We’ve been SO excited about welcoming our friends Karin and Al to spend some time in Mérida with us, and getting to show them around the historic centre with all its great cultural activities.
It’s also been a chance to do some things we’ve not gotten to yet on our wish list: Mayan ruins, cenotes, and a historic henequen hacienda.
DAY ONE. Acknowledging a really long travel flight day (3 flights with layovers taking over 10 hours), we planned a low-key day today, with our main activity being a visit to the two big Centro markets: Mercado , Lucas de Galvéz,which features a fish market, and Mercado San Benito, which hosts the meat and poultry market. Al gets credit for all the pictures of our morning activity.
By 10 :30 a.m.we’d walked through both food markets, taken a quick look at the areas selling shoes, clothing, and jewelry, and were ready for a cold drink and “second breakfast”. I’ve been learning that Mexicans eat five meals each day: desayuno/breakfast (a hearty meal eaten around 6 a.m. before going to work); almuerzo/second breakfast (a mid-morning snack or weekend brunch); comida/lunch (a main meal eaten around 2 p.m.); merienda/“afternoon tea” consisting of coffee, sweet breads and fruit around 6 p.m., and cena/supper at 9 or 10 p.m.)
After second breakfast, we spent about an hour in the Museum of the City of Mérida and the art exhibition located there. Details of both are in Episode 389.
Our afternoon was occupied by eating lunch, prepping dinner together, a short siesta,and eating dinner, after which we walked to the Olimpo for Tuesday Night Trova and a short walk through the Plaza Grande. We’d been so excited to have our friends experience Trova music, so were very disappointed when the evening’s performance was instead a selection of serenatas and jazz numbers written by Yucatecan composers and performed by a male vocalist/guitarist backed by keyboard, electric bass,and percussion. It was an enjoyable concert – but it wasn’t Trova.
DAY TWO. Eat, talk, connect, laugh, repeat.
We basically “hung out” all day until it was time to head to the rooftop at Picheta, on the Plaza Grande, for dinner under the stars. En route we made a stop to see the Pacheco murals at the Governor’s Palace, and Karin and Al took in the Matisse exhibit at the Olimpo.
In the past 3 months, we’ve never found the huge Catedral de San Ildefonso open, so Karin and Al must have been our lucky charms.
This massive cathedral, the oldest on the continental Western Hemisphere (the only older is in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic) was built on the site of a former Maya temple beginning in 1561 and was completed in 1598. Part of the reason the exterior is so very plain is that it was built largely using stone from the actual temple. To add insult to injury, Mayans were conscripted to do much of the heavy labour.
Around 5:30, about an hour before evening mass, the visitors entrance to the cathedral was open. There we met the cathedral’s head of security, who upon hearing my attempts at Spanish and finding out that I was a Canadian (yup, I tell everybody – if they ask) asked if we’d like to see a really big connection to Canada within the cathedral. The answer to an offer of first-hand information is always yes. He then left his post to give the four of us a tour!!
The Mayan workers conscripted to help build a Christian house of worship using the stones from their own temple managed to get a bit of revenge. Years after the cathedral’s construction was completed, the Mayan calendar they had carved into the cupola was noticed. Fortunately, there were no workers or funds available by then to remove it.
We were told that the sacristy used to have five chapels. The three northern ones still remain, and we were able to visit the one dedicated to the Christ of the Blisters (1656). The chapels to Santa Ana and to the Baptistry were inaccessible due to a small service taking place. The southern chapels, San José and the Rosary, which united the headquarters of the Episcopal Palace (now MACAY Museum), were demolished around 1916 during the revolutionary period, in the looting headed by General Salvador Alvarado; and in their place today is the Pasaje de la Revolución that we walked through on Day One.
The Christ of the Blisters (below) was so named because during the looting, after a fire was started in the Cathedral, it was noted that the pale wooden Christ figure with its human hair has not burned, but had turned almost black from the smoke and developed blisters, which was considered a miracle.
The highlight of our tour was a fairly close-up look at the Christ of the Unity (a symbol of reconciliation between those of Spanish and Maya heritage) which measures 7.67 meters/25feet tall, and is carved from a single CANADIAN birch tree (note: I cannot find anything to substantiate that) positioned on a mahogany cross which itself is over 12 meters/40 ft tall. Unveiled in 1967, the crucifix dominates the altar. It was constructed by Spanish sculptor and painter Ramón Lapayese del Río (1928-1994), and is believed to be the largest wooden crucifixion statue in the Americas. You can read more about it here: https://mdkonline.com.mx/noticias/consultar/5822
Our guide said the Christ was carved from a single piece of wood, but he was speaking English to us at the time, and had to have meant a single tree (which is what I understood in Spanish before he translated), especially since we’ve found archival photos showing it being installed in pieces. Even so, a Canadian birch tree that big? It turns out that in British Columbia, birch grow up to 40 metres/130 feet tall, with a diameter of up to 75 cm/30 inches, which could certainly have generated enough wood for this sculpture.
Dinner began with 3 of us sharing beef carpaccio and salmon tartare, while Ted enjoyed a bowl of Sopa di Lima, a citrus-based soup with turkey that is a Yucatecan specialty. Karin, who has a very small appetite, had an appetizer of pumpkin-seed codzitos stuffed with local squash and longaniza sausage Valladolid as her main course, while I went with the ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and spicy pork sausage (also from Valladolid) served in xcatic chili bechamel sauce topped with parmesan cheese. The guys both had venison and beef burgers as their main courses. A lovely bottle of Santa Alicia Carmenere from Chile and some Ceiba stout (for Ted) rounded out our meal. While the food was decent, what you really pay for at Picheta is excellent service, and a spectacular view over the Plaza Grande.
DAY THREE. You know you’re comfortable with your friends when breakfast is Cheerios, yogurt, and leftover cheese brioche and lunch features grilled cheese sandwiches.
Once again our planned activities were for the cooler evening hours: dinner at Pita with the addition of our good friends Theresa and Kent, followed by a concert entitled “They’ll Always Live”, a tribute to great Yucatecan composers by YucaJazz at the Teatro Armando Manzanero.
First, dinner. Pita is a well known Mediterranean restaurant featuring … pitas! We started with falafel, hummus and warm pita bread,and then moved on to lamb shawarma pitas, Philly steak pitas, and shrimp and rice. Drinks, of course (I had a really good Paloma, which is grapefruit juice, tequila, lime juice, and sparkling water), and conversation.
Then it was a short walk to the theatre, where we joined a long line of ticket holders waiting to get in. The fact that the doors didn’t open until 5 minutes before the posted show time was not a good sign, but the show was only delayed half an hour, which os well within Yucatecan “on time” parameters.
The almost two hour long concert, a benefit for a young man with Down Syndrome, was originally planned for 2021, but due to Covid only happened now. The 1200 seat theatre was sold out, and the performers really played to the crowd. The 5 piece YucaJazz band backed all the vocalists, including the Mexican heartthrob David Cavazos, except during one of his encores when an audience member requested his hit song Pideme (“Ask Me”) and the band didn’t have the music – so he performed it a capella, much to his fans’ delight.
DAY FOUR. Today we joined our ToursByLocals guide Ralf Hollman for a full day tour encompassing Uxmal, a hacienda, a cenote, a Yucatecan family’s home where we learned to make (and eat!) a traditional fireside lunch, and more.
Ralf wanted us to get as much as possible out of our day, so when our logical route to Uxmal went right through the centre of Mérida’s largest cemetery, we had to make a quick stop to see just a very few of the landmarks and interesting monuments.
Felipe Carillo Puerto was the Mexican governor from 1922 to 1924, a socialist leader (sometimes referred to as “the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico”) who is remembered for promoting the unionization of workers, for efforts toward the preservation of the Mayan language, for the redistribution of land (benefitting more than 30,000 Maya families), for restoring archeological centres, for setting a minimum wage, for supporting women’s suffrage, for founding universities, opening more than 400 schools, hand much much more. Ostensibly for his backing of a subsequent socialist regime, but really for his own radical ideas and overt support of the Maya over the wealthy Spanish landowners, he and three of his brothers were arrested, tried in military court, and executed on January 3, 1924. Supposedly his last words – as inscribed his memorial – were “Don’t abandon my Indians.” When we asked about the huge mausoleum and memorial, our guide’s comment was that “he wasn’t a threat once he was dead”.
The week after our tour, Ted and I were enjoying the weekly “Trova Tuesday” performance at The Olimpo, when the trova trio “Inspiracíon” performed La Peregrina. Ted was able to video their rendition.
The words of the chorus are:
“When you leave my land and my palm trees behind,
You pilgrim, with your charming demeanour,
Don’t forget, don’t forget about my land,
Don’t forget, don’t forget about my love.”
The cemetery is absolutely huge; Ted and I could easily spend a day there taking photos, admiring sculptures, and reading inscriptions, but we had other places to be on our tour! Ralf made a point though of taking us to see one of his favourite things, the “fallen angel” toppled from one of the monuments.
About 30 minutes further along our route to Uxmal we stopped at Hacienda Yaxcopoil, a former henequen plantation. These magnificent homes belonged to wealthy Spanish plantation owners, who “employed” Mayan workers to harvest and process the henequen agave plants whose fibres are called “sisal”in English. The haciendas truly were equivalent to American cotton and tobacco plantations, or Brazilian sugar fazendas, and the “labourers” were truly slaves, since the only way they could buy out their contracts was with “currency” issued by each specific landowner, and the price of freedom was never attainable.
The lands of the haciendas were eventually distributed to the workers (remember Felipe Carillo Puerto?), and are homes and businesses to this day. The hacienda “great houses” were largely abandoned when their owners decamped back into the city of Mérida; after all, the henequen boom was over as soon as synthetic fibres were deemed more economical for ships’ ropes and rigging, and slavery had been abolished. The wealthy remained wealthy though, owning railroads and factories in the Yucatán.
Each hacienda had a rudimentary school, teaching the skills deemed necessary by the landowners; an infirmary; and a commissary where the only acceptable payment for goods was in the local scrip.
We drove past several occupied former workers’ homes, and stopped at the tortilla factory, which produces thousands of corn tortillas per day. The price of corn tortillas, a dietary staple in the Yucatán, is state regulated at a maximum of 22 pesos/$1.67 CAD/$1.22 USD per kilo (2022). In the poorest households, tortillas spread with lard can comprise an entire meal.
After leaving the hacienda we stopped at an absolutely stunning lookout point to get our first glimpse of the Magician’s Temple at Uxmal, and were also introduced to a young Mayan man selling drums, rain-sticks, carvings, and honey from his own on-site hives. That’s where we learned that the Yucatán is home to a variety of very special stingless bees (called Xunaan-Cab in Mayan) that produce Melipona honey, a smooth, slightly sour elixir cherished by ancient and contemporary Mayan communities. Our Mayan host at the lookout explained that it is traditionally used more for medicinal purposes rather than flavoring food. Modern scientific studies have confirmed that it offers more antioxidant and inflammation-reduction properties than honey produced from stinging bees. Coincidentally, the Melipona bee is the only pollinator known to pollinate the vanilla plant; because of the bees’ rarity, almost all commercial vanilla is hand-pollinated.
The honey is not harvested from traditionally shaped wax honeycomb; these bees deposit it into individual tiny “sacs”, from which it must be extracted with a syringe – a painstaking process. 100 ml sells for around $50USD. We were given a 15 ml sample of the liquid non-crystallizing elixir to bring home with us.
It’s definitely not something you just stir into your tea. In fact, it can be used for treating skin and eye infections and even cataracts, a fact that intrigued Karin. When we were given a tiny bit of the pollen-laden raw honey on a small wooden stick to taste, our guide joked with Karin that she shouldn’t try to put it in her eye because it would poke!
Our next stop was the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, the capital city of the region now called the Puuc Route. Our guide at the site was a lovely young Maya named Gladys Concepcion G…. There was so much to see and learn at Uxmal that it’s going into a separate blog entry, but here we are with Gladys at the entrance to the site:
Our next stop was at a traditional thatch-roofed Mayan family home, which it turned out belonged to Gladys’ family! We were enthusiastically welcomed, but not as enthusiastically as our guide Ralf. The minute he entered the front yard, Gladys’ nieces Alexa and Scarlet ran to hug him. I felt very honoured to be allowed to hug them later when we left to go home.
Gladys’ sister-in-law (mom of the two beautiful little girls in many of our photos), her mother-in-law, and grandmother are all actively involved in providing this welcoming in-home experience, and made us feel like honoured guests. We found out from Ralf that on the very next day the Minister of Tourism for Mexico was planning to visit the home, but there was no sense that we were any less important than their pending visitors. However…. the great grandmother had met the Yucatecan governor the day before, and would not clasp hands with anyone because she had still not washed that hand, which apparently smelled like him! (Yup, she’s a fan!)
We got a close-up cooking demonstration before getting to eat all the tasty foods. First, we were served a snack of papadzules, a traditional Mayan dish with a few mestizo influences: corn tortillas dipped in a sauce made from pumpkin seeds flavored with epazote, with a chopped hardboiled egg filling and a tomato and chile garnish. Accompanying that was lovely cool freshly made limonata served in cups made from small hollowed-out jícaro fruits.
Next was a demonstration of pollo pibil. A “pib” is an in-ground cooking pit, heated with stones buried in a wood fire, and is the same cooking method used for the region’s famous cochinita pibil (pig roasted the same way). Gladys’ sister-in-law Maria, explained what she was doing in a combination of Spanish and Mayan, translated into English for us by Gladys. First, the achiote seeds from the annatto tree need to be ground into a fine paste using a curved stone mortar and stone pestle combination called a metate.
Those seeds are added to the juice of sour oranges (a specific type of orange similar to bitter Seville oranges) and some epazote leaves to make a marinade for the chicken, which is placed in a deep earthenware dish, covered with roasted garlic, tomato, green pepper, and “cat” pepper (which looks like a yellow jalapeño). The pot is then covered with banana leaves and buried in the hot stones in the pit, where it bakes for about an hour (by contrast, the pork version bakes for 4-5 hours). We’d get to taste the final product later for lunch.
In the meantime, we needed a snack: sikil pak, a dip made with roasted and ground pumpkin seeds (sikil), roasted tomatoes (pak) and roadted habanero pepper. The tomatoes are briefly cooked so that the skins can be slipped off, and then puréed by in a 3-footed stone mortar called a molcahete. Once the tomatoes are fully crushed, enough sikil is added to make a thick dip, with habanero carefully added to taste. We were served small jícaro bowls of the dip with crisp tostadas. Delicious!
Then it was time to make tortillas! The masa (corn dough) had already been prepared for us, so we just needed to take some dough, roll it into a ball, flatten it in our palms, and then use our fingers to gently pat it into a flat enough circle to be placed on the cast iron plate over the fire pit. Alexa and Scarlet kept us focussed, letting us know exactly what we needed to do, since they were already experts at 5 and 8 years old. The finished tortillas were stacked into a large jícaro bowl.
Our visit finished with a delicious family lunch. My challenge now will be to take these recipes back to son #2 in Canada.
It was wonderful to end our day in the shade at a cenote, especially since it was 39°C/102°F all day. ted, Karin, and Al all agreed that cooling off in the cenote was amazing. Because I don’t swim – or even float – I couldn’t overcome my fear of going into a 35m (more than 100 feet) deep wellspring, even with a life jacket, so I sat at the top and took photos.
DAY FIVE. We were all pretty tuckered out after our long tour day, (in fact, I went for a quick “nap” when we got home and woke up the next morning) so we just hung out talking, reading, and writing until early afternoon. Then it was Ted’s turn for a nap while the rest of us walked to the Palacio de la Música’s interactive museum.
The museum was so much more than we expected: five large areas highlighting the history and progression of Mexican music from colonial times through present day. Unfortunately there are no records of the pre-Hispanic music of the area. Each area had timelines, artifacts, and multiple stations with screens and headphones where museum visitors could read about musical genres, context, composers, and media as well as listening to recordings. In all, more than 1000 full-length songs are available to enjoy.
There are also theatres running short films, holographic presentations, and a room with huge wall screens where you can learn the steps to several Mexican folk dances! Since I was alone in that room, guess who was dancing?
One area focussed on Mexican radio’s golden age, another on Mexican television music, and a third on Mexican cinema. Then there was an opportunity to program a 16 track song, create and save a CD cover, and edit a pre-recorded piece of music by manipulating the tracks – a lot of fun!
We spent about 2-1/2 hours in the museum, but could easily have stayed all day enjoying the music.
After dinner of Mexican street-corn-in-a-cup and mole verde chicken enchiladas, which (despite Ted’s very vocal misgivings) Karin and I whipped up COOPERATIVELY in the kitchen, we headed off to introduce Karin and Al to my favourite activity of the week: the pok-ta-pok demonstration.
We’ve already saved lots of pok-ta-pok memories, but this time got a great close-up picture of my favourite player (the young man centre in the photo below).
DAY SIX. How can it already be our last day together when there’s still so much of Mérida to share?
One of our priorities was introducing our friends to our incredible Mérida host, and what better way than taking them to the Sunday matinee performance by the Orquesta Sinfonia de Yucatán on the day that he is the featured soloist? It turns out that Karin and Al have likely heard Chris before, in one of his years as concertmaster in New Jersey (just one of more than a dozen orchestras in which he has held that role). Chris’s rendition of Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra was perfection itself. The second half of the program was Tchaikovsky’s Little Russia, one of my favourite Tchaikovsky pieces – but Chris’s usual first chair was filled by the assistant concertmaster for that, giving Chris a well-deserved break after more than half an hour of entertaining us as the soloist.
After the concert, we enjoyed one more authentic Yucatecan lunch at Coyote Maya, and then returned to the house for a dip in the pool and some more conversation before walking to square beside the Palacio de la Música to have marquesitas for “dinner”.
And that, sadly, brings our week together to an end.
Hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo … auf Wiedersehen … until we’re together again…..
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What an amazing week you all had, Rose! And such fun for you to have spent time with Al and Karin (and Teresa and Kent too!). I have to admit that the part about the chicken guts and cloven feet did not much appeal… Just yuck! LOL!
Other than that, clearly tons to do in and around Mereda.
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