We leave Isla Mujeres a little confused. I think our experiences and impressions would have been entirely different if this island was more remote. If those beaches were not invaded and the streets not filled with tourist junk, the charm and beauty of the place would have a chance to shine. It seems the folks who live here for part of the year find their own spots, stay away from the crowds and have figured it out. We're glad we came, it was another adventure.

Next stop - back to Cozumel for two weeks. See you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 00:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches cancun playa malecon isla_mujeres punta_sur _norte Comments (7)

Isla Holbox: the not-so-sleepy fishing village

semi-overcast 27 °C

This is by no means the first time we have been the oldest people in the room, but in Isla Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh), we are learning what it feels like to be invisible. Holbox, billed by the likes of Conde Nast as being the Next Big Thing, has been discovered by the It Crowd, who wander the streets in tiny thong bikinis and big attitude. It is easy to feel like you got on the wrong party bus.

Our theory is this: in previous travels we have met up with many fellow travellers of similar ages and backgrounds, but since Covid, people our age are less likely to travel, so the age differences have become quite pronounced. No matter, we are finding this island extremely fascinating - there is a whole lot more to Holbox than first meets the eye. For all the tourist invasion it remains solidly Mexican and has a Caribbean island feel. A glossy restaurants sits right next door to someone's modest private home, and you have the feeling it will take a lot to change the tenor of the island.

Holbox is not easy to get to - it is a two-hour bus ride from Cancun, followed by a half-hour ferry ride. The island is tiny - just 26 miles long and one mile wide and is separated from the mainland by the Yalahau Lagoon. The main town is tiny and easily walkable; much of the island is uninhabited.

Our hotel was a 10-minute walk up from the ferry: a seven-room boutique hotel that combined great style and warm hospitality. Our room was huge, with thoughtful little details like a woven beach bag and high-end toiletries provided.

This is the lobby:

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The street scene from our front door:

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Holbox is a car-free island. Aside from utility vehicles, the only form of transportation is golf carts or bicycles. None of the streets are paved and the day we arrived, we had to navigate mud and deep puddles - a major rainstorm had blown through the day before. Since the dirt is clay, the water is very slow to drain. These scenes are common during the rainy season.

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We had thought to rent bikes during our stay, but many of the roads were impassable in parts and impossible to detect rocks and potholes.

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Even without water hazards, the roads are in a very bad state - deep potholes and ruts. We watched a young woman as she steered her bike through a puddle, began to wobble and was then forced to plant her sparkling white sneakers into about 5 inches of mud.

The upside is that if you were involved in an accident, there would likely be little damage -it is impossible to gain any speed. We saw this truck numerous times - La Benedicion de Dios (The Benediction of God) - perfect for Holbox and it doesn't owe the driver a peso.

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Naturally, much of Holbox's activities revolve around the water. While the beaches here are lovely to look at, the water is not clear at this time of year for snorkeling and a long sandbar runs most the way round, so you have to wade out a bit to be able to swim. We discovered a beach club not far from our place that offered comfy sunbeds under palapas, and a really good kitchen. Two of our days here we spent several hours just relaxing, reading, eating, swimming and napping.

Our view:

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Everyone gathered on the beach each night for the sunset. Here, watching the people was almost as much fun as watching the sinking sun.

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The Three-Island Boat Tour was being offered everywhere - three and a half hours on an open boat to visit two islands and the Yalahau Lagoon. We would see 150 species of birds in their protected habitat, walk around another small island and swim in a cenote - it sounded like a lot of fun. We showed up for our 9:00 am departure and met up with eight other people - two Mexicans, two Americans, a German woman, an Italian woman and two young women from Chile and Argentina. it was a convivial group, and our captain spoke a little English, so we set off in great spirits.

We had no sooner set off than we spotted a pod of dolphins, which according to the captain, was supposed to be good luck.

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We began our tour by heading across the lagoon to the cenote. As luck would have it, we were the first boat to arrive, so we had the cenote to ourselves for about 10 minutes.This one did not involve any jumping heroics - just an easy hop into crystal clear water. If you notice the slight agitation in the water, that is called the Ojo de Agua - the freshwater geyser that is springing up from the bottom of the cenote. Just delicious swimming, or rather floating, as we were all trussed up in the mandatory lifejackets.

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We got back into the boat for our next destination - Isla Pajaros, or Bird Island. Now we knew very well we would not see 150 species as a) it was now about 10:30 a.m. and b) we were not allowed on the island - all viewing was done from a tower.

What happened next is a bit of a blur, but suddenly our sedate plowing through the waves became a frenzied race. It seems that our captain lost his hat and was retracing his steps to try and find it. Of course, we had no idea what was going on, and why we were suddenly heading back out to sea, then spinning around again. Amazingly, his hat was still bobbing in the water and he was able to retrieve it, but now we were behind in our time. The rest of our boat travel became almost hysterically speedy, with a steady wake of water splashing up onto the deck, all of us drenched and chilled and our captain steering, his face frozen into a grinning rictus.

By the time we pulled up beside the dock to Isla Pajaros, we were all a bit discombobulated. Obediently, we climbed up the tower to observe the birds. We saw cormorants and gulls and ibis and egrets and pelicans nesting in the trees.

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Back into the boat and incredibly this time, the boat went even faster. We all huddled with our faces down, trying to survive this latest assault until we arrived, 15 minutes later, at Isla Pasion. It was not really clear what we were supposed to do here, other than wade through calf-deep water around one side of the island until we reached the lookout tower, where we would presumably, see more birds. Once again, we obediently disembarked.

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We saw birds, we climbed a perilous-looking tower, and we got back in the boat. Our final trip back to the dock was so uncomfortable, so miserable, that I could not imagine this was the common experience. It was not possible that several boats would go out every day, and their passengers would be subjected to being bounced and drenched for three hours. "I hope you had a good time," said our captain as we all silently disembarked. I'm still wondering why we said nothing.

We had much better luck with a beach-side stroll we did on our own - a four or five-km. walk to Punta Coco - the westernmost point of the island.

We saw birds.

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We saw hammocks. Hammocks are the Instagram fave of Holbox visitors, but this year there were very few out.

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We saw horses.

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And on to the town of Holbox. The murals of Holbox, under the direction of Pina o Muere (Paint or Die) - a collective of urban artists, has become a real tourist draw. It is a lot of fun to wander the streets and try and discover as many murals as you can - the quality of the artwork is outstanding.

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The houses of Holbox are so distinctive - many of them quite small, but crayon-box bright and beautiful.

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There is no shortage of great restaurants and cafes here. We have eaten very well, especially really fresh fish and seafood. It's quite remarkable to think about how this works. Everything, except for fish, has to be brought over from the mainland. There are a number of very tiny little supermarkets - glorified corner stores, really, and a couple of vegetable stands. So how do the restaurants keep up with the tourist demand, and how do the 2000 residents feed themselves in a reliable fashion? We noticed a couple of businesses that had a curious cross-pollination of goods and services. One was a high-end ladies clothing store that had tables set for dinner, snuggled right up to a display of linen dresses. This store, a purveyor of "Fine and Rare Spectacles" was not to be outdone.

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Our time in Isla Holbox has been so enjoyable. It is a place that is full of contradictions. It is well set up for tourists, but is not overtaken by them. It is an island that is not convenient to get to, but is well worth the effort. It is surprisingly cosmopolitan in its offerings of hotels, restaurants, music, and shopping, and yet the streets are unpaved and you can walk into the jungle in 10 minutes. Wifi is spotty and there is just one ATM that may or may not have money. We watched a family of coati ( a cross between a raccoon and a cat and a monkey) wobble their way down our street in the early dawn hours. The birds are out there - we just need binoculars and an alarm clock to go find them. It is still unspoiled, but probably not for long, so we're happy we made it here when we did.

We're off to Isla Mujeres tomorrow and will be there for a week. See you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 19:54 Archived in Mexico Tagged murals holbox isla 3_islands_tour pinta_o_muere aurora_hotel punta_coco yalahau_lagoon Comments (11)

Valladolid: Almost Famous

semi-overcast 28 °C

When we were researching our trip, Valladolid kept coming up; often described as a "hidden gem" or "off the beaten track". Well this Pueblo Magico is solidly on the Yucatan tourist trail now. Bus loads of day trippers arrive daily from Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, fitting in visits to Chichen Itza, followed by a swim in a cenote and a couple of hours to wander about Valladolid. The day we arrived, this is what the main plaza looked like - no fewer than 15 buses lining the square.

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Then there was this woman; speaking in a very animated fashion into a mic. She and her partner moved further into the park, where she gave a cheeky little wave to a lineup of bemused men sitting on the bench who were probably trying to determine if she was someone they should know. She twirled, tilted her head, flashed a wide smile and began talking again. I suspect she was an influencer, that peculiar breed of attractive young people who somehow manage to attract a large social media following, and then parlay that into lucrative merchandising endorsements. We've watched a few influencers in action in Mexico and I have to say, I don't get it. But then, when I was young, I was probably convinced that a pair of Calvin Klein jeans would turn me into Brooke Shields.

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Tourist overload aside, Valladolid deserves a visit for longer than a few hours. it is a pretty colonial city of around 50,000, built on the ancient Maya city of Zaci, and surrounded by cenotes. Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes that have been created when caves collapsed and are open-air, or half-covered or entirely underground. They are often filled with small fish and are usually cool and very clear. There is a cenote right in the middle of town, but it is currently closed as major work is being done in the area to create easier bus access and larger facilities. Cenotes are big business - we visited one and will tell you about it in a minute, but first let me tell you about this engaging, walkable friendly little city.

Every city centres around the main zocalo and cathedral - in Valladolid, it is the Cathedral of San Servicio, first built in 1545 and then rebuilt again in the 1700s.

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The zocalo is lined with imposing buildings - municipal offices, colonnades, cafes and restaurants. It is one of a number of meeting places in the city.

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Our cute little hotel, Casa Bamboo, was centrally located and within a 10 minute walk to the Candelaria neighbourhood, which is quite beautiful - filled with parks, leafy streets, gorgeous colonial homes and a couple of streets filled with really great restaurants.

Burrito al Amor - one of our faves - an open showpiece kitchen, fresh, local food and a server who spent his high school years in Edmonton. The adjacent room was filled with delightful art made from sisal and pottery.

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Another favourite place - Casa Ahal, billed as Mayan fusion - so delicious. The photo is of owner Jose and his mother Maria. Jose lived in Chicago for fifteen years and in the past two years moved back to Valladolid and opened this place to great acclaim. He was the consummate host, working the room, with his wife cooking in the kitchen and his mother out front. That woman never sat down and according to Jose, adds up all the bills in her head. He proudly told me she was 82, which was impressive until I realized that a number of my friends and family are that age or close to it!

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At his suggestion, I tried panuchos ("the reason I moved back to Mexico".) They are handmade corn tortillas, fried on a comal and topped with a variety of items - in my case vegetarian. Crunchy, salty, sweet, umami - they were perfection.

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We walked by a car with the tunes just blaring and looked in, expecting to see a young guy, but as soon as he caught our eye, this gentleman jumped out and proudly posed beside his car - 60 years old, apparently. (the car, not the driver.)

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This building used to be a textile factory, run by steam, and is now a library.

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A church bordering the park.

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I watched a mum with her two little boys, and one of them called out, "Good morning" and then both kids dissolved into giggles. Many more "good mornings" before I made my way past.

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A typical home that lines the park.

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Some street scenes throughout the city.

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Another beautiful area is La Calzada de los Frailes - built in the 16th century as a pathway between Valladolid and the little town of Sisal (now a neighbourhood). This street is a photographer's dream and a joy to stroll along as there is very little traffic.

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The shops on this street all fall into a certain category - tasteful, hand-crafted, perfectly curated. Items you didn't even know you wanted, until you had the chance to admire how perfect they all are.

This shop, billed as a "concept store" pretty much sums it up.

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This vegan/vegetarian restaurant was wonderful - great atmosphere and such clean, fresh food with a Yucatan twist. One dish I had was roasted cauliflower, served with a spicy tomato pumpkin seed dip. Two things I will miss when we are back home - the avocados - you just cannot find avocados this plump and ripe and flavourful in Canada, and the freshly squeezed juices - the lemon with mint and ginger, the hibiscus, the fresh orange juice.

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The reconstruction of a Mayan cottage sits toward the end of the street. It is not open to the public - a family lives in this home - I saw them hanging laundry out back.

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Right next door to the cottage is this derelict building that appears to have been abandoned for many years. It stand out on a street filled with beautifully finished homes, so I wonder if plans for a restoration are in the works.

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It is not uncommon to see whole families on scooters and motorbikes in Mexico. Old grandmothers riding sidesaddle, girlfriends hugging their boyfriends tightly, and this little fellow - perched up high in front of his dad. He gave us a jaunty wave as we walked by.

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Dog dirt is a definite walking hazard - picking up after your pet does not appear to have registered in a big way in Mexico. This sign, reminding dog owners that their animal's business could end up on the hands of someone in a wheelchair, sends a powerful message. Bad enough if it ends up on your shoes, but on your hands - gross.

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At the very end of the street lies the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena, built by the Franciscan missionaries in 1560 to save the heathen Mayans and convert them to Christianity. The convent and grounds are open to the public and it was a very pleasant way to spend an hour or so in the cool interior.

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We were stopped from entering the church by three burly men who informed us that "the woman was being dressed". Intrigued, we discovered we were able to sneak a peek from the upstairs balcony. Indeed, a "woman" was being dressed in native costume - a mannequin - but we have no idea who she was supposed to be or what her relationship to Jesus was.

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And finally - our day at the cenote. There are a good number of cenotes to choose from - some a lot more elaborate and well-equipped than others. Unfortunately, the cenotes that appealed to us the most were also the ones that were close to Chichen Itza and featured on the tour bus runs, so very crowded.

We decided to go to Hacienda San Lorenzo - Oxman cenote, about a 10-minute cab ride away. The Hacienda offered the cenote, a pool, hammocks, and a restaurant, and it had decent reviews. It sounded like we could spend a few hours there. We arrived to a long walkway up to the hacienda, then headed for the changerooms and made our way down a long staircase to the cenote.

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The cenote was quite beautiful - surrounded by hanging roots and vines; the water crystal clear and filled with fish, including some decent-sized catfish. There was two ways into the water - make your way down a slippery set of stairs, or line up on the platform, wait for the swinging rope to come within reach, grab the handle, swing yourself out and jump.

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When you grab the bar on the rope and let go, it creates a good momentum, and if you grab and jump enthusiastically, you may well end up jumping from 20 feet or so, and running the risk of a spectacular belly flop. Stephen went first and the look on his face when he surfaced decided it for me. I headed for the stairs. Then I saw a lady not that much younger than me grab the bar and jump and I attempted it again. I looked down, at the water far, far below and froze. I have very poor depth perception. I once had to walk back off a regular 1-metre diving board at an aquatic centre, to my deep humiliation and the slow clap from the men sitting in the nearby hot tub.

Lots of people were encouraging me to jump, and I tried it a third time and again, had to walk away. I have to tell you, I am deeply regretful. There is no way I could have hurt myself, and I couldn't have drowned - the life jackets kept us all bobbing like corks. So, if there is a next time, I will grab that rope and I will jump.

After our time in the cenote, we had our lunch around the pool. I can honestly say this was the worst food we have had on this trip. Stephen had tasteless enchiladas and I had a mystery meat pork dish that was so tough and chewy I was afraid to eat it. Then we thought we might just lounge around the pool, but with just six lounge chairs, there was no place to sit. On top of it, a number of Mexicans were in the pool with their street clothes. This is quite common in Mexico - we've encountered this before and signs posted asking for swimsuits are to no avail.

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So...we chalked the cenote experience up to being too much of a good thing, and definitely in danger of being over-touristed.

And that ended a very enjoyable time in Valladolid. Tomorrow we are off to Isla Holbox - a 2 hour bus ride, followed by a 15-minute ferry. We'll be there for six days, and I may not be in touch for a while. At this point, Holbox is still a little rustic - just one ATM that runs out of cash, and spotty wifi. See you again whenever it is possible.

Posted by millerburr 22:40 Archived in Mexico Tagged valladolid cenotes cathedral_of_san_ servicio panucho casa_bamboo casa_ahal convent_of_san_bernardino_de_si Comments (6)

The sneaky charm of Merida

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Merida is not a city that hits you over the head with its beauty. As our bus was driving through the city, we passed block after block of faded and crumbling structures, and even our short cab ride to our hotel did little to grab our attention. However, when you consider the Yucatan capital city was founded in 1542, a little deterioration makes sense. Our hotel, Hotel Santa Ana, built in 1891, was once the home of Santiago Brito, a writer, teacher and lawyer. Its high, beamed ceilings, voluptuously lush garden and mirrored mosaic trim spoke to what was once a grand home and is now a simple, modest hotel with undeniable charm.

Even more charming is our host, Juan. He was a wealth of information; pointing out a resident flock of parrots, directing us to a reliable laundry and handing out Hershey kisses, because "every life needs a little chocolate." Meeting people like Juan is at least as critical to travel as seeing the important sights. They take you out of yourself, and remind you that in a world that doesn't always feel hospitable, there is still such goodness.

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Merida is a city of over one million residents and the Centro Historico and immediate barrios is the area where tourists congregate. We were staying in Barrio Santa Ana, about a 15-minute walk to the Centro. We had visited Merida a number of years ago, for a brief day trip from Progreso and were keen to return and spend some time here. Our memories were of a grand zocalo, stately cathedrals and stunning private homes on broad boulevards. And Merida has all of that, but you have to dig deeper to really get a feel for the place.

We began with a free walking tour, held every morning at 9:30 from the zocalo. Our exuberant guide Victor, led our large group with both Spanish and English explanations, which he managed to make funny and informative in both languages. The main centro area once had five pyramids built by the Mayans, and they were taken down and those bricks can still be found in a couple of the current buildings that flank the four sides of the square.

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Some of the buildings around the zocalo, and notably the Grand Cathedral.

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The grand hallway entrance to The Museum of Contemporary Art

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A typical scene in the zocalo. Large potted plants have been placed on each of the many benches. We're wondering if they are there to ensure social distancing, or simply for decoration. The white concrete Tu y Yo (You and I) chairs, which are found everywhere in Merida's parks, are said to be designed by a protective father who wanted to ensure his daughter did not sit too closely to her suitor. Now, they are a great backdrop for a photo op, or in this case, a handy seat for another plant.

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Another big tourist draw is the magnificent Paseo de Montejo. This grand boulevard was designed for the early automobiles, and the grand mansions that line both sides of the street were built on henequen fortunes. Henequen (sisal) is the fibre extracted from the henequen plant grown in the Yucatan to make rope.

We walked the Paseo a number of times - always a stunning treat for the eyes. There are still a few private homes on this street, but most have been turned into museums, financial institutions and banks.

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Every Sunday, The Paseo is closed to traffic for the morning to make way for Biciruta - a 4-hour extravaganza devoted to bicycles, rollerbladers, skateboarders and some of the most inventive contraptions you can imagine. We saw a few of these large white plastic "bicycles", always ridden with apparent effort by the male in the group.

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Dogs go everywhere these days, although judging by the underwhelmed expression on this dog's face, the biciruta was more for the owner.

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The road got a little congested at times, but mainly, it looked like this - lots of room for little kids learning to ride a bike and for older tourists who were navigating on rickety rental cruisers.

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There are a number of monuments along the Paseo, with the crowning glory at the end - the Patria. It was carved by Colombian sculptor Romulo Rozo in 1956, with over 300 figures depicting Merida history from early Mayan to present. It is quite glorious.

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We went to a number of wonderful restaurants in Merida; almost all of them outside in courtyards surrounded by tropical greenery. Our favourite, El Tratto, was in Santa Lucia Square, about a 10-minute walk from our hotel.

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It used to be that cantinas were strictly for men only; the swinging western-style half doors a hint of what lay within. That is no longer the case and La Negrita is one of Merida's most popular cantinas.

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We were quite struck by this cantina. It's name "Estado Seco" means "dry state". Would that not be a deterrent for a bartender hoping to attract customers? As Juan explained to me, it is a play on words, as in "I'm thirsty, in a dry state", so a cantina would obviously be just the answer to that dilemma.

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We have lots of little stories to tell about eating out in Merida, with 99% of our stories being happy and positive ones. But one night we found ourselves in what looked like a stylish little place. The music was several decibels above our comfort level, but in the interest of not being fogies, we kept quiet. If I have learned nothing after all these years in Mexico, I have learned that a) noise is a fact of life here and b) heading toward a server with strained smile, head tilted and thumb and forefinger pinched in the universal signal of "lower the volume please" will get you absolutely nowhere. So, there we are - food is good, service is good and we're happy. Then, when I get up to use the washroom, I come out to the shared sinks to wash my hands, only to discover the tap is broken. The server agreed with me that, yes, the tap had been broken for a while, but they did have a solution. He ran down to the end of the room and came back bearing a heavy pail full of water. I was supposed to dunk my hands into the water, soap up in the sink, then dunk my hands back into the pail again. It was only later that we both realized we had just eaten in a restaurant with no running water and no way for the cooks to clean their hands.

We're always on the lookout for street art. We happened to notice that on many street corners, in addition to the numbers, there would be a red and white plaque featuring an object. Merida is laid out in a grid, with even numbers running north-south and odd running east-west. These plaques began in the 1700's, although most are now replicas. Apparently there are over 400 of them in the city. They were originally created to help erase confusion, so instead of telling someone to meet you at 43 and 60, you would say "Meet me at the ball."

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We passed by a particular bar most nights and one night we peeked in to have a look at the murals inside.

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I loved this juxtaposition: the self-possessed demeanour of the Mexican hairless dog, the Xolo, guarding a rack filled with antique ceramic doll body parts.

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As it happened, we were in Merida for the annual Merida Fest - this year celebrating 480 years of dance, music, literature, cuisine and theatre.

One of the events was video-mapping Merida's history onto the front of the cathedral - a 20-minute story set to music, narration and a light show. Of course, we understood very little, but it was quite the spectacle.

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A spectacle of another sort was held in Santa Lucia square one night. It was a sort of Ed Sullivan-style show complete with MC/comedian, followed by a band who played a set of oldies, followed by a singer who was so bad that Stephen wondered is she was perhaps the organizer's mistress. The show ended with eight pairs of dancers who performed a folk dance which was perfectly executed, but a tad marred by the presence of face shields. It was corny and a bit hokey but all good fun.

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We caught a couple of great concerts - the best being a group of musicians from Mexico City called Paté de Fuá, whose members come from Argentina, Israel, Brazil and Cuba. Their style was billed as a composite of tarantella, dixieland and jazz and they got the crowd going.

So what is the sneaky charm of Merida? It lies in the fact that it is not all gussied up. Every street has a mix of old and crumbling, right next door to a place that is spit and polish.

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This one may be too far gone, but it reminds us of a similar style of building common in Oaxaca - a city that has street after street of perfectly preserved and maintained buildings.

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Merida feels like a real Mexican city without being transformed for the tourists - we're seeing this city as it is, not as they hope we want to see it. The people are lovely - warm and friendly. It is easy to be here.

We're off to Valladolid tomorrow for five days.

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Posted by millerburr 23:53 Archived in Mexico Tagged buildings parrots merida merida_fest pate_de_fua Comments (5)

Uxmal or Chichen Itza?

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When you're traveling in an area where ancient Mayan ruins are a dime a dozen, then the debate over the merits of Uxmal versus Chichen Itza comes up in conversation. After a fair bit of online research, Uxmal was always winning out. One travel site after another concluded that while both sites were spectacular, Chichen Itza was incredibly crowded, and you could have Uxmal almost to yourself. As well, we were informed that at Uxmal, it was still possible climb up the pyramids and wander freely among the ruins.

We discovered that official government sites (not updated in the past few years) are not entirely reliable. It is no longer possible to climb up the pyramids in Uxmal. The official site also neglected to mention that a number of buildings are currently not accessible and that is not reflected in a price discount. It does not mention that the admission price of $80 pesos (always cash only) and the additional federal charge of $430 pesos, which used to be payable by charge card, is now cash only.

We think these changes are simply due to Covid and an attempt to keep everyone safe. Hopefully one day, everything will be open and it will be possible to see the whole site and to climb these structures again. Although at the best of times, one's ability to handle the effects of heat, dehydration and ill-advised footwear on vertiginous steps with no handrails will always be a challenge.

So, with all of this to consider and not having the benefit of visiting Chichen Itza to compare, we can safely say that Uxmal is well worth the trip. This is the first sight to greet you:

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Notice anything unusual? No crowds of people pushing past with selfie-sticks. No crowds at all. We had dutifully followed directions and arrived at the site around 9:00 am, well before the arrival of tourbuses and long lines. We were pleasantly surprised to drive down a leafy lane and turn into a shady parking lot, and then simply walk in, buy our ticket and begin our tour. Of course, there are fewer tourists due to Covid, but still, this was a delight.

This huge structure is called The House of the Magician, and is 35 m. in height. have a look at the side profile and decide whether or not you would want to attempt this climb.

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Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Yucatan. It dates between 500 and 800 A.D. and the buildings are remarkably intact and well-preserved. I don't know if it is a failure of imagination on my part, but I quickly lose interest in ancient sites that are mainly room outlines and rubble. We felt entirely engaged walking these grounds. It really helped that there was abundant vegetation and plenty of shade, which allowed us to really study the structures without fear of heatstroke.

This is the back end of the House of the Magician.

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Uxmal is a natural habitat for iguanas - light stone and plenty of sun. We were excited to see this guy peering out of his little cave, and then of course, we saw them everywhere.

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The walkway between the House of the Magician and the rest of the site.

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Notice the details on this structure.This is typical of the architecture at Uxmal - elaborate without being ornate. Facades on the buildings feature motifs such as lattice, crosses, two-headed serpents, owls, and masks.

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We turned a corner to walk into the Quadrangle of the Nuns - a huge area comprised of four palaces. Again - check out the crowds.

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This long palace was notable for its modest ornamentation and open vaults.

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We had been remarking on the large number of swallows flying about the Quadrant, and I wondered where they had all come from. I soon found out when I stuck my nose inside this vault and narrowly missed being hit by a swallow flying right past my face.

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Then it struck me. Were these flying creatures swallows...or bats? They did not really look like swallows, but I thought bats did not emerge until dusk. The smeared walls inside the vault did not have any odor, and guano is usually pretty pungent. So - a mystery.

There are lots of sight-lines like this at Uxmal. One opening framed the entrance to another area.

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We walked toward this well-preserved Ball Court.

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From there we came upon the Casa de Las Tortugas - a long structure set high above many steps that were so high we marvelled at how the Mayans, who were short in stature, managed them.

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This structure looked intriguing, but was one of the buildings that was currently off-limits to visitors.

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The Grand Pyramid

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The Governor's Palace. The top portion of this building is designed to resemble bamboo.

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Other intriguing views along the way.

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As we came to the end of our tour, we kept hearing a cawing sound, followed by clapping and then more cawing. We were wondering if we were going to be fortunate enough to see some colourful Yucatan birds, but discovered these strange sounds were an audio trick.

We were back where we started, at The House of the Magician. See the keyhole near the top? When you stand in front of this massive structure and clap your hands, you hear a "Caw" " Caw". Needless to say, everyone had to try this for themselves.

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So, Uxmal or Chichen Itza? Apples and oranges? Even with a diminished site and restrictions on climbing, we were very happy to have visited Uxmal. We don't know what we missed there and we don't know what we will miss by not seeing Chichen Itza. All we can do is enjoy what is right in front of us.

Posted by millerburr 00:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged mayan uxmal archaeological_sites Comments (7)

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