We decided to escape the stinking heat of Merida, where the temperature has topped 35 degrees since we arrived, for the ocean shore at Progresso, a small port town on the Gulf of Mexico, about 35 km. from here. For the princely sum of $1.45 Canadian each, we caught a bus from the small Auto Progresso terminal a block and a half from the zocalo. The quarters were a bit cramped but the bus was air conditioned. Everyone says it takes half an hour to get there, and it does — once the bus reaches the outskirts of Merida, which it managed to do after half an hour of starts and stops to pick people up and pause for the ubiquitous speed bumps.
A lot of people and even some guide books describe Progresso as a pretty little town. Indeed, an increasing number of Canadians is choosing to winter here, so much so that a day-long festival in Merida in the winter is attended almost exclusively by our fellow Canucks. Progresso is known for having the world’s longest shipping pier, which extends hundreds of yards from the beach to host the cruise ships which arrive twice a week. Strangely, its lighthouse is hundreds of yards inland.
The beachfront was as attractive as any: white sand, turquoise sea and lots of sun. Once you got away from the beach, however, central Progresso was somewhat squalid in appearance. In areas that had been overgrown with bush, rubbish covered the ground. Crumbling buildings wilted in the sun. The bus station was one of the most attractive structures, a colonial-style two-storey with an attached pedestrian mall where vendors hawked the usual souvenir junk.
It was, however, about 10 degrees cooler than Merida, with a wonderful offshore breeze that was better than air conditioning.
As we exited the bus terminal, a vehicle that looked like an Iraqi war wagon drove by filled with police. Standing in the back was a cop in camouflage with a huge shotgun, or perhaps an automatic weapon, resting at the ready on the roll bar over the cab. We headed towards the beach where, wonder of wonders, we saw a bar that served draft beer. It was populated by loud American youths who were smoking hash from a pipe. We decided to give it a skip.
A friendly Mexican had told us the day before to avoid Mondays and Fridays, which is when cruise ships docked, but there, on a Thursday, at the end of the world’s longest pier, was a big liner. The beach was crowded with Mexican families and cruise-ship passengers. We looked for a place to change and shower after taking a saltwater dip, but couldn’t see any on the beach. Instead, across the road, were a number of sketchy-looking facilities that charged between one and two dollars per person to use their change rooms, toilets and showers.
Once we got back to the beach, we noted that the idyllic scene was somewhat spoiled by hundreds of rusting beer caps which dotted the sand. Drunken gringos staggered around with glass bottles in hand, some taking them into the ocean for a dip. I remember when I was a lot younger that we used to shake a bit of salt into our glasses of draft beer and then tap the lip with the shaker in order to create bubbles, but taking your beer into the ocean seemed to be a pretty extreme way of accomplishing this.
We rented a table and chairs under a thatched umbrella for $5 and spent a pleasant hour or so enjoying the breeze and looking at the scenery, alternating excursions of dodging bottle caps and broken glass to get to the ocean for a dip. The water was wonderfully cool, although the waves were a bit high: there had been a strong wind from the north the night before, and the ocean was stirring up lots of sand, pieces of fishing net and seaweed. Still, there were clear spots a little ways out where the waves weren’t so high that made bobbing around in the water a very pleasant experience. The guide books were right on one thing: there was no undertow.
Sitting at our table, we were accosted by vendor after vendor, some carrying huge loads of goods. One of them carried a large tray of pastries on his head; we marvelled at his balance and confidence. It surely would have been worth at least a day’s sales if he had dropped it. The goods on offer included kites, balloons, sand pails, beach balls, conch shells, a wooden shark that wiggled when you moved its tail, drinks that looked like slurpees, cigars, colourful jewelry, woven baskets, gourds, pottery and the aforementioned pastries. When we politely said no thanks, they moved on but returned several minutes later, having forgotten we had once refused, or perhaps figuring that our resistance would be broken by this point. We figured we were solicited an average of more than once a minute while we sat there. Unlike touts in Turkey, however, Mexican vendors are considerate and polite. If you say “No, gracias,” they move on.
Despite the signs saying that no alcohol could be consumed on public streets, young men and women walked around with open cans and bottles, many of them with one in each hand. Middle-aged women walked arm in arm with handsome Mexican men, causing Ana to remark that it looked like many of them had taken temporary husbands for the duration of their stay or cruise.
We stopped for an excellent lunch at a beachfront restaurant. An appetizer of nachos and cheese came with four bowls of extra ingredients, one of which was a selection of very hot pickled vegetables: carrot slices, green and jalapeno peppers. Fillet of grouper was on the menu, as was another item called “fillet of fish.” When I asked what the fish was, Pancho, our waiter, replied with a shrug: “grouper.” I decided to take the grouper. It was prepared Veracruz-style, with tomatoes, chillies and onions and was delicious.
We were prepared to spend longer, but there really wasn’t much to see, so we hopped on the bus back to Merida after an interesting day at the beach.