I pressed my nose to the bus window as we rolled into Merida, one of the places in Mexico that I had yearned to see for years. My brow furrowed in disappointment; the city looked nothing like I had envisioned. With its location in the northwestern corner of the Yucatan, just inland of where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean, I had expected to see palm trees and sun-splashed cottages dripping in tropical colors. Instead, unbroken lines of flat-fronted buildings stood so close together that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the next began. Like haughty neighbors, they turned their backs, forming fortress walls that made claustrophobic canyons of the streets. As I climbed into a taxi, the unbroken row houses flushed briefly gold in the setting sun and then skulked into shadow.
Although I’d felt completely safe traveling around Mexico solo for the past few months, I was suddenly anxious about exploring this large, unfamiliar city after dark. By day the city had been intimidating; by night its dark streets seemed positively ominous. Fortunately, the hostel owner assured me that Merida is the safest city in the Republic, handed me a map, and told me to be sure to check out the artwork inside the Palacio de Gobierno on the Zocalo – the Main Plaza at the heart of the city. Four nerve-wracking blocks later I stepped out of the dark street and into a grand square bathed in yellow light, where indigenous Indians spread crafts on handmade blankets and romantic couples embraced in high white loveseats scattered around the plaza.
Over the next few days I learned that, in addition to being the geographic center of Merida, the Zocalo is also its cultural and spiritual core. Present day Merida is built atop the ancient Mayan city of T’Ho, which dates back to 3000 BC and was situated on what is today the Main Plaza. The Spaniards conquered T’Ho in 1532 and dismantled its megalithic pyramids, using the stones for the foundation of the Cathedral of San Ildefonso (1599), which still graces the east side of the Plaza and is the oldest cathedral on the American continent. Directly across the Plaza is the Palacio Municipal (1735), Merida’s Town Hall. On the south side is Casa de Montejo (1542), the former home of the conqueror of Yucatan. The Palacio de Gobierno (1892) on the north side displays 27 enormous murals depicting the bloody Caste Wars that resulted when the Mayans refused to accept Spanish rule.
To ensure that visitors enjoy their time in Merida and learn something of the history and culture of the Yucatan, the city sponsors a series of free and inexpensive events in and around the Zocalo:
- Monday: Join a free walking tour of the Plaza at 9:30 a.m.; visit the Casa de Artesanias (Mayan Handicraft House); do a colorful tour of the city on the colorful Carnavalito bus; and attend a free concert with traditional Yucatecan dancing and dress on the Main Plaza at 9 p.m.
- Tuesday: Dance to big band music of the 40′s in Santiago Park on the corner of 59 & 72 at 8:30 p.m. Free.
- Wednesday: Attend a show at the Olimpo Cultural center at 9 p.m., free. Take a ride in an horse-drawn, open-air buggy for a nominal fee.
- Thursday: Serenade at Santa Lucia Park, an open-air concert featuring Yucatecan dress, dance, music and folklore, at 9 p.m. at the corner of 60 & 55. Free.
- Friday: Visit the native markets around town by day; serenade at the main University building at the corner of 60 & 57 at 9 p.m., nominal fee.
- Saturday: Free Mexican Night at Paseo de Montejo & Calle 57 at 7 p.m., free. “Heart of Merida” Festival on the Main Plaza and up Calle 60 to Calle 53 from 9 p.m.to 1 a.m., free.
- Sunday: Stroll “Merida on Sunday,” a street festival on the Main Plaza and along Calle 60 to Santa Lucia Park. Streets are closed, live music, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., free. Sidewalk art is displayed along Paseo de Montejo between Calle 35 & Perez Ponce, free.
A few days of exploring its historic center completely reversed my earlier antipathy toward Merida. I immersed myself in the city’s culture and history, visiting art galleries and ancient pyramids. I grew to appreciate the city’s simple architecture, crafted from the Yucatan’s only available natural resource – limestone. I reveled in the rich regional food, including Mayan cuisine that made use of healthful indigenous ingredients such as the Chaya leaf, which is crushed and blended into a refreshing, deliciously tart green juice. And still there was so much more that I did not have time to see or experience. I left with regret, knowing that someday I would return for a much longer stay.