Merida 🇲🇽

Having seen all that Palenque and the jungle had to offer in one day, we were ready to head towards Merida and witness first hand the highly esteemed Yucatan Peninsula and the capital of the state. Unfortunately this meant two long travel days in a row, so off we headed on our trusted ADO coach at 0800 in the morning. There we sat for the next nine hours of our day, making it an exhausting day full of travel. However, as the bus route follows the coastline of the western side of the peninsula, the sights were incredible to witness and we did get to see our first glimpse of the ocean in Central America. Driving through Campeche meant that we got to see the Gulf of Mexico as we drove right by the waterfront and we were so shocked by the intense blue of the sea and the clarity of the water – and I tend to imagine that as Australian’s we’re not that easy to please regarding beach quality! Travelling for nine hours on the bus meant that we didn’t really have much of the day left by the time we arrived in Merida, so it meant a quick check in, drop of luggage, brisk orientation walk and a bite to eat before calling it a day. As Merida is such a foodie capital of the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly regarding traditional Mexican food as they have an incredibly large indigenous Mayan population, so it would have been rude not to check out some of the local dishes whilst there. Opting for a small scale restaurant with economic prices, we ordered a queso fundido chorizo plate and some chicken tamales, with a complimentary side of tortillas. Queso fundido is like a cheese fondue dip made of melted Mexican cheese and this was quite nice, albeit a bit tough and stringy – I think the chorizo topping made the flavour. Tamales are corn dough pockets, cooked in maize/corn husks and filled with various toppings of your choice – in our case, chicken. They came with a nice tomato salsa, but unfortunately for us were still incredibly bland and dry. We’re not the biggest fans of tamales as it turns out, we find them quite boring to taste no matter how much sauce we put on top and Blake could just not wrap his tastebuds around the fact they put large chunks of chicken WITH BONES throughout the parcel. It wasn’t our best order of food ever, but when in Mexico right?

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Being on the road for an indefinite amount of time means that you celebrate specific dates whilst overseas; birthdays, anniversaries, holidays – something that hadn’t really hit me just yet as this was my first major backpacking trip, but something that Blake was familiar with. And sure enough, our first holiday overseas had arrived already – Valentines Day. We’re not big fans of the holiday and find it incredibly commercial, so really it is just like any other day for us at home, maybe with the addition of a small gift, flowers or date out. Backpacking budgets don’t really accommodate for these luxuries, so we tried to find something nice to do that was relatively inexpensive and not so commercial.

However, Merida seemed to be the exact opposites to us and LOVED Valentines Day. The flowers on every street corner for sale, large teddy-bears in shop windows accompanied by assorted chocolates, huge balloons in the colour of red and the shape of a heart being carried by schoolkids holding hands with the other and local radio stations handing out roses and playing romantic music in the local park – everywhere you turned, Valentines Day was in your face. It was quite lovely to see, albeit a tad overwhelming, but the ultimate cliché were the horse drawn carriages lined around the main central park, parked all in a row under the trees and adorned with various red and pink shaded ribbons and bows, with locals shouting and spruiking ‘Hey! Go for a horse ride? Got good price for you… C’mon man, very romantic!’.

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We did our classic walk around the Zocalo, underneath the beautiful trees and greenery, taking in the sights of the main cathedral and town hall. I know, Mexico is starting to sound super dull and repetitive, but trust us – each city was just as interesting as the last and a completely unique experience despite the common themes! Merida was once known as the ‘White City’ as most of the key historic buildings are a white colour, however this seems to have clearly changed over the years as an abundance of tourists flocked in, and the same colorations seen throughout other Mexican cities began to flow through the modern buildings.

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Although it is the cultural capital of the Yucatan state, it was definitely more noticeably touristic as expected the further north-east we headed up the peninsula, but was not quite busy or large enough to be a tourist trap. We had witnessed a lot more cultural places throughout our time in Mexico, but on the contrary the dining and eating out options seemed to be much greater, plenty more tourist activities and tours on offer and accommodation had begun to become noticeably more expensive. We wandered the local markets instead, witnessing all the beautiful artisan crafts, fresh flowers, tonnes of produce and food stalls amongst the locals, taking in all the sights and smells of the square. We ended up picking up a freshly squeezed watermelon juice about the size of our heads for around $1USD and some fried pikelet type cajeta-filled (condensed goats milk caramel) snack and continued to wander aimlessly for a little bit.

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The food offered in Merida is definitely mentioned in all the blogs and guidebooks, so we decided to scope out our best options for a great feed at a reasonable price. All signs pointed to ‘Wayan’e’, a local taco store that boasts authenticity and great prices. There was not a single negative review we could find and it seemed to be the all the rage, so much so that there are actually two locations within Merida itself and you are strongly advised not to arrive anytime after midday, ensuring that you do not miss out on what was offered that day. We arrived just around mid morning and were surprised to find that we were only one of two tables there in the entire place and were even greeted by an English speaking worker who offered to show us the food and what was left on offer. You approach these silver metal buffet style looking counters, similar to those from Chinese takeaway stores and in them were all varieties of fillings such as meats, vegetables, stirfrys and eggs available to purchase on your tacos or as a torta (sandwich). Each filling had a different price point and we were super excited to see the highly recommended twice-fried pork belly was still on offer the day and was in the window in abundance! We quickly made our order – a pork belly, pork belly with cheese, shredded beef and a chicken fajita tacos and sat awaiting our meal eagerly, mouths watering.

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Before we knew it the steaming hot tacos were before us and we were surprised at how  the service was incredibly quick and food really fresh. These were our most favourite tacos eaten in Mexico, and we had devoured quite a few on our trip. They were super cheap as everyone had mentioned and to top it off, they had personally printed Wayan’e mini chocolates as an after lunch treat for Valentine’s Day. We could not recommend this place any greater – read the blogs, know that they are telling the truth and this is not an overrated tourist trap and go and enjoy the best Mexican tacos you will probably have in your entire life, all less than $5USD.

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One very overrated tourist trap we did experience though was the Merida Zoo. Thinking it would be a ‘cute and coupley’ Valentines activity, I ignored the negative reviews and saw that it was a free admission and that was enough to get me sold! I suggested the activity to Blake, who reluctantly agreed – possibly only as we had nothing else to do that day that didn’t require copious amounts of cash and off we headed to the park outside of the town that had the zoo inside. My gosh it was a decent hike and we finally arrived, sweaty hot and already a bit over walking.

As it was a zoo boasting free entry (literally no zoo we have ever been to has had free entry before), we weren’t entirely sure what to expect – perhaps some farm animals, local birds and wildlife and common Mexican creatures. To our shock and surprise, this zoo had literally an abundance of African animals sadly in the most smallest and poor conditions. There was a solo giraffe, held in a concrete pen with a few ostriches and a zebra or two with not much space to roam. A trio of hippo’s lay half submerged in their pools, unfortunately unable to fully submerge themselves on such a hot day, due to the level of water in their pools not being high enough. There were the most amount of jungle cats we had ever seen – lions, tigers, pumas, jaguars and more. Tigers were pacing, back and forth by the sides of their cages, clearly distressed and unhappy – growling and crying out. Lions were pacing too – but this time, probably because the back of their cages faced the monkeys, or the sides faced the pumas next door and all this extra stimulation was just aggravating for the animal. It was a pretty horrific sight, all these distressed animals shoved into too small cages and all showing signs of clear unhappiness. Not exactly a nice romantic Valentines activity we had expected, rather a sobering one and a reminder that animals truly don’t belong in zoos halfway across the world and would much prefer to be out living a normal natural life.

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Dinner was a cheap cooked meal in the hostel, followed by a traditional flan dessert and boy, did this impress us! A flan is almost like a custard type dessert, usually almost a crème caramel sort of flavour and for $1USD a go, this was truly incredible and a great after dinner dessert. Merida hadn’t disappointed for its cuisine, but did fall a little short in activities to do that interested us. It was a beautiful city and a nice introduction to the Yucatan state, but was best left for us a quick stop on our way through to Chichen Itza and beyond.

Mexico City 🇲🇽

Four and a half hours in the air and it soon became very apparent from the plane window that we certainly were not in the United States anymore. Initial impressions lead to disappointment, as we viewed the city from the sky just around dusk. Clouds drifted over the top of the city, as we questioned whether these clouds were weather or pollution related – unaware we were soon to find out that air pollution is a hugely relevant problem in Mexico City, with the city even experiencing a time only a few decades ago where birds would drop dead out of the sky, due to the poor quality air! From the sky, most cities look incredibly similar – however Mexico City seemed to notably have a lot less skyscrapers, but definitely remained developed and probably even more so than we expected.

Our Spanish was incredibly limited, as I had only taken maybe two months of classes and had only just mastered basics such as numbers, hello, goodbye etc. And Blake had little to no exposure to the language pre-travel – so let’s just say our initial conversations with customs agents and airport workers were more than interesting and a huge eye-opener to the next six months that lay ahead! Nonetheless, we had done our research and already knew what taxis to take, where we were headed and approximately how much we were expecting to pay and managed to avoid being either A) in a dangerous situation or B) severely ripped off. We arrived to our hostel after dark, Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral but were super impressed with the first impressions of a crazy good location, right on the Zocalo or Main Square of Mexico City. As it was already late, dark and we weren’t yet entirely aware of our surroundings, we decided to ask the hostel receptionist for a suggestion for any quick eat within a few streets from the accommodation. He seemed entirely unenthused, yet pointed out a location on a map. “Open all night, cheap place to eat” sounded good enough for us. Little did we know, this guy had pointed us in the direction of a Pizza Hut – hardly the first Mexican cuisine experience we had envisioned or planned! Once again, our language skills (or lack of) let us down, but thankfully sign language and a few ‘gracias’ went a long way and we had successfully ordered our first dinner in very limited Spanish. We went to bed with full stomachs, smiles on our faces and the excitement that we had arrived in Central America beginning to sink in.

That excitement nearly wore off, as we realised our hostel was terrible for echoing and full of loud drunken Americans trying to find their dorm room at 0230am – but we were determined to let nothing bring us down, Mexico had been a dream for so long and we had a long full day ahead of exploring. We are big lovers of local food and always try to investigate where we should be eating and what local dishes we should be trying – so after discovering a popular place to try Mexican food, conveniently named ‘Cafe El Popular’, we headed there for an early lunch and to get our first Mexican dishes. Ordering tacos seemed to be a safe option, so we ordered one lot of chicken and one of beef and eagerly awaited our food. Before the main dish arrived, the waitress dropped us about five different varieties of bread rolls, and a stand containing five different sauces and condiments – the puzzled expressions on our faces were probably priceless! Running through our heads, we were thinking ‘Do we get this for free? How much extra does this cost? Do we wait and use this with our main dish? Is this a starter?’, and quickly observed the tables around of us locals to determine that the bread did seem to be complimentary and we could eat before our meal or together with our meal. What arrived next was not what we had ever considered tacos before, but boy were they delicious! Instead of the classic hard corn taco shell, or even soft corn tortilla with some fillings, what arrived were crispy, rolled corn tortillas that were hard and fried in a cylindrical shape, filled with the meat of choice and some cheese – simple yet effective, and incredible with the addition of some salsa picante (hot sauce)!

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Full of energy we headed to our first sightseeing stop in Mexico, after a quick wander around the Zocalo and gathering our bearings. Templo Mayor, translation: Main Temple, was one of the most significant temples of the Aztec people and was the centre of their capital Tenochtitlan – now the modern capital, Mexico City. The site is UNESCO World Heritage listed and literally sits right in the centre of Mexico City, just off the main square and in between contemporary buildings. To see such an ancient site and our first Aztec ruins, literally surrounded by the everyday buildings of the capital city was truly bizarre and like nothing we had ever experienced before. The ancient city fell to the Spanish and unfortunately was partially destroyed and covered over with the new city, however what laid buried was incredibly intact by the time it was discovered and it was amazing to take a step back in time and see their beautiful inscribed carvings and paintings in the stone, able to still be admired over six centuries later. The House of Eagles was our favourite part of the site and definitely the most intact and detailed. Yet on the other hand, it is not entirely that well preserved as the main pyramid of the original site stood at over 60m high in its day, but the leftover ruins would only stand a couple of metres maximum. With excavation only commencing in 1978 upon the discovery of a large Aztec monolith in a construction site, it is crazy to see excavation still continuing in modern Mexico City to this day and to think that the Aztec capital lies buried under the chaos of city, still waiting to be fully discovered.

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If you have been to Mexico before, you know that their culture is all about mural art – so it wouldn’t be a trip without witnessing some of their incredible artwork in person. We went to a museum, operating out of a university and got to witness some of the man of murals himself, Diego Rivera’s art displayed on the walls in front of us. Unfortunately we were unable to take photos of his mural works, but did get a chance to also photograph some other legendary mural artists masterpieces.

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To balance out all the Mexican history we had absorbed in our first day, we decided to indulge in one of the most modern aspects of Mexican culture and take a trip to see the one and only, Lucha Libre. Mexico’s very own answer to the WWE, Lucha Libre means ‘free fight’ and is a form of professional wrestling that operates out of Mexico City at Arena Mexico on a Tuesday and Friday night. Being a Friday night, our hostel was running a cheap group tour to the wrestling and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to witness the chaos in person. A few tequila shots later, we had met some awesome new people and were ready for the main event – there truly is nothing like it and is probably the most insane thing we have ever experienced. Friday nights are their largest nights, hosting the ‘CMLL Super Viernes’ or ‘Super Friday’ for gringos, and is even broadcasted across cable television countrywide. The music is loud, the crowd absolutely screams, laughs, boos and jeers at the wrestlers and at one point, people were aggressively throwing coins at a midget wrestler in a mask. Vendors come along, shouting to sell you popcorn, chicharrones, beers or waters and the atmosphere is incredibly electric. There was one flamboyant luchador named ‘Maximo Sexy’, who featured a bright pink mohawk and a tank top saying ‘Kiss Me’ and at one point, the crowd was shouting at him, ‘BESO! BESO! BESO’. We looked at each other, confused as to what this could possibly mean, until our new Costa Rican friend Fabian turned to us and said, ‘They’re saying kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’. Sure enough, Maximo Sexy’s finishing move was to grab the giant, muscly luchador in front of him and smack a huge kiss on the lips! As the fights went on, it soon became apparent just how important a luchadores mask is, as one fight featured an unfortunate wrestler become de-masked and have to leave the ring in shame and embarrassment – only to come back later, reclaim his blue mask and win the final round of the fight! The fights could last up to three rounds, and it was great to see every single fight be taken to round three, with each team always ending up one round apiece heading into the last – the crowd favourites always coming out on top and defeating the bad guys.

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The night was a blast, full of cheap entertainment, beers and new friends but before we knew it, we were back in Mexico City and it was already 11.30pm and we were yet to eat any dinner. With our new friends Fabian and Jorge, we were taken to a great little taco vendor only a few blocks from our hostel and experienced our very first Mexican street food. There we fell in love with tacos, done proper street Mexican style with pastor (marinated pork) meat off the spit-roast, coriander, hot sauce and a tiny slice of pineapple – safe to say, our home tacos will never be cooked the same again! Jorge was an incredible guide to this local gem and also a great translator. At five tacos for forty peso (approx $2USD), this was heaven to us and I can honestly say, we returned the next day for lunch. Lucha libre had inspired Blake for his first souvenir from Central America, and after wandering the entire city the next day, we finally found what he was looking for, before our time in the capital came to an end and we were headed onwards to our next destination: Puebla.

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