Cared for and Violated by Locals
By Gabrielle Pati
Isla Mujeres: Island of women worshipping the Madonna
My first stop in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is Isla Mujeres, with its immaculate white sand and crystal water beaches, plenty of cerveza to waste away the afternoons in the boiling sun, and where natives try to sell trinkets, sweet breads, and mango slices.
At night local families eat ice cream and congregate at the lively town square (la plaza mayor); having worked hard in the hot sun all day, they breathe and laugh here in the cool air. One night in the square a Catholic-fueled play was performed by the town’s youth, orchestrated by nuns. Teens with faces painted as mimes represented good souls trying to stop other characters from the moral corruption wrought by temptations and evil. Islanos, the people of the Isla, watched and purged evil, mildly entertained, while a sort of Mayan style basketball game raged on nearby. I zigzagged between these two free forms of local entertainment, and began to pick up the sense of community that is so infused in the towns of the Yucatan. I realized that people come out to play at night here, and that the day’s heat and labor prompts the desire for release and social activities that include everyone: the young and old are on the night scene in harmony.
At Isla Mujeres many people asked me if I was married and if I had children. My negative responses seemed to contrast with the role of women in the Yucatan as wife and mother. Isla gets its name from the thousands of statues dedicated to a female Mayan goddess found by the Spanish when they arrived; now the women create shrines to the Madonna in her place.Mayan Women Wearing Huipile
Playa Del Carmen: Party and Beach Town with the Outstanding Comida Corrida
Mexicans and Europeans refer to Playa the way Americans refer to Las Vegas. Party time. It’s a place to get wasted at nightclubs, gaze through shades at hot bodies on the beach and, in a nutshell, go wild. Yes, the beach is stunning and the nightclubs could be fun if you’re into that sort of scene. I found the best part of Playa was satisfying my hunger at the local loncherias, restaurants that serve excellent comida corrida, lunch specials of seafood and fresh tortillas to die for.
Sampling the local food is essential when traveling, and sometimes I am overwhelmed by joy in the most random hole-in-the-wall spots. In Playa I found the places where the locals eat lunch to be top-notch, fresh, cheap and delicious, incorporating local fish with salsas, limes and fresh-fruit juice drinks (jugos naturales or aguas frescas) in most dishes. Chicken is local and tasty, and snacks called antojitos are everywhere, and include panuchos and salbutues, which are like tacos but simplified.
At night I found myself at Playa wanting not to go get wasted with trashy Brits and Israelis from my hostel, but seek out places to chomp down on more lime soaked fish with a cold can of Sol by my side.Panuchos
More well-off Mexicans come to Playa and camp-out for months, working and enjoying the party vibe, while typical Americans stay for about a week and walk down the main tourist strip, the Avenida Quinta, getting conned into overpriced meals and trinkets. Random Europeans and lone travelers like myself free flow around town looking for chill bars and authentic, cheap food. The hostel I stayed at, Hostel Rio Playa, had a rooftop bar and pool, so at night I parked myself there with a few beers and travelers, feeling glad I wasn’t paying 500 pesos (45USD) to be screaming and hammered at the Coco-Bongo. Ayayai…
Around Playa there are some stunning cenotes, freshwater swimming holes, where you can snorkel or dive with fish and turtles, explore caves and small-scale cliff dives. Cenotes are nice shady retreats from the plastic party strip and roasting seaside of Playa. I see myself returning to Playa for the food mostly, with Spanish-speaking friends who could convince me to try the club thing one night.
Tulum and Cobá: Cared for and Violated by Locals
The town of Tulum has ruins nestled against the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean, hence these pyramids and the beach are the main draws to this small but mushrooming town an hour south of Playa del Carmen.
After hopping off a colectivo (shared taxi van), I walk in the mid-morning heat toward the ruins trying to find the remote B&B. The local taxi-drivers lie and say that my destination is an hour and a half walk and that I better take a cab. I arrive at my B&B Posada los Mapaches in half an hour, mount my complementary cruiser bicycle and head to El Gran Cenote. There I meet some French guys who I chat with in broken Spanish, English and Italian. They are staying at the hostel I stayed at three years ago, which I read was infested with bedbugs now. One of the Frenchies is a musician traveling back and forth between Mexico and Cuba; his long braid and subtle B.O. scream Bohemian-soul and he strikes me as quite a beautiful creature. We end up bumping into each other on two other occasions. I love this random crossing of paths because it reminds me of how small yet vast the world is. Some souls are thrown together and some torn about and we don’t know why.
My B&B was delightful: fresh fruit, smoothies, and homemade food for breakfast, really clean and tranquil, with hosts that care about providing a relaxing and peaceful environment. What a contrast to my experience at the ruins of Cobá.
Hot, thick, humid air engulfed the area as I schlepped around the Mayan pyramids and ball courts built between 500-900ACE. I decided to rest after scaling up the giant Nohuch Mol pyramid barefoot and running out of food and fuel. Having spotted a thin wooden bench, I laid down and dozed off for about ten minutes. I awoke to rustling in the thicket about twenty feet away. Thinking it was a harmless animal, I didn’t get up but peeked with one eye open to my predator: a native whacking off while staring at me. Incredulous and mortified, I sat up and remained still while the young pedi-cab driving perv walked toward me. He pretended that nothing had happened, and I shot him a look meant to kill, but alone in a remote site of ruins is no place for a gringa to get New York on some native.
At this point I realized I had to be more careful; a young girl traveling alone is fine as long as you don’t doze off in the jungle or do other dumb things. I decided to make allies at the next hostel in Merida, so that I could go anywhere and do whatever I wanted with some folk who might back me up in a precarious situation.Local Caballeros
Merida: la ciudad Blanca, llena de musica, cultura a gente simpatica
Merida is called the white city, and it’s full of music, culture and kind people. This magical city was by far the highlight of my trip to the Yucatan. A colonial, European-esque city of one million people, Merida is the capital of the Yucatan. It is a precious jewel of life. The pastel colored buildings used to be all white, and now brim with a decaying liveliness telling of its glorious past and survival centuries later.
In the late 1800s the Yucatan flourished with haciendas, estates that manufactured a plant called henequen, used all over the world to make rope and twine until the 1940s when synthetic fibers developed. Wealthy hacienda owners (mostly French, Spanish and Dutch) had homes in Merida, and money poured into the city of Merida, which earned the nickname of the Paris of the Americas.
Today Merida is a center of music and youth, with its theaters and palaces, strong economy and high standard of living, though it is still a cheap place to be. There is a university, and a decent gay community surrounding it, which I discovered at a café called El Hoyo. Five out of seven nights of the week one can find free music in the main square, the Plaza Zocalo, ranging from traditional folk singing and dancing, to pop, rock and reggaeton concerts, with break dancing teens soaked in sweat and old men alternating between smoking and chewing their cigarettes.
My hostel, Nómadas, was notably awesome: it had a pool and hammocks, huge rooms, was clean and cheap, only 9USD a night to be in the center of town. I met some chill people there, and I decided to make some male allies and do some exploring with them. One day two ballin’ architects from Mexico City (Districto Federal, or D.F.) invited me to go to the ruins of Chichen Itza with the car they planned to rent. Sweet! We spent the day exploring ruins and cenotes and driving around remote towns in the Yucatan cattle and horse country. We took a horse drawn cart through the jungle to Los Tres Cenotes. I trusted these guys and they took good care of me, and even though I was prompted to go to a trashy nightclub and drink Jagermeister till the wee hours with them, I’m glad I did.
That day, there was a huge concert in Merida, La Noche Mexicana, showcasing folk dancing groups from all the regions of Mexico. There was great food and dancing, and artesans selling gorgeous goods like wooden mortars, jewelry, paintings and sculptures. I was overcome by such good energy between the music, good company and culture around me, I fell hard for Merida that night.
One day I went to the Museo de la Cancion Yucateca, a beautiful converted school housing memorabilia that told the story of Yucatecan music from its Mayan origins up to today. The most infamous singer was Guty Cardenas, a folk singer in the Golden Age of Yucatecan music (the 1920s) who was assassinated at age twenty-seven. Trova music is typical of the Yucatan, and Merida was the hub where all singers converged, formed troupes and performed. The genre of trova includes classical guitar playing with string accompaniment, and is still performed every week at Santa Lucia Park in Merida.
Although locals dress conservatively considering the heat, they sure aren’t shy about dancing. Old and young people dance in the Zócalo and other parks when there is music. At night I constantly found people enjoying themselves and socializing in the main square, eating snacks called marquesitas (cheese filled crepes) or elotes (corn on the cob with cream and cheese), clowns performing, hippies and punks selling handmade crafts, and native women with their many kids begging you to buy a bracelet, please.
After a lovely Yucatecan dinner at La Chaya Maya restaurant, I went to the Zocalo to search for the night action. I met a hippie, squatter punk artesano who claimed to be a martian, part lion, jaguar and panther…OK. He spoke Italian and had a daughter in Italy. Since I am an italophile, we got along well. He showed me a couple local bars, the Mayan Pub and El Templo, nice places to get beers and chill, with a mixture of local meridanos and visitors who venture out there. The next day we went to a giant hole in the ground, cenote, with tripped out stalactites and Mayan faces growing out of them, which happened after a fat joint vanished into us. I had to hang with a crazy local to find such a cool spot, though being a solita traveler presents a risk, too.Cenote, near Merida
The Spaniard who conquered Merida in the 1500s was named Montejo, and there is a grandiose boulevard that bears his name today, the Paseo Montejo, kind of like what Madison Avenue in New York used to be: lined with mansions, achievements in architecture that the city’s elite enjoyed. Today this giant street is a beautiful place to walk and see the decaying mansions, get coffee and snacks in an artsy café or go out to insane nightclubs and super fancy restaurants. I enjoyed exploring the Paseo a lot, since walking down these streets made me feel regal, and the wide shady streets provide solace from the busy centro. Near the Paseo Montejo I found the ex-pat owned Olive Cafe Stop, with friendly workers and great Chiapas coffee.
On some of Merida’s older buildings there are original signs showing pictures and the corresponding name in Spanish below them. These signs evoke the time when Mayans and Spaniards inhabited Merida together, before and during the birth of the mestizos; the pictures told the (mostly illiterate) Mayans the names of streets and imparted the cultural knowledge of the dominating country of Spain.
Culturally, the people of Merida are friendly, chivalrous and appreciate music, food and culture more than most. Getting acquainted with some meridanos opened up my heart. Even as a foreigner, I felt welcome into the life force of the city. I left a piece of myself in Merida, and I plan on going back for it soon, maybe sooner than I expect.
Locations in the Yucatan
Hostel Rio Playa
Calle 8 Entre 5 y ave 10
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Posada los Mapaches B&B
Federal Highway Chetumal
Cancun, Tulum Archaeological Zone
(opposite the entrance to the ruins)
El Gran Cenote
In Tulum take the road
to Coba just under 4 kilometers.
Right side of road
El Hoyo Café
Calle 62 between Calle 57 and 59
62 # 433 por 51
Centro, Merida, Mexico
(01 999) 924 . 52 . 23
Yucatecan Song Museum
57 #468, Centro 97000
Mérida Yucatán, Mexico
01 999 923 7224
La Chaya Maya Restaurante
Calle 62 y 57
Merida, Yucatán, Mexico
Calle 62 between Calle 55 and 57
Merida, Yucatán, Mexico
El Templo Bar
Calle 59 no. 438
Merida, Yucatán, Mexico
01 999 930 9303
Olive Café Stop
Paseo Montejo 470-B,
between Calle 37 and 39
Merida, Yucatán, Mexico