And if You Come to San Francisco

…be sure to wear a heavy jacket, scarf, and major sunscreen because the idea that California is perennial sunshine on your shoulders does not apply to San Francisco which has its own little weather system. I got a burnt face on a foggy, chilly day and almost frozen on bright, sunny one.

This was our second visit, so we didn’t need to repeat some of the classic experiences: visiting Alcatraz and riding bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. This trip was about spending time in some of the city’s neighborhoods and, for my daughter’s eighteenth birthday, good seats with garlic fries and fireworks at a Giants game. Which means this essentially turned into a food trip with walking in between.

Arrival We take the BART into town. Maybe not the best arrival experience. There seems to be one incredibly stinky homeless person per car. I lived in NYC and I never, ever encountered a homeless person that smelled this bad. Maybe it was the upholstery seating. Who puts upholstery seating on mass transit? Yuk. Then I thought it would be cool to take the cable car down to our hotel— arrive in style. Why did I think this? The cable car is probably not the the way to go with luggage and it was also a chilly, windy, foggy day so we were almost popsicles by the time we got off; oh, and when we finally got to the front of the line, the next three cable cars that came along weren’t going where we needed to go, so it was like watching all those fast-pass people jump in front of you even though you’re there at the front and it’s your turn. At least we had some entertainment: a guy with a lot of craft jewelry singing a cappella. I wonder how much he makes doing this? He really has a captive audience just grateful for any sort of diversion and he’s pretty good, I think. Maybe not a bad way to make a living. I could do origami.

Our room at the Argonaut wouldn’t be ready for a few more hours so I suggested we head for some hot chowder and sourdough bread at nearby Boudin (where they put the hot chowder in the sourdough bread). A lot of reviews sneer at this as a tourist trap, but over the course of the week, we will try several other hand-crafted, artisanal sourdoughs at different bakeries and none will have the same distinctive sharp sourdough flavor and shatter-crisp crust. Well-fed and warmed up, we walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Now this is a tourist trap— it is almost a replica of every other waterfront development I’ve been to with the exception of the very noisy and very stinky sea lions. The Ferry Building would prove to be a more ‘unique to San Francisco’ experience. We end our day with Ghiradelli ice cream, thinking if the chocolate is good, the chocolate in ice cream will be even better, but it’s just ok.

Chinatown We skip breakfast and take the streetcar to an early lunch at Yank Sing. I am a little leery since the last dozen or so highly-rated Yelp eateries have been huge disappointments, because obviously I have no taste and would probably order toast for my last meal. But Yank Sing turns out to be the best dim sum (they call it deem sum) place I’ve ever been to— and the cleanest. We stuffed ourselves with steamed pork buns, Shanghai soup dumplings, stuffed lotus leaf, and a plate of something they call Chinese broccoli (I later find a source for this at home and it has become a staple vegetable). We finished it off with still-warm egg custard tarts. Stuffed beyond reason, we headed for the Dragon Gate and up Grant Avenue to look for a maneki-neko or lucky waving cat, stopping by the Red Blossom Tea Company to sniff some really interesting teas. When we found a few teas we liked, we were given a demonstration and tasting. I loved watching the whole process— no teabag in a mug on the go here: adding the water from the small teapot, gently moving the tea leaves around as they unfolded, seeing how it tastes at different steeping times in little, almost thimble sized cups— a ceremony to tea. It would be lovely to think I could recreate this at home, but in reality it probably wouldn’t happen very often— like bubble baths. But I did learn something: the water I was using for my green tea at home was way too hot, killing off the delicate flavor of the tea. I have been savoring my Pi Lo Chun green tea that I keep in my red tea canister ever since.

Tea New Better (1 of 1)

What could be better after tea than some fresh fortune cookies? Nothing. So we headed up to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company. We were here the last time we were in San Francisco and just had to come back. You get to watch them being made and they taste nothing like the yellowish ones that come with our Chinese take-out back home— these are worthy of cookie status on their own. Since the sampling of fortune cookies made us thirsty again, we set off to wander the area around Grant Avenue. Here you see more of the local markets and a lot of interesting things: live turtles, dried sea cucumbers, durian; I remember the durian because there was a sign at the front desk of our hotel in Chiang Mai that forbid even having it on the premises. But a lot of the fruits and vegetables looked really interesting and I wish I could find them at home to break up my vegetable monotony— things like huge bunches of beautiful chives that I can only guess become a dish in themselves but I’ve never had a chive dish at any of the Chinese restaurants I’ve been to. We finally found some awesome bubble tea at Cool Tea Bar in the Miriwa Shopping Center. Oh, and we did find our lucky cat and a solar powered one at that!

Laundry (1 of 1)Chinese Broccoli (1 of 1)Black Chickens (1 of 1)Cat Better (1 of 1)

That night we head to Tacolicious in the Marina and we learn something about the limits of 2D maps in San Francisco: we pick the shortest route by far, but it involved a major quadriceps burn on the almost vertical Hyde Street. After our ascent, we are barely able to hold our tacos together; I order a Margarita and it was gone in two sips because it was 93% ice. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about Tacolicious. The chips were really greasy— I can see the take-out area from my seat and I watch a woman use two fingers to hand the waiter back chips that have completely saturated the bag they’re in with the expression ‘yuck’ on her face, the waiter shrugs like ‘so what’ and takes them back— the fish on my fish taco was really greasy too and by the time I pulled the coating off I had a piece of fish smaller than a chicken nugget. I know street-style tacos are not super stuffed, but they usually have a nice sized chunk of fish and they usually have the oil hot enough to keep everything from absorbing it’s weight in grease. I thought maybe we hit them on a rare bad night but everything was the same when we stopped by their Mission outlet a few days later. I know, it’s just me; everyone else loves it; I have no taste, no sense of humor, no intellectual discernment: ‘What? You don’t know the story of the two-sip Margarita and the greasy chips? Everybody knows this one!’

Alamo Square & Japantown Today we head out to Alamo Square with a plan to make our way through Japantown and then down to the Marina. Today’s map challenge is that these places looked much closer than they are in reality. By a lot. On the way to Alamo Square we pass the San Francisco Schools Administration Building and I remark on how older buildings had all these elaborate architectural flourishes and now we have all these boring boxes. That is until I take a closer look:

Public School 1 (1 of 1)

Public School 3 (1 of 1)

Public School 2 (1 of 1)

Public School 4 (1 of 1)

Public School 5 (1 of 1)

Good grief! Is it just me again? Did I miss some tale about the founders of education and their journey from Middle-earth? These education icons are super weird, no? We make our way towards Alamo Square amazed at the paint schemes the busyness of Victorian architecture makes possible. We head to the top of the square, looking for the classic Full House view and find: a construction site!

Alamo Houses Better (1 of 1)

Alamo Houses Better 1 (1 of 1)

So that’s that; we head towards Japantown. My daughter thinks she knows where the Full House house was, but all the Victorian homes start to look alike. Then they blur together because we’re getting hungry. Oh, whatever, it’s some Victorian house in San Francisco. This is called tourist daze: it’s something that happens when you can no longer process all the awesomeness of every single little detail pointed out to you in your guidebook.

Unless I missed something, Japantown is not quite the Japanese equivalent of Chinatown. It is basically a shopping center and a few surrounding places. It doesn’t appear to be a Japanese neighborhood. We look around the mall a bit. I love all the little tea sets, chopsticks, stationary, rice cookers and stuff, but I don’t see anything that I really have to have or can’t get back home except Green Tea Kit Kats. These are part of an evil candy plot. And there is a whole store of just mochi. We look at some of the sushi places. Many of them don’t open until dinnertime. One has a water moat with little sushi boats going around. It’s really cute but since there are only two people there during lunch hour, our sanitation sensors go off. We have candy for lunch.

We eventually made it back to Chestnut Street in the Marina area after meandering through a super expensive shopping area around Pacific Heights. By then, we’re hungry, of course. I don’t want to eat at Tacoliscious again; luckily we score seats facing the kitchen at A16. It’s really fun to watch the food being prepared— the chef’s are super serious like they’re on Chopped! or something; the diversion makes up for decibel level in the restaurant. The server mistakes me for a sophisticated wine person— she suggests a split between two wines so I can try them both. I can barely hear her except that one of the grapes is grown on a volcano. Artisanal provenance, yes, of course. I’ve never been able to get a taste for wine or any other drinks save for Margaritas, and even then I don’t like them strong— although it seems some of the more expensive tequilas are so smooth that they can trick you into thinking you’re not drinking very much. But the wines just make me wish I had a Coke instead. Someday I will take a wine course and gain appreciation through the wonders of knowledge. But the real reason we’re here is because they have pizza marinara. Once I discovered this in Italy, it was basically all I ate for the rest of our month there. We order this and our server wants to make sure we know there is no cheese on this pizza. Yes, we do. There is a place near DC that has this pizza too and the server there also felt the need to forewarn us about the cheese. Is pizza without cheese that scandalous? If you don’t already know, pizza marinara is tomato sauce, garlic (sometimes minced, sometimes sliced), basil leaves (sometimes whole, sometimes chiffonade), and olive oil. And it is delicious.

We stop by Super Duper Burgers on our way back to the hotel because they have a sign out with an enticing drawing and description of their Straus organic chocolate dipped soft-serve ice-cream cone. This was beyond. I don’t usually go in for dessert or even really ice cream but this was, I can’t even describe it, except to say it was rich, creamy vanilla ice cream dipped in what tasted like real chocolate, not the usual kind of wax tasting stuff. We went back to the hotel and died.

Game Day Today is my daughter’s birthday. I let her sleep in a little before we head out for her first treat: a facial. I talk her into trying a different taco place in Cow Hollow. Tacko was much less pretentious and they have horchata— a very tasty Mexican rice drink that I sought out in almost every plaza and mercado throughout the Yucatán. It became the only Spanish word I could say clearly. Then we celebrated her birthday with cupcakes at Kara’s Cupcakes. I’m always dubious about these places since so, so many have had such bad cupcakes— dry, off-flavors, icing that tastes like a stick of butter or a straight sugar pour— and you wonder who encouraged them to open up a shop— someone was untruthful with them. But what we had at Kara’s was obviously pretty good since we made an excuse to stop there again a few days later. We concentrated on the mini cupcakes so we could try different ones. In a feat of delusional math, we estimated that three mini cupcakes were equal to one regular size cupcake. I had fleur de sel, vanilla, and chocolate velvet; my daughter had red velvet, vanilla, and chocolate coconut. Yum. Much better than that volcanic wine.

Now we had to save our appetites and rest up for the Giants game. My daughter’s favorite pitcher Tim Lincecum would be pitching and we caught a lucky break walking around before the game and found ourselves only a few feet away as he practiced. She froze, I took photos. That was the end of my 32mb memory card. Although I’m not really a baseball fan, I do have to admit that the Giants stadium really has an intimate feel to it compared to other major league stadiums I’ve been to. And then the food— it goes way beyond hot dogs and beer but unfortunately I only have room for one order of garlic fries. If these ever get out, no one will need drugs or alcohol. The game ended with some pretty cool fireworks which got us jazzed up for the hour-long walk back to the hotel along the deserted waterfront; you San Francisco people sure go to bed early (or maybe the waterfront is a place you shouldn’t go to at night?). But this was after we stood at the bus stop for a half-hour waiting for a bus that never came— reading and rereading the cryptic schedule sign which seemed to indicate that, yes, the buses were still running; some folks gave up and got pedicabs, but we decided to walk. Maybe that’s how they do it in San Francisco: if you eat a lot of garlic fries, they make you walk home. Cause your breath stinks. Who wants to drive a bus full of people loaded with garlic? I thought the exercise would do us good but it only made things worse: when we got back to the room, we inhaled the remains of our sourdough crocodile.

Better Tim 2 (1 of 1)

Better Tim (1 of 1)

Fries (1 of 1)

Better Giants Moon (1 of 1)

Crocodile (1 of 1)

Ferry Building Farmers Market and the Haight Today we headed for the Ferry Building for the Saturday morning farmer’s market. We filled ourselves up on samples and blackberries while we gazed longingly at all the beautiful, perishable foods we can’t take with us; bright purple artichoke flowers were everywhere. We try to get some lunch and ice cream inside, but it’s solid people; we make a plan to come back Tuesday morning before we leave. Heading out to catch the streetcar up Market Street and we see something that I think is exclusive to San Francisco: it was either naked people day or naked people biking day. I take pictures. These are my first nude scenes:

Naked (1 of 1)Naked 1 (1 of 1)

We set out for the Haight taking the streetcar to Castro Street where we watch a small food truck open up at the gas station on the corner— but it’s not a food truck, it’s a creme brûlée truck! We order two vanilla beans; we decide this qualifies as lunch. We head down Castro Street to Haight. I’m not sure what we’re hoping to see; we had watched a documentary about the Summer of Love and this was the epicenter. Maybe I thought I would see a lot of aging and would-be hippies trying to keep the candle burning. I don’t know. There are some murals, a few mystical shops, a head shop, a second-hand store, the Grateful Dead house (which is a really beautiful Victorian), a cavernous music store, and a Whole Foods at the end. Oh, and some grungy dude tucked between two shops offers my daughter some weed. Whatever it was that happened here, the scene has moved on. And that’s probably a good thing. But why didn’t he offer me any weed? I’m bummed.

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Mission and Castro Sunday was probably not a good day for this since a lot of things were closed. We walked through the Mission area first, spending time in different markets. We have a large Hispanic community where I live, so this wasn’t quite as strange as some of the Asian markets. Almost every market had these really cute little palm-size avocados. Wildly creative murals pop up in the area around Balmy Alley. We sample some Concha Pan Dulce at La Victoria Bakery— it isn’t reminiscent of Challah like the card says but just as good in its own way with a crunchy, almost caramel tasting crust and a cake bread center. We headed over to Mission Dolores and debated about whether to go in since we were pretty tired by then, but we’re glad we did. The church feels very low-key despite the painted ceiling and the ornate carvings. They have a small museum and a scene of the mission in its early days that shows this was an unbelievably rural area with livestock running around and everything. The tree-root twisted graveyard reveals that life back then was indeed short— many of the grave stones are for children and teenagers. We finished up our walk heading through the Castro area on our way back to Market Street. It was getting late and all the shops in the area had closed. This is not like New York at all. I was hoping to score a rainbow flag— that would really liven things up in my neighborhood. Of course everyone would probably think I just like rainbows and unicorns and glitter.

Mural (1 of 1)Avocado (1 of 1)Mural 1 (1 of 1)Mural 2 (1 of 1)Mural 4 (1 of 1)Mural 5 (1 of 1)Mural 6 (1 of 1)Mural 7 (1 of 1)Mural 8 (1 of 1)Ceiling (1 of 1)Saint (1 of 1)Grave (1 of 1)Court (1 of 1)

Land’s End and Coastal Trail Because we had biked over the Golden Gate Bridge the last time we were here, I thought this would be an interesting and less crowded perspective— and we did pretty much have the trail to ourselves (biking over the bridge last time was like going through a massive obstacle course with moving targets). We started out taking the bus to the end of Geary where it becomes Point Lobos and having an early lunch at the Cliff House. The view is spectacular but the food is just ok. With all the talent in San Francisco, this should be a standout. The popovers were okish, but my salmon looked like a previously frozen farm-raised portion— tasted like it too. We start out on the Land’s End Trail, taking in the ruins of the Sutro Baths and hoping to get out of the fierce wind that is whipping the water into an almost solid whitecap. A commercial ship heading against the wind into San Francisco appears to have barely moved since we spotted it before lunch. The signs show the Land’s End Trail meeting up with the Coastal Trail, but when the Land’s End Trail ends, we suddenly find ourselves in a neighborhood of incredibly lavish homes with insanely overflowing gardens and no signs for the trail. We had almost given up; we were sticking close to the water— where could it be? And then we spotted a trail below the road. This was one of those Tantalus trails— shortly after we started on the Land’s End part, we had the Golden Gate Bridge in our sites and here, some two hours later, it appeared no closer. We went out for the view points along the way but skipped the beaches. We have to save something for next time.

Lands End 1 (1 of 1)Rose (1 of 1)Coastal Trail 1 (1 of 1)Coastal Trail 2 (1 of 1)Bird (1 of 1)Pruning (1 of 1)Potty (1 of 1)

In San Francisco, there is one where you need it. Construction site potties are everywhere.

The plan was to roll into the Marina area by dinner time for a farewell tour of marinara pizza at A16 and chocolate-dipped ice cream at Super Duper. They recognize us at A16 (because my daughter has blue hair) and gift us with a tomato and burrata salad— I guess they wanted us to get cheese somehow. It was good. I probably would never have ordered it because of the way the word burrata sounds. They could call it creama mozzarella. Or I could be a little more adventurous when it comes to food. Pass me the basket of fried spiders!

Departure We head out for the Ferry Building early in the morning. I do score a very good cappuccino at Blue Bottle with a beautiful leaf embroidered in the foam, but pretty much everything else here will open too late for us. My daughter tries some strange concoction from Pressed Juicery while we watch the staff assist a reed-thin woman with the accoutrements for a juice cleanse. Sounds like fun. In a non-fun kind of way. Something we say we should do, but why? There is no scientific proof that juice fasts are in any way beneficial. But we have to press on for our final farewell stop: one last meal at Yank Sing.

Latte (1 of 1)

Now all we we had to do was get two bags of fortune cookies home without having them  searched by security, crushed on the plane, or accidentally eaten en route. One bag made it.

Copyright © 2014 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Yucatán Colure

We arrived in Cancún after the end of the world, so why they had to look through all our luggage was beyond me. The only thing that caught their attention was a bag of Peppermint Patties. Never pack Peppermint Patties, if they go soft, and ours did, you could attract the attention of airport security and end up a cautionary tale: stupid Americans shut down resort airport for hours with mint scented explosives. Luckily, after much serious deliberation and lots of fierce body language, they decided to simply dispose of the bomb in an ordinary trash can. And by the way, when airport security empties your bags, they don’t repack them for you. They stare at you while you do it.

We headed straight out of Cancún with our guide, Fausto Lugo, who will be with us for most of the next two weeks. No one can believe we’re going to miss Cancún, but I’ve seen the pictures and, to me, it looks a lot like Vegas with sand— all everyone is doing is drinking and buying Louis Vuitton— or they are in one of those hermetically sealed all-inclusives. Maybe I’m just jealous because I don’t look good in swimwear and I can’t hold my liquor, but I hope to at least attempt to experience México. I’m not known as an intrepid traveler and sometimes I really get confused, but I really try to put my toe in the stream of local culture and, as I travel more, I get a tiny bit better at it. The area we are traveling through, known as the Yucatán Peninsula, is rich in both Mayan and Spanish Colonial history and, over the next two weeks, we will make a big circle that encompasses Chichén Itzá, Mérida, Campeche, Calakmul, Soliman Bay and back out through Cancún. We do this during the ‘cool’ season in January which feels to me exactly like the ‘hot’ season here in the South. Our guide, who carries a towel tucked into his belt to wipe the sweat off and makes a beeline for shade trees at every site, confirms that, yes, this is the cool season.

It is just a two hour drive to Chichén Iztá where we spend our first night at the Hacienda Chichén. And where we are greeted with a glass of bright green chaya juice— every place we go we encounter food and drink that is so good we can’t believe we can’t get it at home. Chaya juice, which is usually mixed with a little pineapple juice, is green in all the right ways— refreshing without feeling like you may have had some lawn clippings. The main part of the hotel was part of an old hacienda, but our rooms were in newer bungalows with brightly colored hammocks on their little front porch. These weren’t the rough rope things from home that like to flip you onto the ground, these were softly woven cocoons. We got in them, and they were pretty nice, but we couldn’t quite see how how people would sleep in them all night (as we would see in our travels, many of the people in this area do sleep in hammocks, you can see them hanging in their homes, especially in the older thatched roof adobe ones). It wasn’t until later in the trip, when we visited the home of Don Hernán Perera Novero, that we realized why we weren’t blissed out laying in one: we were using them all wrong— you don’t lay in them end-to-end, but more like if the top of the hammock is 12 and the bottom 6, you put your head at like 10 and your feet at 4. You get into it by putting the far side over your left shoulder while standing up, pulling the rest underneath so you are sitting in the middle of it and then pivot to bring your feet in; you can even make it rock gently. Once we learned this, you couldn’t get us out (my daughter sees this and says “are you working for Ikea? Just say ‘lay in it at a diagonal.”)

Mexico Church-Watermark 3

Well-fed Iguana on the grounds of Hacienda Chichén

One of the best things about Hacienda Chichén is that you can walk over to Chichén Itzá early in the morning and have the place almost to yourself until the buses from Cancún begin to arrive around ten. When you get there, you don’t really see the main pyramid from all the iconic pictures until you’re almost right up to it because the site is surrounded by forest, but it’s still pretty exciting as you start to see the bottom of it through the trees. I won’t go into all of the history of the site, you can easily get that, but it is, as many ancient sites are, planned to make use of astronomical events: the shadow of the corner of the main temple become the body of the serpent head you see at the bottom of the steps during the fall and spring equinoxes. Further on you see the famous ball court (this was the biggest and best-preserved ball court of all the sites we saw), the iconic Chac Mool at the Temple of the Warriors, and a strikingly modern-looking observatory. Other buildings featured serpents and skulls— all designed to inspire fear and awe (my kids though they looked more funny-scary— something that probably would have gotten their fool heads chopped off back then). The whole Chichén Itzá complex is well-preserved, making it a good first site to give context to some of the later, more ‘ruined’ sites we would see. If I ever come back, I’d visit the site at Ek-Balam and spend a night or two in colonial Valladolid.

Touch of Goth at Chichén Itzá
Touch of Goth at Chichén Itzá

I could have stayed at the Hacienda Chichén one more day to relax and explore the grounds a bit more, but our plan was to head for Mérida. On the way, we stopped at one of the famed cenotes that dot the limestone shelf the Yucatán sits on. The one hundred-thirty plus foot deep Cenote Ik Kil looks just as exotic as it does in pictures and I was really looking forward to swimming is such amazing scenery until I put my foot in and it froze and fell off; my kids got in and swam to the middle, waited for their lips to turn blue and swam back. We’re such babies. It wasn’t crowded, but the scene was a study in stereotypes— there were a few vigorous Germans swimming laps and a small group of life-jacket clad Asian tourists floating around taking pictures of themselves with their iPhones. The cold water didn’t seem to bother anyone else. From there we stopped in Tixkokob to see hammocks being made but we were out of luck. Apparently the Christmas holiday is so overwhelming here that everyone takes all of January to recover— I even see a Christmas tree in a hammock on someone’s porch. We did learn from one weaver about the the different qualities of hammocks and we did buy a ‘Mexican place’ of our own. You could also try Izamal for traditional hammocks and crafts. We didn’t have time, but Izamal is on my list for future trips.

Mérida is a classic Spanish colonial town laid out in a very easy to navigate grid set around the Plaza Grande (on a scale of 1 to 10 with New York City a 1 and Venice a 10, Mérida is a 2). Over the next few days, we would see very few tourists— here we really stick out. Our hotel, the very charming if somewhat street noisy Casa del Balam, is just three short blocks from the plaza. It is here in Mérida where we realize there is no such thing as ‘Méxican’ food. México has regional food just like we do. And just as you wouldn’t order Maryland crab cakes in Wisconsin, you don’t order fajitas in the Yucatán. The next night we found La Chaya which served traditional foods like salbutes, poc-chuc, and pollo pibil. All the flavors were so alien to me I can’t even form an opinion. Bright magenta pickled onions, something we would see on top of many things in the area, were a big hit from the start. Coming back from dinner at La Chaya, we come across the coolest gift shop ever— Miniaturas at No. 507 on Calle 59. They have all these strange, small handmade dioramas with skeletons playing different roles— my daughter chose one depicting a skeleton teacher with little skeleton students for her Spanish professor. They have all sorts of miniatures, folk art, tin work, ‘trees of life’ and much, much more in a densely packed and endless visual assault.

Miniaturas in Mérida
Miniaturas in Mérida

From our base in Mérida, we were able to explore a number of places. We spent a day watching the masses of pink flamingos in Celestún with their bright pink coral color set off perfectly by the aquamarine water. Another day we visited Uxmal, Kabah, and the caves at Loltun. Although the caves, called Grutas de Lol-Tun, are large and contain some hints of long-ago civilization, anyone who has visited the caves around Luray, Virginia is not likely to be impressed. Add to this that the guides, and you must use their guides, make endless references to all the special things they do for you and how little they get paid to do it (we heard the same from the guide of the group behind us— sound travels well in caves). Uxmal and Kabah, however, are completely unique sites. Where Chichén Itzá was all angles, the main pyramid at Uxmal is all curves and, according to myth, it was built overnight by the magician on a challenge from the king; the fanciful shape only lends credence to the story. To get a awe-inspiring view of the top of the Pyramid of the Magician (sometimes called the Pyramid of the Soothsayer or Dwarf) and a panorama of the whole of the complex, you can climb La Gran Pirámide at the back of the complex. Next, we visited Kabah. Although a small site, it is famous for the Codz Poop, a building wallpapered with mask of the rain god Chaac; a visualization that not only honors the god but expresses the desperation for rain in an area where rain is the only source of fresh water. We also see about a million iguanas.


It is on a side trip from Mérida that our guide takes us to meet Don Hernán Perera Novero and Doña Felicita Huchin Itzá somewhere near Santa Elena. They have dedicated their home to the preservation of Mayan culture. It’s hard to convey how special this place is: there are no signs, no gift shop, no release forms— nothing but a simple educational setting. You step into the traditional palapa roof adobe house —one of many we see still in use throughout the area— and with open doorways front and back, you immediately feel the cool air; this house was designed to have natural air conditioning. Señor Novero (through our guide) told us about how the roof is constructed to keep out rain and then demonstrated for us the proper was to use a hammock, which is completely different than anything you see in travel pictures. In the corner of the house, there is an alter mixing Catholic icons with Mayan deities, a visually hypnotic sight, which is traditional in the Yucatán. Man, I really wish this were my house; with the smooth adobe floor and the hammock for a bed, cleaning would be done in five minutes. In an almost identical hut behind the house Señora Itzá grinds corn and makes tortillas on a convex steel griddle set over a wood fire. We tried some of these fresh, soft tortillas as a snack with ground pumpkin seeds and some scorching green salsa. I had bragged that I like really spicy stuff so I had to stand there and pretend didn’t bother me at all while it cleaned out all my pores.

Traditional palapa roof adobe house
Traditional palapa roof adobe house.
An alter with Catholic and Mayan figures
An alter with Catholic and Mayan figures.
Traditional tortilla making
Traditional tortilla making.

As we walk around the property, Señor Novero shared some of his extensive knowledge on regional and medicinal plants. He has tobacco, which he says keeps insects away, cotton, annatto, peppers, and many others that defy translation from Mayan; I would have to come back with a field guide. We were shown how the fiber from the henequen (a type of agave) is extracted to make rope; this was the primary industry in the Yucatán, and the reason for which the haciendas (think plantation) were built during the 1800’s. He then gave a us the highlights of the very complex religious ritual Ch’a Chaak, still used today, to ask the gods for rain. If I got this right, they ask the Mayan gods, Christian saints, and even their ancestors for help; every single step of the ritual, from the orientation of the alter to plants used, has meaning and purpose. If I were one of their gods, and they did this for me, they’d have all the rain they want. The area is also known for it’s pottery; on our way back to Mérida, we visit a pottery studio specializing in reproductions of traditional Mayan designs. It is here that I see the weirdest thing ever: a statuette of what appears to be a deranged woman/god/creature giving birth.

Henequen leaf being prepared for rope
Henequen leaf being prepared for rope.
Rope Making Better Copyright
Rope making.
Ch’a Chaak rain ritual
Ch’a Chaak rain ritual.
Traditional pottery
Traditional pottery.

Birth Better Copyright

It is interesting just to walk around Mérida— the colors, the people. One day, after filling up on horchata and people watching in the Plaza Grande, we headed for the massive Mercado Lucas de Gálvez just south of the Plaza Grande. We spent most of the day here visiting food stalls and looking at the odd collection of shops; you can get everything here: turkey jerky, life size statues of Jesus, sneakers, phones, everything. There are also tons of Disney characters and riffs on the Disney theme everywhere. If I had known the Disney theme was so big, I would have taken more pictures of all these handmade homages. If Disney ever builds a theme park in México, half the people would faint from excitement. Oh darn, my local market fantasy gets killed: we come to a shop selling puppies and it’s not good; they’re in small cages and they look sickly. I took a couple of photos but they didn’t come out well. There were other things too, such as really young kids selling stuff, but these puppies looked really bad. We headed back later to look again, but they had closed. What can you do? If I were home, I would have called animal control.

At night, the Centro Historico really comes to life. After getting some more horchata and some hot churros, all we had to do for entertainment was walk around: a man making music with a saw, a spray paint street artist who uses fire as a finishing touch (and amazingly doesn’t blow up the whole plaza), a remarkably realistic store mannequin, and a Catholic church so busy that one bride was just leaving in her calesa as the next one was entering the church. The second bride was actually sitting in her bridal car during most of the ceremony for the first bride.

Jesus Better Copyright

Disney fever
Disney fever.

Potbelly Better Copyright

Street artist in Mérida

Saw Music Better Copyright

The next day we were off to Campeche, but not before stopping in Becal to see Jippi (aka Panama) hats being created. The weavers work in small limestone caves because the humidity keeps the reeds pliable. The thickness of the reed determines how soft and pliable the hat will be; the more expensive ones are so fine they almost look like woven cloth and they feel like butter. The city of Campeche is a step up from Mérida in the Spanish Colonial theme: the gulf-side town is surrounded by a defensive wall, parts of which you can walk on, and anchored by two forts decked out in iron cannons. Our one night here is spent in the recently renovated, throughly charming, and again somewhat street noisy (the cobblestone streets seem to be the culprit) Hotel Castelmar located within the old city walls. At Puerta de Tierra (land gate) we were able to walk on the ramparts of part of the old city wall, see where the guards went potty, and take in a strange, yet brilliant sight: Campeche, having fallen on hard times, decided there was no need to look that way and decided to hide their urban decay behind beautiful facades. From on top of the wall, you can peek over the facades and see the dilapidated weed-infested ruins.

Cutting reeds for Jippi-Jappa hats



Campeche Fronts Better Copyright

The Fuerte de San Miguel, which also houses the Museo de Arqueología, was our chance to get our pictures taken with big cannons and take in the endless views of Campeche and the Gulfo de México. The real surprise though was the beautiful, but not overwhelming, collection of Mayan artifacts in the museum. The highlight was one particularly evocative and intricately created jade death mask from Calakmul— something I wanted to see since we would be heading there next. All this sightseeing made us very hungry. We headed to the locals-filled La Parroquia (we won’t see many tourists in Campeche either) where we immediately ruin our dinner by scarfing down a plate of Richaud charritos topped with pickled onions and huge goblets of fresh juice. And just as Mérida did, the main plaza in Campeche comes to life at night with church services, what looked like bingo played with glass beads, and tons of people. The city used to hide in tunnels during pirate raids, but now pirates are their calling card: an image of a one-eyed scallywag adorns all their tourist trinkets. My daughter scores a t-shirt proclaiming her pirate status. I end up with ice cream from a little hole-in-the-wall McDonald’s that only serves dessert on the main plaza because they have a never-before-seen Oreo cone. Yum. I always try to stop in McDonald’s when I travel and I always find something interesting  that I never see back home. The next morning it was time to leave Campeche. I wish I could have had at least one more day to just explore the small, almost traffic free, city and contemplate all of the interesting pieces of modern sculpture dotted throughout. I’m not sure if this was a temporary show or a permanent installation, but I’ve never seen so much public art. I also would have loved to go to the huge mercado just outside the city walls now that I had some market practice in Mérida.


From here, most folks head south to Palenque and perhaps the murals Bonampak. We headed east to Calakmul, a somewhat recently excavated and remote Mayan site set deep in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. En route we stopped for lunch at Restaurant y Hotel Calakmul where, despite the unpromising setting, I had my favorite meal of the trip: light and tender meatballs stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and smothered in a sort of smoky chipotle sauce with arroz (rice). Here we stayed at the comfortably rustic Hotel Puerta Calakmul; an eco-lodge just inside entrance to the reserve. We needed an got a wonderful dinner and a good night’s sleep so we could be ready to leave at six in the morning. Why? Because it is another hour and a half from here to the site and we wanted to see the monkeys and any other wildlife while they were still active. Only people waste their energy in the heat of the mid-day sun— animals nap. We did see a group of monkeys at the site and they were really swinging around but it was a little hard to see them up in the tall trees. The site is not as cleared as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, or Kabah, so it’s hard to get a sense of its enormity. Several structures have large trees growing out of them; their roots so deep that trying to remove them would cause further damage. The highlight is climbing the approximately 390 ft Gran Pirámide for a view of jungle as far as the eyes can see (and as far as the binoculars can too). I’ve never seen so much green. Some people say you can see the top of the Danta pyramid at El Mirador in Guatemala, but we weren’t able to pick it out. Climbing down these pyramids can be scary because they are so steep each step looks like the edge. Don’t worry if you’re afraid of heights, just crawl down backwards like a baby—that’s what I did. It’s the tree-root loaded flat ground around the pyramid that you need to watch out for. I tripped and nearly took our guide down with me. Many people talk about how incredible Palenque is; having not seen both, I can’t compare them. However, if you like an undiscovered jungle kind of vibe, then Calakmul, for the time being at least, is for you.

Tree Roots

While we could have used another day in Calakmul to explore some of the trails in the biosphere, we had already planned to head to the Laguna Bacalar near Chetumal. On the way we stopped at two smaller and somewhat more ruined but worthwhile sites: Becán and Chicanná. Becán has a small, but well-preserved section of original carving featuring the other-worldly image of the sun god Kinichná. The small traces of original paint make it seem as if it is trying to reach out across the eons. What a brilliant place this must have been. Our time may be preserved for the ages by our digital presence, but with our glass boxes and blacktop, will any sort of emotion travel into the future? What I wouldn’t give to see just one of these places in their heyday even for just fifteen minutes. At Chicanná, we see a really fierce looking structure called the House of the Serpent Mouth; with sharp teeth all around the entrance it looks as if you are literally walking into the serpent’s mouth— a great photo-op for the kids (there is a mouth door at Chichén Itzá, but it is not as ‘toothy’). Contrary to popular belief, It was not the Spanish who caused the downfall of the Mayan cities; they were already in ruin or on their last legs. Just as it did for the American Indians of the southwest, it is believed my many that prolonged drought and depletion of resources, which in turn would have exacerbated wars and disease, slowly ground down the great Mayan cities. Amazingly, the Spanish conquest seems to have mostly positive reviews from the folks I meet. They spoke of their reverence for the Catholic Church, which is clear at every turn: from packed church services, to crosses everywhere—even in our hotel rooms— and religious supplies and icons proudly displayed in every market. One person I spoke with pointed out that it was different here— the Mayans were not driven onto desolate reservations. Even now, most of the people here resemble the carvings I see at the ruins more than the Spaniards. If I came this way again, I would visit Kohunlich which appears to have some well-preserved stucco masks.


Ceiba Tree Better Copyright
Sacred Ceiba Tree

Sweaty and tired, we headed for Akal-ki, a hotel that looks like something out of Tahiti on it’s website. They consider themselves an eco-lodge, which has come to mean no air conditioning. This was fine— I actually enjoy not having it unless it’s oppressively hot and humid. But they take it a step further: electricity, which is provided by eco-unfriendly and noisy generators, is shut off sometime around midnight and does not go back on until—I don’t know when since we left the next morning. I guess the idea seems very eco-edge, but as soon as the ceiling fans stopped, the poorly sealed hut was overrun with humidity, bugs, and mosquitos. I usually have nightmares about spiders, but that night I had to kill a real one by candlelight—actually a hotel provided tea light and a hot one at that. The LED flash light brick thing they provided only gave off an eerie glow that just made shadows of everything. I hate it when camping and staying in a hotel get smushed together. This was the difference between this place and the very comfortable eco-lodge in Calakmul which also had thatched roof huts: they paid careful attention to to sealing the screens to keep most bugs out and kept power use down using a mix of LEDs and compact fluorescents rather than cutting the power completely. Being able to have the fan on low overnight kept the bugs and humidity at bay. Although the almost bath temperature lagoon was very pretty, I wouldn’t stay at this hotel again. I can’t even remember what we had for dinner at the very romantic over-water restaurant because we were almost consumed by mosquitos as soon as the sun went down. I probably even ate a few. The next morning our guide looked at my welted legs and said “what happened to you?” If I had to do this again, I would probably give Hotel Rancho Encantado a chance.

I realized the trip was winding down when we had to confirm the times for our flight back home. Our last stop would be Bahía Soliman near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Bahía Soliman is one of those places you see on posters that have the word ‘relax’ written across the bottom and this time we had the hotel to match: Jashita. With the beautiful, calm, azure, reef-protected water, we fit in all our water fantasies here: kayaking, snorkeling, paddle boarding. We were glad we had our water shoes, though, as there is a lot of sharp coral both on the beach and in the water. We visited the very crowded ruins at Tulum, which, after everything we’ve seen, weren’t very impressive; the view from the site is no where near as dramatic as the one from the water often seen in photos. Damage from crowds has made it necessary to keep people a good distance from the structures. This was one place where our early morning strategy of avoiding crowds didn’t quite work. If I had to do this again, I would set out early for the Reserva de Monos Arañas de Punta Laguna for a chance to catch some wildlife and then onto Cobá where it says you can ride bikes around the ruins.


We spent most of the next day visiting the super-ruined Muyil and the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an; a vast wildlife preserve on the Carribbean Coast that features a clear white sand bottom lagoon (similar to the one in Bacalar) and miles of coastline and coral reef. It is said that all five of the areas wild cats can be found there (Margay, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, Jaguar, and the Puma) as well as some smaller mammals, turtles, dolphins, crocodiles, manatees, and numerous birds. The part of the preserve where we were, though, was strangely devoid of any wildlife given how few people were around. The preserve extends out to the sea past the clear bay and canals where we were, so maybe there is more wildlife in that area. Could also have just been an off day. My kids did like the lazy river where they floated wearing their life jackets upside down in a mangrove-lined canal that had been carved out by Mayans ages ago. Our last day was spent relaxing on the beach at Bahiá Soliman. I could see from the beach what looked like a shelf extending out from the north edge of the bay and I wanted to explore. We walked to the edge of the bay to find a coral-encrusted shelf teeming with tide pools. We saw sea urchins, lots of little fish, colorful snails, crabs, calcified corals, sea fans, and, in some spots, unfortunately, a lot of washed-up garbage.




All things must come to an end, good ones especially it seems. On the way through airport security, with no Peppermint Patties to confiscate, they throw out my half empty 3.6 once face mask. My fault. It seemed like they made sure they got something from everyone, although the guy ahead of me who had a liter of Jack Daniels confiscated when he couldn’t produce his duty-free receipt, really paid a big price. The trash can nearly tipped over when they threw it in. I wonder if the security folks get to take all this stuff home?

Traveling is like being a newborn baby. you see so many things for the first time, it’s hard to take it all in. I hope I get to go back, and I say this about all the places I’ve been to only once, so that I can make sense of everything.

Guide: Fausto Lugo

Guidebook: The Rough Guide to the Yucatán


Copyright © 2013 MRStrauss • All rights reserved