The White City of the Yucatan
Casa de Montejo, Merida Mexico. Source wikimedia commons
Lovely, sedate Merida Mexico. How can a city so hot be this cool?
At three in afternoon, we arrived in Merida for the first time after a long non-stop drive across the peninsula from Cancun. The sky was white and the heat beat down on us in a way that almost felt physical blows. We parked the car and retreated into our hotel, the Piedra de Agua, just off the northeast corner of the Zocalo.
In that moment, the charm and gentility the colonial town erased all memories of the oppressive heat. In the shade of the hotel's central courtyard, we settled in the pace of this charming, elegant town, the "White City" of the Yucatan.
Merida was founded in 1542 Francisco de Montejo the Younger, whose father, one of Hernan Cortez's band of "conquistadores," had tried repeatedly without success to subdue the peninsula from 1526 - 1535.
The son succeeded where the father had failed by following Cortez's example of playing on local rivalries. Joining forces with the Xiu family, whose ancestral seat had been the cities of Uxmal and Mani, Montejo defeated their rivals and established a permanent hold on the region.
Following their usual custom, the Spaniards erected their new city on the site of a Mayan city (T'ho) which has now disappeared entirely, its stones used in the contruction of the municipal cathedral and other civic and private buildings in the city center.
For much of its history, the Yucatan remained autonomous from the central government in Mexico City, answering directly to the Spanish crown. Then during the native uprising known as the War of the Castes (1847-1901), Merida agreed appealled to the Mexican state for assistance and in exchange they surrendered their political ties to Spain.
Today Merida is a flourishing state capital, a center for political, economic and cultural activities. It is also a delightful tourist destination unlike any other Mexico.
The City Center
The Plaza Grande
The best place to start your exploration is in the Plaza Grande in the heart of the city. In the afternoon, as the day cools, find yourself a shaded spot on one of the many cast iron benches and devote yourself to people-watching. You will find all types represented here: street merchants, bohemian students, ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines, and bands of tourists.
On Sunday afternoons the Plaza truly comes alive as the Meridianos turn out for the time-honored custom of the paseo, a very nineteenth-century genteel stroll around the perimeter of the square all for the benefit of seeing and being seen.
Sunday evenings are also a popular night in the Plaza Grande for concerts, dances and cultural events.
Horse-Drawn Carriage Rides
A great way to get to know the city—and to begin enjoying its many charms—is to take a tour from the city center in horse-drawn carriage. You will find a fleet of them parked on the corner of Calle 60 and 61 right under the shadow of the cathedral.
Your driver will likely offer you two routes: a short one running through the area immediately adjacent to the Plaza, or a longer ride that will take you up to the Paseo Montejo and back. We strongly recommend the longer route...but go early in the morning or in the afternoon. It's too hot at midday.
The Casa de Montejo On the south side of the Plaza Grande you will find the majestic Casa de Montejo, the home of Merida's founding family. Originally built in 1549 as fortified housing for soldiers, it later became the Montejo family home and remained so until 1970.
The building today houses a Banamex bank, but you can wander through anytime during banking hours. Of particular interest is the ornate carving around the building's entrance. On either side stand two Spanish conquistadores in full battle dress standing atop "wild men" who look medieval but obviously represent the vanquished Mayas.
The Cathedral Merida's cathedral (on the eastern side of the Plaza Grande is an imposing, severe edifice that broods over the cheerful hubub below. Stripped of its ornamentation during the Mexican Revolution, the building is not especially interesting, though it serves as a impressive backdrop to concerts in the park.
The Barrio de Hidalgo A few blocks north of the Plaza Grande on Calle 60 lies the quiet, lovely Barrio Hidlago with is park, enchanting Iglesia de Jesus (1618), stately Teatro Peon Contreras (1908) and the University of Yucatan. Find a shaded spot, order a capuccino and let the world go by.
The Paseo de Montejo Follow Calle 60 north for 10 blocks (we recommend the horse-drawn carriage)or so then turn east to the elegant Paseo Montejo. This stately boulevard is a monument to Merida's glory days in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The mansions on either side are in varying states of repair: some nearly boarded up, others pristine and meticulously maintained.
The Paseo is Merida's "other center" of culture and enterainment, with museums, upscale restaurants and trendy night spots.
The Anthropology Museum One of the most spectacular buildings off the Paseo Montejo is the Museo Regional de Antropologia, housed in the former Palacio Canton (1911). The museum houses a variety of exhibits on the region's pre-history and Mayan history and culture. But nothing in the museum makes quite the same impression as the museum itself viewed from the Paseo.
Where to Stay
Our recommendation? Hands down the Piedra de Agua Hotel, (Calle 60, No. 498 between 59 and 62, Colonia Centro, Merida Mexico) especially if you are staying in the center. For a full review, click here.
Other than the Piedra de Agua, there are all kinds of places to stay in Merida and the surrounding area, everything from intimate boutique hotels to renovated haciendas. And, of course, there are the modern business-style hotels in the center: predictable but reliable and good in a pinch, especially if you're recovering from a touch of travel sickness.
Here a few to choose from:
Casa de las Columnas
International Hotel Chain
Calle 59 #636 entre 80 y 82
Calle 60 No. 474-a between 53 and 55
Colonia Centro (in front of Santa Lucia park)
Hotel Casa San Angel
Remate de Montejo #1 x 49
Hyatt Regency Merida
Ave. Colon esq Calle 60, a 100 metros del Paseo Montejo
return from Merida Mexico to www.yucatan-vacations-for-seniors.com
If you would like to check out other hotels in the Merida Mexico, in the Centro and surrounding areas (including local haciendas), click here.