Saturday, January 09, 2010

the heart of the Yucatan

In planning our nine days in the Mexican Yucatan, I gave us one day for the beach. Much as I can see myself spending endless time reading in a reclining position at the water’s edge, I am even more drawn by what lies in the heart of the peninsula.

Time to set out.

And yet, as I drag Ed out for a sunrise walk along the wet sand...


(most ran away; this one took the wave head on)


...and look out at the ripples of wave some distance from the shore, I think that I have avoided doing the one thing that really should not be avoided here, in the waters of the Mayan Caribbean: I have avoided getting close to the reef.

They say it’s the second largest in the world and with it, of course, one can find an abundance of fish – the colorful, achingly beautiful life under the sea.

There were two reasons to avoid it – first, the time commitment that I wrote of, and the second has to do with my own sensitivities to bobbing in water. I had snorkeled once before, in Kauai. It didn’t take long for me to want, more than anything, to get out of the water and stand on terra firma.

Friday was our check out day, our head inland day.

And still, there is that reef, just a short boat ride away from shore, just there, beyond where the fishing boats pull in their catch.


Fate intervenes. Check out time is noon. Manuel, who knows the reef and will guide one through the best places for seeing fish is available. The waters are reasonably calm. The gods are telling me – go see the fish already.

We set out.

The reef is part of the National Park System and there are rules on how to view it these days. One rule is that you must wear a life vest to keep you from diving into the depths of the reef. The last thing anyone wants is for you to step on the fragile structures.

And so we jump in and follow Manuel. I don’t have an underwater camera, so you will have to believe me that it, indeed, is a beautiful thing. The reef itself – fan coral, brain coral, elk horn too, is eerily complicated. Shallow here, you can see where it sits on the sand.

Manuel points to the fast moving barracudas, the hidden lobster, the stingray, the grouper – those are the ones I understood. But what shocks the senses is the school of yellow striped fish, the darting navy blue loners, or the one with a bright yellow eyebrow that suddenly looks at you and swims away.

It is a fantastic swim.

Even if I can only take 45 minutes of it.


It’s a brilliant ending to our short time by the sea.

We pause for huevos mexicana in town...


...and turn inland.

This part of the Yucatan is heartbreakingly poor. We follow a country road that weaves through villages with very few solidly built structures. A number of homes are made of sticks. (I’ll post a photo of one that is actually quite pretty until you catch yourself realizing that this is a family home; in one such house, I saw a nicely sized refrigerator within.)


But there are signs of a contentment among so many of the people. The villagers, for one thing (unlike, say in the poorer provinces of Poland) are quick to smile. Big, inviting, from the heart smiles.

We stop in a larger village – Leona Vicario, to have a closer look.

Life here moves along on bicycle wheels. Boys give “taxi rides,” men pedal behind carts filled with whatever cargo they have to move from one point to the next. Children balance precariously on the bikes of brothers or fathers.



As I walk with my camera and with my light hair and light skin next to a guy who is perhaps twice as tall as the next person here, I ask – do you think we stand out?

People are curious and unabashedly friendly. She shows off her pretty dress (these regional dresses are ubiquitous and always eye catching in their color against a pristine white cotton), he flexes his muscles.



We ask where we can get an helado (ice cream) and are directed to this place, where you can also get a newspaper, chickens and bottled water:


We walk along, happy with the creamy bar (what can I say – Nestle’s), enjoying the more leisurely pace of a late Friday afternoon.



As we rejoin a main road, we pass villages where young girls sell peeled oranges at the speed bumps (rather than speed limits, village roads have bumps -- very very effective in getting you to a grinding halt every few paces). There is little traffic. An occasional car and a bus, which we try hard to shake, as it pollutes to high heaven. This, in addition to the smoke in the air from the burning of wood in village homes.

I am struck by the flair with which women, even in the smallest, most humble villages, dress. The clean white fabric richly embroidered, the scarf, the bracelet, the flower in the hair.


And now we arrive at our destination – home for the next three days – Valladolid.

It’s an old colonial town (population 45,000) and at the center, it is quite pretty. Though it’s not a tourist destination per se, it is close enough to Mayan ruins that some travelers do choose to overnight here. I came across this simple but lovely b&b, (so reasonable at $60 per night for a double), built around a peaceful courtyard, just a ten minute walk from the central square.


I’m anxious to get to the square. Yes, yes, it's a lovely walk, that it is, and we'll get to these sights tomorrow, or the next day...



But tonight, I am on a mission. I know that this is the town where women come in to sell the colorful embroidered dresses that are so common here. They take turns selling them at the market stalls. Today, this group of women drew my attention.


I liked them and their little spokesperson...


... and I especially liked the beautiful colors on their blouses and dresses.


Shopping completed. (I am so happy I have daughters back home as an excuse to indulge in this. Sons would be worthless. Sort of like asking Ed – which one do you like? I don’t know, they all look pretty.)

And now we look for food. We had passed a restaurant walking in. A few tables in a courtyard, a menu boasting Mayan foods. I order a chicken in a gently spiced sauce, tenderly baked in banana leaves (it’s absolutely delicious!) and a beer.


The plate of food costs $3.50. The beer is $1.50.

The walk home is especially pretty now, at night. An occasional shop is still open...


...and we do stop at a bakery for a flan...


The air is warm and slightly humid. They say it will rain tomorrow. No matter. We’ve had good weather days. We can stand a pause.