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Magical Mayan Merida

September 17, 2009
When you visit the Mayan ruins in and around Merida, you may wonder why anyone would think the world will come to an end, when the ancient race's calendar runds out on Dec 1, 2012. Photo: Allan Ryan

When you visit the Mayan ruins in and around Merida, you may wonder why anyone would think the world will come to an end, when the ancient race's calendar runds out on Dec 1, 2012. Photo: Allan Ryan

Amid ruins, charming squares and lovely swimming holes populate Yucatán

The Mayan calendar might end on Dec. 21, 2012, but we’re not buying into the notion that the world will, too.

But, just in case …

Well, I figured it was time to revisit Mérida, the Yucatán capital that, some 10 years back, provided me with that first necessary taste of the “real” Mexico. Obviously, no one would count border towns such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, which I did as a young idiot.

That first taste, though – Christmas time, it was – was also a large part of the reason I’ve made a half-dozen visits to all corners of Mexico in between.

Comfortable then and just as welcoming earlier this summer, Mérida had been a perfect place to get the ball rolling. We actually started in Cancun, about 300 kilometres to the east on the Caribbean coast.

It’s an easy drive, Cancun to Mérida, particularly along the toll road and especially when you remember to put gas in the car. Then again, that route’s not nearly as much fun as the local road that snakes through assorted speed bumps (topes) and towns, notably the colonial gem, Valladolid.

The beauty of Mérida, though, aside from its simple beauty, is that it makes for a logical and convenient hub from which to explore most of the peninsula.

And in this regard, a great bonus for us this time was a hook up with the one-of-a-kind Humberto Gómez Rodriguez, an elegant and wiry 72-year-old who has guided visitors across the Yucatán for 53 years.

“A couple of years older and I would’ve helped build some of these (ruins),” said Rodriguez, who, as a 22-year-old, was a proud discoverer of the spectacular caves of Balankanche, about six kilometres from the famed Chichén Itzá.

A little geography here: There’s Yucatán the state and Yucatán the peninsula, the latter separating the Caribbean from the Gulf of Mexico and comprised of the three Mexican states, west to east, of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo (where Cancun is), plus northern Guatemala and Belize.

The Mayan world encompasses all of these as well as parts of Honduras and El Salvador and the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco.

There are no rivers or lakes. There’s plenty of water, of course (otherwise, there’d have been no Mayans), but it’s all in the limestone underground in the form of rivers, pools and often magical sinkholes known as cenotes.

Except for the southwest corner of the state, it’s also deathly flat and Rodriguez likes to say anything over a metre above ground level suggests something manmade. And maybe, oh, 2,000 years old.

Ruins are everywhere – 33 in the state of Yucatán developed and easily accessible to visitors.

Of those 33 sites, a half-dozen are within an hour’s drive of Mérida, another dozen within two, including Chichén Itzá (about 120 kilometres toward Cancun).

About 60 kilometres to the northwest is the town of Izamal, where most of the buildings are painted rich yellow, including a monastery built atop a Mayan pyramid.

The Spanish did this a lot, figuring if they couldn’t outright convert the Mayans to Christianity at least they could make them go through the church or convent to get to their traditional place of worship.

There’s also ruins of a Spanish church at Chichén Itzá, given that this once-great city served as sort of a Mecca for the Maya. Here, too, are the remains of a 30-metre-wide stone roadway that is said to run for more than 200 kilometres.

Getting back to Mérida, this visit was hardly only about driving us to ruins.

It’s only 35 kilometres to the Gulf and the port/beach town of Progreso and its eight-kilometre pier, said to be the world’s longest.

Also on the Gulf are vast biosphere preserves at Celestun and Rio Lagartos, respectively about 90 and 200 kilometres to the southwest and east. Mérida, itself, conquered by Spain in 1542, is known as the “white city,” because of its gleaming limestone buildings – and lots of white paint.

It’s also built upon an ancient Mayan city, T’Ho, and, while the charming main square is not exactly built atop a pyramid, the Spaniards did use the Mayan stones to lay the foundations for the colonial structures surrounding the square, including the twin-towered San Idelfonso, the oldest cathedral (1556-99) in North America.

The stones of other ruins have had less noble fates. Rodriguez, for instance, says that for the road to the Gulf in the 1950s, a truck simply backed into a pyramid whose blocks were then hauled off to be ground into gravel.

Facing the square are buildings such as the Palacio de Gobierno (and, on the second floor, a series of compelling paintings depicting the city’s oft-times brutal past) and Casa de Montejo.

Certain streets off the main square are closed to traffic weekend evenings, giving way to music-filled patios.

The square, itself, comes alive every night but especially all day Sundays, when it’s filled with folks selling crafts and local delicacies. You definitely want some honey, some Mayan chocolate and, most definitely, some licor de henequén, the local tequila.

A short stroll north of the square is Paseo Montejo, an eight-block stretch of boulevard modelled after the Champs Elysées with tremendous mansions reflecting styles from France, Spain and Italy.

The Yucatán, Mérida specifically, had turned very prosperous in the late 1800s on the strength of henequén (sisal) production – and the backs of Mayan labourers. Given the peninsula’s long-standing isolation from the rest of the country, owners of the rich haciendas (sisal plantations) were far more connected with Europe than Mexico.

The Yucatán was only connected by road to the rest of Mexico in 1970 and it’s that seclusion that has helped preserve Mérida’s unique blend of cultures, dialects and cuisines.

And the Mayan/Spanish influences are only part of the varied mix that also includes Korean, Lebanese and Dutch influences. The cheese in the Yucatan’s classic queso relleno, for instance, can only be edam.

These days, while Mérida is hardly immune from the ravages of Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, it is still regarded as one of the country’s safest and friendliest cities.

You rarely get the impression it’s now approaching a population of one million, but you’d be wrong to think it’s caught in some sort of time warp. The main square, for instance, offers wireless Internet. And, just opened, Mérida’s first Wal-Mart.

I’ll be back – and sometime after 2012.

Source: Toronto Star

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2009 4:57 pm

    Good article, thank you
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    • uniquetraveldestinations permalink*
      October 9, 2009 10:28 pm

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  2. bo bo ch permalink
    November 7, 2009 11:36 pm

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  1. Magical Mayan Merida | Valladolid Travel - Culture and Recreation

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