The airport was smaller than we had expected. Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, is a city of one million people and the airport is not much bigger than the one in Springfield, MO. Surprising us in Mexico is hard to do. We have been traveling the Yucatan Peninsula for years and learned long ago that we shouldn’t be surprised by anything.
But Jan found a new one. We were going to be spending the first week in a small fishing village on the west coast of Yucatan and had been told to bring pesos. We got a little paranoid that we might not have brought enough so Jan went to a place in baggage claim that had a row of bank ATMs. She inserted her credit card, entered the amount we needed, and waited. I mean really waited. Nothing. No money. No card. Nothing.
I rented the car and waited. I waited and waited for Jan to show up with pesos but she never returned. I finally found her sitting on the floor between two ATMs. She was not leaving until she got her card back. Finally, after a series of unsuccessful attempts by various airport employees a pair of uniformed policemen, who had been watching the spectacle for some time, walked over to the ATM with a crowbar and a pair of pliers. Not something you would see at O’Hare but we were in Yucatan and had our card back.
An Historic City
Merida is old…very old, founded in 1542, 50 years after Columbus arrived. It has been called the most romantic city in North America and we soon learned why. There are parks and plazas everywhere and the people of Merida take the opportunity to use these places…TO DANCE.
The Plaza Grande area is one of the main places we visited. It was a Saturday and by late afternoon it had filled up with people….there to dance. They were everywhere. Young couples in love. Beautiful young girls dancing with old geezers like me. Women who looked like my old, overweight aunts, grooving with each other, all there to dance to the bands swinging with their Latin beats.
An Historic Hotel
We were staying at Casa del Balam (House of the Jaguar) in the old historic district. A beautiful old, restored hacienda just a block or two from the area of Plaza Grande, a favorite place for this kind of evening enjoyment.
It was Carnival season and everyone was having way too much fun. Amid the dancing and rum, there were vendors selling everything you would expect at such a Yucatan event. I bought a Panama hat and I was off. We were back in Yucatan and life was good. I saw a group of people giving out free hugs so, of course, I got one and managed to find Jan who had been looking for someone to fill our rum glasses. She found one…several times as I recall. As I said, it was Carnival time.
A Delicious Surprise
In preparation for the trip, Jan had reserved a spot for us at a Maya cooking class. We generally don’t prepare for such things when we travel. Finding stuff on our own is part of the adventure. We had never been to Merida so, in looking at what we might do, Jan found a Maya cooking school, “Los Dos.” I love Maya food and I love to cook so, what the heck.
What we found when we arrived was one of those wonderful surprises that come along when you are on an adventure. The school was actually the home of the late Chef David Sterling from New York. David was an internationally known chef, designer, historian, and writer who had settled in a beautiful old row house in the historic district. By beautiful, I mean restored with a spectacular courtyard containing a pool bathed in natural light and surrounded a variety of tropical plants. The kind of place that takes your breath away.
At The Market
We arrived early in the morning where we met Chef David and the few other couples about to take off on the adventure with us. First was a trip to the market. By market, I mean a full city block where you could buy anything having to do with food. Huge bags of spices, vegetables I had never heard of, meat, poultry, fish, and of course guinea pigs…a real favorite in parts of Latin America. Chef David humorously haggled with every merchant as we purchased the supplies we needed. He knew them all. Then it was back to his home.
After a drink or two, it was off to the kitchen. It was a beautiful and amazing place. Unknown to us at the time, Chef David had designed kitchens and restored historic homes all over the world. To name all of the dishes we made would be hard to remember. Jan learned to make tortillas while I watched and gave her a hard time. We cut, sliced, and mixed together everything we had purchased at the market. My very favorite was the creme of cilantro soup, a dish I have made back here in Missouri.
Jan was nearly up to her elbows in a mixture of tomatoes and spices that would eventually cover breasts of chicken to be wrapped in banana leaves. Of course, everything was mixed by hand making for a glorious vision of blood red fingers against a counter of beautiful Mexican tile.
At the end of this wonderful adventure was dinner. Somehow, with extra help from Chef David I suspect, there was the feast. Everything was delicious including Jan’s tortillas and my cilantro soup.
We bid adieu to our fellow guests and my newest hero, Chef David. We purchased his wonderful book “Yucatan…Recipes for a culinary expedition”, available at Amazon, and a couple of his “Los Dos” aprons. The latter I use here in my own kitchen to avoid ruining yet another shirt as most sloppy cooks do. The book is something I would recommend to anyone going to Yucatan. In it, David covers all of the states of Yucatan and tells the story of the various towns and highlights them with their favorite recipes.
There’s Always Room For Romance
As I stated at the beginning of this story, Merida is known as the most romantic city in North America. It’s on the other side of the peninsula from Cancun with it’s “girls gone wild” atmosphere and all-inclusive resorts. It is the capital of the state of Yucatan which has the largest population of indigenous people in the Americas…in this case, the Maya. From street vendors to attornies, Yucatan is a Maya state. It couldn’t be farther away from the what you see in Cancun or the main part of Mexico. A romantic world all its own.
So what is a guy to do with the love of his life on his arm? Find a great place to eat, finish it off with a bottle of fine wine and find a bench to enjoy the last evening in Merida.
Should you find yourself in that heavenly state called love, I have a place just for you. Casa del Balam in a city built on romance. Merida.