Put Merida high atop your list when searching for a more cultural and authentic Mexican holiday than found on oft overcrowded tourist beaches.
You’re probably familiar with Cancun, the popular and modern getaway on the northeast edge of southern Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. My wife and I skipped that on a recent vacation in favor of getting lost in exotic markets, touring ancient Mayan ruins, enjoying Mayan delicacies and exploring a colonial Mexico few Americans take the opportunity to see.
Historic Merida, due west of Cancun and about the size of Charlotte, is a tidy working-class city of pedestrian-friendly streets where colorful facades of stucco buildings gleam in hues of sunflower yellow, chocolate and lime.
Shady parks and plazas provide superior people-watching opportunities where lazing for an hour over a cafe-con-leche at a sidewalk bistro – watching uniformed children hustle off to school – became our favorite morning ritual.
These same parks host free nightly cultural performances sponsored by the city government that feature troubadours and Mexican folk music, high-stepping costumed dancers and couples showing off their ballroom dance skills.
Dining is delightful, as true Yucatan cuisine represents the original fusion food, combining nuances of Spanish, Mayan and even Lebanese cultures, according to noted American chef David Sterling, who now lives in Merida and operates Los Dos Cooking School. Don’t miss cochinita pibil: pork marinated in sour orange juice and spices, wrapped in a banana leaf and baked in an underground oven.
Plaza Grande, Merida’s main square, is in the heart of the Centro district, where most of the city’s cultural and dining destinations are within easy walking.
The square is dominated by the dual-towered Cathedral de San Ildefonso. It was constructed over 38 years beginning in 1561 and is one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas. Spanish colonists built the cathedral upon Mayan ruins whose stones bear ancient carvings still visible on the exterior walls.
Also on the square is the stately Governor’s Palace. Its central open courtyard features the commissioned murals of regarded Yucatecan artist Fernando Castro Pacheco.
Between 1971 and 1979, Pacheco worked on these vast paintings; they depict the harsh life in the Yucatan after the Spanish conquest as well as images and myths of native Mayan tribes of the Yucatan. The works are breathtaking and help provide context to the regional upheaval experienced in this part of Mexico.
A short walk from the plaza is the Mercado Lucas de Galvez, Merida’s well known central market. Passersby are courted by staccato calls of area farmers, butchers and fish mongers promising only the freshest daily bounty. Locals navigate along narrow interior throughways for more than two city blocks among tightly packed merchant stalls.
We take in the bustling scene as people buy freshly made tortillas, milky –white queso fresco (cheese), freshly butchered turkey, pork, sour oranges, peppers, and recado rojo or achiote paste, a staple spice mixture used in Mayan cuisine.
North of the city is the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, a must-visit. The museum, opened in 2012, is regarded as the finest exhibition of Mayan artifacts in Mexico and one of the first in the country to have interactive video-based exhibitions.
The museum houses more than 500 artifacts, from stone sculptures and jewelry to ceramics, etchings and archeological pieces. Also featured are rotating exhibitions, such as a fascinating display of artifacts from a great asteroid that struck the Yucatan peninsula in prehistoric times and rendered dinosaurs extinct.
The highlight of our trip was a full-day excursion to Uxmal, the ancient Mayan city of the classical period. Uxmal is one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While the actual dates of the city’s occupation are unknown, best estimates place the city’s major construction around A.D. 850-925 and suggest between 15,000 and 30,000 inhabitants at its peak.
Though similar in size and scope to its famous sister city of Chichin Itza, Uxmal receives only a fraction of the visitors. The grounds are expansive and illustrative of the Puuc style of Maya architecture. It is one of the few Mayan cities where visitors can see precisely how the ceremonial city appeared in ancient times. The Pyramid of the Magician, Nunnery Quadrangle, Governor’s Palace and Grand Ball Court are in such fine condition, it is easy to imagine them in use today.
Mayan in Merida
Getting there: We traveled Delta through Mexico City, leaving Charlotte in the early morning and getting into Merida mid-afternoon. United Airlines flies to Merida from Houston.
Flights to Cancun are available from Charlotte through American, Air Canada and United. Driving from Cancun to Merida takes three hours. Rental cars and buses are available.
Safety: Merida is regarded as one of the safest cities in Mexico and boasts crime rates lower than most U.S. urban centers. My wife and I walked the streets daily and during the evening with no incident or fear. As anywhere in the world, common sense and basic precautions are advised.
Details: www.merida.gob.mx/turismo (click the U.S. flag in the upper right corner for English).
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Merida was one of the wealthiest cities in the world because of production and export of henequen. This natural fiber, known as sisal, was called “green gold” because of its value in the world market. Grown on expansive haciendas, the henequen plant delivered vast wealth to a few plantation owners.
About an hour’s drive from Merida is Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, a restored working hacienda and living museum. The plantation still produces sisal today; visitors see both the manufacturing process and the grand living quarters of the owning family.