Capital of Mexico’s Yucatan State, Merida Offers a
Blend of Colonial Charm and Mayan Mystique
The first time I came to Merida, capital of Mexico’s Yucatan state, I booked a room at a downtown hotel. After unpacking, I went to use the bathroom. There was no toilet seat.
I tried to explain the absence to the desk clerk, but he spoke no English. Employing a translating dictionary, I looked up the words for “toilet” and “seat,” and in my best Taco Bell Spanish, told him that I did not have one. The man looked dumbfounded.
Apparently, I had just said that I had no chair in my toilet bowl.
I finally took out a sheet of paper and drew a privy without a perch. He got the picture, and I got a seat.
Fortunately, no water closet woes plague this visit. I’ve booked a room at a restored country hacienda where not only is the commode complete, but there’s a bidet to boot.
I’ve come to Merida, which lies 200 miles across the Yucatan from Cancun, for three reasons -- rest, relaxation and to rekindle a passion. Since I was a lad, I’ve been fascinated by the ancient Maya, the native people who occupied southeastern Mexico and western Central America. While America’s Anasazi were making mud-mortar cliff dwellings, these folks constructed cities, put up pyramids, stood up stelae, studied the stars and created intricate calendars. Their power ended with the Spanish conquest. Today, many of their progeny live a simple, rural existence.
Current village life is depicted at Teatro Indigena in the nearby village of Ticopo. Local residents present a Saturday-evening show called “Seven Moments in the Life of the Maya.” The hacienda staff arranges for guide Humberto Gomez to drive me there.
Under a thatched canopy, we sit on rock benches cushioned with foam pads. Ahead lies an open-air stage featuring traditional village huts. In the back rises a Christian cross draped with magenta cloth.
“When they were converted into Catholicism, they felt the crosses should never be naked,” Humberto explains.
The show features 470 villagers ranging in age from four to 93. The men wear white shirts and pants, and the women sport traditional huipils, white dresses festooned with embroidered flowers. Dancers dance, a bull is fought, a sacred tree is planted, and the town drunk is berated by his wife, much to the delight of the audience. To the side, grandmotherly women cook tortillas, which they share with the audience at show’s end. I only hope I can find native sustenance equally delicious when I go into Merida the next day.
The inland city sports a population is nearly one million, and its sprawling outskirts, complete with Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart and Costco, look as boring as any 21st-century metropolis. I head for the city’s 16th-century center.
Every Sunday, Merida closes the streets bordering downtown’s Plaza Grande. Stalls line sidewalks, purveying goods ranging from clothes to crafts. Vendors sell balloons, preschoolers chase pigeons, lovers hold hands, proud fathers cradle infants and elderly women sit and knit. Peaceful yet festive, it conveys the charm of traditional Mexico.
One street is lined with food vendors. Yucatecan cuisine blends Mayan and Spanish tastes with those of other cultures, and most dishes tend to be spicy hot, although they are toned down in restaurants frequented by tourists. I take a chance and order Pollo Pibil, which is chicken flavored with achiote, a red spice native to the area. It comes wrapped in banana leaves. I find it very tasty, especially when doused with two fire-extinguishing beers.
After lunch, I walk down Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard lined with mansions. Some are well maintained, while others lay vacant and decaying.
Merida was once headquarters for Mexico’s sisal industry. Derived from an agave similar to the century plant, its fiber made strong ropes and grew well in the Yucatecan limestone. Estate owners garnered enormous fortunes. When synthetics replaced natural cord in the 1950s, the market wilted. Fields turned to weeds, and mansions lay abandoned. By the early ‘90s, 40,000-square-foot homes could be found dirt cheap.
“The price would never go above US$500,000,” says Jorge Ruz. “Our original concept was to buy a beautiful old house to make into a bed-and-breakfast.”
Jorge, a successful businessman, wanted to get his family out of Mexico City. They found an ideal city mansion in Merida, but before the deal closed, someone sold a similar property to McDonald’s for several million dollars. Prices soared, and Jorge’s plans changed.
“We started looking at country haciendas,” he says. “We found this place. It was absolutely destroyed.”
Jorge and his American-born wife Cristina Baker spent five years converting the derelict agricultural compound into Hacienda Xcanatun, the 18-suite boutique retreat where I am staying. Ceilings, doors and windows were made in a hacienda carpentry shop, as were furniture, closets and minibar cabinets. They even brought in blocks of rock and had a Mayan stonecutter chisel bathtubs on site.
“Jorge checked them for size every weekend. Each fits his butt,” laughs Cristina.
Xcanatun’s lush grounds provide shady perches for tropical birds. Lounging in my patio hammock, I listen to an avian choir in concert. They sound so melodic that comparing them to songbirds back home is like comparing Pavarotti to Bob Dylan.
While the hacienda’s serenade is serene, I also want to explore the “mansions” of the mystical Maya. I start at Dzibilchaltun (zee-beel-chal-TOON) located a few miles north.
At one end of the site rises the House of the Seven Dolls, an elevated structure with a gaping door. On the exact day of the spring and fall equinox, the sun shines straight through like a blast from a laser lens. The Mayans bore a penchant for astronomical precision.
At the other end of the complex lies Xlacah (shla-KAH) cenote, where an underground stream surfaces in a deep pool. Lily pads float in its center and families frolic around the sides. Where rivers are rare, these rock-bound ponds provided water for drinking, dunking and sacrificing an occasional Mayan maiden.
At Uxmal (oosh-MAL), the thirsts of 25,000 inhabitants were satiated with rainwater collected in cisterns. The site lies an hour south of Merida, and to get there, I utilize the services of guide Humberto Gomez.
Entering the expansive grounds, we immediately face the Pyramid of the Magician. Legend says this 12-story-tall, cowbell-shaped structure was built in a single day by a dwarf soothsayer who used trickery to assume political power.
“He came to be a very good ruler until he became too greedy,” says Humberto. Some things never change.
I spend the day wandering around structures adorned with rock birds, turtles, snakes, jaguars and rain god noses. Humberto claims one building alone contains 22,000 carved stones. It seems incredible that people living in the jungle could spare the manpower to create such works of art.
“It was one way of controlling the masses. It kept them busy doing something,” Humberto speculates.
Before returning to town, we stop at the nearby ruins of Kabah (ka-BAH) where 260 masks once decorated a building façade. Pieces lie stacked on the ground, and dirt still buries much of the structure. The rubble makes me appreciate the effort needed for restoration.
Feeling that no trip to the Yucatan is complete without seeing the sea, I head for salt water. The nearest beach lies in Progreso, a cruise-ship port 22 miles north of Merida, but I opt instead for Celestun, 52 miles to the west. Near the former fishing village, the government has designated a “Special Biosphere Reserve” for pink flamingos. There I can ogle birds instead of bikinis.
I board a flat-bottomed tour boat, and we churn up the center of a long, mangrove-edged lagoon. A few fishermen use nets to trap shrimp. Some stand in the shallow water, sorting their catch.
Ahead in the distance, I see what looks like pink scum covering the pea-green lagoon. It’s the flamingos standing knee-deep in the still water. Feeding on shrimp, which are high in carotene, gives the birds their blushing hue.
“They go zoo. Lose color. No have proper food,” my driver says in fractured English.
I try to ask him if flamingos were once sacred to the Mayans, but apparently he does not understand a word of what I’m saying. I think about pulling out my translating dictionary, but abandon the plan. Experience says the effort would be futile, and I wouldn’t know what to draw for a picture.
On my final day in Merida, I go with Humberto to see Ek Balam (eck-BAL-am), a freshly excavated site located 114 miles to the east. On our way we stop in the town of Izamal (ee-sah-MALL).
“This was a highly important religious center for the Maya,” Humberto explains. “They believed that under here lay the remains of the sky god.”
Exploiting its spiritual importance to the natives, Friar Diego de Landa transformed the top of a Mayan pyramid into a Catholic convent in 1549. Its mustard-colored walls enclose what Humberto says is the world’s second largest atrium, eclipsed only by St. Peter’s in Rome.
We continue to the ruins where restoration began less than a decade ago. Humberto leads me straight to the 105-foot tall Acropolis pyramid, Ek Balam’s loftiest structure.
“They were working on the upper part of this building when they discovered a tomb chamber,” he says as we grunt up the steep steps. “Inside they found the skeletal remains of a ruler.”
Carved in white stucco, the walls of the crypt depict the face of a monster. An entrance platform serves as the lower jaw, complete with fangs. A tooth-lined central doorway forms an open mouth, and nose and eyes show above.
“It symbolically represents the entrance into the Mayan underworld,” Humberto explains.
After admiring more stucco art, we explore the rest of the ruins. Ek Balam’s intimate scale provides opportunities for my mind to wander and wonder.
Finally, it’s time to leave. Facing the long drive back to Merida, I stop at the site’s sole rest room. There is no toilet seat.