Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Good Eats!!!

Do you remember the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was shunned (and even got fired) because she admitted that she didn't like "The English Patient"?  I feel like that will be the result if I admit that I've not always been bowled over by my restaurant experiences is Merida.

This time, though, we had a number of meals that have forced me to re-think my position. 

La Chaya Maya's new location

The biggest surprise for me was the new location of La Chaya Maya on C. 55 x 60 y 62.  The original La Chaya had always been my "English Patient."  Everyone else loved it, and I really wanted to love it too.  I just didn't, and part of the problem was the rather uninspiring location.  The original La Chaya is still open and doing a brisk business, but the new location is a stunner that can make up for some unevenness in the food should that occur.  There are air-conditioned dining rooms as well as tables under the arched portico of the old casona.  It is very romantic at night.

On a beautiful night, the courtyard is the place to be at La Chaya....but indoor dining is available.

Lee at Imagine Merida has posted that it is perhaps best to stick to the dishes that a restaurant is best known for, and I did just that....sopa di lima and poc chuc.  Both were excellent.  Darren enjoyed his cochinita pibil as well.

For pure atmosphere, the new La Chaya Maya will now join Amaro as one of my go-to options for a completely colonial-themed Merida evening.

We re-visited La Bierhaus' Centro location on C. 62 twice, and its consistency is its best feature.  We've settled in to a favorite dish now, the frankfurter hotdog, which is always tasty and excellent with a draft beer.  I could have a meal here every day and likely never get bored with it.  La Bierhaus has both covered and uncovered outdoor seating, a great bar, and a couple of indoor dining rooms as well.

The bar at La Bierhaus on C. 62 in Centro

Bruno Bistro Gourmet  in Colonia Mexico may well be my favorite restaurant in Merida.  The food is excellent, and the charming owners are always on hand and delighted to have you join them for dinner.  The meat and cheese plate appetizer is almost enough for an entire meal, and each of the salads are outstanding.  I have had, at various times, the pasta dishes and the lamb and each was very good.  I have not had a bad dish here in at least five separate visits.  Don't let the Colonia Mexico location dissuade you...Bruno is a short cab ride from Centro or the hotel zone, and the staff at the restaurant will gladly call you a cab for the return trip.

Bruno's with Darren's mom on a prior trip

We stopped off at Cafe Creme on one of our morning walks as well.  It was too warm for coffee, but we had an early lunch of croque monsieur and croque madame at this new option on the corner of C. 60 and C. 41...very tasty!  The menu is limited, and we tried only these items, but I would visit again to try other options or to repeat these.

Cafe Creme's Patio

The New La Tratto Restaurant in Parque Santa Lucia

The renovation of the Parque Santa Lucia arcade is almost complete, and there are lots of food options here including the new Trotters' group restaurant La Tratto.  All of the restaurants in the Trotter's group are good, consistent options.  These folks know the restaurant business, and they do it very well.  The group's downtown option, Pancho's, is not a particular favorite of mine, but the new La Tratto likely will be.  It is a little pricey (as most of the Trotters' restaurants are), but the food is solidly good.  There is an on-site brick pizza oven that produces very nice Italian-style pizza, along with some pastas and other entrees.  The interior is clean and sleek, and the pretty courtyard that can be seen through the glass rear walls adds to the atmosphere.  There are plenty of tables outside on the plaza where you can watch the pedestrians walking up and down C. 60, or the dancers on Thursday nights.

We had dinner there our first night in town, and the patrons were roughly 2/3 Mexican and 1/3 gringo residents or tourists.  If you have tourists in your group or house guests who need to be eased into the Merida experience, the new La Tratto is a great option....familiar enough not to intimidate folks from NOB, but Mexican enough to start the Merida ball rolling.

Outdoor seating at the new La Tratto

Although La Tratto is the only restaurant currently open in the new Santa Lucia arcade, the signs there suggest that there will be a Gloria Jean's Coffee, an El Pez Gordo, and ki'xocolatl in the arcade as well when it is completed.

Finally, Gianni Fish and Chips deserves an honorable mention.  This small fish and chips shop on C. 60 out near Costco was quick, easy, and good.  I don't think that I could live in a place without good fish and chips, so this was an important find.

Like Elaine, I didn't really like "The English Patient."  But Merida food options are another thing entirely.  All of these are options that I'm looking forward to seeing again!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Not your average hole in the ground...

I will admit here to an irrational fear of cenotes.  No matter how much people went on and on about how spectacular they were, and how refreshing, I just couldn't get too enthusiastic about descending wet stairs or a rickety ladder into an underground sinkhole filled with water and who knows what else.  Darren has wanted to visit one for some time now, and had even booked an excursion a few years back before getting sidetracked by a trip to the hospital.  So today's trip to Cuzama was a growth experience for me and the culmination of a long-held interest for Darren.

It turned out that the trip involved so much more than a swim in the cenotes though.  We left Merida on Route 18 headed for Kanasin, and then on to Acanceh and Cuzama.  Kanasin was bustling with street vendors, and Acanceh boasted an old church and a Mayan pyramid on the town square.  (Actually, Acanceh was a very pleasant town...large enough to have options but neat and tidy...and might be a good option for an expat looking for a more immersed Mexican experience.)

We noticed a couple of haciendas and hacienda ruins passing through Cuzama, and finally arrived at Chunkanan, the departure point for a three-cenote tour by horse drawn cart along a narrow-guage railway left over from the henquen days.

There are a number of good blogs with descriptions of the tour and particularly how to avoid the newer tour operator that is closer to Cuzama in favor of the original operators in the pueblo at Chunkanan.  You can find some of them here, here, and here.  Suffice it to say that I loved every minute of this completely unique experience.  You begin by approaching the rail carts that are lined up along the side of the road on the tiny little rails, where you will be paired with a cart and driver.  The carts seat at least four people, although I've seen references to more, and the fee (paid to the driver at the end) is 250 pesos.  Add a tip, and perhaps bring apples or snacks for the horse.

One quick note...I found a number of blog posts and comments that expressed concern about the treatment and the condition of the horses (to be fair, there were many more noting the opposite).  We saw nothing that caused us concern, at least at the Chunkanan operation.  The horses were healthy and well-nourished and seemed to be well cared for by the drivers.  All of the horses that we've seen in the Yucatan have been small in stature compared to those NOB, but that doesn't mean that they are not healthy or that they aren't physically equipped to pull the carts.

Carts going in both directions all share the same track, so periodically you will have to hop out of the cart while the driver removes the cart from the track to let an opposing cart pass by.  This is done with a minimum of fuss and bother.  Although the tiny tracks are not evenly connected or straight by any stretch of the imagination, the horses get a pretty decent speed at times which can create a nice breeze.

If you've never heard of a cenote before, they are essentially an underground pool of water in the porous limestone that makes up this part of the Yucatan.  Some have a larger opening at the top, and some (like the one above) are accessed through what appears to be a narrow crack in the ground.  As soon as you duck your head under the rock ledge at the top, you can see the water and other people down below.

The stairs in both of the cenotes that we visited were a little on the rickety side.  (The third cenote was closed "for renovation.")  Especially from the bottom looking up, the stairs reminded me of something out of the movies "National Treasure" or "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."  They served their purpose though and are certainly better than the steep ladder that we were told was the only access to the cenote that wasn't open for visits that day.

The water is cool (but not cold) and clear enough to see small fish...five or six inches long...swimming around in the water.  It was in fact refreshing, which is probably why everyone writing about cenotes mentions that fact.  One cenote had birds swooping in and out at the entrance, and another had long dangling roots coming from trees above ground almost all the way down to the water.  If you are not impressed by the experience of floating in the water  and looking back up at the rickety stairs and the sunlight streaming in, then you're just not doing this right.

One of the blog posts about these cenotes linked above mentions small wasps around the entrances, and we did see some of their interesting hives hanging from the top of the caverns but weren't bothered by them.

I read that there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of unmapped cenotes in Yucatan.  This stressed me a out a little bit, because in some instances the limestone that forms both the roof of the cenote and the ground over which you are walking is pretty thin.  I don't suppose that there is likely to be a rash of cenote collapses any time soon, but I wouldn't want to be walking on top of one if it were ever to happen.

That's only about 18 inches of limestone!

Your driver operates on your schedule, so you can spend as much time or as little as you want in the caverns.  When you are ready to head back to Chunkanan, your horse and driver will whisk you back to the starting point of your trip.  There, there is a large restaurant with surprisingly good food and large portions, a picturesque small pueblo, and the ruins of Hacienda Chunkanan.  Take a moment to appreciate all three before you head back to Merida!

The restaurant...if you're not parked here, you are not at the original operator's location.

If you, too, have an irrational fear of cenotes, my advice is to put the fear aside and head out to Cuzama/Chunkanan and the cenote tour.  You will be so charmed by the horse drawn carts on the tiny train track that by the time you actually get to the first cenote you might find that your fear has vanished.

And even if it hasn't, go on and give the cenotes a try.  Don't pay any attention at all to that stuff above about the rickety steps, birds, fish, and wasps....

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Life is a highway...

So, first things first.  If you are wondering whether you can (or should) take the bus from Cancun to Merida, the answer is that yes, you can (and yes, you should).  There is a wonderful article on Yolisto that does a terrific job of setting out all of the "how to" information, far better than we could here.  I would add that the greeters at the Cancun airport, after customs but before you leave the secure area, could not have been more helpful.  There are several ATMs in this area, but the service fee was a dollar or two higher than we've come to expect.  The ADO ticket desk in this same area is convenient.  The commotion outside of the airport in the bus boarding area is not as intimidating as it sometimes sounds, and the ADO terminal in downtown Cancun is also not intimidating.  After steeling myself for chaos, the whole experience was actually fairly pleasant.

Darren loves a bit of glitz, so we bought tickets on the Platino (uber-luxury) bus.  The bus itself is well appointed, with large seats, leg rests, and in-seat video.  Before you get excited, though, the "current movie" list included such recent films as "Mr. Popper's Penguins" and "Planet of the Apes."

The bus was uncharacteristically quiet for Mexico.  It also seemed a little hearse-like, to me at least, since I was literally the only one to open my curtains.  Because there are even curtains in the front of the cabin (between the passengers and the driver), this can be disconcerting.  Typically when you are driving down a highway, at least you get a glimpse of the road in front of you.  On this bus, you don't.

The ride is smooth, without a hill or even a curve to interrupt it.  There are a couple of toll plazas en route, but no one got off the bus.  I suppose that with bathrooms, tea, and coffee on board, there is no real need to hop down.  As far as I could see from behind the curtains, there were few other cars on the highway.  There is also not much to see!

At the first toll plaza

But it was not smooth sailing all the way.

About 20 km outside of Merida, after the toll road ended, I felt a bump and heard a noise over the music on my Iphone.  The driver drove on for another kilometer or so, but he finally pulled over at a roadside bus stop.  He and another passenger went around to the rear of the bus, and I could tell from his expression when he walked back past my window that he wasn't happy.  He made an announcement in Spanish, and then a group of passengers (including Darren) followed him out.

This is what they saw:

I don't understand much Spanish, but I heard some exclamations that must be common to both Spanish and English.  Everyone else on board pulled out cell phones and started making calls.  After about five minutes, the driver came back on board and made another announcement that was followed by everyone taking their bags and heading for the exit.  We must have looked confused, because a young woman tapped me and explained that another bus had pulled up and that it could take us to the Downtown Merida bus station (CAME) rather than the Fiesta Americana where we were headed.  Or, she said, we could wait.  Since all the locals were leaving, we headed for the door as well.

In reality, it was nothing like a Chicken Bus.

The bus was an ordinary intercity local bus, and although we have described it in retelling this story as the "chicken bus," it was just fine.  The bus made a number of stops going into Merida, but ultimately pulled into the CAME station near San Juan.  We hopped a cab, and were at our destination only 20 minutes later than we had expected!

Being able to negotiate a mechanical breakdown on a luxury bus hardly makes us intrepid travelers.  For anyone unsure about their ability to take the bus from Cancun to Merida, though, it will hopefully prove by example that even with a little hiccup here and there and an utter lack of Spanish, your bus trip across the Yucatan will turn out just fine.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

What’s your number?

I’m ready to move to Merida.  Now.

Of course, it’s never that simple.  We’re no longer young enough to be impulsive, and not quite old enough to be retired.  I could write a whole separate post on the first half of that sentence…is it a good thing or a bad thing that we don’t take the same kind of risks as we get older?  Is it true or not true that your opportunities to start over again are fewer at 50 than they are at 25?  But I digress….

So I periodically (and by periodically, I mean at least four times every day) try to figure out when the time and circumstances will be right to make a move.  While that evaluation depends in some measure on other issues like ageing pets and parents (not necessarily in that order), it’s mostly a question of money.  When is it financially ok to take the leap of faith that things will most likely turn out ok?  Where is the line between responsible and capricious?

Mostly when I’m agonizing about this issue, I go to  The little trend lines are reassuring, and there is something devil-may-care about deciding that your risk tolerance is satisfied by a 74% chance that you won’t spend your 90s eating cat food. 

Tonight, though, I was thinking about that old ING advertisement…What’s Your Number?  It turns out that the campaign has a website, and that you can enter certain basic data and get a very specific-sounding number that represents exactly what you will need to retire.  Sounds simple, right?  So I entered a few details…my current age, the age at which I wanted to retire (55), the age I planned to live to (90), and the relatively modest amount that I thought would be sufficient for us to live on an annual basis.  I clicked the button, and:

Your Number is

That's pretty precise!  But it is also a good deal of money, and since it didn’t seem likely that we would achieve that amount before I turned 55, I dropped back to a more traditional plan.  My current age, the age at which I would be forced to retire if we didn’t want to be destitute (65), the same life span, and the same modest amount for our annual expenses.  The only difference was in the first try I wanted to retire at 55, but in the second I planned to retire ten years later, at 65.  I gave the button an unenthusiastic click, and:

Your Number is

Now, if you’re paying attention, you’ve noticed that (at least according to ING), I will need more money to retire at 65 than I would if I retired a decade sooner, even though in both cases I plan to end up as a nonagenarian with the same spending habits.  Huh?  How can that possibly make any sense?

I’m sure that there is some fantastically complex financial and mathematical reason for the result, but that’s beside the point.  The better lesson seems to me to be that life isn’t mathematically precise, and no online calculator can tell you when it is time for a new option or whether it will be a success.  Also, it may not always be true that the path that sounds more “responsible” actually will be.

Several trips to Merida ago, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman at Café La Boheme who was sitting outside enjoying the morning with a cup of coffee and his dog.  He was younger than me, perhaps late 30s, and said that he and his wife had recently pulled up stakes in the relatively rural south and moved to Merida to try it out.  The thing that he said that stuck with me was that, a year into their experience, he didn’t know why they had waited so long to do it.

Now it’s possible that he invented the Snuggie or had a trust fund and therefore wasn’t too worried about his "Number."  Or maybe he felt like it was still early enough in his working life to survive a really big “oops” moment if the whole Mexico plan didn’t work out.   Maybe, though, that guy having his morning coffee with his dog at a sidewalk café in Merida was far smarter, and far more responsible, than those of us who are having our coffee at 6 a.m. in some random airport on the way to some other random airport, or having it handed to us through the window of the car, while we mutely await permission to dream a little after we have reached 65 or have satisfied some on-line retirement calculator that we can afford our hypothetical old age.

Maybe I should be pondering over that and not worrying so much about my Number.