For a change of pace from tranquil Isla, this year we wound up our vacation with a week-end in Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. Merida is a BIG city with a population over a million. It was founded in 1542 on the site of the Mayan city of T'Ho. In the way of conquerors, the Spanish built their new city with limestone blocks pillaged from the disassembled Mayan temples and palaces.
We booked the ADO - GL (luxury) bus from Cancun for $25 each way and left around noon on a Friday. The bus was clean, air-conditioned, roomy and comfortable (much better than a plane); there were complimentary "refrescos" provided on boarding. We saw two movies during the four hour trip (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Zorro) and the distraction was welcome because the route is mostly along the toll road with not much to look at but scrubby jungle punctuated by various military checkpoints with awesome armaments.
The outskirts of Merida are quite industrialized and the plants and factories are interspersed with simple one-room housing developments - some appearing quite new and colorful. As we approached the bus terminal, we were entering the historic center of the city. Merida prides itself on being the cleanest and most crime free city in Mexico and from what we saw it deserves the reputation. However, except for a few beautifully restored buildings surrounding the central Plaza Major, our initial impression was one of disappointing shabbiness. The exteriors of the one to three story older buildings were faded and the carved trimming was often chipped and cracked. But invariably when a large wooden door or an iron gate was opened, the interior courtyards were magnificent. In the colonial manner, the plain exterior masks an opulent interior. Most of the buildings looked inward onto arcaded courtyards centered on a fountain or pool and open to the sky. Fragrant plants and trees perfume the air and muffle (or eliminate) the sounds of traffic outside. When we were in our hotel, it took the piercing sound of a police siren to remind us that we were, indeed, in a large city.
Our hotel, the Dolores Alba on Calle 63, had a bus stop outside, a cantina next door, and the usual shabby exterior but a lovely interior. For $44 a night we had a large air-conditioned room with two queen size beds which looked right out to a small but refreshing swimming pool. A $4 breakfast buffet could be eaten in the beautiful courtyard and a self-service laundromat was available 24 hours a day. The Plaza Major or zocalo was a three block walk away.
City life seems to center on the main plaza. It's a tree shaded park with benches and S-shaped love seats, paths, gardens and hedges, a flagpole, vendors, performers, families, lovers, and tourists like ourselves. We gravitated to it every day and there was always something to watch. Surrounding the four sides of the park are the Cathedral (oldest in the Americas) the Governor's Palace, the Palacio Municipal, and Casa de Montejo (named for the Spanish founder of the city). There are several other smaller parks within walking distance and on week ends there are performances in all of them - folkloric and ballroom dancing, singing, orchestras, pageants....
Similar to the horse-drawn carriage rides in Central Park in New Your City, there are beautiful flower decorated open white carriages called calesas which can be hired at the Plaza Major for a ride around the historic part of the city.
To get an overview of Merida, we hopped on a double-decker tour bus in front of the Saint Alfonsus Cathedral ($10 ea.) and got an almost two hour ride around the city with a recorded description on earphones. There were six or seven spots where we could have hopped off to view a high-point and then catch the next bus, but we chose to just stay aboard the bus. The neighborhoods to the north of the historic centro are more elaborate on the exterior, more in the manner of French palaces. In fact, the Paseo de Montejo resembles a European boulevard. The more elegant hotels, homes and consulates are in this area.
On Saturday morning, we walked to the city market, Mercado Lucas de Galves. Anything that anyone might want to buy could be found in this warren of booths and stalls in several buildings: vegetables, fruits, ribbons, shoes, handcrafts, religious articles, live birds, rabbits and puppies, pigs heads and feet, welding, auto parts, luggage, clothing, watches and jewelry, toys, spices, flowers, cds, electronics..... It was crowded, fascinating, overwhelming, and HOT!
On Sunday morning, we got an early start to beat the crowd to the Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Canton on Paseo Montejo. An old gentleman introduced himself to us after we paid our $3.00 admission and offered to show us around the exhibits. It was the best $12 we spent on the week end. Antonio (I wish I had his last name) was an extremely gracious and well informed guide. I would guess that he was a retired professor, and very proud of his Mayan heritage. We learned a lot during a two hour visit. As we walked outside, we discovered that many downtown streets are blocked to vehicular traffic for Domingoes en Merida. The residents are then free to bike, rollerblade, skateboard or stroll through their city. After stopping in a cool cafe for a delicious Moka Frappe, we noticed a crowd applauding across the boulevard. We easily crossed, due to the lack of traffic, and watched the prizes being awarded in a city body building contest. Scantily clad and lavishly oiled perfect bodies provided eye candy for both Hubby and myself. This might be the place to mention that Hubby loves Mexico because he feels positively TALL there.
After a dip in the hotel pool and our usual siesta (what a civilized custom!), we once again returned to the Plaza Major in the late afternoon. We had expected a Mayan dance exhibition, but instead we were treated to Latin and Big Band numbers from "La Banda". Suddenly, we were at a High School dance where gentlemen in their Sunday best cruised the sidewalk and asked an attractive senora if she would like to dance. Couples from their twenties to their eighties were fox-trotting, sambaing and doing the cha cha in the street. How could we not join them?
Most nights we ate in one of the simple restaurants like Cafe Olimpio under the arcade at the Palacio Municipal. On Saturday night we splurged and ate at Pancho's where the waiters are dressed like Zapatistas with cartridge belts crossed over their chests. During breakfasts in the hotel courtyard, we were always joined by several Yucatan dove couples who enjoyed the crumbs we dropped at our feet.
As on Isla Mujeres, our favorite activity was to sit in the zocalo and people watch. The joy of Mexico is that a little child may toddle up to you in the park and you can carry on a grand conversation while its parents look on proudly and smile. You can sit on a park bench in the twilight and feed pigeons with a Mexican family. You may attempt a conversation with limited language on both sides and you can happily communicate.
A great website for Merida information is www.yucatanliving.com.
Photos are @ http://islandnana.smugmug.com/gallery/2657099