Merida, Mexico, November 2009

Ah, Merida!

While we were staying in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, we took a road trip to the old city of Merida, which is the capital of the State of Yucatan. We had heard a lot about the beauty of the place, and the old world atmosphere, especially on the weekends when one dines and strolls in the park, and takes a pony cart ride through the city. As elaborated on in the web site, “Merida is known as the White City, nowadays one of the most tranquil and safest cities in Mexico. Her remote Mayan roots, superb colonial monuments, and the splendor of her XIX century architecture, has made Merida a captivating mixture of cultural influences.” True to all, we were enchanted (please see pictures below).

We rode the First Class bus from Cancun to Merida, looking forward to some great countryside views. That was not to be. There is a marvelous state-of-the-art divided Autopista in almost a straight line from Cancun to Merida. The sides of the highway are lined with very high, green foliage. I don’t think any of the four of us got a glimpse of Mexico through it. So, the ride was a bit disappointing, but very comfortable, and relatively fast … four hours. They even had a movie showing on board. Otherwise, it was pretty sterile, at least for ardent adventurers such as ourselves.

We arrived at the Merida bus station late in the afternoon on Sunday. We had planned that arrival time as we had been told the best time to be there was Sunday evening. (As it turned out, we were somewhat misinformed as Saturday is also a very festive day in Merida. We will incorporate that into our next visit.) It was decided by majority vote (minus one rather vocal and sulky dissension), to walk from the bus station to the hotel. The streets were laid out in an obviously discernible pattern that made finding the hotel pretty easy. However, it was a hot, sunny afternoon, and the walk turned into a fifty-minute walk, as opposed to the suggested $4, 4-minute cab ride. You can bet THAT was readily pointed out by said dissenter! At any rate, we wandered (not aimlessly, mind you, but directly, sort of) through cobble-stoned streets, past archways and old buildings, soaking up the flavor of the place. We were headed to a small hotel that was not the first offering (nor the second) of the agent who helped us with the booking (the first two could not be brought up on the Internet for availability at booking time), and were so delighted to find ourselves walking through a medieval-looking arched doorway with a massive, carved wooden door, into a high-ceiling entrance with the hotel desk room on one side, and the breakfast restaurant (reminiscent of dearly loved restaurants in the Canary Islands) on the other. Straight ahead was a courtyard with a small reflection pool to one side … in which small children were splashing … walkways and doors to other side, and a beautiful fountain in the center. The courtyard was open to the sky, and three stories high. There were beautiful potted plants as well as trees and bougainvillea. It was so charming I could hardly catch my breath.

We checked in and went up two floors to our room. This was a budget trip, and the room reflected that, but it was very accommodating, and fun. The room had two double beds, and one single, and a private bath (something of a luxury, but on which I had insisted), and we all stayed in the one room. After all, it was only for the one night, and we planned to be out roaming around rather than in the room, most of the time.

One of the reasons for choosing the hotel was that it was close to the Central Plaza. And it turned out to be barely three blocks, and a lovely stroll at that. The town was quite surprising to us newbies as, just in our small area of acquaintance, there were museums, theaters, a university, and lovely old churches. Most of the streets anywhere near the park has been closed to traffic, and accommodated the strolling pedestrians, and the formally set tables placed out in the streets by the various restaurants. Everything looked, and smelled, delightful.

We made our way to the Central Plaza, and identified the Government House, to which we had been directed for some fine ethnic artwork. However, it was still warm, and we were hungry, so, after a brief look at all the activity going on in the square, we settled at an outside café for some lunch. The people watching was fun, and it was really nice to be seated and have a cold drink, but, as we all agreed, the food must only have been sold to the new and unaware as it was pretty dismal, and we were pretty sure that no one returned once they had dined there. The waiter was charming, but not very accommodating, in that the “banana soup” that caught Jim’s eye on the menu, and intrigued him, was set before him as a plate of rice with sliced, ripe bananas on top. When we explained that we wanted the soup, the waiter was adamant that this was the way they served it in Merida! We were a bit skeptical when we noted the table next to us got what looked like a banana soup … it was in a bowl and had liquid in it! But, our waiter was not to be denied, and we were totally unable to convince him to make reparation. Oh well, on the whole, the food was so bad, the whole thing was a joke. Besides, by now, we were eyeing all the goodies on the vendor carts and kiosks at the park, so we were ready for new dining horizons.

After dinner we walked down to Government House, which was splendidly built in the old, traditional manner with an open courtyard in the center, offices around the sides, and a major staircase going to the second floor, as the centerpiece (think “Gone With The Wind”). There were huge, pastoral paintings at the head of the staircase, and on each of the two sides. Upstairs was what must have been the grand ballroom in former times, as it was a long, wide corridor interspersed with twenty foot windows, and huge paintings of the Mayan Indians, and their philosophy, and their struggles to survive both the collapse of their own culture, and enslavement by the Spanish conquerors. The paintings were magnificent. One of the paintings mentioned the name of a conquistador's as being Don Jose Francisco Bates. We found this very interesting, as he must have been a relative of our crew member Jim Bates! (see pictures below) We were very pleased to hear that the artist is still alive, and has many well-regarded paintings in the main museum in Mexico City.

After the visit to Government House, we went in different directions, then met up again later in front of the cathedral. Jim and I strolled around the park and spent some time watching Spanish dancers at one end, and visiting the ancient cathedral at the other end. The inside of the cathedral was magnificent. There were services going on so I did not take any pictures. We were saving the stroll through the two circumferences of the park for when we were a single band of adventurers again.

As we wandered around the shops bordering one side of the cathedral, we were amazed at a display of paper mache jaguars. We could not find the reason for the display, but they were beautiful. As we left the jaguar display, we were hailed by a lovely older couple that wanted to know if we were Americans (Merida doesn’t get many foreign tourists), and they wanted to visit. Seems that their son, of whom they were very, very proud, visits the US and Canada often (turns out he is a migrant strawberry picker & expediter for others in the field [pun intended] … but young [~25] and very handsome & charismatic) and has given them favorable reports of his friends there. The couple wanted to thank us and let us know how much they liked Americans … very sweet and touching. At any rate, while we were stumbling our way through their non-English and our poor Spanish, Caesar (the son) himself popped up! Being Sunday evening, the town square was full of food carts and artisans, and music. Caesar (in excellent English) told us that he was a silver craftsman, and that he would be selling his pieces later in the evening, after he had some dinner. As the evening wore on, and we bid his parents goodbye, we strolled around the square to try to find Caesar’s silver kiosk. But there he was, playing drums in an all-drum band … very lively and entertaining music!!!  We listened with delight, and felt complimented that he acknowledged us, even while working. When the band took a break, we visited with him and his beautiful girlfriend for a few minutes, and asked to see his jewelry. We bought a beautiful little bracelet that he explained held stones for bringing health and vitality to the wearer, and curled pieces of silver that represented two Mayan hands clasping in friendship. He also gave us a lovely pair of amethyst earrings, as a token of friendship, and because of our long, lovely visit with his parents.

During our visit to the park, we feasted on local treats, such as Jim’s churros (sweet fried dough) and Dianna’s packet of plantain chips. Then Dianna treated us to a pony cart ride.

How beautiful the city is at night. The pony cart took us away from the plaza, through the lovely old town, and onto the main avenue, which was a beautiful esplanade down the middle, with the sides of the avenida interspersed with tall, old buildings and new modern ones. The famous Museum of Anthropology and History (which was, disappointingly, going to be closed the next day – our only day in Merida) is a magnificent edifice of limestone construction and old world architecture. It was lighted all round with spotlights that also showed off the beautiful landscaping around it. The other two highlights were the “Twins” buildings that appeared to now be offices of one nature, but were, in the past, palatial residences; and, the almost unfathomable round sculpture taking up the full space of a major traffic roundabout. It took the artist eleven years to make it, and it covered the full cycle of Mayan history. It would have been wondrous in the daytime, but with the nighttime lighting, it was mesmerizing.

After our ride, and a little more strolling through the park, we headed back to the hotel for the night. As we settled down, and discussed our departure for the morrow, we decided to risk the excitement of taking the Second Class bus back to Cancun, as rumor had it that this ride actually went through pretty countryside and villages, even though it took substantially longer. All true! We got on the bus, and headed out into the country. The views were pretty, and the villages were intriguing. It was especially fun that, at many of the stops, vendors with local foods would get on the bus to sell them … getting off at the next stop. We ate crisp little crepe-like pastries, and nuts, and something that looked like a ham and cheese sandwich that had been wrapped in phyllo dough, anointed generously with brown sugar, and deep-fried. It was an adventure in tasting, but really pretty good, once one got the mind around the seemingly incongruous ingredients.

The trip back to Cancun took eight hours! We were tired, but still glad we had done it. Then there was the matter of catching a collective (mini-bus) to the ferry, and riding the ferry back to Isla Mujeres, then getting a taxi home to the marina.

This was quite a bit of activity, packed into a 48-hour road trip. But we loved every minute of it, and are really hoping to do it again. Having made this advanced trip, our next visit to Merida will be of several days duration, with lots more daytime tourist stuff, as well as another splendid weekend in the Central Plaza.

Hotel Courtyard

Pool In Hotel Courtyard

Hotel Reception Desk

Maya Girl In Main Plaza

The Crew At Dinner At The Plaza

Crew In Restaurant

Main Plaza, Church On Right

Government House Courtyard

Mural Inside Govt. House

Church From Govt House Courtyard

Inside Courtyard Govt House

Mexican Flag Government House

Reception Hall Govt House

Murals In Reception Hall

Jim WOth Bates Plack

Bates Plack

Dancers In The Plaza

Dancers In The Plaza

Dancers In The Plaza

Dancers In The Plaza

Paper Mache Jaguar

Paper Mache Jaguar

Paper Mache Jaguar

Paper Mache Jaguar

Paper Mache Jaguar

Paper Mache Jaguar

Paper Mache Jaguar

Paper Mache Jaguar

Plaza At Night

Plaza At Night

Front Of Government House At Night

All Drum Band On Plaza

Kitty With Caesar & Girlfriend

Sunrise From Hotel

Monument A La Patria