The city of Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a huge modern city with a historic center and sprawling suburbs. I last visited the city 38 years ago with my parents, I was twelve. The memories of my youth, part actual memory, part remembered slide shows from years gone by, turned out to be quite accurate.
The core of the city around the central plaza and San Ildefonso Cathedral, built in 1561, were almost exactly as I had remembered. People come out in the cooler evening temperatures to stroll, sit and gossip with their neighbors in the large plaza. They are careful not to sit under any of the parks trees which fill with birds and a cacophony of song every evening. The people of Merida are quick with a smile and seem quite used to the assorted variety of tourists and other Yucatecans.
I was only in town for a few days, which was plenty of time to explore around the cities center. Other than the museums and historic buildings near the center, inside what used to be the cities walls during the colonial period, there is not much of interest to see or do in the ever expanding suburbs of Merida.
After exploring the historic center of the city, there is an unlimited number of things to do a bit further outside the city. There are at least half a dozen significant Mayan sites within a few hours drive and several old sisal haciendas to explore. There are also quite a few cenotes not far from the center that are good for a cool dip in the blazing heat of the Yucatan’s afternoon. I did not explore these on this trip as both time and money were in short supply. I recommend that anyone planning a vacation in Merida should rent a car, it will end up being less expensive and more convenient than the tourist buses which all seem to cost about 500 pesos to go to any of the destinations outside of the city.
In the late 1800’s Merida became one of the worlds most wealthy cities due to the many henequen and sisal plantations. Henequen is used in the production of rope and twine. The Mexican revolutionary wave hit Merida in 1915 causing the beginning of the end of the wealth of the plantation, or hacienda, owners. By the 1930’s indigenous rights along with socialist and land reforms put a final end to the wealthy plantation owners.
The city of Merida is full of the old mansions of these former henequenero’s. A surprising number of these grand old homes are in a state of abandoned decay, others have been restored and now house corporate offices or retail centers. There are also quite a few people from the United States and Canada coming down and buying up these old properties to restore.
My experience and that of my friends in Guatemala and Mexico is that if everything goes perfectly, and your Spanish is good, the cost and time it will take to restore these old buildings, or any construction project, will be double whatever the initial estimates were. If things go badly and your Spanish is poor, sometime around the second year of the project that was to take 8 months, you will be reduced to an angry shriveled mass of despair.
The best way to see these old mansions and the other sites around Merida is to take one of the open air tour buses that operate in the city. There are two different tour buses, one is a double decker that leaves from in front of the cathedral every few hours called Turibus. They advertise that they run regularly, this was not the case on my visit. The other leaves from in front of Santa Lucia Park several times a day. Be warned that both buses will only leave if there are enough tourists to make it worth while. I waited for three different buses the first day, none of them ended up leaving for the tour due to lack of tourists. The second day I arrived in time for the 10 am bus from Santa Lucia Park, and was finally rewarded with a city tour.
Two of my favorite attractions in downtown Merida were the Museum of Anthropology and the Governors Palace. The Museum of Anthropology is filled with some really beautiful and amazing Mayan relics. It is inside the former home of one of Merida’s land barons which was built in the late 1800’s in stunning Beaux Arts style. I found the ancient Mayan carvings and artwork illuminated by French crystal chandeliers to be a very interesting juxtaposition.
The Governor’s Palace is more of a classic Spanish colonial style building filled with very moving murals by the Mexican artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. The murals mostly depict scenes of the conquest along with all of the violence and despair that went with it. I found them quite thought provoking and powerful. I was surprised by the honesty and brutality of these artworks. The struggle of the Maya peoples, and indigenous peoples everywhere, is well represented in the images of brutality and nobility by Mr. Pacheco.
The story of Diego de Landa is representational of the conquest and Christian crusade in the new world. Father Diego de Landa seemed initially to befriend the Maya and to try and earnestly convert them to his religion. He tried to understand the language of the Maya and attempted to translate it.
When he discovered that his Mayan parishioners were still following their old Gods and traditions, he began a brutal campaign of torture and murder in the name of God’s love.
His breaking point came when he discovered that some of the Maya were following the lessons of the crucifixion and had started copying it. They were crucifying other Mayans as a sacrifice.
Anyone interested in the history of the conquest would be well rewarded to do some reading about de Landa and his odyssey.
I had some great food and fun in the evenings, but that’s for tomorrow’s post.