Often called the White City, Mérida has a European feel, yet it is very much Mexico, with unique Mayan and Spanish heritage and presence.
When you arrive in the city, you go though endless (poor) little houses where the Maya live. About 60% of all inhabitants today are of Mayan ethnicity. When you arrive in the centre, the culture shifts to Spanish and the architecture reflects this. A majestic Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Fatherland), as a tribute to the indigenous people, stands at the roundabout of Paseo de Montejo. A true blend of the Maya and Spanish heritage!
And in the centre the Town Hall (Palacio Municipal, 1735) and the Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno) and Casa de Montejo (1542), the former home of the conqueror of Yucatán, Don Francisco de Montejo. The building has Renaissance motifs, but it is also a bit Gothic. Today it houses a small colonial museum and Banamex bank, who renovated it and have a lot of police guarding the cash machine!
The Government Palace (from 1892) houses the offices of the state government and has beautiful rooms and large paintings by the artist Fernando Castro Pacheco, which are spread over two floors of the building. They tell a visual story of the Conquest, the suffering of the indigenous people and the fight for Independence. A very interesting way of telling the story of the Yucatec Maya, different from a typical museum, which seems to be popular at many Yucatec town halls.
I was most impressed by the painting 'The Hands of Sisal Worker' (left photo) as it tells the hard life of the Maya working as slaves for the Spanish at their haciendas. The murals portraying the fight of the indigenous people against the new Mexican (i.e. Spanish) government were pretty powerful too.
I came to Mexico with my husband and son at the beginning of December 2013. Without any planning, we found an apartment to rent in Playa del Carmen but decided straightaway to check the nearby cities, just in case we had made a mistake. Maybe there are more authentic places for living here? Two weeks later we set off on a road trip to get a taste of the Yucatán Peninsula, Tabasco and Chiapas. Along the coastal Caribbean strip, Cancún is packed with high-rise resorts, Playa del Carmen has a more European feel, and Tulum is more laid-back and bohemian. None of them particularly feels like Mexico, though.
So how different is Mérida? The Spanish built their stronghold here in 1542 on top of the former Mayan city called T’Hó (established around 1240 by the Indian chief Ah-Chan-Caan). Spanish rule is reflected in its rich colonial flavour. Around the turn of the 20th century, Mérida had become quite prosperous with the production of henequén, an agave used to make rope and twine. Interestingly, we were reminded of that when we peeped into the University courtyard at the centre of the city (now Olimpio Cultural Centre) and it was a Mayan guard who told us so. Because the Maya are very proud of their history: henequén in the case of our guard. He wanted to be sure that we absorbed that fact.
The town's fair share of millionaires and their elaborate homes are on display along the main avenue, Paseo de Montejo. Here you will find the most iconic buildings and monuments of the city. Inspired by the French boulevard, the avenue is flanked by trees. Many of these homes have been restored and now house banks, insurance companies and other commercial space. This avenue reflects the growth of Yucatán in the 19th century, which experienced a period of economic prosperity due to the boom of the henequén industry. In fact, Mérida is even today surrounded by many haciendas where the Spanish owners made sisal fibre and exported it to the world, becoming millionaires. They called henequén 'green gold'. The boom gave the idea of building the first avenue in Mérida, expanding the urbanisation of the Yucatec capital.
So does Mérida feel like Mexico? Without question. It blends the indigenous and the Spanish history and culture and both are vital to understanding and loving both the city and the country. It is also, however, very cosmopolitan today and one likes certain comforts. Popular with students learning Spanish and visitors who get itchy feet after a couple of hours on the beach, the city is the region’s cultural heartbeat. The main square, Plaza Grande, is the central focus. The cathedral is also worth a look, of course.
Just walk through the city’s downtown buildings, painted in bright shades of pink, blue, red, yellow and purple, and you will be transported to the city’s colourful colonial times with a simple stroll. The streets are packed with people but Mérida is one of the safest cities in the country, highly cultural and artsy.
On this first trip we just wanted to get the 'vibe' of the city; we did not go to any museums. The city, like much of the state, has heavy Mayan, Spanish, French and British influences. We certainly 'bumped' into all those elements during our short stay. We spent only one night here, in the Spanish colonial style hotel San José (very central and economic) and had our Italian-style dinner in the restaurant Amaro. Not that we looked for international cuisine; it was just there and handy. Straight after our dinner, we walked the centre and watched a Shakespeare street theatre. Again, not that we looked for it, it was just there! The city’s entertainment seems to happen out in the open. If you stroll past most of the city-centre squares during the day, you may spot some temporary stages.
But we also had all the Mexican experiences. We had coffee under the portales café, with a lot of other locals. We sat on the lovers' bench in the Plaza Grande park, enjoying the sunny day and the ice-cream, like the locals do. No hurry. There is certainly tranquillity around, despite the fact that it is a big city (nearly a million people live here). Mexicans do know how to live!
So why don't we live in Mérida? It is very simple. Because it does not have the Caribbean Sea that we so much love. If you need a break from the urban heat you can go to Progreso, a nearby port with beaches. But for me it is not the same as the Caribbean. Otherwise I could not fault Mérida.
And would we come back again? Absolutely. Actually, I came back since, in 2017, with my friend Michelle, to visit the Mayan World Museum, a treasure of Mayan history and artefacts from the nearby Mayan sites. The Mayan World Museum is state of the art. It was designed in the form of a ceiba (kapok), a sacred tree believed by the Maya to connect the living with the underworld and the heavens above.
And at Christmas time (2017) we came back with my husband, to visit the Anthropology and History Museum. This museum is actually called Palacio Cantón, as it was the house of General Francisco Cantón Rosado. He was Governor of Yucatán between 1898 and 1902 and owner of haciendas and railroads. He resided in this gorgeous house until his death in 1917. Today it is home to the exhibition about Aztec (Mexican) history, focusing on sculptures from the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlán, which is now Mexico City. Another jewel among Yucatán museums…
Above all, we enjoyed the Christmas atmosphere in the town, just browsing the streets, the main park full of lights and people sitting on the benches. We enjoyed a Yucatec meal in the main square, under the arcades and observing passers-by. Many Mayan vendors passed our table, offering their hand-made blouses and handbags, carrying tons of them at the time. We also spotted some unusual vehicles, such as the smallest rubbish collection van, and a police car. Yucatecans are tranquil and hospitable people who have strong roots and traditions. The people in Mérida take pride in their city, known as The White City, for the predominance of white limestone as a building material, but also because of its pretty and clean streets, plazas and parks. We could feel their pride when they were passing our table, with their heads up and a smile on their faces.
How to get there:
You could follow our route for a road trip, see the map of our trip. You don't have to go all the way to Cancún from Playa, as there is a new toll road open now, cutting towards Valladolid. From Playa del Carmen Mérida is a 3hr 20 min drive on toll roads (cuotas). Mérida has an international airport: most flights are from Mexico City (2hrs). If you're travelling in Yucatan, Mérida is the hub of the long-distance bus system.
Mix & Match:
The choices are plenty. There are many haciendas around Mérida, or you could opt for the ruins on Ruta Puuc (Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná). Or you could go up north to the beach town of Progreso or Celestún Biosphere Reserve, to watch flamingos.