I was extremely excited to arrive in Mérida, Mexico. I am definitely a city person, and having lived in a sleepy seaside town for the last few months I was ready to get back to the hustle and bustle for a few days. This gorgeous colonial town was the perfect foray into urban Mexican culture that I was craving.
I did not rigidly plan my time in Mérida. That was a somewhat out-of-character decision on my part, but I think it was the right one. I was able to use my two and a half days there to explore in the way I loved to explore Philadelphia: aimlessly. This allowed me to absorb both the touristy and non-touristy side of the city to my liking by not letting the “important” sights hang over my head.
I spent several hours exploring the main municipal market in Mérida. Markets in developing countries are some of my favorite places in the world to spend time, and this one did not disappoint. Two stories high and several blocks long, the main market in Mérida is a chaotic maze teeming with humans, food carts, fresh produce, clothing, home goods, loud noises, meat, dead fish, live fish, piles of jewelry, balloons, spices, animals, beauty parlors, strange smells, artists, news stands, buckets of shoes, barbers, and just about anything else you can imagine. I think if you spent enough time there you could probably discover a species as of yet unknown to the scientific world.
At one point I turned a corner and found myself in a whole row of pet stalls, the noises of the market suddenly giving way to the sounds of whining puppies and squawking parakeets. Around another turn I found myself tempted to get a haircut for $2 U.S., but the line stretched down the aisle and I didn’t feel like waiting. I did purchase some of the powdered chili that the fruit stands use and have been eating it at a rapid pace ever since.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum of urban appeal, Mérida is full of free art galleries. I love free art galleries, especially when I’m alone and can decide exactly however much (or little) time I want to spend inside of them.
One night while wandering around I stumbled upon a free mariachi concert in the courtyard of an old church. The congregation was celebrating [something that was outside of my Spanish vocabulary] by listening to music and eating dinner together. The twenty minutes of the show that I witnessed was one of my favorite memories from Mexico.
The hostel I stayed in, Nomades, was excellent. They offered free cooking and salsa classes; I learned to make empanadas and how to prepare cactus. Nomades was also my first really social hostel experience. I have stayed in many hostels before but since I have never traveled alone I have never fully appreciated the community aspects of hostel culture. A good hostel has an “all are welcome, come hang out!” vibe that prevents solo travelers from ever truly being alone if they don’t want to be. I went out twice in Mérida with people I met at Nomades. The best of the nights we went to a local mezcal bar and danced to a live salsa band, which was a blast. I heard a salsa version of “Creep” there, which was an exciting first for this Radioheadphile!
Celestun Biosphere Reserve
The next morning, I learned that some of the people I had gone out with the night before were taking a half day trip to Celestun. Celestun is a biosphere reserve about an hour and a half outside of Mérida. I jumped at the chance to go with them, because Celestun is home to something that I had definitely never seen in the wild: flamingos.
After a long car ride through some small Mexican villages, we arrived at a dock where we could rent a boat to take us to the flamingos. We rode a short distance out into the reserve before we turned a corner and spotted a line of bustling pink on the horizon. Our driver killed the motor and we pulled up alongside several other boats of tourists to watch the flock (AKA the flamboyance!) of flamingos.
These are strange, strange creatures. I’ve always thought so when I’ve seen them at the zoo and yet they seemed even stranger in the wild. Their knees bend in the most knobbly, illogical way; their legs hang out behind them awkwardly as they fly; and they make a horrendously loud skrawky sound that does not seem like it could come out of such a creature.
On top of that, of course, they’re flamboyantly pink.
Contrary to our first impression when we arrived, they were not floating; they were standing in extremely shallow water. This led to some fascinating methods of taking off and landing.
When we were finally done watching the bizarre rosy fowl, we took off for the rest of the tour. This featured a breakneck introduction to a mangrove channel and lots of other types of birds.
Afterwards, we returned to Mérida. The next day was Christmas Eve, and I would be making the trek to my last destination in Mexico: Lake Bacalar.