Hurricane Franklin the Season’s First Hurricane

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Hurricane Franklin began life in the Caribbean as a tropical depression then morphed into a tropical storm. I first became aware of him when he was swirling off the coast of Honduras and heading for the Yucatan Peninsula where my son Shawn and I have been for the last couple of weeks. He was scheduled to make landfall in Yucatan Monday night when we would be in the small coastal fishing village of Celestun.

Celestun is very small and very quaint and is one of my favorite places. Its biggest claim to fame is the Ria Celestun Biosphere a few minutes out-of-town by tuk-tuk. Celestun wouldn’t be my first choice when picking a place to ride out a hurricane. Franklin was small by hurricane standards, only a category one (just one step up from a tropical storm) but nonetheless a hurricane is a hurricane.

I considered cancelling our trip but I really wanted Shawn to see and photograph the biosphere I love so much—this would be my sixth visit over the past five years—so we boarded our 2nd class bus in Merida (57 pesos/$3.19 usd) for the 1½ hour trip to the coast amidst gathering storm clouds (I had never been in a hurricane before so what could possibly go wrong?). We arrived late in the afternoon, stopped for a couple of cold beers (and some fresh ceviche) and then proceeded by foot to our local hotel (calling the Flamingo Guest House a hotel is being overly generous but it is cheap).

Roseate Spoonbill – Ria Celestun Biosphere, Yucatan, MX

Later in the evening we walked back into town for dinner and some more beer at La Palapa (right on the sand and beach). When in Celestun fresh seafood is de rigueur (shrimp, crab, fish, octopus and conch), the beer is ice-cold and the margaritas ain’t half bad either (for a couple of hundred pesos two people can eat and drink like kings). Looking out on the Gulf of Mexico the usual emerald-green water was turning dark and turbulent, the winds were picking up and the palm trees were swaying (look out for flying coconuts). Again, we returned to our hotel which was only a 15-minute walk from town (easier without our backpacks).

American Flamingo – Ria Celestun Biosphere, Yucatan, MX

It turned out that Hurricane Franklin was pretty much a non event. A bust. Shawn said that around 6:30 a.m. it rained pretty hard for about an hour and the wind picked up a little but I slept right through it—so much for my first hurricane. We slept in a while longer and then made the trek into town for breakfast. My favorite place in Celestun for breakfast is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so we headed to the main square for traditional Mexican fare: huevos revueltos con jamón y queso con arroz y tortillas. Also big cups of steaming hot Cafe Americano (about 75 pesos pp total). The next couple of days we would have breakfast at my favorite haunt on the beach run by a Swiss national named Peter.

Tiger Heron – Ria Celestun Biosphere, Yucatan, MX

After Franklin’s brief passage in the morning Celestun remained overcast, breezy and much cooler for the rest of the day. Yucatan is beautiful anytime of year but during the summer months it’s brutally hot even on the coast. This time of year the ambient temperature often exceeds 38°C/100°F with humidity in the 65% to 80% range, the resulting heat index is often a staggering 58°C/136°F (and that’s killer heat by any definition). The only other time I’ve experienced a heat index that high was in Vietnam during the war (1967 through the Têt Offensive of 1968), we lost more grunts to heat exhaustion and heat stroke than to hostile enemy action (it sometimes killed our guys in the field with their heavy loads if they couldn’t be medevaced out quick enough for treatment.

Great Egret – Ria Celestun Biosphere, Yucatan, MX

Wednesday morning we had a large but quick breakfast at Peter’s and then grabbed a tuk-tuk at the main square (for 10 pesos pp) for the 15-minute ride out to the biosphere. The most expensive thing in Celestun is renting a boat and guide at the biosphere (1,500 pesos/$84.12 usd). The price is for the boat and guide so the more people you have onboard (a maximum of 6 to 8) the less you pay pp. Being a wildlife photographer I always rent the entire boat for myself, it’s impossible to photograph using long lenses with other people in your way (and people never seem to shut the f#%k up which disturbs the wildlife).

Shawn A. Dennstedt – Ria Celestun Biosphere, Yucatan, MX

We had a great time in the biosphere and I think Shawn came to love it almost as much as me. We photographed Roseate Spoonbills (a rare treat), American Flamingos, a Wood Stork (recently upgraded from endangered species to threatened species), Egrets and even the elusive Tiger Heron deep in the mangrove swamps. I got a closeup shot of a very large spider (I think it’s of the Orb species) that bit me 5-years ago (May 2012) with dire consequences—you can read about that experience here. Yesterday we once again boarded our 2nd class bus for the return trip back to Merida. Interestingly the trip to Celestun takes about 1½ hours but the trip back to Merida takes close to 3-hours (they stop in every little village on the way back).

I have included a complete photo gallery above if you’re interested. Just click on the thumbnails to enlarge for better viewing. Unfortunately, this will probably be my last visit to Celestun and to the Yucatan Peninsula in general. Brother Joel and I will be embarking on part two of our world trek soon after my return from Mexico—we’re thinking of shoving off sometime in October for parts  unknown but generally towards the east and Asia. Our itinerary is uncertain at this time but I will definitely be posting updates soon on this blog. So, stay tuned for part two of our world adventure—it promises to be a humdinger. Shawn should be joining us in about a year when his youngest daughter heads off to college.

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer’s Note:  I had the opportunity on this most recent trip to the biosphere to give my new wildlife combo a thorough workout: Canon EOS 7D Mark II coupled with my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom lens. Both worked flawlessly and I was very impressed with their performance. The 10 fps on the Mark II was great for birds in flight and the new & improved autofocus (much like the flagship 1Dx Mark II) was amazing and tracked very well. The new 100-400mm version 2.0 also performed as advertised—all my images came back crisp and sharp. The lens autofocuses quickly and stays locked on. It’s a relatively heavy lens, on par with my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM telephoto zoom, but is easily handheld. The balance of my photography here in Yucatan (everything but wildlife) was shot with my new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and despite the raging controversy surrounding this new offering from Canon I personally couldn’t be happier with its performance (a tempest in the blogosphere teapot in my opinion). SFD



The Multi-Millionaires of Merida, Yucatan

Stephen F. Dennstedt

It is reported that at its height (1898 to around 1911) the reign of the Yucatan henequen industry created more millionaires in Yucatan than anywhere else in the world (upon reflection, however, I think this statistic refers to millionaires per capita and not total millionaires). So what is henequen? Henequen is a plant in the agave family that produces a strong fibre that can be turned into hemp and sisal for producing manila rope, twine, string and other natural fibre bindings.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898 the import of raw sisal from the Philippines to the United States was severely restricted, so Yucatan became the de facto go-to source for this natural fibre product used the world over. Within just a few years Yucatan became the wealthiest state in Mexico and again boasted the most millionaires per capita of anywhere in the entire world. The remnants of Yucatan’s glory days can be seen everywhere around Merida (especially along the tree-shaded Avenida Paseo de Montejo).

Today, once privately owned mansions and haciendas have been renovated to house museums, art galleries, restaurants and other cultural venues. You cannot visit Merida without being struck by the beauty of the local architecture. Although the stupendous cathedrals and churches that dot Merida mostly originated with the Spanish in the 1500s the impressive mansions of the henequen magnates are of a more recent generation—primarily early 20th century (1900 to about 1915). Yucatan’s henequen industry quickly died out in the early 1960s when the introduction of synthetic fibres replaced the natural fibres of the henequen plant. Now we are stuck with plastic bindings and other products that are not biodegradable like the hemp and sisal derived from henequen.

Yesterday Shawn and I ventured forth from our small local hotel to visit three former henequen estates, on the outskirts of Merida, known as haciendas. These once privately owned estates are huge and only a few remain in private hands. Most estates are now owned by Banco Nacional de Mexico—some have been renovated as tourist attractions and restaurants, while others are being slowly reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. Our guide told us that at one time there were over 2,000 henequen haciendas around Merida but that only about 20 still exist (and they no longer grow henequen).

Of the three haciendas we visited two had been renovated and one was in the process of being reclaimed by the surrounding jungle—I found the jungle reclamation site to be the most interesting and it gave me pleasure to see Mother Nature taking back what was rightfully hers in the first place. The first hacienda we visited was the restored Hacienda San Antonio Tahdzibichen (that last word, Tahdzibichen, is pure Mayan). The Mayan pronunciation is totally impossible to figure out by simply looking at the letters in the word—you have to hear it before you can pronounce it. The signs along the highway are a crack-up because the Mayan words are so long. Even Spanish speakers have trouble with the Mayan words.

I could have spent the entire day at the hacienda in the jungle—try this word on for size: Uahyalceh. Yep, that was its name. It loosely translates to offspring of the deer or at least that’s what Juan told me. After we left the hacienda in the jungle we headed further into the jungle to a couple of remote cenotes for a quick swim. As our vehicle proceeded down a narrow jungle track we saw a female Coati carrying her youngsters across the road in front of us. Coatis are a Raccoon-like animal and really cute (they are very similar to another indigenous critter, the Kinkajou). Unfortunately, I was not able to snap a shot (I only had my 16-35mm wide-angle zoom lens with me) and they were pretty much hidden by the undergrowth.

The remote cenotes we visited were very cool. They were well off the beaten path and not overrun with tourists jockeying for position. They were open centoes meaning that the limestone ceilings had caved in exposing the deep pools of water to the natural sunlight. Swallows, bats and small fish all call cenotes their home. You can reach the pools by using the rickety wooden stairs or, if you’re daring like my son, you can jump from the rim into the water below. It’s about a 40-foot leap and can hurt you if you don’t land completely vertical. The fella jumping after my son had bad form and landed partially on his back—with great pain I might add. We thought he might be seriously hurt but he seemed okay after catching his breath.

Finishing up our time at the cenotes we followed the jungle track back to the main highway and pulled into Hacienda Ochil (another restored hacienda) for a GREAT and traditional Yucatecan lunch. We were pretty dehydrated by this time (even though we had both consumed a litre of water) and decided to have an ice-cold beer (one ice-cold beer led to three) and by the time the food arrived we were feeling no pain whatsoever. I started with Empanadas con Queso and my main course was Pollo Pibil (both were delicious). The whole meal, including empanadas and beer, came to less than 250 pesos. Another great day in Yucatan: great sights, great people, great food and drink. Today’s temperature update: 95°F with 65% humidity translates to a heat index of 118°F.




Acanceh and the Cenotes de Santa Barbara

Stephen F. Dennstedt

If you visit Yucatan you MUST see and experience the Cenotes. Cenotes are underground streams, rivers and lakes that flow beneath the limestone capstone of Yucatan. Oftentimes the ceilings cave in creating sinkholes that let the natural sunlight in—the fresh water is clear and iridescent blue in color. Cenotes are a popular tourist attraction and you can swim in many of them.

Shawn and I booked a day tour to visit the small town of Acanceh and the Cenotes de Santa Barbara. We were picked up at our small hotel (Hotel Santa Ana) at 9:00 a.m. and then transported to Acanceh to see the small ruins there as well as the local church, parque and Mercado. You can climb the small pyramid for 20 pesos (about $1 usd) if you like.

I know I’ve mentioned this ad nauseam but it’s mighty hot this time of year in Yucatan, with a temperature heat index in the 100°F plus range most (every) day. We chose not to climb the pyramid and instead took the time to photograph a portion of the ruins, the church and the Mercado. It was a short stop, maybe twenty to thirty minutes, because most of the tour (and interest) centers around the Cenotes. Everyone likes a cool dip in the underground pools this time of year (the water temperature is typically between 75°F and 80°F).

From Acanceh it was just a short ride to Cuzama and Homun. I had visited the Cenotes in Cuzama before but never the Cenotes de Santa Barbara in Homun. Once we arrived in Santa Barbara there was a restaurant, bathrooms and changing rooms. You can reach the Cenotes three different ways (and there are three Cenotes): you can walk (not advisable, especially this time of year), you can ride a bicycle (again, too hot for me) or preferably you can hitch a ride on a horse-drawn narrow-gauge railway cart (free of charge). In my opinion the narrow-gauge cart is the ONLY way to go—just saying.

Typical Cenote (This is NOT my Photo – Internet File Photo)

Once Shawn changed into his swimming trunks we boarded our cart for the short trip out to the first Cenote (less than 10-minutes). It’s not too taxing on the horses because the trip is flat and fairly short in duration and they get plenty of rest in the shade between trips (the horses are treated well so not to worry). The first Cenote was deep underground and you had to descend a lot of stairs to reach the bottom. You’re warned to watch your head going down and back up again because of the low hanging rock, so I promptly banged my head both going down and up (it’s what old men do).

I met the most amazing woman while Shawn was swimming. She looked to be about my age (70 years old) but upon striking up a conversation with her I discovered she was 91 years old—her name was Willa White and she was travelling with her son (who works for Channel 13 in New York). She was originally from Jamaica but has lived in Brooklyn, New York for most of her life. She told me they also have underground pools like these Cenotes in Jamaica and that she used to swim in them after school let out. Willa was a delight and I loved talking with her. Frankly, she put me to shame so I should quit complaining about getting old.

Shawn spent some time in the deep Cenote swimming and taking some GoPro video and thoroughly enjoyed himself. This was an enclosed Cenote (the top had not caved in) so it was very humid—I took a few photos and then returned to the surface (once again banging my head) to cool off. So I know you’re asking yourself why I didn’t swim: first I don’t swim (at least not well), I didn’t want to leave my photo gear unattended and maybe most importantly I didn’t want to show this poor excuse of a body to anyone else (Willa and I both agreed on that). But it was fun watching Shawn have a good time.

The second Cenote was just a few yards across the railroad tracks from the first and it was an open Cenote (meaning sometime in the past millennia the limestone roof had caved in allowing natural sunlight to enter). This second Cenote was more shallow (closer to the surface) and allowed bats and swallows to enter. Both Cenotes had very small fish (minnow size) swimming around and I warned two girls from Holland to look out for poisonous snakes and crocodiles (I eventually told them I was just kidding but I’m not sure they believed me). I do mean stuff like that—again, it’s something old guys do.

When Shawn finished up in the pools we headed back (again by horse-drawn cart) to the entrance with its beckoning restaurant. We hadn’t eaten in thirty hours because we had no appetite after our over-heated day at Kaxil Kiuic so we were pretty hungry. We got back about 1:30 p.m. and lunch wasn’t going to be served until 2:30 p.m. so Shawn changed back into his clothes and we started to drink our cervezas—Dos Equis is a GREAT Mexican beer. Drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea but we sure got relaxed. We had a nice lunch of: Poc Chuc, black bean soup, rice, pickled onions, avocado and fresh corn tortillas. Poc Chuc is thinly sliced pork marinated in orange juice and then grilled.


Finishing Our First Week in Yucatan

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Today is Wednesday and we are celebrating the end of our first week in Yucatan (two more weeks to go). We’ve managed to see and do a lot in our first week: reconnecting with old friends (first time meeting for Shawn), plenty of good food and drink and of course some of the local sights. Temperatures remain HOT: it’s currently 10:30 a.m. and 87°F with 73% humidity which translates to a Heat Index of 99°F.

It’s supposed to reach a high today of 95°F and if the humidity remained the same (which it won’t because it usually drops a bit in the afternoon) the Heat Index would be 126°F. Monday, when we were in the forest of Kaxil Kiuic, we had a nice thunderstorm that cooled things off temporarily and again last night (early in the evening) we had another thunderstorm of short duration.

So, back to Monday, my good friend of five years, James Callaghan (Director of the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve) picked us up from our hotel at 7:00 a.m. to transport us to the reserve along with Ricardo the reserve’s resident naturalist. It was payday for the workers so James kindly invited us along so Shawn could see the reserve and experience the authentic Yucatan. It is technically dry tropical forest (an oxymoron?) but in fact is almost impenetrable jungle (my description not actual scientific fact).

James Callaghan – Director, Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve

It’s a two-hour drive (each way) from Merida and James often makes the trip multiple times a week depending on what’s going on and what needs to be done. He’s an amazing guy (Masters Degree in Archeology) and has been running the reserve for over twenty years. He’s married to Ruby (a local woman and fluent English speaker) and he himself has lived in Yucatan most of his adult life (originally from San Diego, CA like me). Obviously he’s a fluent Spanish speaker himself but readily admits to not having mastered the local Mayan dialect (which is just impossible).

Shawn A. Dennstedt Surveying the Forest

Kaxil Kiuic is also home to Puuc Jaguar Conservation headed up by Markus Tellkamp, PhD (another really good friend). I first met Markus about five years ago when we spent a week installing remote cameras in the Puuc forest to track transit Jaguars. The project continues with the cameras having gone through a few iterations to combat the ever-present humidity (some with better luck than others). James told me the cameras were brought back in from the field in May and captured at least one Jaguar (possibly a pregnant female). They often capture Pumas and Ocelots too along with other forest critters.

Evelio’s Traditional Maya Home

Upon arrival at the reserve James escorted us to the hilltop observation tower that rises some 15½ metres (50+ feet) above the landscape. The height of the tower coupled with the hilltop elevation allows for an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding forest canopy, some 450 acres of pristine wilderness with its indigenous wildlife and botanical splendour. When I lived in Merida (2012 to 2014) I spent many glorious days and weeks at the reserve photographing to my heart’s content. Unfortunately, most of those photos have been lost to several computer crashes along the way.

Shawn A. Dennstedt

After Shawn and I spent some time at the tower we hiked over to one of the reserve’s local ruins in situ. These local ruins of the Maya have been reliably dated to somewhere around 800 AD (making them over 2,200 years old). The reserve is a scientific research outpost and is not open to the public. When archaeological excavations take place everything is returned to its original condition, so these ruins look very much like they appeared to the early 19th century Yucatan explorers. I wish that I could share some photos with you but for some reason photos of these particular ruins are considered politically sensitive (again they’re for scientific research and not tourism).

Local Butterfly

I must admit that age (I turned 70 this past May) is finally taking its toll. Between the climb to the hilltop observation tower and the hike over to the ruins in the extreme heat and humidity I was thrashed. Even consuming 2-litres of water didn’t stave off the inevitable dehydration and fatigue. When we finally returned to the central compound I crashed on the cool cement floor (and promptly fell asleep) for an hour to recover my strength. Age is a cruel taskmaster but I continue to persevere albeit at a much slower pace.

Large Abandoned Wasp (or Hornet’s) Nest Found in the Ruins

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent with James and Ricardo running errands in various local Maya communities. Along the way we experienced the glorious thunderstorm that temporarily cooled things down a bit. The term biocultural plays a large role in the reserve’s designation: Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve. An underpinning of the reserve’s philosophy is that you can’t ask the local indigenous community to give up things (like farmland to protect the forests) without giving them something in return—it has to be a win-win situation. Ask the locals to give up subsistence hunting and poaching (for food and profit) and you must offer something in return.

James Standing in Front of Some of the Reserve’s Outlying Structures

A good example of this philosophy occurred while we were visiting: two young men came onto the reserve with a captured 5-foot Boa Constrictor that had just consumed a large rooster. They wanted money for the snake but when James and Ricardo explained they couldn’t buy or traffic in wildlife they accepted two hundred seedlings in exchange. They could either plant the seedlings for themselves or sell them for a profit. This might seem like a small thing (a fine line as it were) to the uneducated but it’s important that locals aren’t encouraged to traffic in indigenous wildlife to extort money.

Shawn A. Dennstedt

James and his crew (primarily Evelio and his sons) have created an extensive seed bank and nursery to introduce native plants back into the forest. They’ve been very successful and have donated back over 300,000 plants to local families. The reserve’s philosophy is multifaceted and comprehensive and thankfully ongoing. I may not have all of my facts and figures correct (and for that I apologise) because I wasn’t taking notes—these observations are all from memory. And as mentioned before my memory might have been impaired with the extreme heat and humidity. Getting old is a tough gig and my recommendation is not to do it if you can help it.

Note: This will probably be my last visit to Kaxil Kiuic (and Yucatan) because once I return to the States brother Joel and I are off to continue our world trek while we still can. I will have many fond memories of Merida, the Yucatan and especially the reserve. I spent many an hour sitting with Evelio in front of his house photographing Toucans and other sundry birds and Kinkajous that wandered into his yard every evening at sundown. I don’t speak Mayan and my Spanish is atrocious but somehow we seemed to communicate. Many thanks to James Callaghan and Markus Tellkamp for their friendship and hospitality over the years—they will never be forgotten. And thank you for giving my son the chance to experience the place that has given me so much pleasure over the years. James told me that Evelio heard a Jaguar vocalising a few nights ago—the Jaguar still survives as the apex predator of  Yucatan. May it always be so. SFD

Breakfast and Seeing Old Friends

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Today is Sunday and our fourth full day in Merida, Yucatan (we arrived late Wednesday night).  It’s a tad bit cooler today with a temperature of 91°F with 59% humidity, that translates to a Heat Index (relative temperature) of 102°F. But it’s still dang hot any way you slice it. I always thought the cooler months brought in the tourists but the opposite seems to be true (at least this year). Crowded.

My friend Dominique owns and operates Cafe Pistache (formerly Cafe la Boheme) on Avenida Paseo de Montejo. It’s a french sidewalk cafe and serves great coffee and breakfasts in the morning (although they are open all day and well into the evening). On Sundays her two young daughters, Justine & Elodie, help her with the cafe and customers so it was a great opportunity to hookup with all of them again.

Dominique and the girls are multilingual and speak fluent Spanish, French and English (and I think Dominique speaks Italian and some German as well if I remember correctly). I asked Elodie this morning what language they speak at home and she said all three—when I asked if that was confusing she got a quizzical look on her young face and simply said no. How many kids in the United States can speak three or four languages fluently? Most seem to have trouble with simple English.

Shawn Relaxing at Cafe Pistache

Shawn and I took our time over breakfast and just relaxed with the morning. Every Sunday Paseo de Montejo is closed to vehicle traffic for 4-hours to allow cyclists, runners, pedestrians and dogs to enjoy the tree-shaded avenida. Shawn and I are both retired father & son bachelors so we also enjoyed watching the attractive ladies stroll up and down the boulevard. And make no mistake about it, there are some very attractive women here in Merida. We were in no hurry and spent well over an hour watching the goings on and visiting with Dominique and the girls. Even my old expat friend John stopped by on his bicycle (John helped us to set up 50 remote cameras for Puuc Jaguar Conservation a few years back).

Bicycle Sunday on Avenida Paseo de Montejo

After breakfast and coffee we headed to Hotel Fiesta Americana so I could buy a few Cuban cigars. Most of the cigars you buy on the street or in the tourist district are Cuban fakes and not particularly tasty but at the hotel you can buy the real deal: Cuban PUNCH brand cigars at 188 pesos or $10.57 usd per stick. To non-cigar smokers that probably sounds like a lot of money but for authentic Cuban-made cigars it’s very reasonable. When I lived in the USA I used to have my Cubans smuggled in from Canada and they cost me $35 to $55 usd per stick (are you listening State Department and NSA?).

Cuban PUNCH Brand Cigars

Bright and early tomorrow morning my longtime friend James Callaghan (Director of the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve) is picking us up at the hotel to spend the day with him at the reserve. It’s a scientific research center located deep in the forests of the Puuc region of Yucatan and is beautiful. It is also the home of Puuc Jaguar Conservation directed by Dr. Markus Tellkamp (another good friend). Markus is a German-Ecuadoran and native to Quito, Ecuador. Joel and I spent a lot of time in Ecuador (2015) and we were able to hookup with Markus again. It’s a small world.

Merida, Yucatan Day 3

Stephen F. Dennstedt

This time of year it’s hot in Merida, Yucatan. REALLY hot. For instance today’s temperature is 93°F with 64% humidity resulting in a Heat Index relative temperature of 110°F. The best advice for surviving the heat is to live like the locals: get your chores and errands taken care of in the early morning hours, spend the afternoons in air-conditioning and then venture forth once again in the cooler evening hours.

It’s not so easy for tourists and travellers because they’re typically a slave to time (vacations don’t last forever except for retired guys like Shawn and me). For those trying to fit in as much as possible in a short amount time I would recommend: pace yourself and walk slow; take advantage of the shady tree-lined avenidas like Paseo de Montejo or walk on the shady side of the street (however you’re out of luck when the sun is directly overhead) and stay HYDRATED (note: beer does NOT equal water).

So many tourists and travellers never make it to Merida because they choose to stay in all-inclusive resorts on the Maya Riviera (like Cancun or Playa del Carmen). That’s a shame because there is a lot to see and do in the White City. Merida is a culturally rich and vibrant city of over 1-Million residents—it boasts world-class opera, ballet, theatre, symphonies and art. Centro Historico in the centre of the city is resplendent with Spanish Colonial architecture and tree-shaded parks. Venture further into the surrounding barrios (neighbourhoods) and you can experience authentic Mexico (surprisingly few tourists make the effort).

The dining experience is diverse with everything from American fast-food joints (Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC) to Italian and German cuisine and even Thai, Chinese and Japanese Sushi. But my recommendation is to try local Yucatecan food: Queso Relleno, Cochinita Pibil, Poc Chuc and the local tortas (sandwiches) and sopas (soups). Yucatecan food is different from what you think of when you think of Mexican food: no crispy tacos, no burritos, no chips & salsa, no rice & beans and even the tamales are different (moister because they’re wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks). The flavours are different too, subtle and very complex (different spices entirely from what you’re used to).

Cenote (Note: This is NOT my photo, it is an internet file photo)

Our schedule seems to be filling up quickly: on Monday we will be visiting the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve with its director (and friend) James Callaghan (it’s also the home of Puuc Jaguar Conservation); on Tuesday we will be spending the day at the local Cenotes; Sunday will be an all day trip to the lesser ruins of Ruta Puuc and then on Monday we will be heading to the small coastal fishing village of Celestun with its Ria Celestun Biosphere (home to migrating Flamingos, Hawks, Ibis, Spoonbills, Osprey, Turtles, Crocodiles and Caimen). We will be there four days and three nights and plan to eat plenty of seafood and drink lots of beer. Busy, busy, busy.

Note: To learn more about the Cenotes of Yucatan click here.

Shawn A. Dennstedt

Second Full Day in Yucatan

Stephen F. Dennstedt

This is my second full day in Yucatan with my son Shawn. The flight down always tires me out even though it’s only about six hours from San Diego to Merida via Houston. We were picked up at the airport at 8 p.m. by a special lady friend and then deposited at our hotel about an hour later (after an extensive tour of her area of town—Norte).

The equivalent of a stateside freeway circles the city of Merida and it’s called a periférico. Theoretically it allows you to bypass the inner-city traffic and gets you to your destination faster and with less hassle—I’m not totally convinced that’s true but it gave Shawn a chance to see another part of town other than old Merida (Centro Historico). If my friend is reading this she knows (I hope) that I’m teasing her.

Our first evening the three of us had a simple late (by American standards) dinner at a little outdoor cafe called the Impala. It’s within a very short walking distance of our simple local hotel—Hotel Santa Ana (about $18 usd pp per night). We had sandwiches and beer (Dos Equis Amber to loosen the travel kinks). I must admit that we were both in bed by 10:30 p.m. and sound asleep at 10:35 p.m. We skipped breakfast the next day and slept in (travelling can knock the stuff’n outta ya).

We did head out to explore Avenida Paseo de Montejo (Merida’s prettiest tree-lined avenue) in the early afternoon (the hottest time of day this time of year—88F with 76% humidity = Heat Index of 104F). San Diego can get mighty hot during the summer months but (cliché as it is) it’s a dry heat. Humidity can completely enervate you in short order and it takes some getting used to. When I was in Vietnam during the war (1967 – 1968) and ambient temperatures reached over 100F with high humidity the Heat Index could easily soar to 120F to 130F (the same is true in Yucatan).

Sunset arrives at about 8 p.m. in Merida this time of year, so we headed out to explore Centro Historico during the cooler evening hours. We had eaten lunch at 1 p.m. at a restaurant (Manjar Blanco) that serves the best Queso Relleno Negro in all of Merida (in my humble opinion) and as the hours wore on Shawn was getting hungry again—he’s a really BIG guy at 6’4″ so you have to keep the big machine well fuelled. The evening was cooler, the humidity had dropped a bit, and there was a soft balmy breeze blowing. Shawn started packing away the calories but I was content with a small bowl of Sopa de Lima.

After dinner we strolled through the historical district visiting Parque Santa Lucia, the large cathedral in the heart of Merida and the main plaza across from the cathedral. This morning we met an old friend for breakfast (Mexican style—meaning it lasted over two hours) at Rosa’s on Avenida Paseo de Montejo. Jose, or “Pipo” to his friends, owns three newspapers in Mexico, one of which is The Yucatan Times which Joel and I worked for when we lived in Merida. He is a good friend and we’ve come to love him and his family. Later this evening Shawn and I will once again venture forth for dinner (possibly Tortas de Pavo y Tacos de Cochinita y Cerveza at the local mercado—about $5 usd pp).

I was recently asked if Shawn and I travel well together—the simple answer is yes we do. When he was a kid we used to backpack our local mountains and deserts together, and when he got older we went on a long road trip after he graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. More recently we spent about three weeks travelling through Vietnam in 2004. It was my first trip back since the war and we visited former battle sites, villages and bases—it was a very emotional and cathartic experience and I was glad that I could share it with my son (Joel and I spent almost a month in Vietnam in 2008). Hopefully, he will be joining Joel and I in about a year as we continue our world trek.

As we continue our stay in Merida I plan to introduce Shawn to the Cenotes at Cuzama, the Maya Ruins in the Ruta Puuc district and we will be visiting the small coastal fishing village of Celestun for four days and three nights. My good friend James Callaghan, the Director of the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve, has also invited us down to his reserve this coming Monday (it is also the home of Puuc Jaguar Conservation). This is a private scientific research center (open by invitation only) so it will be a real privilege to show my son around (I used to do some photographic work for Kaxil Kiuic and Puuc Jaguar when I lived in Merida). Shawn will get to experience the real Yucatan.