By Lee Steele
In Mexico, it helps to go inland to take in the country’s history and culture.
Mérida, a huge, cosmopolitan city near the Gulf coast, contrasts greatly with its nearest large city, Cancún, about 200 miles away. Never destined to be a Spring Break zone, landlocked Mérida instead offers a richer experience.
Mixing the Belle Epoque and Spanish colonial architecture, its historic center has been a movie stand-in for Havana, Cuba, for obvious reasons. It is a vibrant but unpretentious cultural center, with museums, modern art galleries, active theaters and a symphony orchestra.
“Over the past couple of years one of our main museums has offered exhibits by Picasso, Goya and Dalí … for free,” says Judy Abbott, editorial director of Yucatán Today.
“Serious art galleries are another plus in Merida’s cultural scene,” says Abbott. “With a growing community of foreigners moving to Mérida and opening art stores and galleries, there is a large selection of mediums to choose from.”
On the public squares, folk music and dancing are abundant. But this isn’t staged for tourists. The local population clearly gravitates to public parks when the sun goes down and temperatures cool.
“Our Latin blood has the rhythm gene in it, so there is always music everywhere,” Abbott says.
The city’s energy is frenetic. The sidewalks are often crumbling and dangerously narrow, and speeding buses make walking seem perilous.
Paradoxically, this busy city can also seem very mellow.
“Time still moves at a gracious pace,” says Claudette Flury, an expat from Canada who runs the B&B Casa Esperanza Inn.
So despite pedestrian obstacles, the urge to walk and explore is inescapable.
“Every square is built around a colonial church, each with a unique history,” says Flury. This two square mile area is in what is the third-largest historic district in the Americas, surpassed only by Mexico City and Havana.
Mérida was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world — for a time there were more millionaires here than in any other city in the world. Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, its booming economy depended on the henequén plant, which bears fiber for twine and ropes. Synthetics halted this golden era.
Many elegant mansions and haciendas remain, although falling plaster and peeling paint demonstrate not so much the city’s fallen stature, but the difficulty in maintaining these buildings in the tropics.
Visitors aren’t visiting Mexico so much as they are visiting the Yucatán.
It is helpful to view the city in its historic context.
Well before Mérida’s founding in 1542, this land was a large Mayan city called T’ho. When the Spanish arrived, they dismantled the pyramids and used its huge stones as the foundation for the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral on the continent. It remains today, on the city’s main plaza.
Also facing the plaza is the Casa de Montejo, built in 1542, which today houses a bank but is the former palace of Francisco de Montejo the Younger, son of the Adelantado Montejo, conqueror of Yucatán. Its facade is carved to depict giant Spanish warriors with their feet resting upon the heads of what are probably meant to represent Mayan Indians.
Not all remnants of ancient Mayan culture were destroyed and Mérida is a good base from which to explore what remains.
Architectural sites Chichen Itzá, about two hours east, and the Ruta Puuc and Uxmal, are about 90 minutes south. Chichen Itzá was voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
About a half hour north is the port and beach resort of Progreso, a plain but well-loved cruise ship stop. To the west, the laid-back fishing village of Celestún remains unspoiled. Both sit on the Gulf of Mexico, whose coast is overshadowed by the upscale Riviera Maya resorts on the peninsula’s southern Caribbean coast.
Flury and her husband Sergio Terrazas also deal directly with native artisans to stock her shop, Alma Mexicana, with folk art. Her expeditions take her into remote villages.
“Travel in Yucatán is pleasant and easy. The roads and highways are in excellent condition, well marked with signs for directions,” she says.
Vestiges of indigenous culture can be seen every day, in speech, dress and in the cuisine.
The mix is especially apparent in holidays like Hanal Pixan, a Mayan/Catholic Day of the Dead celebration, which is commemorated by elaborate altars that mingle crucifixes with skull decorations and offerings of food.
Yucatecan food blends Spanish, Caribbean and European influences and incorporates ingredients such as pumpkin seed powder, lime and local peppers such as Xcat Ik.
European travelers discovered Mérida years ago, but tourists from the United States are just starting to catch on. Cancun’s airport is increasingly a mere stopover to more satisfying destinations.
Continental Airlines flies nonstop from Houston to Merida’s tiny but modern airport, and from there it is a 20-minute taxi ride from the city center.
Flights to Houston from New York City are plentiful, and your layover in Texas will be made bearable with a better-than-average selection of airport restaurants, most notably a surprisingly good French Quarter-themed restaurant called Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.
If it’s cheaper, and it very well might be, take a flight to Cancún. Luxurious buses will get you to Merida in about four hours. The highway connecting the two cities is modern and well-maintained.