The thing is, I really didn’t think I could afford the hat.
I liked it. It felt cool and comforting on my head. It sat naturally on my crown with no fussing. The roll of the brim had a slightly rakish appeal that the rest of me certainly didn’t exude.
Still, $3,200 pesos? Taxes are coming up. So is rent. And a trip or two back to the States for both Rose and me. Really, I wasn’t even sure that we should have been taking this mini-vacation to the beautiful colonial city of Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Buying a hand-made Panama hat in Merida seemed so out of the question. So frivolous. So self-indulgent. So . . . expensive.
“Consider $2,400 pesos. Would that put this hat upon your head?”
Really, I have taxes to pay, and rent . . .
“At the Yaa-Kun Maya co-op we work for the love of our creations. It is not about the money. It is about putting our Mayan creations in the right hands. $2,000 pesos? Would that do it for you, Senor Roberto?”
This guy was so good. All the while giving the local history of the Panama, called the jipijapa (hippie-hoppa), made from sisal, a local strain of agave plant known for its tight and flexible weave, and made by Mayans in Becal, in underground caves where the air is moist and cool. This particular Panama could be rolled up tight and would spring back to the original shape. Not all Panamas can do that.
“Roberto, open your wallet, look inside and tell me what you can afford.”
I did, and saw two $500-peso notes. Could I really insult him by saying so?
I’m a ball cap kind of guy but striding out of the Yaa-Kun co-op on Calle 62, just a couple of blocks up from Plaza Grande, with a crisp new Panama on my head felt so right. I stood taller, made eye contact with everyone and privately wished that I still owned my old tropical seersucker suit.
Something must have worked. Every time we strolled out into Merida’s historical Central District, I was complimented on the hat. The best came from an elderly gentleman named Victor, a retired professor of Mayan history who used to weave Panamas in his youth. He noted the crease, the tightness of the sisal weave and said, “In some places, this hat would bring $6,000 pesos.”
I so wanted to talk with Victor some more, but our waiter at the Main Street Cafe in Parque de la Maternidad had snatched away Rose and was leading her by hand down the street and around a corner to another Mayan co-op. Rose had casually mentioned an interest in masks. (She has a collection from all over the world.) He knew just the place, with the best collection of masks in Merida.
As they disappeared around a corner, I apologized to Victor and said that I hoped we would meet up again some day to talk about Yucatan-Mayan history, and then took off at a run to catch up.
We didn’t see Victor again.
But such magical moments continued to pour down upon us like a refreshing Caribbean rain in Merida.
One evening we strolled past the two foreboding looking policemen and into the Governor’s Palace, just off Plaza Grande, drawn by the open courtyard, warm green walls and glimpses of spectacular looking murals. Indeed, on the walls of the two-story courtyard and a very large upper room were 31 large paintings by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting the often tragic Mayan history on the Yucatan.
The murals are stunning in their raw power and emotion, showing images of war, oppression, courage, strength, torture, passion and faith. Strolling the thoughtfully lit corridors of the Governor’s Palace on a warm still evening brought the images to life, the quiet allowed ghosts to step out from the walls and tell their stories. We could feel the anguish of the Mayans under Spanish and Catholic oppression, and their defiance.
Directly across the plaza was another museum, on the opposite spectrum of Yucatan life, Museo Casa Montejo. It is a small exhibit of elegant colonial Victorian-era furnishings within the mansion of the Spanish conqueror of the Yucatan, Francisco Montejo. The building also doubles as a bank (which sponsors the exhibit). The furnishings are beautifully restored and well appointed in the handful of rooms. There is even a gift shop with high-end Mayan creations.
More magic, on our last evening in Merida, as we walked reluctantly back toward our hotel, we passed by the entrance to a grand courtyard at Calle 60 & 57. Inside we could see stage lights streaking around the room, a large audience and voices — we could here lush pop voices singing.
My first Rule of Merida is: Step through every doorway, into every courtyard; you’ll never regret it.
So we did.
Six young singers were belting out powerful romantic ballads, cool pop songs and hot torch tunes — backed by a tight scorching seven piece band. They each took turns at center stage and sometimes the whole group would sing chorus. Sometimes they sang in duets. I have no idea what they were singing. They were simply singing like there was no tomorrow.
We simply sat on a stone bench at the edge of the crowd and took it all in. Sitting across from us was an elderly Meridan couple, clearly as into it as we were, and I couldn’t help but notice that they gently held on to each other through the whole show, breaking away only to applaud.
The romantic magic of Merida it seems works for visitors and natives alike.
So much of our five days in Merida was spent either on the Plaza Grande or using it as a jumping off point to some fresh discovery.
On our first full day, we jumped on the all-Spanish language double-decker Turibus for a grand tour of the city, starting in front of the Cathederal de San Ildefonso, on the eastern edge of the Grand Plaza. (There is an all-English tour at another park but with map and a modicum of Spanish we got what we needed from this one.) The 90-minute ride takes you north to the grand boulevard Paseo de Montejo past the Monumento a la Bandera and the Plaza de Toros before returning to the plaza.
Along the way are mansions of breathtaking beauty and architecture and for quite a few crumbling walls and overgrown courtyards hide abandoned shells of old estates, looking like broken wedding cakes. They seem to cry out, “I was once beautiful and admired by men and women of position!” From the molting shadows of their former beauty and glory, they beg for restoration or, at the least, exploration.
On weekends, the streets around the Grand Plaza are closed to vehicle traffic and given over to boulevard strollers, sidewalk bistros, music and dancing and Mayan vendors. On Sundays, more than five miles of major public roads are completely closed (8 a.m. to noon) for the Bici-Ruta. Bicyclists and walkers can travel, unthreatened, from the Ermita de Santa Isabel at Calles 77 and 66 up past Plaza Grande and up Calle 60 to the very end of Paseo de Montejo . It is an exhilarating way to see the city.
We rented bikes for two days from Bici Merida on Paseo de Montejo and managed to cover quite a bit of ground. On Sundays there is a mad crush to rent bicycles up and down the Bici Ruta, so renting on Saturday and returning on Sunday afternoon saved us lots of time. Two bikes came to $300 pesos, a total of $20 USD.
I’ve seen some Trip Advisor messages that make Merida sound like a combat zone for cyclists. Clearly they are written by people who do not bicycle or live in the country. Sure it is a city, an old one at that, so it has challenges but honestly we found it easier getting around Merida than San Francisco, one of the bike-friendliest cities in the US.
For one, Merida traffic flows smoothly on one-way streets and it is not fast. The streets allow one lane of traffic, one curb for parking — leaving a very comfortable lane for cyclists.
Life in the parks
It was an easy five-block walk from our little boutique hotel to Plaza Grande and that is exactly where we found ourselves, two and three times a day. First, the people watching is simply the best. As is the lemon gelato at a nearby sidewalk cafe.
So much goes on in this one square! On Friday night, Mayans demonstrated their own ancient brand of football (soccer) in front of the cathedral and later Mayan priests patiently “blessed” scores of people waiting in lines. On Saturday day night a rock band played on a platform right next to Cathedral de San Ildefonso.
On Sunday, the activity shifts to the other side of the plaza where Calle 62 becomes a concert venue for a classical orchestra, folkloric bands and dancers and finally, toward dusk, people young and old flood the street for tropical big band fueled dancing.
Also around dusk, the local police band — with a sharp line of drummers back by a row of cacophonous horns — and a well-armed color guard, lower the Mexican flag with great ceremony.
There are nearly a dozen parks in Merida’s Historic District. They came in all sizes and personalities. Common to nearly all seems to be a very old Catholic church on one side, facing a government complex on the other. The balance of the parks are filled out with museums, art galleries, sidewalk bistros and rows of street vendors. Most parks have benches and love seats and I’m told there is a concert in a different park every night of the week.
Some of the parks, especially Plaza Grande, offer free WiFi and there are even power plugs behind benches to re-energize your iPhone.
Grazing through Merida
Just about everyone who offered suggestions on where to eat in Merida mentioned a tiny Italian restaurant on the corner of Calle 56 and 49, called the Oliva Kitchen & Bar. Seriously, it is almost all kitchen. There are about six tables squeezed in and several bar stools.
We bicycled over on a piping hot Saturday afternoon and were able to claim two of the bar stools.
Rose waxed ecstatically over her Il Carbonera and I was pretty stoked over whatever it was that I had, something with an Italian name, maybe Cicciotella. Even the garlic bread had us humming. But the desert, the tiramisu, was like none I’d ever tasted before. I would crawl back there on my hands and knees for another serving of that.
I was a bit taken aback by some reviews of this little gem on on Trip Advisor that complained about the lack of freebies, like water and bread and the size of the wine servings. First, we were given glasses of water and the wine servings came in standard-size cruets beffoe the pour. All I have to say is, if your kind of restaurant experience requires free stuff on the table, maybe a place like Oliva is not for you.
This was Rose’s favorite dining experience, even though we ate at the highly touted Apoala and the Disneyesque Maya Chaya Cafe and enjoyed the hearty portions of Main Street Cafe.
My favorite was the near-unpronounceable La Prospe del X’tup, on Calle 59, between C.66 & 64. The setting is a charming old courtyard with the air of Roman ruins about it. Probably the most romantic setting we’ve ever encountered for a restaurant. And definitely not because the strolling troubadours came up to play “Besame Mucho” for Rose.
The still cool air, the thoughtful lighting, the rose-red walls and creme-white crown molding and limestone pillars, the calm hush (tragically few diners were present), lush vegetation — it all created the welcoming vibe of a Zen meditation room.
But nothing was more welcoming than the spicy tamarind margaritas with chili pepper around the rim. Damn were those good. The Mayan accented menu was rich with choices and the servings were more than one person could hope to finish. My Poc-Chuc and Rose’s Tacos de Carne Ahumada made us feel we were closer than ever to an authentic Mayan dinner experience.
Going back? Heck yeah!
Before talking about going back, I should mention how we got to Merida from Ambergris Caye. We took the long way, not because it would save us so much money, though it did, but because we had the time.
The trip started with a mad dash to the Maya terminal in San Pedro, where we made the 7:30 a.m. flight to Corozal with minutes to spare. Because this was our first ever border crossing from Belize, we used a local transport service from the airport to the bus terminal in Chetumal, Mexico. Henry talked us through the border-crossing process, made sure we got a good exchange on dollars for pesos and got us to the Europe bus with plenty of time.
The 4.5-hour ride to Merida was a breeze in the luxury, air conditioned bus. We had the scenery, some really bad movies and our own books to distract us. There was one pitstop midway to Merida.
There was a hitch in the return trip that had us showing of at the Corozal airport 10 minutes late for the flight to San Pedro. Thank you Maya Island Air for holding up the plane!
So, going back? You bet. There are direct flights from Tropic Air to Merida but they are too pricey for me. I’d always consider using the bus or even renting a car in Chetumal and driving, assuming our hotel had parking as there is very little in the city.
In the future, I’d map out visits according to themes — an all-museum-and-Mayan-ruins week, an all-foodie week, an all-Spanish immersion month, an all-bicycle week (with day-trips outside the city). I would love to set up a Hidden Merida Tour — a glimpse into the inside of homes and Colonial palaces and especially the lush courtyards that hide behind drab walls.
I think that the most beautiful parts of Merida are hidden behind the plain stucco fronts of the endless rows of houses on narrow streets.
And Merida, we have only had but a small taste of your beauty.
Some of the faces of Merida
And finally, what do you think of my new jipijapa?