Cynicism or not, after weeping with sadness as I traversed the history of Mayan struggle and resistance through Paseo de Montejo, the most appealing consolation was in the form of mestizo food.
Beaches in Mexico have been very popular for a long time to national and international tourism; Acapulco, Cancún, the Mayan Riviera and Los Cabos among the most crowded in summer. And hell yes, they’re pretty awesome (well, Acapulco has lost its glory days) and now, the most curious tourists are searching for new virginal adventures.
When thinking about virginal adventures, it came to my mind going to Mazunte. You know, this beach that, like the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino, its popularity arose with spectacular photographs of wonderful experiences and promises. But, for a heavenly reason, my sis and I decided to go to Yucatán. And by the way, I’ll let you know why I called it a “heavenly reason”. (Part 2)
If you haven’t heard about Yucatán, geographically thinking, it’s the tail of Mexico. That which, according to some scientist, affirm that a meteorite fell in this area, killed dinosaurs and the peninsula was formed. It’s also the world capital of the breathtaking cenotes (or sinkholes Part 2), and of course the motherfucker land of one of the new wonders of the world: Chichen Itza.
Going back to my 3-day getaway, we landed in the so-called “White city”: Merida. Just a short 20 minutes journey from the airport to the city, the first thing that impressed me was the genuine friendliness from Francisco, our driver. If you’ve been in Mexico, you might have realized that Mexican people, in general, are friendly and warm with tourists; particularly in the province. Buuut, dear Francisco and the rest of “yucatecos” I met, are unbelievably kind.
Does that overflowing kindness have to do with their typical dress, the “guayabera” and the fedora? Something about the psychology of colors in here? Well, it seems it really does! When you walk downtown, you’ll spot smiling and peaceful men dressed impeccably in a white, elegant shirt made of linen -the guayabera-, and a khaki fedora relaxing in a café and talking with their friends. And women, mainly those who are locals, come and go with their white summer dresses embroidered on the neck with flowers… an air of freshness following them.
We stayed at the Eclipse Hotel, that is just 2 blocks from downtown and the main attractions in the city. And as we didn’t previously hire an all paid tour, a friendly staff member of our hotel, recommend us the “InterMerida Travel” agency. I’m going to pause here and give an honest opinion about Merida as a travel destination: tourism services should become more professionalized. They are on their way and the lack of it is compensated by a wonderful capacity of storytelling about their roots. Wink, wink!
The first day was planned as followed:
- A guided tour by “guagua” (a local transport) to visit the “Paseo de Montejo”, the most important avenue of the city due to its French architectural inspiration.
- A delicious and typical Yucatecan meal at the restaurant “Chaya Maya”.
- A Yucatecan Serenade at Santa Lucia park.
PASEO DE MONTEJO, THE CONQUEST THAT CONTINUES UNTIL TODAY
Paseo de Montejo is a must to visit in Merida in order to know and understand the multiple economic and cultural layers that until today permeate in its inhabitants. And of course, to correct the assumptions referring as to why Merida was named as “The White City”; the majority of the outsiders (that is to say, me) we think that it’s related to the white buildings and famous white loveseats you find all around Merida, but it is not. And actually, the story has a completely different twist… a sad one full of exploitation and hurt.
The compact story of 400 years is this: In 1542 Francisco de Montejo conquered Yucatan and founded the city of Merida. From this moment, the Spaniards displaced the Mayans to the outskirts of the new city -remembering at all times that the construction of New Spain was by indigenous hands and that’s why we see in many churches angels with indigenous faces, or hidden monoliths in Catholic figures -.
In the census of 1900, there was not a single Mayan surname in the city of Mérida. One of our presidents obsessed with whitening the race and turning Mexico into a second France, Porfirio Diaz, popularized the nickname by saying “I come from the white city”. In fact, the French-style constructions were white and their citizens as well.
The WWII detonated the prolific henequen industry, a material from a native plant and used to make ropes of ships and other products. The arrival of more foreigners to continue exploiting the”green gold” stopped until they almost extinguish the plant and comes the plastic to replace its use. The magnificent mansions were abandoned. Nowadays the government and its owners, prefer to let them perish because their maintenance is ridiculously expensive: many luxury items were imported from Europe. If you want to take a look on the opulence of what I’m talking about, go to Canton Palace! Today it’s the Regional Museum of Anthropology of Yucatan.
–> Parenthesis <– Did you know that many of these mansions have their own cenote? Yes, their own natural jacuzzi!
I think that as any Mexican citizen, knowing the past of our ancestors is painful. I’m not going to pretend that the “guagua tour” was beautiful for me, it actually made me want to cry. And you can still hear the hurt of people telling you Merida was and still is elitist.
In recent decades there was an initiative to change the name of Paseo de Montejo to “Paseo de Nachi Cocom”, the Mayan leader most clinging to freedom. As you can guess, it wasn’t wanted. And just to close, can you imagine who still lives and owns the White City? Bingo! White people.
YUCATECAN DELICACIES: THE BEST OF TWO WORLDS
Cynicism or not, after weeping with sadness as I traversed the history of Mayan struggle and resistance through Paseo de Montejo, the most appealing consolation was in the form of mestizo food. And “Chaya Maya” was already on my Trip Advisor list of affordable restaurants.
On 62nd Street, intersection with 57, and blocks from downtown, with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere this restaurant offers you the 100% Yucateco flavor you were looking for. The staff dressed in typical clothing asks you if you want to refresh yourself with a cold chaya- lime drink. If you don’t like green drinks, this one isn’t for you because the “chaya” is a plant that looks like a maple leaf and tastes like spinach but with a softer flavor.
I would say that in order to introduce yourself gradually to the Yucatecan cuisine, as an entry try an order of “panuchos” (handmade crispy corn tortilla, split and filled with black bean puree, topped with shredded turkey, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, pickled red onion and slice of avocado) or “salbutes” (handmade corn tortilla, topped with shredded turkey, lettuce, pickled red onion, tomatoes and slice of avocado) or a patty of cazon (fried tortilla stuffed with cazon / tender shark).
Then, move on with a lime soup. It’s not as sour as you might think! And as the main course, try the Yucatecan dish par excellence, the “cochinita pibil” (succulent pork marinated with achiote and sour orange juice, then cooked in a banana leaf and served with pickled red onion, black bean puree and handmade tortillas).
Still with room for a dessert? Try the Yucatecan version of milkshakes with the champolas. There you have, the 50% to ensure you were in Yucatan!
Oh, I forgot to tell you that these amazing dishes arose from the mixture of Spanish and indigenous ingredients.
A TIMELESS PLEASANT NIGHT WITH A “CHAMPOLA”
With a full belly and a happy heart, we were ready to keep exploring this glorious culture. We headed to Plaza Grande, where cultural activities take place every night.
Casa de Montejo, built around 1542 by orders of Francisco de Montejo, is a masterpiece of the Plateresque Renaissance style, and although today it belongs to a banking group, it is also a museum with a permanent exhibition of renovated Victorian, neo-rococo and neo-renaissance furnishings of the historic building.
Like most museums in Merida, Casa Montejo starts closing down at 6 pm, but at 8:30 pm, on its beautiful façade, is projected a video mapping show that describes its architectural details. And in this exercise of chiaroscuro, let’s remember that the downtown buildings, come from the stones of the ancient Mayan city.
It was time to relax and let my mixed feelings settle into my mind. In the traditional cement white loveseats that adorn Plaza Grande, a couple of lovers detected our countenance of tourists and after a brief tourist inquiry of “Have you’s”, they recommended us to drink a “champola”.
On 61 Street, the well-known “Colon Ice cream and Sorbets”, with more than 100 years of tradition, I felt pampered by a cold champola. It’s the Latin-American version of a milkshake but its original version is made of soursop and accompanied it with a cream pionono, a kind of sponge cake.
Sitting on a bench, my sister and I share a comfortable silence watching people enjoying a serene night, in a timeless pleasant night with a champola on hand, a white owl flew in the clear sky and I couldn’t ask more out of life.