The Yucatan, March 2010

Pinatas in the old market in Cancun
Waking at 3 am, dehydrated with a headache, in need of a bathroom, in a cabana in a fishing village so remote it lacks electricity for much of the day and most of the night, has one benefit: the bathroom is outside, where the sky is lit with a net of stars, unhindered by man-made light . I returned to the cabana and made suitable noise to wake Susan, who joined me for a viewing. There’s Orion—ok, no big deal, he’s so bright we can see him in Pittsburgh—but there’s the Big Dipper-- long time no see.

A few days before the magic of Punta Allen we landed in Cancun, picked up our rental car, and found our hotel in “old” Cancun by 9 pm.

Cancun is an easy, inexpensive excursion from the US, filled with resorts in the Hotel Zone, a thin stretch of land that extends from the coast which offers cheap holidays in the sun. No muss, no fuss. As Cancun was essentially a layover for us, we sought more local lodgings, and the Xmbalanque (Maya for “female jaguar”) fit the bill well enough. It was a large, tiled room with a cramped shower and persnickety toilet. We learned that, as in other parts of Mexico, the plumbing can’t handle toilet paper. Once used, it all it goes into a bin, not the commode.

We ventured out that evening, mistakenly turning left instead of right (which would have offered us more dining options, it turned out). We enjoyed a beer and the first half of the Mexico-North Korea football match on a patio of a popular bar a block from the hotel, the North Korean’s no doubt playing for their lives. A walk around another block yielded slim dining options, so we settled on the small taco joint near the hotel, which had a gyro-like contraption on the street. Expecting lamb, as the cooking style suggested, I was surprised to discover they were grilling pork for tacos al pastor. The pork was cooked by chunks of burning charcoal suspended on small shelves behind the meat which the cook turned manually with his spatula each minute as the leading edge cooked. He’d take a long, thin knife to carve the charred edges off the meat, which he then piled onto small corn tortillas, topped with fresh cheese and a little raw onion. I found them smoky and delicious, particularly with a couple of cold lagers into which we squeezed pieces of lime.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel (scrambled eggs with tomato salsa) and walked to the nearby market. It was just opening when we arrived and we quickly saw it catered to tourists. Susan found a second, smaller market in our guidebook so we drove there and enjoyed exploring the real thing for an hour: locals shopping the butcher shops, with haunches of beef and pork swaying in the breeze (though thankfully shaded from the aggressive sun); trays of plucked chickens; whole fish; groceries with bins filled with beans, lentils, pasta; lots of little cafes and restaurants… We had an early lunch at a taco counter whose sign offered BBQ sheep—until one looked closer and saw this was only on weekends (it was Thursday). As the locals were clearly enjoying the food, we sat down and pointed to a neighbor’s plate and raised two fingers. Lunch was grilled turkey torta (sandwich) with green chili salsa and mayonnaise (seemingly beloved the world over), and a refreshing papaya water. It was $2. For both of us, not each.

After lunch we drove north from Cancun, turning west to pick up the toll road to Valladolid, about a fast hour’s drive to the center of the peninsula. Most locals took the alternative, slower road through some no doubt interesting towns as the toll road was an expensive $20. The toll road extends to the Yucatan state capital, Merida, a city roughly on par with Cancun, a further hour beyond Vallodolid.

My former colleague and friend Tey has wisely decided to retire early and selected this charming colonial town as the place to do it. We ended up spending three terrific days with Tey, who proved a generous, indefatigable and knowledgeable host and guide. (She’s also a terrific cook.) Her house is new construction but located a short walk to the town plaza, a grand, tree-filled park in front of the main church. Tile floors and tall ceilings kept her house cool. A hammock swung gently on the second floor. She had much of her furniture made locally. It was spacious and comfortable. We were entertained by music from the local cantina half a block behind us, bird calls, barking dogs, and roosters—not just here, but everywhere we went in the Yucatan and no doubt all over the region. It didn’t keep us from sleeping.

We enjoyed a pleasant walk to the plaza, stopping for an espresso, and after touring the town’s cultural center, where we saw good-bad portraits of the town’s fathers,we witnessed a parade of colorfully dressed children being driven around the park, the kids perched in the back of pick-up trucks or in the open trunks of cars. Music blared from speakers mounted on top of the lead car; there was even a police escort. As we were near the vernal equinox Tey guessed that this announced the onset of spring. Following delicious margaritas in the open courtyard of a local hotel, we dined at a “gringo” restaurant. The delicious three-course meal, in a beautiful setting, pleasantly served, with beers to start and a bottle of Bordeaux, was about $120. As you might imagine, this is steep by local standards, where most meals rarely exceed $10 for the entire table; but we wanted to treat our hostess to a memorable meal in a pretty setting. We also paid a quick visit to a monastery next door, the oldest in the region. Undergoing some repair, it was still beautiful. A service was in progress. We admired the devotional retablo, the splendid, colorful artwork behind the altar.

Tey filled us in on the blanks over dinner. Her son now in college, she wanted to work less and experience living in the land of her ancestors—she is now officially a Mexican, the result of her Mexican mother. Of an age where she can legally draw down from her retirement account, she’s realized that Yankee dollars go much further in Mexico than the U.S.

She has braved driving to the Yucatan from western Pennsylvania (and as I write, is driving back). If you know your geography, you’ll see that this is an impressive drive, first west across the United States to Texas, south to Mexico, then south east to the peninsula. She’ll return to Pittsburgh for contract work on occasion to supplement her savings—it’ll be another few years until she’s eligible for social security—but she’ll keep her wonderful house in Valladolid while she’s away; an affordable $250 per month in rent, she doesn’t wish to risk losing it. Eventually she’ll sell her house in Pittsburgh, and possibly buy, or have built, a house in Valladolid.

Los Tomateys

While there she keeps busy with perfecting her Spanish and learning Maya, and also studies painting and Tai chi. She has local and expat friends and never seems at a shortage of things to do. In fact, she and friends Tom and Matt have formed an impressive musical trio, Los Tomateys—the name an amalgam of their three names. They performed, all in bright red shirts, the day after we arrived at a local restaurant, an engaging mix of standards, country and Tey’s beautiful version of Besame Mucho. She has a lovely singing voice.

Unfortunately, I was in some pain; earlier my back had seized up—a recurring problem that I’d hoped was behind me (heh) due to all the yoga I’d been doing over the previous year. It may have been caused by a brief visit to Tey’s hammock. It was very comfortable, but as it offered no support I wondered if this new position somehow influenced my back’s re-alignment. After I dismounted (?), I walked into the bedroom and bent slightly to pick up my backpack, immediately feeling a familiar sharp pain in my lower back and knew right away. For the remainder of the trip we walked slowly, me grimacing whenever my foot came down on an uneven surface (of which, it turned out, there are many). Fortunately driving was not a problem, as the car seat offered good support. I was able to snorkel as well, a gravity-reducing activity that gave additional relief.

Saturday turned out to be one of the best days ever, involving numerous tastes, sights, and activities.

That morning Tey and I walked (I shuffled) around the corner to the local butcher shop, where the butcher retrieved a plucked (though not headless) bird from a cooler and weighed it on a scale whose pan had hosted other chickens that morning, and which in fact had collected a small pool of “chicken juice.” He then transferred it to a cutting board, again the site of much morning butchering, and cut the bird up with a large pair of metal sheers (which had no doubt performed similar tasks all morning long).

I had to pause and think about purchasing food in the west. I feel pretty sure our Valladolid chicken led a good life—certainly better than the chickens that are bred in U.S. poultry factories. His ending was probably pretty quick. I had no qualms about eating the chicken, and felt fairly certain that I would not contract E. coli from it. I understand the need for a culture to enact laws governing proper, sanitary handling of foods, especially raw proteins. But I have to admit, watching the chicken being dismembered in front of me, and having seen this scene play out over and over again, in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, I couldn’t help think to myself how over-protective we are of ourselves in the United States. Of course in the US we are no stranger to food-born diseases, the result of industrializing the food chain in search of cheap, plentiful calories. The Mexican chicken was delicious, and no one got ill.

Makin' tacos

We picked up some conchita pibil for breakfast—slow roasted, seasoned pork that becomes fork tender. We piled this mildly spicy meat on fresh tortillas and dressed them with a little chopped onion that had rested and softened in vinegar. The tortillas were purchased at the tortilla-ia a few doors from Tey’s house. There is one of these every few blocks. The tortilla dough is made by hand; a machine shapes and bakes them. They are purchased by the kilo or half kilo. I can’t recall the pricing, but it was absurdly inexpensive.

We departed for the famous Maya ruins of Chichen Itza after lunch.

We stopped en route to visit two cenotes, large sink holes that form when the porous limestone collapses. They fill with cool, clear water and are popular with locals and visitors alike. We swam in two located close enough to each other to walk to. Both deep underground—we had to watch our heads as we descended to them—one was somewhat open to the sky above and was lit by a dramatic shaft of sunlight. Long tree roots dropped from the cave roof into the pool below. The second was more cave-like, darker, with only a small opening in the cave’s roof. Dramatic stalactites descended from the cave roof, and bats flittered around. The water was still and cool, very deep, and it was very serene and a perfect antidote to a hot, dusty day. Sacred to the Mayans, virgins were often sacrificed to the rain god by dropping them into the cave—a great honor for the virgins’ families (no word on what the young ladies thought).

Chichen Itza is the most popular of the Mayan remains that dot the Yucatan landscape. It is well maintained and organized. The number of tourist busses in its parking lot attest to its popularity. It is an easy day-trip from the resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, the second largest resort town on the Mayan Riviera.

The temples are laid out over a couple of square miles, the main pyramid more or less central. Our visit coincided with the vernal equinox, and as a result the complex was more crowded than usual, as people timed their visit to observe the shadow that forms the shape of a god/serpent on the side of the pyramid, caused by the pyramid’s steps. This shadow becomes the body of the Maya god Quetzocoatl, eventually aligning perfectly with its huge stone serpent head at the foot of the corner of the pyramid. It is impressive, doubly so as the buildings date from the 14th century. We walked through one building that served as a sporting arena, where teams vied to push a ball through a stone hoop—the winners were, apparently, sacrificed (another honor). We also saw the grand observatory. This civilization had a clear understanding of astronomy; their understanding of chemistry was perhaps more limited than that of the Spaniards who began exploring this land in the early 16th century, bringing gunpowder and shot with them, quickly overrunning the natives.

Mayan vendor: beautiful embroidery

From there the plan was to dine at Chez Tey on Pollo Pibil, marinated chicken steamed between banana leaves (which Tey “retrieved” from her neighbor’s tree).

Susan's new boyfriend on the right
 One of the guests had called though, informing us that Lucha Libre was in town that night! Dinner was postponed as a result, as we leapt at the opportunity to see this uniquely Mexican event.

Lucha Libre translates as “free fighting.” It is essentially wrestling, but the wrestlers wear colorful masks. It was dramatic, emotional, choreographed, over-the-top, and completely entertaining.

We were lucky to catch it, as it only comes to Valladolid a couple of times per year. It took place in a large warehouse, where a ring had been set up and fold-up chairs about ten rows deep on 3 sides. We showed up on time, foolishly, and though we were the first to arrive the music inside was so loud we repaired to the loading dock to drink our beers (about $.80 each. I recently paid $8 for one beer at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game). We were lucky; the wrestlers began arriving in vans. They masked themselves before getting out—their true identities can never be revealed—and posed for pictures before going inside to prepare. They must travel the country, like a carnival, or barnstormers. Entrance was about $4. By the time they began around 8:30, the place was more or less full.

We stayed to watch the first fight—complete with many body slams, head punches and kicks, rebounds off the ropes—and though greatly entertained, we were getting hungry, so Tey, Susan and I left her friends and the roaring crowd and returned to her house to prepare dinner, which we served that night around 11:30. Matt brought his guitar along and he and I played a selection of country, swing and standards before and after dinner. We were told the next fights were better than the opening match, involving things like hitting each other with chairs. I’m sorry to have missed this, but really glad I got to experience the cultural phenomenon of Lucha Libre.

On Sunday we took our leave of Tey and Vallodolid. It was raining—who knew it also rained outside of the rainy season?—but not terribly so. Our final destination was Punta Allen, but we had a stop en route, across the border from the state of Yucatan in the next state of Quintana Roo: Coba, isolated Mayan ruins in an area that forest had partially reclaimed.

Unfortunately I could only penetrate a small distance into Coba (the accent is on the last syllable). It started to rain more steadily so we took shelter in a 14th century tunnel. Twenty minutes later we began the mile-long hike to the main pyramid, but my back pain peaked that day, so Susan went on while I walked slowly back to the car. Less restored than Chichen Itza, visitors were nonetheless free to pull themselves up the pyramid, assisted by ropes. Even if healthy I’m not sure I’d have tried. Coming down the long, steep wall would have been challenging.

To get to Punta Allen one drives through Tulum, another holiday paradise and home to impressive cliff-top Maya ruins (which we visited on our way back from Punta Allen). Tulum features smaller boutique hotels rather than resorts, and we initially thought it might make a good final two nights on our trip, being about an hour’s drive south of Cancun Airport. There was no shortage of shopping and entertainment lining the 5-mile main street of the tourist area. But that area ends suddenly, and soon we were bouncing along on a badly pot-holed dirt track with the sea to our left and a gulf on our right, heading about 30 miles to Punta Allen.

This is where the rain did not help. The ground was hard and there was nowhere for the water to go. This was fine for most of the holes, but there were big ponds too, 30 or 40 feet across and up to a foot deep, hiding God knows what. However, I felt prepared for these as a driver from our time in the Middle East. The trick is to stop before the big holes, rev the engine high in first gear, and fire on through, hoping you don’t hit anything submerged; to hesitate is to stall and lose. Though harrowing, and very bumpy, it was certainly an adventure and this added to the experience—Susan said that for the first time since we arrived she truly felt like she was on vacation. We passed only a few other cars. Our little Dodge economy car performed admirably. (It got so filthy I actually paid to have it washed prior to returning it.)

Punta Allen was suggested by a friend and colleague, who’d been there a couple of months previously. He made it sound so perfect that we couldn’t resist the visit, and he did not have to worry about “overselling” it. We loved it.
The cause of my early waking, alluded to earlier
A few hotels or cabanas are available to rent. We stayed in the very basic Posada Sirena, run by an eccentric 67-year old Californian woman, who was adopted as the village mermaid (sirena). She and her husband were sailors, apparently, and arrived one day at Punta Allen 20-some years ago. After setting ashore, she met a local whose foot was badly rashed. Sirena applied some lotion to the foot which healed it. She was greeted as the protective Sirena of yore. Not sure what happened to the husband, but she’s been there ever since.

We’re glad she had a cabin available for us. The circular hut had low concrete block walls, about waist high, then screened walls, and was topped by a thatched roof. She had 3 similar properties on her compound and mostly catered to groups who came to Punta Allen to fish. We’d just missed the busy season so had the thing to ourselves. It even had electricity a few hours each morning and evening. The toilet/shower was in a separate building a few steps away. The price was $35 per night. It was very basic, and very perfect. We slept under a mosquito net (though at least one little bugger had found its way in; fortunately they favor Susan’s rich, delicious olive oil skin over my pale, dry Celtic covering). There was a couch in there, a bunk bed, a hammock (evil thing) and a coffee table. Not that we lingered inside, as there was too much to see and do outside.

Sirena pointed out the local eateries—a few restaurants on the beach, a couple of shops around the corner—and off we went. I found a bar, El Mariachi, an open cabana with a thatched roof on the beach, and popped myself onto the piece of tree trunk that passed for a barstool. Colorful locals, including a baseball team (God knew who else they played in this isolated spot; themselves?) were celebrating a win; Dolores, a rather large lady who I think was the local prostitute; and Penguini, a badly cross-eyed hermaphrodite wearing a pale blue straw Stetson. I enjoyed my beer and wrote a few lines in my journal and everyone was very pleasant, especially Dolores and Penguini who went out of their ways to introduce themselves. Later, an angry drunk man arrived and demanded tequila with a bang of his fist on the bar. It was served him with a plate of limes and salt. He was fine too, though I made a point to avoid eye contact.

I still berate myself for not immersing myself in Spanish before leaving. I studied it for three years in my early teens, and had I given it a few hours before the trip I might have had more opportunities to interact with the locals. You know, ask Dolores “How much,” and so on.

Dinner that night gave Susan a new favorite dish, ceviche. A method cooking fish without heat, the fish is marinated in acid (traditionally lime juice), which renders the flesh cooked. We enjoyed shrimp and especially octopus (pulpo, locally).

We strolled back through the town square, which featured a basketball court and some other park-like areas. A food cart offered churros, so we indulged in some of these for dessert: long fritters of fried dough, rolled in sugar. Ours were straight from the oil and hot so we blew on them but still burned our mouths as we ate them. We also enjoyed a fried banana covered in condensed milk and dried coconut. We skipped the fried slices of hot dogs, though later when I saw the fellow making a crepe filled with shredded gouda (very popular locally) I got a little jealous. Full, we returned to our cabins and passed out, just before the official “lights out” at 10 pm, when the generator stops and the village goes black.

Up early, we caught the sunrise, the clear sky promising a bright, hot day. (I began hoping that the ride back north would be drier, if not smoother, than the way down.) We walked along the beach; we were awake before the few restaurants and cafes. Eventually we settled for breakfast. Coffee, sadly, was instant, and I was reminded how popular Nescafe is in the rural world. My eggs scrambled with salsa with beans and tortillas got me through to dinner however.

A local tour operator offered a boat for a 3-hour tour with snorkeling for $120. We waited a while for the arrival of three “Europeans” with whom we could share it, splitting the cost. They never showed, so instead we decided to put the tour off for a few hours and head down a narrow dirt road to a lighthouse. We drove (I didn’t trust my back) but not without stopping to buy a six pack of beer, a couple of limes, and some ice. The path was narrow indeed—had we met another car there would have been some backing up—but after a slow mile and a half we stopped and claimed one of the small beaches that appear among the mangroves, this one no wider than 15 yards no deeper than five. We quickly set up shop and waded into the shallow water, the horizon bright and infinite before us. Susan saw a small ray. I retreated to dry land, popped open a couple of beers, sliced the lime, opened my book, and was quite happy for an hour. Interestingly, this hour was our only true “beach time” of the vacation. (I get bored after a couple of hours, but Susan claims she can stand it more.)

By about 2 pm we were in a long boat, being expertly propelled around the tip of the peninsula. We went briefly into mangrove, then out into more open water, where we saw rays, then, gloriously, a school of dolphin arcing through the calm, clear water, sometimes following the boat, at times diving under it. Then, the highlight of the vacation for Susan: our guide saw and followed a large turtle. I’d always assumed turtles would be slow, but this one swam rapidly through the water, just under the surface. He surfaced a couple of times—our guide seemed to sense when this was coming, and would shout “coming up, coming up”—about his only English, as far as I could tell—and sure enough the prehistoric head would come out, followed by the shell, then the tiny rear end as the “Tortuga” dove again.

We met an American couple at sunset at the end of a pier, where we’d repaired with a couple of beers. They mentioned Puerto Morales as their next destination, explaining that while touristy, it was less so than other stops on the Mayan Riviera. As we had one final night to kill, followed by a long day (and a 3 a.m. departure for the airport), we thought we’d spend it there too, instead of Tulum.

We took our leave of Punta Allen, and sure enough, the drive back was much drier than the drive down, as the sun had evaporated many of the pools that challenged us previously. However the drive was no less bumpy! We got to the edge of the Tulum hotel zone and stopped to pick up a beautiful young Brazilian hitchhiker for a lift to the intersection with the main road. She and some friends were supporting themselves for the summer baking and selling bread on the beaches. Her English was very good, and I taught her the word “proofing” (as regards to dough). We dropped her off and proceeded to the Maya ruins of Tulum.

Tulum is a small gem of a compound, beautifully maintained and landscaped. Dramatically situated on the edge of a cliff, its fires were first sighted by the Spanish in the 1517, and history suddenly changed hands. The buildings, including the main temple/pyramid, are in pretty good repair, though the colorful stucco exteriors are long gone. The sight is popular with day trippers from the resorts, and it was here that I saw (and heard) my first Americans in a week.

From Tulum we had a drive of about an hour north to Puerto Morales. Our guide book listed a few hotels, so we parked off the main square and walked around a little, then stopped for a beer. Another gringo couple, Joe and Stacy, sat nearby and I struck up a conversation; we asked where they were staying and they pointed to a nearby hotel. After a couple of beers we walked over and explored, then booked a room for one night. The room was large and had hot water—my second hot shower in Mexico—the others had been lukewarm at best.

We met Joe and Stacy, our new Canadian friends, for dinner that evening. Puerto Morales must see its share of Canadians, as one restaurant on the square featured poutine, which I ordered: French fries/chips in gravy with cheese curds. After a beer, we walked around and reviewed various menus. We ended up eating in a restaurant with a Lucho Libre theme. It was quite touristy—the staff spoke good English—but the food was good even if the breeze off the water was quite cool.

The next morning we enjoyed a tasty breakfast at the hotel, and Susan talked me into splurging for an additional night at the hotel, despite having to leave at 4 am to catch our 6 am flight; I would have opted to sleep in the car for a couple of hours at the airport, but in the end was glad of the room and the shower. We then arranged for a snorkeling boat with the hotel manager. Our pilot snorkeled with us, which was helpful as he pointed out some colorful fish we’d otherwise have missed. The snorkeling here was impressive, more colorful, and with more varied fish than in Punta Allen. He took us to two spots. By the end of our two hours, the ocean was getting crowded. We returned to our hotel and showered, then enjoyed a tasty seafood lunch overlooking the ocean.

Later we saw Joe and Stacy back at the hotel. They were slightly sunburned after a day exploring the region. They’d found some isolated Maya ruins and clambered around, running into only one other couple. They shared some odd beer with us—it was flavored with lime and salt—and we took our leave.

Finally, the night before our departure, I ate a whole fish, deep fried crispy, salty and hot, and served under a straw roof and over a packed-sand floor. Some local employees of regional spas enjoyed a couple of post-work drinks and the establishment’s jukebox. We walked slowly back to the hotel for a few hours sleep ahead of our 4 a.m. check in. We got to Miami by 9 a.m., then back to Pittsburgh by about 2 p.m. It was a Thursday. We probably should have burned another vacation day but both went to work Friday. It was hard, but we get so little vacation time here. We enjoyed our week in Mexico, going a little off the usual tourist path. I’m sorry I didn’t spend a couple of weeks practicing my old Spanish first, though it appears we managed to communicate with our usual pointing and raised eyebrows. It was a terrific journey, and we are certainly encouraged to investigate Tey’s version of early retirement in a place where our limited funds will go much further. I would explore other parts of the country. The people are friendly, the history rich, the food ample and fine, the scenery often breathtaking, and the living easy.

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