There are many faces of Mexico.
When I told friends I was on my way to the Yucatán Peninsula, the response was predictable. And varied.
"You will love it. We spent five days at an all-inclusive in Cancun. It was one of the best weeks of our lives."
"There is no better place to see authentic Mexico. How the Maya lived -- and how they live today. With the exception of Guatemala. It is more authentic."
"Don't miss Mérida. It is true Mexico. Its colonial and pre-Revolution architecture make it the 'Paris of the Yucatán.'"
And, you know what? They were all correct.
The debate (carried on mainly by people not born in Mexico) about what is truly "authentic" in Mexico amuses me because it says more about the prejudices of the participants than it does about Mexico.
There are many Mexicos. And each is as authentic as the last -- for one simple reason. Each place exists. And it is in Mexico.
So, here is a brief summary of the cities and towns Dan, Patti, and I visited during our expedition on The Peninsula. Each place is worthy of its own essay, but we will leave the details for the comments section.
And Valladolid has quite a past. When the Spanish arrived in 1543, there was a Maya settlement, Saki, where Valladolid is now built. The Spanish used the stones of Saki to build their new city atop the ruins of the Maya town. Urban renewal by conquest.
The Maya did not appreciate being a conquered people. They rose in revolt in 1546 and 1705, and then havoc broke out in 1847 with the Caste War when the white and mestizo settlers abandoned the city in flight to Merida. The Maya killed half of the escapees in an ambush. That war continued until 1915 when the British agreed to stop arming the Maya -- all in a dispute over the oddly-named British Honduras.
That tension is reflected in the city's architecture. Churches on The Peninsula often look like fortresses. For good reason. In times of revolt, the churches served as arks. As refuges.
Even this tiny chapel looks more fortress than place of contemplation.
It does not have the beautiful architecture of Mérida. But it does have a colonial core built around a town square that is as attractive as any other city of its size. It also has a certain air of contemporary quirkiness.
One of my favorite rooms was the formal dining room with faces of noted Mexican personalities painted on the backs of the chairs. It may be the only time that Porfirio Diaz, Miguel Hidalgo, and Cantinflas dined together.
Mérida was familiar to the three of us, On my prior two visits to The Peninsula, I spent most of my time there. A few years ago, Dan and Patti auditioned The Peninsula as a possible retirement spot. They lived on the Gulf coast just north of Mérida.
Our visit to Mérida was brief. Our Valladolid hostess had a medical appointment there. So, we drove her to the city and decided to take a brief walkabout in what is one of the nice colonial restorations in Mexico.
That was the culture part of the trip. What we mainly did was eat an early lunch (or late breakfast) at one of the city's more famous restaurants: La Chaya Maya.
Everything I have eaten there in the past has been good. This time was no different. For the sake of irony, I chose lomitos de Valladolid -- a pork dish cooked in a tomato sauce that is a specialty in Valladolid.
By reputation, Izamal was not new to me. But I had never visited. The city is renowned for its colonial architecture painted a bright yellow. The choice is stunning.
We came for two reasons. The first was Dan and Patti wanted to introduce me to this special part of The Peninsula. The second was for lunch.
Driving a total of four hours to eat lunch raises expectations. And they were met. The most famous restaurant in town is Kinich -- known for its regional Maya cuisine. My choice was poc chuch.
You may wonder why I tend to choose pork dishes on my taste tests. The answer is simple. Mexico's pork is some of the finest I have ever tasted.
We had an additional special stop on our trip to the ruins at Mayapan (finding my inner maya). Mexico has a program to honor and protect some of its heritage sites -- Pueblos Magicos. Magic towns. There are 132 of them strewn throughout the country.
The sardonic see them as a clever mechanism to lure tourists where they would not usually tread. And it works. The three of us were lured to the interesting little town of Mani because of its Magic Town designation.
The big draw is the church -- Iglesia de San Miguel Arcangel. I visited it twelve years ago. Like other churches on The Peninsula, it was periodically used as a place of refuge during Maya uprisings.
If I ever complete this series, I will tell you about our flamingo journey. On our way there, we stopped at the small fishing village of San Felipe to investigate the available boat trips.
We did not take one, but I was re-introduced to an interesting aspect of culture on The Peninsula. Geography makes The Peninsula a world apart from the rest of Mexico. Because of swamps, distance, and other obstructions, the area was effectively isolated. The first railroad and highway linking The Peninsula to the rest of Mexico were not built until the 1950s and 1960s respectively. Before that, commercial links were by sea.
As a result The Peninsula was linked closer with the Caribbean and New Orleans than with Mexico. That is why San Felipe has a distinct Caribbean look in its architecture.
My experience with Cozumel prior to this trip was as a cruise ship passenger. As a result, I saw it as a place for snorkeling and rinsing sand out of my swim suit.
Dan and Patti showed me it is far more than that. They ran a business and lived there long enough to establish an extensive commercial and personal network with people on the island. We have already discussed those contacts briefly in on the back of the snake.
What I once saw only as a tourist haven, I now see as a place that people call home. Much as people in Barra de Navidad see its touristy surface, while others see it as a place where they live and live nowhere else.
That thought came to me in an odd disguise while Dan and I were walking through the market where residents do their daily shopping. One of the small restaurants caught my attention. An Indonesian-Philippines eatery tucked in amongst the butcher and fish shops.
It was not there to feed tourists. Though I suspect some tourists might seek it out. It was there for cruise ship crew members looking for food from their homeland. Local and international folded into one big murtabak.
Is a murtabak folded and served in Cozumel authentically Mexican? Why not, we think of tacos al pastor as being "authentically" Mexican when they are simply a Lebanese shawarma tarted up with local ingredients.
That was the hook of this essay. What is authentically Mexican? The question, of course, is a tautology. If it is in Mexico, it has become Mexican. And it is authentic.
Like the pelicans of San Felipe. The Valladolid cuisine served in Mérida. The back streets of Cozumel with their pun-ridden restaurants. The helpful policeman in Mani handing out business cards to tourists. The Izamal shops selling foreign goods as local. Even the high-rise hotels of Cancun that suck in foreign hard currency and employ thousands of Mexicans.
Part of me wishes I had made the trip to Ukraine that this trek supplanted. But, at the end, Dan and Patty offered me two weeks of joy in a place that I will always enjoy visiting.
Note -- The next (and perhaps last) installment of this series will be about wildlife on the peninsula. Or, at least, a specific type of wildlife. While going through my photographs of this trip, I realized I have some shots that I would like to share with you. If I have time (and due to family circumstances, that looks less likely), I will post them after the next installment. Without comment. From me.