Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, also called la Ciudad Blanca, or White City, was founded on the remains of the Mayan city Ichkaanshihó. I love walking along its main street, where you can see old colonial houses from the early 1900s and enjoy the best coconut ice cream at the Colón ice cream shop (nothing anatomical, ‘Cristóbal Colón’, with that all-important tilde on the ‘o’, is Spanish for Christopher Columbus)! You mustn’t guess the general topography from the street’s name, Paseo Montejo (Little Mountain Walk), for Yucatán is ecologically rich but pretty flat. The highs come from the thick, ambient culture. Every night, the folkloric ballet of the state of Yucatán dances the Jarana Yucateca. Women in traditional white dresses, with beautiful and detailed flower embroidery, and men in all-white guayaberas (cotton or linen shirt), pants and hats tap-dance to the sound of a live band ensemble.
Only an hour from Mérida, the Mayan city of Chichen Itza is easily accessible. You feel a special aura from the proximity to a vital emblem of ancient Mayan culture, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. On my last trip, I went for the light and sound show, a sensory treat laid out every evening. Now, this is not the sedentary affair you see at Delhi’s Red Fort. You walk around at night with an audio guide and GPS, so you don’t get lost in the darkness. Each monument is lit up with different coloured lights that keep changing. The whole thing has a rather mystical vibe. The Pyramid of Kukulcán is the show-stopper—with an incredible sequence of intertwined images and sounds playing out on its side.
The next day I woke up early to drive to the Celestun Biosphere Reserve—one of 13 such in Mexico and the place that inspired Hector Ceballos-Lascurain to coin the word ‘eco-tourism’ back in ’83. I simply had to be there at 7 am, to take the first small boat out! The first water tableaux had ducks and hummingbirds, then pelicans. But the main spectacle are the amazingly elegant pink flamingos. At first glance, you see a thousand pink dots in the baby blue water and, as the boat glides closer silently, you get to see thousands of them at just two meters away! Tall, pink and fascinating. More come flying in, searching for food. The Celestun flamingo is the largest and most brilliantly coloured of the six species that exist in the world. In flight, you see the black flecks under their huge wings.
Many don’t know this, but in Delhi there’s a replica of the Arch of Labná, a Mayan structure located in one of the sites close to Mérida. Using stone from Rajasthan, akin to the stones found in the Puuc region of Yucatán, the replica was worked on by expert Indian stone-cutters, under the aegis of INTACH. You can spot it at the Garden of Five Senses. The original was part of a passage linking the two plazas of the Labná ceremonial centre, which separated the living quarters of priests, soldiers and nobles. Its two small rooms were used by the guards. The façade is decorated with moldings, pillars and niches; the corners display masques representing the rain God Chaac.
On my last day, we went for another road trip, this time to a hacienda specialising in henequèn—the Green Gold of Yucatán. The henequèn industry was one of the most vital in south-east México. Henequèn comes from an agave plant and many things are fabricated from its fibers: rope, baskets, hats, even liquor. We were taken around in a trolley pulled by donkeys, just like in the old times. The tour of the hacienda ends with the possibility of swimming in a Cenote, another one of those typical Yucatán things. A Cenote is a natural sinkhole formed by collapsing limestone bedrock, exposing the water underneath. It’s like a mini oasis inside a cave. Nothing compares to a spot of diving in a Cenote if you are looking for some true eco-adventure—for the sheer wonder they evoke, these sacred sites of Mayan sacrifice.
You cannot leave Mérida without tasting its marvellous cuisine. Mexican cuisine, a mix of Mayan and Spanish ingredients that gives it a delicious flavour, is part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In Yucatán, the ingredients that get used include pumpkin seed, oregano, purple onion, sour orange, annatto seeds (achiote), sweet pepper, cilantro, and habanero pepper. My favorite is the Cochinita Pibil, smoked pork prepared with achiote, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit oven! But there are so many other things to try and spoil yourself with: Salbutes, Panuchos, Poc Chuc, Lime soup, and Queso Relleno (stuffed Dutch cheese)!
(The writer is Mexico’s ambassador to India, who famously gets driven to work in a white autorickshaw)