By Jeanine Lee Kitchel
Clouded skies threatened rain as I drove west of Cancun on the wide dusty avenue that turns into the Merida Road. I was heading to Leona Vicario in search of plants for my Puerto Morelos garden and this trek would take me to the best place in the region to buy them.
Past a string of hotels more for businessmen than travelers, the dusty four-lane highway narrowed down to two-lane blacktop where Mayan rock walls and zapote houses with palapa roofs began to appear. Larger fincas and sprawling haciendas dotted the landscape along with the occasional tienda selling beer and snacks.
Long known as Cancun’s garden spot, Leona Vicario becomes a pilgrimage for every Cancun homeowner with a green thumb. Not only is this bucolic pueblo only 40 miles from Cancun, but prices here are irresistibly low. Some common plants can be purchased for as little as five pesos. More exotic flora is more expensive but ever present. Tinier Cristobol Colon, jut past Leona Vicario, offers more nurseries still.
Hand painted wooden signs proclaimed we were near– El Valle Encantado (Enchanted Valley), Rancho Los Cocos, Ventas de Plantas (plant sales). One by one the nurseries came into view. Humble racks of plants tumbled off porches onto the ground, splaying into yards and driveways. Other nurseries displayed plants clumped in groups, covered by palapas.
Some viveros were simply Mayan houses with plants neatly arranged by color on front porches. There were rambling nurseries with flatbed trucks parked nearby, ready to make deliveries. There were tiny nurseries with only one or two rows of shrubs.
Most of the shopkeepers were Mayan women. Occasionally a young girl would peek around a corner to say “buenos dias.”
Although hard hit by Hurricane Wilma two years ago, Leona Vicario appears to be reborn, complete in this incarnation with a traffic cop who directs the occasional car that passes by. Pedestrian traffic, however, is brisk. Several stores sport signs for fruit and there’s a no-frills carniceria with hunks of meat hanging by hooks right next to a polleria where chickens are grilled over a mesquite fire.
Enroute to Cristobol Colon we drove too far and had to ask directions at a funky store. We turn around and stop at a no-name nursery heavy with shade cloth to screen the plants from the sun. A fruit stand sits next store. As our car pulls into the narrow driveway a mangy dog careens close to the covered plants and a stout Mayan woman, the owner, moves quickly from behind the counter and waves her hands at the intruder. “Out!” she yells.
She then turns to me and says without apology, “Not good for the plants.”
I nod in agreement. Dogs and plants don’t mix.
We buy four agave cactus, 10 “ti” plants which she calls Hawaiiana, two dracaenas with white stripes and a bunch of succulents with bright purple flowers. She tallies the bill in her head. As I hand over exact change for the purchase, I ask her how long she’s lived here.
Eight years, she tells me, but before that she lived in Cancun for 10. It’s quiet here, she explains, tranquilo. Nicer than Cancun. But not so on Sundays; then it’s busy. Lots of people. Better we came today.
I thank her and we load our new plants into the car with the others we’ve collected and head back to that large metropolis that’s become our second home just 40 miles away.