Our first trip to Merida, Part 1

After nearly five years of pining over Merida, Mexico, wearing my wife, Angie, down with my obsessiveness and 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 Merida. Should be plenty of time to catch the end of the game, I thought.

In the Denver airport, everything was decked out in Broncos gear and we ate a late breakfast at John Elway's restaurant in the airport. It seemed like the right decision considering the day. Everyone was bright and happy and excited.

Breakfast at Elway's in the Denver airport.
And I was emotional, too. Less so about the Super Bowl, since I wasn't particularly rooting for either team, but because I was going to visit a place I had only seen in photos and on episodes of Hunters International for the past five years. It was like I was going to meet a celebrity.

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?

Maybe here is a good place for a bit of reference about me. Angie calls me the most cynical person she's ever met. And while sometimes people take that to mean I'm a negative person, like a human version of Eeyore, that's not really what she means.

I have a terribly negative philosophy of "hope for the best but expect the worst and you'll be less disappointed."

I know, that makes me sound like a real cheery person to be around. This time, though, I was genuinely smiling and excited. I worked hard to push the anxiety down. 

That was my honest fear way deep down, however. If Merida is just simply not going to live up to my hype, how disappointed is it going to leave me?

But, things were looking up! We were upgraded to first class on the flight from Denver to Cancun. This was my first (and so far, only) time in first class. Keep those free margaritas coming as I uselessly labored to cram learning some more Spanish 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 long one. We stood in line with colorful shirted and flip-flopped tourists who were eager to get to their Cancun resorts, but nobody seemed 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, I figured we'd get the car rented and be off on our way to Merida 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 the 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.

The first thing to learn is that you are required to purchase insurance on a car you are renting in Mexico. And this is generally not included in the rental price that you are quoted or that you pay online. And it is 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.

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 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 an option either, since the house we were renting was actually located just east of Merida. In that case we would have to take a bus into Merida and then take a taxi back out to the house. Plus, if we had no car, we'd have a hard time getting in and out of Merida each day. Plus, our plans to visit other towns and Mayan sites would be pretty much out the window. 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. But in the moment it seemed better than the $1,200 I had just witnessed a few minutes earlier on the couple that walked out the door.

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

Okay, not yet.

We handed over our paperwork to a young man who disappeared around the corner of the building to retrieve our car. The lot was a dirt lot with small puddles spread across it like miniature, brown cenotes. There were some nice cars in the lot, and some not so nice cars along with random trucks and wrecks, all kind of scattered and drifted about the lot. He was gone a long time. And then he came back. With no car. He had to move some other cars around to get it out is what I understood with my almost zero fluency in Spanish and minimal fluency in hand gestures. And so we waited.

Some other people waited for their car as well, sitting on the curb. Not so much patiently as much as miserable and without choice.

And we waited in the humidity as the sun moved farther and farther west. We weren't getting to the house at 7, and at this point we'd be lucky to make it by 8. We had no contact number and only an email of the owner. Angie sent a flurry of emails stating our delays while we still had a trace of wifi, hoping the owner would get it and relay the info so that the person who was scheduled to meet us at the house didn't leave before we got there.

No response.

4:45 p.m. and we finally have our car. If we hurry, I thought we'd make it in time and hopefully the person waiting for us at the house understands that things don't run on time around here and waits around a while. Air Conditioning on full blast we made our way onto the streets of Mexico.

Now is probably a good time to give a little info on Angie's personality. She is very brave, but that bravery has a switch that is flipped when she becomes very overtired plus stressed and quickly turns into anxiety. And when she gets anxious, it is very hard for me to keep it from spreading to me.

As darkness fell, 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 certainly were not prepared to try and find a hotel in the 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.

And 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.

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 obsession over a place I had seen years ago on TV for 20 minutes.

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


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