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The sneaky charm of Merida

sunny 28 °C
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Merida is not a city that hits you over the head with its beauty. As our bus was driving through the city, we passed block after block of faded and crumbling structures, and even our short cab ride to our hotel did little to grab our attention. However, when you consider the Yucatan capital city was founded in 1542, a little deterioration makes sense. Our hotel, Hotel Santa Ana, built in 1891, was once the home of Santiago Brito, a writer, teacher and lawyer. Its high, beamed ceilings, voluptuously lush garden and mirrored mosaic trim spoke to what was once a grand home and is now a simple, modest hotel with undeniable charm.

Even more charming is our host, Juan. He was a wealth of information; pointing out a resident flock of parrots, directing us to a reliable laundry and handing out Hershey kisses, because "every life needs a little chocolate." Meeting people like Juan is at least as critical to travel as seeing the important sights. They take you out of yourself, and remind you that in a world that doesn't always feel hospitable, there is still such goodness.

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Merida is a city of over one million residents and the Centro Historico and immediate barrios is the area where tourists congregate. We were staying in Barrio Santa Ana, about a 15-minute walk to the Centro. We had visited Merida a number of years ago, for a brief day trip from Progreso and were keen to return and spend some time here. Our memories were of a grand zocalo, stately cathedrals and stunning private homes on broad boulevards. And Merida has all of that, but you have to dig deeper to really get a feel for the place.

We began with a free walking tour, held every morning at 9:30 from the zocalo. Our exuberant guide Victor, led our large group with both Spanish and English explanations, which he managed to make funny and informative in both languages. The main centro area once had five pyramids built by the Mayans, and they were taken down and those bricks can still be found in a couple of the current buildings that flank the four sides of the square.

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Some of the buildings around the zocalo, and notably the Grand Cathedral.

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The grand hallway entrance to The Museum of Contemporary Art

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A typical scene in the zocalo. Large potted plants have been placed on each of the many benches. We're wondering if they are there to ensure social distancing, or simply for decoration. The white concrete Tu y Yo (You and I) chairs, which are found everywhere in Merida's parks, are said to be designed by a protective father who wanted to ensure his daughter did not sit too closely to her suitor. Now, they are a great backdrop for a photo op, or in this case, a handy seat for another plant.

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Another big tourist draw is the magnificent Paseo de Montejo. This grand boulevard was designed for the early automobiles, and the grand mansions that line both sides of the street were built on henequen fortunes. Henequen (sisal) is the fibre extracted from the henequen plant grown in the Yucatan to make rope.

We walked the Paseo a number of times - always a stunning treat for the eyes. There are still a few private homes on this street, but most have been turned into museums, financial institutions and banks.

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Every Sunday, The Paseo is closed to traffic for the morning to make way for Biciruta - a 4-hour extravaganza devoted to bicycles, rollerbladers, skateboarders and some of the most inventive contraptions you can imagine. We saw a few of these large white plastic "bicycles", always ridden with apparent effort by the male in the group.

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Dogs go everywhere these days, although judging by the underwhelmed expression on this dog's face, the biciruta was more for the owner.

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The road got a little congested at times, but mainly, it looked like this - lots of room for little kids learning to ride a bike and for older tourists who were navigating on rickety rental cruisers.

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There are a number of monuments along the Paseo, with the crowning glory at the end - the Patria. It was carved by Colombian sculptor Romulo Rozo in 1956, with over 300 figures depicting Merida history from early Mayan to present. It is quite glorious.

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We went to a number of wonderful restaurants in Merida; almost all of them outside in courtyards surrounded by tropical greenery. Our favourite, El Tratto, was in Santa Lucia Square, about a 10-minute walk from our hotel.

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It used to be that cantinas were strictly for men only; the swinging western-style half doors a hint of what lay within. That is no longer the case and La Negrita is one of Merida's most popular cantinas.

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We were quite struck by this cantina. It's name "Estado Seco" means "dry state". Would that not be a deterrent for a bartender hoping to attract customers? As Juan explained to me, it is a play on words, as in "I'm thirsty, in a dry state", so a cantina would obviously be just the answer to that dilemma.

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We have lots of little stories to tell about eating out in Merida, with 99% of our stories being happy and positive ones. But one night we found ourselves in what looked like a stylish little place. The music was several decibels above our comfort level, but in the interest of not being fogies, we kept quiet. If I have learned nothing after all these years in Mexico, I have learned that a) noise is a fact of life here and b) heading toward a server with strained smile, head tilted and thumb and forefinger pinched in the universal signal of "lower the volume please" will get you absolutely nowhere. So, there we are - food is good, service is good and we're happy. Then, when I get up to use the washroom, I come out to the shared sinks to wash my hands, only to discover the tap is broken. The server agreed with me that, yes, the tap had been broken for a while, but they did have a solution. He ran down to the end of the room and came back bearing a heavy pail full of water. I was supposed to dunk my hands into the water, soap up in the sink, then dunk my hands back into the pail again. It was only later that we both realized we had just eaten in a restaurant with no running water and no way for the cooks to clean their hands.

We're always on the lookout for street art. We happened to notice that on many street corners, in addition to the numbers, there would be a red and white plaque featuring an object. Merida is laid out in a grid, with even numbers running north-south and odd running east-west. These plaques began in the 1700's, although most are now replicas. Apparently there are over 400 of them in the city. They were originally created to help erase confusion, so instead of telling someone to meet you at 43 and 60, you would say "Meet me at the ball."

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We passed by a particular bar most nights and one night we peeked in to have a look at the murals inside.

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I loved this juxtaposition: the self-possessed demeanour of the Mexican hairless dog, the Xolo, guarding a rack filled with antique ceramic doll body parts.

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As it happened, we were in Merida for the annual Merida Fest - this year celebrating 480 years of dance, music, literature, cuisine and theatre.

One of the events was video-mapping Merida's history onto the front of the cathedral - a 20-minute story set to music, narration and a light show. Of course, we understood very little, but it was quite the spectacle.

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A spectacle of another sort was held in Santa Lucia square one night. It was a sort of Ed Sullivan-style show complete with MC/comedian, followed by a band who played a set of oldies, followed by a singer who was so bad that Stephen wondered is she was perhaps the organizer's mistress. The show ended with eight pairs of dancers who performed a folk dance which was perfectly executed, but a tad marred by the presence of face shields. It was corny and a bit hokey but all good fun.

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We caught a couple of great concerts - the best being a group of musicians from Mexico City called Paté de Fuá, whose members come from Argentina, Israel, Brazil and Cuba. Their style was billed as a composite of tarantella, dixieland and jazz and they got the crowd going.

So what is the sneaky charm of Merida? It lies in the fact that it is not all gussied up. Every street has a mix of old and crumbling, right next door to a place that is spit and polish.

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This one may be too far gone, but it reminds us of a similar style of building common in Oaxaca - a city that has street after street of perfectly preserved and maintained buildings.

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Merida feels like a real Mexican city without being transformed for the tourists - we're seeing this city as it is, not as they hope we want to see it. The people are lovely - warm and friendly. It is easy to be here.

We're off to Valladolid tomorrow for five days.

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Posted by millerburr 23:53 Archived in Mexico Tagged buildings parrots merida merida_fest pate_de_fua

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Comments

Such a nice picturesque city to explore. Great commentary, keep having fun you guys.

by Sharon

Merida is a fascinating city with wonderful architecture but the heat and humidity were too much for me. I was there to study Spanish for the month of December, one of the cooler months of the year. It was 35 C. with 90% humidity. Qué calor! I stayed with a host family. There was a huge deluge, the roof leaked and flooded the wifi. The people were lovely and warm. Most of the locals sleep in a hammock. So much diversity in Mexico - the Mayan culture feels like being in another country compared with the highlands. Thanks for the memories!

by Christine

You are making us want to return to Mexico!

by Kris McDonald

Your pictures of Merida confirm my thought that there is always more to discover of a locale beyond what first meets the eye. I also love what you said about meeting new people being as critical as the sights when travelling. So true!

by Heather Scott

Omg, Ginny, these pictures are stunning. You two are so brave to be travelling in this mess. I'm living my best life thru your posts right now. Lol. Sad but true. Winter is here in full force and I'm not a fan. Wish I were actually.

This is a town I'd love to see. Much bigger than LaManz which is my only experience in Mexico. Now that my oldest is moving home in June, we will be looking for alternative destinations. I think the sooner they get out of China the better, as I'm sure Beijing is waiting to pounce. As my son-in-
law said, they want every x-pat out of there. Lots of changes coming.

Not sure I ever did offer condolences on the death of your dads. You both have had a tough year. Time to enjoy the warm climate and people, and I sure wish I was doing the same. Take care. What's the story on Covid there? We went to Toronto for Christmas, and I was stressed to the max on both flights. Hi to Steve.

by Joan Fisher

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