Here are "missives" I emailed to family and friends while travelling cheap (hostels and buses) in the two Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan from Feb 1 - 22, 2017. I tend to be enthralled with the ordinary differences of culture and daily living and don't have the budget nor the interest in more tourist-oriented spectacles (not to put those down - to each his/her own). Hope you enjoy reading and it may even provide you with some useful information for your own travels, though that's not the intention - Alison
Missive #1 - Sent from Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico - Feb 3rd
I'm installed in the Hostal Catedral Merida in the "white city" of Merida in the state of Yucatan. I sleep (or don't as the case may be) in the top bunk in an 8-bed female dorm with a changing parade of international travellers. Currently we are from Denmark, Poland, Czech republic, Australia, Mexico and Canada - all very friendly, they don't seem put off by my 40 year seniority.
Arrived at the Merida airport last night, and as I feared there was no one to meet me, but I caught a ride into the city with an American resident here who volunteers with an organisation that spays pets for free for cash-strapped owners. She was picking up two vets from San Diego who have been volunteering for the past 8 years. A large team of international vets spay over 17,000 animals in 10 days. She dropped me off in the Plaza Grande, beside the large central cathedral, beside which is this hostel. The street was full of uber vehicles, protesting a recent gov't ban. Taxis are expensive and buses crowded so the public as well as operators are upset.
The CAD$12 I pay per night includes breakfast. This morning it was scrambled eggs with ham, pancakes, cut melon and papaya, little pottles of yoghurt with a few spoonfuls of muesli atop and of course coffee. I spent most of my first day just walking in the central area of the city through throngs of people, navigating broken sidewalks, bicycles, trucks, private cars and all manner of taxis, buses, and "colectivos" (shared fares). In the afternoon I met with Ricardo, a graduate student in archaeology who is also cousin of the night-worker at the Hostel. I took him for lunch at a recommended market stall - MXN$35 (about CAD$2.50) for pork soup with beans (puerco con frijoles) and homemade tortillas and a variety of grated vegetables to mix in. I avoided the chilis, though I've heard that liberal use can help prevent montezuma's revenge. He showed me a few spots and explained the history of the Yucatan. I'm pleased that my Spanish is serving me well....and it is a real language, Alan Vardy!
The blocks of cement houses and shops go on and on in all directions, many in advanced decay but still occupied. I can see tops of trees but they are hidden behind cement and plaster walls that rise up right from the sidewalk, located in central patios accessible only from the interior of the house. Streets are organised in odd and even numbers so for example the hostel is at calle 61 between calle 58 and 60. It faces 61 and the two cross-streets above and below are 58 & 60. It's a convenient system; you quickly know if you are heading in the wrong direction. Crowds everywhere; on the sidewalks, in the plazas, everybody seems to be selling something, from paper cones of cut fruit to battered things that look delicious but would be dangerous in a Canadian stomach. I followed a "banos publicos" sign and found out you pay MXN$5 to use a toilet, not to have a shower! Really, I should have known that. Tonight there is some sort of public spectacle in the blocked off street in front of the Cathedral. There's incense in pots and dancers, but too big a crowd to see anything.
Hasta luego y abrazos!
Missive #2 - Sent from Rio Lagartos, Yucatan - Feb 7th
I'm resting in my room at the modest Hotel Tabasco Rio (photo) with the ceiling fan going full-tilt. This morning at 7 am I was in a flat-bottomed skiff with Becky and Mike from Wisconsin and our "capitan" Francisco, exploring the Rio Largotos estuary through the channels of the bio-reserve to the salt-drying enclosures of Los Coloradas. We saw lots of sea birds, most strange, some familiar; storks, herons, flamingos, pelicans, cormorants, kingfishers, ospreys, hawks plus one semi-submerged crocodile. Francisco introduced us to his mascota (pet), a huge horseshoe crab which he carries aboard and tethers out for regular feedings. In the wild they are becoming endangered.
I arrived thankfully to Rio Lagartos from Merida yesterday after a transfer of buses and consequent confusion with my ticket. It's a town of about 2,000, dependent on fishing, salt and tourists, though I don't see much of the latter about. Very poor dwellings, made of crumbling limestone and rock, flat terrain just above sea level, roosters start about 4 am (I woke first) and coconut palms everywhere. At the cantina I enjoyed a tapa of sliced coconut meat marinated in lemon, cumin, chili and salt with my beer. That set me up for my meal to follow of fried bananas, rice, beans and some sort of deep-fried tortilla. Vegetables are a bit scarce as I'm wary of salads, so I'm finishing up the carrots and radishes I bought at the Merida market.
The last day in Merida I spent at the Grand Museum of the Maya. Caught a local bus from the historic centre out to the northern end of the city for 8 pesos (about 55 cents) and was immediately impressed when I saw the building (photo). Spent 2 hours absorbing exhibits, took respite for a snack, then was the only unaccompanied adult to enter Mayamax to watch "Buscando Dory" (never saw it in English), before returning to the exhibits for another 1.5 hrs. When I got back to the hostel Sunday evening, the community market was just winding up, but the blocked-off streets were full of people, most of them Hispanics including a sprinkle of valiant musicians struggling to be heard over the exuberant din. Made a last visit to the Gov't palace and its murals (photo).
I'm likely the last person in Mexico without a cellphone. Street vendors in rags selling 1 cigarette at a time are checking Facebook. Wifi is provided in all the parks and in any patch of shade there's someone hunched over a screen. The media, elections and opportunities for advancement are all rigged in this country and the poor sell their votes for as little as 30 pesos. Perhaps the internet can democratise? (Canadian spelling)
Tomorrow I take the bus back to Tizimin and travel east and north to Solferina, an even smaller town of 800. Tania Manzu (new lebanese mexican acquaintance) has a B&B there and I'm curious to visit after her enthused description of the area. I watched her play dominoes and it was vicious! I was still counting on my fingers as the game finished. And I thought the whole point was to make them tumble over in succession - AV
Missive #3 - Solferino & Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo - Feb 11th
Missive #3 - State of Quintana Roo, Mx: Solferino to Playa del Carmen to Island of Cozumel
After the very small town of Solferino, tourist-filled Playa del Carmen is a culture shock. Quinta Avenida (5th ave) is a pedestrian-only mecca/nightmare of restaurants, bars, tourist shops and services mixed with street vendors, musicians, break dancers, and hawkers of all kinds. I've walked in both directions and had my fill without buying anything. But the beach is lovely white sands with regular high-speed ferries going to to the island of Cozumel, one of which I will be taking tomorrow. I got hustled by a young mexican working on commission for a hotel. I accepted the conditions of listening to a 90-minute presentation (price of curiosity) in return for some freebies.
In Solferino I stayed 2 nights at Tania's B&B (photo) about 5 x my budget though discounted as she "kidnapped" me from my cheap hostel booking at nearby but noisy Holbox. I resolved to enjoy the luxury, including the pool, beautiful garden and excellent breakfasts. The morning after I arrived, I walked 3 hours return down an ancient path originally built of stone by the conquistadors to bring out lumber for their ships (photo). My destination was a cenote (photo), a natural well in the limestone. The entry hole is small but the cavern underneath is huge and very deep. There are thousands of cenotes (pronounced sen-o-tays) in the Yucatan peninsula as the water table is only about 8 meters down and many caverns and well systems form in the calc. There are no rivers, rainfall drains through to this underground water network.
Almost all the dwellings in Solferino are concrete block huts and hovels, with palm leaf roofs, hammocks for sleeping and built close to the road to economise on electricity access. Kitchens in lean-tos and bathrooms??. Many buildings look abandoned or 1/2 completed, then someone emerges with a child in tow. Large flat-screen TVs, tuned in a full volume to the Mexican beloved telenovela (soap opera). Every other dwelling sells something from their living/sleeping area: sopes, burritos, candy, hardware, tea, coffee. Lots of competition in the neighbourhood for a few pesos but nobody seems worried. People all friendly, a bit curious, quick to respond or initiate with "buenos dias". When I spoke to Tania of the poverty she looked taken aback. Her response was that everyone owns their own land here and much of what I see is lifestyle choice and indolence. The typical work week is 5.5 days from Monday to Saturday 1 pm. Often people have more than one job, but many jobs involve little activity and everywhere there's 3 people doing the job of 1.
Missive #4 - Tulúm and Cobá, Quintana Roo - Feb 16th
This traveller is beginning to flag! So many people, so much heat, garbage, vendors and add to that the confusion of a different language and culture. Sometimes I just sit down and watch it all, uncomprehending but engrossed.
From Playa del Carmen which I left with little regret, I took a spiffy ADO bus down the "Mayan Riviera" to Tulúm, much less developed and adjacent to the ancient Mayan port city of the same name. This city had it's heyday in the "post-classical" period of the Mayan civilization ie 1200 - 1500 AD. The arrival of the conquistadors put an end to their boom.
I stayed 2 days in a hostel in town and another 2 days in a 2nd hostel closer to the ruins and the beach. Bicycles were free at both places so I explored down the coast on a crowded secondary road to the "Biosfera" (Ecological Reserve) of Sian Ka'a, and swam a couple of times at the rare public access beaches. I also swam at Cenote Calvera (skull) and screwed up enough courage to jump into the central cave pool. It's a favourite spot for scuba divers as the cave is huge with lengthy underground, underwater tunnels with stalactites and stalagmites.
There were small birds flying and nesting in calcium burrows on the ceiling - I later found out they were "murcielagos" (bats) - a bit creepy!
Nature is a different concept here - it's a place to dump garbage, grant permission to pour concrete or set up stands to sell to tourists. Garbage is no longer innocuous banana leaves and organics, but plastic, cans, glass, styrofoam, all un-recycled and expensive to dispose of elsewhere. I stopped for burritos at a small camping ground in the biosfera and then walked through a slit in the dunes for a swim. Plastic in the water and a heavy litter on the shore as I walked up the beach. The shoreline private owners clean the beach regularly but the detritus keeps arriving.
Borrowed a bicycle to ride into Tulum from the 2nd hostel last night and in the dark, heard barking then felt a sudden pain in my ankle. I stopped in the next pool of dim light to inspect 4 punctures and a scrape from a dog bite. Tossed about whether to continue or turn tail but I continued, and ended up visiting a "medico" for a 5 minute appt where I was prescribed 4 medications of which I had enough pesos to buy 2. The Dr. seemed more concerned about the location of the dog than any examination of the punctures, but heck, 50 pesos. It's sore today and a bit puffy but no black lines or indications I'll lose my foot.
On a cheerier note, I arrived in Cobá today, the town with more adjacent ruins, this time dating from 600 - 1200 AD, the "classical" period of the Mayan epoch. This ancient city of 50,000 was already in decline as Tulúm was in ascendency. It is famous for its hundreds of stella; huge stones carved with heiroglyphics likely extolling those in power. There was no hostel here so for 3 x the price (an exorbitant 428 pesos or about CAD$30) I'm staying in a dimly-lit room at a small "hotel" with the luxury of an air conditioner for which I am grateful. With the remaining daylight I choose to sit on the open upper deck of their "restaurant" where I can get wifi and detect a bit of a breeze. When darkness descends I'll enjoy some Mexican TV: histrionics, loud music and a lot of sighing. Tomorrow about noon I travel to Valledolid, my last stop before returning to Mérida and from there, flying home on the 22nd.