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Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo

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One of the best reasons to travel is the opportunity to challenge your poorly-held assumptions and purge yourself of them. A child of the US Midwest, I grew up with the vague concept of “Mexico” as a dry, dusty place where poor people lived simply. This idea was embedded into my subconscious by a lot of factors: mainly, our proudly ignorant American culture, and a media overly reliant on stereotypes. By watching The Three Amigos and Speedy Gonzales, I learned to identify Mexico as a mud-walled hut with chickens pecking in the dirt.

If someone had taken me, as a child, on a stroll along Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo, and then revealed that we were in Mexico, I would have refused to believe it. My brain would have shut down.

Paseo de Montejo Merida

The wide, tree-lined Paseo de Montejo is Mexico at its most extravagant. Along either side of the broad boulevard, mansion after mansion fight for prominence, each more ostentatious than the next. Today, they’ve been converted into museums or banks, but these were once the homes of Mérida’s richest families. As we walked down the long, shaded sidewalk, I could hear the bewildered child inside me screaming “You’re not in Mexico!”

The mansions along the Paseo de Montejo are a product of the Yucatán’s nineteenth century henequen boom. Suddenly among the richest cities in the New World, Mérida put its newfound wealth to good use. No, not by caring for its poor or anything silly like that. I mean the showy, selfish sort of “good use”: by building fabulous homes for the landholders and the elite.

The money eventually stopped flowing, as it always does, but the mansions are still in good condition. We poked our heads into a couple that are now museums and banks, and were astounded by their beauty. At the northern end of the boulevard, our long walk was rewarded by the Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Motherland): a neo-Maya sculpture built in 1956.

Strolling along the Paseo is one of the most pleasant ways to spend an afternoon in Mérida… especially if your subconscious is holding onto any stereotypes of “dirt poor Mexico” of which you’d like to rid yourself.

Location of the Monumento a la Patria

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November 30, 2013 at 8:03 pm Comments (6)

Dzibilchaltún – The City of Writing on the Rocks

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The longest continuously-inhabited Maya city on the peninsula, the site of Dzibilchaltún is found just a few minutes outside of Mérida. The Maya occupied this spot from roughly 500 BC to AD 1500, and left behind ruins which, though badly eroded, are a wonder to behold.

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An eroded stele, and the Temple of Seven Dolls in the background

Dzibilchaltún means “City of Writing on the Rocks”, and was the name bestowed by the Spanish in 1689. Only recently did archaeologists uncover the original name of the city, Ch’iy Chan Ti’Ho, but the Spaniards picked a suitable replacement; although today the detail has been lost from most of the ruins, this was indeed a place in which the Maya did a lot of writing on rocks. A couple of the more important stele, or hieroglyph-inscribed columns, have been preserved in the onsite museum.

Having just visited the Casa Catherwood, we were in high spirits for our visit to Dzibilchaltún. The ruins are fascinating, particularly the Templo de Siete Muñecas. Found at the end of the town’s main sacbé, or road, this temple is named for seven small clay dolls which were buried inside, presumably as an offering. The building was probably built as an observatory; it’s aligned so that, during the spring equinox, the sun will appear to rise through its doors.

Not far from the temple, we found the ruins of an entire city, including remnants of houses and even a pyramid which we were able to ascend for a view over the forest canopy. You can hire a guide to introduce the various features of the city; we passed on this, but were second-guessing our decision throughout the day. There isn’t a lot of explanation on the ground and it would have been nice to have an expert on-hand to point out the different facets of the ruins.

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One area for which we needed no explanation was the Xlacah Cenote. Hundreds of cenotes pockmark the Yucatán Peninsula, but this was the first we had seen. These pools are the result of sunken caverns or sinkholes in the limestone terrain, which have filled with fresh water from underground cisterns. They’re popular places for swimming, and were historically used as a clean water source.

Apart from the ruins and the cenote, Dzibilchaltún has an excellent museum preserving some of the relics found here, such as the seven clay dolls from the temple. We spent almost as much time in the museum as out among the ruins. Less than twenty kilometers from the city center, Dzibilchaltún makes for an easy day trip from Mérida.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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November 27, 2013 at 12:06 am Comments (2)

The Casa Catherwood

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A few blocks west of the Plaza Grande and across from the Iglesia de Santiago, you can find the Casa Catherwood. Hanging on the walls of this gorgeous old home are the drawings of Frederick Catherwood, an English artist who was one of the Yucatán’s first modern-day explorers.

Partnered with the American adventurer and author John Lloyd Stephens, Catherwood embarked on a series of expeditions into the jungles of the Yucatán between 1836 and 1844. Together, the two men uncovered Maya ruins which had never before been seen by western eyes. They found temples, pyramids, statues, bizarre hieroglyphs and cryptic engravings of unknown gods, covered by a thick layer of jungle overgrowth and all but neglected by the farmers who still lived on the land.

Forget Indiana Jones, Catherwood and Stephens were the real thing. It’s not difficult to imagine how thrilling it must have been to discover ruin after ruin, building an ever-expanding picture of the ancient Maya. Catherwood was an excellent draftsman, and took the time to produce detailed sketches of the ruins. Their books, written by Stephens, were massively successful across the Western world.

Today, around 25 prints of the Englishman’s drawings adorn the walls of the Casa Catherwood, along with detailed and well-written explanations of each. The collection itself seems small at first glance, but it takes quite some time to read through all of the material.

We toured the Catherwood House the day before visiting our first Maya ruins. Although it was doubtful that we’d be hacking our way through the jungle to discover a never-before-seen temple, Catherwood’s drawings helped to put us into an adventurous state of mind.

Location on our Yucatán Map

The Lost Cities of the Mayas: The Life, Art, and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood

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November 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm Comments (2)

The Parque Centenario & Mérida’s Zoo

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It’s a considerable hike from the center, but the Parque Centernario (Centennial Park) on the west side of Mérida certainly warrants the effort, or the cost of a taxi, if only to visit the city zoo, which hosts a surprising number of exotic animals.

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The zoo in the Parque Centenario is free to visit, which made us a bit nervous. While I generally love free stuff, I couldn’t help but wonder how well animals could possibly be cared for in an open, public zoo. Indeed, Mérida’s isn’t exactly a glorious Garden of Eden in the vein of San Diego’s or the Bioparc in Valencia, Spain. No, this is the kind of run-down and cramped operation which will probably make you a little sad.

Luckily, we were squarely still in our honeymoon phase with Mérida, and the city could do no wrong. So the fact that the hippos were confined to a tiny muddy pool didn’t really bother us. But the fact that there were hippos… thrilling! I hadn’t come to Mérida expecting to see animals ranging from chimpanzees to African lions, crocodiles and Burmese pythons, but they were all here and we had a blast touring the exhibits.

The zoo is just one piece of the Parque Centenario, a popular place for Meridianos to spend a weekend afternoon with the family. Since it was a sunny Sunday when we visited, the park was in full swing. There were pony rides, trampolines, bouncy castles, food stands, and thousands of screaming children. It was chaotic, but completely entertaining. This isn’t a park with a lot of green areas. In fact, it’s not a “park” at all, in the way I understand the word. There’s no place to have a picnic or play soccer, but there are plenty of places to have fun.

Throughout the day, we didn’t see another foreign face. It’s a 20-minute walk from the Plaza Grande, which is apparently enough to discourage most tourists. If you want to visit a different side of the city and see how locals enjoy themselves, check it out.

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November 21, 2013 at 12:52 am Comment (1)

A Concise History of the Yucatán

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The phrase “Yucatecan History” inevitably conjures images of the ancient Maya, who constructed out of limestone and ingenuity one of the most fascinating civilizations mankind has ever known. The Maya might be the most brilliant piece of the puzzle, but there are others. Here’s our concise rundown of the peninsula’s story.

66 Million BC The dinosaurs are wiped out by a massive meteoric impact, which creates the Chicxulub Crater just off the coast of the Yucatán.
13000 BC Having crossed over the Bering Land Bridge, humans arrive in the Yucatán in search of big game.
1500 – 400 BC The first established settlements on the peninsula are thought to belong to the Olmecs, who were in many ways the precursors to later Maya civilization, already possessing achievements like the calendar and written language.
AD 250 – 900 The civilization of the Maya reaches what is referred to as its Classic Period. The culture is at its pinnacle, exhibiting remarkable sophistication in fields like astronomy and architecture.
900 – 1500 The fabled Maya civilization which stretched to Guatemala had fallen, likely due to drought and overpopulation, but the Yucatecan Maya continue to thrive during the Post-Classic Period. Chichén Itzá is the most important city of this era, which also saw the arrival of the powerful Toltec from the north.
1517 An expedition led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba arrives on the shores of the Isla Mujeres, in the first appearance of the Blue-Eyed Bearded Men on the peninsula. The initial encounter does not end well for Córdoba, whose company is attacked and badly defeated by the bewildered locals. Córdoba dies of his wounds.
1542 Try as you might, you can’t keep a determined conquistador down. The Spanish eventually subdue a surprisingly resistant Maya population and Francisco de Montejo founds Mérida on the ruins of T’Hó. As will happen later to native populations farther north, the Maya are devastated by disease.
1562 Terrified by their strange, “demonic” hieroglyphs, Catholic bishop Diego de Landa gathers up every Mayan text and document he can find and burns them. This was a people who had carefully documented their own civilization, and very little survived de Landa’s ignorant wrath. The good bishop also considered himself a “historian” and would later write a book about the Maya.
16th – 18th Centuries Spain basically enslaves Mexico, and those not of Spanish blood have a very difficult time in the Yucatán. Haciendas are established around the peninsula, and a very few people live very, very well.
1841 Twenty years after Mexican independence, the Yucatán declares independence of its own and becomes a full-fledged country. The Republic of the Yucatán lasts for a glorious seven years.
1849-1901 Across the peninsula rage the Caste Wars, one of the most successful indigenous uprisings in world history. Fed up with harsh treatment, the Maya rise up and succeed in creating an independent state which lasts for 50 years.
1800s – 1940s The Yucatán grows fabulously wealthy with the success of henequen, a fabric made of agave which can be made into rope, rugs, strings and more. Once Mexico’s poorest state, Yucatán is suddenly the richest, and Mérida flourishes.
1960s For the first time, the Yucatán is linked to the rest of Mexico by highway. So long in isolation from the rest of the country, and often semi-autonomous, the peninsula had developed its own culture and traditions.
December 21st, 2012 The world ends.
… and beyond What? We’re still alive? Guess that ridiculous doomsday prophecy didn’t pan out (not too surprising since the Maya themselves believed no such thing). Far away from the drug violence and official corruption which plagues so much of the country and blessed with an extraordinary heritage, the peninsula is developing itself as a prime touristic destination. More and more foreigners are discovering the warm sun, amazing history, delicious food, fascinating culture, and friendly people who call the Yucatán home.

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November 19, 2013 at 4:50 pm Comment (1)

The Museo de la Ciudad in Mérida

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Found just a couple blocks southeast of the Plaza Grande, Mérida’s grand former post office is now home to a museum which introduces the city and its history.

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We decided to move to the Yucatán because of the Maya ruins, the warm winters and the great beaches. We knew nothing about Mérida itself, and only chose it as a base because it’s the peninsula’s largest and best-connected city. But within almost no time, we had advanced from totally ignorant to decently knowledgeable about our new home. In the first twenty-four hours, we had visited the Cathedral, Palacio del Gobierno, Casa de Montejo, and were now at the doors of the City Museum.

Two days before, I would have had no clue what “henequen” was. Maybe a Dutch beer? A card game? But now I’m like, “God, you don’t know what henequen is?” Totally rolling my eyes.

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From ancient Maya beliefs to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Museo de la Ciudad takes visitors on the same historical journey as that offered by the murals in the Palacio del Gobierno, but more studiously. We were eager to learn about our new home, and gobbled the information up greedily, but I can imagine that those with only a day or two in the city might find it superfluous.

Then again, the museum is free. And even if you have no interest in history, there are temporary art exhibitions on the second and third floors, usually featuring artists from the Yucatán. We saw a fun collection featuring robots in popular culture, and another dedicated to the colorful Maya gods.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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November 17, 2013 at 11:22 pm Comments (0)

The Plaza Grande and the Casa de Montejo

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The Plaza Grande is the heart of Mérida, and an exhausting day of sightseeing can be had just by touring the buildings which surround it. After visiting the city cathedral on the east and the Palacio del Gobierno on the north, we cut straight across the plaza to check out the Casa de Montejo on the plaza’s southern edge.

Known officially as the Plaza de la Independencia and alternatively as the Plaza Mayor, the Plaza Grande is by far the best spot to become acquainted with Mérida. Whether to enjoy an ice cream in the shops around the plaza or to while away the hours in the shade of a tree, this is the city’s principal meeting spot. Mérida’s oldest buildings are here, as well as its only scam artists: affable fellows who approach you with small talk, before offering to walk you over to “the most authentic crafts shop in town”.

(Amazingly, the friendliness for which Meridians are known appears to apply even to its scammers. A simple “No, thank you” will usually suffice, and then they’ll politely say goodbye and leave you alone. The first time it happened, I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to call the guy back and insist that he try harder.)

The Plaza Grande is large, filled with trees and benches, but it’s usually so crowded that finding a shady place to sit down can be difficult. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a spot on one of the many “lover’s chairs” which are found not just here, but on every plaza throughout Mérida. These are benches built for two, allowing lovebirds to sit facing each other.

Built in 1549, the Casa de Montejo sits on the southern side of the plaza. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the house built for the conquistador of Mérida should be the best in town. Descendants of Montejo lived here right up through the 1980s, but today it’s open to the public as a museum. The house retains some period furniture and is remarkably quiet considering the never-ending chaos right outside its doors.

Location of the Casa de Montejo on our Map

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November 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm Comments (7)

El Palacio del Gobierno in Mérida

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On the northern edge of the Plaza Grande, diagonal to the city cathedral, is the Palacio del Gobierno. Built in 1892, the key-lime-colored mansion should be among the first stops during a visit to Mérida.

What makes the Palacio del Gobierno so special, and of particular interest to Yucatán newcomers, is the Salón de la Historia on the second floor. Here, Mérida-born painter Fernando Castro Pacheco has brought the history of the Yucatán to life in a vibrant series of murals.

From the Spanish conquest and the horrendous 1526 bonfire of Maya culture under the auspices of Bishop Diego Landa, to the henequen boom and the selling of local Maya to Cuban slavers, Pacheco has captured the pivotal moments of his region’s history in an unflinching and beautiful manner. Each of the giant murals has a descriptive panel (in Spanish, English and Mayan), and they’re all engrossing. Despite its just being a single room, I spent more time here than in many museums.

My favorite was Pacheco’s interpretation of Maya legend on the stairwell, which stretches across three murals. In the middle is the birth of man, which the ancient Maya believed happened through a stalk of corn. Toward the west, the setting sun provides cover of darkness for the gods of war and jaguar. And in the east, the rising sun shines its light on the glorious culture and learning of the Maya.

The Palacio del Gobierno is free to visit, and found in the center of the city. Considering the throngs outside in the Plaza Grande, we were astounded to be all alone in the salon. If you have any interest at all in Yucatecan history or great art, don’t pass it up. Pacheco, who died in August, 2013 at the age of 95, has put together a powerful and glorious tribute to his land.

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November 15, 2013 at 11:38 pm Comments (5)

El Catedral de Yucatán

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Completed in 1599, the Cathedral of the Yucatán in central Mérida is the second-oldest cathedral in the New World, beaten out only by the Dominican Republic’s Santa María la Menor. Four hundred years after its founding, this incredible church is still the focal point of the city.

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Apart from its tremendous size, the cathedral’s most striking aspect is its sobriety. The facade is almost completely free of adornment or ornamental flourishes. Maybe the Spaniards didn’t want to overwhelm the local Maya. To these people who still lived in thatch-roofed houses, the church’s size and architectural sophistication must have been impressive enough.

Once through the doors, the somber tone established by the stone facade continues. No paintings line these walls, nor is there a glorious fresco looming overhead. There’s no gilded altarpiece, no baroque choir of terracotta angels, no baptismal font of purest silver. Even the giant Jesus crucified above the altar is made of plain wood. At seven meters (23 feet) in height, this is said to be the largest wooden crucifixion inside any church in the world.

The cathedral is always busy with worshipers and fills up completely during mass. If attendance is anything to go by, Meridians are the most pious Catholics we’ve ever encountered; similarly-sized churches in Spain or Italy are usually empty. During our visit, most of the faithful were congregated in a small chapel to the left of the altar, where hangs the charred-black Cristo de las Ampollas (Christ of the Blisters). This haunting sculpture is the most venerated object in Mérida, carved from a tree which, after being struck by lightning, burnt miraculously for 24 hours without being consumed.

The cathedral, consecrated to Saint Ildefonsus, is found on the eastern side of Mérida’s Plaza Grande, and makes a great place to start an exploration of the city. The best time to visit is between eight and ten on a weekday morning. There will still be worshipers, but in these hours before mass, wandering around and snapping photos is less conspicuous.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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November 14, 2013 at 2:10 am Comments (4)

Mérida – Capital of the Yucatán

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A gorgeous colonial-era city of nearly a million people, Mérida is the capital of the Yucatán and was our home for three months. Despite its size, it’s mostly overlooked by travelers. In fact, before deciding to move to the Yucatán, we had never even heard of it! But Mérida is an invigorating city filled with historical sights, hectic markets, friendly locals, relatively few foreigners and an impressive cultural life.

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Mérida was officially founded in 1542 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo. A Maya city named T’Hó had previously occupied the location, but by the time of the conquest, its pyramids were already in ruins and the remaining indigenous population were living in straw huts. Although Montejo and his men encountered fierce resistance, they were able to quickly subdue and dominate the out-gunned locals.

From the very beginning, the Spanish intended Mérida to be capital of the Yucatán. Its development followed a very structured layout, with a grand central plaza where the pyramid of T’Hó once stood. An enormous cathedral, just the second in the New World, was constructed on the east side of the plaza. To the north, the governmental palace was built. To the west, the Imperial Palace. And a marvelous residence for Conquistador Montejo himself on the plaza’s southern side. With this Plaza Grande as its nexus, the city sprawled out in every direction.

Despite its capital-city status, Mérida remained a relative backwater for most of its history. No highways connected it to the rest of Mexico, and a perceived lack of natural resources held its growth in check. That changed in the late 18th century with the “discovery” of henequen: a high-quality fiber made from agave. The “green gold” brought unheard-of riches to the Yucatán and Mérida expanded rapidly, becoming the first city in Mexico with street lighting and cable cars. Culture flourished, and the downtown was completely renovated. Of course, while Mérida’s lords and ladies were enjoying their exciting new wealth, the Maya (who had been using henequen for centuries) were being exploited worse than ever.

With the invention of artificial fibers, the henequen boom petered out and Mérida settled back into its regular rhythm. The traces of its former glory, however, remain. Mérida has an uncommonly active cultural and intellectual scene and its historic center is one of the largest in the Americas, with beautiful colonial buildings on every block. Throughout the week, there are free musical performances downtown. Crime is rare, with violence toward tourists practically non-existent, and Meridians themselves are about the most laid-back and friendly people imaginable.

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November 13, 2013 at 1:53 am Comments (2)

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Mrida's Paseo de Montejo The wide, tree-lined Paseo de Montejo is Mexico at its most extravagant. Along either side of the broad boulevard, mansion after mansion fight for prominence, each more ostentatious than the next. Today, they've been converted into museums or banks, but these were once the homes of Mérida's richest families.
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