I was walking along a main street in central Merida on a warm day when I ducked into a large cantina, Los Henequenes, for a beer to cool off. To my surprise, when my beer arrived, so did several small plates of tasty local specialties. These “botanas” as they’re called arrive with each drink that you order, so what was I to do but order another beer? As I was sitting waiting for my first cerveza, a local band was setting up. I had no idea what to expect, but then as the guitarist began to play, a smile crossed my face. I heard the very familiar strains of Santana’s “Europa” (see live version on youtube). Carlos Santana was born in Mexico, but moved to the States in middle school. He embodies the cultural links between the U.S. and Mexico that are especially strong for those who grew up near the border.
Needless to say, the band had transported me to my comfort zone, no longer the stranger in a strange land. There were no more Norteamericano songs after that, but I'd been reeled in and was happy to sit with my botanas and cerveza and soak in the atmosphere.
Music and art is everywhere in Merida. In the evenings you might stroll by a plaza where dancers or musicians are performing, walk past the theater where people are streaming out after a classical guitar performance or the latest play. The list of events is astounding. Merida has always been this way, even when it was much smaller. Because it is not a beach resort, tourism isn't obnoxious here. This isn't Cancun or Playa del Carmen. No Senor Frog's or t-shirt shops.
What about food? Americans tend to think that Mexican food is Tex-Mex. Not at all. In fact Mexico has many regional cuisines. The Yucatan's is heavily influenced by Mayan cuisine. In fact many of the dishes have Mayan names. A few years back I saw a cooking show on PBS that introduced me to a common Yucatecan dip - sikil pak (doesn't sound Spanish, does it?) which has a pumpkin seed base. Want to try it? Here's a recipe, but careful, habanero chiles are hot, hot, hot Ha Sikil Pak.
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By Kevin O'Neill