Our first trip to Mérida, Part 1

After nearly five years of pining over Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico, wearing my wife, Angie, down with my obsessiveness, followed by nine months of waiting for the trip, it was finally time to make our first visit.

Angie had bought the tickets for my birthday in May, and now it was Sunday, February 2, 2014. I remember the date because it was also Super Bowl Sunday. Super Bowl XLVIII to be exact, the Seattle Seahawks vs. the Denver Broncos.

We were at our local airport in the morning, and the plan was that we'd fly into Denver and have a bit of a layover, fly into Cancun around 2 p.m. where we'd rent a car and drive to the house we rented near Mérida. Should be plenty of time to catch the end of the game, I thought.

In the Denver airport, everything was decked out in Broncos swag and we ate a late breakfast at John Elway's restaurant in the airport which seemed only appropriate. Everyone was bright and happy and excited in Denver, and so were we. By the time the sun went down that night, the attitudes of the people of Denver as well as our own attitudes would change.

Angie with her red backpack at Elway's
I was very emotional that day. Less so about the Super Bowl, since I wasn't particularly rooting for either team, being a tragically life-long Vikings fan, but because I was going to visit a place I had only seen in photos and on episodes of House Hunters International for the past five years. There was a hint of that feeling when you go someplace that you might see a celebrity in person. Only, for me, the whole city was the celebrity and I was a little starstruck.

My emotions were genuinely all over the place. Excitement, absolutely, but also a looming anxiety. What if it wasn't as great as I thought it was going to be? What if I've wasted five years infatuated with something that it turns out I dislike? 

Angie calls me the most cynical person she's ever met. While that sounds like I'm a human version of Eeyore, and I am definitely Eeyore-adjacent, that's not entirely what she means.

I have a philosophy of "hope for the best, expect the worst; never be disappointed."

But this time I was genuinely smiling and excited. I was hoping for the best and expecting the best as I worked hard to push any anxiety down. 

That was the anxiety way deep down. If Mérida is just simply not going to live up to the hype that I have heaped upon it, how disappointed is it going to leave me?

But anxiety would have to wait a bit longer it seemed, things were looking up! We were upgraded to first class on the flight from Denver to Cancun. This was my first time in first class. Keep those free margaritas coming, as I sat in my cushy seat and uselessly tried cramming a few more Spanish lessons into the roughly four hour flight.

We landed in Cancun and got off the plane onto the tarmac. The humidity blasted us. We hadn't felt humidity quite like that since our time in Thailand. The line to clear immigration and customs was a long one. A very, very long one. We stood in line with colorful shirted and flip-flopped tourists who were dragging their luggage, eager to get to their Cancun resorts, but nobody was happy yet.

We edged through customs and started through the airport hallway where we were repeatedly asked if we needed a taxi, through the doors and past the small palapa in front of the airport selling, I don't know, coffee? Margaritas? We didn't stop to find out as we continued walking, still bombarded with taxi offers.

We found the small bus to take us to the car rental building. It was starting to get later, our initial arrival of 2 p.m. had now drug out to 3 p.m. But, no problem, we'd get the car rented and be off on our way to Mérida in no time, just enough time to see the end of the Super Bowl.

Or, maybe not. We entered through the doors of the rental car place to find more lines. Everyone looked miserable. The people in line were miserable, the people behind the counter were miserable. Was it the heat and humidity causing all this miserableness? Or is this just the Mexico I should expect? Are things beginning to unravel on the dream. "No!" I told myself, "we'll get through this."

"This is just what happens in resort towns," I had decided.

In all of our previous travels we have avoided resort destinations, but flying into Cancun provided the cheapest flights with the fewest layovers. Looking back, maybe more layovers and higher ticket price were something to consider.

At the front of the lines was a long counter-top with three or four people working behind it to service each line. We joined the line second from the left. We had already rented our car online and assumed it would be a fairly seamless process. We were about to find out this is generally not the case when renting a car in Mexico.

Lest you think this is a case of a dumb American abroad, we have rented a car in Sicily, an SUV in Namibia, a small bus in Norway and a scooter in Thailand. All of them were pretty painless transactions. Maybe I should have done some more research on Mexican car rentals, granted. But, so far, our travels had not warranted spending a lot of time on the subject. Also, this was an internationally-known car rental company.

The first thing to learn is that you are required to purchase insurance on a car you're renting in Mexico. And this is generally not included in the rental price that you're quoted or that you pay online. And it's also incredibly expensive. Sometimes costing again what it cost to rent the car.

And as I stood listening to arguments from people in front and next to us, apparently also unaware of this fact, I had a hard time discerning what the main factor in the figuring of the insurance price was. Whether there was an actual system to determine the price, or if it was based on the mood of the person renting the car to you. I still don't know, honestly.

The people to our left were told that the insurance was going to cost them $1,200. That's U.S. Dollars, mind you, not Pesos. It was more than four-times the rental price they had booked. They stood in silence for a moment, as if the shock of that little surprise had paralyzed them briefly. Finally, their  limbs started working again as they picked up their bags and walked out the door.

I braced for the news as the woman handling us started figuring the prices. What choices did we have? We couldn't pick up our bags and walk out the door. We had to get to Merida tonight, we were renting a house and the people would be waiting for us. We told them we should comfortably make it by 6 p.m., maybe 7 if we hit some traffic. It was already 4 p.m. and the drive to Merida is at least three hours if you know what you're doing and exactly where you're going.

Taking the bus would not be a practical option either. The house we were renting was located east of Mérida, near the town of Acanceh. We would need to take a bus into Mérida and then take a taxi back out to the house. No thanks. Plus, if we had no car, we'd have a hard time getting in and out of Mérida each day. Our plans to visit other towns and Mayan sites would be pretty much out the window, too. So, whatever price she slapped on us is what we'd have to pay, like it or not.

Maybe she wasn't as miserable as she seemed, or maybe my sad-dog face prompted her to take pity on us. Or maybe this was just the set price. I really don't know. It was only going to cost us $200 extra in insurance for the week. I say 'only' as if that isn't a lot of money, especially when you're not expecting to spend it. Right about then, though, it seemed like a much better deal than the $1,200 that caused that other couple to walk away.

We got our paperwork and it was 4:30 p.m. We're on our way to Mérida!

Okay, not yet.

We walked back out into the humid Cancun air and handed over our paperwork to a thin, young man who disappeared around the corner of the building, I assumed, to retrieve our car.

The lot was dirt with mud puddles spread across it like miniature, brown cenotes. There were some nice cars in the lot, some not so nice cars with random trucks and wrecks all strewn about the craterous patch of dirt. 

The attendant was gone a long time with our paperwork. Then he came back. With no car. He had to move some other cars around to get it out is what I understood using my baby level Spanish abilities and minimal fluency with his hand gestures. We waited.

Some other people waited for their car, sweating on the curb outside the doors to the rental building. Not so much patiently as much as miserable and without choice. Everyone ready to start what they hoped would be a dream vacation full of selfies and social media posts to make their friends jealous, instead penned into a dirt lot within spitting distance of the airport.

We waited in the sticky evening as the sun moved farther and farther west. We weren't getting to the house at 7. At this point, we'd be lucky to make it by 8. We had no contact number and only an email for the owner. Angie sent a flurry of emails relaying the news of our delays while we still had a trace of wifi, hoping the owner would get it and pass on the info to the person who was scheduled to meet us at the house.

No response.

4:45 p.m. and we finally have our car. The lot attendant is smiling and proud of his work of wrestling the car free for us. He takes us around it to inspect for any damage. I move him along quickly as we both point at little nicks and scrapes that get jotted on our little rental sheet. Shake hands and let's go!

If we hurry, hopefully the person waiting for us at the house understands that things don't run on time around here and waits. Air Conditioning on full blast and we edge our little rental onto the streets of Mexico.

Angie is, generally, very adventurous and gutsy, but when she becomes very overtired and/or stressed that all starts to melt into her own pit of anxiety. My empathetic nature means when she's stressed, I start to buckle.

The sun set and darkness crept in as we drove deeper into the Yucatecan interior. Angie started to question whether we should have just spent the night in Cancun. Whether we should be driving in Mexico at night. Whether there will be anyone waiting at the house, and if there isn't, what do we do then? We were not prepared to try and find a hotel at night in a city we've never been to.

There was definitely no chance I was going to catch the end of the Super Bowl.

As her stress and anxiety turned to fear, I started to feel the doubt spreading to me and a knot forming in the pit of my stomach as I gripped the steering-wheel tightly.

Maybe we should have just stayed in Cancun. Maybe we never should have come here. Everything is falling apart it seemed and it was all my fault for having this wild obsession over a place I had seen years ago on TV for 20 minutes.

On the main expressway to Mérida there are almost no places to turn off or turn around. There are a couple "exits" but otherwise you are on a straight shot. By the time there were any reasonable places to turn around we were already far closer to Mérida than Cancun. It's too late to turn back, I knew. So I pressed on into the darkness.

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