Merida is one of those magical cities that can seem to the visitor — though hardly to the native — as though it is becalmed in another and better time zone. Or rather, that it floats in a dreamlike present tense, where you can wander the faded grandeur of its often empty streets, confident that you will once again enjoy the kindness of strangers at the next cafe or little park that you encounter.
It wasn’t always so quiet here. Situated strategically in the green and fertile rainforests that once clothed Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, the city was founded as T’Hó , a great centre of power by the Mayan leader Ah-Chan-Caan, in the 13th century. By the time the Spanish conquistadores arrived three centuries later, however, that city had already been largely abandoned, though it is not clear why. The magnificent ruins reminded one of them, Francisco de Almaraz, of the Roman remains in his native Mérida, and the name stuck.
The Spanish built their new city, including the monumental cathedral of San Ildefonso, out of the stones of the old one. For this reason, Mérida is sometimes regarded as the oldest inhabited city in the Americas.
The cathedral, said to be the second-oldest in the New World, dominates one side of thezócalo, or main square, which remains the heart of the old city. The church’s supersized façade blasts out a message of bombastic dominance – the Spanish must have felt they had to build very big indeed to impress the Mayans. But the invaders found no gold in the Yucatan, and the funds dried up for the building project. So the outside of the church remains curiously unadorned.
The same applies to the interior today, though this was not always the case. Anticlerical revolutionaries stripped out its decorations in 1915, so that the place is now as plain as a Presbyterian hall. Curiously, this bareness makes its size all the more imposing.
Without precious metals to loot in its hinterland, the golden age of the Spanish empire passed Mérida by, but it had its moment of boom-time madness in the early 20th century. The source of its sudden and enormous wealth was “green gold”, the humble henequen or sisal plant. This is an agave that the Mayans had been using to produce fibre for millennia before its value was recognised by expanding world markets. Money for new rope, you might say.
The boom built the flamboyant mansions that now line the city’s elegant Paseo de Montejo, which was said for a decade or two to house more millionaires than any other street on the planet. Synthetics have ended the boom times, but you can still visit a henequen hacienda today, and one of the mansions – the Palace Canton – is now a museum of Mayan treasures. For the story of how these treasures were acquired, however, you have to go elsewhere.
Wandering idly across the zócalo from the cathedral one Sunday morning, I came across the Yucatan Palace of Government. This is an imposing neoclassical building, but hardly big enough to contain the giant paintings that seem to burst through its upstairs windows. A huddle of heavily armed but gracious policemen waved me in, and I found myself alone in a marble hall among an extraordinary set of “transportable murals” by the Mérida-born artist Fernando Castro Pacheco.
Here, at the heart of local political power, is a ferocious indictment of how that power has been exercised over the centuries. From the original defeat of the Maya and the desecration of their holy places by Catholic inquisitors, to the savage torture of their rebel leaders and the appalling exploitation of henequen producers, this permanent exhibition evokes disgust and anger, but perhaps also despair.
Does this belated recognition of history’s wrongs make any difference to the Mayans of today, who have maintained much of their culture, and even their languages, against such overwhelming oppression? You would have to ask the many indigenous women who sell their craftwork for a pittance in the zócalo, and whose sweet but distant expressions tell an eloquent story of contemporary displacement and dispossession. It would be worth returning to the city for its classic celebration of the Day of the Dead in November, where Mayan traditions overwhelm Vatican regulations, to find a clearer answer.
SOME OF THE most delightful cultural treasures of Mérida are very small-scale, though in easy walking distance on the grid of modest streets that stretch away in all directions from the historical centre. Single-storey buildings in faded pastel colours dominate these gentle thoroughfares, shimmering in the morning sunlight, or washed out after the afternoon’s torrential tropical rains. Just to stroll them is a pleasure, and at almost any hour they seem safer than most Irish city centres. Residents offer directions and advice with the gentle courtesy that characterises the city.
The same Sunday morning, I was looking for the Museum of Popular Arts, but first I stumbled on the Museum of Yucatan Song.
I seemed to be the only visitor that morning, and a charming woman seemed to be the only member of staff. She offered me a personal tour of the salons set out around a gracious courtyard, each with an audio-visual introduction to a trovador musical tradition I had never heard of. I could happily have spent the day there, but my time was getting very limited, and I moved on in search of my original quarry.
The six modest rooms of the popular arts museum take you from exquisite wedding dresses to (of course) elaborate funeral rites, from skeletons in sensual embraces to trees of life pulsating with the biodiversity of the jungle. The unique vitality of the Yucatan fairly sings out from every image, and makes you promise yourself to return, and soon.
KLM (klm.com) flies regularly to Mexico City from Dublin via Amsterdam. There are daily flights from Mexico City to Mérida, and also from many other popular Mexican destinations, like nearby Cancun.
Merida where to . . .
There are major hotels (Fiesta Americana, Holiday Inn) in the business district but the city also has delightful small hotels in the old town. Hotel Marionetas (hotelmarionetas.com) offers spacious rooms with air-con and en suite bathrooms from about €35 per night. This includes breakfast looking out on a hacienda courtyard, and a small swimming pool.
I tried several highly-rated Yucatan restaurants and was disappointed by the food. The best option was La Casa de Frida (lacasadefrida.com.mx), with a very fresh Trotsky Salad. The best meal I had was the buffet at the Holiday Inn.
Mérida is pivotally situated for a number of top-drawer Yucatan spots: Mayan sites at Uxmal, Mayapan, and Chichen Itza; wildlife reserves at Celestún and Sian Ka’an; fishing and beaches at Campeche and Cancun.
Thank you Paddy Woodworth.