• Evan Postier

Europe in the Yucatan: Mérida, Mexico

Updated: Aug 6, 2018

We stepped out into the night from the airport onto still-seething asphalt, the damp warmth enveloped our faces and exposed arms, a welcome greeting in February. Driving along the bumpy roads at night in route to our rented casita, little was visible from the yellow street light save for one-level houses with flat roofs, ornate banisters and carvings beneath the eaves, uneven surfaces of plaster mostly intact but often crumbling in places.

The morning sun revealed what truly makes Mérida special: color. Everywhere. Mustard yellows, sky blues, faded burgundies, soft pinks. These cover the often-rugged plaster that clings to the Spanish colonial buildings bringing vibrancy and life to structures that feel as though they are slowly returning to the earth; their tall, decaying wooden doors and iron work covered in layer upon layer of black paint.

Buses old and new lumber past, belching out diesel exhaust that dissipates slowly into the sky, Volkswagen beetles scamper between them with a unique whistle to their exhaust note. The South end of Mérida proves to be far more working class and typical of a developing country: fading paint on signs that advertise restaurants, convenience stores, a home that will do your laundry. A fine patina of colors are seen everywhere, time slowly revealing the contrasting Robin's egg blue beneath the sea-foam green, one paint-flake at a time. The north features more modern, upscale and trendy restaurants and hotels aimed at tourists and thus has a smoother, newer complexion.

The Mayan influence is clearly seen in the people- bronzed complexion, prominent noses, round faces and statures of under five feet on average. The older generation evidently brought up in an era of greater manners and respect, revealed by their orderly appearance- the men in slacks and a tucked-in linen or cotton white button-up shirts, the women in a modest dark skirt and sensible black shoes. The generation that followed them is more casual: colorful t-shirts and jeans or women in Capri's. An occasional English phrase is seen on t-shirts worn by unsuspecting natives such as "whiskey made me do it", "wake me for the weekend" or, sadly, as adorned by a small, elderly woman, "a--hole".

Restaurants abound. Everything from humble taco carts situated between three bicycle wheels and containing a vertical cylinder of delicious spiced pork to slice off and plop into tacos, to luxurious open-air establishments that naturally draw you into their civilized courtyards that are walled-in by story upon story of colonial Spanish columns and fine art hung on the walls and that feature sublime, European-inspired cuisine presented with the utmost attention to artistic detail. Again, the northern part of the city are where these settings which would satisfy nearly any Epicurean are found. And, of course, there are places in-between the two ends of the spectrum that richly satisfy the senses in both flavor and ambiance, but for a more affordable price.

One of these lovely goldy-locks places that balance superb dishes with a price-point that most visitors could afford is Hermana República: within it's timeworn stone walls and beneath it's stringed lights that blend in with the stars of the open sky above, you will find an incredible variety of local dishes with a unique spin to them- fantastic pork belly (a local Yukitani delicacy), tortas topped with smoked-marlin, steak any carnivore would salivate over, lamb so tender it feels sinful in some strange way. One dish we savored was a plate of impossibly-thin deep red slices of tuna bathed in a thin tomato purée topped with vegetables that felt and tasted as though they were picked just on the other end of the restaurant. Their complete list of craft beers superbly finish off the culinary experience.

Just outside of the city, the wonder of the ancient surrouding landscape begs to be explored. The thick, vibrant vegetation of the forrest and brush hide mysteries from thousands of years ago. The ancient Mayan ruins that are scattered throughout the land are something other-worldly; each and every stone that make up huge pyramids, temples and cemetery mounds have resisted eons of wind and rain, each one a testament to the greatness of the ancient Mayan culture that dominated the area for centuries. Getting to walk up them and on them connects you to the past in a very real and often forbidden way- it almost feels wrong to tread on what still are sacred places to so many.

An even more ancient (and in my mind, more mysterious) phenomenon are the dazzling, wondrous underground holes filled with the most majestic blue water yet to be discovered by man. These are the Cenotes that are sprinkled generously throughout the Yukitan- thousands of small sections of earth that slowly dissolved downward over thousands of years into a crypt-like cave so easily missed by it's tiny, ordinary appearance above, usually just a small hole in the dirt maybe 7 feet across. But descend down that hole and you will find something I thought only existed in dreams: cavernous, immense caves: walls adorned with hanging stalactites, bats flying above squeaking their clipped shrieks, and pure water of a gradient of blue that words utterly fail to capture. I was happy that the local guides (of maybe 17 years of age) that drove us in on the three-wheeled "mototaxis" required that we first shower above ground to wash off anything that might contaminate the pristine waters of these cenotes: these hidden underground pools truly are something sacred, as if swimming in them is more than just an activity but more of an act of obeisance and respect for their ancient majesty and beauty. One truly feels like he has stumbled into fiction- after all, how could natural water found deep in a cave in the ground be this clean, blue and clear?

I looked down into the water on my descent into Cenote Bolonchojul and felt that it perhaps had a depth of five to ten feet. However, as I pushed off from the edge into the warm, ancient pools and began to dive down, I had to return to the surface after my ears began to hurt- the depth of the water I was reaching created too much water pressure. It's hard to believe when you learn that they are often fifty feet plus, with some over a hundred feet in depth. Again, the water is so clear that they look like nothing more than a shallow pool. Small black fish can be seen slowly making their way throughout these pristine waters, having been their only residents for who knows how long. Some feature mysterious, inky-black tunnels that connect one Cenote to another somewhere far off. Wonders like these make anyone feel like a child again; it's almost impossible not to be fascinated by their beauty and secrets that they contain.

Really, Mérida itself is so very similar to the cenotes that surround it- gorgeous, colorful, a thrill to the senses, and very well hidden from the masses. Just the way I like it. And how I hope it remains.