May 31, 2016

Yucatan Peninsula Packed with Great Excursions

The Hon. Thomas C. Warren

For the winter escape this year, Mary Ann and I opted for Merida, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Interestingly, there are three Mexican states in the Peninsula, Quintana Roo with the capital of Chetumal (on the border with Belize), Campeche with the capital of Campeche city, and Yucatan with the capital of Merida. Alaska Airlines has a direct flight to Cancun (the largest city in Quintana Roo) from Seattle, so we were able to use a companion fare and save money (you know me, the frugal guy) over tickets directly to Merida. You then take one of the very high quality first-class buses either from the airport or Cancun on a four-hour trip with ADO bus lines.

For those of you who are familiar with our winter trips, as usual we rented a casa, this year in the centro district of Merida, through VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner). As usual we found one large enough to accommodate the family when they joined us. Casa Noel is a three bedroom very long place ending with a pool. You can check it out on VRBO.

The casa was wonderful with a lot of space, near restaurants and the fun of the Paseo de Montejo, and far enough from the Plaza Grande to get in lots of steps on our Fitbit competition. We have gotten a lot of exercise going to so many places in Merida, so that we regularly get 15,000+ steps a day. I know, I know, that is so unlike me! This is so even when the cab fares are so cheap, 50 pesos ($2.75 US) anywhere in the centro historico. You really do get to learn about a city when you walk so much of it every day. The city is very safe, and we have had no qualms about walking day or even in the late evening. There was a lot of policia presence around to include the tourist, municipal, school, state, federal and coordination varieties, in cars, trucks, three wheelers, bikes and walking.

Merida was the first city we have had a long visit in, that is virtually flat everywhere. I think the curb at the end of our calle was the high point in elevation. We had a lot of fun joking about a television tower about a half block from the casa, which is very high and brightly lit. We dubbed it the Eiffel Tower of Merida, and we could see it from most anywhere in town so we knew how to get home. The beauty of our location was that we were about two and a half blocks from the Paseo de Montejo, known as the Champs Elysees of Merida. This may be a bit of an exaggeration but it is a beautiful boulevard. All of the old mansions of the henequen millionaires were built (and imported from France) on the Paseo. Many have been fully restored or adapted for corporate use or are now museums. Others are awaiting a benefactor, but show tremendous potential. Two of our favorite museums are on the Paseo, the Archeology Museum (Museo Palacio Canton), and a private home still owned by one of the big henequen hacienda families, the Casa La Quinta Montes Molina. The home is as it was in the early 1900s with all the original furniture, paintings, Tiffany glass leaded windows and Bacharach glass chandeliers. The home is now open for tours in English and Spanish. You really cannot visit Merida without a walk on the Paseo. At the south end on Saturday night they have Mexican dancing and singing called Noche Mexicana, and a lot of craft vendors, all which was a lot of fun.

Learning about the Mayan culture and history made for a very different vacation for us, as we opted for a lot of excursions all over the peninsula. Rather than always taking tours we quickly learned how to use the local buses to get to the places we wanted to see. These included the pyramids of Uxmal which we probably enjoyed even more than the famous Chichen Itza, and a bus trip to the east to visit the town of Izamal, which is a lovely community of squares, small pyramids, horse carriages, a convent, and everything painted all in yellow. We were in Izamal at carnival time so we enjoyed the costumes, parade floats and festivities. To get a flavor for the Gulf of Mexico we took the bus to Progresso where cruise ships often visit and the beach is there for lots of fun. At the end of our vacation while relaxing in Cancun, we took a tour to Tulum, the only major ruins on the Caribbean.

Chichen Itza

We could never have faced the ridicule, if we had lived in the Yucatan for a month and had never visited the world heritage site of Chichen Itza, the capital of the Mayan empire. This was saved to near the end of our visit, and we did it, and two cenotes (sink holes where you can swim) by private tour with all of our kids and granddaughter, for a grand herd of eight. The main pyramid of Castillo de Kukulcan is truly magnificent dating from the 750-950 AD peak of the Mayan empire. Following this visit, we enjoyed the two cenotes. These are sink holes formed as part of the ring of the meteor impact millions of years ago and now fed with fresh water from underground springs.

Our stay in Merida was so interesting because there are so many cultural things to do. Besides the Paseo museums, there are the museums around the Plaza Grande to include the Governor’s Palace and its murals, the Casa Montejo, the restored home of the founder of Merida, and the Mackay Contemporary Art Museum, all of which we enjoyed. On the Plaza is the Franciscan Cathedral, which is very plain as compared with the Jesuit churches. The plaza itself is a wonderful place to hang out, with thousands of Mexicans joining us. In the centro area there are excellent restaurants, many of which we enjoyed, and I have had fun writing TripAdvisor reviews about. One thing about the Yucatan, which Mary Ann discovered, was that there are not a lot of unique handicraft items as compared with Oaxaca, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato. Ah, the crises of shopping!

Henequen

So what about the henequen? The henequen plant is a brother (sister?) to the agave from which all the tequila and mescal is derived. When we saw the henequen plants the first time we actually thought they were the agave. Henequen is used to make rope and in the late 1800s and early 1900s was the economic driver of the Yucatan. Huge haciendas and henequen ranches were built, and made millionaires out of the businessmen who got into this trade. The beautiful French-designed mansions on the Paseo de Montejo in Merida were built by these successful ranchers. Henequen is also known as sisal, which got its name from the port on the Gulf of Mexico from which all the henequen was shipped, and all the bags had been stamped with “Sisal” so the world came to know the rope as sisal. The industry came to an abrupt end when artificial rope was invented and the real thing could not compete. Also in the early 1900s after the Mexican revolution, land reform broke up the haciendas. It takes at least 30,000 acres to have a viable ranch and after the revolution only 10 percent of the holdings could be kept, and 3,000 acres wasn’t sufficient.

Our education about all this came from walking by a sandwich board advertising tours to the Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, a working henequen ranch. Mary Ann who pointed out the sandwich board, of course, thought I did not see it, did not hear her, or was not interested. Later I researched their website and was amazed to find it was the No. 1-ranked destination in Merida on TripAdvisor. Thus off we went for a daytrip splurge to the hacienda. It was a great excursion, with being able to see the original hacienda, the working buildings demonstrating the manufacture of henequen, and a trip though the growing plants on a train pulled by donkeys. The train cars are called “trucks” and were used to bring the cut henequen from the ranch into the factory. Also on the property was a cave cenote for swimming and a “truck ‘o’ bar” to keep the non-swimmers happy. The day ended with having a great lunch and meeting some very nice fellow trippers. Needless to say, all of our family ultimately experienced this wonderful educational destination, which in our opinion was also the top experience for us while in Merida.

The Hon. Thomas C. Warren