Sunday, 27 April 2014

A long weekend in Río Lagartos

RÍO LAGARTOS, YUCATÁN – The fishing port of Río Lagartos is located in the north-east corner of Yucatán state, directly north of the city of Tizimín. The village was called Holkobén by the Maya, who used it as a place to stop on their way to Las Coloradas, where they extracted salt from the water (a practice which continues on a commercial scale today). The Spanish explorers arriving in the area mistook the ría (estuary) for a río (river), and the abundant crocodiles for lagartos (alligators), and the name stuck.

Today, a relatively sleepy fishing village, Río Lagartos lacks its own beach, meaning it fails to attract the tourist crowds who pack other beach towns such as Progreso, Chelem, and El Cuyo during the season. If you are looking for somewhere to spend a quiet few days, this could be the place. There are a number of small, family run hotels in town – we chose the Hotel Villa de Pescadores, right on the malecón (water front promenade), and were generally happy with our decision; it was clean and cool, and with a stunning view from the balcony. The lack of blackout curtains meant the sun woke us by 6.30am each morning, not exactly what we wanted on our ‘mini vacation’, but with little to do in the evenings after 10pm, it was not a major problem. There really is nothing to do in the evenings in Río; most bars and restaurants close by 9pm, and other than strolling along the malecón to people watch, you won’t find any entertainment.

Fish, flamingos and crocodiles. They are the ´big three’ in Río, and boat tours are available to catch the first, and view the other two. At the right time of year, once away from the town, flamingos stretch in all directions in the estuary, as far as the eye can see. Out of flamingo season (which, unfortunately was the case during our visit), they are fewer in number; the boat captains know where to look however, and you can be sure of seeing at least a few of the beautiful creatures. We took the ‘standard’ flamingo tour, available from any of the docks along the malecón. In addition to flamingo viewing, you’ll most likely see a crocodile or two, plus will have a chance to float (swimming being impossible due to the salt content) in one of the pink pools where the salt is produced, as well as a visit to the ‘Mayan spa’ mud area – if desired you can cover yourself with the mineral rich mud, and wait until you return to town to wash it off.

We also ventured out for an evening crocodile tour, and while we saw less crocodiles than we might have hoped for, the experience of being out on the water in the mangroves at night, far from the lights of the town with the brilliance of the stars overhead was well worth it. 

It goes without saying that the seafood in Río is sublime; lobster, shrimp, fish, and ceviche; all fresh from the sea, and served to you in a wide variety of ways. We ate at ‘Los Gaviotas’ and ‘Perico Marinero’, and would recommend both without hesitation. For beer and seafood ‘botanas’ in the afternoon, we walked along the ´malecón’ to ‘El Bandolón’, a family and tourist friendly cantina, offering beer by the liter, and ´botanas’ (snacks) including delicious ´chivitas’ (small sea snails marinated in lime juice to make ceviche).

From Río, we took the road to Las Coloradas, crossing the impressive new bridge, built recently to replace the original wooden bridge across the estuary. Commercial salt production on an impressive scale takes place here today, with the pink tinted pools of water stretching for a vast distance. The area is popular with flamingos, and the further we went past Las Coloradas, the more birds we saw.

The map indicates an unpaved road all the way along the coast from Las Coloradas to El Cuyo; we inquired locally as to its condition, and received a couple of non-committal “well it should be OK” comments. Feeling intrepid, we headed off, and indeed for many miles, the road was well packed and maintained. Once we left the salt production area however, the condition deteriorated fast, and by the time we eventually reached El Cuyo, we had had more than enough of the jolting and bumping. El Cuyo was buzzing with tourists; the pretty beach area was packed, and we enjoyed a cooling swim in the ocean and some fried fish at one of the many restaurants, before heading back to Río Lagartos via a longer but considerably faster inland route.

We only spent three nights in Río; however thanks to its tranquil, unrushed atmosphere (and yes, let’s be honest, its lack of anything to do after 8pm…) we returned to Mérida feeling refreshed and ready to face the world again. For a quiet weekend getaway, and some of the region’s best seafood, we would highly recommend it.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Chem Bech Market Renovations Begin!

MÉRIDA, YUCATÁN – For those who don’t know it, “Mercado de la Chem Bech” (Chem Bech Market) is located on Calle 57, at the corner of Calle 42, in centro. In addition to the main markets in the middle of the city, there are three other neighborhood markets in centro, of which Chem Bech is one (the others are Santiago and Santa Ana). Although not as popular with the foreign community as the Santiago area, the east side of centro has a number of expats living in it, many of whom shop from time to time at Chem Bech.

Recently, the market has been looking a little tired, and happily, renovations have begun. The market building is now completely cleared of vendors, who have temporarily relocated to a tented area in the roadway on Calle 42, making for an ‘intimate’ shopping experience due to the lack of space and tightly packed shelves of products.

The interior of the building is partly empty, and partly occupied by piles of rubble – renovations are expected to take approximately another ten weeks, although vendors I spoke to this week told me that work is proceeding faster than expected and they are hopeful they will move back inside earlier than planned.

The ‘loncherias’ at the side of the market on Calle 42 (popular spots for breakfast and evening panuchos) are still operating normally, as are the small tienditas along the other side on Calle 57.

We are looking forward to seeing a bright and shiny new Chem Bech market soon. Watch this space for pictures when it re-opens!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Cenotes of San Antonio Mulix

MÉRIDA, YUCATÁN – The ruined hacienda of San Antonio Mulix is not far from Mérida, in fact we were there around 45 minutes after leaving the periferico, but after driving the last ten kilometers down a narrow country road into the monte (bush), it felt like another world.

To get there from Mérida, head towards Campeche, then take the road to Muna, leaving the highway at kilometer 39, and turning right to Cacao, a small village with another ruined hacienda. The road deteriorates considerably after Cacao, but it is not far from there to San Antonio Mulix, and the entrance to the cenotes (and the hut where one must register and pay) are clearly visible.

At the hut, entrance fees are paid: $10 pesos for Yucatán residents (including foreign residents with local ID), $25 pesos for Mexicans from other states, and $50 pesos for foreign tourists. Getting to the cenotes involves a choice – you can drive your car through the gate and along the narrow dirt road, walk, or rent a bicycle (with helmet) from the entrance hut for $40 pesos. It’s approximately five kilometers from the gate to the cenotes, and in view of the heat, we chose to drive our car. The road was dusty, and the car was filthy by the time we were finished.

There are two cenotes at San Antonio Mulix – Cenote X-Batún and Cenote Dzonbacal, clearly signed at the end of the road (please leave your cows outside!!!) X-Batún is by far the prettier of the two, and the more worthy of your time. It’s also more easily accessed, and, being largely open, it is brighter and sunnier. By all means visit Dzonbacal as well, but I would suggest to go there first, to avoid an anticlimax.

Cenote Dzonbacal

There’s a restaurant a short distance inside the access gate, serving Yucatán staples, which apart from a couple of very basic options in the village, is the only place to eat in the area.

Cenote X-Batún

 Cenote X-Batún

The cenotes are open daily from 9am to 6pm. If you don’t want to drive from Mérida, a ‘combi’ operates from the city to Umán and onwards to San Antonio Mulix, and the cenotes are also included on tours offered by various operators. If you do drive, make sure you follow the road through Cacao as detailed, and don’t believe Google Maps, which indicates the village to be extremely close to (and on the wrong side of) the main highway.

Entrance to Cenote Yáx - Há

On the way in to San Antonio Mulix, a couple of kilometers before arriving, you will notice a sign for another cenote (Cenote Yáx Há – meaning green water in Maya) to the left. Not part of the main complex, it is an additional $10 per person, and a torturous two kilometer dirt road to access it. Almost completely covered, there is a steep but sturdy wood staircase which descends into the depths, where the water is cool and clear. It’s dark down there, but after a few minutes your eyes will adjust. The advantage of this cenote seems to be that it is less popular, and therefore, especially away from weekends or holidays, you may have it to yourself.  Yáx Há is also open daily.

Cenote Yáx-Há 

1st Regional Artisan Fair begins today in Mérida

MÉRIDA, YUCATÁN – The “1ra Feria Artesanal Regional” kicks off today in Mérida’s Parque de la Paz, and will run until April 25.

Featuring artisans from the states of Chiapas, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Tabasco in addition to Yucatán, the event will provide a showcase for the people who produce the handicrafts and other items.

In addition to the opportunity to purchase items directly from the artisans, there will be music and entertainment as follows:

Tuesday 15th:
7pm – Inauguration of the event.
8.30pm – Regional dancing from the states participating in the fair.

Wednesday 16th:
7pm – Cultural events.
8.30pm – Typical dances from various states.

Thursday 17th:
7pm – Children’s show.
8.30pm – Cultural sales.

Friday 18th:
7pm – Mariachi show.
8.30pm – Cultural events.

Saturday 19th:
7pm – “Lucha Libre” (Mexican wrestling) tournament begins between participating states.

Sunday 20th:
7pm – Final of the “Lucha Libre” tournament.

Monday 21st:
7pm – Event to be announced.
8.30pm – Regional dancing from the states participating in the fair.

Tuesday 22nd:
7pm – Event to be announced.
8.30pm – Cultural events.

Wednesday 23rd:
7pm – Event to be announced.
8.30pm – Cultural events.

Thursday 24th:
7pm – Regional dancing from the states participating in the fair.
8.30pm – Open air disco.

Friday 25th:
7pm – Official closing of event.
8.30pm – Open air disco.

Parque de la Paz is located to the west side of centro, across the street from Parque Centenario, where the Centenario Zoo is to be found. If you are feeling energetic, to walk there from centro, take Calle 59 towards the west, through Santiago, and after passing Parque Centenario and crossing Avenida Itzaes, Parque de la Paz will be directly in front of you.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The State of ‘Futbol’ in Mérida

MÉRIDA, YUCATÁN – ‘Futbol’ (football in English, or ‘soccer’ to North Americans) is something of a national obsession in Mexico, with most cities boasting at least one ‘professional’ team. Mérida has CF Mérida, more familiarly known as ‘Los Venados.

We’re nearing the end of the ‘Clausura 2014’ season, and on Saturday night, a good sized crowd of over 6000 enthusiastic supporters were at Estadio Carlos Iturralde (part of the Kukulcan sports complex in Mérida) for the final home game of the competition. Encouraged perhaps by the half-price tickets (special offer for the final game) or possibly the ice cold beer on sale, the crowd was in excellent spirits. Unfortunately however, the same could not be said of the team, which returned a (sadly only too common) mediocre performance, even though their opponent (‘Ballenas Galeana’, from Cuernavaca, Morelos) has been one of the worst performing teams of the ‘Ascenso MX’ league this season. The ‘Ascenso MX’ is basically Mexico’s second division, and CF Mérida,  under chairman Juan Manual Noya and manager Ricardo Valiño, languishes at position 9 out of 15 after 13 games, with one remaining to be played.

As often the case, the game started slowly, with little action, and the score was 0–0 at half time. In the second half, things warmed up (literally perhaps, given the 35°c evening temperature), and five minutes in, Morelos scored, a lead which they held for twenty minutes, until, finally, Mérida scored. Nine minutes later, Mérida scored again, holding a 2-1 lead until the final minutes of the game, when, a penalty awarded to Morelos evened the score 2-2, which remained until the final whistle. 

So ended a typical ‘Venados’ game. They were losing, they were equal, they were winning, and finally they ended in a draw. Out of the 13 games so far this season, 6 have ended in draws (along with 4 wins and 3 losses). 

Once again, CF Mérida looked like a fractured team without any clear direction or cohesion, which in fact is exactly what they are. Over the last few seasons, there has been a revolving door of players, with few continuing from season to season. One of the few players to remain as a permanent fixture is number 4, Rodrigo Javier Noya, long one of the worst players in the team, who is now the captain. Note the same last name as the Chairman… A coincidence? I think not.

Interestingly even the ‘official’ supporters of the team are fractured into two groups (unique in my experience), always well separated at opposite ends of the stadium, each with its own flags and band, a result, apparently of a historical ‘falling out’ which pre-dates my knowledge. They try to out-play and out-flag each other, often causing a cacophonous racket which must be heard to be believed. Sadly the two groups of supporters seem a perfect metaphor for the team itself.


The season will end next week, with ´Los Venados’, as normal, also-rans.

In the wider world, there’s a little event called the Football World Cup coming up in June, taking place this time in Brazil. The Mexican national team ‘El Tri’, suffered a ‘Venado-like’ year in 2013 (following a great victory in the 2012 Olympic Football tournament in London), and barely managed to capture the final place in the tournament during the qualifying rounds. Under new manager Miguel Herrera, they appear to be bouncing back and Mexicans are ready to support their team’s journey in Brazil, which will begin with a game against Cameroon on (the rather inauspicious) Friday 13th June. Of course in Mexico, Friday 13th is not considered unlucky (that honor goes to Tuesday 13th), so we look forward to the first of many victories. We plan to be reporting on the Mexico games - not ‘on the scene’ unfortunately, due to budgetary restrictions – but thanks to the miracles of television, and the fact that every screen in every bar in the country will be showing the games. Need a better excuse to go to a bar at 11am on a Friday? We can’t think of one!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Journalism Internship opportunity in Mexico!

The Yucatan Times, the major English language news source for the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is looking for an intern to join our team in Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico for 6 – 12 months experience.

The intern/copy editor will ensure that text is readable, accurate and ready for publication. The person will be working on the daily publications of The Yucatan Times. He/she must have a journalistic focus, thinking as a reporter, even when editing other peoples copy. The work will be desk based, and the hours negotiable.

The person will:
·         Check text to ensure it is well written and logically structured
·         Correct grammar and spelling
·        Rewrite sentences, paragraphs or articles as needed, while ensuring that content is truthful and not defamatory.
·         Ensure the text is in line with the newspaper guidelines
·         Check facts and raise queries with the author
·         Be alert for potential legal problems and discuss them with the publisher
·         Check illustrations and captions
·         Compose headlines for each article
·         Write 'stand firsts' - introductory paragraphs that sum up a story and draw the reader in
·         Edit stories to fit a set word count
·         Lay out stories to a set page design.

Intern/copy editor must have:

·         At least basic Spanish language skills, to understand the local outlook.
·         Excellent written English, including extremely high level of spelling and grammar
·         Meticulous approach to work and an eye for detail
·         The ability to maintain high-quality work while meeting tight deadlines

The person will be working on a range of publications, including news, academic journals, editorials, business publications, descriptions, and advertising, all of which in online format.

Our offices are in the beautiful city of Mérida, Yucatan, which will be your home for the period you spend with us. We are able to provide assistance in locating a place to live, however travel and living costs are at your own expense during your stay. The internship is unpaid. We are hoping to find a candidate who can obtain a grant to cover his/her costs.

We will assist with documentation for the required visa to allow you to stay in Mexico for 6 – 12 months as agreed.

Interested? In the first instance, please contact Stewart Mandy - - forwarding your CV, with a cover letter telling us why you are applying for this opportunity and what you hope to gain from it. Please also mention your Spanish language level.

Drop Me Anywhere!

April 1 sees the launch of a new and interesting Kickstarter campaign by up and coming author Carole Rosenblat. While she is known as a travel industry expert who consults in a variety of sectors and writes for various publications, as well as running the popular blog, this will be her first published book. I had the chance to interview her about the campaign, her book Drop Me Anywhere and her views on travel and writing.

Stewart Mandy – How would you describe the book Drop Me Anywhere?

Carole Rosenblat – It’s a travel memoir with a twist. It’s Julie and Julia meets Eat, Pray, Love as told by Carrie Bradshaw (any Sex and the City Fans out there?)

SM – How did the whole concept of the website come about?

CR – It actually began in a Twitter travel chat. The question was posed, “If you had a travel show, what would it be called and what would it be about?” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Mine’s called Drop Me Anywhere and it’s about traveling without a plan.” The response was overwhelming. People started commenting, “That’s fantastic! You must do this!” “You should do a YouTube pilot.” “You need to Kickstart this!” I was taken aback.

SM – So why a book and not a TV show?

CR – Well, while I’ve done many on camera interviews and a lot of on-stage hosting, writing is really my comfort zone. As this was something that just fell out of my head and onto my keyboard (if you read my stuff you’ll understand that this happens quite often), I pondered it for a couple of weeks. I then contacted a well-known travel writer to run it past him. His response, “I love this! I wish I could do it.” It’s amazing how much confidence you gain when someone you admire tells you it’s a good idea.

SM – What makes Drop Me Anywhere different than other travel memoirs?

CR – It’s a partnership between the writer and the readers. Other travel memoirs tell the story of a location which the writer has chosen to travel. In Drop Me Anywhere the readers choose the location. You see, while I love to travel, and to share the experience with others, I hate to plan it. In fact, sometimes I become so overwhelmed with the planning that I choose not to go. I know others who feel they must plan every minute of their travel or they might end up sharing a foreign prison cell with rats. I feel that they miss so many opportunities to talk to locals, participate in festivals and have other adventures that might just pop-up

The 'Veiled Virgin' of St John's, Newfoundland

SM – Wow, that is different! Any other unusual aspects?

CR – Lately, many travel memoirs, or even articles, have become romanticized. They tell you about the “golden sunset mixed with purple hues that can only be seen in the most glorious of rainbows.” Others just give you the information without the storytelling to truly give you a feel of the place and make the reading interesting. Another style that’s become popular is Top Ten lists. While some provide good information, rarely has the writer experienced all ten of the locations and therefore, cannot possibly describe the full experience of the place. Drop Me Anywhere is reported from my first-hand experience. It’s not an overview of the place, but a report on the locations, experiences and people from inside. And, while I’m a hopeless romantic, Drop Me Anywhere is not. I’m a storyteller who likes to see the funny and ironic side of things. This is reflected in my writing which leans towards the humorous and ironic side of travel storytelling. It’s often described as snarky or quirky. I also like to provide great information on the locations to assist readers in choosing their travel destinations.

SM – This does seem different than other travel memoirs. What sorts of things do you do while traveling for Drop Me Anywhere?

CR – Anything the locals tell me is a must see, must do or must try. That’s the joy of not having a plan. Oh, and one other important part of each trip; volunteering has always been a big part of my life and my projects. On each Drop Me Anywhere trip I commit to finding a local organization or project and spending a day, or part of a day, volunteering with them. I then profile them on and let you know what they do, who they help, and how you can get involved. Their stories will also be told (in a less snarky fashion) in the book.

Jelly Bean Row houses in St John's, Newfoundland

SM - So what makes the book different than the blog?

CR – The book will be written in a more cohesive fashion. While each day in the blog tends to be a different story, the book will be a memoir of the entire year of doing this project. Also, I plan to hold back on all of the stories from a couple of the locations the readers vote to send me to just for publication in the book. Finally, the book will include some extra untold stories from the road. Sort of the Sex, Drugs and Rock-N-Roll of the book.

SM – In what locations have you been “dropped” so far?

CR – Well, each Drop Me Anywhere vote has a theme. The first vote was chosen as a tribute to fellow adventurer Jimmy Buffet and his song Boat Drinks where he declares, “I gotta fly to St. Somewhere.” The readers were asked to decide where St. Somewhere is. They chose St. John’s, Newfoundland in February (my readers have a sense of humor). But seriously, a Canadian contacted her friends via E-mail and Facebook to campaign to send me there as she was considering going and thought she’d send me to do the advance work and report back. Another great benefit of readers choosing the location.

The 'Masonic Eye' in St John's, Newfoundland

SM - How will the Kickstarter funding be used?

CR – This book isn’t like other books. I can’t go to a regular day job and then come home and research and write. The travel is the research. While I’ve worked hard to save some money over the last couple of years and I earn some money writing for corporate clients and media, it’s not nearly enough to fully support this project. And I’m offering some great rewards for backers of my project.

SM – Can you tell us a few?

CR – Oh wow, well, there are autographed books, Drop Me Anywhere key chains and tote bags, as well as experiences including motivational speeches, tour guiding and even joining me on a Drop Me Anywhere trip.

SM – Thanks for telling us about Drop Me Anywhere and the accompanying Kickstarter campaign. Good luck with everything.

CR – Thanks!