A Travellerspoint blog

Tango and Gauchos: Uruguay part I

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We had an uneventful hour-long ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Colonia changed hands during multiple wars between Spain and Portugal, and subsequently between Argentina and Spain, before Uruguay was given independence in 1828. The city is known for its preserved historical quarter and crumbling stone fortifications. We were only there to pick up our rental car and grab a quick lunch before proceeding onward to our estancia a couple of hours away.

When the agent brought us our car, I was sure there had been a mistake. It was a tiny subcompact and I'm always very careful to specify a full-sized vehicle. The trunk of the car was just large enough to fit our main suitcase and nothing else. We still had two other bags and the stroller, let alone the three kids to wedge into the back seat. I reviewed my reservation and couldn't find any mention of the car size. My best guess was that I had changed the reservation for some reason and then forgotten to specify a full-size. The agent told me that car was the only automatic they had available, so we were stuck. We were able to cram everything inside, although everyone but the driver had to rest their legs on top of suitcases. There was just a foot of space between the two car seats in the back but Cleo squeezed in there with her booster and pronounced it acceptable. We drove off looking like a clown car from the circus, but we had all our possessions.

It was a fairly uncomplicated process to get a SIM card in Colonia. Unlike in Buenos Aires, where our SIM card was never activated even after we visited the Claro store, our Urugayan SIM was activated immediately and we had cellular internet and navigation for the first time during the trip. We drove to Plaza Mayor in the center of the old town which was lined with busy cafes. It was mid-afternoon and all the real restaurants had closed, so we made do with hamburgers and fries at a cafe with a very pretty back patio. On the way out of Plaza Mayor our GPS directed us down a short section of road which had a one way sign posted against us. It was a wide street and we only had to go a few hundred feet so we decided to follow the GPS. Sure enough we were immediately pulled over by a police car and we were given a ticket without any regard for my protestations about the GPS. I had a feeling that was an event that happens about twenty times a day, another source of tourist revenue for the city.

There are many estancias in Uruguay that accommodate tourists but I picked Finca Piedra for its good reviews and its proximity to Buenos Aires. Finca Piedra is mostly focused on comfort and relaxation rather than an authentic estancia experience, but the kids weren't old enough to do real farm work. The kids did get to try their hands at milking cows and they got to play with unusual animals like capybaras and rheas which had their run of the farm.

Cleo and Ian also had their first experience with horseback riding. At first we were just going to let Cleo go with Mei Ling while I stayed at the lodge with the boys, but Ian made it pretty clear he didn't want to be left out so one of the other guests volunteered to ride with him.

Although the estancia was practically within sight of the highway, we had great views over the rolling Uruguayan pampas. During the days we explored the fields and the vineyards where the owners grew the grapes they used to make Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon wines on the premises. Tannat wine is emblematic of Uruguay although the varietal was originally grown in southwest France. Aside from the fact that Tannat grows better in Uruguay than anywhere else in the world, the highly tannic wines the grapes produce couple particularly well with the rich cuts of beef that are beloved to the locals. After dinner we would sip wine around the roaring fireplace while the kids played with their newfound friends.

Down the road from Finca Piedra was the tiny town of Mal Abrigo. We dropped by on our last full day to have parrillada at the only real restaurant in town. On the side streets we saw some very colorful, well-maintained houses. By the rail station there were a couple of small shacks where craftspeople knitted woolen hats and shawls on nail boards. Aside from that it we could have been in any small town of a few hundred people anywhere in the world.

I wasn't disappointed with our stay at Finca Piedra, mainly because the kids enjoyed it a lot and there are worse things in the world than relaxation. Nevertheless, that isn't why I travel and we probably wouldn't do something similar again. There's just too much to see in the world to spend precious days with our feet up around a pool or a fireplace. Fortunately Montevideo turned out to be much more interesting than we had expected.
It was only an hour and half away from the estancia but it was like entering another world after three days away from civilization. Our Airbnb was ideally situated facing Plaza Zabala in the colonial old town but the interior was a step down from our Buenos Aires apartment. We had a somewhat dingy fourth-floor walk-up whose windows wouldn't close completely. It didn't really matter to us much as we weren't planning on spending a lot of time there. We only had two days and a good-sized city to explore. It was time for lunch so we made a beeline for Mercado del Puerto, which was converted some time ago from a market into a hall of parrillas. The fact that it was Good Friday seemed to have no impact here. There were at least a dozen restaurants packed with customers, and the sights and smells of grilling meat were everywhere. By now the kids were all asleep and we had to wedge both strollers around a cramped table in the middle of our chosen restaurant, Spenser's snoring weight on my back was a small price to pay for a peaceful meal without the clamor of the kids, and the parrillada was better than any we had had in Buenos Aires.

We cut back across the old town via the long pedestrian alley Calle Perez Castellano until we reached La Rambla, the wide promenade that runs along the southern coastline of Montevideo. We enjoyed the breeze coming in off the Atlantic for a few blocks before heading back into the city until we reached Plaza Independencia, which marks the transition between Ciudad Vieja and modern Montevideo. The plaza itself is not particularly remarkable but it is surrounded by some of Montevideo's best examples of colonial architecture. The stunning Palacio Salvo on the eastern side was at one time the tallest building in South America and currently houses the Museum of Tango as well as some private residences. Palacio Salvo also marks the beginning of Avenida 18 de Julio, Montevideo's main commercial avenue. On the northern side of the plaza are stately colonial mansions incongruously juxtaposed with modern office buildings. At the western end of the plaza is Puerta de la Ciudadela, a preserved fragment of the walls that surrounded Ciudad Vieja until 1827.

Once through the gate we were back in the old town. We made our way east back to Plaza Zabala where the kids cavorted on the playground equipment until darkness had fallen and it was time to retire for the night.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:11 Archived in Uruguay Comments (1)

Tango and Gauchos: Buenos Aires part II

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There was no Metro in La Boca and it didn't look too far away on the map so we decided to walk there to look for a restaurant. Our route took us through Parque Lezama, an attractive green space with some impressive monuments and its own Sunday flea market.

The barrio of Buenos Aires that is most emblematic of the city is La Boca. The neighborhood is situated at the mouth of the Matanza River that forms the southern border of the city, hence the name "The Mouth". La Boca is known worldwide for the buildings painted in bright. contrasting primary colors especially along the pedestrian street El Caminito. If you're writing a guidebook or composing a travel website for Buenos Aires, it's mandatory to emblazon the cover or front webpage with a vibrant picture of El Caminito. La Boca is historically a rough, working-class neighborhood associated with the nearby shipyards and only carries a veneer of gaiety. El Caminito is the creation of a local artist in the 1960's and has basically become a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and other tack. There's no underestimating the importance of a colorful picture in attracting business, but unfortunately the liveliness of El Caminito hasn't done much to elevate the rest of the neighborhood which continues to be considered seedy and even dangerous. El Caminito was at the far southern end of La Boca which made our walk there much longer than we had realized. We had to practically run the last few blocks to see the colored houses before the sun set.

Having accomplished the compulsory walk down El Caminito we set off in search of a restaurant and came up empty-handed. Perhaps if we hadn't had a lousy meal in the Mercado de San Telmo the previous night we might have been more willing to risk one of the small, dim restaurants we encountered on the street. This would be our second of only three dinners in Buenos Aires and we weren't willing to risk another disappointment. Instead we walked around the dim streets a little longer to look at the street art. The previous evening I had some time to review the appalling history of Argentina's Dirty War in the 1970's and 1980's and so I had some idea of the meaning of the murals. Subsequent to the military coup in 1976, the junta initiated a relentless campaign of suppression against any elements of their own population that disputed their policies. While this is something that has happened countless times with dictatorships in modern history, the actions of the junta and their proxies was notable for their ruthlessness and inhumanity. Among the atrocities were thousands of extrajudicial killings, including the dumping of live victims from airplanes flying over the ocean such that their bodies have never been recovered. Many children were orphaned or otherwise taken from their families and given to members of the military to raise as their own. Because of incredibly evil tactics such as these, many families still do not know what became of their loved ones or children during the Dirty War and the wounds of that time have never been able to completely heal.

Perhaps the most shocking of all the things I read about the Dirty War was the story of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. This was a group of mothers of young people who had disappeared who began to congregate together on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential palace every Thursday beginning in 1977. They wore white scarves around their heads to symbolize the diapers of their lost children. Incredibly, the mother who was the founder of this movement was herself kidnapped, tortured, and thrown from an airplane into the sea by the direct order of the leader of the military junta. It is a tale of absolute depravity that is the equal of anything engineered by Hitler or Pol Pot, and a shocking reminder of the depths that human beings can sink to when they believe themselves to be above any concept of morality. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a common theme of street art in Buenos Aires and the roads themselves are emblazoned in many places with stencils of the white scarves that became their emblem. They are heartbreaking reminders of the importance of never becoming complacent about life and liberty.

La Boca had one last interesting sight for us. Outside of the closed art museum Fundacion PROA was an enormous art installation composed from hundreds of metal bicycle frames welded together into a gigantic archway. On closer inspection I learned that the sculpture was the work of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. For a few minutes while the kids gleefully wedged themselves between the bicycles I was able to reflect on the incongruity of a politically-charged sculpture reflecting repression on the opposite side of the world in a city whose present was still defined by brutal political oppression that had ended thirty-five years earlier. And here was I, a tourist with no stake in either country, witnessing artistic depictions of both conflicts within minutes of each other.

At this point we were on the main road that coursed along the Matanza River so it was a relatively simple task to jump on a bus northward to San Telmo. On the way to our restaurant we heard an enormous clamor of beating drums emanating from a side street. We paused at the intersection and soon a procession appeared, many of whom were beating on conga drums. For a moment we thought it was a regular parade of some sort and then we remembered the events from earlier in the day. We followed the procession into the next street and sure enough we found ourselves in the midst of another protest. We didn't expect to make any further sense of what we were seeing so we proceeded onward to the famous parilla restaurant we had chosen, Desnivel. It was a pleasant atmosphere and the beer was cold, but I'm not sure if there's an Argentine parillada that's ideal for our taste. We'd had some highly-recommended versions for both lunch and dinner and my take was the same as it had been when we'd eaten it in Miami: greasy and salty.

Before turning in for the night we passed by Plaza Dorrego, a small square surrounded by bars and cafes. There was a large group of people surrounding a dance floor that had been created in the center of the plaza and we could see that a tango exhibition with professional dancers was in progress. It finished soon after we arrived and many of the observers flooded into the square and began an Argentinian folk dance that was similar to the one we had scene at the Feria de Mataderos earlier that day.

Once we were back at the Airbnb I hooked up to Wifi to review world events and saw the horrifying news that an entire American family had died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty water heater at a short-term rental in Tulum, Mexico. We had stayed overnight in Tulum ourselves just three months earlier. I found the water heater in our own apartment and studied it, quickly realizing I would have absolutely no clue how to determine if it was leaking carbon monoxide. It was just one of those risks of traveling we would have to accept and try not to think about. Fortunately it was something that didn't seem to happen often. It was still hard for me to fall asleep that night thinking of a family just like ours who wanted to show their children the world and were now gone from the earth as silently as a candle being snuffed out.

In the morning we had breakfast at Mercado de San Telmo again, and then set our north for a walking tour of the upscale barrios of San Nicolás, Retiro, Recoleta, and Palermo. Once we had seen these places we could feel like we had seen everything that my research had indicated was necessary to have a complete impression of Buenos Aires. It was Monday now and the protesters had been replaced by regular folks going around their business in the busy downtown area.

Just north of the Plaza de Mayo we stumbled upon Calle Florida, Buenos Aires' iconic pedestrian shopping street. The street was somewhat reminiscent of a European pedestrian thoroughfare that one might see in Madrid or Paris, if somewhat narrower and a little shadowy due to the tall commercial buildings that surrounded us on either side. At one intersection a lively six-person band alleviated the somewhat somber atmosphere. Just as in Paris, some entryways opened up into cavernous arcades with marble walls and upscale boutiques.

We came out the north end of Calle Florida and found ourselves at the entrance of Plaza San Martin, a large park in the upscale Retiro neighborhood. It was a fairly conventional city park except for the trees, which were both unfamiliar and breathtaking. At the center was an enormous ombú that had been allowed to spit out a low serpentine branch about twenty meters into an adjacent glade, where it performed double duty as a park bench. Even more amazing were the towering tipa trees that lined the paths, whose curving branches split again and again until they looked like green fan coral blocking out the sky. From a plaza lined with flowering magnolias we could see the Torre Monumental, a majestic clocktower that commemorates the country's independence.

After the park things started to go sideways. My plan for the rest of the day had been to walk through the barrio of Recoleta and see the Floralis Genérica sculpture, followed by the Jardín Japonés and then dinner in Palermo. Unfortunately Mei Ling started getting stomach pain while we were in the park and it steadily got worse as we resumed our walk. I palpated her stomach carefully and there was no localized tenderness to suggest a serious problem. I tried buying antacids at a pharmacy but they didn't help. We went on as long as we could but eventually it was clear that the pain wasn't going to go away any time soon so we caught a taxi back to the Airbnb. Mei Ling went to bed and I went out with Cleo to find something to bring back for dinner. I couldn't face parrillada again and there didn't seem to be any other kind of restaurants in our neighborhood. Eventually we went back to the Mercado de San Telmo and I bought some roasted chicken for the kids. It was disappointing not to have completed our exploration of Buenos Aires, but I think the upscale, modern neighborhoods of Recoleta and Palermo probably had the least to offer us anyway. It would have been nice to have seen the Floralis Genérica, but fortunately one can still see many photos of it online. I stole one of them that is better than any photo I could have taken.

In the morning Mei Ling was completely back to normal, which of course was a huge relief. My best guess was that she had an attack of gastritis from all the greasy parilla we had been eating. We had to catch our ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay and there wasn't time for anything but a quick breakfast. I don't think that the events of the last day had too much of an effect of my impression of Buenos Aires, but I don't feel particularly inclined to return to the city to see the things we missed. We'd had a busy weekend but most of the interesting things we did were related to events like the Ferias. I felt that Buenos Aires punched below its size when it came to things we enjoy like food markets, walking neighborhoods, and colonial architecture. It seemed to me like a city that had never achieved its full potential, possibly due to decades of political strife and military misadventure. Tango and La Boca don't put Buenos Aires in the echelon of Rio or Mexico City, let alone cities like Madrid or Barcelona. Of course, Buenos Aires might be an absolutely fantastic place to live but I wouldn't put it in my top fifty cities in the world to visit.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:56 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Tango and Gauchos: Buenos Aires part I

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Since the kids came around we've taken them to Europe and Asia several times, and even to Africa when we spent a week in Morocco. As of 2018 we still hadn't gone to South America as a family and I was hankering for another taste of that amazing continent. Venezuela was out of the question, of course, and I've been to Colombia and Brazil plenty of times. The places I want to visit in Peru and Ecuador weren't suitable for young kids. That left Buenos Aires, a city I'd visited a couple of decades earlier but could barely remember. Buenos Aires was too long of a flight to just visit on its own and the other interesting places in Argentina were far from the capital. Instead I settled on Uruguay, a country I hadn't ever expected to visit but seemed convenient and somewhat interesting. I knew Uruguay was famous for ranches and after some research I found one that accepted visitors and wasn't too far away. From there it wasn't too much of a drive further to the capital of Montevideo. I considered driving up as far north as Salto or pushing east to Punta del Este but in the end we couldn't make it work with the kids' spring break schedule.

We got a perfect red-eye flight for the nine hour trip from Miami to Buenos Aires and found ourselves sitting on the sidewalk outside our Airbnb in San Telmo at nine in the morning. Half an hour later someone showed up to take us through a narrow, ivy-covered alley to a renovated bi-level apartment with exposed brick and a roof deck. The bright-red spiral staircase made me think of the fire station from Ghostbusters.

I had chosen the barrio of San Telmo as our home in Buenos Aires for its antiquated, bohemian character as well as its proximity to many of the areas we were planning to explore. To the north is the busy downtown barrio of Monserrat which is where the main federal government buildings are located and beyond that are the busy commercial areas of San Nicolás and Retiro. Directly to the south is the colorful neighborhood of La Boca whose brightly-painted houses grace the cover of every Buenos Aires guidebook. We were a short walk from Buenos Aires' most famous market and the Metro.

I was the only one who hadn't slept at all since we left Miami but thanks to my career I'm accustomed to staying awake for more than twenty-four hours at a time. It was a bright and sunny day and we had only three full days in Buenos Aires. Sleep was out of the question. We had decided not to rent a car because the prices for automatics in Buenos Aires were ridiculously high, if the cars were available at all. We found our way to the nearest Metro station headed towards Mercado del Progreso in the central neighborhood of Caballito. When we changed trains we encountered a large group of students in yellow shirts carrying bunches of long bamboo poles to the station exit. We figured they were on their way to a football match or something of that nature.

Once we passed under the faded, peeling mural above the entrance we found ourselves in a rather dimly lit covered market. The major theme was butcher shops but there was also produce and some prepared food. We assuaged our growing hunger with empanadas and chicken breasts stuffed with ham and cheese.

After the market we strolled around until we found a store where we could buy a SIM card. The vendor assured me the service would be activated shortly, but until then we didn't have access to Uber or to navigation. Our next destination was a food festival called Buenos Aires Market that was held on different locations around the city every weekend. We managed to hail a taxi who refused to take all five of us, but another taxi wasn't far behind. We split into two groups and then embarked on a very long, circuitous, and traffic-filled journey to Plaza Echevarria in the north of the city. Neither of our drivers seemed to know exactly where it was and they were on the phone to each other for much of the trip trying to figure it out. By the time we arrived our combined fare was more than the price of having activated our AT&T cell service for the entire duration of our stay in Buenos Aires. Fortunately the food festival was worth the exhausting and expensive trip. The small park was filled with vendors surrounded by huge piles of cheeses and cured meats and the neighboring street was blocked off for food trucks. We sampled a few snacks such as charred, seasoned sticks of fontina cheese and then treated the kids to ice cream. It was a crowded, cheerful neighborhood scene in a residential area of Buenos Aires far from where any tourist would stray. I was glad I'd made extensive use of Google using my usual preferred search terms before our trip.

We disembarked from the Metro well north or our apartment. We still had plenty of time and energy left to see downtown Buenos Aires. Things were quiet at first as we walked southward along the main downtown thoroughfare past Centro Cultural Kirchner. Once we turned inward toward Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, we realized we were strolling into the middle of a full-fledged political demonstration. Now we realized that those bamboo poles we had seen students carrying in the metro were holding up hundreds of flags and banners in the square. The noise of chanting and beating drums was deafening in some places. I was a little nervous making my way through the crowds with the three kids. No one seemed overtly dangerous or threatening but I had the feeling that a riot or stampede could break out at any moment. One important piece of information that my research had not uncovered was that March 24 is the anniversary of the coup that installed the Argentinian military dictatorship in 1976, and demonstrations are held in Plaza de Mayo every year on this date. Many of the deep wounds created by the inhumane acts of the military junta are still very raw and painful for Argentines. I knew very little about the subject at that moment but had an opportunity to read about it in depth once we returned to our apartment.

One of the reasons we had picked our Airbnb was that it was just a block from the Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires' oldest and best known covered market. It was still open once we had made it through the demonstrations downtown and we decided it would be a good place to look for dinner. It was a classic old style covered market with a wrought-iron framework. There were a mixture of produce and meat stalls, as well as enough small restaurants to give the market the atmosphere of a food hall. It was an appealing look but the market lacked the grittiness and authenticity of Mercado del Progreso. It seemed more of a gathering point for upscale hipsters and tourists who didn't mind paying higher prices for prettier displays. We had difficulty finding a restaurant in the market that appealed to us but eventually settled on a place rather than going back to the street to search for a restaurant. The food was awful.

In the morning we had breakfast at Mercado de San Telmo before heading back to the Metro to begin our journey to the barrio of Liniers, in the far western reaches of the city. We had to switch from the Metro to the commuter rail and the entire trip took an hour. My SIM card had never activated and the stores were all closed on Sunday, so it seemed that we would be unlikely to have internet or navigation in Buenos Aires. Instead we asked for directions once we exited the commuter rail and used our GPS to guide us to the right area. We were expecting to find a street market called Mercado Andino de Liniers which specialized in products beloved to the local population of Bolivian immigrants. I'm sure we found the right place because I had very detailed information on the location, but when I asked people in the stores they either didn't know what I was talking about or they indicated we were already there. There were certainly a fair number of bodegas around with Bolivian goods as well as some Bolivian restaurants, but nothing I would have called a market and certainly no street food in sight. Perhaps the problem was that it was Sunday, although all my information indicated the market would be there every day. Regardless, there was little of interest to us and we disappointedly moved on to our next destination.

We had much greater success at Feria de Mataderos. This celebration of gaucho culture takes place every Sunday from March to December in the Mataderos barrio just southeast of Liniers. When we arrived people were dancing to a live band playing Argentinian folk music and huge rows of ribs and sausages were being grilled everywhere. The smell of barbecuing meat was overwhelming. We hadn't found anything to eat in Liniers so we eagerly placed our orders and enjoyed a parillada at a tiny table. Afterwards the kids practiced their dancing which soon devolved into chasing each other around the plaza. In the roads emanating from the plaza there were kiosks with clothing, crafts, and various street foods. Perhaps due to the distance from downtown there were few tourists and the Feria had a very local atmosphere.

After much inquiry we were able to identify a bus that would take us all the way back to San Telmo. One of the events I was most determined to experience was the Feria de San Telmo. This Sunday afternoon event is often misnamed San Telmo Market in English language guides which causes it to be confused with the covered market. The Feria is a huge bazaar on the cobblestoned streets of San Telmo which is a combination of flea market and crafts fair. Here we finally found the tourists who had eluded us to this point, but there were also plenty of locals browsing for bargains. Some of the artwork was quite beautiful and creative and we took the risk of buying some ceramic coffee cups that appealed to us. We also got Cleo a cute little poncho at a local boutique. After experiencing the two colorful and energetic fairs we had completely forgotten about the morning disappointment in Liniers.

We hung around in San Telmo for a while to absorb a little of its classical architecture and bohemian atmosphere. The residential neighborhoods we'd spent the most time in so far were interesting in their own way but didn't have a tremendous amount of character. It seemed that San Telmo was one of the few areas in Buenos Aires where there was some surviving colonial architecture. Coupled with the area's affinity for bougainvillea it made for a very pleasant walk although the older part of the neighborhood is small and we explored it quickly.

To be continued ...

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:15 Archived in Argentina Tagged buenos_aires san_telmo mataderos liniers Comments (2)

Yucatán Adventure: Back to Mérida and trip conclusion

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We got back to Mérida in time for a late lunch and chose one of the city's more celebrated bistro's, Apoala. It was a different take on Yucatán cuisine from the rustic fare we had been having in the markets, but I was glad we hadn't opted for high end cuisine every day. There was another Mayan site called Dzibilchaltún with its own cenote not far from the city but in the end we decided it would almost certainly be an anticlimax after Uxmal. Instead we dawdled around the center and then got an early start on packing back at our Airbnb.

Every Saturday evening in Mérida they have an event called Noche Mexicana. As soon as we stepped back out of our Airbnb we realized we were in the midst of a fairly big street festival. It reminded me of an American-style gallery walk along with cultural events, vendors, and rides. There were thousands of people walking in the center of town which had been pedestrianized for the occasion. We followed the crowd and came upon various avant garde art installations as well as an audience participation photography exhibit. Our job was to trace something with a light in the air while the photographer took multiple rapid exposures and then overlaid them with computer assistance to create a composite image showing what we had drawn. Most people ended up with random spirals and squiggles. They were shocked when they completed my image and saw I'd drawn Cleo's name perfectly despite having to trace it backwards and turn off the light between the letters. There was a wonderful feeling of energy and we had the feeling we had stumbled onto a local secret few people outside of the area are familiar with.

I had hoped that we might get a quick look at another weekly event called Mérida en Domingo the next morning, but Mei Ling was flatly against it. She was very nervous because we had blown off getting Cleo's passport extended during our first stop in Mérida. There was really no excuse, except that we were enjoying ourselves and probably wouldn't have made it to Progreso had we elected to go to the consulate. I wasn't as worried, figuring it was unlikely that the Mexicans would care and virtually impossible that United States immigration would refuse to let a cute five year old girl back into the country. We'd probably get a stern lecture and be on our way. The whole center of the city was barricaded off for the Sunday festivities which delayed us quite a bit since our GPS kept trying to direct us through the closed streets. Once we arrived at the airport I busied myself with the kids while Mei Ling went to the departure desk to work her Jedi mind trick. Occasionally I took a look out of the corner of my eye and saw her arguing with a succession of people. After about forty-five minutes Mei Ling came back over to us and informed me she had been told there was absolutely no way whatsoever that Cleo would be getting on the plane with an expired passport. I was shocked but we had to decide quickly what to do. I was scheduled to work that night and the next. I could have called out but I really hate to inconvenience my team that way and also I was pretty eager to get back to work and replenish our funds after eleven days of pure spending. Ultimately we decided that Mei Ling and Cleo would stay behind in Mérida and hopefully get the passport extended Monday morning and be on a flight that afternoon. I took the boys and we boarded our flight back to Miami.

It was only a two hour flight so managing the boys on my own wasn't too much trouble. I had plenty of time to wonder if I had done something completely foolish and irresponsible by leaving Mei Ling and Cleo in Mérida. Mei Ling didn't speak a word of Spanish, but all she needed to do was find a hotel near the airport and then get an Uber to and from the consulate in the morning. I think if I'd had more time to think about it we probably would have stayed together and to hell with my work shifts, but what was done was done. As soon as the plane landed I called Mei Ling but she didn't pick up. She called me back a short while later and told me she'd decided to hop on a flight to Cancún instead of staying in Mérida, since they have a consulate there as well. It made more sense for her since English was practically the first language in the Hotel Zone where the consulate was. I found them a resort practically across the street from the consulate and let her tuck in for the night. She was able to get the emergency passport extension on Monday but still wasn't able to fly back until Tuesday evening, so I had a whole two days to worry about her and Cleo while I wasn't working or sleeping. Life with just the boys and Mei Ling's Mom was pretty weird and a little lonely. Of course, there wasn't any need for me to be concerned. The two girls were having a blast at the all-inclusive in Cancún going to the beach, shopping, and getting spa treatments. We learned an important lesson about double-checking our paperwork but in the end we didn't pay too high of a price for it.

Except for the passport snafu I can't think of anything I would have done differently. Ten full days was a perfect amount of time to absorb the Yucatán experience. I was really glad we extended our trip to Campeche, which was the most visually appealing city of the trip and had by far the best market. Mérida is also a wonderful city where tourism recedes to the background of the rhythms of regular Mexican daily life. We went to way more Mayan sites than I had originally planned, but if we had only seen Chichén Itzá we would have come away with a much more cynical perspective than was justified.

I'm sure we'll return to the Yucatán when the kids are old enough to enjoy the adventure park activities and maybe the next time we'll explore the southern reaches of Quintana Roo state. Living only an hour and a half from Cancún by air is too good of a situation to ignore.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:04 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Yucatán Adventure: Campeche to Oxkutzcab

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I can't take off from work until after Christmas so we always have to wedge our winter break trips into ten or eleven days. That meant we still had an extra three or four days after seeing the highlights of the Yucatán to explore areas that were a little off the beaten track. That gave us enough time to visit Campeche on the west coast of the peninsula but not enough to venture into Tabasco state. Laguna de Términos and its barrier islands looked interesting on the map but I couldn't find anything to justify stretching our itinerary that far. Instead we spent two nights in Campeche and then stopped in the smaller town of Oxkutzcab on the way back to Mérida.

Thanks to our detour to the Cuzama Cenotes it was already dark when we arrived in Campeche. We had a really cool hotel in the colonial center with a tiny indoor plunge pool on the ground floor. We picked a restaurant near the hotel and found an entire street blocked off with tables where people were eating al fresco. At our restaurant there was a collection of colorful sombreros and plenty of creative artwork on the walls.

As usual our first order of business was to visit the community market, just outside the walls of the old town. On the way there we had an opportunity to admire the pastel-colored houses lining the narrow streets of the colonial center. Campeche seems to have adopted this bright coloration in the old town as a theme, much like Izamal was the yellow city. Unfortunately the day was very overcast so our photos couldn't do justice to the picturesque and vibrant streets.

Outside the walls we crossed a frighteningly wide avenue and found ourselves in Mercado Pedro Sáinz de Baranda, Campeche's bustling community market. The market was at least the size of the main market in Mérida but here we found the colorful and unusual sights that the prior markets on this trip had lacked. Most interesting was the seafood area, which was full of unusual local fish including rows of small hammerhead sharks and some other species we hadn't seen before. Dried and salted filets were arranged in fan shapes next to huge sacs of golden roe. In the butcher's area we saw whole pig faces, slabs of viscera, and bisected hens with their developing eggs still inside. Pretty much everything that one can find in a Mexican community market such as produce, juices, spices, and preserves were on display as well.

The dining area was very crowded and hectic but we were able to find some counter space. We had a very enjoyable meal including the local specialty pan de cazón, a stack of tortillas filled with shark meat and covered in a savory tomato sauce.

We hung around the market until we'd explored every corner, but we still had much of the day left to fill. We returned to the formidable city walls which were built by the conquistadores in the 17th century to fend off pirates. We paid a small fee to ascend a staircase and walk the ramparts between the towers. There were still rusted cannons on the platforms.

We walked seaward through the old town until we reached Plaza Principal, a pretty, pigeon-filled square surrounded by museums, hotels, and the city cathedral. We bought a few bags of rice and let the kids amuse themselves with the pigeons for a while.

We weren't far from La Pigua, one of Campeche's upscale seafood restaurants, so we decided to drop in for a light lunch. We were almost the only people there on a late weekday afternoon except for a few businessmen. There was nothing special about the food that made us regret having mostly filled ourselves in the market, although the seafood soup was served with a fresh squash as a bowl.

A block north of the old city wall we ran into Campeche's long seaside promenade, or Malecón. It's a popular spot for joggers and bicyclists and is home to interesting sculptures like the Novia del Mar. The black figure depicts a local girl who fell in love with a pirate and gazes out to sea awaiting his return. The kids took a liking to the jumble of boulders that serves as the statue's pedestal.

After we'd had our fill of chasing the kids around and gazing out to sea we re-entered the old town through the ornate Puerta de Mar and found ourselves on the same restaurant street where we had eaten the previous night. It wasn't hard to find another appetizing place for dinner before returning to the hotel where the kids took a dip in the pool before bed.

The Campeche market had been so good that we went back for a second round in the morning. This time we knew exactly where we wanted to eat. If anything it was more crowded and frenetic than it had been the previous day.

We had one last stop on the way out of the city, a collection of small thatched-roof seafood restaurants at the shoreline on the northern end of the Malecón. Most of them were closed or in a state of advanced disrepair when we arrived. The one that was open didn't have any customers and had a rather unappetizing display of frozen seafood on a platter. We were pretty well fed already from the market so we decided to skip the seafood. Instead we had a final look over the Gulf of Mexico and tried out some hats at a clothes vendor.

A pleasant drive on one of the small inland highways brought us to Uxmal. Despite my aversion to archaeological sites, our experiences at Coba and Ek Balam had showed me that these places could be beautiful and fun to explore if they weren't overrun with tourists and kitsch. We certainly had a big hole in our day to fill and Uxmal was only a short detour from our next destination. I was relieved to find only a small parking lot that was mostly unfilled when we arrived. A sign at the entrance informed us of a long list of forbidden activities accompanied by pictographs. My favorite was the drunk in the midst of collapsing backwards that represented a ban on alcoholic beverages.

Uxmal proved to be the best of the five Mayan sites that we visited. The Pyramid of the Magician was the largest and most impressive structure we had seen and there were hardly any other people around to spoil its majesty. The pyramid was thankfully off-limits but there was plenty of other territory to be clambered around. The top of one structure gave us an amazing view of the pyramid jutting out of the surrounding canopy of trees. It's funny how most people are somewhat familiar with Chichén Itzá but practically no one has heard of Uxmal, but I'm not complaining. Discovering these little secrets about the world is what travel is all about.

We didn't want to eat at one of the tourist restaurants at Uxmal but TripAdvisor found us a good restaurant on the road not far away. After a solid meal with draft beer we were sufficiently refreshed to proceed to the last city on our itinerary.

The main reason I'd chosen Oxkutzcab for our itinerary was the large wholesale produce market which would be in prime form on a Saturday morning. If I'd known that we'd be getting our fill of one of the best markets in Mexico in Campeche I might not have bothered. In fact, Oxkutzcab was a little bit of a letdown as the market was smaller and less energetic than Campeche, although it did have a beautiful mural on the front wall. Once we'd had breakfast we walked briefly around the center of town but aside from the picturesque old church across from the market there wasn't much of interest. At least we had satisfied our curiosity about whether we were missing anything by not stopping in any of the smaller towns on the peninsula.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:21 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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