We’ve been back-and-forth to Mérida for over six years now, and I still have yet to take the wheel of a car anywhere in Mexico. City driving has never fazed me, but my reluctance to drive in Yucatán has been documented.
Rising gas prices, although troubling, aren’t the reason. It’s not even anxiety about what shenanigans happen at the pump. It’s an overall phobia of driving in another country. What if I get into a scrape? Or just break down? What if I’m pulled over? Or lost?
So along comes a book to put me at ease. It was given to me by a friend who was cleaning out her library. It was her parents’ copy of “The Best of Mexico by Car.” Oh, and it was published in 1969, when driving on the nation’s highway system from the “mainland” to the peninsula was still a novelty.
Written by David Dodge, a novelist and travel writer who was popular at the time, the book is a vestige of a simpler time. Border crossings were easy-breezy and family trips on the open road were a cornerstone of post-war pleasure.
Right away, I found Chapter XI, “The Mexican Boot: Mayaland and the Caribbean Islands.” If you’re interested in 48-year-old driving advice, I’ll summarize: You could drive from Veracruz to Mérida on a “circle tour” but it’s probably best to fly in and rent a car from “No. 1 and No. 2.” (Hertz and Avis?) Isn’t that cheating? Yes, but he says that Mérida is so lovely and engaging, you’re best off settling in at one of the Centro hotels and hoofing it around for two or three days. Incidentally, inside the book was a pristine bookmark that doubled as a $5 gift certificate redeemable at Hertz.
I once unearthed a 1970 New York Times travel article about Mérida that reveals how much the “White City” has changed. And also how travel writing standards have changed. Both the newspaper article and the book marvel at how “clean” the Maya are, which strikes me as a little condescending.
The Hotel Panamericana (“with a better than average restaurant”) and the Hotel Mérida are the most highly recommended, each at $12 a night. The Panamericana I suppose is today’s Hotel Misión Mérida Panamericana on Calle 59, and I’m sure the Hotel Mérida is the pink building that’s being rebuilt on Calle 60. The book was written a year too soon to mention Casa del Balam, the hotel that has faced the pink building since 1970. I only mention it because both were built by the Barbachano family, which in the book is described as practically owning the tourism trade in Yucatán. Fernando Barbachano Peón founded Mayaland Tours in the 1920s, and lived in the home that became Casa del Balam after his death in 1964 — that’s not in the book; I just Googled that little nugget. In fact, the Barbachano family is worth more study — I see that they ran an entire tourism empire. They had also planned to build a hotel tower — similar to Balam’s and Misión Mérida’s — over the ancient Casa de Montejo, which is today is a cultural center facing the Plaza Grande. Wouldn’t that have been, uh, different?
But back to topic of driving: When Dodge was there, horse-drawn carriages competed with more conventional hired cars like Uber does today. And again, the taxistas are undercut: “Twenty pesos an hour is about right for a púlpito [local slang for a horse and carriage], something less than you have to pay for a cab.”
Dodge affirms the depiction of yucatecos from yet an earlier era: they are “a lovable, courteous, gentle, strictly honest and scrupulously clean people. They drink little, except on feast days,” he writes.
Drinking refers to “the hard stuff.” Beer is plentiful and is among Mexico’s best. So is the food, Dodge writes. In fact, “Yucatán cooking is better than most other Mexican regional cooking.” Or for something different, try Alberto’s Continental Restaurant, “among the best in town.” Also, the Real Montejo, Siqueff, El Mesón del Castellano, and the German El Tirol. “All are quite moderately priced.”
Another recommendation you won’t likely find from a contemporary travel writer: He recommends the “girls, girls, girls.” They are “among the loveliest in the country.” He quotes a pal: “Jeez, I never seen so many gorgeous ripe tomatoes in one place at one time in all my life.” OK then.
Dodge started writing humorous travel guides in the 1940s with “How Green Was My Father.” Although he shared plenty of practical advice, he always made room for the humorous anecdote:
We had learned in Mexico how useless it was to try to spell “Dodge” for anybody who didn’t understand English. Half the time it came Dogde, and even when they put it down right they made two syllables out of it; Dode-gay. The simplest thing, we found, was to introduce ourselves as Dawtch-como-el-Carro — Dodge-like-the-car — and everybody caught on right away. Dawtchcomoelcarro became the family name on everything but our passport. [His daughter] Kendal, because her name sounded like “candle,” ended up as Candela, or sometimes Candelaria, Dawtchcomoelcarro, an interesting handle for a small American girl. — How Lost Was My Weekend, p. 24
He also wrote fiction, most famously “To Catch a Thief,” which of course went on to become an Alfred Hitchcock movie with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
I love old travel guides. They make such great time capsules. I have a 1930s book on the taverns and inns of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Completely useless, but thoroughly engaging to a reader curious about the part of the 20th Century that he or she has missed out on.
Sadly for Dodge, who had settled into San Miguel de Allende in 1968, his wife died in 1973. Dodge passed away the next year at the age of 64. They are both buried in San Miguel.
So thanks to my friend for the book, which had me doing some armchair traveling on a snowy Saturday in New England. No driving in either country this weekend!