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Merida is the Yucatan Peninsula’s cultural centerpiece, encompassing Maya history, European architecture and a unique blend of indigenous and mestizo traditions. Merida was called T’Ho, a capital city in the Maya world, long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1542.
The city’s five pyramids washed with white lime reminded the Spaniards of Merida, Spain, so they quickly renamed the city and destroyed the pyramids, using the rubble to build churches and mansions in the European style of the colonial era. Nearly a half-million Maya were killed during the 15-year war for control of the peninsula. The survivors were subsequently enslaved as a labor force for the new city’s construction, using bits of carved rock to build new walls. But the Maya spirit is resilient, and the descendants of the subsequent mestizo (mixed race) families retain a distinct indigenous appearance and follow ancestral traditions.
Despite its gruesome history, Merida is one of Mexico’s loveliest colonial cities, with a languid tropical air and an abundance of flowering trees and pleasant plazas. Sixteenth-century landmarks face Merida’s Plaza Mayor, where leafy laurel trees shade a filigreed kiosko (bandstand) and plentiful benches. Busy at almost all hours, the plaza is the heart of the culturally rich city which holds public concerts and dances in its neighborhood plazas. The Catedral, said to be the oldest on the continent, dominates the plaza with Gothic grandeur, though it lacks the colonial-era’s usual gilded ornamentation. Far more ornate is the nearby Palacio Montejo, built for the Montejo family who led the conquering armies in Merida. The palace’s plateresque facade includes stone carvings of Spanish soldiers in full regalia stepping on Maya heads. The Mexican bank Banamex took over the building in the 1970s and hired famed architect Ricardo Legoretta to remodel the interior, open to the public during business hours.
Merida was one of the New World’s most important centers of wealth and power during the 18th century, when wealthy hacendados (hacienda owners) controlled vast parcels of land with corn, cattle and henequin plantations in the countryside and resided in mansions along Merida’s Paseo Montejo, designed after the Champs-Elysees. One particularly ostentatious Beaux Arts home, the Palacio Canton, now houses the impressive Museo Regional de Antropologia. Artifacts from Maya temples and palaces destroyed during the conquest are displayed in this monument.
Merida’s markets are packed with hammocks woven in nearby villages as well as the region’s famed jipis (straw hats) and embroidered huipiles and guayaberas (blouses for women and men respectively). Its restaurants serve specialties such as cochinita pibil (pork in a sour lime and achiote marinade) and salbutes (corn masa rounds topped with meat, tomato, lettuce and the pickled red onions served with nearly every meal). Locals and travelers gather in small cafes for coffee and a regional beer called Montejo. During Merida en Dominigo (Merida on Sunday), streets around the Plaza Mayor and Plaza Santa Lucia are closed to traffic. Ladies in elaborate huipiles and men in straw hats stroll arm-in-arm around the plaza bands while grazing on tamales, roasted corn and sweet meringues and whole families pile into calesas (horse-drawn carriages) for city tours. Jazz and classical bands perform in front of the Palacio Gobierno while the police orchestra plays traditional songs at Plaza Lucia. In the evening, musicians pick up the beat with salsa, mambo and cumbia rhythms and hundreds of meridanos dance in the streets. The evening ends with a performance by folk dancers in white lace dresses with colored ribbons whirling away during a traditional wedding dance. On Sundays, Merida’s Old World charms are in full view, and it’s easy to see why both the Maya and the Spaniards longed to claim its natural beauty.
Uxmal, YucatanOnly an hour away from Merida, the Maya town of Uxmal was founded around 700 A.D. and remains one of the most important archeological sites in Maya culture. The location and the layout of the site’s buildings reveal the ancient inhabitant’s astute knowledge of astronomy. Its main attraction is the monumental Pyramid of the Soothsayer. Dominating the ceremonial center, the pyramid is decorated with symbolic motifs and sculptures depicting Chaac, the god of rain. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Uxmal is considered a must-see destination for visitors. www.visitmexico.com
Chichen Itza, YucatanLocated a 1½-hour drive away from the city of Merida, the pre-Hispanic city of Chichen reveals the combination of the Maya, Totlic and Aztec culture. Ancient buildings such as the Warriors’ Temple, El Castillo and the circular observatory called El Caracol have survived over 1,000 years of history. One of the Seven New Wonders of the World, Chichen is a spectacular archeological site and a window into the ancient Maya culture.
Catedral de San Ildefonso, MeridaCommissioned by Pope Pius IV and completed in 1598, the Catedral de San Ildefonso is the second oldest Cathedral in the New World. Although the cathedral is not highly decorated since most of its decorations were destroyed with the Mexican revolution in 1915, it still remains an imposing and awe-inspiring construction. Inside the cathedral are vaulted ceilings and grand columns. Its centerpiece features a huge crucifix, Cristo de la Unidad, a 25-foot tall birch wood sculpture by Spanish artist Ramon Lapayese del Rio.
New and Noteworthy:
The Museum of the Mayan WorldOpening in October 2012, the Museum of the Mayan World offers visitors a variety of interactive exhibitions. The museum will showcase rare Maya miniatures and ceramic pieces, along with a collection of carved Chacmool statues, after the rain god, Chac. Another major exhibit will follow the rise and fall of sisal, also known as green gold, and the development of the sisal plantations in the 18th century. Other highlights in the museum include rotating exhibits of other Mexican ethnic groups, a botanical garden and an IMAX theater.
The Palace of the Mayan World, YaxkabaAlthough still under construction, the Palace of the Mayan World will be a new experience for travelers. The Palace, only seven miles from Chichen Itza, will replicate a sacred Maya city and will allow visitors to experience ancient life and the daily activities in a holy center. Also, for bikers, a trail from Chichen Itza to the palace runs over a sacbe or “white road” similar to the ceremonial avenues that connected ancient Maya centers.
Where to Stay:
Hacienda XcanatunOriginally constructed in the mid-18th century as one of the grandest classic haciendas, Hacienda Xcanatun has been transformed into a luxurious manor house hotel with sprawling gardens and a manicured jungle. Its original cultural beauty combined with today’s modern comforts and indulgences make it an ideal choice for visitors. Perks include two swimming pools, hydrotherapy tubs, personal porches or terraces, a spa and gourmet dining at Casa de Piedra. Nightly rates range from $260 to $345, based on single or double occupancy. www.xcanatun.com
Hacienda PetacHacienda Petac aims to provide guests with the most exclusive and personal care, with a maximum capacity of 12 guests and a staff of 23. Located on 200 acres of Maya countryside just outside of Merida, this elegant 17th-century estate offers a relaxing retreat for families and friends. A stay at Hacienda Petac includes use of their spa and fitness center, all meal and non-alcoholic beverages, taxes, airport ground transfers, daily laundry, nightly turn-down service and a series of on-site activities that explore the cultural highlights of the Yucatan. Its seven-night Best of the Mundo Maya Special Package features all of the above as well as a personal driver and a guide for excursions and all alcoholic beverages. This package includes a five-person minimum and costs $2,500 per person. www.haciendapetac.com