Forget Cancún, head west instead
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2009 (4903 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If you’re looking for an alternative to the congested Cancun-Mayan Riviera package tours, consider a week-long escape to the cultured Yucatán capital, Mérida combined with a beach stay in the Gulf of Mexico town of Celestún, where a trio of Prairie transplants is standing by to welcome you with a cold cerveza.
Newly retired school principal Kenn and his wife, Karen Strass, and longtime friend Wanda Folden packed up their Saskatchewan lives two years ago to pursue that irresistible Prairie fantasy: wearing flip-flops and shorts all winter long. No more parkas. No more plugged-in cars shuddering and hissing abuse. — just endless days of beach, pelicans, starfish and surf.
The trio built a beachfront hacienda at the edge of Celestún, a village with a friendly, frontier feel. They live upstairs in Casa de Celeste Vida (Home of Heavenly Life) and rent out three affordable ground-floor apartments, all with sliding doors onto the beach, hummingbirds darting within reach and ocean views. The largest, La Maravilla, is the best value at US$100 per night (or US$600 weekly); it’s a one-bedroom with living and dining room, full kitchen, bathroom and satellite TV. The smaller "casitas" are studios with equipped kitchenettes and bathroom (US$75 nightly or US$450 weekly). Bikes and kayaks are available on-site. People find Casa de Celeste Vida via the internet at http://www.celestevida.ca/ or by word-of-mouth.
"In the two years we’ve been open we’ve had people here from Germany, France, Denmark, Alaska, and of course, all over Canada," said Karen, a stay-at-home mom who pursued the Mexican dream because she wanted a new challenge after their three children flew the coop.
"Because we live upstairs we treat people like guests rather than renters. We’re here to share our enjoyment of this laid-back lifestyle." Karen happily arranges boat tours, home-cooked Yucatán meals, manicures, fishing trips or a red snapper barbeque feast for her guests.
The Celestún beach stretches as far as the eye can see with almost no development. There are a few modest hotels, residences, restaurants, one pier, a lighthouse and a dozen fishing boats. The town has three or four good restaurants and virtually no nightlife or shopping. The sand, coarse and strewn with shells, is best navigated with sandals. The Gulf of Mexico water is clean, calm and safe for swimming, and cool afternoon and evening breezes are common. A key Celestún attraction is touring the adjoining estuary known as the Ria Celestún Biosphere by fishing boat, where you’ll see dozens (or thousands) of migrating flamingos (depending on the season), hundreds of other birds, possibly a crocodile that lives under the bridge and a petrified forest. A 2.5-hour tour with guide costs about US$25 per person based on four people in the boat.
Celestún makes an ideal three- or four-day getaway. When you’ve soaked up the serenity, head into Mérida for a few days of bustle.
Mérida is made for romantic strolling, especially on weekends when streets around the downtown plaza are closed to car traffic. A Spanish colonial city the size of Winnipeg, Mérida was established in 1542 on the site of an ancient Mayan city. It is full of hidden courtyards, latticed balconies, treed squares with cafes and graceful stone churches, including one of the oldest in the Americas, Cathedral de San Ildefonso. Also, along the main square you’ll find a contemporary art gallery (Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Ateneo de Yucatán) featuring the works of Mexican artists. Look for original works by surrealist Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the tempestuous couple who took in Leon Trotsky, made famous by the 2002 movie Frida (starring Salma Hayek.) Across the square is the Palacio del Gobrierno, which houses the state government. Don’t be alarmed by the armed guards at the entrance, everyone is welcome. Inside, you’ll find a series of 16 enormous murals depicting the history of the Mayan people. Admission is free.
Mérida offers a dose of cultural appreciation to a beach holiday, as well as numerous good restaurants tucked into old mansion courtyards and affordable character hotels. A Mérida-Celestún week will allow you to experience a side of Mexico not found in the resort hot spots.
Diane Poulin is a Winnipeg writer
IF YOU GO
Getting there: By first-class bus from Cancún – 4 to 5 hours; $35 to $45 one way. ADO GL or UNO are the fastest and most comfortable bus rides.
By car from Cancún – 3 to 4 hours; The toll highway is the fastest and most comfortable route.
Sleeping: Mérida hostels and hotels come in every price range.http://www.about-meridahotels.com/
There are numerous good hotels within walking distance of the grand plaza in the $75 range. Try Hotel Medio Mundo, an elegant, clean, well-run hotel. http://www.hotelmediomundo.com/
Eating: Amaro – delicious and moderately priced courtyard dining.
Café Peon Contreras – outdoor café serves authentic sopa de lima (lime soup).
Hotel Colonial – breakfast buffet with fresh fruit, pancakes, eggs, toast, juice and coffee refills for only $7.
Getting there: By second-class bus from Mérida – 2.5 hours; $5 one way. You’ll wind your way through orchards and several charming towns including Uman and Kinchil.
By car from Mérida – 1.5 hours (on well-paved road).
Sleeping: Casa de Celeste Vida – Canadian-owned – http://www.celestevida.ca/
Hotel Manglares — Pricier, spotty service – http://www.hotelmanglares.com.mx/.
Hotel Flamingo Playa — Budget hotel next to Manglares, no website.
Eating: Celestun is known for seafood, especially shrimp, octopus and blue crab. Restaurants are modest with standard cuisine. Try:
La Palapa – biggest and busiest beachfront restaurant
Casa Peon – one of the nicer eateries in town
Restaurant Chivirico – abundant crab salad
Pizza place on the main drag (Calle 11) – no frills good food; be sure to check out the pizza choice that comes with "onions, mushrooms and shepherd." Huh?
What to take: Plenty of pesos or US dollars. There is no bank or ATM in Celestún.
Bug spray. There can be mosquitoes for an hour at dusk.
Books. This is the place to curl up and catch up on your reading.
Hat. Even the morning sun is deceptively strong along the Gulf of Mexico