I've stayed in some pretty screwed-up places in my time, but I think I may have just discovered one of the scariest. When I say 'scary' I'm not talking about high crime rates, or ghosts stalking the corridors, or even 24-hour piped Justin Bieber, all of which would be pretty hard to handle. I'm talking about insanity, madness and an atmosphere so eerie it could give The Shining a run for its money.
To be fair, we were warned, but we figured it would be interesting to take a punt. 'You will either love this wacky place or find it disquieting,' says the Lonely Planet of the Hotel Trinidad Galleria, and when we first walked into the lobby, we figured it could be fun. The proprietor is a collector, of sorts, and the hotel is crammed with – how shall I put it – eclectic objets d'art, from paintings to modern sculpture to endless piles of bric-a-brac. It's a rambling place with corridors and rooms and hallways and outdoor patios galore, and every single nook and cranny is home to something... well, something intriguing. That's 'intriguing' as in, 'Would you like to lie on the couch and tell me about it? Let's start with your mother...'
It was only after we'd checked in and paid for the night that I started to look more closely at things, and frankly, this place has seen better days. The objets d'art are dusty, mouldy and faded, and the entire hotel is coated in the creeping black mould that this part of Mexico seems to exude like ectoplasm. And then you start looking at the exhibits in even more detail, and my god, it's like a glimpse into the brain of Salvador Dali's evil twin. By the swimming pool, itself a walled-in and drab affair that you wouldn't touch with your little toe, there's a whole collection of evil-looking busts on the wall – the kind that, in the film world, would come with a fast zoom shot over the opening bars of Carmina Burana – and what can only be described as dream-catchers with rat skins stretched across them. And look, on the wall next to them is an iron face mask that looks like a torture device, and next to it... hang on, that is a torture device, or at the very least it's a rusty man-trap with evil-looking teeth.
In the corridor is a modern artwork made up of parts of shop dummies, with dislocated arms and headless torsos swirling in a mess of red, white and blue paint. Then there's a statue of a woman brandishing a sword and shield in a most unwelcoming way, and another statue that stares into your soul from empty eye sockets. And on top of a column in an overgrown and object-strewn courtyard in the middle of the hotel is a bust of a man that's painted blood red for no apparent reason other than to send a shiver down your spine as you gingerly walk towards the back of the hotel, down the damp corridor, past the fish tank where fish miraculously seem to survive among the rotting leaves, and along the mould-blackened back passage to your room, where the shower has just three working needle-thin nozzles – yes, three, I counted them twice – and a toilet that makes an eerie drip, drip, drip sound that goes on for ages after you flush it.
As if this weren't welcoming enough, there are rules posted up absolutely everywhere. Some of them are ancient and some more modern – our room's rules said we were only allowed to use radios between certain hours, which is fair enough, except the wording made it sound like the latest in cutting-edge technology, which I suppose it was compared the the rusting gramophone in the corridor – but some make absolutely no sense at all. Rule number 8, in particular, made us think: 'In case of death, the autority [sic] will be notified,' it says, though rule number 9 clearly tries to prevent this unfortunate turn of events by stating that, 'The hotel will rescind the rooming contract and will request the vacancy of the room if a guest has any contagious sickness or illness.' Presumably insanity is not classed as contagious, though after spending a night in the Hotel Trinidad Galleria, I'm not so sure.
And everywhere feels and smells damp, a sense that was only compounded by the fact that, yet again, the heavens opened when we checked in and the rain just kept on pouring down, only clearing up while we were away eating our evening meal. This is a theme that we're discovering in Mexico; the country is so wet and humid and rain-soaked that, frankly, it's like living inside someone's sock. As the initial relief of dropping our bags on the bed started to wear off, I realised that yes, that smell was dark, dank, musty and rotten, and the Black Crowes took over from Carmina Burana in my head. 'This room smells like Hotel Illness,' they sang, and that's when I realised that perhaps we'd made a mistake in choosing the wacky option after all.
I perhaps should have spotted the subliminally frightening effect that the hotel was having on us a bit earlier, but it really hit home when we'd gone for a short wander around Mérida, grabbed an evening meal and ended up in the Parque Santa Lucia, a pretty little plaza just down the road from our hotel where a Mexican band were tuning up for a free concert, something that the cultural city of Mérida is famous for. Unfortunately the rain had drenched the seats in the plaza, so we stood there a bit stymied by what to do – sit in a puddle and wait for the band to start, or go into a bar and possibly miss a bit of Mexican culture – but as soon as the band struck the first chords, we exchanged glances and headed straight into the bar for a beer. It was a cacophony of instruments detuned by the humidity, and frankly a cold beer in an air-conditioned bar sounded rather more enjoyable.
What a good move that turned out to be. The bar was unashamedly western and looked over a kitchen where the glowing fire of a pizza oven lit up the busy chefs putting together dishes for the clientele outside in the plaza. Above the kitchen was a huge TV showing American football from the NFL, and finally, we weren't damp. The draught beer was tasty, the ambience was modern and cosy, and I realised that I really wasn't relishing going back into our depressing and downright scary mental hospital of a hotel room. So I grabbed another beer and Peta had a glass of Argentinian wine, and we enjoyed pretending that we weren't in Mexico, just for a while.
That night, I found it hard to go to sleep; the atmosphere in the hotel gave me the shits. What we hadn't realised was that it had given Peta the very same thing, and at 3am she leapt out of bed and ran for the ablutions, feeling nauseous and faint before exploding in the classic travelling manner. The toilet drip, drip, dripped through the rest of the night as she tossed and turned through multiple visits, and by morning she was completely washed out. We'd eaten exactly the same things the day before, and it was highly unlikely to be the glass of wine, but when Peta went to clean her teeth and turned on the tap, out splattered a whole lungful of black goo into the stained basin. 'Ah, I did my teeth in that last night,' she said, and suddenly it made sense. Hotel Illness was living up to its name.
Just to kick us when we were down, the included breakfast was one of the most depressing I've ever had, consisting of cold toast and a cup of instant coffee that was presented in a chipped and stained mug without milk, but with faded plastic containers for powered milk and sugar. Powdered milk? Really? (It turns out that the Mayans aren't big on drinking milk; they prefer yoghurt, so I guess I'll be drinking my coffee black from now on.) The staff looked as shell-shocked as we did, and as soon as breakfast was done we headed round the corner, found a lovely hotel run by a very friendly family, and splurged out on their most expensive room so we could dry out, get better and take stock.
Our New Golden Rule
Accommodation-wise, things haven't gone so well recently. We've stayed in three places since hitting the road – Tulum, Valladolid and Mérida – and in two out of three places we've had to abandon our hotel after one night. This is untenable, wearing and downright distressing, and we've realised that if we don't improve the quality of our hotel rooms, we're going to end up coming home early, which would be stupid (I'd rather spend twice as much and travel happily for half as long, than spend less and get sick). So we're going to check out more rooms before deciding which to take, we're going to go with our gut instincts and walk out of a hotel if it doesn't feel right, and we're going to spend more on our accommodation if that's what it takes. There's no sense in being so budget conscious that we end up staying in places that make us depressed and ill; this is supposed to be fun, not fatal.
So the question is: would we be happy to stay put in our room all day if, say, it rained all day? If the answer is 'yes', then we'll take it; if it's 'no', then it's not good enough. Hopefully that will prevent Hotel Illness from spreading.