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The outdoor cafes framing Merida’s Parque de Santa Lucia were packed when I arrived one sultry Thursday evening. Rows of ladies in embroidered dresses and men in guayaberas (loose white shirts) stood facing the bandstand.
I had figured the Thursday night Serenata Yucateca (Yucatecan Serenade) would draw a fair-size tourist crowd. I soon realized this was par for the course for Meridanos, as Merida’s residents are called, who are passionate about their hometown’s cultural events.
Perhaps that’s why their city on the Yucatan Peninsula has been named the American Capital of Culture for 2017. Panama City, Panama; Cusco, Peru; Quito, Ecuador; and other cities have received the title since 1997, but only Merida has received it twice (in 2000 and 2017).
“When I think of Merida, the first thing that comes to mind is its culture,” said Enrique Dominguez, deputy director for Merida Tourism.
Free cultural events are held every night in parks and venues around the city, and all the festivities attract enormous crowds. Finding a viewpoint for the Friday night Pok-ta-Pok Mayan ballgame in front of the contemporary art museum is nearly impossible. It seems the whole city turns out for Merida en Domingo (Merida on Sunday).
The day is devoted to dance and musical performances at the Plaza Grande. Here, vendors’ stands display handmade hammocks and Panama hats, while others sell artwork, books, embroidered clothing and more at neighborhood parks. Traffic is closed on major streets, and a constant parade of pedestrians and bicyclists gathers at pop-up restaurants and stands serving regional family cooking.
Merida’s passion for all forms of culture is evident in its many museums, which will hold lectures, concerts and special exhibits celebrating the city’s Capital of Culture title. Look for weekly events at Museo Regional de Antropologia, housed in the beautifully restored Palacio Canton, which was built for a wealthy landowner in the early 1900s. La Quinta Montes Molina museum, an impeccably maintained mansion-turned-museum, also hosts concerts and special events.
Hacienda Xcanatun, a gorgeously restored hacienda hotel just outside downtown Merida, is presenting a chamber music series by members of the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra, one of Mexico’s finest. The group can often be seen at the city’s Italianate Teatro Jose Peon Contreras, which also features dances by the Ballet Folklorico and performances by internationally recognized dancers and musicians.
Citywide special events include an exhibit of a full-size replica of the Sistine Chapel, to be held in October and November, and Hanal Pixan, the Mayan celebration of the Day of the Dead, in late October and early November.
Merida’s creative side is also evident in its vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene. At Cantina Negrita, a century-old landmark, modern works by some of Merida’s finest artists hang beside 100-year-old mirrors and photographs, and local musicians perform rock, blues and salsa for exuberant dancers. Mercado 60, an open-air collection of food trucks and stands, also features local talent and attracts an artsy crowd.
“We are very Bohemian,” Dominguez said. “Many of our cultural attractions started not as tourist attractions, but for the local people.”
It seems that intention has paid off. The Thursday night serenade has been running for 50 years, and Merida en Domingo has been entertaining locals and tourists alike since the 1980s.
“We strive hard to keep our culture alive,” Dominguez said.