Merida, Mexico: The White City

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Date: 
2010-02-16 to 2010-02-21
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Welcome to Merida, the White City. Merida is an excellent example of the combination of modern Mexico and the history of a beautiful colonial city. Francisco de Montejo founded Merida in 1542. When the Spaniards arrived here this was a thriving Mayan metropolis called Tho. After they conquered the city they totally dismantled all of the buildings and pyramids and used the stones as the foundations for the Cathedral of San Idelfonso. This is the oldest Cathedral on the American continent and was built in 1556. 

Chichen-itzaOne of the main reasons for the Spanish conquest of Mexico was to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Many priests and church officials made this mission their life’s work. This cathedral, still in use today, stands as a monument to their efforts. Look closely at the photo to the left and note the gun slits built into the walls which would later be used to shoot at potential converts during the Mayan uprising.   

Merida seems like a quiet little place, but it’s worth planning at least a week of your time in the surrounding area. Base yourself in the city and then take a couple of day trips from there. 

Lodging

There are quite a few options in Merida, but if you are looking for something that is both clean and comfortable as well as locally owned and operated, the Hotel Delores Alba is a great choice. You’d never know it from the street, but this hotel has a beautiful inner courtyard with a pool, as well as simple, well appointed rooms and a free breakfast each morning. We found the pool to be a godsend on hot afternoons.

On the Zocalo

You’ll likely spend parts of several days on the Zocalo, as it’s the main square of the town and where all of the action is. In the evenings it will fill with locals walking after sunset. On Friday and Saturday evenings it’s like a big street party every week, with street performers and vendors, musicians and hawkers, and dance parties that pour out of some of the bars on the side streets pouring out into the road. It’s a family affair, so don’t miss it!

Palacio Gobierno

Murals: Palacio de GobiernoThe Palacio Gobierno, or Government Palace, is open to the public and it houses one of the most impressive collections of murals in the world. It was built in the late 1800’s and the artist Fernaco Castro Pacheco painted the 27 murals along the north wall which depict the history of the Yucatan. One of the unique aspects of this exhibit is that the plaques beneath each painting are written in spanish on one side, and in Mayan on the other. We spent a lot of time standing before these pictures, mourning for the death and violence that came with the Spaniards as well as celebrating the spirit of the beautiful people who rose from the ashes and who peo- ple this country today. These pictures do not do the images justice.

There aren’t any signs announcing anything special. Just walk in the big front doors of the Palacio and up the staircase. The murals are on the second floor.

Cathedral

The cathedral in Merida is of particular interest because it’s the oldest Catholic cathedral on the continent. Look up and notice the long narrow slits in the exterior walls. These are present because the cathedral was also used as a fortress by the conquistadors and gun slits were built in, just in case the natives became restless. If it’s a hot day, the interior of the cathedral is one of the coolest places in town. It’s also a wonderful place to watch Mexican culture unfold as people come and go. If you’re able, attend a mass, for the cultural experience. We were very lucky and got to hear a group practicing for a mass, singing in the local Mayan dialect. 

Pastries

You’re going to walk past many street side bakeries in Merida, but don’t miss the one that’s right on the south east corner of the zocalo. We purchase our treats there every morning when we’re in town!

Mercado

Mercado: HeadWhile there are grocery stores and shops in Mexico, many people still do their shopping at the Mercado. You can buy almost anything here. Fruits, vegetables, soap, toys, clothes, lunch, even shoes. According to our children, the most interesting are the meat stands. You can tell what kind of meat you are buying by what sort of animal head is hanging over the stall. It is kind of yucky, but heads make good signs!

The mercado in Merida is well worth several hours of your time. Plan to get lost and bring plenty of small bills and coins to do your shopping. The market is a big one, covering almost four square blocks and two stories high. It is customary to haggle over prices in Mexican markets, so pack your sense of humor and be ready to make your best offer. 

In spite of what all of the guidebooks say, I highly recommend eating street food and from the local stalls in the center of the market. You’ll sit on a five gallon bucket next to a local day laborer and get a window into the Mexican world that you never will if you stick to the tourist restaurants around the zocalo.

Look for the gelatinous squares of hot pink coloured coconut candy and have one for us!

 

Day Trips:

Uxmal

UxmalDon’t miss the Mayan city of Uxmal (oosh-mawl). Some archeologists believe that this is the best of the Maya ruins of the Yucatan. The name Uxmal means “thrice built” and it refers to the practice of building one temple on top of another temple. In this case, the largest temple at Uxmal, the pyramid of the magician, was actually rebuilt on top of itself five times! During the late classical period, Uxmal was a thriving city of over 25,000 people. This made it one of the largest and most powerful of the Maya cities. 

There are several things that set Uxmal apart from the other ruins we have visited. One is the shape of the largest pyramid. Instead of being square or rectangular at its base, it has an elliptical shape. No other pyramid in the Yucatan has that. This pyramid is also extremely steep. When I climbed this pyramid with my family and our dog, when I was a child, my Dad had to carry the dog down, the descent was too steep! You can’t climb the pyramid any more, but there are other structures in the complex that can still be scaled and it’s an experience not to be missed.

Uxmal is a couple of hours drive from Merida, so plan the whole day for your trip. Pack plenty of snacks and water as walking around the huge ruin site in the heat of the day will require both! You can easily arrange a bus trip through any of the travel agents in town, or better still, rent your own car and have the freedom to stop along the way!  

Chichen-itza

Chichen-itza is the most iconic of the Mayan ruin sites on the Yucatan peninsula. It’s the one you’re seeing on every postcard from the moment you step off of the plane. The Maya who lived here were not only powerful warriors, but excellent builders and artists as well as accomplished astronomers. They built many temples and palaces, and recorded what they knew and their history in carved glyphs, many of which we can still see today. 

Like many other pyramids in other places, the great pyramid at Chichen-itza was built on top of other, smaller pyramids built earlier. When the last layer was built, the great pyramid had four stair cases, one on each side. Two of these have been restored. There are ninety one steps up on each side... 364 steps, and then one more step that goes all the way around the temple built on top... 365 steps altogether. This is another example of the importance of astronomy and the calendar to the Maya people.

Chichen-itza is one of the most frequently visited archeological sites in Mexico. As a result, visitors are no longer able to climb on most of the ruins. There is one building that we can explore the inside of... but it is very dark! There are no windows and the only source of light as we move into the dark interior is the flash of our camera. Flash, walk as far as we can remember, flash again, feel our way along a little further, and so forth. It is not for the faint of heart! In this manner we can get a feel for what it was like for the people who used these inner rooms hundreds of years ago.

You can take a marathon bus trip and be rushed through the ruins, but a better choice is to rent a car and plan to stay the night near the ruins, take two days over your visit, and enjoy it far more.

We’ve stayed at the Delores Alba Chichen-itza and it’s a great little hotel, the closest one to the park. They have two lovely swimming pools, one that has been made into a “reef pool” that feels very much like snorkeling (without the fish!) It’s a small, family run place with a good, but basic, restaurant. Soaking our tired feet in the pools was far better than climbing back into the car!

Gallery: 
Murals: Palacio de Gobierno
Murals: Palacio de Gobierno
Mercado: Fish
Mercado: Head
Zocalo: Night Party
Chichen-itza
Uxmal
Uxmal
Places: 
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions

Comments

Can you post few more pictures of the city itself.
Nice article!

By branko

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