Friday, April 08, 2022

a tale of six cities

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.


I already gave you a taste of our base camp in Valladolid for this trip in on the back of the snake. That was an essay about how modern Mexico reflects its past.

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.

This was my third visit to Valladolid. In the past, I went there as do most tourists -- to use it as a base to visit the surrounding Maya ruins. But this time, I had the luxury of time to see the city for what it is. A destination in its own right.

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 its more interesting attractions is Casa de los Venados, a grand home restored by an American couple, John and Dorianne Venator. They filled the house with Mexican art. Each of the rooms is based on a regional theme and decorated accordingly.

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 

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.

San Felipe

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. 

Saturday, April 02, 2022

spending my time not-so-well

There they go again.

To paraphrase one of the most effective lines used in an American presidential debate.

But this time the target is not politics. At least, not directly. It is the arrival of daylight saving time in Mexico.

Three weeks ago, I wrote about how airline schedules are skewed by an hour for three weeks on flights between Mexico and the other two big North American countries because of the two-step dailight saving time dance (the lost hour). The United States and Canada switched to daylight saving time three weeks ago. Mexico's turn is tomorrow.

In one of those only-Tom-Clancy-could-create-such-a-scenario, the same week the United States moodily switched to daylight saving time, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to stay on daylight time permanently. Citizens are tired of the switch. Their senators listened. There would be no more switching. Or that was the intent.

All seemed well until the medical community jumped in to point out that everyone agreed with the problem, but the politicians chose the wrong solution. According to studies (those received wisdom studies, again), the human internal clock (especially those of teenagers) work best when standard time is used. It is called "standard" for a good reason.

And that is where the matter lies. A dwindling minority of citizens likes daylight saving time. Now, the politicians are at sea how to choose what seems to be an obvious choice. A true Hobson's choice.

They can choose the standard time steed beside the livery door or they can schlep around back and mount one of the pigs in the sty. Being politicians, the chances are they will simply wander back to their high stakes poker game and gamble away our money.

That leaves us to do the tiresome duty of pushing our clocks ahead one hour tonight. Of course, in this digital era, most of our electronic doodads will set themselves, and we will be left to groggily wonder why the night passed so quickly.

So, without commentary on whether or not I like daylight saving time (I don't), I will pass along the reminder for those of you who are in Mexico.

I think I will steal an hour siesta from this afternoon as an investment for tomorrow morning.    

Friday, April 01, 2022

when tunnels trump roads

Last week I drove friends to Puerto Vallarta. They were flying home to Canada.

When I moved to this area of Mexico, the highway to Puerto Vallarta, 200, was a challenge. Narrow. Lots of blind curves. And traffic that would range from tractor slow to Ferrari fast. The type of drive that brings out the Stirling Moss in a lot of us.

The quality of the highway has greatly changed. Even I would have to admit that it has improved. Newly-paved. Widened. Plenty of passing spaces.

The only mosquito in the tortilla soup are two mountain patches. The first is just south of Puerto Vallarta where the road is simultaneously steep, serpentine, and narrow. Buses and trucks regularly constipate the flow of traffic.

The second is a similar stretch just north of Melaque where the road has exactly the same characteristics. It seems odd that the work done between El Tuito and La Manzanilla did not include the most problematic stretches of the drive between Barra de Navidad and Puerto Vallarta. After all, it is the main north-south highway on the Pacific coast of Mexico -- starting at Tepic and heading south to the Guatemala border.

As it turns out, something is being done. At least about the switchback section of road between Melaque and La Manzanilla.

Today, of all days, the Mexican federal government announced that that section of road was not improved during the last 5-years of construction because there has always been another plan on the books.

When the new bypass to Highway 80 was built, the highway designers intended it would be extended to join Highway 200 just north of La Manzanilla and it would essentially be a straight road. That did not seem possible because the same mountain spur that hosts the current road is as crooked as -- well, you can add your favorite target here.

Everything was made clear in today's official announcement. The road (the red line on the map) is almost straight because it does not go over the mountain; it goes under the mountain.

Taking a lesson from Swiss, French, and Italian highway designers, Mexico has opted for the Alps option. Or a mini-Alps option. The St. Gotthard tunnel is 10.5 miles long. This project will only be about half of that.

Funding is not a problem. Pemex is flush with cash because of the increased cost of petroleum. If Mexico can build a tourist train in Yucatan to compete with Disney, it can certainly afford to tunnel through a mountain spur. After all, there are plenty of Mexican companies who are experts in tunneling.

Including the company that dug the tunnel under the lagoon from Barra de Navidad to Colimilla back in 2016 (the tunnel to somewhere). Coincidentally, that project was announced on a day similar to this day.

Now -- what could 28 December and 1 April have in common?