The last calendar year has been a strange one to say the very least. Before the COVID-19 pandemic affected international travel I would get on a flight at least twice a year if not more. I still have a long to do list of places to visit – waiting for the day it is safe to do so again.
In the meantime I would love to share some memories of my favourite trips!
The first place I want to share is Mexico- specifically two cities on the Yucatan Peninsula – Mérida & Campeche.
My Last Trip Before the World Shut Down
Exactly one year ago on March 6th, I made a last minute decision to buy a plane ticket and fly to Campeche (by way of Mérida) to surprise my parents who were already down there.
Mexico is – in my heart- my home away from home. To explain my love affair with this country I’ll need to do what I do best, and tell a long drawn out story.
The year was 2006 – just kidding I won’t be that cliche- but seriously its been 15 years since our family of 4 became unofficially a family of 5. My other brother (literally from another mother) first came to Canada as part of a junior high exchange program. Students from Campeche, Mexico came as a large group to Nova Scotia for a 2 week visit. Each student was paired with a Canadian student who would then go back to Mexico for their two week visit. My Mexican brother Alfonso was paired with my little brother Ralph.
Alfonso must’ve found something he liked in my funny little family because he came back as an international student the next school year in 2007. Since that time my parents have gone to Mexico for vacation to see Alfonso and his family every single year! I myself have had the wonderful opportunity of going all but one year since 2010. We have a community of friends and family in Mexico that I miss dearly when away and am so excited to get back to every spring. Part of this family is a cousin of Alfonso’s who also came to Canada as an international student – allowing my parents one more school year before becoming full time empty nesters- thanks Carolina:)
My Spanish is rough around the edges but I pick up a little more every year. One thing I have gotten the hang of is navigating around the cities of Mérida and Campeche.
Mérida is the largest city in the Mexican state of Yucatan. There is a bustling population of around 890,000 people. In 2019, Mérida was considered one of the safest cities in the America’s, only second to Quebec City in Canada. Mérida is a 4 hour drive on a divided highway from Cancun, but no need to drive – unless COVID changes things- because there are direct flights from Toronto right into Merida.
The city is like most cities in the world, the downtown is historical and beautiful. With central and peripheral squares, each with a cathedral that’s size corresponds to the size and importance of the square.
As you move to the periphery of the city new subdivisions boast modern homes and large shopping malls with chain restaurants and movie theatres serve the residents of that area.
There’s a Costco and Sam’s club, along with huge Walmarts with everything you will need for a vacation in a rental house. In most of the historical squares downtown you’ll find markets with extremely delicious and extremely cheap food /drinks.
Food in Mexico is beyond delicious! There are chain restaurants, high end dining and then the market kiosks busy every day with locals and tourists.
A few of my favourite foods that I look forward to each year are cochinita pibil, agua fresca sandia and horchata.
Cochinita pibil is essential a pulled pork dish. The pork is marinated in a sour orange juice mixed with achiote paste. Achiote paste has a rich, dark red color (that will satin when you cook with it) with a peppery, nutty taste but also sour from vinegar that’s included in the paste. The red color comes from seeds grown on the Annatto tree. There are spiky pods on the Annatto tree that contain seeds, these seeds are ground to give the signature taste and color!
Anyway back to the pork – traditionally the marinated pork is wrapped in banana leaves and slowly cooked in a pit within the ground. The result is a pulled pork, mixed in the juices and sauces from remaining marinade. The cochinita is served a few different ways. My Dad’s favourite is on a soft white bun with nothing else – just the pork – this is a cochinita torta. You can also eat the pork on a freshly made corn tortilla with pickled onions and hot sauce if you’d like. The third option I’ll mention is cochinita tostada. A tostada is a corn tortilla deep fried with smooth beans on top (or inside). You then top the tostada with the cochinita, pickled onions, lettuce and tomato. Can you tell how much I love cochinita pibil?
Agua fresca sandia and horchata are delicious beverages. These can be purchased at the same food stand or the one right next door in most places. Sandia is Spanish for watermelon – this drink is blended watermelon with added sugar and diluted with water. Horchatta is another sweet drink that is creamy from a base of rice and has a vanilla/cinnamon flavour – p.s. horchata goes great with a touch of dark rum (aka rumchatta).
Grabbing a bag of cochinita, a half a dozen fresh rolls and a litre of aqua fresca will cure any hangover 😉
Where to stay?
As I mentioned above Mérida is a very safe city. I personally feel very safe moving around the city with my siblings and even on my own when needed. Our family almost always rents a full house when we visit, but we have experienced hotels in the historic downtown core.
I love renting a full house for a few reasons. My family and I have our own space to spread out but also be together. We have a private outdoor space including a pool, and don’t need to worry about a busy/expensive bar. I love to grocery shop and cook when I travel abroad. I love exploring grocery stores and eating some of Alfonso’s favourite foods that you can’t get in a restaurant. At the end of the day when I cook at the rental home, I feel that I consume less food and spend less money on food/drinks.
Obviously if you think – hey, I’m on vacation I don’t want to cook and then have to clean up afterwards- I get it. There are still lots of perks to renting a home without the pressure to cook.
There are also downsides of renting a home. You may not get the opportunity to meet new and interesting people from around the world at the hotel bar. Most homes for rent are in residential areas where the local neighbours are not always appreciative of rowdy Canadians on vacation. You really have to do your research to make sure the home is safe and up to whatever your standards may be. I would recommend talking to friends or family that you know have rented to get their opinions.
Hotels and hostels are also a great option for places to stay in Mérida. I’ve only experienced staying in hotels that are historical properties. With that, the rooms and bathrooms are usually on the smaller side when compared to a modern hotel. I for one love the beauty of the old buildings and didn’t really spend a lot of time in my room, so the size didn’t bother me. These hotels are extremely central to the downtown core and everything for the most part is within walking distance (ie. food, tourist areas, local markets).
There are a few great options for day trips in and around the city. As pictured above there is a beautiful Mayan World Museum that has an amazing modern architectural design. You can do a walking or bus tour of the historical properties down town, or visit the large zoo/animal sanctuary within the city. If you wanted to rent a car or hop on a tour bus you can leave Mérida and explore ancient Mayan ruins, beautiful cenotes or hang out at the beach in Progreso.
At this point I’m worried this post is a little too long- but if you’re still reading please stick around because I want to talk about a wonderful city called Campeche.
Campeche is a 2 hour drive from the airport in Mérida. It is the capital city of Campeche State but has a significantly smaller population than Mérida (Around 220,000). The growth of Campeche in the last 10 years since I’ve started visiting in terms of tourism and small business has been outstanding!
The city is a seafarers dream – for that reason the Spanish built a defensive fort around the city to protect it from pirates and buccaneers (not always successfully). There are significant portions of the fortified walls that remain well preserved and statuesque around the city. The gates and walls from the late 16th century frame tourism areas that are protected as an UNESCO world heritage site.
Much like Mérida there are larger and smaller squares throughout the historical downtown. Calle 59 is a street heading straight through the heart of downtown from the Peurte del Mar (the sea gate). The street is closed to cars/traffic and restaurants’ tables spill into the street. You can sit outside, enjoying the fresh sea air and sipping on a cold drink.
If you walk straight towards the water from the sea gate you will see a shining statue with an angel on top. And from there a colourful Campeche sign that my family and I took full advantage of for a picture. The malecon is a beautiful 7 km seaside walkway that spans the entire sea front of the city, here you can see the most beautiful sunsets.
Where to stay? What to eat?
Campeche is very similar to Mérida in terms of options for accommodations and food. Being close to the sea there is a wider range of fresh seafood available at local markets and restaurants. Also, with it being a smaller city there are less options for hotels, home rentals and hostels. The options that are available are affordable, clean and comfortable.
There is the added option to rent a beach house if you are able to find one online. The warm gulf of Mexico waters are a huge draw for my family and I to spend at least a little time at the beach. You can stay in an accommodation on the beach or take day trips to local beaches.
If you ever have the opportunity to travel to either of these cities I can promise you, you will not regret it.
I feel like I can only graze the tip of the iceberg in a travel post, to avoid writing a small book. If you have any questions please let me know!
I am counting down the days to when I can return to my home away from home and my chosen family in Mexico.