Merida: A rich Mayan-Spanish stew

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Tourists scamper around a monument in Merida.The Mayan town of T'ho thrived for centuries out on eastern Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Spanish conquistadores showed up in 1542, ran the Mayans off, ripped the city down 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 awhile the Mayans 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 the area's henequen plantations, planted to help meet the world's need for rope and twine (made from fibers of the cactus-like plant). 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 one million or so residents speak both Mayan and Spanish, a good number with Mayan as their primary language.                  

Veteran tour guide Humberto Gomez explains Mayan culture.Tour guide Humberto Gomez knows every inch of the city. He's been showing visitors around for over half a century, traipsing up and down the steps of colonial palaces and the grand cathedral, wandering through block-long museums, driving by the swanky mansions of the henequen barons and checking out other landmarks in the city's rich mix of Mayan and Spanish cultures. Merida, he points out, has the country's second largest historic district after Mexico City.

Besides Merida's own attractions, it's the northern Yucatan's jumping off spot for day-trips to the region's famous archaeological sites, most less than two hours away. One popular tour takes visitors to the famous Mayan city of Chichen Itza, where the signature pyramid – one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – is the picture-postcard Temple of Kukulkan. The site typically hosts around 4,500 visitors a day, but the count recently swelled to as many as 50,000 for the celebration of the end of the Mayan long-count calendar (which some feared would be the end of the world).

Temple of the Magician in the ruins of Uxmal.Another eye-popper on the tour routes is the magnificent Mayan city of Uxmal. Here, the distinctively oval Temple of the Magician (according to legend it was built in a single night) looms over acres of other temples, government buildings, ballcourts and the like. Among the site's main structures are the Nunnery Quadrangle (actually a kind of office building), the Palace of the Governor (known for its 320-foot-long mosaic facade) and the House of the Turtles (so named for the turtle carvings on its doorway moldings).

In the evening, the entire city becomes a stage for a spectacular $2 million light and sound show complete with laser beams bouncing off ancient temples while an announcer relates the history of the site against a backdrop of beating drums and tooting flutes.

A newer attraction on the tour routes – it's only 450 years old – is a colonial town full of yellow buildings called Izamal. One of the country's 57 pueblos magicos (magic cities), Izamal features the Convent of San Antonia de Padua, a fortress-like structure with 75 arches on a hill covering what was once the big Mayan Temple of Popol-chac. Tourists can catch a light and sound show there, too.

For a change of pace, still another tour goes to a 146,000-acre biosphere reserve when tens of thousands of pink flamingos can be seen munching away on shrimp-like crustaceans in the shallow offshore waters. Along the way, some groups stop at the nearby Xixim Maya  (www.hotelxixim.com) luxury beach resort.

The tours usually get back to Merida in time for visitors to enjoy the city's traditional street festivals. You might find crowds watching folkloric dancers on one block, strolling minstrels on another and salsa bands on still another. Getting hungry? There are lots of food stands around the festivities selling Merida's classic lime soup, pipal pig (pulled pork in a tangy tomato sauce), stuffed cheese meringues and other tasty dishes.

Some of the 75 arches of a convent in Izamal.  Everyone on the people-packed streets (vehicle traffic isn't allowed on certain nights) whoops it up together, locals and tourists alike, playing out a feast for the eyes and the palate that's been going on as long as anyone here can remember.

The Meridian stewpot still boils over with the flavor of its mixed heritage, but modern times have added new spices to the gumbo. For example, Volkswagens now mix with calesa horsedrawn carriages on the city's cobbled streets, youngsters dressed in hip-hop clothes sip coffee with friends in old-time Mayan garb, and shoppers can dicker for goods at streetcorner markets or shell out their pesos at super-stores like Costco, Sam's Club and Walmart.

Tour guide Gomez' customers have kept up with the times, too. “I remember when tourists wouldn't dream of going out to the pyramids in anything but suits and long dresses, even during our hot, humid summers,” he recalls. “Today, anything goes...some (customers) even show up barefoot.”

Singer belts out favorite songs at a street party.Getting there: Nonstop flights to Merida are scheduled from a number of international gateways such as Houston, Miami and Mexico City. Another option is to fly to Cancun on the other side of the Yucatan Peninsula and take trans-Yucatan ground transportation to Merida, a drive of about three hours.

Staying there: Merida offers some two dozen tourist-class hotels including such upscale properties as the Intercontinental Presidente and the Fiesta Americana. Among popular properties is the lower priced Hotel Victoria (www.hotelvictoriamerida.com).

More info: Visit the Yucatan tourism office at www.yucatan.gob.mx and the Mexico Tourism Board at www.visitmexico.com.

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