The International Writers Magazine: Mexico

A Tale of Three (Mexican) Cities
Stewart Mandy

The plan was simple – a two-week eastbound journey across southeast Mexico, taking in three contrasting cities and visiting four states. During this time, I would look for the ‘inside story’ in the places I visited, absorb the culture, connect with the people, and most importantly, attempt to reconnect with myself.

Approaching Mexico City onboard an AeroMexico jet, the view was spectacular, until the aircraft began to descend inside the mountains, and it was suddenly all but obscured by the pervasive smog for which the city is famous. On the ground, visibility was poor, and within a few minutes of stepping off the aircraft, my eyes were itching and my sinuses aching. I spent 4 hours in the bustling airport and I was very happy when my next flight departed and I could breathe again. It was a quick one hour 20 minute flight to Villahermosa, where my host awaited me at the small but very modern airport, driving perhaps the oldest Volkswagen I have ever seen. The vehicle, it turned out, was borrowed; anyway, it made it (just) into town.

Villahermosa is the largest city in the state of Tabasco, located directly south of the Gulf of Mexico. It is largely absent from the tourist trail, and consequently has something of an undiscovered feel about it. In general, it is a city of working people, going about life without attracting much outside attention. Many houses have no air-conditioning, poorly fitting windows which admit clouds of mosquitoes, and basic or temperamental plumbing, indeed we had no running water at all for 2 of the days I was there, due to an interruption in the supply to that section of the city. Many people do not have cars. Viewed from a distance, living conditions seem to indicate a third world city. However, as often the case in Mexico, all is not quite what it seems. My host’s house was equipped with broadband wireless Internet, and an Internet café is on every corner. So many in fact that some have closed down due to over competition, and rates for access are as low as 5 pesos an hour (around US$0.45). The local university is humming with activity, and the demand for IT related subjects (both hardware and software) is high. Technologically, the city is powering ahead, in stark contrast to the crumbling basic infrastructure.

Traffic in Villahermosa can be terrifying, many of the roads are full of potholes, and some are unpaved. The most popular method of transportation is the ‘colectivo’ – a shared minivan, often an ancient Volkswagen model, with the rear rows of seats removed, and replaced with a bench type seat around the sidewalls. In the middle, space for ‘squatting’ when the benches are full, with grab bars on the roof for support. Basically, a deathtrap on wheels. Routes are fixed, and the price is low; 5 pesos (around US$0.45) per ride. Most drivers have crucifixes, icons, and other religious items on the windshield and dash – if you are in any doubt as to why they have them there, you won’t be after you have taken a ride with one of them! Taxis are another popular option; with an in-town ride running around 15 pesos (about US$1.35). Don’t be surprised however if the driver stops to pick up other people going in the same general direction!
The condition of the roads and creative driving skills of many of the drivers makes venturing onto the road an adventure. My host frequently recommended we drive on certain roads due to their being ‘less dangerous’. The first time he said this, I hopefully inquired if he meant that they are in fact ‘safer’. He said he considered ‘less dangerous’ to be a more accurate assessment, and after the first day or two, I stopped asking.

Cultures collide in Villahermosa – on one hand, the spirit of the Olmec (Olmeca) people, the indigenous inhabitants of the region, which lives on at the La Venta park in the city center (20 pesos, about US$1.80 admission). On the other hand, north of the border culture is starting to invade, with US style malls (featuring US style prices), US fast food chains, and Wal-Mart in evidence.

Wanting to venture further afield, but not wanting to repeat the Volkswagen experience, we rented a car and drove southeast, into the state of Chiapas, and Zapatista territory. Our destination, Palenque, a medium sized Mayan city, containing some of the finest architecture, sculpture, and carvings produced by the Maya, dating to the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries AD. Truly spectacular, a visit to Palenque is a chance to commune with the past, and to experience the Mayan outlook on the world. Visit as we did on a Sunday, and admission is free. Hot and exhausted after climbing numerous pyramids at Palenque, we continued further south, to the waterfalls ‘Cascadas Agua Azul’. Admission is 20 pesos each (about US$1.80), paid in two places, the first 10 pesos paid as a ‘road cleaning fee’ on approach, and the second as an admission fee when arriving at the park. The water is cold and refreshing, as it runs directly down from the mountains, and the area provides a stunning natural backdrop for swimming. Care needs to be taken however, as the water runs swiftly in places, and many stories are told of weak swimmers being swept away. After a couple of relaxing hours, we drove the three hours back to Villahermosa.

The following morning, I headed back to Villahermosa’s airport for the one hour 15 minute flight on Aeromar to Merida in Yucatan state. A ride downtown by ‘shared’ shuttle (except I was the only occupant) was 135 pesos (about US$12.00) and brought me to the door of the guesthouse where I would spend the next 4 nights. Owned and operated by native Yucatecans, it provided a charming and authentic Yucatan experience, and an excellent and inexpensive base.

Merida proved to be a complete contrast to Villahermosa; urbane, organized, and almost ‘un-Mexican’. The Yucatecans are proud of their native culture, however are also proud of their European ‘style’. Since the Yucatan peninsular was considered by the rest of Mexico to be ‘too remote’ to bother with as late as the 1960s, the area’s main influences were not Mexican, but rather those that came by sea from Europe and the Caribbean (primarily Cuba). The result is a charming colonial city, with bustling streets, parks and squares, plenty of trees and seats for people watching, and doors opening off the streets onto cool, shady internal courtyards, glimpses of which can often be seen when passing. The cavernous central market is almost overwhelming, huge, confusing, and filled with a mélange of sights and smells; a true ‘locals’ market selling absolutely everything, unlike in some other cities where the markets are primarily tourist oriented.

Merida is a very safe and peaceful city, with police much in evidence. Another ‘un-Mexican’ aspect is the fact that the police forces are professional, and are respected by the population, quite unusual in a country known for police corruption where they are normally viewed with great suspicion. The police are friendly, smiling, and pay great attention to traffic, making the roads in Merida some of the safest and most organized I have encountered anywhere in the country. I watched in amazement as a female police officer stopped and then lectured a kid on a bicycle for riding through a red traffic light!

Don’t think that Merida is staid and boring however – this is something of a party town, with outdoor cultural performances nightly, and any number of impromptu events around town. Bars, cantinas, and clubs abound, and theater and opera groups visit regularly, lending an eclectic mix to the entertainment scene.
The people watching is sublime – and nowhere better than on the Zocalo (main square), where with the imposing stone cathedral (oldest in the Americas, built between 1556-1599) on one side, and the Palacio Municipal (dating to 1735) on the other, on a moonlit evening, you can feel like you are part of history. Another great opportunity is to take a seat at one of the many street side bars, order a beer, and enjoy the complimentary ‘Botana’ which is a Yucatan tradition, consisting of a number of small plates of typical local snacks, which are refilled each time you order another round. The beer is cheap (30 pesos or US$2.70 being on the high end at botana bars) and with the complimentary food, you can enjoy a light meal and a couple of drinks for very little. For a real Mexican experience, go through the swing doors and try a cantina, where the beer is as cheap as 12 pesos (a little over US$1.00), and the characters are right out of a spaghetti western. From time to time while sitting on the street or in a bar, strolling merchants will approach, hawking standard fare of hammocks, guayaberas, etc; their prices can be reasonable, however they are not persistent, and will go away if you show no interest in their wares.

The Yucatecan people are wonderful, friendly and hospitable, and with a warmth rarely seen nowadays. In fact they can seem so friendly that it can tend to make you suspicious, however it really is genuine, and they want nothing more than to make your acquaintance.

While shopping locally with a friend, I witnessed an example of the often-cavalier attitude Mexicans have to their health – she was looking for a new cream, reputed to remove fat when applied on the stomach and waist areas. I assumed we would head to a pharmacy, and was somewhat surprised when we entered a farm supply store. Sure enough, the product was in stock, and was apparently selling very well among the overweight female population. Interestingly, the product was intended for use on cows… 110 pesos later (about US$10.00) we left the store, my friend very pleased with her purchase and dreaming of her new waistline.

The daytime heat in Merida can be oppressive in the summer, and eager for some breeze, I took the 45-minute ride north, by air-conditioned van (12 pesos per person each way in a shared van) to the coastal town of Progreso, on the Gulf of Mexico. Arriving in Progreso from Merida, you approach through mangrove swamps, cross a bridge, and suddenly, you are in town. First impressions looked unpromising, dry and dusty, and with half built structures on each block. Happily, it turned out to be a pleasant, peaceful, and scenic fishing port town. As I was arriving in town, a cruise ship was docking at the end of the five mile long pier (the longest in the region apparently) and within an hour, the streets of the town were thronged with hordes of passengers, beers in hand, shopping for t-shirts and tacky souvenirs. I tolerated them long enough to take a 20-minute city tour from outside the cultural center (20 pesos or US$2.00), narrated by local tourism students, and an interesting introduction to the small town.

At the end of the tour, I walked along the Malecon (seafront promenade) to the restaurants at the far end, happening upon a gem of a place called Shark, where I feasted on carpaccio of fish, conch and octopus, followed by broiled fresh filet of fish in garlic sauce, washed down by a couple of bottles of Modelo beer, and still had change from US$10.00. It was a quiet day at Shark, with only 2 other tables being occupied, both by locals, which I took to be a good sign.
After lunch, I visited the cultural center, which was featuring a display of safe sex posters drawn by students in local schools. Billboards promoting safe sex and the use of condoms are everywhere in Yucatan, which together with this exhibition in Progreso indicates that Mexico is no longer a conservative Catholic society, and is sensibly addressing the challenges of the 21st century.

Next, I went to see the market, however found it to be nothing more than an empty lot, the old market having been knocked down recently, and the new one yet to be built. With the cruise passengers heading back to their ship, I instead enjoyed a peaceful wander around the shops in the main street, before returning to Merida.
Merida and the surrounding area are full of things to see and do, plus plenty of reasons to do nothing at all, and all too soon, having barely scratched the surface, it was time for me to move on, and I boarded an ADO GL bus service to Cancun (235 pesos or about US$21.00 for the 4 hour journey) which featured luxurious reclining seats and onboard movies. The journey was largely through scrubby jungle, without any interesting features, and was by means of a smooth four-lane toll road, on which our bus was virtually the only vehicle.

Conventional wisdom, my instinct, and people who’s opinions I normally trust, all told me that I would not like Cancun, however it seemed a logical place to end my eastbound journey, as the most easterly city with air connections northwards. And if I was going there, it seemed silly not to stop for at least a couple of days to see this famous paradise. Predictably perhaps, conventional wisdom, my instinct, and people who’s opinions I normally trust, were right.

It was gloomy and drizzling as we arrived on the edge of Cancun, giving the city a gray and unappealing look, which unfortunately proved to be a reliable indication of things to come. Following last year’s devastating hit by Hurricane Wilma, Cancun in effect resembles Beirut or Belfast during the wars that affected those two cities, with severely damaged buildings, huge potholes, piles of rubble, and construction projects everywhere.

The noise of jackhammers and drills is pervasive. Feeling as if I should expect an explosion or bomb blast at any second, I picked my way through the downtown devastation and found my hotel, fortunately an oasis of calm in the chaos. I regrouped, and headed out to explore.

The center of downtown Cancun is largely geared towards tourists, with a fair number of shops selling the regulation t-shirts and plastic souvenirs found in tourist traps the world over, with the word Cancun replacing St. Thomas, Miami, New York, etc, over the top of the standard pictures of flamingoes, frogs, or bikini clad ladies. Shops and restaurants happily accept US dollars, however generally at a worse rate than at the exchange houses. ‘Mexican’ places to eat or shop are thin on the ground, however can be found by heading into the side streets or out of the center. There are several ‘markets’ in Cancun, ‘Mercado 28’ being the largest, however the products are aimed at tourists, and the sales pitch is heavy. Every merchant is convinced that you need a hammock, guayabera, or blanket, and that you should purchase it from him. The ‘Central Flea Market’ on Tulum Avenue is more of the same, but with a heavier sales pitch.

The following morning, I decided to investigate the ‘Hotel Zone’, Cancun’s version of Miami Beach, via the local bus (6.50 pesos, about US$0.60). Apart from the now familiar scenes of devastation and reconstruction, it could have been Miami Beach, with US chain hotels, US chain restaurants, and US chain stores stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. Everyone speaks English, everyone accepts US dollars. What more could the US tourist ask for?

Surprisingly, there were few people around (this being somewhat of a low season after spring break but before the summer peak) and if the sales pitch had seemed heavy at the markets downtown, in the Hotel Zone it reached fever pitch, as the merchants fell rabidly on any passing visitor.

Desperate to escape this vision of hell, I took refuge in the Ruinas del Rey, Cancun’s very own Mayan ruins. While considerably smaller than the major Mayan sites, the Ruinas del Rey (30 pesos or US$3.00 admission) was a welcome respite from the rampant commercialism elsewhere in the Hotel Zone, and occupied a couple of hours. Interestingly, the structures showed no sign of having been affected by Wilma, and evidently the Maya builders of 1500 years ago were working to higher standards than the builders of the wrecked hotels that surrounded the site. The ruins were peaceful, no doubt due to the fact that I was the only visitor; Cancun’s tourists apparently preferring to occupy their time by eating and drinking themselves into oblivion at ‘authentic’ establishments such as Fat Tuesday or Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. Sitting in the Ruinas del Rey, with its backdrop of ugly chain hotels, I found it hard to feel sorry that Cancun had been all but destroyed. While of course I have great sympathy for the workers whose livelihoods were affected, I was unable to feel any regret for the place itself, somewhere so fake and artificial, and it seemed that nature, in the form of Wilma, shared my opinion.

Returning downtown, and desperately trying to find somewhere that resembled Mexico, I proceeded north of the center along Tulum Avenue, finally locating a non-touristy area, in neighborhood 23 (Cancun’s neighborhoods being numbered rather than named) which included some half way decent shops, ‘local’ restaurants, and the ‘Mercado 23’, a much more relaxed shopping experience than the other markets.
That evening, I wandered into Palapas Park, the closest thing that Cancun has to a ‘Zocalo’ or main square. Home to some acceptable and cheap outdoor food stands (a plate of grilled shrimp, served with vegetables, salad, and tortillas was 40 pesos or about US$3.65 for example), I also found the "1st Marathon for Recycling of Paper and Boxes" was in full swing on the stage. Its objective? "To contribute to the production of free text books for the children of Mexico." I knew this because a large sign behind the marathon performers stated it. A worthy cause without a doubt, however what was less clear to me was how the marathon was actually contributing to any recycling. I’d missed the start of the marathon though, and possibly had I been there at the beginning, it would have been clear. In any event, some of the singers and dancers were not half bad, and they had drawn a fair sized crowd.

Keen to escape, next day I took the ferry from Cancun’s Puerto Juarez to Isla Mujeres (70 pesos or US$7.00 roundtrip), a 20-minute ride in a modern, air-conditioned catamaran ferry. A complete contrast to Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a peaceful and tranquil place, with a pleasant, largely traffic-free town, and beautiful beaches. Looking for a restaurant occupied mainly by Mexicans, I found "Mininos" a small waterfront establishment with plastic furniture under an awning. A good sized fresh shrimp cocktail, followed by a sublime plate of grilled conch with rice, salad, and tortillas, and three beers set me back 190 pesos (about US$17.00). A word of warning to anyone who has only eaten conch as ‘Conch Fritters’ in Key West or the Bahamas, where the conch has been ground – fresh conch is not the same, and should only be attempted by those with strong teeth!

The next morning, I left town, and assisted by Delta Airlines, returned to reality. I had achieved what I intended, visiting three contrasting cities: one a fascinating glimpse into life rarely seen by outsiders, one a cultural gem requiring considerable further exploration, and one a tourist hell to which I never intend to return. I had met the people, and witnessed the renaissance that is taking place in Mexico, which is fast becoming a land of young, educated professionals, and rapidly moving away from the ‘mañana’ attitude of the past. I felt relaxed, refreshed, and thanks to a healthy diet and huge amounts of walking, I had lost a couple of pounds into the bargain.

© Stewart Mandy 2006
About the author: Stewart Mandy is an accomplished international freelance writer who has been published in various print and online publications, on a wide variety of topics including travel, hospitality, industry specific topics, and current affairs. He is always available for worldwide assignment, and all offers and story ideas will be considered. He can be reached via his website,

Fast facts:
Current exchange rate: US$ 1.00 = MEX Pesos 11.20 (June 2006)
English spoken: Villahermosa – virtually none
Merida – many people speak some English, a surprising number are fluent.
Cancun – widely spoken.
As in any country, a basic knowledge of the local language (Spanish in this case) goes a long way, both in getting your message across, and in gaining the trust and confidence of the locals.
Summer Climate: Villahermosa – hot
Merida – stiflingly hot!
Cancun – hot, but with a breeze
Cooler and more pleasant in the evenings everywhere.
Transportation: Villahermosa – ‘Colectivos’ and taxis can be hailed anywhere you see them. For car rental, we used Europcar, booking online at
Merida – Progreso van can be boarded at the terminal on Calle 60 between Calle 65 and 67. In Progreso, board at the Zocalo (main square), the same place where you will disembark on arrival.
Merida – Cancun ADO GL Bus – all the details, plus online booking for a range of bus journeys can be found at - English version is available.
Ultramar ferry from Cancun – Isla Mujeres departs from Puerto Juarez, also known as Gran Puerto Cancun on some maps – Puerto Juarez is accessible by bus on route R-1, but not all R-1 buses go there, so check the destination list on the windshield before boarding.

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