The Journey Home: Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

Tulum

Welcome home.”

Paulina handed over the keys to Bliss—not a state of mind per se, but a spacious master suite in a beachfront cabaña at Ahau Tulum. It was a 90-minute car ride from Cancún Airport to the zona hotelera of Tulum Beach, not counting time wasted on evasive maneuvers pulled on the aggressive timeshare salesmen that await visitors at the airport arrivals gate.

The salesmen certainly understood their target demographic—it seemed like everybody along the Riviera Maya was angling to figure out how to make Bliss a permanent state of being.

There was the Texan retiree enjoying a vegan breakfast at Raw Love Tulum—he’d been bouncing around Central America trying to live off his military pension. With his two daughters off to college in Florida, this single father from Austin was free to roam the globe. Considering both Texas and Florida are a relatively short plane ride away, he felt confident that Tulum was a place that he could eventually call home.

Back in the lounge at Ahau Tulum, an Australian would-be “digital nomad” tapped away on her laptop, her tan face and blonde hair illuminated by the glow of the computer screen as she outlined her own ambitious plans to set down roots in Tulum—at least, temporarily. Upstairs, a yoga class assembled and stretched to greet the sun.

Away from the beach in Tulum Pueblo, Manny the shopkeeper (“100% Mayan!” he boasted) shared his story about how he’d worked aboard a whale-watching ship in Monterey Bay, California, then used his savings to return and open a souvenir shop in his hometown of Tulum.

RelaxThen there was the taxi driver, Manny (no relation), who originally hails from Mexico City. Over four years ago, he left the hustle and bustle of D.F. in pursuit of a simpler, laid-back life for himself and his family. “Muy tranquilo,” he said. Although the peak holiday season is busy (he’ll work two 12-hour shifts back to back on days like New Year’s Eve), he still finds time to go fishing. For this hardworking husband and father of two girls, Bliss is catching a huachinango (red snapper)—or even a barracuda.

I, too, had fleeting glimpses of Bliss. It was in that liminal state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, the sound of waves lapping against the white sand beach. Between bites of cochinita pibil tacos from Taquería Honorio.1 It was lurking in the jungle air at night as I walked down a dark road lit only by torches, the sweltering heat mingling with the lusty, resinous perfume of smoldering copal incense. Or the last throes of sunlight as seen atop a rustic water tower, right before murky clouds rolled past vast expanses of wilderness.2

And then, at the end of the week, I finally had to put my shoes back on.

Valladolid

The state of Yucatán is geographically and culturally apart from the rest of Mexico. The Mayan Empire extended across the entire peninsula into modern-day Guatemala and Belize. Manny (the taxi driver, not the shopkeeper) impressed this upon us during our stay in Tulum. “The Yucatán, it’s very different from the rest of México,” he said as he sped along the carretera, “The Mayan culture is very rich in tradition.”

Located halfway between Cancún and Mérida is the small city of Valladolid, “Sultaness of the East.” While it is a common pitstop for beach vacationers visiting nearby Chichen Itza on a day trip, we wanted to spend a weekend in the area. It was days before Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead—a special time of year when it is believed that the spirits of the dead return to the land of the living.

While partiers in Cancún and Playa del Carmen don Halloween costumes, for the Mayans the holiday is Hanal Pixán: “food for the souls.” One morning, mucbil pollo,3 a delicious chicken tamale traditionally prepared for Hanal Pixán, was served to us for breakfast at Posada San Juan, a quaint eight-room bed and breakfast located across from Iglesia de San Juan. The proprietress, Sara, then pointed us to a nearby panadería where we could get some pan de muerto, the sugary bread roll commonly enjoyed during the holiday.

Minutes before ten o’clock in the morning, we made our way to Casa de los Venados, where John Venator, his wife Dorianne, and their feisty Schnauzer Mia share the impressive collection of Mexican folk art on display at their home. The 3,000+ piece art collection and 18,000 square-foot house were both labors of love; it took eight and a half years to complete the dramatic renovation (of what had been an abandoned mansion), but it took over fifty-five years of collecting and commissioning pieces from all over Mexico.

Having achieved their life’s work, it seems that the Venators have begun a new chapter of civic patronage in their adopted hometown. Proceeds from visitors to Casa de los Venados are poured into local charities to provide direct medical assistance for Valladolid’s neediest citizens. The grand home, designed as a place to entertain, also hosts artists, scholars, dignitaries and social events for the city’s political figures. Recently, an endowment has been established so that the house continues to function as a private museum and event space, long after the Venators have passed.

Every Sunday night, John told us, the streets surrounding the zócalo are closed to vehicle traffic and fill with live music and dancing. That night, Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado teemed with activity. Teens flirted as they clustered around park benches, shared snacks, and swiped at their smartphones. Couples danced in the street to the sounds of a fourteen-piece band while onlookers, a mix of locals and tourists, sat in plastic chairs, on the sidewalk, or posted up against wrought-iron fencing. Stalls sold handicrafts, leather goods, and street food: elote, churros, and marquesitas, a traditional Yucatecan sweet wafer rolled on a waffle iron with your choice of fillings, including queso de bola (Edam cheese), cajeta (goat’s milk caramel sauce)—or both. El Tío Batman (no Bruce Wayne) had a constant line of hungry patrons.

The Original HamburgerIn Valladolid, as is the case with other Mexican pueblos, homes sit next to businesses—oftentimes, operated out of homes entirely. As such, entrepreneurs commonly advertise their businesses on the walls of their homes: auto mechanics, hairstylists, restaurants. To let the jungle air circulate in this tropical climate, the door is often left open onto the street. Here in Mexico, the line between public and private space is commonly blurred. Yet on Día de Muertos, it is the worlds of the living and the dead that blur in remarkable fashion.

On Calle 40, mere steps from late-night hangout Restaurant Conato 1910, a household Día de Muertos celebration had spilled out onto the sidewalk. An ofrenda now stood next to the family entrance. The altar table, covered in a white tablecloth edged with pastel blue embroidery, was covered with framed photos of family members, vases of marigolds4 and bowls of food. In front of the altar sat the women of the family, dressed in traditional embroidered huipiles and praying solemnly, their faces set aglow by flickering candles. For a moment, families are reunited, living and dead. Everyone had found their way home.

We had missed Valladolid’s official Día de Muertos celebration by one day (too much time spent in Bliss, apparently), and I was reluctant to intrude on the family gatherings typically held at cemeteries during the day. But there, on that street that night, we were lucky to catch a passing glimpse of an intimate moment.

***

The day before the flight back home, I ducked into the hotel spa in Cancún for some last-minute pampering. Gloria the aesthetician hails from the area near Puerto Vallarta, the coastal city in Jalisco famous for its beaches. She moved to Cancún about one month ago for work. Although much of Puerto Vallarta’s workforce are employed in tourism-related industry, Gloria says that it is much smaller than Cancún and there are too few well-paying jobs, which are seasonal to boot—tied closely to the peak holiday season between November to March—whereas such opportunities in heavily-developed Cancún tend to be more year-round.

“When do you plan to visit Puerto Vallarta?” I ask.

“In six months,” she smiled softly. “You should go. It is so beautiful.”

Bliss, it seems, is a moving target. It is nothing without longing.

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