All posts by Jeanine Kitchel

The Fading Glory of Merida

Jeanine Kitchel

If you’ve ever read Dickens’ Great Expectations like I did in high school, the ghoulish side story of Miss Havisham probably lingers in your imagination.  No doubt you recall she was a bride jilted by her groom at the altar, and forever after, refused to remove her wedding  gown, barricaded herself into the parlor with all the wedding trimmings – presents, bouquet, cake – which decayed along with her til she gasped her last breath.

I just came back from a three day trip to Merida, and the fading glory of the city struck me like a hammer.  I have to admit, Merida bore a distinct likeness to Miss Havisham’s slow decline.  I’ve traveled to Merida countless times in the past 15 years, for business and pleasure, and always take delight in the metropolis, in part because it bears no resemblance to the beaches of Quintana Roo where I live,  and  because of its colonial city grandeur.  But the grandeur is fading.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that many small hotels and restaurants, some tried and true staples, have passed on and even some good handicraft shops (though believe me, Merida is not lacking in shops!) are gone, as well. In the past certain parts of the city were always in need of paint, but this time, it seemed almost everywhere was in need of a little spruce-up. Even on grand Paseo de Montejo, every other mansion was for rent, for sale, or vacant.  Alack and alas, it saddened me, as I truly do love Merida.   In years gone by there was always enough new white wash to make up for those faded gems, but this time, the faded gems won out.

Decoration aside, we still ate our way through the city. We tried La Tratto on Paseo Montejo for the first time and enjoyed it immensely, returned to El Argentino for great Argentine food, and could have bypassed Slavia, also on Paseo Montejo, except for its flare and ambience -Thai and Hindi art, glass chandeliers, velvet lampshades, Greek statues, golden Buddhas, silk throw pillows.  Go for a drink, but don’t bother dining there.

If you’ve never seen Merida do make it a stop on your Mexico itinerary, as it really is unparalleled. It may be showing some wear at the seams because many tourists now come only to the Riviera Maya;  in the past it had a good slice of the tourist pie.  The old world charm is still there, along with the teaming streets, a  gigantic market where you can literally buy anything, and the cheapest hammocks in Mexico.  Worth a visit.

Still a Small Beach Town in Riviera Maya

Jeanine Kitchel

Amazing as it may seem, the Riviera Maya, that white sand stretch of endless beaches  in Quintana Roo, still has one beach town that has defied the odds and retained a spectrum of that “je ne sais quois”  factor we all hope for in our search for Margaritaville.  It’s small with great beaches, a little town square or zocalo, walkways in front of the beach with benches and palapas for idling, and a handful of nearby restaurants of almost every persuasion for snacks and dining. Where is this little gem?

Why Puerto Morelos, of course. Just 30 miles south of Cancun and about 20 miles north of ever popular (and overrun) Playa del Carmen. Even Cancun locals have discovered Puerto Morelos in the past couple years, and Sundays are very popular so come early to reserve your spot on the beach, and stay late and enjoy antojitos or dinner in one of the town favorites – Pelicanos, Hola Asia, Posada Amor Restaurant- all on or very near the square.

The town has become a magnet for foreign travelers in large part because it has a town center, grocery store,  a variety of restaurants, ATM machine, and is self contained without the feel of big city Cancun or the glitzy hotel zone.  Many foreigners own beach villas here which are rented out,  some for sale – as is Casa Maya, just north of town and listed on Sotheby’s at www.sirrivieramaya.com (#196) or google Casa Maya Puerto Morelos – and others listed for rent or sale on  informative websites such as MayanRivieraProperties.com and MexicanVacationVillas.com.

Small hotels are plentiful, with still reasonable rates, and now there are a handful of all-inclusives, too. But the small town feel is what brings people back year after year. It’s the type of place where you get to know the waiters at the local restaurants.

Located at the edge of the low jungle, on the other side of the highway, there’s a Sunday Mayan Market run by former Floridian Sandra Dayton who initiated this project 15 years ago when she helped Mayan women in Puerto Morelos buy two sewing machines so they could earn money by sewing clothing to sell. The market has blossomed and now includes food, Mayan massage, and a variety of handicrafts.  Dayton is a character andher knowledge of the jungle is incredible. If she still offers a jungle tour, sign up for it, because it is well worth every peso. Contact Dayton at starseed@prodigy.net.mx.

Puerto Morelos still has the feel. Try it, you may like it.

Brave New World — In Mexico

by Jeanine Kitchel

I recently read that middle class families in Mexico are having tiny transmitters placed under their skin so that satellites can locate them if they’re kidnapped.  According to a report, sales of the device have jumped 13 per cent this year after kidnappings rose 40 per cent from 2004 to 2007 in Mexico.  True statistics on kidnapping are kept underwraps.  Some reports say there were four times more than the 750 cases reported last year.

A transmitter in the chip sends radio signals to a device carried by the client, with a global positioning system in it, says the manufacturer, Xega, from Queretaro.  A satellite can then pickup the kidnap victim’s location.

The crystal encased chip is the size of a piece of rice and is injected under the person’s skin with a syringe. The technology came about when one of the owners of Xega, originally a global positioning system used for tracking down stolen cars, was kidnapped in broad daylight in 2001. Frustrated by his powerlessness, he then adapted the technology to track stolen people.  The pricetag isn’t cheap — upwards of $3700 USD.

In July 2004, 100 employees of the Mexico Attorney General’s Office received surgical implants containing tracking devices that control access to high level security locations.  By scanning their arm where the implant was embedded, they were allowed access to secure sites. A report at that time by Martin Reynolds, Garnter Research, stated the ability for a micro chip to also locate a kidnap victim could be overblown.

So far we’re not at the kidnapping stage in Quintana Roo.  Probably why we’ve been seeing so many Mexico City plates here in the land of the Riviera Maya. With the exception of the occasional hurricane, life is good. Wonder if Huxley would agree.

Making the Most of Merida

By Jeanine Kitchel

Colonial Mexico is only 3-1/2 hours from Cancun in the form of that grand dame, Merida.  Whenever I need a cultural boost, real Mexican Yucatec food, streets teaming with masses of people, an old mercado where you can find anything and everything, historic mansions brimming with history, and an all day street fair every Sunday when the streets at the main plaza are closed off to cars, I head to Merida.

If you’re a regular visitor to the Riviera Maya and haven’t seen Merida, you really should make time for it in your next itinerary.  ADO buses make direct runs daily from the Cancun bus station to Merida for around $35 USD and are air conditioned and sleek, with TVs and bathrooms.  Or if you have a car, it’s a fast run on the super highway. Hotel prices start as low as $33 USD/night at the Trinidad (Calle 62 and 65) or Trinidad Galeria (Calle 60 and 51)  both near the main plaza; both are eclectic and charming. The galeria is an actual art gallery and each room is unique.  For historic sense of place, Merida’s oldest hotel is The Gran, Calle 59 at 60, and the upstairs rooms with balconies are a great spot for people watching on the square below.  Rates start at $84 USD. A bit farther off the plaza (Calle 59 at 68) is recently renovated hotel Villa Maria with only 11 rooms in an exquisite 200 year old building, complete with dining room, bar and sitting area. Rates here start at $140 USD. The old Villa Mercedes mansion was bought by the InterContinental group (now known as Presidente) and is just off Paseo Montejo at Ave. Colon with internet rates beginning at $106 USD.

Restaurants abound in Merida, in all price ranges.  On the plaza you’ll find two local outdoor eateries specializing in Yucatec favorites–panuchos, salbutes–for  only 25 pesos.  The 100 year old ice cream shop with fruit glacees is next door.  Restaurants like Los Almendros serve Yucatec specialties with all the pomp they can muster, and there are steak houses, Argentine restaurants, Italian restaurants, along with one of my favorites, Alberto’s Continental Cuisine, run by two now ancient brothers who’ve managed to house an art collection within a restaurant. Their garden patio displays one of the largest rubber trees I’ve seen.  It’s romantic, beautiful, and the food is different–some Lebanese specialties are included on the menu.

Whatever way you slice it, I promise you’ll be wowed by Merida.  There’s culture, food, history, walking tours, even horse drawn carriages. It’s a trip though time, and a taste of real Mexico.

A Slice of Italy –in Playa del Carmen

By Jeanine Kitchel

Known for irresistible beaches, a party crowd and happy hour specials, Playa del Carmen also lays claim to its “Little Italy” section north of Avenida Consituyentes on Fifth Avenue. Five thousand Italians live in Playa, and with their arrival came a number of good Italian restaurants. For Italian food in the Riviera Maya, this is the place to go, plus the area itself, even though still Fifth Avenue, is less crowded and a nice place to stroll and windowshop.

Renzo’s Authentic Italian Pizza on Fifth Avenue (at Calle 24) offers pizza by the slice for 10 pesos. This tiny hole in the wall has been serving slices since 1999 when Renzo left Lucca, Italy, to become a Rastaman in Playa del Carmen, and neither the menu nor the amount of customers waiting in line has changed. The place is packed all hours–day or night. A few other Italian eateries dot Fifth Avenue, along with a couple gelatto spots, and several charming boutique hotels are Italian owned. But the real prize is Il Pescatore Ristorante Italiano, specializing in homemade (really!) pastas and fresh seafood. Located one block off Fifth Avenue at Tenth Avenue and Calle 24, Iviana, the ever present chef-owner-hostess especiale greets you, seats you and chats you up with her amazing daily specials. On my first happy accident visit, we had oysters on the half shell, fresh mussels sauteed in an incredible tomato, lime, butter sauce, glorious bruschettas on fresh bread, and the silkiest, smoothest ravioli I’ve ever tasted (spinach and cottage cheese). The house wine was smooth, red or white, and inexpensive by the glass. The wait staff was personable and attentive. The ambiance was Playa chic–quirky, colorful, indoor and outdoor dining, and off the main drag, a real plus.

Having lived in this area for the past 11 years I’ve been constantly disappointed in Playa del Carmen’s restaurant scene as prices skyrocket and real food, fresh fish and ambiance become scarce. Maybe tourists just don’t demand it. But Il Pescatore reaffirmed my faith in local restaurants. I’ll be back — again and again.

Tropical Storm Dolly Just a Memory

By Jeanine Kitchel

Tropical Storm Dolly passed through the eastern Yucatan Peninsula south of Cancun with little impact beginning 1 a.m. EDT July 21 and exited the peninsula around 7 a.m. enroute to the gulf and points north.  Winds maximized at 49 miles per hour and it appears there have been no damages.  Rainfall was not heavy.

For tourists, seaweed and light debris on beaches for a day or two will be the maximum exposure they’ll have to this small tropical storm.  Satellite images show sun will soon be on the way.

Tulum Eco-Resorts Closed Unexpectedly

By Jeanine Kitchel

Last week Mexico’s Environmental Agency, Profepa, closed five upscale eco-resorts on the Tulum Beach Road in the Riviera Maya which were allegedly built without proper permits or did not meet proper environmental regulations.

The five properties — Diamante K, Tankah 1, Rancho El Jaguar, Caleta Tankah and Mezzanine– insist their paperwork is in order, but Profepa insists otherwise and has asked the tourists staying at these resorts to leave.  Sadly, the Mexican army marched in to assist Profepa and left a PR nightmare in its wake.  One New York graduate student called it surreal when four soldiers in fatigues with M16s arrived to put up signs that read “closed” in Spanish.  No better way to spoil a really good happy hour.

Profepa says five other resorts are under investigation.  Several years ago the Tulum Beach Road ended at Hotel and Restaurant Ana y Jose’s,  just before entry into Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.  But as tourists flocked to this amazingly beautiful and remote stretch of beaches, hotels have pushed the envelope, some locals say,  by buying and building on “ejido” land in the biosphere itself, which is government property.    Ejido land, granted to Mexican citizens by the government, comes with a strict set of rules.  The hotels in the biosphere claim clear title, but now it appears proper title rights will be put to the test.

If your summer vacation plans include Tulum, check with your hotel and make sure it’s open before heading south.