One of Mexico’s oldest and loveliest cities, Mérida boasts colonial churches, 19th-century civic buildings, and mansions imbued with all the opulence of la belle époque. Architectural splendor is only part of the story: museums are many, concerts and other open-air events are staged every night during the week and the traditional cuisine is a sophisticated blend of ingredients from the Old World and the New.
Founded by conquistador Francisco de Montejo y Leon the Younger in 1542, amidst the ruins of a much earlier Mayan city called T’ho, Mérida was the most important Spanish stronghold on the peninsula. In the final years of the 19th century, Merida became a boomtown thanks to increased demand for henequen or sisal, a native plant used to make rope. A small group of influential landowners became rich overnight and at one time the city had more millionaires than New York.
The Main Square
With its huge Indian laurel trees, benches and love seats for courting couples, the Main Square or Plaza de Armas is the center of civic life and the ideal place for people watching. The square and the surrounding streets are cordoned off on Sundays for Mérida en Domingo, a gala event featuring a craft market and bazaar, live music and folk dances. The entire city takes to the streets for this fiesta, and it is a great opportunity for visitors to sample Yucatecan culture.
Located on the east side of the square, the Cathedral de San Idelfonso dominates the skyline. With its twin towers and austere façade, it is one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas and the first to be completed in Mexico before 1600 (construction 1551-1585). Escape the fierce midday heat by venturing into the cool interior of the church with its columns, vaulted ceilings and huge dome. In one of its chapels resides the Christ of the Blisters, a black figure of Christ that is said to have miraculous powers and is the patron saint of the city.
Across the park, directly opposite the Cathedral is City Hall, an 18th-century building with later additions, which include the façade and its central tower erected in 1928. On Monday evenings, the performance of the traditional Vaquería dances soon attracts a crowd of visitors and local people.
Built on the site of the colonial Casa Real or Captain-General’s residence from 1879-1892, Government House fronts the north side of the square. This elegant building is worth a visit for a glimpse of the murals on the first floor. The work of local artist, Fernando Castro Pacheco, they depict the turbulent history of the Yucatán, with scenes from the ancient Mayan creation story, the Conquest, 19th-century Caste War and the henequen boom.
To the south of the square is Casa de Montejo, the Montejo family residence built in 1543. Now the property of a bank, the house is considered the finest example of Plateresque architecture in Mexico and is famous for its façade, which shows two Spanish soldiers subjugating the Maya.
The Museo Macay is an art gallery showcasing the work of Yucatecan artists. Located on the main square at Pasaje de la Revolución.
Two blocks behind City Hall is Las Monjas, once a convent and school for the daughters of the aristocracy. This 16th-century building now houses the Casa de Artesanías, which offers a colorful and reasonably priced selection of local handicrafts. Hammocks, Panama hats, guayaberas or cotton shirts for men, embroidered hipiles or traditional dresses, basketry, filigree jewelry, pottery, wood carvings and candles are good buys.
You’ll find more crafts in Mérida’s bustling markets and while you are in the area south of the plaza, don’t miss the City Museum in the old Post Office. The museum relates the history of Mérida and has interesting displays on the Mayan city of T’ho.
Calle 60 to Paseo Montejo
Walk north from the main square, along Calle 60 to peaceful Parque Hidalgo, site of sidewalk cafes, boutiques and craft shops. The charming 17th-century Church of the Third Order lies to the north of the square and is a popular venue for weddings. Several of the hotels in this area are actually renovated turn-of-the century mansions, once the residences of local aristocrats who loved all things European.
Founded by the Jesuits in 1618, the University of Yucatán is one of the oldest universities in the country. The library and administrative offices are located here, around the impressive courtyard but the different faculties and departments are scattered through the city.
Built by Italian engineer Enrique Deserti, to emulate the opulence of a European opera house, the Peon Contreras Theater opened its doors in 1908 at the height of the city’s prosperity.
Further north along Calle 60 is Santa Lucia church and square, the latter is a gathering place for the guitar-strumming trios who play the trova music or romantic ballads for which the city is so famous. The Thursday night concert is one of the city’s most popular open-air events.
When you reach the Santa Ana Church and Park (six blocks north of Santa Lucía), turn right onto Calle 47 for one block and then north on to Paseo Montejo. Visitors who would rather not walk from the city center can take a taxi or travel in style in a calesa or traditional horse-drawn carriage.
Paseo Montejo is a world away from the bustle of the central square. A wide boulevard that is a replica of the Champs Elysées in Paris, it is lined with towering tamarind and flame trees and is a magnificent setting for the palaces of the henequen barons. Built in a variety of styles, some resembling chateaus, European town houses or even mosques, they are the legacy of those heady days when money flowed like water in Mérida.
Perhaps the finest of Paseo Montejo’s mansions is the Canton Palace, built in 1909-11 in the Italian Renaissance style. It now houses the Regional Museum, which is well worth a visit for its interesting exhibits on the ancient Maya. Highlights include gold and jade dredged from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá, stone carvings and polychrome ceramics that were unearthed at sites throughout the state.
Getting to Mérida
Mérida is 320 km/200 miles from Cancún and the drive takes around three and a half hours by car on the toll road and four hours or more depending on traffic on Highway 180. Flights also are available from Cancún. Thomas More Travel offers day trips and overnight stays to Mérida.