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A guide to living in Mérida

23 Aug

As a travel-weary soul after living in Bolivia, Peru, Samoa, and India for the past 2 years, I coasted in Mérida.  Mérida,  the capital of Yucátan, México and self-proclaimed, and accurately so, city of peace–key in a narced-up Mexico, is the most comfortable city outside of the United States that I´ve ever lived in.  In fact, it could be more comfortable than some American cities.  Mérida has the culinary chops of New Orleans, cultural happenings of Chicago, the tranquilness of a small suburban city, and the malls typical of Texas.  Not to mention the superb central location for taking weekend trips around the state.  Though these attractions have brought a small community of expats and students, Mérida never feels gringified.  Below is small guide to living in Mérida.

What to Bring

There is nothing in the United States that you can´t find in Mérida.  Missing your favourite cereals?  The Costco, Walmart, Mega, Chedraui, or other large supermarket chains got them.  That said, you will be using a lot of sunscreen and bugspray, which is considerably more expensive in Mérida than in the U.S.  Typical price for a bottle of SPF 70 runs $16.  I also recommend bringing snorkel gear, if you have room.  I think you can buy them for $14 at Walmart and it´ll cost you around $10 each time you rent them.  Otherwise, most items (except for clothes) run the same price, if not cheaper in Mérida.

Where to live

One of Mérida´s few weaknesses is its city sprawl and slightly inconvenient transportation system (bus/combis).  Mérida is divided into many neighborhoods, which are hard to get to between them, but all have bus routes, oftentimes lengthy, to the center.  They are almost all equally safe (living in downtown can be a bit sketchy).  I suggest finding a place next to your work, because you will be transporting yourself there 5 days a week.  I lived in García Gíneres, which was quite comfortable and a short 10 min bus ride or 30 peso taxi to the center.

List of apartments and rooms in family homes from the University of Mayab

Cellphones/Internet/Banking

Cellphones start at around $30 for basic and run up around American prices from there.  My office had an extra cellphone and I never put minutes on it–never had to make many calls.  If I needed to contact someone, I sent an email from the office or home or called with Skype (it´s about $0.02 a minute to call the U.S. and probably less to call México.)

The ATM fee from Mérida is about $2 each time + the fees your bank charges.  Even on the free Bank of America partnership, the ATM will charge $2.  It´s cheaper to bring dollars from America.  There are plenty of money change centers in downtown, off calle 59, between 60 and 62 that offer fair rates and real dollars/pesos.  I haven’t had a problem with fake money, as much as I did in Bolivia and China.

I’ve heard, but didn’t bother to investigate, that short-term internet in the form of portable cards or a short-term lease is not available.  Everybody’s house is wired up and one of the advantages of renting a room in a house was that I got access.  Otherwise, there is wifi in coffee shops, free wifi in all parks (if you can withstand the mosquito attack!), and internet cafés run about 8 pesos an hour.

Where to Eat

I have to admit that I haven’t been to very many restaurants in Mérida, mainly because it’s a lot of work to get around! Also, between work and taking weekend trips, I didn’t spend a lot of free time in Mérida.  Food in Mérida is generally meat—the vegetarian side is lettuce–but chaya, a superplant filled with vitamins, is delicious and served as drink or with fish/meat.

  • Cocina Economica (calle 17, entre 16 y 18, García Gíneres, cerca Parque de las Américas, (9999) 253 9888): Solid quality economical kitchen featuring Yucatecan and Méxican dishes, such as cuchinita, mole, pollo empanizado, tortas, and tacos.  I ate here everyday and local customers bring gallon-sized tupperware to carry away the food.  It is pretty busy around 2 p.m., lunch hour.  $27 pesos for a half-plate (more than sufficient) and $40 pesos for a full order (enough to take home for dinner).
  • Los Platos Rotos (calle Colón y Av. Reforma, García Gíneres, cera the Hyatt):  Local favourite lunchspot for chalangan (D.F.) dishes.  $50 pesos for a half-plate.
  • La Chaya Maya (centro):  A tourist and local haunt, La Chaya Maya offers a superb environment (staff is dressed in traditional garb and hand-making the tortillas and panuchos in front of you!) at pretty reasonable prices.
Where to go:
Mérida’s tourism department does a sensational job of publishing updated, free monthly magazines (Yucátan Today, Yucátan Travel–both include excellent street maps of Mérida if the numbers confuse you) as well as a monthly schedule of free cultural events.   These are both available at the tourism office in the Plaza Grande.  There is basically at least one free cultural event every day, including jaranas (local dance showcasing impressive foot speed and ability to balance beers on the head) every Monday, Yucatecan guitar concerts every Tuesday, an art fair every Saturday, and mariachi parades every Sunday, If you live near the Allianza Francesa (French cultural center), there are some cultural events and language courses there, though my French roommates thought the place strange compared to other Allianza Fracesas (snobby, more expensive, and tiny.)

Nightime jarana in downtown Mérida: yes, they're balancing a beer tray on their heads

Possible weekend trips (ranked in order of impressiveness):

Calakmul, a bioreserve and Mayan ruins, Indiana Jones style

Holbox. Never been, but it's the favourite of almost everybody here

Celestun. Never been, but lots of flamingos, swampy lands.

Tulum, a lovely time. Ruins are unimpressive, but lots to do around the beach.

Chichen Itza, classic.

Uxmal, another set of Mayan ruins with a nice light and sound show

Surrounding cenotes. You can throw in a visit to an awesome chocolate musuem/plantation along the way

What to buy
  • Coffee: Coffee grown in México is soft, with warm tones and a lot of caffeine.  Supposedly, Café Organico is the best and wallet-friendly organic coffee shop in Mérida, with a delightful owner, Guadalupe.  If you’re looking for more organic shops, here’s a nice list compiled by Yucatan Today.
  • Honey: Though apiaries in the Yucatan have diminished in recent years, there is still plenty of local honey production here.  Notable products include honey candy (with flavors of chamoy, chile, seasame, and propoleo), propoleo cold spray, chapstick, and pollen (a health food supplement).  LOL Cab, calle 47, no. 519B x 64 x 66, 9999 243586.
  • Henequen: Used to make strong sailing ropes, henequen fibers put Mérida on the map, turning the city into a colonial showcase of wealth.  However, when plastic fibers were invented, the henequen industry went bottoms-up, and historical mansions converted into Starbucks and McDonald’s.  Today, you can find plenty of henequen artesanal products, such as bags, turtles, bowls, etc.  Recommend buying at the annual Dzitya Art Fairat the end of July, Casa Maya, Artesania Contemporanea Maya (Calle 10 #608 x 25B x 25C, Col. Benito Juarez-Oriente, acnmaya@hotmail.com, 999 982 6856)

    Henequen baskets (20 pesos)

  • Buying at Touristy Areas: A word of warning.  The souvenirs at Chichen Itza tables, are, obviously, not really stone, as advertised.  They are cement or plaster of paris, painted over with some good quality gray acrylic.  The value of the cement mask is less than 25 pesos and of the plaster of paris snake, less than 70 pesos.
  • Tequila/Xtabentun/Liquor of Nance: An old Mayan recipe, Xtabentun is a tourist liquor, meaning that locals don’t drink it, claiming that it’s too sweet.  As for tequila, Don Julio is widely regarded as the best, Don Eduardo is pretty smooth, and Cazadores is a good budget tequila.

A guide to Tulum

3 Aug

A smattering of simple, but well-preserved Mayan ruins in a manicured, palm tree-adorned lawn and off a turquoise ocean, Tulum can be called Cancún: the Mayan theme park extension.  Its proximity to Cancún and Playa del Carmen make it the 3rd most visited archaeological site in Mexico (the other two are also closely located to Cancún and Mexico City).  Though the ruins are underwhelming and dare I say boring when compared to the grandeur of Calakmul or Uxmal, Tulum boasts the beast beaches in the Mayan Riviera and an excellent grand cenote.  In fact, if you’re looking for an uncrowded beach with clear waters and powdery sand, skip Playa del Carmen and Cancún and head straight to Tulum.

Trip Details

What to Do

  • Get a map: Wonderful little tourist information desk on Avenida Tulum, about 4 blocks from the bus station.  They have great maps and great advice.
  • Tulum Ruins: Seeing the ruins will take 30 minutes.  The beach is the best part, as the best beaches in Tulum are located closer to the ruins & further away from the fancier hotels (yes, there is a reason why the Mayans built their ruins there).  The waves are the biggest, the sand is powdery white, and it’s just majestic to relax in the ocean while looking at centuries of history.  Entry cost = 50 pesos.

One of the bigger buildings at Tulum

The beach at Tulum

Ruins + beach = popular

  • Gran Cenote: The entry fee may be pricey at 100 pesos, but totally worth it.  Hands down the most exciting cenote I’ve seen.  It looks like nothing from the outside, but if you rent snorkeling gear (70 pesos), the water below reveals a whole new underworld, making you feel like an explorer on the Discovery Channel.  The cenote slopes down fairly fast, and you can peek at crevices, see the dark shadowy extensions of passageways which are sure to continue for miles (myth has it that all cenotes in the Yucatan are connected), and chase fish.
  • Akumal:  Nice beach (slightly more crowded than Tulum), but the real star of the show are the sea turtles, stingrays, fishes, and coral reefs.  They say that  these endangered sea turtles may have to be found, but I easily saw at least 4 sea turtles and even got charged at by one giant 1.5m sea turtle.  I may have reacted like a shark was after me.  We brought some drinks to the beach (wonderful liter of refreshing chaya blended with pineapple sold at Don Cafetos), rented snorkel gear (100 pesos), skipped the tour, and swam out to where the boats were and sightings were.  Akumal is located 20 km from Tulum and a combi, running frequently, will take you there and back for 60 pesos roundtrip.
  • Za Zil Kin beach:  Rumored to be the prettiest beach in Tulum.

Za Zil Kin at sunset and on the brink of a storm

Transportation

  • From Mérida, we took a 4.75 hr ADO bus that left at 6:30 Saturday morning coming back at 12:15 a.m. Sunday night/Monday morning.  Cost = 410 pesos roundtrip.
  • Along Avenida Tulum, you can walk easily to the center from the bus station.  You will need to take a taxi, combi, or bike to the ruins, the beach, or the cenotes.  Taxis have fixed pricing and will never rip you off.  Combis are substantially cheaper.  For example, a 10 peso per person combi ride to the ruins will cost 40 pesos total in a taxi. A bike can be fun and cheap, as rentals are 50-60 pesos per day.

Lodging:  

  • I stayed at Mama’s home (three blocks off the main Avenida Tulum, Calle Orion entre Venus y Sol Oriente, (52) 984 87 122 72), which was an excellent, no-fuss, new business (6 months old) with a great in-town location. Dorms run 150 pesos per person for a 4-bedroom and private bedroom for 2 runs 400 pesos total with a kitchen included.  Prices include free internet access and large breakfast, with eggs, beans, toast, fruit, whee!  Bike rental is 50 pesos.  I’m glad to report that I did not get bed bugs.  
  • Posada los Mapaches is another excellent option, with all positive reviews on Trip Advisor.  We almost stayed here, but the owner, an incredibly nice and honest gentleman named Daniel, reported that he had bedbugs earlier and was working on containing them.  He does take lot of precautions such as spraying all incoming backpacks down and hiring a terminator every few months.  The place is immaculately clean but “rustic” so you will get bitten by mosquitoes during the night.  

Food

I ate at three restaurants and all were wonderful.

  • Cameo: Local favourite seafood watering hole.  Up a little ways on Avenida Tulum, but worth the trip.  Seafood is fresh. Plates are large.  Prices are reasonable.  I ordered the flakiest, scrumptiest shrimp po-boy sandwhich.
  • La Villa d Bella: Off Za Zil Kin beach, this expansive restaurant under a high-arched Mayan roof offers beautiful front-porch views of the beach and exceptional service.  We ordered a seafood platter for two, which included lobster, snapper, squid, octopus, shrimp, 2 alcoholic drinks, and dessert (well, the waiter threw in dessert) for 720 pesos.  Be careful at night—strangely, the hotel doesn’t have a telephone and may not be able to call a cab for you.  Cabs pass by rarely at night, since it’s an isolated area.
  • Don Cafeto: Situated on the main drag and boasting an Italian restaurant mafia-style collection of celebrity/governor sightings at the restaurant, this tourist favourite has the joys of large quantities of food, good drinks, and good times.  Get the chaya drink.
A Word about Bedbugs
  • There is a strong possibility of catching bedbugs here, as many backpackers bring them in from other parts of Mexico.  Many other pernicious bugs are present in the beach sands.  My friend returned back with clusters of bites on her feet.  Both hotels I talked to fumigated regularly to combat the problem and one hostel spends $3,000 annually in fighting the bedbug war.
  • To keep the bugs at bay, I suggest leaving your beach towel and all other things from the beach outside your hotel room, taking a warm bath immediately after returning to the hotel, and possibly boiling your clothes (just to be extra safe.)

What to do if you have ticks or bedbugs

16 Jul

Travelling in South America and in Mexico, I’ve gotten my fair share of bedbugs and ticks.  They lurk anywhere and your reaction to these parasites depends on your tolerance level, much like alcohol.  Needless to say, I have a low tolerance for both and both make me turn red.  And similar to the side effects of alcohol, the parasites are harmless but annoying.  In fact, it is not entirely necessary to go to a doctor.  But I have gone to a doctor and below are her recommendations + wisdom gathered from painful experience.

How to identify bites:

  • There’s lots of advice on the internet.  Use that.  It’s more accurate.
  • Anecdotally, bedbugs are a red splotch with a red dot in the middle.  They show up a few in a row and in all the parts of your body with a crease, because they like heat.  (armpit, bikini line, knees, parts of your torso, muffin top…jk.)

The PG-version of my bedbug bites

Upon immediately discovery of ticks (garrapatas, en español) or bedbugs (chinches, en español),

  1. Pre-empt them. Before you even discover bugs, immediately after returning from a jungle, take a shower and throw all of your clothes outside your room.  It doesn’t even matter if locals insisted five times that there are no bedbugs in the area.  There are no bedbugs for their immune skin.  There are bedbugs for your untouched baby skin.
  2. Take a bath, preferrably in hot water.   Take two baths. 
  3. Wash everything that your body touched, preferrably in hot water.  This includes bed sheets, underwear, shirts.  Better yet, just wash everything in your suitcase.  If you put your shirt next to another clean shirt, wash the clean one too. These suckers spread like no other.  Also, they like to hide out in the hemming of your clothes.  Iron those parts.  If the bugs still aren’t going away, leave your mattress out in the sun for at least 8 hours and spray the bedposts down with tick killer.  I’ve never had to put my mattress out, though.
  4. Apply VapoRub to bites.  This is anecdotal advice.  I heard that the “freshness” kills the bugs.
  5. Try not to scratch.  The swelling and itchiness will go away, but after a week.  Allow two weeks – one month for ticks.  Claritin or an antihistamine will reduce swelling, and Eurax will relieve the itch.  I advise getting the Eurax, because unless you lack nerves, you will not be able to resist the scratching.  A little “oh, I’ll just lightly brush” turns into violent fingernail scratching.  If you get scars from scratching, Cicalfate will make it pretty.  My doctor also advised to stay out of the sun and to not sweat (Even if I didn’t have ticks, I would want to stop sweating if I could control it), because the sunlight casts scars into more permanent fixtures.  See the medication section for dosage details.
  6. If you need treatment, a dermatologist is qualified.  They’re not solely for cosmetic purposes and actually know a lot about local diseases.
Medication Details
  • Eurax cream.  For itch relief.  Use 3x each day for 6 days.  Cost $5 in Mérida, MX.
  • Cicalfate cream.  For scar prevention.  Use 3x each day for 10 days.  Cost $20 or $38 (100 ml), depending on size of tube, in Mérida, MX.
  • Claratin tablets.  Use 1x each day for 10 days.  Cost $20 in Mérida MX for 10 tablets.
Where I have gotten bites
  • My friends’ couch in her posh La Paz high-rise.  I am the only person on record to get bedbugs there, but yes, I have gotten them there TWICE.
  • Buena Vista, Bolivia.  These were ticks.  Took 1 month for the itching to die down and the scars are still there after 6 months.  However, I scar easily because I am Asian.
  • Calakmul, Yucatán, MX.  Stayed at the cabins of La Selva.  It was really a jungle.  But I was the only person of a group of 3 Frenchies and one Méxicana to get bedbugs.
A good dermatologist in Mérida
  • Dra. Maria Rosa Rivero Vallado, Clinica Mérida.  Phone: 925 8406.  Av. Itzáes 242 x 35 x 37, García Ginerés.
  • Cost: $600 pesos ($US 55)