Bob Schulman writes in the Huffington Post that a stroll through the colonial district of Merida takes you back to the 18th century, when the surrounding henequen plantations made this city one of the richest spots on Earth. You half expect to see henequen barons in silk shirts, velvet breeches and knee-high leather boots strutting off to oversee the production of rope and twine from the plants’ sword-shaped leaves. You can imagine ladies in hooped skirts and white petticoats heading to afternoon teas. Silver-plated carriages, it’s said, once lined Merida’s cobbled lanes like Rolls-Royces along Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.
Your walk through the historic district takes you past the overseers’ swanky mansions – at one time reportedly the homes of more millionaires than anyplace else in the country – government palaces, block-long museums, a classic grand cathedral and other landmarks in the city’s rich mix of Maya and Spanish cultures.
Spanish conquistadores showed up in 1542, ran the local Maya off, ripped the city down (the Maya called it T’ho, meaning City of the Five Hills) and built a new one for themselves on the spot. The bearded foreigners called it Merida after a city of the same name in Spain.
After a while the Maya started to drift back, at first to work in the fields, ranches and kitchens of the sprawling haciendas of their new Spanish landlords. In the mid-1800s, thousands more came out of the jungle to take jobs on henequen fields planted by the invaders. When the debut of synthetic fibers took the wind out of the henequen market in the early 1900s, many of the workers moved into town.
Today, it’s estimated that well over half of Merida’s million or so residents speak both Maya and Spanish, a good number with Maya as their primary language.
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For more information on tours and attractions in “The White City”, go to: http://www.yucatan.travel/centrohistorico/?lang=en