PROGRESO, Mexico -- It was the regular Wednesday afternoon jam session in Yakunah Hotel's crowded garden restaurant, mere steps from a Yucatan beach along the Gulf of Mexico.
A pickup band of Canadian and American expats was playing bluesy tunes while Mexican waiters were flying in a dozen directions serving about 70 customers with trays of fish and chips and cool bottles of Corona beer. Chances were that, except for the waiters and the Dutch hotel owner, most everyone in Yakunah's restaurant, Chez Michelle, was collecting Canada's old age pension.
"Where are you from?" I asked a half-dozen seniors sipping cocktails at one lively looking table.
"Ottawa," replied Ian Joyce, a retired Parks Canada bureaucrat. "We're all from Ottawa."
Actually, two of the seven people at the Ottawa table were from the Toronto area, but they were still allowed to sit there. Reigning over the table was another retired federal bureaucrat from Ottawa, Dale Aubichon, the unofficial Canadian godfather in these parts. Freshly retired at 53 from Environment and Heritage, Aubichon came to this fishing and port town of 50,000 in 1996, saw a business opportunity and has been here pretty much ever since.
The town is filled with homes and condos owned by Mexicans who tend to use their properties only during the hottest months of July and August. Aubichon arranges rental of the properties in the winter to Canadians through a company called Southnest, headquartered a block from the Yakunah Hotel.
"When I came here in 1996, there were exactly 43 North Americans living here," says Aubichon. "Now there are thousands and I brought many of them here."
Yakunah owner Elke Saes is definitely not complaining. Saes bought this colonial-styled, 1920s-era mansion in 2006, extensively renovated it, installed a pool in the backyard and turned a portion of the garden into a thatched roofed, open-air restaurant. The hotel now is decorated throughout with Mayan art -- mainly replicas of pre-Columbian sculptures, Art Nouveau stained glass windows and antique chandeliers. The garden is filled with flowering oleander and bougainvillea. A constant brisk ocean breeze cools far more comfortably than air-conditioning.
There are six rooms for rent at the Yakunah, varying in price from 750 pesos to 850 pesos (about $60 to $70) a night. An outbuilding in the backyard by the swimming pool offers a two-bedroom apartment for 1,400 pesos. Definitely book the 850-peso rooms. They are enormous and contain cable television, modern tiled bathrooms and sea views. Also, party noise generally does not travel up to the second floor.
Anyway, the parties are usually wrapped up by 9 p.m. or so: Canadian seniors tend to go to bed early even when partying abroad. But in the summer, when the hotel is filled with Mexican tourists, "karaoke does not even get going until 11 p.m.," says Saes.
In summer, tens of thousands of Mexican tourists flood Progreso's streets. There are lineups at restaurants and resurrections of rooftop bars. But for the rest of the year, even when the Canadians arrive, most streets remain eerily deserted, with many of the Art Deco beach homes unoccupied and in need of a good coat of paint.
In truth, for most of the year, Progreso has a surreal Death-in-Venice quality, a sprawling town occupied only by a few hardy souls. The liveliest spot, besides the Yakunah, is a small hole-in-the wall main street establishment called Bar Lovento, where Canadian seniors flock daily for the cheap beer, the hospitality of barman Francisco and a chance to diss the newly arrived cruise ship passengers strolling down Calle 80 looking for souvenirs.
When the Yakunah opened, its restaurant offered moderately priced gourmet meals, mainly for the hotel's lodgers. The emphasis has since changed. The food has become more Tex-Mex, luring in up to 100 mainly Canadian seniors at a time for Wednesday night jam sessions, Saturday night happy hours and other special occasions, turning the Yakunah into the next best thing to a Canadian consulate in Progreso.
The Canadians rave about the friendliness of the Mexican residents of Progresso and how safe it is. Seniors like Sharon Joyce, Ian's wife, take the local bus into the bustling city of Merida, about 20 minutes away to shop at Costco.
"You just have to raise your hand and the bus stops," says Sharon, a retired Air Canada employee.
Most visitors arrive by flying from Canada to Cancun, immediately heading to that city's ADO first class bus station and then boarding an air-conditioned bus for a four-hour ride to Merida. From that city, there are regular buses. A taxi from Merida to Progreso should cost 300 pesos, about $25.
Progreso, for a short-time visitor, is a great place just to hang out either around the pool of the Yakunah or along the 10-block beachside malecon, or boardwalk. Simply order a beer at one of the many restaurants along the spiffy-clean malecon and your table is suddenly filled with free snacks, such as ceviche, salsa, nachos and black bean dip.
For the more adventurous, there are tours to see flamingo nesting areas -- this area is dubbed The Flamingo Coast -- and various Mayan archeological sites. One of the best, complete with a pyramid, a ball court and other giant stone structures, is Chichen Itza, about two hours' drive away.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
From Cancun, take a first-class -- make sure it is not second-class -- bus to Merida and then take a local bus or a taxi (about 300 pesos) to Progreso.
The Yakunah Hotel is on Calle 21 between calles 48 and 50. (Actually, the hotel is on Calle 23 but tell a taxi driver Calle 21, because the street number changes right by the hotel and most people think the address is still Calle 21).
The Yakunah website, along with information on flamingo and archeological tours, is www.hotelyakunah. com.mx.
The Southnest website is southnest.com.
Restaurants along the malecon that are popular with Canadians include Buddy's and Flamingo.