Editor’s note: This compendium of observations from many winters of longer term cultural immersion in the Yucatán area was contributed by a reader.
A Canadian living in Yucatán, México during 3 to 5 month winter periods for 15 years discusses his observations that demonstrate the differences between Canadian (& North American in general) cultures.
To make it easier, the general parts of everyday life are categorized.
Virtually all homes have tiled floors, never a carpet unless it is an area rug in a more affluent home. This makes it easy to use a broom and wet mop as frequently as required which can be daily in dusty areas. In many homes I have seen the owners resort to a periodic major floor washing using a garden hose.
All windows have wrought iron ornamental bars, no exceptions. Break-ins can be a problem so no one takes the risk. All homes are basically right on the street edge. There is little or no green frontage except in very classy homes in more affluent/secure areas, and sometimes, although somewhat rarely, these homes have a male guard. Houses are either separated by a narrow sidewalk; or in most cases share a common joined wall on at least one side. To enter any house, you have to go through a locked gate of some kind. What faces the street gives you no indication of what is behind. The plainest façade can have a fabulous home/property behind it. Nobody wants to publicly display or demonstrate they are wealthy. In the majority of cases your vehicle is also behind this locked façade. Many front doors in middle class homes are done in traditional wood with fancy carving and features. Some metal doors are used as front doors and they are also of a fancy ornamental design.
Interior walls (and exterior too) are subject to horrendous humidity abuse and suffer continuously from a spalling (bubbling/flaking) effect, which means they must be frequently repaired and painted. General construction is of cinder block and cement. This makes it very difficult to make changes to electrical and plumbing routes. Some new commercial construction is now using drywall. The upside of this construction is there is low risk of fires.
Back yards and gardens are never open and are bordered by high walls for security. Stoves are always gas; electricity is too expensive for cooking. The gas tank is usually on the roof in residential areas, as is the water tank on houses and commercial buildings large or small. This roof water tank is a must as water pressure supply is not very high and so gravity feed from a roof tank gives greater pressure. Most water heaters in standard homes are not large and have very limited storage (10 to 15 gallons is normal). Most are gas fed but a few electric ones are not uncommon in small applications.
Solar water heating has not yet come to Mexico in any degree, which is surprising considering the vast amount of sun. While on the water subject it is important to point out that the water comes from limestone based underground river sources. The water is hard and corrosive and can plug up toilets, showers and corrode anything it touches for longer periods such as taps, pumps etc. Everybody drinks bottled water due to the uncertainty of a pure water supply. On the subject of toilets, because of the underground river system, it is not permitted to put toilet paper into the toilet. It must be disposed of in a container beside the toilet provided for this purpose. The actual toilet waste goes through a very different kind of septic system that doesn’t use a septic field but more of a natural deep underground filter system. The only exception to this is in large resorts like Cancun that have their own sewage processing. Garbage disposal in Mérida is at least twice weekly.
Driving and public transportation
The biggest noticeable differences are the “topes,” or speed bumps. These are everywhere and serve as low cost traffic slowing and stopper systems in place of expensive lights. I use the word stopper because they are so constructed as to make you almost stop completely to cross them. Indeed the few formal pedestrian crossings are often topes that are almost 1 foot high with ramps up and down and quite wide to cross.
Streets are sometimes marked with painted lanes, but usually this has long ago worn away and is not maintained, so traffic tends to drive on the road any way they like. In fact, drivers often do whatever they want, and buses and cars alike are occasionally seen to ignore red lights. Overall driving, however, is very civilized but defensive driving is a mandatory habit for all, which includes extra vigilance for motorcycles constantly sneaking up on the right side. Don’t count on rules being followed at any time and watch out for the slow moving tricycle taxis.
Gasoline has recently risen closer to world prices much to the concern of the low to average income Mexican, but it is still slightly less than Canadian prices. There are no self-serve gas stations in México, and pump attendants are usually tipped. Pemex, the government oil company, has always held the monopoly, but in 2017 new branded gas stations are appearing and actually displaying prices per liter for the first time (although they still buy from Pemex).
Transportation over medium distances is done by bus, using a very efficient and well run system at reasonable prices. It is often safer to take a bus and not to drive. These buses are well equipped and extremely well maintained and comfortable. This efficiency extends to the normal city buses which are very numerous using private contractors, and for short haul routes to neighboring towns there is a system of private contracted collectives or smaller van type buses. They are efficient, extensive, and cost-effective.
Etiquette, family life, and more
Friendly greetings for anyone from family to strangers are accepted with a hug and cheek kiss at any time or place. More formal dress is required for normal outings such as shopping or visiting. Shorts among the male locals are not usual no matter what the temperature. Family life is everything, and it is frequent that sons and daughters do not leave the parents’ home until much later in life. Some stay a long time and even run a business from the family home. Religion is very dominant and the vast majority of people are Catholic and like to go to church. Holidays occur with frequency. They can be for carnival, celebration of a religious occasion, or for a history milestone such as the Mexican revolution. Mexicans take their numerous holidays very seriously and love to enjoy the accompanying music, dancing, and feasting. City, state or federal government sponsored events are numerous and most are free, many with top name international stars. Unless you are a working person, you have no government pension. Old people must therefore rely on their families to look after them in both sickness and in health. There are a few seniors’ homes.
Music plays a large part in the culture and can be heard playing quite loudly in many stores. Talented people exist in great numbers, and singers and performers can be seen in restaurants, parties, and gatherings. There seems never to be a celebration without musicians. Along with music, dancing is natural and no encouragement is needed to see locals dancing at the drop of a hat to the very infectious beats. At parties, locals can be dancing almost immediately after arriving. In the home, music is playing more often than not.
Mexico has many tiered levels of health care. There is a basic free public system offered to low-income residents. Working people and their families have free access to the Seguro Social medical system, paid for by their employers. Electing to go to a private clinic is normal from a middle class perspective if you are willing to pay what can be high fees (although medical costs are lower than in North America). This cuts the wait times as well.
As a visitor needing health care, it can be obtained at reasonable prices. For example, a consultation with a specialist can be as low as $500 pesos. The pharmaceutical industry is a very big business with a pharmacy on almost every street corner.
In my trips around México, I’ve noticed that beer is more prominently drunk than tequila. Next to that is probably rum and whiskey. Whiskey to a Mexican is always scotch. There is basically no such thing as rye whiskey. By the way, when taking a photo you say “whiskey” because “cheese” in Spanish is “queso” and not the best look comes on your face. The selection of beer brands is extensive including foreign products and in recent years the micro brewery specialty beer is gaining inroads. Beer can be very inexpensive, in the neighborhood of less than $5 for a six-pack. Some very special liqueurs are made in Mexico including Crema de Nance (made from a berry-like tree fruit) and Xtabentun (a Maya drink made from special Yucatecan honey and anise). A dark beer is produced for Christmas and also large amounts of apple cider.
The world of refreshment takes on a different twist in this culture. Coca-Cola is very big. More healthy drinks are also consumed in great amounts and that includes horchata (a rice and vanilla sweet milk-like mix), Jamaica (a red clear drink made from hibiscus flowers and then sweetened to taste), and a local favorite of iced green tea.
Banking & technology
This is very much a cash culture, which leads to a lot of overcrowding and wait lines at any bank. Banks don’t seem to be able to solve the continuous long lines for service and often have difficult and unnecessarily burdensome security rules for technology/online use. This is not to say that many parts of the money system are not modern such as electronic deposit of your paycheck. On the plus side, the no risk interest rates can be better and in the range of 2-4%.
More formal restaurants use the portable credit card machines and so do many of the more formal and larger businesses, but not the smaller ones.
Internet choices are several and reasonably full-featured with good speed offerings. Prices are slightly less per month than in North America. It is necessary to carry small change and cash at all times because tipping is expected everywhere you go, especially for packing your groceries, helping you park your car, and pumping your gas. Long distance phone costs have dropped dramatically in a very short time and are often bundled as free long distance to major countries. Local calls used to be charged after a certain amount but now this has also been stopped. Cell phones are the norm and it seems even the poorest man, woman and child has one. Good bundled, reasonably priced packages are available for local and temporary visitors alike. Prices for technology purchases are generally higher than North America. Comparing everyday prices of items such as TV’s and computers shows this to be consistent.
For many years in the past, food was considered cheap in comparison to North America, but in the last several years food prices have risen alarmingly. Certainly there are exceptions such as fruit, vegetables, and dairy products. Milk is always and only provided in tetra paks. Fruit variety is large with new names not known in North America such as zapote, mamey, caimito, and more. Oranges are many and varied, usually categorized as either sweet or sour. It is very common to buy a large amount cheaply and have fresh squeezed orange juice every morning. It is interesting to note there is only one kind of white potato grown. Avocados come in huge sizes that will astound you. Mangos are available in many different varieties.
It seems that meals often contain the ever-present tortilla, and food tends to be more of a mixed shredded experience and often wrapped up in some way. For example, arracherra is a very tender flat thin cut steak to rival anything in expensive steak cuts found in North America, but often it is cut up into small pieces or shredded and rolled up in a tortilla or placed in a torta (panini type bun).
Barbecueing is not a mainstream pastime, but when it is done, there are no gas grills. Instead a good quality charcoal mesquite is most often used in the old fashioned way. Chicken is a widespread mainstream item and is often grilled on special charcoal grills at local small businesses, which provides incredible flavor.
One of the big traditions in Mexican culture is chicharrón, pork skins deep fried until light and crispy. Store bought bags can be reasonably good but the real item is best bought fresh which would then include chunks of pork to go with the crispy skins. It would then be wrapped up in brown paper for take-home.
As in this document’s Shopping section, comparing stores later in this document, there are many restaurant outlets familiar to North Americans such as McDonald’s, Domino’s, Applebee’s, and Burger King.
In this region there is a vast array of spectacular tasting seafood. As well as a good supply of common seafood items such as shrimp, octopus, lobster, and oysters, there are a number of varieties of fish with names like esmedregal, sierra, pompano, pargo, mero and much more, all with wonderful flavors. Yes, salmon is available as an import although of course it is expensive. Oh, and the shrimp here can be the size of small lobsters (5 to 6 inches). They are not called prawns. One of the regional dishes is pan de cazón which is dogfish and very tasty. Another is raya which is sting ray and also exceptionally tasty. Usually these dishes are of the shredded variety and mixed with complementary ingredients.
Mealtimes are different in that breakfast is in late morning and the main meal of the day is served in the afternoon between 1 and 3 pm. This coincides with the work day which is often split between day and evening. Many workers go back to work after a longer afternoon dinner break and work until mid evening.
Of course it’s tropical. The rainy season is June to October, not that there are really any seasons as we know them. Hurricanes can and do occur in September or October. From October to April it can be cooler but not always. Rain is often in the form of horrendous gully-washers brought on by intense thunderstorms. Usually there is little to no rain in the winter months. Temperatures in the Yucatán area during wintertime are normally a low of 20-22 degrees C and a high of 28 to 35 degrees C. Occasionally the temperature can dip into the high teens which causes many to dress very warmly. It is timely to remind the reader that there are no heating systems in México and 18 degrees C can be very cold for older people acclimatized to constant warmer temperatures. Some days have wind and many days do not. Into May or earlier it can start getting very hot, and with our climate changing it is not uncommon now to reach 40 degrees C on some days. Since México is a large country, the weather can be vastly different depending on the location and altitude.
Flora and fauna
I cannot profess to be knowledgeable on this topic, but I can tell you that as in all tropical countries the range of flowers and trees is quite spectacular. I mention only the highlights. Palm trees of all varieties dominate the landscape in both city and rural settings. It is easy to find a coconut palm and find a way to get some coconut milk when the wind drops them to the ground. The tradition is to drink it from an unripe coconut straight out of the pierced shell. My favorite flamboyán tree has beautiful red flowers.
As for flowers, a typical garden might contain the famous bird of paradise or its look-alike, the red heliconia. Various types of cacti abound, the most famous being the nopal, or prickly pear as we know it. It is a main food item in the vegetable department of most supermarkets. Jasmine is easily grown too. Of all the flowers, the bougainvillea is the most spectacular and can be found hanging on many walls. As lovely as it is dangerous, its spikes are numerous and sharp and inevitably when working with it, it becomes easy to draw blood. Yucca trees are common but everything is very large or very tall compared to what we are used to that we might have growing inside our homes. A typical garden can contain crotons and copa de oro, a vine with yellow cup-like flowers. Another common element is the aloe vera.
This document is mainly about cultural difference, but to end it I felt that shopping was important because nowadays there are very little differences in the cultural aspects. Even in smaller Mexican cities the North American shopping standard has been duplicated with a parade of familiar stores such as Sam’s, Costco, Staples, Office Depot, Walmart, Sears, and Home Depot to name a few. The Maya influence is very strong in the Yucatán areas and is reflected in many clothing and gift stores. The real cultural difference is in cities like Campeche and Mérida that have huge public markets where you can actually see real items of food and not packaged. Rows of freshly plucked chickens, tons of fish on trays, elaborate floral displays which are super cheap, and of course every kind of fruit and vegetable you can imagine, very fresh, large and colorful. Literally thousands of fresh items from the land and sea for your choosing. Add to that dozens of small stores selling clothing, shoes and more. All of this in the biggest markets you can imagine, some of them blocks long with dozens and dozens of narrow aisles.
The above content is from the experiences and opinions of Rick Weatherhead living in Campeche and Yucatán. I tried to be accurate in all aspects but others may differ. I make no claims to total accuracy.
By Rick Weatherhead