A Dry Weekend In Mérida

A dry weekend in Mexico – yes, hell had frozen over. In a country of all night cantinas, beer for breakfast and tequila all day, the government decreed that no alcohol would be sold from Friday at midnight to Monday morning the weekend of July 1st, the day of the presidential election. They come every 6 years and there are no second terms.

What were they thinking? That everyone would sober up, really put some thought into the candidates, maybe read up a little on them, and then make an informed decision, all in one weekend? Or was it just to prevent problems on Election Day – arguments between drunks in the voting lines?

On Sunday, election night, it was time to make some friends. Hostal Zócalo, a historic building with high ceilings, an airy common area, open courtyard, and an excellent breakfast, is located right on the center square of Mérida.Hostal Zócalo’s neighbors include colonial-era government buildings and museums, the cathedral, the incredible Casa de Montejo, and an OXXO on the corner with locked beer coolers.

Mérida is Cancun’s regional neighbor, but culturally they are worlds apart. While Cancun is a soulless money magnet, Merida is the capital of the Yucatan, a limestone peninsula of cenotes (limestone caves), jungles, beaches, great food, and smiling people.

A bottle of tequila sat before a group of New Zealanders – Jenn, Mike, and Lucas – who came all the way from the Gulf of California where they had been sailing with Lucas’ dad. Nice people; we talked, they offered me a glass and I told them about the election. Earlier in the day I’d seen a massive line of people waiting to vote span four city blocks. Then a little later I found the spot where the victory party for PRI would be. Yes, they were that confident of winning.

Of Mexico’s three main political parties, PRI, PAN, and PRD, the leftist party PRD has never had president and liberal PAN only two, incumbent Felipe Calderon and his predecessor Vicente Fox. PRI had every president since the revolution in 1911 until 2000 when Fox was elected. In 2006 Felipe Calderon took the post and then took the bull by the horns by declaring the drug war. This year, controversial front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of PRI was widely thought to be a shoe-in.

The city was pretty quiet except for distant yelling – our destination evidently. The band was playing and the crowd cheered, most wearing party t-shirts and waving party banners. Between songs excited speeches were made, but none yet from the re-elected governor of Yucatan and no mention of the president. Although it was obvious that Pena Nieto had won, it was too early to call definitively.

So we set off for tacos. Outside of “party Mexico” in tourist towns, a Sunday night can be pretty dead. Add an election and a dry weekend and things were looking grim. On a hunch I headed for Mérida’s huge market and sure enough taco spots were still open.

What’s that?” asked Lucas, pointing at the huge vertical skewer dripping with marinated red mystery meat.

That’s pastor. That’s what I’m having.” Pastor is marinated pork all stacked up on filets on the skewer.

We were in a parking lot between branches of the market. The restaurants were really just dirty storefronts holding freezers and disposable cups. The big skewer of pastor and a big flat grill sat outside the storefront, dripping greases onto the concrete. We sat under the worn tarp surrounded by plastic chairs and tables.

I tried to be as non-condescending as possible. “Listen, if you go to a Mexican restaurant on the beach in Playa del Carmen, that’s not Mexican food. If they give you a basket of nachos, it’s not real Mexican food. A taco doesn’t have a hard shell.” I pointed at the crumbling concrete walls and the pastor. “If the menu is written on the wall, or on a handwritten sign, and you see that” – the pastor – “then you are going to eat some tacos.”

The waiter came up and I ordered.

But we’re vegetarians” Jenn said. I almost fell out of my chair. I asked the guy if there was anything for vegetarians.

Quesadillas

So they ordered quesadillas. Besides pastor I had some salbutes de relleno negro. That and cochinita pibil are the things to eat in Mérida. All the restaurants had started closing down.

What do you think they do with all that meat at night?” asked Jenn.

Do you think there’s a fridge big enough to hold it?” asked Mike, laughing.

I don’t know” I said. “I’ll ask him”.

I called over the waiter, asked for the bill, and asked about the meat.

Oh, don’t worry” he said. “We have a security guard”.

ABOUT THE PLACE

Yucatan is a state, the capital of which is Mérida, but it also refers to the whole peninsula, which borders Belize and Guatemala to the south and the state of Chiapas to the west. All of the Yucatan is like a big limestone sponge, and the holes in the sponge are cenotes – big sinkholes and caves full of clear fresh water. They are everywhere, but near Mérida are three especially nice ones by the town of Cuzumá. You travel between them on a little horse-pulled train.
Mérida is a colonial city. Downtown has a great mix of historic buildings (the cathedral was built from stones taken from Mayan pyramids) and a huge, chaotic market. There are street parties and festivals every week, but apparently not on a dry weekend.


Ted Campbell writes about travel, music, culture, food, and mountain biking. He lives in Mexico and writes a blog called No Hay Bronca.