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Toltecs and tortillas on a genteel tour of Mexico

Elizabeth von Pier is a retired banker who has travelled extensively around the world and writes to friends and family about her travels. Her travel partners are various women friends and family so she brings this perspective to her writings. Her travel partner on this October 2015 trip was her sister Margaret “Midge” Frieswyk and they travelled to three destinations–San Miguel de Allende, Merida and Isla Mujeres–visiting important Mayan sites along the way.

Day 1

My sister Midge and I arrived at the airport in Leon, Mexico mid-afternoon and met the driver who was to drive us the two hours to San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel is an artists’ community in the mountains of Guanajuato inhabited by many expats from the U.S., Europe and Canada. The city is a national monument and World Heritage Site and retains its Mexican characteristics although it is practically free from concerns about health, safety, culture clash and language. So we expect this will be a pretty easy introduction to the country.

Our driver loaded us into his car to drive us the two hours to San Miguel. This was a most interesting trip, through some georgeous countryside populated by cattle, prickly pear cactus with their ripe, red fruit, yellow goldenrod and rolling hills. We also drove through some typical rural villages with tin-roofed shanties selling tortillas, straw baskets, souvenirs, and trinkets out of makeshift storefronts. And there were the signs of poverty in many of these villages. We also ran into and were somewhat taken aback at the uniformed policemen present at major intersections with their combat boots, helmets and rifles. Our driver said this is common and that they are looking for anything untoward. We sat up straight, put on our most innocent faces and drove by slowly and without incident.

San Miguel, Mexico

Somehow we really lucked out because the whole town is celebrating the feast of their patron saint, San Miguel, this weekend. It’s already been happening for a few days but gets into fever-pitch mode this very weekend that we’re here with parades, fireworks, and dancing in the streets. The actual saint’s day is September 27, but it’s always celebrated the following weekend. So without realizing how much excitement we would encounter later in the evening, we set out to have dinner at a restaurant recommended by our hotel, La Posidita, just a few blocks from the hotel and right outside the main square, Jardin (pronounced Har-deen). What a charming rooftop restaurant within sight of the big parish church, actually more like a cathedral! I had a dish that comes very close to one of the best I have had in my life. It’s called Chili Nogada and it’s only made in the month around San Michel’s feast day. It’s three colors–red, green and white–the colors of the Mexican flag, and is made from green Chile peppers stuffed with meats and dried fruit topped with a white cheese sauce with ground almonds in it and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. It was so beautiful that I wish we had taken a photo of it. So we sat on the rooftop in sight of the beautifically lit up cathedral savoring every delicious morsel. The peso is very cheap compared to the dollar, so our dinner cost 360 pesos, about $20.

San Miguel, MexicoAfter dinner we decided to walk up to the main square to check out the happenings and were rewarded with a charming parade. There were three small bands which marched out of step and rather haphazardly, but the spirit was great and the music just O.K. They did have nice uniforms though. Interspersed between the bands were green and white taxicabs decorated with sprays of flowers on the hoods and trunks that looked a lot like funeral arrangements. The drivers and passengers of these taxis proudly wound their way around the square and ended up parked in a line in front of the cathedral. At the gate to the cathedral stood the parish priest in his long robes and a couple of nuns in white habits, all swaying to the beat of the music. What a fantastic way to end the evening. There will be more festivities to come tomorrow and we’re hoping to attend.

We are staying in a gorgeous suite at the exclusive Rosewood Hotel. This is quite the place. It looks to be a couple of centuries old, but in fact was built only four years ago and is modeled after a large and very successful hacienda. It has lots of stucco walls painted various shades of terra cotta, warm golds and creamy whites, the ceilings are at least ten feet high, and the furnishings and floors are browns, tans and camel-colored leather. Everything is in the best of taste and exudes old-world charm. There’s a gymnasium, spa, sauna, dry-heat room, rooms where you can just put up your feet and relax to soothing music, and rooms where you can treat yourself to lemongrass tea and dried fruits and nuts. We’re not going to have time to do any of this relaxing stuff, so we’ll just gave to come back another time.

Day 2

This morning we decided to sleep in a bit, then went down to the elegant dining room for a wonderful breakfast buffet including Mexican specialties such as enchiladas. It was enough to hold us until dinner time. And what a beautiful sight from the balcony of our room–pretty buildings climbing the hillside draped with flowering bougainvillea and the cathedral towering over it all at the top of the hill.

After breakfast we started our walking tour of the town. It’s in the mountains about a mile over sea level and is very hilly and quite steep. We had no trouble with the altitude, but the streets are another thing. They are cobblestone and the sidewalks are wide enough for one person. When you meet someone on the sidewalk, one person must step down into the street to let the other person pass. I’m giving my bad hip a fantastic workout on all these hills and cobblestones. But I’m pretty pleased with myself for being able to do it fairly easily. I guess all the exercises I do regularly are paying off.

271015laundrysanmiguelmexicoWe started out walking through the hotel’s gorgeous gardens with some stunning ornamental grasses in full bloom, and then walked across Parque Juarez in search of the public laundry. This is a set of about 20 red concrete tubs where local women gather to wash clothes and chat as they have done for centuries. Although this is a great way to catch up on the news, I’d choose my modern washer/dryer over it any time.

On our way through the park we met Chris, an American expat from Chicago who relocated here after being displaced from his job in banking. He now takes beautifully artistic photos and sets up shop here in the park. He is one of many Americans, Canadians and Europeans who move here to join the artistic community, enjoy the beautiful climate and live a simpler life. He lives just down the hill from the historic center and his milk is delivered on the back of a donkey.

We spent the next several hours strolling the streets, stopping into the cathedral and several other churches, and stopping into many of the shops of artisans. In one of these we met a very interesting woman who explained the many symbols used in the Indian beaded animals and other figures. And Midge bought a very interesting purse made from bottlecaps which are collected by students in Mexico City who use the money they raise to buy wheelchairs. It’s a very unique craft and the product is really quite beautiful.

271015sanmiguelprocessionAs we were eating dinner that night, we heard quite a commotion going on in the street outside the restaurant. We quickly paid our bill and went outside to join in the fun. It was a wedding and the bride and groom and all their guests were being led by a pair of 10 foot tall puppets who also were dressed like a bride and groom. All of the guests had little cups on strings hanging around their necks, and they were drinking tequila from them. Someone gave me a cup which I put around my neck and which was immediately filled with tequila. So we joined the parade and had lots of fun drinking our tequila even though technically we were crashing the wedding. At the tail end of the parade of wedding guests was a donkey who was marching along to the beat of the music and he was carrying several bottles of tequila which I’m sure kept the guests happy for many hours.

At that point we decided to go into the square in front of the cathedral and watch other activities and dancers, again in celebration of San Miguel. This is now the second night we have been lucky to join in the festivities.

When we got back to our hotel room about 9:00, there were two sets of earplugs on our nightstand. This was to block out the noise that would be coming from firecrackers later that evening.

Days 3-4

Again this morning we had a fabulous breakfast in the hacienda’s dining room. I’m truly enjoying enchiladas and other Mexican specialties for breakfast as opposed to the typical American breakfast of bacon and eggs. We also have a wonderful assortment of fresh fruits, yogurt, granolas, and various other nuts and seeds, plus pastries and breads. But as I experienced in Paris and Rome, there is no such thing as half and half for my coffee. I have to make do with something like canned condensed milk, which is pretty awful. But at least the caffein gets me going. I do have to be thankful for small things when I return home.

271015touristtatmeridaWe were picked up at 9:00 a.m. by our driver Antonio for a full-day private tour of the town of Guanajuato, a very interesting, pretty and historical city about an hour away from San Miguel. This city became very wealthy from silver mining and it is built vertically into the side if a steep mountain, reminding me of Cinque Terre in Italy.

The river that used to flow through the town flooded badly a couple of times so they built a dam, paved the riverbed, raised the houses and buildings about 12 feet, and built a series of underground tunnels at the foot of the mountains underneath the town. These tunnels are the fastest way of getting to various points around town. Quite a unique system.

So, with our guide, we visited the most important landmarks including the central plaza (or Zocalo as it is known in all Mexican cities and towns), the theater Juarez which is a very elaborately decorated Moorish style opera house, various monuments and churches, and the house/museum of a very famous Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. One of the churches we visited used to belong to the Jesuits until they were sent out of town by the governors because they were smarter.

Back in San Miguel for the evening we ran into incredible crowds who were around for the Saturday night parade, again part of the San Miguel festivities. This was pretty much the icing on the cake for us because we had to walk many blocks just to get to the other side of the plaza in order to have dinner and get back to our hotel. The crowds were ten people deep lining the parade route and there was no way we could get through. So by the time we got back to the hotel, we were completely exhausted and fell into bed.

The next day was Sunday and most of the day was spent en route to our next destination, Merida. This is a nice colonial town used as a homebase for touring the Mayan ruins.

Day 5

The weather continues to be beautiful, sunny and in the 80’s and no rain so far. Here in Merida it’s much more humid so it feels a lot warmer. Merida is an interesting city in itself, but it’s also a good place to stay if you’re planning to visit the Mayan ruins at Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-mal) and Chichen-Itza.

271015museumofarchaeologyToday we went on our own walking tour of Merida. Our hotel is well located so we just had to walk a few blocks to get to the main square where we started our tour. Like San Miguel, Merida was founded in the 1500’s and became very wealthy in the 1800’s thanks to henequen, a tough member of the agave family which is made into twine, burlap sacks, hammocks, and other products. Privileged residents looked to Europe as their model for cultural sophistication and built showcase Moorish and rococo style mansions with arched doorways and marbled tile interiors. These buildings still line Paseo Montejo around the corner from our hotel, and give the city an air of graceful elegance. However, you also will see abandoned buildings needing a buyer who will restore them to their former beauty. On the street of our hotel are some beautifully restored buildings interspersed with abandoned buildings and those needing lots of work.

Our walking tour started at the main square where it was obvious that we were tourists with our maps and books in hand. So we were the target of many “friendly” locals who tried to help us find our way, sticking to us like barnacles so they could act as our tour guide and then request a tip. Or they’d send us to the shop of one of their relatives.

So we started our tour of Merida at the cathedral in the main square. This cathedral was built in 1561-1598 using the stone from the ruined Mayan city underneath Merida. How amazing to think about the age of some of these buildings. It has a statue of Christ on the cross that is black from a fire that happened in the 1600’s but it survived the fire. It’s called Christ of the Blisters and is a replica of the original one.

Then we walked through several old buildings surrounding the square including the museum of contemporary art, the former family home of the Montejo family who worked very hard to conquer the Yucatan peninsula, the gorgeous city hall that is painted pink and has a balcony overlooking the square, and the state government building that has large murals with scenes from Mayan history including the Mayan spirit with ears of corn, the “sunbeams of the gods.”

271015cityhallMeridaUp the street is another park surrounded by lots of sidewalk restaurants. We ate dinner on the park two nights that we were here. They serve Mexican food but it is a Yucatan variety and very different from what we get back home. It started with chips and salsa and went downhill from there. My main course was tortillas filled with egg–sort of like a bland egg salad sandwich with a dollop of tomato sauce on top. There seems to be no such thing as sour cream and guacamole on top of the tortillas which I so love back home. I would not order this dish again. But I must admit that it is interesting to try different versions of the Mexican cuisine we know.

We then encountered another pretty park with a copy of Renoir’s statue of the Madonna and Child. Right next door is an opulent theater designed by an Italian architect a hundred years ago and we were told to duck inside to see the place with all its marble and frescoes. There was no one there except a sweet elderly guard with his “Policia Turistico” uniform who offered to show us around. Sweet man, no way. We were tricked again. He practically chased us down the stairs yelling “pesos”. When will we learn?

Our tour ended on the Paseo de Montejo, a broad tree-lined boulevard modeled after Paris’ Champs Elysees. In the late 1800’s Merida’s upper crust decided the city needed something grander and built this monumentally proportioned boulevard and lined it with mansions. It came to a halt when the henequen industry went bust, but numerous mansions survive–some in private hands, others as offices, restaurants or consulates. Today it is the fashionable part of town but, believe me, it’s no Champs Elysees.

271015boutiquehotelOur hotel in Merida, the Casa Lecande, is quite a special place. From the exterior it is pretty nondescript. But when you open the big wooden doors and enter the salon, you find yourself in what used to be a private hacienda. All the rooms are on the left side and they are beautifully tiled with 20 foot ceilings, wooden beams, and wooden fans hanging from the ceilings. There’s a reception room, an elegant bar, a dining room, the kitchen and three bedrooms. We were in one of these bedrooms. At the end they built four more guest rooms so the place has only seven rooms.

All of these rooms open onto the common areas which consist of six glorious spaces. The first is open to the sky and I’d call it a hammock room since it has three hammocks attached to palm trees and surrounded by huge planters with tropical plants. The next two spaces also are open to the sky. There’s a “sitting room” with a couple of outdoor sofas and this overlooks the pool which also is surrounded by palm trees and planters. Then comes an outdoor space which has huge ten foot arches leading into the breakfast room. This room is open to the outdoors by these arches but it has a beamed ceiling and hanging fan. The room has five round marble tables and looks gorgeous set up for breakfast. Then comes what I would call the Alhambra room with a small fountain set in the middle of a 20 foot long by 3 foot wide pool with lots of plants and greenery on both sides. The last “room”, a living room with a sofa and chairs, is also under a high ceiling but is open on both sides by huge arches.

We loved being located in this section across from all these wonderful common areas. When we came back to the hotel after a day of sightseeing, we always had the place to ourselves. It felt like our own very well-staffed hacienda.

Day 6

Our private tour guide for the next two days is Gener (pronounced Henner). He is descended from the Mayans, has a bachelor’s degree in archaeology, speaks great English, and is a very kind and considerate man. Our main destination today is the Mayan ruins at Uxmal and Kabah, but we started out traveling the country roads to a small town where there was a farmer’s market. It was very interesting, and mouthwatering, to see this market in full swing. All kinds of fruits, vegetables and tortillas were beautifully displayed and shoppers arrived in little open-air “taxis” which look a bit like rickshaws. It was so cute to see these taxis lined up at the curb while the shoppers went through the market stalls.

271015tortillafactoryMeridaNext Gener took us to a very tiny village where many of his huge extended family live. This was the real thing. First we stopped at his mother’s tortilla factory. She works there 365 days per year–no vacation time for this woman–and the temperature is 120 degrees. She is used to it. She works with one other person, a young girl, and we watched them form the tortillas then cook them on the very hot grill. Gener’s father delivers them to private homes.

Next we drove through the village and met his 87 year old grandmother. We went into her home which appears to be two rooms. The front room is where she relaxes and sleeps–on a hammock! Also in that room is a television set and an altar to the Virgin of Guadelupe. 271015livingroomnearmeridaThe altar was quite large with two large statues of the virgin, several smaller statues, plastic flowers in vases and strings of multi-colored Christmas lights. She is tiny and shook our hands, smiling a toothless smile all the time. We took a nice picture of her and her grandson Gener.

Then we drove on to see the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, a fabulous Mayan ruined city dating from 600AD-1000. Apparently the name means “thrice built” and the main pyramid was built three times, one on top of the other. It is about 12 stories high, has rounded corners and very steep 60-degree staircases on two sides. You aren’t allowed to climb them but even if you were, I wouldn’t do it. There are no railings.


We walked around the entire area in 90 humid degrees and enjoyed Gener’s incredible knowledge of the history of the place. Many faces of Mayan gods were carved into the buildings, especially the rain God Chaca. I later bought a carved wooden mask of Chaca which I will use somewhere to decorate my condo.

We also enjoyed the Mayan ball court because it reminded us of my great-nephew William and his basketball court. There’s a big difference though. The losers are beheaded and, while this might have been a big honor back then, not so much today.

We spent a couple of hours at Uxmal, then went on to a much smaller site, Kabah, which is famous for its incredible masks of Chaac, the rain God.

Our final stop was at a cenote which is an underground sinkhole. These are very common in this area and people go swimming in them. It’s really like a cave. So we went down the steep wet stairs and the water was so clear that we only could tell where the top of it was by some fish swimming at the surface. When we saw the bats on the ceiling, we decided that we didn’t have to go swimming.


Day 7

Today we packed our bags and left the fabulous Casa Lecande to go on to our next stop, Isla Mujeres (the island of women) for a couple of days of R & R.

En route, we stopped at the Mayan ruins of Chichen-Itza. This is one of the seven wonders of the world. It is much larger than Uxmal and also much busier with tour groups and vendors selling souvenirs. It is believed that Chichen-Itza was founded about 435 A.D. and of the several hundred buildings believed to have once stood, only about 30 are fully restored. The rest are hidden under rough, underbrush covered mounds in the thick jungle scrub of the Yucatan Peninsula. Unlike Uxmal which was purely Mayan, Chichen-Itza is a combination of Mayan and Toltec influences. The Toltecs were militaristic warriors and many of the images decorating the buildings reflect that –jaguars, sharp-taloned eagles, phalanxes of marching warriors and feathered serpents.

Chichen Itza, Mexico

The main pyramid’s builders were mathematically precise in their constructiion so that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadows cast by the terraces of the staircases form the body of a serpent. We also saw another ball court with its hoop. As in Uxmal, the losers were beheaded. William, you don’t want to play this game!

After a couple of hours at this wonder of the world, we got into the car to head to Cancun where we would catch the catamaran to our resort on Isla Mujeres.

Days 8-9

We arrived at our resort, Zoetry Villa Rolandi, by private catamaran and checked into our pleasant room on the third (top) floor. There’s only about 30 rooms here and everything is included – food all day, and drinks too. But no one has been particularly roudy even though alcoholic drinks are free.

We have a lovely view of the Caribbean with Cancun in the distance. There are two nice restaurants and the food is pretty spectacular. There also are two pools and a hot tub, plus the beach down below.

Our first day here we rented a golf cart and toured the entire island. It is only four miles long and less than a mile wide. So it was easy to see it all. We also had some fun shopping and bargaining. Midge is awfully good at that and I am getting better. We bought some nice stuff at reasonable prices.

So tomorrow we leave. I’ll be coming home and Midge will go on to Monterrey to do her work certifying international schools. I am just thrilled that I had the chance to come to Mexico. It’s been an enriching experience I will not forget.

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

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