For Americans, the Yucatán peninsula is often synonymous with the beach resorts that line the Riviera Maya, as cities like Cancún bring in most of the tourists. However, the cultural capital of the region is actually Mérida, an inland city three hours west of the Caribbean coast.
Looking for an interesting way to spend a long weekend, I hopped on the daily direct flight from Houston to get my first real taste of Latin America. Having first heard of Mérida only a few weeks prior, I arrived with virtually no expectations, but I came back with nothing but positive impressions.
Around the same time ancient Rome was controlled by Julius Caesar, Maya civilization was flourishing on the Yucatán peninsula in the city of T’hó. Over the centuries, T’hó was abandoned as other Maya cities came to prominence. By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, T’hó was nothing but ruins, and the Maya civilization was very weak.
Just fifty years Columbus’s arrival, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo came upon the ruins of T’hó and was reminded of the Roman ruins in the city of Mérida in Spain. Instead of admiring the ruins, though, Montejo saw them as free building materials, and used them to build a “new Mérida” on the site. Thus the temples and pyramids of T’hó became the cathedral and administrative buildings surrounding the Plaza Grande in the new colonial city.
Today, the historic downtown area is one of the largest surviving colonial districts in the Americas. To me, the most striking aspect of the centro histórico is the style and layout of the buildings. The city is laid out on a grid of large square blocks separated by narrow one-way streets. Unlike what you might expect in a city of one million people, the overwhelming majority of buildings are only one story high. The width of the blocks is large enough, though, that even with only one level, homes and businesses can manage to be quite large by stretching far back from the street and even incorporating one or more inner courtyards. The colorfully-painted facades in the historic district are decorated in a simple but elegant way, giving the city a pleasant but not ostentatious feel.
The one place where the architecture of Mérida does go all-out is along Paseo de Montejo. This wide boulevard is Mérida’s very own Champ-Élysées, built at a time when it was fashionable for the city’s elite to travel to Paris for their education and return with grand ideas. Along the boulevard, wide sidewalks pass by extravagant mansions in a variety of ornate European styles. These were built by wealthy residents who benefitted from the Yucatán’s economic boom brought about by its production of the henequen fiber in the 19th and 20th centuries. Somewhat incongruously, there is a Walmart on Paseo de Montejo, but even it is very tastefully constructed, and somehow manages not to seem out of place amid the neighboring mansions! The Paseo de Montejo ends at a roundabout adorned by the Maya-inspired Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Fatherland) in place of a triumphal arch.
The leafy Plaza Grande and a few other smaller squares lie at the center of the historic district. People mill about enjoying the shade of the trees or taking photos with the iconic “Mérida” sign. Performers of all kinds – from clowns to dancers, musicians and storytellers – entertain crowds. Shoppers amble through the overcrowded rows of stalls at Mercado San Benito (San Benito Market), where clothing vendors are stuck between the gag-inducing smell of combination of freshly-butchered meat and the exhaust fumes rising from the parking garage below. Around this area, there is always something interesting happening, and you are rarely out of earshot of live music – occasionally accompanied by a salsa dance-off!
In the evening, the sweltering tropical heat gives way to a pleasant Caribbean breeze sweeping across the peninsula, and the activity in the city center gains a new energy. Every Friday night, the history of Mérida is reenacted on the facade of the Cathedral during a projected light and sound show that for a brief moment depicts the stones rearranged into their former pyramid shape. The weekend sees a number of streets closed to traffic, and restaurants and artisans expand their businesses beyond the narrow sidewalks. The result is a festive, high-spirited atmosphere. How this wonderful city managed to slip under my radar until now – and so close to home – I’m not sure. But I had a great time exploring it!