Thursday, 25 September 2014

Days 533 and 534: Tulum and Merida

Perhaps as we roll into the last week of our travels after ten months we've become jaded. But both Tulum and Merida, highly rated by the Lonely Planet, failed to excite us at all. Both seemed shabby and nondescript. They weren't awful by any measures, just with a sense of "Is this it?"

As we only spent a day in each, I'll fully concede that our impressions were superficial, and both may have a lot more to them. Tulum was clearly the more popular tourist haunt, but to my eyes much less appealing. It's kind of like two separate places: the first a beach resort with some old Maya ruins next to them, and the second the actual town of Tulum, a few miles away. It's not an impressive town. To a grid plan, intersected by a larger road, it was a dusty little place, that reminded me of numerous backpacker towns. Restaurants lined the streets, peppered with souvenir shops, and the occasional cheap hotel. Everything else seemed to be falling down. I can imagine some people staying there for ages: it was affordable, and near the beach. It straddled a fine line between peaceful and dull, and find yourself on the right side of that line and perhaps Tulum could generate some fond memories.

The highlight are the ruins. Right by the coast, Tulum has some old Maya ruins, an old port town serving the larger Maya city of Coba. It was one of the Maya's last cities, appearing long after most of the famous stuff had vanished into the jungle, peaking around the 15th Century. Indeed, it continued to exit several decades after the Spanish arrived on the continent. As ruins, they are fine, but nothing spectacular given that we've recently visited some of the finest Mexico - and indeed the entire world - has to offer. Their selling point is the location, at the edge of small cliffs that drop into a very blue sea, and with a short stretch of beach. Have a little swim, and the ruins are lined up, in view. It's a lovely, and novel, way of visiting.

A day was plenty in Tulum. And indeed, in Merida too. In fact, by the time we'd arrived and got into our hotel, we only had time for half a day of Merida. Still, we felt we'd seen enough. It's a pretty large city, with almost a million people, and has a pretty interesting history, being founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1542, and some of the older buildings built from stone taken from old Maya sites. The historic centre is the part worth seeing, but to be honest after having seen plenty of other Mexican and Latin American towns and cities, it didn't particularly seem worth seeing. The central square was overly manicured, and surrounded by the obligatory cathedral and porticoed buildings. Anything beyond that was narrow pavements and lots of people, and sad buildings with peeling paint. "Are we missing something?" we asked each other, disappointed that Merida was, on the face of it, such a let down. So we took a tour bus, for a 90 minute tour around the city, to see the highlights.

Turns out there are none.

Merida has several other uninspiring squares, plenty of run-down buildings, a smattering of pretty ones, and a long boulevard lined with grand colonial buildings. Fine, but simply not exciting. It started to rain heavily when we got off the bus, and we took refuge in a coffeeshop. When the rain eased off, we retired back to our hotel. For dinner, we found - oddly - a German bierhaus and had some delicious German-style sausages. Both of us were left with the sense that Merida had more to offer, but our snapshot had missed it. Maybe it needs longer exposure.

The following morning, it was goodbye to Merida, and suddenly we find ourselves on the home stretch. Two days in Chichen Itza, the final Wonder of this trip, and two days in Cancun. Then home. It's almost over.

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