Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tulum or not Tulum

I had the opportunity to meet some enlightened folks from the much-maligned US state of Arizona and take them on a quick tour to Uxmal, from their hotel in Tulum. I say enlightened because it reaffirmed my faith in the intrinsic decent intentions of Americans in general and Arizona residents in particular. Needless to say, on the long drive from Tulum to Uxmal on day one and back again on day two, there was plenty of meaty political discussion on everything from immigration to gun control.

 As you can see it was very foggy at 6 AM on the Merida-Cancun highway!

On day one, we left Tulum at 9 AM, stopping for coffee at Italian Coffee at the Isla de Servicios on the toll highway and then later, for lunch at the Hacienda Ochil. I had visited the hacienda before but had not eaten there. We ordered a sample platter of appetizers which featured all the good fried corn masa food items which were washed down with a cold beer. A quick look around the hacienda and then we arrived in Uxmal in the afternoon, early enough to check in and not wait for a room to be made up or whatever.

Interestingly, although their reservation had been made and the room paid for at the Hacienda Uxmal a rather taciturn individual informed us that the hotel was not really 'open' and none of the restaurants or the bar was open for business, due to the little activity. I noticed that the fellow who showed us the room that was available was actually a security guard and not a hotel receptionist. Another fellow with a somewhat more congenial attitude informed us that the reservation would be honored at the Lodge hotel, owned by the same company and directly adjacent to the ruins, where the restaurant and bar were in fact open for guests. So we drove back to the Lodge and proceeded to check in. In my humble opinion - and I am no expert - receptionists and hotel people need to be a little more comforting and empathetic when making changes of this kind for their guests, as it is rather disconcerting to be told that the hotel you have booked and paid for is not available but there's another one just over there.

As a rule - and this happened to a guest whom I dropped off at the Villas Arqueologicas last week - I have found that the receptionists at Uxmal hotels are never enthusiastic, somewhat sullen and their attitude could swing from bored and complacent to unfriendly in a heartbeat if given a nudge by a guest who has had a bad day. A smiling welcome is not, in my limited experience at Uxmal, a feature of any hotel in that area.

The drive back to Merida for me went past the caves of Calcehtok and through the town of Kopoma to the Campeche highway and back to Merida. This just because the Muna/Uman route has become so familiar that I was anxious to see something different. Not much to see on the highway itself, but the caves will have to be visited soon.

 A from-the-car shot of the church at Kopoma

On day two, we got an 11 AM start from Uxmal, took the highway back in the direction of Cancun and after a taco of lomitos de Valladolid at Donia Tere's at the toll highway, got off at the Valladolid exit and headed towards Coba and finally Tulum, where we arrived about 5 hours after starting, because of the food stop along the way.

Friday, June 11, 2010

After the Puuc

After leaving my New Yorker and on the road back to Merida, I saw the sign for Cacao and the San Antonio Mulix hacienda and remembered reading about some cenotes in that area that I had never visited before. I figured I might as well stop and have a look, for future reference.

After a solid 8 kilometer drive from the highway into the not particularly charming hamlet of Cacao, where there is a ruined hacienda that has been evidently and absolutely raped of anything of value, I continued on to San Antonio Mulix, not without first taking a photo or two of what were probably once some beautiful buildings, now waiting for a merciful death by collapse as they sit dejectedly among weeds and plastic garbage that the indifferent inhabitants of Cacao have tossed in front of their still-dignified facades.

Once you reach San Antonio Mullix, which is another, shorter drive along a narrow one-lane but paved road, you come upon a building set on a hill, which has several signs indicating that this is where one pays or whatever to access the cenotes. Here I met the most unmotivated and lethargic woman, who was the hostess with the mostess for this tourist attraction. Again, I have to wonder at all the millions of pesos spent by government folks who travel to shows and produce expensive campaigns to attract tourism to the Yucatan and then do nothing to train people or provide basic services for those very same attractions the tourists come to visit. I digress.

I ask this obviously-bored-out-of-her-skull woman how one gets into the cenotes and she mumbles, while looking away, that you have to pay and then go down that road over there. She points tiredly to a dirt road and a closed gate.

"Esta bien; cuanto cuesta?" I ask, "How much?"

"10 pesos if you are local and 25 pesos if you are from elsewhere" is her unenthusiastic response. She is really into this, I can tell.

OK. I fish 10 pesos in coins out of my pocket and she pushes a clipboard at me on the table and asks me to fill in my details. I write in name, age and where it says COUNTRY (it's in English) I write Mexico.

She stares at it for a moment or two and then tells me, like I am really, really stupid, "You wrote Mexico"

"Yes", I answer, "I wrote Mexico because it's asking me for the country. Is that not right?"

"Now I'll have to charge you 25 pesos" says my hostess in a dull monotone "because you put Mexico. You should have put Merida"

I considered (and stupidly started) arguing about what the word country means as opposed to city, but then decided that this was going to be a tough one and so I asked "Should I just change it to Merida?" and bent down to scratch out Mexico and write in Merida.

She moved the paper away from me and said, while removing the questionnaire to reveal another sheet underneath, "You wrecked that one. Here, do it again"

So I did and then was free to drive to the nearby entrance and let myself in, unlatching the chain that was holding the gate closed.

To make this long story short, an interminably long, winding drive over a rocky, dusty road led me to two cenotes, one of which was too shallow for a dip and the other was perfect. Both have steep dropoffs at their deeper ends and I suspect, from the signs posted, that this is a spot used by divers to explore the dark waters beneath the rocks.

Is it worth the trip? Maybe. I haven't decided just yet.

Puuc Zone Part II

After leaving Yaxcopoil and Peba and finally finding ourselves in the hills of the Puuc, we drive first to the Mayan ruins of X'lapak, which I stupidly thought were the last ones in that line of ruins. While my New York guest toured the site, I rechecked maps and saw that there was another site, Labna, just 4 kilometers away.

Labna was our next stop, after about an hour at X'lapak. I was initially not going to visit the site but thought what the hell, it's been a while - and I am glad I did!

Labna is a spectacular, albeit small, site full of intricately carved stones and stunning, rebuilt arches. The ruins under the trees in the jungle are un-restored mounds of carved stones, which lie in helpless abandon at your feet as you wander through them, feeling a little like Catherwood and Stephens must have felt when they saw them for the first time. The ruins are so detailed and so in your face, since this is an off-the-beaten-track Mayan ruins site and as such you are free to immerse yourself - literally - in amongst the pieces of forgotten ancient history strewn at your feet.

Be sure to wander off the sac-be or path that leads you naturally from one area to another; there is plenty to see under the brush and trees, plus you have the added advantage of it being a lot cooler, especially when visiting in a month like this, when it is so hot.

After Labna, it was Sayil and finally Kabah, the ruins closest to Santa Elena and Uxmal and the ones I mentioned in an earlier post a few days ago. At Sayil, I again waited for Ms. NYC to explore to her hearts content while I explored photographic opportunities in the sparsely stocked 'gift shop' palapa. An example of the interesting - ok, pornographic - items on display, covered in thick, black, cobwebs dating back to the Echevarria presidency, is in the photo below.

After Kabah, and thoroughly saturated not only with the heat that was becoming unbearable but also Mayan ruins, it was time to pay a visit to Valerie Pickles Pickled Onion restaurant, on the highway as you near Santa Elena. A light lunch was had there and then we were off to Uxmal, where I accompanied my New Yorker to the check-in counter and left her to enjoy a well-deserved and refreshing afternoon by the pool.

Puuc Zone Part I

My intrepid guest from the Big Apple was ready to roll at 7AM and we leave the Luz en Yucatan hotel and Merida, under a partially cloudy sky that threatened to unleash the suns wrath within another hour or two, in the direction of all things Puuc.

First, a short photo op stop at Yaxcopoil where the hacienda gates were still silently locked but the morning light was magnificent, bringing out the warm, earthy tones of the crumbling arches and buildings.

Returning to the LawsonMobile, a young-ish man runs up, shouting 'hello' in English. I ask him what's up.

In Spanish now, he asks if I can help him find a job in the US and that he is from Merida. I've left my portable immigration docket and questionnaire at home so I smile and say no.

"How about some money?" is his next anxious question. I shake my head, no.

He glances at the cigarette in my hand. "Y un toque de tu cigarro?" Now he wants a drag of my cigarette.  I'm already back at my car. Um, no, sorry, I don't think so.

It's back onto the highway.

"How about a quick look at a cenote" I ask. Alas, after a bumpy drive on a bad road, the recently discovered (by me) cenote at Peba is still closed this morning; we're two for two now. So we are off to the Puuc!

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Monday, June 7, 2010

What to do with only four hours in Merida in the middle of a heat wave!

What to do when you arrive in Progreso on a cruse ship and only have 4 hours to have a peek at the area?

Today I had some fine folks from - you guessed it - Georgia and we did the lightning, in car tour of Merida.

After a very brief stop at Dzibilchaltun, these Georgians had the good taste to hire me and we sauntered past the panting tourists waiting on their bus to head into town for a brief look-see. Stopping only to pick up some cloth samples for a quilting project, we saw the Paseo de Montejo, the Plaza Grande and all the fun and exciting things on the way, in between heavy noon traffic and traffic lights. The heat was such that no one wanted to leave the LawsonMobile and we just chatted and had a good visit.

Before heading out to Progreso, we made a quick stop at the Gran Plaza mall to sample some of Meridas best cookies, biscotti and carrot cake, which I hope they were able to take on the ship!

Hacienda Day Trip with my Georgia Folks

To take a break from all that Mayan ruin visiting, my Georgians wanted to see some haciendas.

A good little tour with plenty of wild and crazy hacienda action is out towards Uxmal, so we headed off in that direction. Our goal was to visit a few haciendas and have lunch somewhere along the way, and our first stop was the hacienda furthest out; the Hacienda Ochil.

There was absolutely no one around when we arrived which, considering the hour (10-ish), I thought was odd. We toured the workshops (stone and basket weaving) and enjoyed the ever-increasing oppressive heat and upon arriving at what apparently was the entrance gate, found it closed and locked. I started looking up the hacienda on my trusty phone to get a phone number to call when we saw someone approaching to unlock the gate and let us in. He informed us that the cost to visit the hacienda was $50 pesos and in we went.

Strolling around we came upon a large wood-burning oven which we were in the process of investigating when a very nice man came out and explained the story behind the oven; how it was built, by whom and what for. He then proceeded to ask us if we wanted a little tour. Of course! He gave us the run down on the hacienda, its history, the amphitheater, the cenote, and little details of the construction that we probably wouldn´t have picked up on ourselves.

Unfortunately there was no possibility of cooling off from the now-aggressive heat, the cenote being a rather shallow affair with dust covered water and plenty of bird activity overhead, literally. The tanque, that hacienda fixture once used for irrigation and often rehabilitated for swimming was being painted or re-sealed and so unavailable as well. There is an attractive little museum on the site as well as a very boutique-feeling gift shop with some very nice items. We settled on some refreshing Jamaica and a slushy, thick virgin tamarind margarita and then were on our way.

Next stop: the Hacienda Temozon Sur. While the Ochil hacienda was purposely left un-restored, the Temozon hacienda is the exact opposite. This is a luxury hotel where you can spend hundreds of dollars for a night (breakfast is extra). This is also where Bush and Clinton stayed when they visited the Yucatan. You can marvel at the grounds, have a meal or a drink and just enjoy the ambience. If you stay here, you will have complete access to the property including their spa and pools.

After Temozon, I suggested we visit a new-to-me cenote in the village of Peba, on the one lane road from Temozon to the highway. This turned out to be a great little cenote, with enough clear blue water to permit wading and very little in the way of touristy crowds.

Refreshed, we finished the tour with a visit to the Hacienda Yaxcopoil, which is more of a crumbling museum than anything else. To me, it does not deserve the title bestowed upon it by the readers of Yucatan Living which named it 'Best Hacienda Experience'. Um, don't think so. While it is a very complete collection of artifacts, books, Mayan stones, furniture and history, the fact that it is all literally falling to pieces in front of your eyes (and under your feet) makes it seem rather melancholy and sad. But there is a lot to see and a visit to the haciendas of the Yucatan wouldn´t be complete without at stop here. Entrance is again, $50 pesos. A guide will show you around and you can tip him at the end. There is also a small, somewhat limited gift shop.

After all that touring in the heat, we decided that we would skip lunch and part ways, the Georgians to their hotel and me off to the house for a siesta!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Izamal Day Trip

My Georgia friends decided that another cenote dip was going to be just too much water-related activity, so they asked me if we could go to Izamal for the day.

"No!" I answered, in as firm a voice as I could manage at the ungodly hour of 8:45 in the morning, but they were insistent and so, off we went, stopping only at a Pee-Mex station to fill up the LawsonMobile tank.

The ride was a little longer than anticipated, both for my guests and for me, as I always forget that you have to get all the way to Kantunil, where the cuota highway starts, before you can think about getting to the turnoff to Izamal (if you are taking that route, of course). By the time we got to Izamal, the blistering May sun was already wreaking havoc on the yellow city and my allergy was becoming insufferable, so much so that the first stop was a pharmacy where I bought some anti-allergy medicine. There was nothing to be done about the heat, though, so we went from shop to shop, finding something interesting to look at in every nook and cranny of the main square Izamal commercial district from oilskin fabrics to plastic containers to strange tshirts and plastic backpacks with Winnie the Pooh on them.

The highlight of the shopping portion of the excursion, however, was the Casa de Artesanias where the handcrafts were not only interesting, but well made and affordable as well. It was interesting to note that if you were so inclined, you could get a massage just off the gift shop and museum. Separated by only a sisal curtain, your relaxation could be somewhat undermined by nearby shoppers or museum goers. On this visit, though, the air conditioning was out in the entire building (for maintenance reasons) and sweating under the hands of a masseuse was not anyones idea of a swell time.

 From there, the obligatory and hot visit to the convent/monastery of Izamal, pointing out the various details that make it famous among all the Yucatecan churches. A curious little man offered a guided tour in English but once he started, we quickly asked him to revert to Spanish and I translated as his pronunciation left something to be desired.

Then, a climb up the pyramid left me breathless while my much younger Georgia teenager bounced up and down the rocky stairs with the ease of a... teenager. After admiring the view and enjoying the convection oven breeze at the top of the Izamal world, it was time for lunch at the Kinich restaurant. Who should be there, waiting to sample the food but the Casual Restaurant Critic, who joined us for lunch and will most assuredly write up something on the blog soon. The lunch was Yucatecan food, filling, tasty and served with amabilidad by Wendy, our waitress.

After all that activity and the food, there was little else to do but head back to Merida; the idea was to visit the hacienda San Jose Poniente on the way back and after much touring of the town of Hoctun,where it was supposedly located, we found it - outside Hoctun on the old Cancun-Merida highway. And it was closed.

A very enjoyable day trip, and if it was a little cooler, we might have spent some more time in Izamal itself as it is quite the charming little hamlet.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Beaches - Day Trip

The Georgia folks wanted to get a firsthand look at the Yucatans beaches and so I picked them up at 8:30 at their downtown Casa Mexilio location and we headed out towards Progreso, making a quick pit stop at the laundry service around the corner.
Past the colonial monster mansions on Paseo de Montejo and out into the northern part of Merida, that 'other' Merida whose existence so many would seem to deny; the land of Sam's Club, Friday's Office Depot and Max and Bostons Pizza. This is of course, also the 'real' Merida. The citizens of this city would go stir crazy if all we did were wear hipiles and ate panuchos all day.
Taking advantage of the cool morning temperatures, we stopped at Dzibilchaltun and the Georgia folks hired a guide who showed them all the interesting things that there are to see at that Mayan site. I noticed that the museum remains closed until further notice; thankfully someone noticed that it was falling apart and has taken the project on.
After about an hour or so at Dzibilchaltun, we finally continued on to the beach. Arriving first at Progreso, we took the detour around to Chicxulub and headed along the beach, looking at beach houses and commenting on the 'temporada' culture of the Yucatecans. Realizing that the beach area was not the place for boutiques and quirky little restaurants that they had imagined it was decided that swimming was in order and so I stopped at the Yucatan Villas, where they friendly folks let us use their beach front palapas, showers, change rooms and bathrooms. All that in exchange for a beer and some coconuts from their bar! More than fair!
Afterwards, back to Progreso, where lunch was had at Le Saint Bonnet. At that point the Casual Restaurant Critic showed up and joined us for lunch and of course wrote all about it, as usual.
Once lunch was over and done with, we headed back to Merida.
This was a full day trip!