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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