Here we are, eating our tunafish ice-cream-scoop pate, an hour’s worth of the Gulf of Mexico behind us and, amazingly enough, only about another half-hour’s flying time left.
“What’s the name of this godforsaken town we’re going to?” a man in front of us asks his wife.
“Mérida,” she says.
Mérida, the capital of Yucatan, the peninsula that spoils Mexico’s otherwise perfect cyclonic dwindle into Central America, a broad limestone projection into the sea that forces the distinction between the Gulf and the Caribbean. Aeronaves de Mexico will fly you from Houston to Mérida for (as of May, 1974) $112 round trip.
That includes your in-flight tunafish and, if you’re no luckier than we are, a severe case of unequalized ear pressure as the descent begins, along with the chance to see an entire planeload of people holding their ears, feverishly moving their jaws, swallowing, chewing gum, writhing in agony, ready even for the coup de grace of ruptured eardrums, while the stewardess, the hollows of whose head are as efficiently accessible to one another as, say, the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway, smiles helplessly.
We arrive in Mérida in darkness. It is the only city of any size on the peninsula (population about 200,000), and the airport is fairly large and filled with blind corridors. After a minor visa hassle, exacerbated by our recently-developed deafness, we take a taxi into the city.
It’s about nine o’clock at night, but the middle of town (site of our quarters—El Gran Hotel) is throbbing, alive as no American city could be after dark—the narrow streets congested with inhabitants on foot or on motorcycles or customized bicycles, with helados carts and rented VW Safaris overhanging with tourists. It’s a very old city, established by Francisco de Montejo in 1542, after he conquered the peninsula from the Mayans; Montejo later became famous as the name of a beer. In its center, at night, the town has a balmy, irritable charm, half tension and half what guidebooks call “atmosphere.” Down the street from our hotel is the University of Yucatan, a single building which takes up the greater part of a block and from which, night and day, students harangue from a loudspeaker in a top-floor window and lurk about cautiously below. The university is on strike, as near as we can determine, because, we are told, the Mérida Chief of Police has recently murdered a protesting trade student in cold blood. There are maybe 60 or 70 students taking part in the marathon and they don’t seem to have struck any populist nerves: the rest of Mérida mills quietly around zócalo, or crams into the city buses whose sides bear dozens of overlapping strike slogans. Dump trucks filled with sneering adolescent soldiers holding real guns cruise back and forth through the streets looking for trouble. It’s as though we’ve arrived at a movie set, the dense streets pulling the buildings together and making them seem like facades, rendering the whole city collapsible and claustrophobic. Since we’ve come at night there is no sense of landscape or of direction, no visible skyline above the tops of the buildings, where the darkness might as well be the walls of a studio.
There are three of us, plus one bewildered soul from Minnesota who’s lost his luggage and is looking for his friends somewhere in the Caribbean, and we rent two connecting rooms at El Gran Hotel for $2.50 for each of us (that’s about 30 pesos); tall high-ceilinged rooms, and one bathroom with a huge shower stall and a fake hot-water handle. The beds, all five or six of them, have no bedspreads, only very cool-looking sheets that impress upon us for the first time that it’s hot here, and always is.
Mérida gains nothing by daylight. If you go to Yucatan you’ll probably read delightful guidebooks about “spotless Mérida,” “the white city,” etc. Maybe it once was, certainly it once was. But now Mérida is just another dumping ground for used-up American modes of life: fantastic noise and air pollution issue out of those narrow streets where macho cab drivers swerve in and out of lopsided buses so overloaded that it’s the passengers with seats who have the worst of it. You have to shout to be heard; the noise makes you irritable and camouflages everything of interest.
It’s clear the thing to do is to leave Mérida as soon as possible. It’s the unavoidable center of Yucatan, but it has no focus. It’s a departure point grudging you your freedom to leave.
So we walk to the bus station in hopes of being able to make our way to Cozumel, on the east coast, by that afternoon. No luck. The buses are full until midnight. We buy our tickets for that bus and deliberate how to spend the next twelve hours. We walk around a lot, and eat lunch at the Continental, a good restaurant in the tourist part of town where you can drink the water and for 35 pesos can set two waiters into motion and eat barbecued red snapper and Lebanese bread.
About an hour-and-a-half’s drive south from Mérida is the classic Mayan site of Uxmal, a trip to which is one of the many compelling reasons to leave the city. A cab driver agrees to take us there and back for what comes out to about $5 apiece, and we’re soon on our way back out the main boulevard, past the airport, past the giant neon Pepsi-Cola bottlecap and then past the Pepsi-Cola plant itself, out onto the shoulderless highway at 90 mph and across the scraggly limestone landscape which occasionally opens into an oasis-like henequen plantation. The highway cuts through the centers of three or four villages, passing within twenty feet of palm-thatched huts and angling across the squares. The land rises a little, then drops again into a verdant savannah before it comes into the Puuc hills for good. Soon the Temple of the Dwarf begins to loom out of the landscape, followed by the rest of