Progreso/Merida Opens for Business

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

Ancient RuinsClick for pic.
Is Mexico's newest cruise port ready for prime-time? Not quite. The cruise ship pier serving Progreso/Merida was completed in 2000, but it wasn't until mid-November 2001 that the first big vessel, Celebrity's Horizon, turned a shipload of passengers loose here. We were in the second wave the following week.

Horizon will call at Progeso/Merida through the winter as part of a western Caribbean itinerary that includes Key West, Grand Cayman and Cozumel.

When we tried to look up port information about Progreso and Merida on the Internet before departure, we found it to be in woefully short supply, both on bulletin boards (no surprise, since no cruise ships had yet called) and via search engines. Progreso, the port town, is on the northwest coast of the Yucatan Peninsula; Merida, a larger city, is about 20 miles inland.

We'd been to Merida several years ago, which gave us instant expert status among fellow passengers. As we drew closer to this, our final port, much conversation centered on "What are you going to do?" In the absence of information, we'd made no firm plans.

There is a strong temptation to draw comparisons between Progreso, Costa Maya and Calica (known fondly by some experienced cruisers as The Gravel Pit). In each cases, it's mostly a port of convenience--i.e., one you use to get somewhere else. Possibly the best thing about Progreso, for those who like antiquities, is that the ruins at Chichen Itza and Uxmal are within painless striking distance. On other western Caribbean itineraries, getting to Chichen Itza is a struggle and Uxmal is out of the question.

Both Progreso and Calica also gouge passengers for taxi service with flat, non-negotiable rates.

Progreso does put its best foot forward. When we disembarked, we were met by a 13-piece band attired in Mestizo fashion -- white guayaberas, white pants and shoes, plus their trademark hats. They should have been playing "Hot! Hot! Hot!" because it certainly was. In the shade of tent tops, we encountered representatives of the tourist board, tour operators and a car rental agency, all eager and willing to help, book, or rent.

People taking shore excursions disembarked at 9:30 a.m.; everyone else waited until 10. Since we'd been to Chichen Itza before, we decided to rent a car, drive the 75 or so miles to Uxmal, then go to Merida for a walkabout. The ship's shore excursion for the same plan cost $98 per person, as did the excursion to Chichen Itza. Surely we could do better on our own.

Other shore excursions offered were Mayan Ruins of Uxmal and Kabah ($89), Merida City Sightseeing ($35), Kayaking Adventure ($59), 4x4 Nature and Ruins Adventure ($65), or Caves and Caverns Snorkeling ($99).

The information offered by the cruise line was misleading at best. We didn't need the $6 taxi from the pier to town, since there were free buses. Even more interesting was the phrase "Downtown Progreso is approximately 2 miles from town." The central plaza is two blocks from the museum park.

My spousal unit turned down the car rental fellow at the pier because the only vehicles remaining were vans. We didn't need a van, and $70 seemed steep.

Calestun Bird  WatchingClick for pic.
So we boarded a non-air-conditioned bus for the short (6 miles) trip from the pier down the causeway to downtown Progreso. The buses were new and tidy, with the Progreso! logo smartly displayed. But no air conditioning? All shore excursion buses are advertised as air-conditioned.

Leaving the causeway, we spied a small beach to the left. There were several palapas, the umbrella-like shelters seen all over the Caribbean, but no chairs or other amenities that we could see.

We were off-loaded at a nicely landscaped plaza, complete with museum. It was crowded with locals, particularly ladies in the traditional lace-trimmed white dresses embroidered with gardens of flowers. Most of them had something craft-like to sell. Scattered among them were smiling young people wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Need Help? We Are Here For You."

In retrospect, we should have understood the shirts' clue: English is in very short supply in Progreso. When we asked where we could rent a car, the answer was a Mexican shrug, and the young person peeled off to return with a representative of the Tourist Bureau. No rental cars, he pronounced. Take a taxi. A taxi to Uxmal? Hardly.

Leaving the square, we got our first look at the flat-rate taxi fares--$30 to Merida, or $60 round trip. At least it wasn't per person. Surely we could do better in the town itself. We walked. We asked several people about car rentals, but without success. Taxi time. Even downtown, the flat rate taxi was the deal of the day.

The drive into Merida is eye candy, from the wetlands populated by herons and other water birds to the city itself. Beautiful, carefully landscaped mansions sit side by side with el Burger King, el T.G.I. Friday's, el Sam's Club and el Sears--quite the cosmopolitan city.

Our driver took special pride in pointing out the heroic edifice known as La Bandera, situated in a roundabout in the middle of the wide avenue. He circled it three times, slowly, so we could appreciate the important moments in Mexican history. We were reminded of some of the statuary in Oslo's Viegland Park.

Streets narrowed and we began to work our way to the center of the city. Most tropical cities tend to look almost the same, regardless of where in the world they may be. We were thinking Saigon with street signs in Spanish.

Finally we arrived at the main square, and paid the driver. We quickly understood why Merida is called The White City. Not only are the public buildings almost all limestone, but the streets are cleaned twice a day.

After a quick look into the Cathedral (built by the Spanish with stones that were once part of a Mayan temple), where morning Mass was in full swing, we set off in search of a car rental agency and came up dry. We checked with the tourist bureau office in the Governor's Palace, and got no real help except a small magazine geared toward the tourist trade.

CenoteClick for pic.
Leaving the square, we stopped in at a Cuban cafe (Internet cafe upstairs) called La Havana to peruse the magazine and take refreshment in the form of gin and tonics and the best tostadas we've ever come across. (Keep the Governor's Palace on your right, turn right at the next street, and walk one block. Highly recommended.) If we'd turned right at the Havana corner we'd have come across a pretty little garden restaurant that's recommended in the current Fodor's.

We decided to cancel the Uxmal plan in favor of just enjoying Merida. Most of the major architectural and historical goodies are an easy amble and it's perfectly simple to find your way around. Even-numbered streets run one way, odd-numbered streets the other--in order. A guidebook is a good idea. We found one in a bookstore in the same block as La Havana and met possibly the only person in Merida who speaks English--or admits to it. Our feet, and the guidebook, led us to a small square where bougainvillea blazed. There are two hotels fronting on it. After quick peeks, we knew that our next land cruise will definitely take us back to Merida.

A ship's group tour was inspecting Merida at the same time we were wandering, and at least three times a concerned passerby told us we were losing our group and pointed out where they'd gone. The people of Merida are uniformly kind and eager to help. Even the hammock hawkers take a single shake of the head for "No." After a small mishap with an ATM machine (never put your card in the wrong slot), we negotiated an $18 cab fare to return to Progreso. Our driver dropped us on the pier.

Most other passengers we spoke to were not thrilled with either the port or the shore excursions. For us it was a rewind in time to Mexico as it was before serious American tourism--not to everyone's taste, but certainly to ours.

The bottom line: We had an hour's worth of sightseeing in Progreso and six hours in Merida for $48 in cab fare and the cost of lunch, compared to three and one-half hours at $35 each. Not a bad deal for us, but Progreso/Merida is not prime-time ready for the average American tourist.

Hints for Progreso/Merida

  • Unless you know elementary Spanish, don't venture too far from the pier on your own. Lost is lost in any language.
  • *Don't expect any good shopping of the tourist type.
  • If you plan to rent a car, make a reservation in advance or have one person scamper off the ship as quickly as possible to rent at the pier. And get a map. Roads are well and clearly marked.
  • Buy a guidebook before you leave home (I always recommend Lonely Planet).

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