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Yucatán Adventure: Mérida


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In Mérida we had our only significant accommodation problem of the trip. We followed our GPS to the Airbnb address near the center of the city and found a nondescript commercial street with no street number corresponding to the address. Trying Google Maps took us around the corner but likewise nothing resembling the Airbnb. We started messaging the host through the app and got a bunch of confusing directions that didn't help. Eventually the host sent us a completely different address which we mapped to a location on the outskirts of town. No way. We weren't going to spend New Year's Eve in the middle of nowhere. Airbnb agreed to pay for a hotel and we began cruising around the center. Unsurprisingly the first few we checked were fully booked but eventually we found one that had a room available. It was a typical low-end hotel room with no atmosphere, but we deposited our stuff and headed to the center to see what was happening.

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Mérida was by far the largest city we had visited on this trip but fortunately most of the markets and activity we were interested in were clustered in a walkable area downtown. There was a rather mellow New Year's Eve party going in Plaza Grande, Mérida's Zócalo, a pleasant mixture of paved walkways and landscaping. It seemed to be a local family scene, busy without being crowded. Three men dressed as the Three Kings in colorful robes circled around the plaza. There were a few vendors but nothing particularly appetizing to us so we meandered north where we eventually found a cluster of taquerias and some oversize chairs for the kids to clamber around on. There didn't seem to be much to be gained from walking around until midnight so we passed into 2018 fast asleep, pretty much the same as every New Year's since Cleo was born.
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On New Year's Day we packed our bags and moved over to a short-term apartment we had found on Booking. It was a big improvement over the emergency hotel of the previous night. We knew the main community market was closed but we were surprised to find a couple of open taquerias in the much smaller Mercado Municipal Numero 2. The market shared a block with a beautiful colonial church and a small park.
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One of the cool things about having our own wheels is that we had the flexibility to cruise out of town with everything in the city being closed for the holiday. Mérida is close to both the northern and western coasts of the Yucatán Peninsula which meant we had our choice of scenic beach towns. For New Year's Day we picked Celestún, a fishing village best known for its coastal wildlife sanctuary packed with wild flamingos.
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It was an easy drive to the Gulf Coast where we found the station from which boats departed for tours of the estuary. We were a large enough group to get our own boat and after a short wait we were off. The powerboat moved quite quickly through the water and the kids all leaned out to feel saltwater spray and get their long hair blown back. I'm not a birdwatcher but the huge flocks of flamingos were very impressive, like pink islands in the middle of the estuary.
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The tour included a visit to El Ojo de Agua, an area of mangroves which can be traversed by boardwalk to a small pond fed by an underwater spring that bubbles to the surface.
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After returning to the car we proceeded to the village of Celestún on the coastline. We walked along a street of colorfully-painted houses and selected the most promising of a row of surprisingly-busy fish restaurants. The rear of the restaurant opened out onto the beach. We enjoyed a leisurely meal of fried fish and ceviche and afterwards the kids played for a while on the beach underneath clouds of aggressive seagulls.
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Back in Mérida we went for a stroll along Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard lined with historical mansions and upscale hotels. At the southern end of the avenue we found a street party we hadn't encountered the previous night. There was live music, food and craft vendors, and a winter wonderland lighted display. Mérida had turned out to be a pretty good choice to spend the New Year holiday with kids.
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Tuesday was a typical weekday so we hustled to the main community market, Mercado Municipal Lucas de Galvez. The sprawling market was spread over a few buildings so at first we ended up in a rather lackluster food court of taquerias. We had breakfast there figuring the market was slow because of the holiday. Afterwards we found the real market which was much more interesting but similar to others we had seen. We did find a much better food court and had a second meal of chocolomo (marinated veal) and mondongo (tripe soup).
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This time we drove north to Progreso, another small town on the Gulf Coast of the peninsula. Progreso was somewhat larger than Celestún and had a cruise ship port, so it was a completely different vibe. There were a lot more bars and sidewalk cafes, most of which were filled with Anglos. There were also resort-type hotels along the beach and a tourist market. It was overcast and windy so there wasn't much to do on the beach besides kick the sand around and duck from the diving seagulls. There was an appetizing seafood restaurant so we lagged around long enough for an early dinner that didn't really live up to expectations.
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On the outskirts of Mérida we passed a small amusement park and stopped to let the kids jump around in a bounce house and play with soap bubbles for a while. By the time we got back to the center we had a bit of an appetite again so we went to Mérida's multicultural food hall Mercado 60. Naturally there was an emphasis on Mexican and other Latin American offerings but there were also European and Asian stalls. The bar was spectacular and the lighting and decor made it more atmospheric than most food halls we've been to in the United States.
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The morning we left Mérida we went back to Mercado Numero 2 since it had been mostly shuttered on our first visit. It was certainly much more lively this time around and a great atmosphere to have another satisfying brunch.
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We detoured inland towards the center of the peninsula to visit the Cuzama Cenotes. I had researched the most interesting and child-friendly cenotes before our trip and these were near the top of the list. The special wrinkle here was that the only access to the cenotes is via horse-drawn cart on a disused mining railway, which I thought would be an additional thrill for the kids. Cuzama was in the middle of nowhere and we soon found ourselves driving on a single-lane road with one car behind us. As we drew close to our destination we came to a fork and although our GPS route had us going one way, I could see that the other road took us there much more directly. I decided, like Robert Frost, to take the less-traveled road and saw the car behind us going the way our GPS had directed. Uh oh. We drove for a while longer through dense countryside and the road petered out into a dirt path. I reversed course to the last intersection and drove up a wider road, only to soon realize we were driving over train tracks. I quickly reversed back to the last turn and after debating whether we should return to the fork, eventually decided to push further along the dirt path. Soon enough we came upon a farmhouse and when we drove around it we found ourselves back on a paved road downstream of a few houses. Our direct route had taken us to the opposite end of the village from the part accessed by the highway. The locals were rather nonplussed to see our car emerging from the wrong side of the town but directed us to park and quickly showed us to a horse cart. A few minutes later we were jolting along the tracks to the cenotes.
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Fortunately our guide took us to the largest and easiest cenote first. The main challenge with Cenote Chelentún was descending the steep and rickety staircase but once we had arrived at the bottom safely we found an expansive pool with few other visitors. There were little fish in the water that would nip gently at your skin if you stood for too long in one place. We had a refreshing swim and decided to forgo the other two cenotes in favor of an earlier arrival in Campeche. The guide assured us the other two were smaller and not as well-suited for children. When we got back to the car they cleared a path for us through the horses and carts blocking the road so that we could exit the town the correct way this time.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:24 Archived in Mexico Tagged celestun merida progreso

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