YL: When did you move to the Yucatan and from where did you move?
Denis: I started visiting the Yucatan about 18 years ago, traveling with a volunteer group named Mano Amiga. My very first meal in the Yucatan was in Valladolid while crossing the Yucatan Peninsula to the small fishing village of Chuburna Puerto. I thought Valladolid was a quaint, sleepy village and the thought never crossed my mind of ever living here. However, during my first visit to the Yucatan, I fell in love with the people, the climate, the food… everything. The volunteer work I was doing consisted of helping high school students from the USA build concrete roofs for owner-occupied homes… sort of like Habitat for Humanity… but faster. In a good day, the groups of high school kids could complete four concrete roofs that would last for generations. I had been living in northern New Jersey for almost 20 years at the time.
YL: Why did you move?
Denis: I came one week the first year as a volunteer and two weeks the second year. The third year, I joined the board of directors of Mano Amiga and was visiting the Yucatan up to six times a year. At some point I realized I was giving a lot of money to Continental Airlines and started renting in Isla Mujeres.
YL: Why did you choose the city you now live in over other places in the world?
Denis: In 2005, I took a two week driving trip to the five Mayan states with an extended Mayan family… some from Temozon, north of Valladolid, and some from Chilon, Chiapas. In a number of the places we stayed, we had a meal in the courtyard. I loved the idea of having my morning coffee in a courtyard garden with the birds and the butterflies. So when we returned to Isla Mujeres from the trip, I made a list of five cities that I had visited as a tourist that met my criteria of being a Mayan city overlaid with a Spanish colonial city. The cities were Valladolid, Izamal, Merida, Campeche and San Cristobal de las Casas. My plan was to see them all again looking at them as a place to live rather than as a place to visit.
Since Valladolid was the closest to Isla Mujeres, it was at the top of my list. The third time I was in Valladolid looking at property, I came across the house I finally purchased. It was very run down but had good bones and I knew I could work with it. The house was on almost 1/2 acre (34m x 68m) of land in a cul de sac on a small park about 4 blocks from the main square.
As I look back now on my original list, I know I have made the right choice. Izamal is too small; Merida, too big; Campeche, too remote; and San Cristobal, too cold. Valladolid is just the right size for me! Every time I go to the market, or the main square or the supermarket, I run into people I know. And these are local people, not expats. I feel like I belong and am accepted. As a small example, on Good Friday, I was standing in a huge line at the market to purchase fish. The line was moving very slowly since most of the people were buying fried fish and they had to wait for the fish to fry. An elderly man I knew came up to me and whispered that there was a fish truck about three blocks away where there was no line. We went there to purchase very fresh fish, and there was no line.
Valladolid is not for everyone. The expat community is VERY small… perhaps, 50 or 60 of all nationalities…. probably fewer than 20 full-time Americans and the rest a mix of Canadians, French, German, Belgian, Italian, Venezuelan, Portuguese, Peruvian, Austrian, Japanese and Chinese…. and probably a few that I do not know.
YL: Did you buy a house right away or rent first? Do you think you made the right decision?
Denis: In Valladolid, I purchased right away. However, I had been living on Isla Mujeres for about 4 years (on and off) in a rental. I had looked there at houses, apartments and raw land. And finally decided I did not like island living.
YL: Are you doing now what you intended to do when you moved here? If not, why not?
Denis: When I purchased the house I live in, I had plans to start some kind of business, but I did not know what it would be. As I remodeled the single story building, I decided to build a second floor. And then made the decision to open a bed and breakfast to help pay for the construction. I had never even considered opening a bed and breakfast and had only stayed in ones in rural Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
YL: What are the most interesting things about living here for you?
Denis: I have three overlapping lives here, all of which provide interest and stimulation.
My bed and breakfast guests are extraordinarily interesting and diverse. They have visited everyplace I have ever thought about visiting… and have engaging lives and occupations and hobbies and interests. They are split between North Americans and Europeans with smatterings from South American, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. But we almost always find common interests that lead to great conversations. About a year ago, we opened the “breakfast” part of the bed and breakfast to the public. And have now expanded Xoco Loco Restaurante y Bar to breakfast, almuerzo (lunch) and cena (supper) from 7:00AM to 10:00PM with a full service bar from noon to closing. Our menu is a mix of Yucatec, Mexican, Continental and “eclectic”. For instance, we have an off-menu “Elvis” sandwich of peanut butter, banana and bacon on toast. Before we opened, we hired a professional bartender to come in for five weeks, two hours a day for five days per week to teach or staff about bartending. Before, they could open a beer… period! No idea on how to open a wine or make a cocktail. A similar thing happened when we opened the bed and breakfast… we brought in a young lady who had taught housekeeping services at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun. She taught our staff how to make a bed (none of the staff owned a bed or slept in a bed) and how to fold a towel (their family probably never had enough towels to fold… they washed them, dried them and then used them).
I am also president of the Valladolid English Library (or VEL… it is somewhat patterned after the Merida English Library). Through the library and its programs, I interact with a wide variety of people and organizations. We host a monthly lecture series under the palapa of Casa Hamaca Guesthouse. This is also the one time a month that I am sure to interact with our local expat community. We have hosted a summer school for local kids for the past four years and our first Easter camp this year. We have English conversation groups and are planning an English teacher training workshop to help students and recent graduates in teaching English to find the means and resources to be better, more successful teachers.
And my third life seems to be part of the very diverse local community. I have lectured, given workshops or participated in panel discussions at three universities. I helped found a group of tourist-related businesses with the objective of helping grow our businesses. And I have participated in a number of food-related events sponsored by the local government. Every year I have university students interning or students doing their practica working alongside us for periods from two weeks to three months. I have started raising Mayan stingless bees and have begun to enter a very closed community of Mayan beekeepers who provide guidance and education to me and my staff. I have a jungle garden of over 80 specimen plants, trees and flowers important to the Maya. There are still a few gaps, but I am filling them as fast as possible. And we have a language academy (Academia AMI) where we teach English (mostly) and Spanish when requested. We also have a small spa and massage business on site in a traditional Mayan thatched-roof nah (house or hut).
YL: What do you absolutely love about living here?
Denis: I never get bored. Life happens everyday. Problems appear and are solved, ignored or changed to opportunities.
YL: What do you miss from your “former life”?
Denis: Not much. My daughter visits me a couple of times a year and I visit her and her family once a year. I do miss good German and Italian sausage and have taken the first steps to make my own. Today we ate spaghetti with both hot and sweet homemade Italian sausage… not bad but spice adjustments are needed.
YL: What don’t you miss from your “former life”?
Denis: Stress. Cold weather. Short growing season. Shoveling snow. Wearing shoes. Sleeping in a bed. Isolation.
YL: What is your favorite local food?
Denis: That’s easy. Lechón al horno… roast suckling pig… even if it is not really made from suckling pig. The place I go most often to eat lechón gives me Lechón Lite… estilo Gringo (gringo style). Sin grasa y sin higado, without fat and without liver.
YL: What is your favorite time of year here and why?
Denis: I like all four seasons here… they are just a little more subtle than in the north. But the trees shed their leaves, fruits come in season and the rainy season provides relief from the May heat. The almost crisp mornings in January when I must wear long pants for two or three days. It’s all good. All of my guest rooms have air conditioning. But I don’t have it in mine. I have slept in a hammock for more than 15 years and my room does not have air conditioning. I kind of like it when I must cover myself with a blanket.
YL: Where do you take guests who visit you here to show them something really special?
Denis: I take them to Casa de los Venados in Valladolid, Teatro de los Indiginas y Campasinos in Xo-Cen, Ek Balam Mayan ruins, the Distillery, Rio Lagartos, the Museum of the War of the Castes, the Valladolid municipal market for breakfast on Sunday, a molina where they grind corn and make tortillas, small Mayan villages to deliver dispensas (two weeks worth of food and household necessities) to the elderly, infirm and out of work, adventures on roads that really require a 4x drive (we go very slowly in a minivan) to pass cenotes, abandoned haciendas and un-explored Mayan ruins to visit Mayan bee-keepers or hunters or shaman. Small villages where the cottage industry is making huipiles and guayaberas. Various cenotes.
YL: The last time you went out to dinner, where did you go and why?
Denis: A street cart to have a sandwich (torta) of lechón. My regular lechón taqueria was closed and i was jonesing for lechón.
YL: How is the city where you live different for residents than it is for tourists?
Denis: Many of the tourists are in Valladolid for less than one hour, either on their way to or the way from Chichen Itza. The buses come from Cancun and Playa del Carmen and for most of the tourists, this is their day of “culture”. They wander around the main square, take some photos and then return to the artificial world of Playa or Cancun. Many of them are too timid to leave the main square. Most will never return to the “real” Mexico.
YL: Do you have friends from the local community or do you pretty much hang with the expat crowd?
Denis: Friends from both groups. I can go for days without speaking English… except for the interactions with guests and inquiries via the internet.
YL: If you are working or own a business, what is it like owning and running a business here or working here? How is it different from doing the same thing in your country of origin?
Denis: In many ways it is easier to own and operate a business here than it was in New Jersey. But the language and the cultural differences sometimes make things challenging. Now I have a network of local professionals and acquaintances who I can tap when I have a question or problem.
YL: Do you find it more or less difficult to make a living here than in your country of origin?
Denis: I have never been very good at making a living. But I have been very successful at making a life here in Valladolid.
YL: Are your work habits different here?
Denis: I usually get up at 5:00AM or a little later, so that I can spend time without interruption on the computer making bookings, answering emails and checking FaceBook and world news. If I know one of my guests is checking in from Singapore, for instance, I read the news that might affect him, his country or region. It makes for a good ice-breaker when we first meet.
YL: Did you speak Spanish when you moved here? Where did you learn Spanish (if you did)? Is the language barrier a problem for you in your daily life?
Denis: I have been attempting to learn Spanish for 60 years and still do not do well. Most of my staff speak Spanish as a second language (they speak Yucatec Mayan as their first language) so they are not great teachers. Almost everyone in Valladolid speaks or understands at least a little of Yucatec Mayan. Valladolid was founded by the Spanish colonialists about 473 years ago on the Mayan city of Zaci (White Falcon). Many villagers still refer to the city of Valladolid as Zaci… long memories!
YL: What interesting Spanish word or saying have you learned lately? What does it mean and how did you learn it?
Denis: If a visitor is here for a few days and has a few words of Spanish, my favorite is to explain the difference between “malo” and “maa’lo.” Malo is “bad” in Spanish and maa’lo is “good” in Maya. Life can become interesting.
YL: Are you a Mexican citizen? Do you plan to become one?
Denis: I am a permanent resident and would like to become a Mexican citizen.
YL: Have you traveled much within Mexico? If so, where and what has been your favorite location to visit? What did you see there that you liked so much?
Denis: I have done a lot of volunteer work in border towns in Coahuila, visited Nogales for the afternoon, seen Cuidad de Juarez from El Paso and spent a small amount of time in Aguascalientes and Léon. I think I like the Mundo Maya more than I like the rest of México.
YL: How are you treated by Mexicans? Do you feel resented or welcome?
Denis: I feel very welcomed by the Mayas and the Yucatecas. I don’t know a lot of Mexicans. Many people of the Mayan world first identify as Maya or Yucatecas and, incidentally, as Mexicans. I have a tee shirt that I used to wear that had the Republic of Yucatan flag on it (for two short periods there existed the Republic of Yucatan consisting of the five Mayan states: Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tobasco and Chiapas). When I wore the shirt in Merida, I would always get a lot of thumbs up! Now I only wear guayaberas.
YL: How do you feel about the economic prospects of Mexico? Of the Yucatan?
Denis: I try not to think in”economic prospect” frameworks. They almost always imply “growth”. And growth is not the direction we need to think of… we need to think of sustainability NOT growth.
YL: What are some changes you are hoping for in the city in which you live? Do you see any progress towards these changes?
Denis: The police chief wants the city to be safe because his family lives here. The small business owners have been successful on keeping out large franchise businesses (or at least giving them a VERY small footprint). The beekeepers have been successful in keeping out GMO’s. All in all, I am happy with the direction of the city and the state.
YL: What are your plans for the future here?
Denis: I am at the point of not buying green bananas. However, there are interesting opportunities here:
Education: If I were younger I would start a K-12 school focusing on a vegetable garden. All things worth knowing can grow from planning, planting, tending, harvesting, preparing and eating the bounty of the garden. Math makes sense when you must plan a garden, geography makes sense when a particular plant comes from somewhere else and must be nurtured differently, botany and biology make sense when insects attack your plants and you must find a defense, culinary arts make sense when you must find a way to eat all that you have grown. Getting kids out of classrooms and into the natural environment benefits both the kids and the environment.
Fiber and fabric: Before the Spanish came, the Mayan tended high-bush cotton and wove it using back-strap looms. When the Industrial Revolution came to Mexico in the way of the first cotton factory in Valladolid, this cottage art quickly died. Cotton, as a commodity, is a fertilizer, water and pesticide user par excellence. High-bush cotton, grown sustainably, is organic and very desirable as a “boutique” export crop. In addition, the inner fibres of the banana trunk yield fibers of increasing fineness as you remove the concentric layers of the trunk. The outer layers are coarse like sisal or henequen. As you reach the inner layers, the fibers become finer and finer, approaching silk in the inner core. One of the very cool things about using banana stalks for fiber is that the banana fruits just once and then the trunk dies off. The other is that the fibers of the stalk can be separated mechanically without the use of water since most of the trunk is water. Most other “cool” fibers like hemp and bamboo need a huge amount of water to help separate the fiber.
From any of the Mayan ruins, raised limestone roads (called Sac Be) radiate to other ruins. There is a extensive network of interconnected roads including Mayan ruins in Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Mexico. From the ruins of Cobá in Quintana Roo to Yaxunah, Yucatan, is a 100K Sac Be straight through the jungle. The last time it has been officially walked is in the late 1920’s. There is an opportunity to make the Mayan Trail, analogous to the Inca Trail in Peru or the Appalachian Trail in the USA. For anyone with interest, I have a PowerPoint presentation of the possible benefits (economically sustainable) to the economies of Quintana Roo and Yucatan using Peru as a role model. The costs of development are very low (all that has to be done is clear the existing road of vegetation). The support services needed including outfitters, guides, transportation, food, lodging, etc. would support a new kind of tourism for the Yucatan. And this trail would be very accessible compared to the Inca trail which is at 3.000+ meters, and includes a flight to Lima, Peru and another to Cuzco and then either a train trip or a bus trip to the trailhead followed by 3 to 4 days on the trail. The Mayan Trail, on the other hand, is almost at sea level, an easy 2 hour+ bus trip from Cancun and a level trek, as opposed to one which varies from one of about 2,000 meters to over 3,400 meters. Many more people could have the possibility of the experience at a much lower cost and a much lower level of physical capacity. As a kick-off and promotional event, a once-a-year, 100k Ultra-marathon in January (when there are no major ultra-marathons) could attract runners from around the world. Various fun runs and regular marathons could also be incorporated into the event. Eventually a five (5) country interconnected network of Mayan Sac Be trails could be hiked.
Honey: The 16+ types of stingless Mayan bees produce small amounts of very rich honey. The koli cab is the biggest bee of the group and produces the greatest amount of honey… but still only about 10% of what a honeybee might produce. However, there is a market for organic, exotic honey in both the USA and Europe and, I believe, in Asia. The stingless bees, as their name implies, do not sting and therefore beekeepers do not need elaborate protective clothing or smokers. They are easy to care for. Ancient Maya regarded them as family pets. Most honey from the koli cab is now used for ceremonial or medicinal purposes.
YL: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give someone buying property and/or planning a move to the Yucatan?
Denis: Try it on for size before buying. It’s not for everybody. Rent for a minimum of six months… a year is better. Try to live as you envision yourself living if you made a permanent move.
YL: If you could say something to all the people of Mexico, what would you say?
Denis: ¡Si! ¡Si puede! (Yes! You can) and Te amo (I love you).
Denis Larsen is the owner of the wonderful Casa Hamaca Bed & Breakfast in Valladolid, Yucatan.