The start of our second month away from home began with our first venture onto the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula. From Palenque, we took the eight hour bus ride ($41.32) to the city of Merida in the state of Yucatan. Merida would serve as our base to explore and experience the western half of the peninsula. It seemed this area of Mexico had everything we needed to treat our current ailments.
The first remedy came in the form of some relief for Felicia. Despite the eight hour ride...no motion sickness! Part of this could be contributed to the nausea medication we picked up from the pharmacy before leaving Palenque, but the lack of mountains and winding roads probably played just as much of a role. Regardless, Felicia arrived in Merida with much more blood in her face and life in her body.
Merida is much bigger than any city we had been to since Mexico City. With nearly 800,000 people calling it home, the city is one of the top 15 most populous cities in the country. As you know, we tend to prefer the smaller cities, but the larger city had some benefits that we planned to take advantage of. Being away from home for over a month, we obviously started to miss friends and family a bit more. We also started to have cravings for foods, some very random, from back home.
The first thing we did after we checked into our AirBnb ($129.69 for 7 nights) was head to...PF Chang’s ($35.56). Apparently, Asian people can’t function if they don’t meet a certain rice quota for each month, and Felicia was on the verge of having her Asian-ness revoked. Having a stomach full of rice and soy sauce pumping through her veins helped ease the symptoms of homesickness.
The PF Chang’s was attached to a mall, a very nice mall, complete with all of the recognizable stores you would find in King of Prussia, plus a bowling alley. The only reason we mention this is because seeing pictures of Mayan villages, dirt roads, and street vendors can often make you forget that this side of the country exists. When you’re in the big cities, you can find just about anything we have in the big cities in the U.S. The existence of these places may not mean much to those people living subsistently in the small village an hour away, but they do exist. Amenities such as Uber/UberEats were just as prevalent as in any large city in the United States. If you stayed on the wrong side of the city, it would be easy to forget you were in another country.
We obviously didn’t come all of the way across Mexico to hang out at a Dairy Queen or window shop at a Tommy Hilfiger, so the next day we headed downtown. Our AirBnb was about twenty minutes from the center of the city, that meant we were once again relying on public buses ($0.42 per person) to get around, Uber if we were in a rush. Once downtown, our first thing to do was grab some local food and wander around the city. Over the course of the week, we ate many of the famous dishes of Yucatan: sopa de lima, cochinita pibil, poc chuc, salbutes, panuchos, papadzules, sikil p’aak, as well as some pan-Mexican staples. Unfortunately, we did miss out on a few, most notably queso relleno and relleno negro.
That first day in Merida, we hung out downtown dodging the rain and sat in the main park outside of the cathedral, mostly killing time waiting for the weekly reenactment of the Mayan ball game, which was scheduled to take place that evening. While wandering downtown, we were twice approached by men, who we later found out worked as “hawks” for nearby souvenir shops. Both men tried their best to convince Andy he must own a panama hat and a white button-up Guayabera shirt. The entire time, he is standing there wondering what about a guy who currently looks like Tom Hank’s double from Castaway, wearing a band t-shirt and a barely intact baseball hat says, “yeah, he’s gonna buy something.” Meanwhile, the 60-something year old guy across the street wearing a Mexico belt buckle, a Cancun t-shirt tucked into his chest high shorts, carrying a bag full of everything “made by someone in a nearby Mayan village” isn’t being bothered by anyone.
Every Saturday in Merida, a reenactment of the ancient Mayan ball game, pok-ta-pok takes place on the street in front of the cathedral. About a half hour before the game begins, the road is blocked off, and the bleachers begin to fill up quickly. Before the game begins, a Mayan shaman and the game’s participants perform a series of rituals. We’re not a hundred-percent sure of the rules, but the object of the first round of the game was to hit the ball through a ring, seven to eight feet off of the ground. Sounds pretty easy, except for the fact that you can only use your hip. No hands or arms, no legs or feet... only your hips. That means if the ball is rolling across the ground you’re dragging your ass cheek across the street to keep it in play. I forgot to mention that each participant is dressed similarly to the way an ancient Mayan player would be. That means no shirt, no shoes, some body paint, maybe a headdress, and leather brief type shorts. The outfits look better suited for going one on one with Ric Flair than skidding across the asphalt.
The players on the two teams took turns taking shots at the goal. If a shot was missed, the ball would roll or bounce to the other team, who would continue play by taking a shot of their own or forcing the ball to the other team’s side. The highlight of the game came later when the ball was ignited, and the players continued play with the same goal of passing the ball through the ring. This time hands were allowed, but the ball was not allowed to touch the ground. We’re not sure what determined the end of the game, but without a doubt, the best participants walked away with charred hands, busted feet, and roadburn up and down their legs.
Our second day in Merida, we headed an hour south via bus ($7.59 total) to visit the ruins of Uxmal ($24.67 entrance fee for 2 people). The first thing we noticed about Uxmal was the lack of vendors and relatively smaller crowd compared to the other ruins we had visited. We specifically skipped Chichen Itza for those exact reasons. Chichen Itza is the site everyone visiting Playa del Carmen or Cancun visit. Not only did we want to avoid that, it would’ve been a lot of trouble to get there from Merida without using a tour company. We decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. Instead we spent the day exploring the ruins of Uxmal, which protruded from above the surrounding treeline. From atop of the structures, you could see for miles, something we weren’t used to, due to all of our recent time spent surrounded by mountains. After checking out the site, taking in the views from atop many of the structures, and trying not to piss off the dozens, if not hundreds, of resident iguanas, we decided to head back to the city.
We knew when we took the bus to Uxmal that return buses only came by every two hours, but we figured there would be no way we would have to wait the full two hours. We were wrong. We must have just missed the previous bus, and there we stood, with a dozen other people waiting for the next bus to Merida. During those two hours, yes we were there on the side of the road for two hours, it seemed like every person driving past slowed down to rub in the fact that they were on their way back to Merida. Oh yeah, it rained while we were standing there. Eventually the bus did come, and we figured there are worse things in the world than standing on the side of the road for two hours after spending the day exploring Mayan ruins.
A couple of days later, we decided to answer the question, “Is it possible for the sun to burn Andy’s translucent skin when he is thirty feet below the Earth’s surface?”
Cenotes are natural sinkholes that expose groundwater, and they are found all over the Yucatan Peninsula. Some are visible from the surface, while most require climbing down a ladder or stairs that descend well below ground level. Swimming in these cenotes was something we wanted to do since the moment we knew they existed. During our time in Merida, we wanted to explore the cenotes surrounding the town of Cuzama. There are other more famous cenotes on the peninsula, but we preferred to avoid the large crowds and tour buses and enjoy some more relaxing settings. We took a 45 minute collectivo ($2.85) to just outside of the town of Cuzama and got off at the entrance to the X’Tohil cenotes. Once at the entrance, we were directed to little train carts. Each cart fits 1-4 people, and the trip is priced per cart, not per person. We were lucky that there was a solo traveler visiting at the same time, so we agreed to split the cost of the ride, unexpectedly saving ourselves some money ($13.18). The three of us got on the cart, and our driver grab the reins of a nearby horse, who would pull our cart along the tracks between each cenote. It was a bit of a bumpy ride through the jungle, but after a short time we arrived at the first cenote, which from above just looked like a hole in the ground.
We climbed down the wooden ladder and spent the next half hour swimming in the clear, cool water. Our driver took us to four cenotes over the course of three hours. Each was entirely unique and some so deep that the bottom was nowhere in sight. We enjoyed our time so much that we visited the Chunkanán cenotes ($21.09), a group of three on the other side of the town of Cuzama, a few days later.
In between our days swimming in the cenotes, our eagerness to get to the beach got the best of us, and we took a day trip to the nearby town of Progreso ($4.01 total for a round-trip bus ride for two). Progreso is a port city along the Gulf of Mexico, commonly used as a stop for cruises. Before heading there we made sure to check the cruise ships’ docking schedules and picked a day when no ships would be arriving. We were glad we did. While walking along the street that runs next to the beach, it seemed like there was only a hundred people in the entire town. We spent the day just sitting on the sand and eating some relatively cheap seafood. For example, an entire fried fish, a shrimp dish, and two non-alcoholic drinks came out to $23.99.
One of our best memories of Merida was our over-friendly neighbor, Benito. From the moment we arrived, he immediately greeted us and always had something to say. If we were at the apartment, he would try, a few times successfully, to climb into our windows. All he wanted to do was hang out with us or relax on the couch. He would walk us out every day we would leave and greet us as soon as we would return. Unfortunately, we didn’t see him our last day in Merida and were never able to give him a proper goodbye.
While the beach in Progreso was nice, it’s not the Caribbean coast, and that’s exactly where we were headed next. Merida had delicious regional food, unique experiences, and, of course, cenotes, but our next stop had all of that plus the Caribbean waters that everyone dreams of.