Three Treats on the Yucatan Peninsula

hanging bridge over mangrove forest

New Orleans   I’ve always wanted to visit the historic Mayan archeological sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, and if my father was still alive they would be on the top of my list of descriptions when he would ask, as he often did in his later years, that I tell him those things he would most like to know about where I had visited. I would also tell him more about industrial tourism than he would want to know from the rental car rip-offs to the hawkers at Chichen Itza to the weird way the airport disgorges arrivals to the industry, while offering no services, yet runs a mall on departures to get the your peso.

Besides the awe and wonder of the pyramids, there are a couple of special treats that I would share with him, and you, were you to visit, though it is unlikely that I will go again.

cactus growing up a tree

At the top of my personal list would be Jardin Botanico Doctor Alfredo Varrera Marin. My tribe and I like botanical gardens. Wherever we visit, if we can, we go to get a sense of the local flora and a private window into how the local culture sees their environment. We’ve visited such gardens all around the world from Amsterdam to London to our personal favorite in Rio de Janeiro and scores of others as well, so we know a little bit about what we’re talking about here. The Jadin Botanico is almost invisible right off the highway south of Puerto Morales, which also was one of the few beach towns we found that had not been totally industrialized yet, but, sadly, we’re sure it will be in another decade. The garden is 65 hectares with two kilometers worth of trails. It took us a bit more than an hour to navigate all of the main stops, though we wished we had had more time. The garden is well organized and immaculately maintained down to a leaf blower on the main trail, but natural at the same time as you walk in silence over roots and rocks on the paths. The signage is excellent, trees and plants are well labeled and overall the garden highlights sections for ferns, orchids, palms, succulents, and so forth, including observation towers that allow you to climb up and see this last stretch of mangrove and natural forest between Cancun and Playa del Carmen all the way to the sea, and leave the tower on a swaying wood and wire, hanging bridge. The garden has politics, too, including an excellent and educational look at chiclet production using some of the harvested trees they found and elucidating the lives and work of the chicleteros. There was also a Mayan altar found in the forest that allowed them to explore the issues there as well. Not surprisingly, we found that the garden was maintained by a women’s collective from a city much farther down the peninsula. We loved having the entire garden to ourselves, though we hope others find it in the future.

chiclet tree…X’s are the cuts to drain the sap to make the gum and not kill the tree

at Lagartos

We had left our morning at Chichen Itza and driven more than an hour and a half that day to the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. The town Rio Lagartos is at the eastern end of the coastal strip of the Yucatan Peninsula with the Gulf of Mexico at its northern edge. We didn’t take one of the many small motorboats where guides would get closer into the biosphere, but we loved the town and had our best meal of the trip sitting on a balcony eating fresh seafood in a steady breeze and watching pink flamingos through my binoculars across the water as they fed along the shore. Gorgeous and wild. Pelicans swooped down along with other birds and pairs of kites, the birds, not the plastic with string and tail, flew over us constantly. Although the guide books all say that you will see crocodiles, they are just confused because lagartos, meaning lizard, was originally what the Spanish called alligators to distinguish them from crocodiles, which they knew from Egypt and Africa, and in fact el lagartos became the English word, alligators, when Florida changed hands between the Spanish and the British, and the Spanish began using caimen in order not to confuse alligators for lizards which we find in the Grand Caymen Islands for example. Regardless, a deep dive into the biosphere might be one of the few treats that would bring me back to the Yucatan.

at Lagartos

at Lagartos

Last on my personal list was a trip at 6 am on the Punta SAM ferry from Isla de Mujeres to Cancun to fly back home. Leaving nothing to chance, we were second in line, arriving just before 5 AM, as the rope was lowered on a Saturday morning, knowing that if we missed the predawn trip, we would miss out flight home. The fast track for tourists is the passenger-only ferry at Puerto Juarez. This is a working ferry. There were already trucks parked and waiting overnight who were the main business of the boat. The dozen or so passenger cars and pickups were almost an afterthought to the big rigs. For an hour we were part of the islands’ community. The ticket collector put out instant coffee, Styrofoam cups, and constantly refilled hot water, and we joined the drivers in stirring a cup in the darkness of the predawn, as they chatted and joked, and in some cases woke from the seats of their trucks, while waiting to cross the water to work. The ferry crew managed to whistle and cajole the trucks and our few cars into the tight spaces for the 40 odd minute ride over. Even without a car, just being part of this, watching the loading, and the beauty of the sea crossing would be worth the trip form Punta SAM and a feeling of the authenticity of the island, before tourism overwhelmed it.

looking over the side as Isla de Mujeres shore retreats

My daughter would add snorkeling and swimming in a cenote, and if I had done either, they might be on this list as well, but the Mayan ruins and these three treats were more than enough for me and my companera.

close fits

working cargo

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The Sweet Sounds of the Street in the Mexican Pueblo

Puerto Aventuras   Ok, I’ve fretted about hawkers on some of the world’s most famous archeological sites in Mexico, the current and coming crisis around water for the burgeoning local – and tourist – population draining the Yucatan Peninsula dry, and the socio-spatial apartheid exclusion of Mexicans from their legally entitled access to beaches on the Mayan Riviera at the hands of industrial tourism, so why are we enjoying our time in Mexico and especially in this small pueblo so much? You simply have to love the people and especially the sweet sounds of the street in the community.

I’m not saying it’s for everyone, but sound in the streets is everywhere from the pre-dawn until late in the night. One of our favorites is the clown-car like horn for the helado or ice cream bicycle vendor as he slowly pedals up the side streets. The moto-taxis like to honk at each other as they pass on the street with a toot-toot wave of their own to their fellow drivers. The collectivo jitneys picking up service and hotel workers, already uniformed to head for neighboring resorts up and down the coast, all have a distinctive horn as they begin before 5 am and drop off after nightfall.

There is music everywhere in a low key battle of the bands from various businesses and casa to casa, house to house, as any walk along the few streets lined with small houses will greet you. The music is delivered, almost as a community service, from boom boxes in the front patios amidst cooking grills and hanging laundry in a symphony provided to someone’s own taste. In other houses, the streets are lit with the reflections of television screens from inside the front door, always on, but rarely being watched it seems.

Everyone is in the street all the time. Walking to work and walking back. Children playing. The sidewalks are for show, the street if for travel. When business is slow, a plastic chair sits in front of the open doorway of the establishment as the proprietor watches – and listens – as the world goes by.

And, then there are the loudspeakers built into the trunks of cars or on top of pickup cabs or protruding from back windows. The is a community outside of the range of television and internet advertising, so the hawking, whether for politicians or goods and services, is loud, direct, and sometimes even funny. In Mexico City we fell in love with the song of the junk dealers driving up and down and looking for whatever might be ready for them. In Puerto Aventuras, bread, vegetables, and fruit all have their carts or bicycle vendors with their own songs and shouts.

For several mornings we have heard a sermon of sorts down the block for an hour or two. No one minds. People proceed calmly within the cacophony of sounds. After a while it all becomes natural in the way one tunes out train whistles and ship foghorns near the train tracks and along the Mississippi River where we live in New Orleans. All of these are the sounds of security, safety, and community, and a reminder of how all of our communities may have been when they were loud with people out and about, rather than locked behind closed doors.

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Trouble in Paradise as Industrial Tourism Denies Beach Access on Yucatan Peninsula

beach from Tulum ruins

Puerto Aventuras  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Wade, chill, you’re on vacation, dude, calmate! Sorry, that’s just not me, and, mi companeros y companeras, there’s big trouble in paradise.

Driving from Cancun to Puerto Morelosnot San Morelos to Puerto Aventuras to Tuluum along Mexican highway 305 from the minute one heads south we saw one outlandish Las Vegas style grand arch or entryway after another at countless resorts and gated communities towards the east and the Caribbean. What we did not see was any entry to the beach. That seemed strange.

We looked it up. As one authority after another stated: “The Mexican Constitution decrees all beaches to be publicly-accessible federal property and, as such, people have right of access to them anytime. There are some legal exceptions to the access rule, most notably, beaches classed or reserved for military use.”

We first took a peek at San Morelos, formerly a small fishing village hardly 30 kilometers south of Cancun. There was public access several places and though we saw many signs that this community was being “discovered,” the town was still approachable. In our small pueblo of Puerto Aventuras, the only access to the water was through a resort of the same name with a gate and guard in front. We asked our host where we could get to the water, and he said 20 kilometers down the road at Akumul. We did manage to get to the beach there, but it was on the sneak after bogarting our way past the private parking and the beach side condos where we found a small pocket park and finally just walked through a condo-plex to get there. Could we have gotten away with it if we were locals, no way! In Tulum, we asked a small restaurant where we were having sopa de mariscos how could we get to the beach, and he told us we could buy lunch at one of the restaurants, and they would let us in. After I told the waiter, but “We’re having lunch with you,” he just shrugged and smiled.

Azumal Beach on Yucatan

Turns out this is an area of huge contention, though largely hidden from the industrial tourism purveyors and those they serve. Tamar Diane Wilson in her book, The Economic Life of Mexican Beach Vendors, pulls no punches, calling it “socio-spatial apartheid.” Writing about Cancun itself she says the only way a native would see the water was “from a bus window, a kitchen, an unkempt hotel room, or the prism of some other subservient role.”

With some pride we found that some of our neighbors, even in Puerto Aventuras, had been part of beach protests in recent years. An EL UNIVERSAL article in October 2014 reported that:

“Local and federal lawmakers of the PRD requested the intervention of the Human Rights Commission in Quintana Roo and at national level, so that they issue an order to the authorities to demand that concessionaires at private businesses stop the illegal blockades that prevent residents of Cancun and Riviera Maya from enjoying the public beaches.

The councilor of the municipality of Solidaridad, Laura Beristain, also mentioned the recent blockade of access to Punta Esmeralda beach in Playa del Carmen or the protests of residents of Akumal and Puerto Aventuras in Riviera Maya due to the closure of access Public to the beaches.

Sadly, we have to report that more than two years later, the beaches are still blocked and this “socio-spatial apartheid” is still in full force and preventing Mexicans who live on the Peninsula from enjoying the natural resource and pleasure of these beautiful beaches that are their patrimony, while the law itself and their constitutional rights are being ignored with impunity.

Azumal Beach on Yucatan

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Hawking Chichen Itza to the Tourists is a Bummer

the horde coming through the ticket book

Cancun  I’ve read about the great Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo for decades, and Chichen Itza has always been fabled as one of the most extraordinary. When travelers once spoke of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was often on the list. I still cherish my copies of John Lloyd Stephens great two-volume classic, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan illustrated by Frederick Catherwood published in 1841 after his journeys. “Raiders of the Lost Arc” always paled in comparison to their story, and the vivid illustrations that made me feel like I was there, plunging through the jungle undergrowth to see what few non-Mayans had ever seen.

We had spent Christmas Day at the Uxlan ruins in one of the more amazing days in a legendary list for our family. We weren’t alone, but it didn’t matter, the power of the place was incredible. We were prepared for Chichen Itza being a different experience in some ways. The books indicated that the site gets more than a million visitors annually. We knew to be early. Chichen Itza in Mayan means something along the lines of “mouth of the well of the Itza people.” When we finished wending out way up the narrow road into the site, and parked with amazing ease for barely a buck and change, we saw a horde of people near the ticket booths and walked up to them in order to find the end of the line to get ours. It turned out that Chichen Itza now means “mouth at the well of the hawker people.” We walked through one hawker’s stand after another, until reaching the end. The falling expressions on hundreds of faces was shocking, but in a little more than a half-hour we had our tickets in hand and were ready to see the ruins and leave the hawkers behind.

the line snaking through the hawkers’ stalls

Leaders of ACORN’s hawkers’ union in India always asks me if there are hawkers in the United States, and I say, no not many, but they would be impressed at the way all of these tourists were being channeled through the stalls to the booths. I was too, until we passed the ticket booth and found that we were still walking a gauntlet of hawkers and booths. They weren’t selling hats and yelling, “Five dollars, cheaper than Walmart,” once we got into the archeological park, but they were literally everywhere we walked, often heralded by the sound of jaguar cries they were trying to sell. Often we could tell we were on the right path to see the Observatory or the cenote if it was lined by hawkers’ booths on both sides. Wherever there was shade away from the monuments, there were hawkers. It was impressive and amazing in its own right.

Google Chichen Itza and hawkers, and one Trip Advisor report after another from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand says almost the same thing: Chichen Itza is Awesome, but What’s with the Hawkers!

the Grand Pyramid

If this is supposed to be a community benefit to the local population, it fails there mainly because so few are making any sales. We walked three miles according to my son’s counter. Who would want to lug souvenirs through 90 degree heat? My daughter looked at fans she had priced in Centro Merida and they were 200 pesos or $10 dollars more expensive at Chichen Itza. How does this help the local community?

What is the government thinking? As at Uxmal, the federal and state government both separately collect money for tickets and stamp the tickets as you enter. Is there no coordination or is this an issue of there being no trust between the state and federal government? The government is probably right to believe that people like me and my family would weather any storm to see Chichen Itza in all its majesty, but why not leave millions in wonder and awe, rather with a funny, nagging taste in their mouths after the experience.

the Observatory

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The Forward March of “Free” Walking Tours

a rich Spanish family’s house on the plaza as they memorialize themselves and their conquering of the Maya underfoot and the “wild men” outside their gates

Merida   I’ve had some interest in the concept of “tours” for some time. The way in which a people, a neighborhood, and a city are presented is not a trivial concern either for those doing the looking and listening or for those being observed, usually silently and sometimes like animals in the cage.

the “weight” or responsibility for the building is pictured on the architect

There is a historic arch across the street from our house in New Orleans. On a normal day several local bicycle tours stop to look at the arch commemorating soldiers from the 9th Ward who fought in World War I. It’s hard not to hear the explanation of the guides and the stories they tell and sometimes fabricate about the arch. On the street side the names listed alphabetically are all white. If anyone happens to walk to the other side of the arch, the names listed alphabetically are all black, and so it states clearly. Some guides stand in front of the arch and lecture their riders without ever suggesting they get off the bike and walk to the other side. Others see the arch as simply a rest stop and offer the opportunity to rubberneck at the houses surrounding this one block green square as they talk generally about the neighborhood. I’ve never heard anyone describe the fact that the arch was moved to its current location from the center of what was known as McCarty Square. The history that led to it being fenced and gifted to the school board from the city because neighbors on the square became afraid of too many people, and increasing numbers of African-Americans, using the park day and night is never told. The very issue of the separate spaces for the names of neighborhood soldiers, black and white, is never mentioned or condemned, nor the relative irony that even listing the names at all and allowing them in the center of the small park might have been a bit radical for that time almost one-hundred years ago either.

Our union represented New Orleans buggy drivers for a while, and some of them were clear that they unabashedly made up stories and stops based on favors from businesses and tips along the way. In the Lower 9th Ward now the post-Katrina tours are a constant issue for neighbors, because they receive no benefits from the gawking and pointing. In the coming issue of Social Policy we offer an excerpt of a book dealing with slum tourism, pro and con, which includes a long interview with ACORN’s Vinod Shetty about our members’ view of tours in Mumbai’s giant Dharavi slum where we work. At the first Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue in Brazil, my companera and I spent several days in Rio de Janiero and took a so-called “slum tour” of the favelas as this trend was beginning. My point is simple. All of this is happening in the cities around you, perhaps off your radar, but has impact both profound and political, and benefits that are either nonexistent or minimal to the those living and working while the objects of the tourists’ gaze.

pieces of Mayan temples are used to build the church walls

And, I say this after our family enjoyed and learned from a free walking tour in Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan that essentially walked among the buildings, churches, parks, and cathedral located around the city’s central plaza. Free walking tours are sometimes touted as having begun in Berlin in 2004 and according to various websites exist in 18 cities around Europe and 60 cities around the world, although a quick look reveals that this is just hype and marketing. The US National Park Service has done an excellent free walking tour around the New Orleans French Quarter for decades for example. Our Merida tour in Mexico is not on any lists.

I’m not an advocate of free labor, but it is hard to deny that having the guide dependent on tips creates incentives for an excellent presentation. Our guide in Merida was Mayan, but his thousand watt smile didn’t disguise the political and religious facts of the Spanish colonization and enslavement of Mayans, the destruction of Mayan temples to build the churches, the apology of Pope John Paul II in the Cathedral for the historic abuses, the conflict of beliefs, his derision of the city’s upper class 19th century love affair with everything French from architecture to fashion, and more.

In his case, the two hour bilingual tour was a service to the city, and should have merited the guide a position on the municipal payroll. As free walking tours are exploding around the world, if communities want to receive benefits for their people as well as make sure that the whole story is told and the contributions go to the community and the organizations making a difference, rather than see their history and futures as little more than a gratuity, they need to take their messages more seriously and recognize the power they pack.

murals in the governor’s house depict the Mayan creation story

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Beware Website Rental Car Scams for Foreign Travelers in Canada and Mexico

Merida   I’m not a rookie traveler. I’ve been on the road, literally all of my life. My dad’s job would pack us out all over the American West, where I was born and partially raised, in motels and kitchenettes from Billings to Fargo to Rangely and Denver, Cheyenne and Laramie, and every place in between, where there was a pumping station or tank farm that his job as a field auditor with an oil company required him to hit. In my work United Airlines sent me a “thank you” note for more than a million miles, and I logged another million or so with the rest of the airlines over the years. I’ve driven all over Canada and Mexico and tested the road in a bunch of other countries as well. Sadly, none of this protects anyone from rental car rip-offs.

When you land in the Cancun airport, as my family did at midday on Christmas Eve, you are greeted by a wildly efficient industrial tourism machine. Vast crowds are deplaning from multiple gates and a small army of custom agents processes the horde in amazing speed, disgorging you from the doors into a maze of rental car booths. You get to your chosen company, purchased at an amazing bargain of $15 per day online, and are walked out to a scrum of white vans lined up and moving in a seemingly endless conveyor belt of people, baggage, and rolling stock until you are deposited at your rental company, one among many.

We felt lucky to find only a short line and four or five agents working. I had seen a post the day before from Cancun of an hour and a half wait, so standing in the warm, Yucatan air, it all seemed a good omen. And, then we heard the crying, gnashing of teeth, and rending of clothes all around us as the agents of the company explained the exorbitant, rip-off costs of additional insurance that they were claiming was mandatory. Insurance cards were being shown. Purchases via American Express cards were being touted. It was a horror, for some worse than for others, as charges for liability and collusion were being routinely added on to every car contract and people, friends and families, were stepping away to caucus and see if they could come up with the money or fathom a way around it.

The agents all pretended empathy and mouthed words of apology, since this was a common and usual scam for them. To avoid the charges a customer would have to provide a copy of their insurance policy from the United States covering both liability and collision insurance. They would also have to provide a letter that specifically mentioned Mexico (and I’ll add Canada, but I haven’t gotten to that yet). If they don’t have it with them, they have to have it emailed or faxed while they are waiting. Even if they have it, they would have to put $6000 on their credit card and another deposit that was too painful for me to hear clearly, because any accident would mean a repair in full on their credit card, and they could work out the refund with their company in the states. Or, they could pay about $35 USD a day extra and drive away. Purchasing separate liability insurance in Mexico, at least from what I can now tell, seems to be legally required, but that’s worth checking.

As you can tell, I listened carefully while waiting in line and occasionally queried my fellow travelers as they angrily interrogated the agents, but when our turn came, I was already a beaten man, and simply shrugged at the price with my family in waiting, signed, paid, and went on my way on my vacation. Why? Because I had been through the same hurt dance at a rental car office in Toronto only three months before at 1230 AM in the morning, where a similar premium was also required by a cheapo online deal someone had found for the ACORN Canada training and staff meeting where I was tasked with picking up the rental.

This scam seems broadly popular across North America, and a minute’s research indicated it was popular in the United Kingdom as well. Like any scam, there’s a kernel of truth in the shell of the lie. It isn’t hard to imagine why rental car companies, even reputable ones, try to transfer the problems of an accident to the customer. It is also possible to reasonably understand why countries, like Mexico, might require purchase of some kind of liability in-country. I’ve had to do that driving my own truck into Mexico at the border, and have watched them put a sticker on my window indicating I paid to bring the car into the country. But, the bait-and-switch is inexcusable, since the websites allege they are giving you the total price, and, if these charges were legitimate, why not disclose them on the front end?

See the world, my friends, but caveat emptor all the way!

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