Saturday, April 28, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 7: Colonial churches, the restoration of Old Mérida, & Restaurant Chaya Maya

Iglesia Santa Ana is one of Mérida's numerous colonial churches. In this posting, Carole and I continue our foot-borne exploration of the northern area of the Centro Historico.  The church is located 7 blocks north of the Plaza Grande in the Plaza Santa Ana at the intersection of Calle 60 and Calle 45, near the south end of the Paseo Montejo, an area we will look at next week. Surrounded by tall palm trees, the church is notable, among other things, for its tall pyramidal steeples. For a map of the area covered in this posting, click here.

Interior of Iglesia Santa Ana. The main nave of the church is simple and spare, with the main decorations being large oil portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe and other religious figures. The original church as built in the late 1500s on the top of a platform which formerly contained one of the Maya temples of the ancient city of T'ho.

Beautifully-grained wood pews fill the main nave. There is something about these simple old churches that I find aesthetically appealing. I certainly slaked my appetite for them before we left Mérida. In the 16th Century, the Santa Ana neighborhood--then a separate village--was filled with the Maya craftsmen and laborers. They were the builders of many of the colonial structures of Old Mérida. In addition, the farms in the area (long since built over) became the pantry for the colonial city.

An elaborate wrought-iron screen shelters a baptismal font. Such elaborate metal work continues today. The bars that protect the doors and windows of many modern Mexican homes are often beautifully crafted. From 1724 to 1733, the Governor and Captain General of Yucatan was Antonio de Figueroa y Silva Lazo de la Vega Ladrón del Niño de Guevara, a man with a long monniker even among 18th Century Spaniards. Nicknamed "el Manco" (the one-armed), he ordered the building of a road leading straight to the north from the Ateneo Peninsular (Bishop's Palace) at the Plaza Grande. The road, now called Calle 60, passed through the Maya village where the original Santa Ana church was located. El Manco also ordered the present church built and construction was begun in 1729 at the site of the original one.

One of two chapels on either side of the main altar. Notice the white limestone pillars and arch framing the entrance. The ancient Maya builders of T'ho and the colonial architects of Mérida both used this material to construct their cities. El Manco was buried in this church after he was killed while battling English pirates in the eastern jungles of Yucatan in 1733, shortly before the completion of the church he had ordered built.

The broad plaza next to Iglesia Santa Ana also contains this statue. Andrés Quintana Roo stands majestically, with a book in his left hand and a pigeon on his head. Quintana Roo, born in Mérida, was an important figure both in Yucatan and the new nation of Mexico. When he was a young lawyer, he helped draft Mexico's Declaration of Independence from Spain. Later, he served as a legislator, Secretary of State, and member of Mexico's Supreme Court. The State of Quintana Roo, on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, is named after him. The plaza regularly plays host to flea markets, craft shows and you can sample succulent local fare such as panuchos y salbutes.

The Restoration of Old Mérida

Gutted building waits for further renovation. Mérida is filled with beautiful architecture from the 16th through the early 20th Centuries. Many of these structures have been allowed to deteriorate or even be demolished in favor of the ghastly styles of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Fairly recently, people in the city woke up to the treasures in their midst and began to reclaim buildings like the one above. Still, one can walk along many streets in the Centro Historico and see blocks where there is not yet any sign of renovation, or where only a building or two along a whole block have seen work. Much remains to be done before Mérida recaptures its former glory.

Work proceeds on these two side-by-side doors. The Mexican "chewing gum and baling wire" approach is sometimes amusing, but seems to be effective in holding this structure together while it awaits further work. In a country where materials--as opposed to labor--can be expensive, any old stick will do for a brace.

A technique a bit less rustic was used on this structure. The metal scaffolding is less likely to give heart palpitations to a vacationing American or Canadian building inspector. This old colonial mansion is now being used for retail businesses on its first floor. The apartments or offices on the 2nd floor will have the use of the long limestone balcony, an artifact of the building's colonial period.

Finished products

This pink hotel is a nice example of where Mérida is headed. Compare this building with the modern glass and concrete structure on its right. I shudder to think of the architectural gem that may have been demolished to put up a building so totally lacking in personality or grace.

Iglesia Santa Lucia is another little gem. Santa Lucia Church is nestled among palms and other Yucatan vegetation, providing cool, shade throughout the day. Notice the old bell ropes that dangle from the campanario (bell tower). Most of these old colonial churches have eschewed the modern practice of using loudspeakers in lieu of physically ringing the bells. The construction on this church was begun in the late 1500s and finished in1620. The atrium was used as a cemetery up to 1821. Inside the church is a mural of the story of Santa Lucia painted by noted muralist Torre Gamboa in the 1950s. Directly across Calle 60 from the church, at the intersection of Calle 55, is  Parque Santa Lucia where musicians and dancers regularly perform the Senenata Yucateca. Crafts booths are set up in the park on Sundays when the street is closed to vehicle traffic. Parque Santa Lucia, also called Parque de los Héroes, used to contain the facilities of a brotherhood devoted to healing the ill, and the park itself was created in 1804 by official decree.

This colonial-era mansion is now a university library. Libraria Península is a facility of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This national university has branches all over Mexico. Much of the finest and best-preserved examples of Mexico's architectural heritage now function as government offices, museums, schools, and universities.

Amate Books on Calle 62 is filled with books in English. Opening on February 1, 2007, Amate Books is connected to the original bookstore in Oaxaca. The store occupies yet another restored colonial building, and specializes in English-language translations of Mexican and Latin American works on art, history, architecture, anthropology, and also many works of fiction. The store is located on Calle 60 at Calle 49. The bark of the amate tree was used, among other things, to make paper in ancient, prehispanic times. I'm not sure, but this may be how the store chose its name.

Restaurant Chaya Maya

Chaya Maya restaurant is a favorite tourist spot and deserves its good reputation. Having worked up an appetite as we walked the area, we decided to stop for lunch at Restaurant Chaya Maya (Calle 62 at Calle 57).The restaurant's delicious meals are accompanied by an unending supply of fresh tortillas cooked by these two Maya women sitting next to the front window. They wear the traditional, beautifully-embroidered dress called terno de gala, still worn daily by many of Mérida's women. Their recipe and manner of cooking the tortillas is little changed from that found by the conquistadors when they came ashore in 1519. Perhaps the only modern touches are the metal griddle, heated by gas. Many traditional Maya women still use a wood fire to heat a clay griddle.

Papadzules, garnished with a chaya leaf. Maya dishes are quite different from those we find in our home state of Jalisco, generally having little of the mouth-scorching spices to which we have become accustomed. The Maya flavors are thus more subtle, and the food is to be savored rather than wolfed. Above, my plate of Papadzules holds three tortillas filled with hard-boiled, chopped eggs and covered by a creamy pumpkin seed sauce along with more of the eggs. On the left side is a leaf from the chaya plant from which the restaurant gets its name. The chaya is eaten in a variety of ways, including as a drink, and is incredibly healthful. According to Mexican Institute of Nutrition, chaya will improve digestion, blood circulation, vision, and memory, while fighting cholesterol, excess calcium, coughs, anemia, arthritis, and diabetes. And that's only a partial list! A cautionary word to Mérida vistors: Chaya Maya is very popular and it may often be difficult to find a table. However, it is worth the effort.

This completes Part 7 of my NW Yucatan series. Next week we'll visit Paseo Montejo, Mérida's "Avenue of the Millionaires". This street lined with the former mansions of the great sisal hacienda owners of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. I always appreciate feedback and if you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below or by emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, April 20, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 6: The Centro Historico District north of Mérida's Plaza Grande

One of many colonial-era bell towers that dot the city-scape of Mérida. After returning from Celestún (see Parts 4 and 5), we continued our informal walking tour of the area north of Mérida's Plaza Grande. I sneaked up to the top deck of a hotel along Calle 60 (60th Street) in order to catch this late afternoon shot through an arch. Calle 60 is a north-south street that runs along the east side of the plaza. It is one of the nicer streets in the area, with colonial churches, sidewalk restaurants, lovely little parks, and other attractions along the 10 blocks leading north between the Plaza Grande and Parque de Santa Ana. In this posting we will take a look at some of  those places. For detailed tourist maps of this area, click here.

Tourists and vendors stroll Calle 60, which is pedestrian-only on Sundays.  On the left,  a Maya woman hurries by, loaded with hand-embroidered textiles. To her right, a group of female tourists sets a more leisurely pace. On the balcony above, customers of Café Serenata enjoy a broad view over the street and the Plaza Grande . The café sits on the northeast corner of the plaza, just across the street from Catedral San Ildifonso. We never sampled the fare at Café Serenata, but it looked like a great spot for people-watching. The café was originally the 16th Century home of Gaspar Juarez de Avila. In later years, it became a tavern. A 1919 photograph shows it as Salón Chino, serving Cuauhtémoc beer. Eventually the tavern closed, but it reopened recently as a restaurant-bar under its current name.

Mundo Maya carries Maya handicrafts aimed at the tourist trade. The elaborate facade identifies it as a former mansion from the colonial era. Given the width of the entry, this was probably the carriage entrance. Inside, there would have been a large, cobblestoned courtyard with balconies all around. Just to the right of the entrance is a rust-colored sign that I neglected to photograph. Had I done so, I could have told you some of the history of this building. There is something interesting nearly everywhere you turn in Mérida, so I missed my opportunity. As a photographer, I felt like a kid in a candy shop.

A sidewalk cafe graces the front of the Gran Hotel.  The Gran Hotel has a stained-glass awning extending out from the front door. The restaurant tables are under the green umbrellas to the left of the awning. The hotel opened in 1901 during Yucatan's great sisal boom. It became a favorite meeting place for actors, writers, musicians, and politicians. In recent years, the Gran Hotel has been elegantly restored to its former glory. We ate a couple of good, reasonably-priced meals at the hotel's attractive outdoor restaurant called (no kidding) "The Main Street Café." However, tour guides like to bring in busloads of people around lunch time. In an instant, a quiet meal can be transformed into a mob scene. We had a hard time attracting a waiter, even though we had arrived before the tour groups. I suspect the guides probably had an arrangement with the waiters to serve their parties first.

Directly in front of The Main Street Café is pedestal with a military statue. Beyond the statue is an attractive colonial church that I had previously photographed, but not identified, on a brief 2-day visit to Mérida in 2010. This time we had 10 days, so I was determined to find out as much as possible about the church and its surroundings. This took a surprising amount of detective work. I could find no historical signs around the church, and even the name was difficult to determine, although I later came across an obscure map reference to a church called "Tercera Orden." The statue and its pedestal are the centerpieces of Parque Hidalgo, established in 1871 by Governor Manuel Canto Cirerol as Mérida's second public park. The area had been used for a variety of purposes since the 17th Century. The statue itself provided no information except for the name of the figure, Manuel Cepeda Peraza. Fortunately, Google and Wikipedia came through for me, as they so often do.

General Manuel Cepeda Peraza, stern and sword-bedecked, gazes across the park. General Peraza was born and died in Mérida. He was a career soldier and a leader of the Liberal Party of Benito Juarez,  serving during some of the most tumultuous periods in the history of Yucatan and Mexico. He began his career as a young officer in the 1840s, just in time for the US invasion of 1846.  In 1851, Peraza participated in the Caste War against Maya rebels in Yucatan. He strongly supported Benito Juarez and led troops in the Reform War (1857-1861) between the Liberal and Conservative parties. When the Conservatives lost, they encouraged the French invasion and occupation of Mexico from 1862-1867. Peraza was forced into exile twice during his long career, including deportation to Cuba after he was captured by the French in Campeche. Each time he returned to fight again, liberating Oaxaca, Puebla, and Vera Cruz from French forces. Finally, in 1867, General Peraza re-entered Mérida in triumph, and became Yucatan's Governor. Unfortunately, he died only two years later but, before his death, he established the Literary Institute which became the University of Yucatan. He also founded the State Library, the Museum of Archaeology and History, and the Academy of Music, all of which survive today. Manuel Cepeda Peraza was a true patriot in a time when such a choice was both difficult and dangerous.

Church of Jesus or the Third Order

The Church of Jesus  is also called the Church of the Third Order. The Renaissance-style church was built by the Jesuit Order in 1618. The Jesuits have a long history of involvement in education and founded many colleges and universities. In Mérida, the Church of Jesus was closely associated with the Order's College of St. Francis Xavier. The exterior of the church is roughly finished stone, but the interior is gorgeous. Both on my earlier trip and on this one, I tried several times to gain entrance so I could photograph the interior. For reasons that are still unclear to me, the church always seemed to be closed when I came by. I finally succeeded late one evening during this second visit. It was not until I returned home and engaged in fairly extensive research that I was even able to determine the correct name (or names) of the church. The Church of Jesus is on Calle 60 at the corner of Calle 59, just to the north side of Manuel Cepeda Peraza's statue.

A side door to the Church of Jesus. A close examination of the exterior walls reveals the shells of ancient sea animals embedded in the limestone. The large wooden double doors above were studded with old hand-crafted iron bolts. Mérida was built upon the foundations of the ancient Maya city of T"ho, and many of the colonial edifices, including this one, used building materials from dismantled Maya temples and palaces. I am told that old pagan designs can be found on some limestone blocks. The overall Jesuit compound used to be much larger, once including the area now occupied by Teatro José Peon Contreras. Calle 57A, the street that separates the theatre from the church, was cut through the middle of the original property. The process of gradually reducing and demolishing the old religious compound began in 1823, shortly after the end of the War of Independence.

The interior of the church is beautifully decorated. It does not have the over-the-top, cover-every-square-inch aspect of many Baroque churches of the same era. Instead, the decoration is serene and very elegant and I liked it a lot. Fairly or not, the Jesuits developed a reputation of interfering with the internal affairs of royal governments throughout 18th Century Europe. In the New World colonies of those countries, conflict often arose when the Jesuits attempted to defend the rights of native peoples and to oppose their enslavement. In 1767, 227 years after the founding of the Jesuit Order by former Spanish soldier Ignatius Loyola, Charles III of Spain unceremoniously rounded up the Jesuits and kicked their Order out of all his possessions, including Nueva España.

The dome over the altar is surrounded by 4 circular oil paintings of biblical scenes. The paintings are set so high that a telephoto lens is required to examine them in detail. I have noticed this interesting aspect in many colonial churches. Exquisite works of art are often placed in locations where they are not easy for the average person to appreciate. Apparently the art is intended to glorify God and not to just to entertain Man. After the expulsion of the Jesuits, the Franciscan Order took over their possessions. This included Mérida's Church of Jesus, which the Franciscans renamed Iglesia de la Tercera Orden, or the Church of the Third Order. That is how this church ended up with two names, something that considerably confused my research efforts.

The main altar features a crucified Jesus as the central figure. I have often found Jesus relegated to lesser positions, sometimes to side chapels, in many colonial churches. Here, in the originally-named Church of Jesus, he occupies center-stage.  The extensive flower arrangements were apparently for a local religious fiesta. Notice the beautiful arched mural behind the altar and the delicate gold tracery along the top and bottom of the walls.

Side chapel for the Virgin of Guadalupe. You will nearly always find the Virgin of Guadalupe somewhere in a Mexican church, sometimes the central figure, sometimes in a side chapel. The Virgin is not only a deeply revered religious symbol to Mexican Catholics, but has become a national political symbol as well, associated with both the War of Independence and the Revolution.

Parque Maternidad

Parque Maternidad occupies a small space between the Church of Jesus and the theatre. A semi-circular structure of pillars partially surrounds the statue after which the park is named. Flower beds, shady palm trees, and inviting benches make this a quiet oasis in the midst of a bustling city.

The central focus of the park is a statue glorifying "maternidad" (motherhood). It is a reproduction of a statue in Paris by André Lenoir called Mother and Child. The park was originally called Morelos Park, but was renamed in February, 1909, when the statue was erected.

Sundays bring art to the park. Parque Maternidad becomes one of the focal points along Calle 60 on Sundays when the city closes the street to vehicles for several blocks. Local painters display their work, and other artisans set up tables for jewelry, embroidered textiles and many other items.

Cafes, clowns, and Guayaberas

Café Peon Contreras was another of our favorite spots. Just north of Parque Maternidad is the José Peon Contreras Theatre, inaugurated in December 1908 and named for a famous Yucatan who was a poet, novelist, playwright, doctor, and politician. On the side of the theatre facing Parque Maternidad is Café Peon Contreras. The food and prices are about the same as the Gran Hotel's Main Street Café but--as least when we visited--the Peon Contreras café did not get overrun by hungry tourist-bus passengers. The quiet ambiance provided excellent opportunities for more people-watching.

Touching up. As we strolled along, my eye was caught by this clown standing in front of the pull-down gate of a closed store as he touched up his makeup. This was only one of many odd vignettes we encountered while wandering through the Centro Historico. Like many Mexican cities possessing a vibrant Centro Historico, Mérida abounds with street musicians, mimes, clowns, and other performers. Rounding a corner, you never know just what you will stumble across.

Guayaberas Tita is located in another old mansion now used for commercial purposes. Similar to Mundo Maya, the wide entrance seen above was almost certainly for carriages. The limestone of the building, now somewhat discolored, shows why Mérida is still nicknamed "The White City." This store specializes in Guayabera shirts, a garment that is extremely popular in Mexico and is often called the "Mexican Wedding Shirt". It is also popular in other countries of Latin America, as wells as the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe. Each of the countries in these areas has its own claim to originating the shirt, but it probably came from either Cuba or Mexico. A guayabera is usually short-sleeved and is worn outside the pants where it extends to mid-thigh. There are usually 4 pockets, two on the breast and two just below the waist. According to legend, the guayabera got its name when a poor woman sewed some extra pockets on her husband's shirt so he could carry guayabas (guavas). The shirts are generally--but not always--light colored with a pair of vertical pleated stripes called alforzas running up the front and back sides. The material is light, which makes the shirt very comfortable in warm climates. I have owned a guayabera for several years, and it provides my "formal wear" in Mexico. In fact, Cuba has declared the guayabera to be "official formal dress."

Restaurant Amaro

Restaurant Amaro is located on Calle 59 between Calles 60 and 62. On separate days, we ate two excellent meals here, a lunch and a dinner. The courtyard setting exudes a quiet, elegant feel that is very relaxing after the hustling streets of Mérida. The restaurant is the site of a former colonial mansion with an important history. On November 30, 1787, statesman and journalist Andrés Quintana Roo was born here. After studying at the Seminario de San Ildefonso in Mérida, he eventually became a lawyer and presided over the 1813 Constituent Assembly that drafted Mexico's Declaration of Independence from Spain. His wife Leona Vicario was a great patriot in her own right who worked for the insurgency by gathering intelligence and supplies until she was caught and imprisoned by the Spanish. She eventually escaped to Michoacan where she married Andrés. After independence, Andrés Quintana Roo served as a Legislator, Senator, Secretary of State, and member of the Mexican Supreme Court. In addition he ran one of Mexico's early and very influential newspapers, the Semanario Patriótico. The State of Quintana Roo, located on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, is named after him.

A long afternoon lunch with friends in the cool shade of the Amaro patio. Our friends Denis and Julika (lelft and middle) chat with Carole about the day's events. Carole and I have fallen in love with the Mexican habit of long, leisurely lunches in quiet patios or sidewalk restaurants. What a different life it is from the fast-paced, eat-a-bite-on-the-run life we had north of the border.

This completes Part 6 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next two segments, we will look at some more of the interesting and historic sites around Mérida's Plaza Grande. If you would like to comment, I would love to hear from you. You can do so either by using the Comments section below or emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, April 13, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 5: The town of Celestún and its beautiful beach

A beautiful, sunny day in January at Celestún's beach. The turquoise water gleams and sparkles. The white sand beach is littered here and there with lovely white shells. Puffy clouds dot the azure sky above. In the distance, restaurants shaded by palm-thatched palapas prepare delicious meals from locally caught fish. What a day to hang out at the beach! The small town of Celestún stretches out along the coast on the strip of land that separates the Gulf of Mexico from Celestún Lagoon. It's a sleepy town, even at the height of the winter tourist season. Only about 6,200 people live here, although the population swells to 10,000 during the octopus hunting season. Other than tourism, the populations works mostly at fishing and the production of salt. These last two occupations have been central to Celestún's economy since long before the Spanish arrived. The beaches, when we were there, were mostly empty save for the handful of people sunbathing in front of some of the restaurants. For a map of Celestún and Yucatan's Gulf Coast, click here.

Celestún's Gulf Coast beach

Boats wait for tourists and fishermen as a family walks by. The town is completely surrounded by the Celestún Special Biosphere Reserve seen in Part 4 of this series. The Reserve is also called Parque Natural del Flamenco Mexicano and contains thousands of pink flamingos as well as many other species of birds and other animals. In January, the mid-day temperature averages a balmy 29C (84F) and drops at night to a comfortable 17.3C (63.1F).

Looking south, the only person in sight was a lone woman out for a stroll. In the distance, a pier stretches out into the warm, gentle waters of the Gulf. The vast majority of tourists who come to Yucatan for a beach experience go to Cancun or the Maya Riviera on the Caribbean side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Even those who visit Mérida don't seem to head for Celestún's beach. The Port of Progresso, a short distance due north of Mérida, seems to attract more attention. Those looking for a lively social scene with wet t-shirt contests etc. had best head for Cancun. Celestún is for those who seek a quiet, dreamy, seaside paradise. For anyone looking for such a place, click here for TripAdvisor hotel recommendations.

Palapa restaurants are open air and face right onto the beach. They are surrounded by small groves of palm trees fluttering in the ocean breeze. Some of them are little more than a few posts sunk into the sand and roofed with thatched palm fronds. A few plastic tables and chairs are served from an open air kitchen where fresh fish is grilled over open fires. My kind of place.

Our restaurant was large and open, with far more tables than customers. Out the front door, a group of lounge chairs waits on the beach for those intent on improving their tan. Sitting inside in the shade, the cool ocean breezes wafted through the open sides of the restaurant, creating the perfect temperature: not too hot, not too cool. Just right for enjoying a feast of fresh fish.

As I walked through the restaurant, my eye was caught by this unusual wall. The swooping design somewhat resembled an ocean swell. I stepped closer for a better look and was stunned by what I found.

Thousands of nearly identical shells were used to create the design. The rows of shells were at least 18m long (60 ft) and perhaps 1.2m (4 ft) wide. In addition to the wall covered by these shells, the floor immediately in front of the wall contained thousands more. It must have taken someone a lot of time and effort to collect all these shells, much less to cement them individually into the wall. But then, things tend to move slowly in Celestún, so perhaps he had plenty of time after all.

A stroll around town

Celestún's Palacio Municipio is small but attractive. It sits on the south side of the town plaza. There are no precise dates for when indigenous people first occupied the area of Celestún. However, it is known that the town served as a place for collecting and storing products from the sea such as seafood and salt. It was part of the ancient Maya province of Ah-Canul.

Local transportation. There were few taxis in the area, but motorcycle-driven jitneys like this one seemed to fill the gap. Other jitneys we saw were driven by bicycles. The jitney above is passing by one of the local watering holes, El Lobo (The Wolf) Restaurant. The Spanish pueblo of Celestún was founded in 1718, as a sub-district of Sisal, a port to the north. Hennequen, a natural fibre originally used by local Maya for ropes, mats and other goods, is often called sisal. The name comes from the Port of Sisal through which the hennequen passed on the way to overseas markets. In the late 19th Century, sisal was discovered to be perfect for string, and the market grew explosively.

A small Franciscan church occupies the east side of the plaza. Notice the two campanarios (bell-towers). These bells are still operated the old-fashioned way, with ropes. The one on the right has the large bell, while three small bells hang from the campanario on the left. In 1872, Celestún became part of a political district called Maxcanú. It remained a subdistrict of Maxcanún until 1918, when it became the seat of the Municipalidad de Celestún. A municipalidad (municipality) roughly corresponds to a US county and usually takes the name of the chief town within it.

Carole takes a break on one of the many benches in the plaza. Nearly all of them were empty, but at the end of the workday, I'm sure they fill up with families and courting couples from the town. A plaza forms the social center in a Mexican town where recreation, business, fiestas, and romances are conducted. One of the busy times in this plaza is Semana Santa (Easter Week). Maya people from villages of the municipalidad come to town to celebrate. The statue town's patron saint is paraded around and then loaded on a boat lined with candles and floated down the estuary and out to sea. The flotilla is joined by boats carrying the patron saints of many villages in the area.

A fascinating return trip to Mérida

Traditional Maya house, called nah in Maya or choza in Spanish. During our return trip to Mérida, we stopped in some of the villages through which our road passed. You can find Maya families living in homes like this all over the Yucatan peninsula. They do not differ significantly in design or function from those constructed 1000 years before the Spanish arrived. Over one of the doors of the famous ruin at Uxmal called the "Nuns Quadrangle" you can see a stone relief sculpture of just such a nah. The structures are made from locally gathered, natural materials. However, for all I know, this nah might be connected to the internet. The only visible modern touch is the PRI political campaign sign. The PRI is one of Mexico's three main political parties. It ruled Mexico from the 1930s to 2000 when it was finally defeated by the PAN, a conservative, business-oriented party. Current polls indicate the the PRI will return to power in the next election.

Another relic of the past. Almost concealed in jungly undergrowth are the remains of the main gate for an abandoned sisal hacienda. We had passed this ruin on the way to Celestún and I persuaded our driver to stop for a few minutes so I could take some photos. If you are one of my regular blog fans, you know I am a "ruins addict". This hacienda was probably abandoned somewhere between the beginning of the Revolution in 1910 and 1936, when President Lazaro Cardenas broke up the remaining sisal haciendas and redistributed the lands to the Maya campesinos. Often, this meant returning lands to Maya families from whom it had been illegally seized by the current hacendados (owners) or their ancestors.

The Casa Grande of the hacienda. The Casa Grande (Great House) was the home of the hacendado and the center of economic operations. However, the owners where often absent, leaving the actual running of a hacienda to professional administrators. The hacendados generally preferred their luxurious mansions in Mérida, or traveling with their families in Europe, to living in the country. Sisal was used for creating the string that bound together wheat sheaves harvested in the United States by the combines of the International Harvester Company. Both the IH Company and the hacienda owners profited mightily from this arrangement, especially since the forced labor of the Maya sisal workers was dirt cheap.

Graceful arched portales frame the porch overlooking the Casa Grande's main entrance. Life would have been good for the hacendado and his family. His house would have been filled with expensive, imported furnishings and his dinner table overflowed with the best foods and wines his hacienda could finance. For his workers, trapped by their debts to the tienda de raya (company store), life was little better than slavery. In fact, actual slavery was often used to offset labor shortages.

Another Maya house, made with slightly different materials. The thatched roof is the same as on the nah seen previously, but the walls are made of chunks of limestone, plastered over. A drowsy dog noted our photographic efforts but didn't think it worth his effort to challenge us.

Our driver/tour guide dropped us back at our hotel at the end of the day. We found all our guides for our various Mérida tours to be cheerful, knowledgeable, and willing to go out of their way to satisfy the interests of their customers. The Celestún tour van was modern, comfortable and a good way to travel the area. Our guide's smile may, in part, reflect the propina (tip) we gave him for his efforts. However, all the Maya we met were so friendly and easy-going that he probably would have acted just the same without any extra incentive.

This completes Part 5 of my Mérida series. Next, we will return to Mérida itself to take a look at some of the interesting sights you will encounter while wandering the streets of the Centro Historico. I always welcome comments and/or corrections. If you would like to do so, please leave your message in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim