Category Archives: Life in the Yucatan

The good, the bad and the ugly. Telling it like I see it for over 10 years now.

Playa del Carmen for Tourists

The strange roof top pool at the weird but comfortable Reina Roja hotel in Playa del Carmen

Having just come back from a little overnight in Playa del Carmen after dropping off the kids at their hotel in Tulum, I thought I would share a few impressions from Playa – as folks around here call it because it’s too hard and time-consuming to actually say Playa del Carmen – from a visitors/slash neurotic foreigners (the original viewpoint of this blog when it started 20 years ago) point of view.

Playa is heavily policed

In the touristy part around the 5th avenue area, the police presence is massive. There are armed policemen at every intersection and at one spot that I saw, a tank-like armored vehicle that probably came from the US Army’s surplus after the Iraq invasion was successfully completed.

Since you hear a lot about the gangs, the narcos and the violence that has plagued the area, this dark undertone to all the happy people selling stuff on the street and the trendy restaurants and shops, should be reassuring and not threatening. How you will react is entirely up to you. And in spite of their rather intimidating aspecto, what with their bullet-proof vests, machine guns, and all-black uniforms, they seem friendly enough though and don’t mess with anyone.

The touts

Touts is one of those weird words that I have trouble writing, just because it sounds so 18th century. But apparently, that is the official word for those guys in the street, that are trying to get you to come into their (or a friends or employers) store along the Quinta Avenida.

Predominantly men, they pester each and every passerby, inviting them to come and see their cigars, their hats or their tours. If they are waving a plastic covered menu, it’s a restaurant they want you to try. And listen to their banter, which is incredibly original – “hey, I remember you” and funny (sarcasm). If any females walk by, you can be sure that they will have a #metoo moment and be ogled and commented on by the touts, who usually hang around in small groups. As a tourist you can ignore them completely and if you don’t understand Spanish, the better it is for you since you won’t know what crap it is they are spouting.

Discounts galore

Beyond the verbal sales pitches of “good price” “cheapest price” and “best price” there are signs everywhere advertising discounts of up to 50% (on selected items). These are crappy things that never sold as well as they were expected to and so, are things you don’t want anyway unless you can’t pass up a good bargain on some plastic Made in China glass holder that says Playa del Carmen or the purple top with fringes from last year.

Pharmacies

Mexico is famous for its lax pharma laws and cheap drug prices and that, combined with the ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines in the US, means you will see pharmacy counters in the gift shops advertising everything from anti-depressants to anti-biotics to erectile dysfunction drugs with dubious labels. There are legit pharmacies a few blocks away where you can buy real drugs and medicines at local prices and so, you really don’t need to shop here unless you are afraid to venture into the “real” Playa del Carmen, a fear which is unfounded (read the part about the police, above)

The rich and the poor

You can see the disparity between the rich and the poor on the touristy streets of Playa. The wealthy tourists from abroad and from within Mexico stroll past high-end shops especially around the luxury shopping mall complete with Starbucks and all manner of luxury brand stores, while the miniature young women from Chiapas with their wares displayed Mayan market style on the very same streets right outside. Note that these women usually have small children in tow, who are entertaining themselves on cell phones, and who add a sympathetic look to the scene, invoking a sense of guilt to passers-by and thereby perhaps making it more probable to get that sale.

At one point, a shiny black Mercedes Benz coupe drove past a police checkpoint which was interesting since a) it was a black Mercedes that costs probably about a million and a half pesos and was driven by a twenty-something-year-old and his female cohort which might raise an eyebrow or two; b) they had a child on the lap of the female in the front seat, a clear violation of transit law and c) the car had no plates, another violation and normally a reason for the police to pull the car over.

Weekend getaway

In any case, Playa del Carmen is a great destination for a weekend escape from your routine if you enjoy a little beach time and some great restaurants. Other than that, I wouldn’t come back for more than a day or two as the whole ambiance seems just a little too much for my laid back Yucatecan self.

 

Friends with Benefits – Giving Away Your Business

In the years I have lived in Mexico, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon among business owners and their friends, that I can only attribute to cultural differences between where I grew up and where I live now.

In Canada, and I suspect this also happens in the U.S.,  when you open a new business, you put out the word and where do you start? Friends and family of course. And your friends and your family will come and check out your new venture, congratulate you perhaps and wish you well; they will also buy stuff. No matter if you are making empanadas or ear wax candles, they will probably pick up something to support your latest entrepreneurial effort. They appreciate the time and work put into the logo, the concept, the locale if you have one, and the actual products themselves and they want to support you, so they buy something, even if they really have no use for it. They’re your support base and they want you to succeed, so they do.

Here in sunny Mexico, things are a little different. You open your doors or Tupperware container on the corner and let your friends and family know. They will all show up of course; they do love you after all and most of them want you to succeed except for the ones that don’t who will voice unwanted opinions on your product, your idea, your enthusiasm. The goal is to not let you get ‘too big for your britches’ so to speak; they do it out of love and for your own good and that when you fail, you won’t feel so bad and they can say “te lo dije” And, as George Lopez would say “so you learn”

And while they love you, they love anything free even more. And this invitation to see your new business is exactly that: an opportunity to get something for nothing because you’re family! So instead of buying anything, they will ask – in some cases demand – that you invite them to everything on the menu, or in the case of ear wax candles, a free candle to take home. This is not hinted at; no, this is expected and you had better cough up or else your friendship or familial relationship will be in peril.

Where does this come from I wonder? I am not an anthropologist but would love to hear from anyone who has a theory.

The Starbucks Incident

My driver Jorge and I picked Jim and Donna up at the Progreso shuttle drop-off area; a parking lot converted into a makeshift market that effortlessly manages, in spite of the trinket stalls, vendors and t-shirts, to continue to exude the charm of what it is in real life: a dilapidated Mexican parking lot. Surrounded by concrete block walls featuring painted signs scrawled over barely-covered chipped paint advertising in a chicken scratch font that newcomers to the area find ‘charming’ and long-time cynics like me find downright ugly, the space is a study in the third world aesthetic. The nearby, partially completed Hotel Jose looms over one side of this mess, the first thing tourists see when arriving in Progreso from the luxury accomodations of their cruise ship. This is what is condescendingly called “the real Mexico” on travel forums where heated discussions take place regarding the inclusion of this port as a stop for the Carnival circuit out of Mobile or New Orleans. Real, indeed.

Leaving the charms of Progreso behind as quickly as possible, I chat with Donna and Jim as we head towards Merida and our days destination: the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, some 90 minutes away. Donna is an IT person in a web design company, while Jim is a consultant for AT&T and an accident has left him in a wheelchair. I ask them if they are coffee drinkers; they both enthusiastically nod and so we make a beeline for the Starbucks near the Gran Plaza mall.

Back on the road, vanilla mocha cappuccinos in hand and with trusty Jorge at the wheel of the car, I give them a little background on the history of the Mayans, the Spanish, the henequen industry and other Yucatan related subjects and we chat about life in Merida vs. life in the U.S.A.

At some point, between the tricycles and market bustle of Uman and the green hills of Muna, the coffees long since finished, the subject of a bathroom comes up. Jim, who is in the front seat next to Jorge, taking in the view such as it is, mentions that he needs to stop to relieve himself. I ask him how much time we have.

“How many minutes have we got, Jim?”

“None” he replies drily. I assume he is joking, as most folks can hold it in until we get somewhere. Jorge mentions a bathroom at Yaxcopoil, but then realizes that the wheelchair will make that option difficult. I say nothing, thinking that when we get to Muna, the Pemex gas station will be a good place to stop.

Jim breaks the ensuing silence. “Pass me one of them Starbucks cups”. Donna chuckles, I am at a loss for words and Jorge’s expression, which I see in the rearview mirror changes from placid to one of horror. Jim is not joking. I hand Jim an empty cup, taking off the plastic lid first.

Jim takes the cup as Jorge desperately tries to look elsewhere unwilling to believe what he is about to see. Donna has seen it all before, but Jorge and I have not and are not prepared for what happens next.

Bending over in the front seat, Jim lifts his left pant leg, positions the cup and opens a valve and begins draining what Donna explains is a bag. Jorge and I are somewhat relieved that we are not being treated to another kind of display and Jim is evidently more relieved than both Jorge and I. As Jorge eases the car to the side of the road, Jim opens the door and I tell him to just go ahead and dump the Starbucks cup there. It’s the rainy season so the underbrush is green and creeping up to and onto the shoulder and, as usual, there is trash strewn liberally in the vegetation. Jim empties his cup and then, turning back to me, offers to hand me the cup. I tell him that since there is already a lot of garbage on the side of the road, one Starbucks cup won’t make a difference; it’ll be alright. Jorge quickly adds that it is biodegradable, not to worry. Jim tosses the cup and we sit in silence for the next few minutes as Jorge once again gets us on our way. Donna breaks the ice and explains that this is a normal procedure and we all have a little – albeit nervous – chuckle.

The rest of the trip went well, but to this day I will never look at a Starbucks cup the same way again.

Brown People

There is and always has been a palpable racist element in this country and you will see, in the hundreds of interactions the well-to-do Mexican upper classes have with their supposed inferiors, a total disregard for these browner versions of themselves.

Look around. You will see it everywhere.

Privileged kids at private school
dropping wrappers and plastic bottles
Brown People

Dirty dishes in the sink
greasy pots and pans
Brown People

Enemas and bandages
bedpans and injections
Brown People

The Lincoln on Montejo
garbage out the window
Brown People

The traffic accident
blue lights flashing
Brown People

The Barbie Mom
coffee after the gym
Brown People

Babies in strollers
families at the mall
Brown People

The busy executive
car at the valet
Brown People

Gym workout
towels, wrappers, water everywhere
Brown People

The children’s party
the piñata bursts open
Brown People

The drug war rages
who to fight the cartels
Brown People

Fortunes made
henequen industry families
Brown People

A stray shopping cart
supermarket parking lot
Brown People

Political unrest
thugs beating up citizens
Brown People

Morning TV show
the silver-toothed buffoon
Brown People

Hacienda Cacao – A Little Slice of History

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On my forays into the Yucatan as part of the work I do with my touring company Lawson’s Original Yucatan Excursions, I try to poke my head into whatever mysterious or interesting site I can find, including the many haciendas both restored and abandoned that are so liberally sprinkled across the peninsula. This is a little bit of history of one of those haciendas.

On the way to San Antonio Mulix, home to several cenotes including ones used in scenes for the famous Mexican telenovela Abismo de Pasión, one must necessarily drive through another village, a former hacienda simply called Cacao.

Cacao is a strange name for a Yucatecan hacienda, since cacao was not really a product produced in any significant commercial form on the haciendas, which originally started as farms for livestock and some grew cotton, sugar cane and other products, before all turning to henequen (sisal) production in the early, mid and late 1800’s in an effort to cash in on the boom that made the Yucatan home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the world at that time.

On one such drive-by, with the enthusiastic approval of similarly curious guests, I stopped to explore the chapel, which is still intact (as opposed to the rest of the hacienda which is completely and utterly in ruins) to admire and photograph the original stain glass windows and high ceilings. The chapel is still used by the catholics in the village to this day, with a visiting priest performing the corresponding duties. On the floor, I photographed the plaques commemorating the people from the hacienda that had died over the years.

As I was reviewing the photos, I noticed that one of the plaques indicated that the deceased person had been ‘assassinated at the hacienda Cacao’ in August of 1924 (see photo below)

Assassinated! Really...

Assassinated! Really…

Now this is highly unusual. Normally, these plaques give us a name and date of death and not much else and so I immediately wanted to learn more.

It turns out that this hacienda, was the property of the Ponce de Leon family, the surname I associate with Florida, having seen it in Miami many times. This branch, here in the Yucatan, at one point dropped the ‘de Leon’ suffix and became simply the Ponce family, whose members to this day are movers and shakers in the Yucatan economy. The owner of the hacienda, one Jose Luis Ponce Solis, was part of the ruling elite in the 1920’s and in addition to the usual henequen production common to all haciendas at the time, was the founder of  Yucatan’s first brewery, Cerveceria Yucateca, for which he brought a German beer expert over from Deutschland to get it right. He also founded a chocolate factory and another company dedicated to the manufacture of ice.

A little more digging and I found the information I was looking for. In 1924, when tensions were running high between Felipe Carrillo’s socialists and liberal conservatives, a group of outlaws under the command of famous ‘bandit’ and personal friend of then-governor Iturralde Traconis, Braulio Euán, entered the hacienda and killed the caretaker, his wife and 20 workers as well. I suspect that the Francisco Yam on the plaque was either the caretaker or one of those 20 people killed on that fateful day in August, 1924.

We often find ourselves driving through half-forgotten villages, past crumbling buildings or under giant trees; unaware that these are all silent witnesses to a slowly disappearing history that is, as so often is the case in human history, tragic.

The Casual Restaurant Critics Re-Visits Merci

It seems amazing that THREE YEARS have gone by since the Critic first tried breakfast at Merci! It has, in the interim, become a definite go-to place not only for the delicious breakfasts but also the very good lunch offerings.

Merci

You can read the previous mentions of Merci here. And for some more photos of the menu items off the breakfast menu, here.

This mini-review is just to keep the Critics’ faithful seven readers up to date and in the loop, in case you are not, on the latest and greatest at Merci.

Owner Regina has been busy making changes both to the menu and to her operation, and has expanded the locale to make it a bit larger, thanks to demand from her loyal following. The changes are palpable, as the service has become more professional, the ambience is more relaxed and seems less stressed (due to her amazing success) and the menu features new and tasty options.

It remains a top choice for breakfast and lunch and is an excellent spot to have a meal if you are in the northern part of the city, doing your non-colonial Merida errands. 🙂

Enjoy the photos, from a recent lunch visit with the always charming Better Half!

Interior shot

Seared tuna tostadas

Fish of the day – spectacular!

Salad

That’s pork belly. Can’t beat pork belly

Pear crumble could have been better with a more tart fruit to offset the sweet

Casual Restaurant Critic visits La Gloria Cantinera

img_5007In the strangely named Plaza Mangus, which is home to several culinary offerings including the heavily overpriced and nothing special yet somehow still around Tony Roma’s, there is a new restaurant that the Critic can recommend highly, based on now two visits.

Located in the space once occupied by the Bodeguita and directly across from Los Trompos at City Center, La Gloria Cantinera is a cantina run by the folks who own La Recova and it is a quality operation from the food to the service to the actual room.

The guacamole presented in a molcajete is excellent, as are the spiced tostadas accompanying the fresh and zesty salsas, served tiny stone pots. Anything pork has proven to be outstanding including the chamorro cooked with mezcal, the slab of ribs with a hint of spice cooked to tender perfection and the chicharron which makes an appearance here and there. The sirloin tacos with tuetano (bone marrow) are fantastic, the tortillas are hand made, the cucumber lemonade is a great non-alcoholic drink and the salmon tostadas that the critic tried on this visit were amazing.

The churro cart for dessert is not only original, it’s contents are amazingly addictive. Have them take those crispy sugary treats before you eat them all, which you might, and then regret as your stomach protests. The churros are accompanied by three dipping sauces: berries, chocolate and Bailey’s. You have been warned.

Service is professional, cordial and the way it should be – attentive but not intrusive.

This restaurant may well be on the Critic’s short list of best places to eat in Merida, based on the experiences had so far!

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Casual Restaurant Critic, sans new pants, reviews Petit Delice

The German part of the Casual Restaurant Critic feels it is important to have an afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen. If you have traveled to the land of the kraut (sauerkraut that is) you know what this custom is all about.

After a heavy meal the other day, the Critic wanted a good cup of coffee and Petit Delice has one of the best coffees in town, bar none. Along with their excellent coffee and tea selections, they feature some real French-style pastries that are out of this world.

The local bible, el Diario de Yucatan, did an article on them a while back, for those of you capable of reading en español:

Abren un rincón de estilo francés

The café, a little piece of France in Merida, is located on that awful and congested avenida that runs from El Pocito to City Center (Walmart) near the periferico, with it’s hundreds of small L-shaped plazas full of businesses that will probably fail sooner than later, due to the sheer volume of commercial offerings.

Enjoy the photos – this place is highly recommended!

Pastries that taste as good as they look

Pastries that taste as good as they look

Calm, subdued atmosphere

Calm, subdued atmosphere

The lamps are beautiful

The lamps are beautiful

Pavlova

Pavlova

The best coffee (this is a latte) in town

The best coffee (this is a latte) in town

Perennial favorite - lemon tart

Perennial favorite – lemon tart

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