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Meet the Meridians

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After one month in our new homes, we always review our initial impressions with a self-interview. We figured it would be interesting to do another interview after two months… but this time with locals. So over the course of an entertaining day, we went out into the streets of Mérida and introduced ourselves to some random people. There’s nothing scientific about the survey which follows, of course, but it was a fun way to meet some Meridians.

We met Jorge in the Plaza de San Cristóbol, where he was leading a group of boy scouts in some outdoor activities.

Where do you work, or what do you study? I’m in college studying Administration and Information Technology.

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Cochinita Pibil

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? I love the cenotes. If I had to chose one, I would say Peba, near Yaxcopoil.

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? The ancient Maya archaeological zones.

And what makes you least proud? Mérida’s cleaning service… there’s just too much trash in the streets here!

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? I like rock, and one of my favorite Mexican groups is El Tri.

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? Two countries really have always appealed to me: the USA and Germany. [note: we hadn’t told Jorge that we were from these exact two countries!]

Father and daughter José and Maria were enjoying a sunny Sunday on a bench in San Cristobal, when we approached and introduced ourselves. José did most of the talking, and everything we said seemed to make María Victoria giggle.

Where do you work, or what do you study? [José] I’m retired, but I used to work in a factory. [María Victoria] I clean the house of a doctor.

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Relleno Negro

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? The Plaza Principal, here in Mérida.

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? I suppose the statues.

And what makes you least proud? It’s hard to get help from the government. They promise things and you can ask, but you’ll never get any assistance.

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? Marco Antonio Solís… listening to him always makes you feel good.

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? Cancún! We’ve never been, and would love to see it.

We intercepted Abel in the Plaza de San Juan, on his way to meet his family. He was in a hurry, but agreed to take a few minutes and chat.

Where do you work, or what do you study? I’m 12 years old, so I’m still in school.

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Tamales

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? Tizimín

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? I think we have a really great culture.

And what makes you least proud? In Mexico, there’s just too much violence.

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? I like American music, and I suppose my favorite is Usher.

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? The USA.

Enrique was in the gorgeous Plaza de San Sebastián, when we approached him. Very enthusiastic about Mérida and knowledgeable about its history, he was eager to talk with us about it.

Where do you work, or what do you study? I work at a decorations store.

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Hmm… Pavo en escabeche. Also queso relleno, although this only for special occasions. Also, I love zic de venado (shredded deer in sauce), but it’s hard to find this nowadays.

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? The ports. Progreso and especially Sisal, which used to be the main port.

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? The importance of family in the culture here. Also, I love how tranquil the Yucatán can be.

And what makes you least proud? There can be a lack of manners among the people, and the city is too dirty. Mérida’s called “The White City”, but let me tell you… it’s not because it’s so clean!

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? I most enjoy tropical or Caribbean music, but my favorite artist is Armando Manzanero.

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? It’s not very likely that I’ll get there, but I would love to visit Australia.

Leticia was hard at work in the market near San Sebastian, making and selling tortillas. It was amazing to watch her hands continue to work automatically, while her mind was busy with our questions.

Where do you work, or what do you study? [We skipped this question, since we interrupted her at work, making tortillas!]

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Relleno Negro

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? Chelém, a beach near Progreso.

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? The people and our customs.

And what makes you least proud? I suppose the politicians. Probably nobody is proud of their politicians!

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? I love ballads, and especially Marco Antonio Solís.

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? Egypt.

Andrés was walking through the Plaza de Santa Ana with his guitar, when we approached him with our questions.

Where do you work, or what do you study? I’m in school, studying Communication.

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Cochinita Pibil… I love sushi the most, but I suppose that’s not really Yucatecan.

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? Progreso

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? I think the state does a great job supporting the arts. There’s a lot of culture here.

And what makes you least proud? Honestly, I can’t think of anything negative. I love it here, it’s so peaceful.

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? I’m into jazz-fusion, and one of my favorite musicians is Lee Ritenour.

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? England.

Yanin had just finished participating in a half-marathon, when we cornered her in the Plaza de Santa Ana.

Where do you work, or what do you study? I’m a veterinarian, working in Progreso.

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Tamales

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? Cuzamá

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? The people here, and the lack of crime. It’s wonderfully safe.

And what makes you least proud? I suppose people don’t know how to treat animals very well. Especially in the rural communities, there’s a lot of abuse, which is sad.

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? I love listening to ballads, and one of my favorite singers is Alejandro Sanz.

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? Spain.

Rafael was selling ice cream in the Plaza de Santa Lucia. It was a sunny day, and he was doing good business, so we waited for a quiet moment before approaching.

Where do you work, or what do you study? I sell ice cream, and my wife is also here in the plaza, selling homemade crafts.

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Cochinita Pibil

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? I would say the capital. And to be specific, right here in Santa Lucia… it’s the best spot in the best city.

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? I’m just proud to have been born here.

And what makes you least proud? There’s really nothing I can think of. Everything here is great.

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? I love the classics of the Trova Yucateca, especially the music of Guty Cárdenas.

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? [This one took him awhile… his eyes kind of drifted off while he deliberated; either he had never put much thought into this, or he had thought about it a lot and had too many options.] France.

There was a public dance going on in Santa Lucia, and these three sisters were just taking their leave, pushing along their mother in a wheelchair. I correctly suspected that chatting with them would be fun…

Where do you work, or what do you study? [Right away, the sisters were talking and laughing and teasing us a little. Caught up in the fun, we forgot to ask this initial question!]

What’s your favorite Yucatecan food? Guadalupe: Cochinita Pibil, Tere: Frijol con Puerco, Paula: Papadzules

What’s your favorite place in the Yucatán? Mérida and Izamal

What about the Yucatán makes you most proud? How friendly everyone here is. You’ve noticed this, haven’t you? Of course you have! The food, naturally, and the culture.

And what makes you least proud? The heat, and the mosquitoes. These can really be a problem.

What kind of music do you like, and who’s your favorite artist? The Trova Yucateca. Armando Manzanero is the best. [I started serenading them with Manzanero’s “Somos Novios“…] Not yet we aren’t!

If you could visit one spot in the entire world, where would it be? Ancient Rome and Jerusalem.

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January 13, 2014 at 11:30 pm Comments (7)

The Ruins of Labná and Xlapak

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Down the road from the Grutas de Lóltun is the archaeological zone of Labná, the first of five ancient Maya sites we’d be visiting on our trip through the Puuc Valley. Nearby we’d find Xlapak, a much smaller site whose name means “Old Walls”.

The compact site of Labná was a great place to introduce ourselves to the Puuc-era Maya. Occupying a relatively small area, we didn’t have to walk far from the extraordinary palace, counting 67 rooms and seven patios, to the Labná Arch, which served as the subject for one of Frederick Catherwood’s most famous drawings. Both the palace and the arch have managed to retain much of their detail, with latticed geometrical figures and repeating sculptures of the rain god Chaac.

The limestone ground of the Yucatan Peninsula quickly absorbs water, which means no rivers run along the surface of the land. Drinking water is scarce, and the Maya had to learn how to collect rain in reservoirs called chaltunes. If the rains held off, the chaltunes ran dry. And if the chaltunes ran dry, death was not far off. So it’s no surprise to find the rain god so honored in the temples of the Yucatán.

A few minutes drive from Labná is the site of Xlapak. Despite being directly off the road, free to visit, and rather impressive, almost nobody stops here. So the site enjoys a more atmospheric sense of abandonment. The main draws are a couple of palaces with intricately decorated cornices, again prominently featuring Chaac.

Locations on our Map: Labná | Xlapak

Our Favorite Car Rental Place In The Yucatan

More Pics from Labná
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December 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm Comments (2)

A Tour of Mérida’s Markets

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I’ve got one of those brains that appreciates order. I love numbers and logic, and anything organized. I always keep a list of tasks for the day, and often an item on that list will be reminding me to make another list. Seriously. Don’t even get me started on jigsaw puzzles. The challenge of arranging jumbled pieces into a coherent whole? I’m happy just thinking about it.

So, I was a little troubled during our first foray into Mérida’s market. More like, freaked out. It was chaos. Mérida had taken the jigsaw puzzle called “Shopping”, hacked up the pieces with scissors, stuffed them into a piñata, and then hit it with a rocket launcher. I’ve never seen a place as confusing, haphazard, nonsensical, noisy, and absolutely devoid of order.

Even calling the place a “market” is wrong. It’s markets! Three or four markets all loosely clumped together. Maybe there were five. Who knows? It’s impossible to say where one ends and the other begins, and anyway, they’re all spilling out into the streets. Want to buy a shoelace? Right there, next to the disemboweled chicken. D’uh. Down this lane, you can find (in order): yucca-candy, tailor, avocado-lady, voodoo shop, tortillas. How long must it take, before you can make sense of this madness?

Apparently it takes twelve years. That’s how long Rosa Soares, a British-Portuguese expat, has lived in Mexico, and she has an excellent handle on Mérida’s markets. Rosa offers guided visits to tourists, and really knows her stuff. We met her one morning in front of the city cathedral, and followed her around to her favorite spots.

I began the day diligently taking notes on the names of the various spots we visited. But let’s be honest. Although Rosa knew exactly where we were throughout the day, I lost track after about ten minutes. Anyway, attempting to impart specific names and exact locations seems somehow contrary to the anarchic spirit of Mérida’s markets.

We started with a breakfast of panuchos inside one bustling market, and then moved to another which specializes in fruit. We visited a fish hall, then exited onto a road with lunch stalls, and found the dead chickens. And then the live chickens. Rosa knew what every vegetable was, every strange snack. She brought us to a lane of shops where the specialty is sweets, and then out onto the street where we saw a store that makes sauces in bulk.

Eventually, Jürgen and I had to raise the white flag. We had been walking for over two hours, and I had the distinct impression that Rosa could have gone on for two more. For this exhausting tour, she asks for almost no money, insisting that she does it because she loves being outside, meeting people, and helping newcomers become oriented. If you’re interested in an informed tour of Mérida’s most chaotic and colorful side, get in touch.

Location of the San Benito Market (as close to the “center” of Merida’s markets as exists)
Rosa’s Market Tours – Facebook

-Other Great Markets We Visited Around The World: Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Market in Sucre, Vucciria Market in Palermo, San Telmo Sunday Market In Buenos Aires, Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan

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December 22, 2013 at 12:41 am Comments (3)

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.

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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)

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.

Zoo Merida

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.

Location on our Yucatán Map

Great Hotels In Mérida

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November 21, 2013 at 12:52 am 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.

Merida Museum

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.

Merida Museum

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

Rent Your Car For The Yucatan Here

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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.

Location on our Map

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

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.

Location on our Yucatán Map

Great Hotels In Mérida

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

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Meet the Meridians After one month in our new homes, we always review our initial impressions with a self-interview. We figured it would be interesting to do another interview after two months... but this time with locals. So over the course of an entertaining day, we went out into the streets of Mérida and introduced ourselves to some random people. There's nothing scientific about the survey which follows, of course, but it was a fun way to meet some Meridians.
For 91 Days