Come to Merida and get to know “the real” Yucatan

The Plaza de la Indepencia in Merida has a huge sign announcing its name. Many Mexican towns boast similar signs on their central plazas. (Janet Podolak — For The News-Herald)

Not touristy like Cancun or the Mayan Riviera, the capital of Mexico’s State of Yucatan was built atop an existing Mayan city in 1542 and named after the Spanish hometown of its founder, Francisco de Montejo. Today’s Merida is an ideal place to experience and celebrate Yucatan’s unique culture, music, markets, and great food. It’s also a headquarters for forays to the Gulf of Mexico coast and surrounding villages. Weather, which can be steamy in spring and summer, is ideal this time of year.

Be sure to include a Sunday in this easy-to-reach destination — that’s when locals and visitors alike dress up and mingle in the city center, where streets are closed. Vendors set up stalls, and free performances of music and dance take place throughout the day. During my November visit, I most enjoyed sitting on Plaza de la Independencia, ringed by colonial buildings including the Catedral de San Ildefonso, for wonderful people watching. One man, doctor-like and dressed all in white, offered blood-pressure checks for a few pesos.

The Cathedral, which is one of the oldest buildings on the continent, was built in 1598 from stones taken from Mayan structures. Evidence of both Mayan and Spanish cultures is apparent in everything from food to architecture throughout the Merida area.

I was surprised to see French-style manors in the heart of the city, but, it turns out, those who built the mansions in the late 1800s were wealthy sisal millionaires who admired everything French and sought to imitate it. Worth visiting nearby is the Casa de Montejo, built in the mid-1500s and home for 13 generations of the founding Montejo family until it was sold to a bank in 1980. The bank fills the back of the mansion, while visitors tour the front rooms, gazing at furnishings imported from France more than a century ago.

Be sure to make time to visit the vast Mercado Municipal, a block-sized market building layered with scents, colors, and flavors. On the first floor, you’ll find everything from neatly stacked fruits and vegetables to religious icons, herbs and spices to animal parts hanging from above.

A colorful array of handcrafted hammocks and embroidered bags are among the shopping finds at Merida’s huge two-story market. (Janet Podolak — For The News-Herald)

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