An Authentic Experience in Yucatan
Article and photography by Michael Morcos
The Yucatan is so close to home yet has been elusive for ages. It was a long-awaited visit and first impressions were fabulous and long lasting. I arrived at my accommodations in the late afternoon and found that the Casa Azul was a gem. It is in an old Colonial style building with a center courtyard, colorful aged ceramics, antique wood furniture, high ceilings, marble bathrooms and yet it still had all the modern amenities like Wi-Fi, a plunge pool and an absolute necessity in the climate, air conditioning.
First night’s dinner was at Santa Lucia Apoala-Restaurant, and was another great way to be introduced to Meridia. It is located in on a town square and we enjoyed a great meal served outside with live music and dancing, with the dancers dressed in very characteristic all-white clothing. Merida has live performances on every night in different parts of the city. The night started with drinks and led to a beautiful Mexican meal. The square and surrounding restaurants were filled with locals, a good sign of good food and fun. This was a quintessential Yucatan moment.
The following morning we would head to Hacienda Sotuta de Peon to learn about henequen fiber, the material that made Merida prosperous. At a certain time, it was the driving force in the Yucatan economy and the product was in great demand worldwide. Henequen is extracted from a plant that looks similar to the blue agave plant used to make tequila, and, as I found out later, this same plant could also produce a similar kind of spirit.
This working farm was large and wide-spread with the plants taking up most of the land but it also included the production facilities, a magnificent Hacienda, its own railway and carts to move the plants around and many resident mules that bear the brunt of moving the produce.
The two-hour tour would bring us to a Mayan Choza (hut) where we met a very tiny elderly Mayan man who had lived and worked on the plantation from a young age. He was truly lively and had a lot of antidotes to tell. He explained about his people and how the industry was vibrant until they started planting these plants in other parts of the world and how plastic twine had finally replaced henequen.
With so much time spent in the hot sun, it was time for some refreshment. It came in two different ways.
First was a wonderful iced margarita followed by a dip in a natural pool. But this was no ordinary swim, we would be swimming in a cenote. A dip in what, I asked?
This was a first for me, swimming in an underground cave. This state has no above-ground rivers so the numerous cenotes are popular destinations. This cenote was well lit by electric lights and there were wooden stairs that led down to cool and clear refreshing waters. Truly, a fabulous Yucatan moment. Lunch would follow, a great Yucatan feast served with local cerveza.
Dinner at Oliva Enoteca Restaurant was unusual but good. An Italian restaurant, it was the first indicator of the night that Merida also had an international flair. The intimate restaurant is set up and has the feel of an Italian grandmother’s kitchen. The casual atmosphere and homemade food made from traditional recipes offered a taste of Italy in a land half-way around the world.
We love guided city tours, especially when hosted by someone who loves their job. Our tour of Mérida started at the monument to the fatherland Merida, located on the Paseo de Montejo which is one of the busiest roundabouts of the city of Merida. Sculpted by Romulo Rozo, the piece shows us an important part of Mexico’s history from the founding of Tenochtitlan until mid-twentieth century.
A trip down through history came next, with a visit to St. Ildephonsus, one of the oldest cathedrals in all the Americas as well as the beautifully decorated Iglesia El Jesús. The guide explained that like many holy sites, the cathedral was built on the site of Mayan ruins of Tiho. The idea was used by the imperialist countries to replace the old deity with the new one in an effort to assimilate the existing culture.
We then visited the central market, a sprawling place where they sold every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. It was really crowded and noisy, but the ambiance was great. The prices were great as many vendors sold the same products which made them very competitive. What struck me most was how many shoe vendors there were!
The main avenue of the city, Paseo de Montejo, is also called the Champs de Elysee of Merida. We walked along this lovely street and it was a nice respite from the hustle of the city. There were shaded areas and amazing old mansions to gaze at, and the museums available would take more than a full day to visit.
Our day at Progreso Beach, an hour drive away, was perfect. This sleepy ocean town has earned a reputation as a great vacation spot for both locals and international tourists. Historically it was the main port for the henequen and now has worlds’ longest pier. It was also a great beach with fine white sand, perfect water temperature and we had it mostly to ourselves. The best part of the day was a new and trendy restaurant Crabster that served fresh seafood caught that day or maybe even that hour. I indulged and went for a whole lobster, the biggest I had ever eaten. It was a challenge but persistence prevailed.
That night we would go to another outdoor performance called “Serenata Noche Mexicana” which included more Mariachis, Mexican Folklore and another full crowd.
La piece de resistance, Chichen Itza.A heavenly day, this complex was truly unbelievable and the main pyramid glittered in the sun. An ancient-world pyramid, it has become one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. When you see it, visions of Mayan priests and warriors pop into your imagination. It has a weight to it. Lots of history here and my visit will stay with me.
Later we would go to the Mayaland Hotel for another great Mexican meal, and I enjoyed the fajitas made fresh on the spot, they were mouthwatering delicious. The best part was a ceremony with a Mayan priest as I was cleansed and blessed with holy water and smoke from burning plants. I was in a state of bliss.
In my few days here in Merida and the state of Yucatan I found it to be very livable with great gastronomy, safe and poverty free with a vibrant culture, happy,friendly people and a wealth of history from many people through the ages.
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