My Travel Map

My Travel Map

01 December 2013

Merida, Mexico

Mexico... so close and yet so far.  Having lived in the United States for my entire adult life, I've become very used to hearing Mexican Spanish, eating Mexican food, and interacting with Mexican people, since there are many Mexican-Americans, particularly around L.A.  Yet, despite it being one of the USA's two neighbors on the continent, I'd only ever been to Mexico once before, to Cozumel as part of a cruise.  Cruise travel doesn't count for having seen or experienced a culture or a place.  It is more like the sampler appetizer of a region... never letting you get to dive in and indulge in the finer points of a full multi-course meal.  Mexico offers so much and such an entirely different culture from most of the rest of North America (from the rest of the world really), and it is so close!  I was lucky to get a chance to visit the Yucatan for a week, and since then I'm now committed to returning frequently and exploring this enormous and beautiful country.

So, starting off in Merida, the capital of Yucatan state.  Merida is an old colonial city, with a very rich history.  They have done a great job preserving the city center, which is bright, colorful, safe, and very welcoming.  It is a great place to spend a few days and a wonderful base to explore the surrounding area.

Starting in the center, the Plaza Grande.  The San Ildefonso Cathedral is seen here on a Sunday, which is also market day.  Every Sunday, the streets in the center are shut down to motor vehicle traffic, and food and market stalls are set up throughout the central square.  The official city market, located a few blocks southeast of the main square, also erupts as a hive of activity on Sundays.  The central streets pulse with activity, with plenty of lively food venues, cafes and bars offering seating on the sidewalks and streets, and plenty of live music and dancing... Sunday is definitely a good time to be in Merida.

Here is a better view of the main cathedral.  This building hints at Merida's age; it was built in the late 1500s, though there has been human habitation on this site for much longer than Europeans have been on the continent.  

Another reminder of the city's age and colonial past: the Casa de Montejo.  This is the remainder of a larger palace that was built in 1549, making it the oldest building in the city.  It was built for Francisco de Montejo, a Spanish conquistador who unsuccessfully attempted to conquer the Yucatan Peninsula.  However, his son was able to succeed where his father had failed.  This palace includes features meant to remind the natives of their "place in the new world"... note the conquistadors flanking the 2nd floor balcony: they are standing on the heads of natives.  This history of conflict between the Spanish (and later Mexican government) and Yucatecan people (Mayans) continued and now forms an integral part of the culture in Merida.  More on all of this below...

First, back to Sunday markets and ciclovia.  I mentioned the central streets are all closed to motor vehicles.  So, many of the locals take out their bicycles for leisurely rides around the attractive city center.  The riders seen here are on their way past the bright green Autonomous University of the Yucatan.

One thing that makes Merida particularly friendly to visitors is its remarkably ordered and logical street numbering system.  Since the city was completely remade by the Spanish conquistadors and it lies on the very, very flat land found throughout the Yucatan, the city is ordered into a square grid.  Then, to make things even friendlier, the streets ("calles" in Spanish) are numbered, with streets running east-west taking the odd numbers, and those running north-south taking even numbers.  The counting starts from the intersection of Calle 1 and Calle 2 in the northeast corner of the city.  So, with those simple rules memorized, it is always incredible easy to orient yourself and navigate in Merida.  In reality, the city is more centrally oriented around the historic center (and the Plaza Grande), but for most tourist purposes, the picture outlined here will work just fine.

A new arcade just east off the main square.  There are several works of modern art in here, advertising the MACAY (contemporary art museum).  Merida is home to many museums.  While there, I visited two: the Museum of the City (Merida's history museum) and the Great Museum of the Mayan World (details and pics below).

I'd actually consider the Governor's Palace another museum, plus one that is open and free to the public.  As you've probably already figured out from the name, the Governor's Palace was the former residence of the Governor of the Yucatan.  Inside, however, lies a very interesting showcase of the history of the region.

The history is depicted symbolically and somewhat abstractly through a series of halting and haunting murals.  The works of art were completed by Fernando Castro Pacheco.  The one above depicts death/destruction, with key elements such as warriors, flames, jaguars (an important symbol of warriors and warfare to ancient Mayans), and those ghostly skull figures.  Note too the giant hand facing down at the top of the mural...

If my memory serves me right, this mural depicted life.  This stood in the center of the death and creation murals.  Note here there is another hand at the top, and it is now facing up.  The central figures are a young Mayan man and a healthy ear of corn flanked by two Mayan shamans (or warriors?) with open hands.

On the opposite wall from the death mural is the creation one, seen here.  Key components are the rain clouds, the Mayan god of rain - Chaac (being drawn by an artist in the center), the Sun, peaceful Mayan figures being drawn by an artist, and a monumental statue of an ear of corn being sculpted by an artisan.  Another hand here is seen facing down, like in the death mural.  Perhaps this means God reaches down and touches the world to take a part in creation and death, but leaves us to ourselves for life?

In the grand hall on the 2nd floor, there were many more murals, which focussed on the greed and tyranny of the European and Mexican conquistadors, governors, and upper class, the plight of the Mayan people, the Caste Wars, and the pillage of the Yucatan's natural resources.  Two of the main themes were the farming of henequen, a fibrous plant like an agave that was used for rope making, and the Caste Wars.  Henequen was responsible for putting Yucatan on the map in Europe, and the crop brought in plenty of gold for the wealthy elite during the colonial era.  The people doing the work in the fields (not pleasant work; henequen is a spiny plant and the climate is very hot) were poor and local, of course, and received essentially none of the proceeds.  The Caste Wars was a Mayan rebellion that rose up in 1849 largely in response to the abuse of the wealthy elite.  During the rebellion, rebels almost sacked Merida, and the regions governors were forced to make an agreement with the government of Mexico, trading the peninsula's independence for support fighting the rebels.  Despite the aid, violent rebellious activity continued for another 50 years.

These murals were beautiful and really made one stop and think.  The artist made powerful use of shading, components, and color, and all in such an abstract way.  For example, the deep black eyes of the young Mayan man, who is shaded in ghostly white/gray, standing in complete contrast with the figure on the right here, with blank white eyes and black/dark gray tones.  Good stuff and definitely worth a stop into the Governor's Palace to see (it's free!)... there are plenty of placards and plaques describing the scenes and history of the region too.

OK, now onto a lighter subject..  people, culture, and food.  Mexican culture is rich; its people are generally very friendly, and its food is delicious and very diverse.  This was a mural in one restaurant, playing on the theme of the country's very popular Day of the Dead holiday.

60% of the people in Merida are indigenous Mayan, which is the highest percentage of indigenous people out of all of the largest Mexican cities.  The Mayan cultural influence is seen everywhere too... from shops to murals to food.

Merida is also a great place to go shopping for souvenirs.  Yucatecan handicrafts can be found everywhere... the region is particularly well-known for hammocks, hats, and guayabera shirts.  Ask around for Mayan Co-ops, which supposedly carry the highest quality goods that are actually produced locally.  Just remember to bargain, as none of the prices are fixed and everything is initially quoted way over its true value.

One of my favorite things in Merida was the Yucatecan food.  Popular ingredients include pumpkin, turkey, and mouth blistering habanero peppers, which constitute the primary ingredient in all of the restaurants "spicy" salsa (you'll probably have to ask for it specially though, since they apparently just assume that most tourists can't handle the heat).  The restaurant pictured above was easily my favorite place that I ate at during my week there.  They offer up all of the local specialties, but their cochinita pibil, or marinated pork slow-roasted in banana leaves, was insanely delicious.  Some other things I tried included: sopa de lima, a lime soup with chicken broth, which I loved; poc chuc, which is kind of a Mexican BBQ'd pork... very tasty; panuchos, tortillas stuffed with ground turkey, black beans, and fresh vegetables and served with habanero salsa... delicious;  pavo en relleno negro, turkey stewed in a black chile sauce... blander than I had hoped; queso relleno, which was just ground pork in a big ball of Edam cheese smothered in mild sauce... just weird and not recommended; and a shredded, spiced shark dish, which I simply did not enjoy at all.

Wait, a German beer garden with Spanish tile?  Um... you might be thinking I confused pictures at this point, but no!  Merida has a German beer hall, serving up a great selection of beer including Negro Modello on tap (which is just incredibly smooth, tasty, and refreshing).  It's a neat place to hang out and is definitely popular with locals.  They even serve German food, but I'd personally recommend sticking to the Mexican beer "vom fass" (on tap).

Walking around the rest of the center makes you appreciate again and again what a bright and beautiful city Merida is.

Each building seems to be painted a different, bright color, and all the old colonial features are highlighted in one way or another.

I mean, I don't know if I've ever seen a building quite this pink... and after Ireland, Newfoundland, and Argentina, that's really saying something.

Merida even has its own little Champs-Elysees, the Paseo de Montejo, which is lined with crumbling old mansions and plenty of trendy restaurants, cafes, and shops.

One of Merida's most recent cultural additions is the Great Museum of the Mayan World (Gran Museo del Mundo Maya), which is housed in this large and architecturally striking building a short taxi or bus ride north of the city center.  The museum is brand new, only opening in the past year, and it houses a treasure trove of Mayan artifacts and information about the Mayan people, both past and present.

A chaac statue.  If you recall from the murals in the Governor's Palace, chaac were a rain deity of the ancient Mayans and some of the most important gods in their pantheon.  Being responsible for controlling the rain, it was chaac that controlled life for Mayans in the Yucatan, who were so reliant on a stable crop of corn for their survival.  Growing corn in the Yucatan requires just the right amount of rain... too little and the plants wither, too much and they drown.  It is for this reason that statues and images of chaac, which can either be in the form of a lounging person holding a bowl or cup on their belly or a long nosed creature, are seen so frequently around various Mayan sites.  Some modern Mayan people still practice old rituals to chaac... National Geographic did an excellent article on this in their August 2013 issue.

Ancient Mayans also had an obsession with death, particularly human death.  Images of human skulls, warriors, and deadly games are found on many Mayan ruins.  These skulls were on the belt of a near life-sized warrior (or shaman?) statue in the museum.

One of the showcases was framed by the Mayan pantheon.  None of the names were labeled in English, only Spanish and Mayan (still widely spoken), but it was pretty easy to figure out what they were, even if you don't know Spanish.  For example, the gods above include (from left to right): the "charger of the Universe", the deity of execution, and the deity of suicide.

These three are the deities of: 1) earth and corn; 2) hunting; and 3) death and sacrifice.  Any common themes popping out at you here yet?

I was captivated by this head sculpture... it just isn't quite human, which was apparently intentional and makes it extra creepy.

I had no idea that the ancient Mayans had such a complex written language or illuminated scrolls either!  There are examples and explanations of each at the museum.  The scrolls were particularly hypnotizing.... there were just so many details and puzzling images as well as plenty of familiar ones like chaac, serpents, and rain.

These scrolls stretched for yards and yards, with panel after panel of bizarre writing and images.  They were apparently replicas of the originals, but despite that, they were still just awesome to get lost in, contemplating the lives of that ancient and powerful empire. 

The museum even had a special case on bone carvings, some of which were supposedly human.  This one obviously was not... but it is still macabrely beautiful.  It is a little unsettling to think of someone carving works of art into bones, especially since the animals (or people), who almost certainly donated those bones unwillingly, were probably sacrificed. 

Religion has changed entirely on the peninsula... now the vast majority of people are Christian, though the Mayan roots are strong, and many locals still invoke chaac for rain.

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