International Writers Magazine: Mexico
Tale of Three (Mexican) Cities
The plan was
simple a two-week eastbound journey across southeast Mexico,
taking in three contrasting cities and visiting four states. During
this time, I would look for the inside story in the
places I visited, absorb the culture, connect with the people,
and most importantly, attempt to reconnect with myself.
City onboard an AeroMexico jet, the view was spectacular, until the
aircraft began to descend inside the mountains, and it was suddenly
all but obscured by the pervasive smog for which the city is famous.
On the ground, visibility was poor, and within a few minutes of stepping
off the aircraft, my eyes were itching and my sinuses aching. I spent
4 hours in the bustling airport and I was very happy when my next flight
departed and I could breathe again. It was a quick one hour 20 minute
flight to Villahermosa, where my host awaited me at the small but very
modern airport, driving perhaps the oldest Volkswagen I have ever seen.
The vehicle, it turned out, was borrowed; anyway, it made it (just)
Villahermosa is the largest city in the state of Tabasco, located directly
south of the Gulf of Mexico. It is largely absent from the tourist trail,
and consequently has something of an undiscovered feel about it. In
general, it is a city of working people, going about life without attracting
much outside attention. Many houses have no air-conditioning, poorly
fitting windows which admit clouds of mosquitoes, and basic or temperamental
plumbing, indeed we had no running water at all for 2 of the days I
was there, due to an interruption in the supply to that section of the
city. Many people do not have cars. Viewed from a distance, living conditions
seem to indicate a third world city. However, as often the case in Mexico,
all is not quite what it seems. My hosts house was equipped with
broadband wireless Internet, and an Internet café is on every
corner. So many in fact that some have closed down due to over competition,
and rates for access are as low as 5 pesos an hour (around US$0.45).
The local university is humming with activity, and the demand for IT
related subjects (both hardware and software) is high. Technologically,
the city is powering ahead, in stark contrast to the crumbling basic
Traffic in Villahermosa can be terrifying, many of the roads are full
of potholes, and some are unpaved. The most popular method of transportation
is the colectivo a shared minivan, often an ancient
Volkswagen model, with the rear rows of seats removed, and replaced
with a bench type seat around the sidewalls. In the middle, space for
squatting when the benches are full, with grab bars on the
roof for support. Basically, a deathtrap on wheels. Routes are fixed,
and the price is low; 5 pesos (around US$0.45) per ride. Most drivers
have crucifixes, icons, and other religious items on the windshield
and dash if you are in any doubt as to why they have them there,
you wont be after you have taken a ride with one of them! Taxis
are another popular option; with an in-town ride running around 15 pesos
(about US$1.35). Dont be surprised however if the driver stops
to pick up other people going in the same general direction!
The condition of the roads and creative driving skills of many of the
drivers makes venturing onto the road an adventure. My host frequently
recommended we drive on certain roads due to their being less
dangerous. The first time he said this, I hopefully inquired if
he meant that they are in fact safer. He said he considered
less dangerous to be a more accurate assessment, and after
the first day or two, I stopped asking.
collide in Villahermosa on one hand, the spirit of the Olmec
(Olmeca) people, the indigenous inhabitants of the region, which
lives on at the La Venta park in the city center (20 pesos, about
US$1.80 admission). On the other hand, north of the border culture
is starting to invade, with US style malls (featuring US style prices),
US fast food chains, and Wal-Mart in evidence.
Wanting to venture
further afield, but not wanting to repeat the Volkswagen experience,
we rented a car and drove southeast, into the state of Chiapas, and
Zapatista territory. Our destination, Palenque, a medium sized Mayan
city, containing some of the finest architecture, sculpture, and carvings
produced by the Maya, dating to the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries AD.
Truly spectacular, a visit to Palenque is a chance to commune with the
past, and to experience the Mayan outlook on the world. Visit as we
did on a Sunday, and admission is free. Hot and exhausted after climbing
numerous pyramids at Palenque, we continued further south, to the waterfalls
Cascadas Agua Azul. Admission is 20 pesos each (about US$1.80),
paid in two places, the first 10 pesos paid as a road cleaning
fee on approach, and the second as an admission fee when arriving
at the park. The water is cold and refreshing, as it runs directly down
from the mountains, and the area provides a stunning natural backdrop
for swimming. Care needs to be taken however, as the water runs swiftly
in places, and many stories are told of weak swimmers being swept away.
After a couple of relaxing hours, we drove the three hours back to Villahermosa.
following morning, I headed back to Villahermosas airport
for the one hour 15 minute flight on Aeromar to Merida in Yucatan
state. A ride downtown by shared shuttle (except I was
the only occupant) was 135 pesos (about US$12.00) and brought me
to the door of the guesthouse where I would spend the next 4 nights.
Owned and operated by native Yucatecans, it provided a charming
and authentic Yucatan experience, and an excellent and inexpensive
Merida proved to
be a complete contrast to Villahermosa; urbane, organized, and almost
un-Mexican. The Yucatecans are proud of their native culture,
however are also proud of their European style. Since the
Yucatan peninsular was considered by the rest of Mexico to be too
remote to bother with as late as the 1960s, the areas main
influences were not Mexican, but rather those that came by sea from
Europe and the Caribbean (primarily Cuba). The result is a charming
colonial city, with bustling streets, parks and squares, plenty of trees
and seats for people watching, and doors opening off the streets onto
cool, shady internal courtyards, glimpses of which can often be seen
when passing. The cavernous central market is almost overwhelming, huge,
confusing, and filled with a mélange of sights and smells; a
true locals market selling absolutely everything, unlike
in some other cities where the markets are primarily tourist oriented.
Merida is a very safe and peaceful city, with police much in evidence.
Another un-Mexican aspect is the fact that the police forces
are professional, and are respected by the population, quite unusual
in a country known for police corruption where they are normally viewed
with great suspicion. The police are friendly, smiling, and pay great
attention to traffic, making the roads in Merida some of the safest
and most organized I have encountered anywhere in the country. I watched
in amazement as a female police officer stopped and then lectured a
kid on a bicycle for riding through a red traffic light!
Dont think that Merida is staid and boring however this
is something of a party town, with outdoor cultural performances nightly,
and any number of impromptu events around town. Bars, cantinas, and
clubs abound, and theater and opera groups visit regularly, lending
an eclectic mix to the entertainment scene.
The people watching is sublime and nowhere better than on the
Zocalo (main square), where with the imposing stone cathedral (oldest
in the Americas, built between 1556-1599) on one side, and the Palacio
Municipal (dating to 1735) on the other, on a moonlit evening, you can
feel like you are part of history. Another great opportunity is to take
a seat at one of the many street side bars, order a beer, and enjoy
the complimentary Botana which is a Yucatan tradition, consisting
of a number of small plates of typical local snacks, which are refilled
each time you order another round. The beer is cheap (30 pesos or US$2.70
being on the high end at botana bars) and with the complimentary food,
you can enjoy a light meal and a couple of drinks for very little. For
a real Mexican experience, go through the swing doors and try a cantina,
where the beer is as cheap as 12 pesos (a little over US$1.00), and
the characters are right out of a spaghetti western. From time to time
while sitting on the street or in a bar, strolling merchants will approach,
hawking standard fare of hammocks, guayaberas, etc; their prices can
be reasonable, however they are not persistent, and will go away if
you show no interest in their wares.
The Yucatecan people are wonderful, friendly and hospitable, and with
a warmth rarely seen nowadays. In fact they can seem so friendly that
it can tend to make you suspicious, however it really is genuine, and
they want nothing more than to make your acquaintance.
While shopping locally with a friend, I witnessed an example of the
often-cavalier attitude Mexicans have to their health she was
looking for a new cream, reputed to remove fat when applied on the stomach
and waist areas. I assumed we would head to a pharmacy, and was somewhat
surprised when we entered a farm supply store. Sure enough, the product
was in stock, and was apparently selling very well among the overweight
female population. Interestingly, the product was intended for use on
110 pesos later (about US$10.00) we left the store, my friend
very pleased with her purchase and dreaming of her new waistline.
The daytime heat in Merida can be oppressive in the summer, and eager
for some breeze, I took the 45-minute ride north, by air-conditioned
van (12 pesos per person each way in a shared van) to the coastal town
of Progreso, on the Gulf of Mexico. Arriving in Progreso from Merida,
you approach through mangrove swamps, cross a bridge, and suddenly,
you are in town. First impressions looked unpromising, dry and dusty,
and with half built structures on each block. Happily, it turned out
to be a pleasant, peaceful, and scenic fishing port town. As I was arriving
in town, a cruise ship was docking at the end of the five mile long
pier (the longest in the region apparently) and within an hour, the
streets of the town were thronged with hordes of passengers, beers in
hand, shopping for t-shirts and tacky souvenirs. I tolerated them long
enough to take a 20-minute city tour from outside the cultural center
(20 pesos or US$2.00), narrated by local tourism students, and an interesting
introduction to the small town.
the end of the tour, I walked along the Malecon (seafront promenade)
to the restaurants at the far end, happening upon a gem of a place
called Shark, where I feasted on carpaccio of fish, conch and octopus,
followed by broiled fresh filet of fish in garlic sauce, washed
down by a couple of bottles of Modelo beer, and still had change
from US$10.00. It was a quiet day at Shark, with only 2 other tables
being occupied, both by locals, which I took to be a good sign.
lunch, I visited the cultural center, which was featuring a display
of safe sex posters drawn by students in local schools. Billboards
promoting safe sex and the use of condoms are everywhere in Yucatan,
which together with this exhibition in Progreso indicates that Mexico
is no longer a conservative Catholic society, and is sensibly addressing
the challenges of the 21st century.
Next, I went to
see the market, however found it to be nothing more than an empty lot,
the old market having been knocked down recently, and the new one yet
to be built. With the cruise passengers heading back to their ship,
I instead enjoyed a peaceful wander around the shops in the main street,
before returning to Merida.
Merida and the surrounding area are full of things to see and do, plus
plenty of reasons to do nothing at all, and all too soon, having barely
scratched the surface, it was time for me to move on, and I boarded
an ADO GL bus service to Cancun (235 pesos or about US$21.00 for the
4 hour journey) which featured luxurious reclining seats and onboard
movies. The journey was largely through scrubby jungle, without any
interesting features, and was by means of a smooth four-lane toll road,
on which our bus was virtually the only vehicle.
Conventional wisdom, my instinct, and people whos opinions I normally
trust, all told me that I would not like Cancun, however it seemed a
logical place to end my eastbound journey, as the most easterly city
with air connections northwards. And if I was going there, it seemed
silly not to stop for at least a couple of days to see this famous paradise.
Predictably perhaps, conventional wisdom, my instinct, and people whos
opinions I normally trust, were right.
was gloomy and drizzling as we arrived on the edge of Cancun, giving
the city a gray and unappealing look, which unfortunately proved
to be a reliable indication of things to come. Following last years
devastating hit by Hurricane Wilma, Cancun in effect resembles Beirut
or Belfast during the wars that affected those two cities, with
severely damaged buildings, huge potholes, piles of rubble, and
construction projects everywhere.
The noise of jackhammers
and drills is pervasive. Feeling as if I should expect an explosion
or bomb blast at any second, I picked my way through the downtown devastation
and found my hotel, fortunately an oasis of calm in the chaos. I regrouped,
and headed out to explore.
The center of downtown Cancun is largely geared towards tourists, with
a fair number of shops selling the regulation t-shirts and plastic souvenirs
found in tourist traps the world over, with the word Cancun replacing
St. Thomas, Miami, New York, etc, over the top of the standard pictures
of flamingoes, frogs, or bikini clad ladies. Shops and restaurants happily
accept US dollars, however generally at a worse rate than at the exchange
houses. Mexican places to eat or shop are thin on the ground,
however can be found by heading into the side streets or out of the
center. There are several markets in Cancun, Mercado
28 being the largest, however the products are aimed at tourists,
and the sales pitch is heavy. Every merchant is convinced that you need
a hammock, guayabera, or blanket, and that you should purchase it from
him. The Central Flea Market on Tulum Avenue is more of
the same, but with a heavier sales pitch.
following morning, I decided to investigate the Hotel Zone,
Cancuns version of Miami Beach, via the local bus (6.50 pesos,
about US$0.60). Apart from the now familiar scenes of devastation
and reconstruction, it could have been Miami Beach, with US chain
hotels, US chain restaurants, and US chain stores stretching as
far as the eye could see in every direction. Everyone speaks English,
everyone accepts US dollars. What more could the US tourist ask
were few people around (this being somewhat of a low season after spring
break but before the summer peak) and if the sales pitch had seemed
heavy at the markets downtown, in the Hotel Zone it reached fever pitch,
as the merchants fell rabidly on any passing visitor.
Desperate to escape this vision of hell, I took refuge in the Ruinas
del Rey, Cancuns very own Mayan ruins. While considerably smaller
than the major Mayan sites, the Ruinas del Rey (30 pesos or US$3.00
admission) was a welcome respite from the rampant commercialism elsewhere
in the Hotel Zone, and occupied a couple of hours. Interestingly, the
structures showed no sign of having been affected by Wilma, and evidently
the Maya builders of 1500 years ago were working to higher standards
than the builders of the wrecked hotels that surrounded the site. The
ruins were peaceful, no doubt due to the fact that I was the only visitor;
Cancuns tourists apparently preferring to occupy their time by
eating and drinking themselves into oblivion at authentic
establishments such as Fat Tuesday or Jimmy Buffets Margaritaville.
Sitting in the Ruinas del Rey, with its backdrop of ugly chain hotels,
I found it hard to feel sorry that Cancun had been all but destroyed.
While of course I have great sympathy for the workers whose livelihoods
were affected, I was unable to feel any regret for the place itself,
somewhere so fake and artificial, and it seemed that nature, in the
form of Wilma, shared my opinion.
Returning downtown, and desperately trying to find somewhere that resembled
Mexico, I proceeded north of the center along Tulum Avenue, finally
locating a non-touristy area, in neighborhood 23 (Cancuns neighborhoods
being numbered rather than named) which included some half way decent
shops, local restaurants, and the Mercado 23,
a much more relaxed shopping experience than the other markets.
That evening, I wandered into Palapas Park, the closest thing that Cancun
has to a Zocalo or main square. Home to some acceptable
and cheap outdoor food stands (a plate of grilled shrimp, served with
vegetables, salad, and tortillas was 40 pesos or about US$3.65 for example),
I also found the "1st Marathon for Recycling of Paper and Boxes"
was in full swing on the stage. Its objective? "To contribute to
the production of free text books for the children of Mexico."
I knew this because a large sign behind the marathon performers stated
it. A worthy cause without a doubt, however what was less clear to me
was how the marathon was actually contributing to any recycling. Id
missed the start of the marathon though, and possibly had I been there
at the beginning, it would have been clear. In any event, some of the
singers and dancers were not half bad, and they had drawn a fair sized
Keen to escape, next day I took the ferry from Cancuns Puerto
Juarez to Isla Mujeres (70 pesos or US$7.00 roundtrip), a 20-minute
ride in a modern, air-conditioned catamaran ferry. A complete contrast
to Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a peaceful and tranquil place, with a pleasant,
largely traffic-free town, and beautiful beaches. Looking for a restaurant
occupied mainly by Mexicans, I found "Mininos" a small waterfront
establishment with plastic furniture under an awning. A good sized fresh
shrimp cocktail, followed by a sublime plate of grilled conch with rice,
salad, and tortillas, and three beers set me back 190 pesos (about US$17.00).
A word of warning to anyone who has only eaten conch as Conch
Fritters in Key West or the Bahamas, where the conch has been
ground fresh conch is not the same, and should only be attempted
by those with strong teeth!
The next morning, I left town, and assisted by Delta Airlines, returned
to reality. I had achieved what I intended, visiting three contrasting
cities: one a fascinating glimpse into life rarely seen by outsiders,
one a cultural gem requiring considerable further exploration, and one
a tourist hell to which I never intend to return. I had met the people,
and witnessed the renaissance that is taking place in Mexico, which
is fast becoming a land of young, educated professionals, and rapidly
moving away from the mañana attitude of the past.
I felt relaxed, refreshed, and thanks to a healthy diet and huge amounts
of walking, I had lost a couple of pounds into the bargain.
© Stewart Mandy 2006
About the author: Stewart Mandy is an accomplished international freelance
writer who has been published in various print and online publications,
on a wide variety of topics including travel, hospitality, industry
specific topics, and current affairs. He is always available for worldwide
assignment, and all offers and story ideas will be considered. He can
be reached via his website, www.stewartmandy.com
Current exchange rate: US$ 1.00 = MEX Pesos 11.20 (June 2006)
English spoken: Villahermosa virtually none
Merida many people speak some English, a surprising number are
Cancun widely spoken.
As in any country, a basic knowledge of the local language (Spanish
in this case) goes a long way, both in getting your message across,
and in gaining the trust and confidence of the locals.
Summer Climate: Villahermosa hot
Merida stiflingly hot!
Cancun hot, but with a breeze
Cooler and more pleasant in the evenings everywhere.
Transportation: Villahermosa Colectivos and taxis
can be hailed anywhere you see them. For car rental, we used Europcar,
booking online at www.europcar.com
Merida Progreso van can be boarded at the terminal on Calle 60
between Calle 65 and 67. In Progreso, board at the Zocalo (main square),
the same place where you will disembark on arrival.
Merida Cancun ADO GL Bus all the details, plus online
booking for a range of bus journeys can be found at www.ticketbus.com.mx
- English version is available.
Ultramar ferry from Cancun Isla Mujeres departs from Puerto Juarez,
also known as Gran Puerto Cancun on some maps Puerto Juarez is
accessible by bus on route R-1, but not all R-1 buses go there, so check
the destination list on the windshield before boarding.
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