“Aren’t you afraid to go to Mexico?” some friends would ask. “Not really,” has always been my reply. “We’re going to Yucatan.” I always give the questioner the benefit of the doubt. They do know their geography but not their knowledge of culture. While Yucatan is part of Mexico, it is in a way, its own place. Most of the country of Mexico comprises folks of Hispanic heritage. Part European and part indigenous. In Yucatan, the population is Mayan which represents the largest indigenous population in Mexico. Today’s Mayan people are descendants of their ancestors that farmed the lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula.
When most Americans think of Yucatan they think of the state of Quintana Roo and the sunny beaches of Cancun and Riviera Maya. But a little further west are the states of Yucatan and Campeche. This is where the majority of Mayan people live. And these days there is a phenomenon called Mayan pride emerging on the Peninsula. From food and clothing to the celebrations, Mayan heritage is alive and well on the Yucatan peninsula as well as at our favorite hotel, Casa del Balam (House of the Jaguar).
Jan and I have been fortunate to have made Yucatan the place we go to get away from Missouri’s winters. At one point we considered moving there but were dissuaded by Yucatan’s one downside, temperature. The summers average around 105 degrees with enough humidity to drink. When I felt my shirt sticking to my body in February when the temperature was 91 degrees, I understood it was probably not the place I wanted to be in July and August.
As I write this, I am only a couple of weeks away from our last trip to Yucatan. This was our second trip to Merida, the capital of Yucatan, which has been called the most romantic city in North America. Founded in 1540, 48 years after Columbus discovered the new world, history surrounds the city. From the beautiful haciendas of the Spanish conquerors, to the ancient ruins of Mayan royalty, to all the things one would find in a modern world-class city, Merida is a place where the old meets new every day.
The first time we were in Merida Jan bought me a cool, Panama hat which has since left the house, possibly returning to Panama. On this trip, Jan surprised me with a new Panama, this time a very classy one made of sisal, woven and shaped in caves by Mayan hat makers. The reason for the caves has to do with the humidity as the hats are made and shaped. She also bought me the coolest shirt I have ever owned, also made of sisal. Both items were purchased at a Maya cooperative where Mayan artists and craftsmen continue to make and sell their goods. The Mayan pride in that store was thick enough to spread on a tortilla.
Great food, beautiful environments, and some of the sweetest people I have ever met are what I remember most about Merida… and why I will return as often as I can. It will be very soon as Yucatan is building a network of bullet trains that will take me to my favorite spots in the blink of an eye.
Upon leaving Merida we traveled to Chichen Itza, one of Yucatan’s most famous Mayan ruins. I have to say I was skeptical. Jan had booked a room at the Mayaland Hotel. It sounded like a dump to me. Wrong again. I learned that the Mayaland is where the Queen would stay when she visited Yucatan. It was by far the most elegant place I have ever stayed. The room had a huge two-person tub in the bathroom, and a walk through the expansive grounds revealed peacocks wandering under the palm trees and bamboo.
Food is always an attraction when we are in Yucatan. The restaurant at Mayaland was elegant beyond belief. Huge arched windows sporting cut glass surrounded the round oak tables. On the menu was poc chuk, a Mayan pork steak. We had first had that in Merida and now in the Mayan town of Chichen Itza.
We had planned to spend the three days at Chichen Itza wandering the ruins but we were only good for one day. The trip had been long and the two-hour drive from Merida had worn us out. And the Mayaland Hotel was so sumptuous that we found ourselves simply wandering the grounds and ordering margaritas which the waiters would always deliver with the statement “with extra alcohol”. I decided I would come back to Mayaland and not even bother with the ruins but just eat, drink, and visit the little Mayan communities that dot the region.
But it was time to leave. There was the drive to Cancun airport to meet the family, and then take the shuttle van the two hours northwest to Chiquila where we would hop on the ferry and return to our favorite Yucatan island, Holbox. I’m not sure how many times we have been on Holbox, but it has been long enough that we have seen it change from a quiet little beach town to a new tourist destination that now sports a Margaritaville. Holbox is home to Alejandro Vega (Senor Sandflea), the best fly fishing guide in Mexico, who has become a dear friend. I have fished with Alejandro for nearly 15 years, and, fly rod in hand, we again headed out to the flats and mangrove creeks to fly fish for tarpon. And it was perfect. Alejandro guided me to my first tarpon in three years.
Holbox is changing, but we seem to keep doing what we always do. Sit on the beach, eat in the great restaurants, and drink too much tequila. And I go fishing with Sandflea. There is something about spending time traveling Yucatan and ending up laying back and relaxing on Holbox. It is a perfect place to end a trip to the land of the Maya.
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