Merida: Gateway to the Mayan country
As our flight started to descend towards Merida’s Manuel Crescencio Rejón International Airport, we experienced a momentary jolt and a flash of light. It was a lightning strike, I never experienced one like that ever in my many years of flying. It was raining heavily like in Kerala. It felt like landing in Kochi airport, the heat, humidity, and a kind of humid/musty smell inside the terminal building matched very well.
Along with customs, and immigration officials we were greeted by drug-sniffing dogs. It looked like the security was tight. Customs formalities were simple and fast. We walked to the taxi booth and took a cab to our hotel; about 20 minutes ride.
Modern day Mexico (Mēxihco) arose out of the Aztec Empire of the past. During the Spanish colonial era, she was known as New Spain. Later in the 1800s, it was called República Mexicana. Area wise Mexico is the 13th largest country in the world. It extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean from west to east and shares long border (3,141km long) with the United States. On the south side, Mexico shares her border with Guatemala and Belize.
Over the years, the Mexican culture has gone through many iterations as it transformed into a modern society. Migration, cultural integration, people movement from farming villages to urban areas, economy, industrialization, globalization all have contributed to the cultural reform. The Mexican population is a vibrant mix of Mestizo (Spanish and indigenous mix), Amerindian (indigenous people), and white. Main Language is Spanish, but there are indigenous languages such as Mayan, Nahuatl, and other regional languages in use. Mexicans are mainly Catholics, but their faith has added features of pre-Hispanic and Mayan practices.
Mexican’s celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12 celebrating the appearance of the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Mexico, to a native Indian during the beginning of the Spanish rule. Mexican Independence Day is on September 16. Mexico got independence from Spain in 1810. Another major celebration is Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday, celebrating the victory over the French army by the Mexican army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Beer and tequilas play a greater role in the festivities.
Mexican art, such as pottery, colorful garments, shawls, baskets, certain folk art, etc. are well known, The Mariachi music is traditional Mexican music that originated in the 19th century. The Mexican Sombrero (wide-brimmed hat), Scrape (men's clothing blanket), and the charro suits are associated with Mexico. Mexico is also known for Tortillas, tequilas, avocadoes, and many varieties of hot peppers such as Serrano, Chipotle, Habanero, and Poblano.
Tourism is important to Mexico. Visitors flock to all-inclusive resorts/hotels close to the beaches in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, Cozumel, Puerto Vallarta, etc. Mexico is a boon to people from cold climates, US, Canada, Europe, etc. as the weather in Mexico is tropical with sunny bright days, calm ocean waters and white sandy beaches. According to reports about 10.6 million people, 2 million from Canada, visit Mexico annually. Despite the high crime rate in Mexico, people from all over the world come and enjoy the sights, sounds, cuisine, and the climate.
Crime in Mexico is high, mostly confined to areas other than tourism-oriented places. Mexican drug cartels and gangs fight, maim and kill each other, and government officials, and police officers to establish their territories. They are vicious, and innocent bystanders often get caught in the crossfire.
Merida was relatively unknown to me until our friend invited us to his daughter's wedding. Thus, after some research, I learned that Merida has historical importance. It is the Mayan country. This unassuming city is the capital of Yucatan Province and has many areas with Mayan influence that showcase historical attractions. There are Haciendas, and nature preserves in and around Merida.
Even though the wedding location was about 35 minutes outside the city at the historic Hacienda Dzibikak, we opted to stay in the city and travel around. Merida is the capital of the Yucatan state and is not that famous as other tourist destinations. But Merida is in the center of Mayan ruins. This capital city has her own attractions as she has Mayan and Colonial backgrounds.
It is not a flashy town, but with decent hotels, restaurants, and well-connected by highways to other major resort towns, historic places, and nature preserves. Merida has broad tree-lined boulevards, as well as narrow alleyways and streets lined with colorful buildings, residential, storefronts, and restaurants. Pasejo Montejo is a wide tree-lined avenue. There are majestic, historic, colonial structures, and age-old cathedrals. There are plazas, and squares where people gather to celebrate. Mayan culture is very evident in this town.
Merida is located inland, thus no beaches. The nearest Progreso beach is about 40 kilometers and the Celestun beach is about 109 kilometers away. The major resort town of Cancun is located about 300 kilometers to the east. Thus, the all-inclusive-beach-going-crowd stays away from Merida There aren’t many resorts, but a few nice hotels in and around. Our stay at the Wyndham Merida was nothing exceptional but sufficed our needs. Good food, great staff, nice location, and overall good feeling.
The Mérida Cathedral is one of the oldest cathedrals that was built on the ruins of the Maya settlement of Ichcansiho and was completed in 1598. Juan Miguel de Agüero was the prime architect.
The food scene in Merida attracts many as it is a concoction of the colonial, and indigenous mixture. Like every country, the food has regional flavors due to ingredients, techniques used, and other nuances. There are a few local markets where fresh fruits, vegetables, and local and exotic produces are available.
We traveled around; near and far to see the beautiful countrysides and villages. To a certain extent, the flora and fauna look like what we have in Kerala. The highways are well-maintained and clean. Villages are sparsely populated and isolated in the Yucatan peninsula flora fauna. We saw cashews, mangoes, coconuts, plantains, along with varieties of Agave plants, avocado, Mexican limes, tamarind, corn crops, many other native and ornamental trees (such as Golden Shower Tree, Plumeria, Royal Poinciana, etc.), and bushes along roadsides, and across the countrysides.
Merida has many markets, churches, and cathedrals and in the not too far away there are many attractions, including Mayan ruins, nature preserves, Haciendas to explore.
Mayan Ruins in Uxmal
The trip to Uxmal was an eye-opening experience. Uxmal (“oosh-Mahl”) is designated as a World Heritage Site since it has some of the most attractive Mayan artifacts of yesteryears. Uxmal is about an hour, about 85 kilometers, from Merida.
This Mayan archaeological site exemplifies the Puuc architecture style. The tallest building is 115 feet high and is called The Pyramid of the Magician. It was said to have begun in the 16th century and continued through 10th. There are many smaller pyramids and they all uniquely represent the Mayan times.
Celestun Nature (Biosphere) Reserve
Celestun visit was fascinating. Celestun is about 85 kilometers west of Merida on the Gulf of Mexico. The Celestun Nature Reserve (59,130 hectares in size) is a huge estuary, and a wetland; a combination of freshwater from the estuary and saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico creates a unique ecosystem.
It is home to many floras, and fauna. It is a fascinating sight to see many thousands of pink flamingoes converge in one location to feed.
It is the main feeding area and winter home of a large population of pink flamingos, migrant and wintering waterbirds, shorebirds and songbirds, herons, pelicans, and other migratory birds.
The estuary also supports endangered sea turtles, a variety of bird, plant, fish and marine species. Since 1979 the Celestun Wildlife Refuge is a protected area.
A boat ride on the estuary to see the pink flamingoes, and through the mangrove swamps is relaxing on a hot tropical day.
The town of Celestun has many miles of white sandy sundrenched beach that is close to the nature preserve.
Hacienda is an estate or plantation. The term hacienda usually refers to large size (animal or agricultural) farms. It is interesting to see the evolution of Haciendas. The original cattle ranches become corn and sugar farms and later turned into henequen (agave) estates. Haciendas henequeneras were agave plantations or estates in the Yucatán province of Mexico. Agave plants were cultivated on large scale during the 19th century for the fiber of the plant to make rope, twine, and fabrics.
The prominence of Haciendas started to decline during the Mexican Revolution. The demand for sisal/agave fiber steadily declined during the Depression era. The increasing cost of managing a large labor force to maintain the Haciendas also contributed to the fall of these large estates. Thus, by the late 1930s, most of the Haciendas went out of business. The agricultural land reforms by the Mexican government also contributed to such an event. There are few in existence showcasing the golden era of haciendas, ‘old-world’ farming life, and fiber production to support the tourism industry.
Mexican ‘Green Gold’
The agave plant is known as the ‘Green Gold' of Mexico. Agave is one of the major commercial crops. It produces agave fiber known as henequen, and tequila, the unique Mexican alcoholic spirit. There are a few varieties of this plant: Agave fourcroydes, Agave sisalana (Sisal), Agave tequilana, etc.
The leaves of fourcroydes and sisalana (Sisal) are rich in fiber (henequen). The fiber is used in the manufacturing of ropes, twines, other products including paper, cloth, footwear, hats, bags, carpets, etc. Agave tequilana is used in the production of tequila. In the early part of the 20th century, the Yucatan region of Mexico exported thousands of tonnes of ‘Henequén’ rope and textile fibers to many countries.
Tequila is a uniquely Mexican alcoholic spirit. Tequila has been in production since the 16th century. It is made from blue agave plant cultivated mainly in the Town of Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila is part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site in Mexico.
Once the external sheathing and leaves are removed, the piña (the core) of the agave plant is roasted for many hours, to release sugars and juices to make tequila. Then it is distilled and aged in oak barrels for 2 to 12 months depends on the desired product. The industry is regulated by the Mexican government to keep up the quality.
A visit to Hacienda Dzibikak
The wedding was at Hacienda Dzibikak. The property is located about 30 km from Merida in the town of Umán. This hacienda came to life during the 19th century henequen boom time. The community of Dzibikak was a Mayan settlement. Our bus took us back and forth from our hotel in ac comfort.
With the decline of the henequen industry, the world of haciendas came crashing down. Many were abandoned or closed. The ruins of Hacienda Dzibikak was taken over by new investors and renovated it. Now it hosts many events, including weddings, corporate meetings, and for photo shoots. It is also the location for the Mérida Music Festival.
During our visit to Sotuta de Peón, Hacienda Viva, we were able to see a Cenote, Dzul Ha, up and close. Cenotes are subterranean pools, rivers, sinkholes, or ponds. They are formed out of limestone basins. There are open-air cenotes also. Mayans called them ‘sacred well’. They were indeed a water source for Mayan people even during the height of heat and drought. They have crystal clear, and pristine water. Swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking are allowed according to the cenotes.
Yucatan Food Scene
Merida has many good restaurants. Restaurants become livelier after 7 PM with people and music. Many streets turn into people places as cars and other vehicular traffic is blocked during evenings. They become pedestrian-only streets, and many restaurants extend their businesses on to the streets. Parades, or processions, and music performances are common and street corners and parkettes have vendors exhibiting their arts, wares, and handicrafts. The ambiance is totally enjoyable. People say that food in the Yucatan region is different from the rest of Mexico as it has more Mayan influence.
Mexico offers a host of authentic, spicy, hot, and mouth-watering dishes. We must think past the ubiquitous fast food items such as tacos, fajitas, tamales, burritos, tostadas, quesadillas, enchiladas, nachos, salsa and chips, spiced rice, refried beans etc.
There is a common theme in most of the dishes: common ingredients such as a variety of mild, but flavourful, to extreme hot peppers, cilantro, lemon, and lime juice, are to spice up the dishes. Rice, tomato, varieties of peppers, avocado, beans, corn, and corn are a staple in Mexican cooking.
These are a few of Mexico’s culinary preparations. Ceviche is a seafood dish prepared in citrus juices and spiced with peppers and chopped onions, cilantro, etc. Poc Chuc (mainly pork), Cochinita pibil are traditional Mexican pork dish from the Yucatán Peninsula. Pollo (Poh yoho) is a chicken dish. Panucho is a Yucatán specialty dish made with a refried tortilla and black beans and topped with shredded veggies, and meats.
Fresh sauces and salsas such as habanero chili (hot), green tomato/tomatillo sauce, fresh pico de gallo (made with chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, serrano peppers, lime juice), as well as Guacamole (an avocado-based dip) are readily available everywhere. Jicama (Hick-a-Ma) is a root vegetable and very similar to a turnip. It is native to Mexico. When, peeled, and cubed or shredded and mixed with fresh lime juice and chopped jalapeno peppers (and cucumber) tasted wonderful. It is crisp, lightly sweet, and tangy as a fresh salad. There are many varieties of corn flour-based flatbreads, and tortilla chips are present everywhere.
Besides the locally brewed beers (internationally known Corona is from Mexico), and the tequilas, and mixed cocktails such as margarita, paloma. and mojito, there are non-alcoholic drinks such as agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus iced tea) and tamarind water are real thirst quenchers.
Spanish language, even though it uses English alphabets, has many nuances. I remember receiving an email from a gentleman named Jesus (this was many years ago) regarding some technical issues. I called and addressed him, as usual, unaware his name’s actual Spanish pronunciation is ‘hay-SOOS’
Our restaurant visits had certain nuances with respect to Spanish pronunciation and vocabulary. No one in our group spoke Spanish. In local restaurants, even the menus are in Spanish; wait staff often spoke Spanish only. Menu item pictures, Google Assistant and Google Translate frequently came handy. Other times, gestures and animated movements did the work. At one instance we were forced to ask another patron in the restaurant to translate our request as the wait staff could not understand us at all.