Mérida – loveliest place in the Yucatan

Sunday 5 to Friday 10 April

We arrived early in the afternoon. We had booked into Le Gran, an old hotel in the centre of town filled with antiques for decoration and also for sale. But there was nowhere to sit!

With a car at our disposal we were keen to explore the surrounds. Our hotel suggested the short drive to Progreso, a popular seaside town. The drive was easy until we crossed the inlet and found the town full of people. It was Easter Sunday and school holidays. It was also warm and the start of daylight saving. The beach was a popular place. We found a spot to park and walked along the beach amongst beach umbrellas, beach floaters, souvenir shops, food stalls and people. Lots and lots of people.

We had the car until Monday afternoon, so it was a good opportunity to visit the Museum of Maya, which is some distance out of town. The display started with the impact of Spanish colonisation, which disappointed me as I had hoped to see and understand some of the pre-Hispanic history. As it happened the displays worked back to the original culture, slowly building the picture of Mayan life and culture and describing the many conflicts and cultural beliefs. There was no harmony before the Spanish arrived. Tribes battled each other, moving cities in line with their conquers. It was an interesting and insightful presentation which brought into perspective many of the ruins we had already visited. The museum itself is housed in a massive, new building. Was it an overindulgence or an opportunity to recognise the huge Mayan population in Merida? It is certainly without controversy.

Without wheels, we spent the next day exploring Mérida. The centre is a pretty, compact place. A lot of impressive buildings dating to the Spanish colonial times when the fibres of a cactus plant was manufactured as rope. The indigenous people were forced to work in the haciendas, in a slave like environment.

The main square is surrounded by lovely buildings – the governors office, the bank, the post office. They are open so you are free to go in and wander around. In these days where entrance fees are charged for e=nearly everything, this was a nice innovation by the city of Mérida.

We took a tour to Celestun to see the flamingoes. We made an interesting stop off at Uman, where a local market was in progress. I was highly entertained by the DJ in the fruit and vegetable hall. That’s a unique way to bring music to the masses.

We also took one of the hop on hop off buses, the other didn’t offer an English commentary.  The 1972 bus had its side windows removed and uncomfortable slat benches. The guide did an excellent job of a personalised commentary in both Spanish and English.

The tour took us through the old part of the city, pointing out the major buildings and a little of their history. Typically Mayan temples were pulled down and materials used to build churches and public buildings for the Spanish colonists.

We then moved onto the boulevard and into the nouveau riche area where the Spanish colonists had built mansions in keeping with the wealth they had acquired as farmers and as industrialists.

Mérida enjoyed prosperous boom times fueled by the henequen or sisal plant harvest, which made Yucatán the rope making centre to the world. Haciendas were built where indentured labourers were forced to work.

Franciscans & Jesuits brought Christianity to the region. The Franciscans cared for the poor and helped the indigenous people to rise up above the colonialists. The Jesuits lent money and became wealthy on defaulted loans. They were eventually kicked out of Mexico.

Our guide pointed out an ancient Ceiba tree that is at least 200 years old. This sacred tree of the Maya can live to 5,000 years – it is a part of the kapok family, and is a source of cotton.

We found good coffee in Mérida at Cafe Havana, with it’s photos of Havana in Cuba.  It brought back memories of our time there just a month earlier.

In Mérida more that any other Mexican city, there were a lot of hawkers, selling the lcal arts and crafts. Young girls walked the streets all day, selling scarves and blouses typical of Mayan dress, older men sold hammocks and younger men sold cigarettes, just one at a time.

In fact, we liked Mérida so much that we extended our stay by a couple of extra days.  The coffee was hard to beat.

Bruce bought a Jipi Japa. It is a Mexican hat special to Mérida. The story is that the Mexicans labourers took it to Panama when the canal was built, and so it got called the Panama hat.

While we were in Mérida it was Evan’s 30th birthday, culminating in the EVent – we had asked his friends to send postcards showing themselves eating, one of Evan’s passions.  He received more than 40 postcards and enjoyed the eating theme. Two years ago we had created a web site so Hayden’s friend could post greetings for his 30th birthday – this was different. Evan enjoyed the snail mail.