Much of the land comprising Mérida was once dotted with lavish haciendas where the henequen plant was grown. From henequen was produced a fiber called sisal, the main ingredient of twine. Today the picturesque, abandoned main hacienda buildings, recognized as architectural treasures, are being bought, restored and turned into luxury hotels and restaurants.
Haciendas generally consisted of a main building, workers quarters and the machine room where the fibers were produced. Some buildings date back to the 16th century, but others were built in the early 1900s. With archways and bell gables, ivy-covered walls and chapels, the buildings and their parklike grounds provide a picturesque, peaceful place for enjoying a genuine Yucatecan meal and/or a pleasant stay. Amenities range from Jacuzzis to shopping. One of the haciendas, Temozon Sur, even hosted former U.S. President Bill Clinton a few years back when he signed trade agreements with Mexico’s former President Ernesto Zedillo.
Haciendas grew out of estancias, or large farms where from the 1600s onward, livestock was raised and corn and sugar were harvested, according to Pedro Echeverr'a Varguez, a historian at the University of Yucatan’s architecture school and co-author of a book on the region’s haciendas. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he says, sisal came into great demand worldwide.
Grown only in the Yucatan, the plant became an economic mainstay for several decades until the invention of nylon and other synthetic fibers cut into its market. The industry declined further, Echeverria says, as the plant became available in Africa and other places outside the Yucatan, and production caught on in other parts of the world. The Mexican Revolution from 1910-17, followed by agrarian reform in 1937, put further strains on the industry.
By the 1960s, Echeverria says, sisal production had all but ceased, and today it is produced in only a few places. In 1920 as many as 400 haciendas existed in and around Mérida. Today only a handful are up and running, though others are in the process of being restored, says Carlos Chavez, a spokesperson for Mérida’s tourism office.
Some restored haciendas:
Km. 26, carretera Mérida-Cancún
Tels.: (999)923-4020, (999)923-4022
Km. 2, carretera Baca-Tixcuncheil
Tels.: (999)984-1951, (999)984-1854
Km. 175, carretera Mérida-Uxmal
Hacienda Santa Rosa
Km. 129, antigua carretera Mérida-Campeche Tel.: (999)923-8089
Hacienda Temoz-n Sur
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Ernesto Zedillo signed trade agreements here.
Km. 182, carretera Mérida-Uxmal
Hillary Clinton visited here while her husband and Zedillo were meeting.
Km. 12.5 carretera Mérida-Cancon
Tels.: (999)988-0800, (999)928-1885
Km. 12, carretera Mérida-Progreso
Mérida, the White City, has a mission: to restore its turn-of-the 19th-century architectural splendor, to gain recognition outside the Yucatan as a hub of education, medical care and other services, and to attract more retirees from the United States and Canada.
As part of its strategic plan, over the past couple of years the capital city has renovated buildings and facades in its historic center, and even dug up the center’s streets for underground wiring so as to reduce above-the-street clutter.
Renovation plans also include Mérida’s 19th-century railroad station the public’s contribution to the privately funded construction of a railroad between Mérida and the town of Palenque, in Chiapas. Mérida is a very special city in this country and probably in the world, says Humberto Sauri Duch, the city’s Public Works director. What we are trying to do now is promote its possibilities and capabilities. And he’s not just bragging. Named by the conquistadores after a city in Spain, Mérida is cosmopolitan, international and turgidly tropical, boasting intellectual interests as well as nightlife. From the wide, tree-lined Paseo de Montejo boulevard to the colorful and lively zócalo, there is always something to see or do. Yet the city still manages to offer peace and tranquility.
In 1999-2000, Mérida was designated La Capital Americana de la Cultura by a European group that rates cities around the world according to cultural diversity and historical preservation. Mérida is not nearly as well known as the resort areas along Quintana Roo’s Riviera Maya but the city is slowly making its way onto the mainstream tourist map.
But it is still relatively unscathed by the sun-seeking hordes that crowd the Caribbean beaches to the east.
In any case, Mérida is still within easy reach of most of the major Mayan archaeological zones most notably, Chichen Itza and Uxmal, the latter on the Puuc Route and just a few hours by bus from the Caribbean resort spots Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Mérida’s main cathedral built between 1561 and 1598 and located on the zocalo one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere and contains stones from the Mayan temple that stood on the site before it. Musicians looking for an evening’s work set up on a corner of the plaza and draw a crowd. Music, laughter and chatter echo across the square. On the south side is the Casa de Montejo, the mansion that Mérida’s founder, Francisco de Montejo, and then his descendants occupied from 1549 until the 1970s.
The zocalo’s northern side is lined with restaurants where you can grab a local cerveza, a bit of Yucatecan fare or a sorbet. Next to them is the entrance to Pasaje Picheta, a small complex of stores, a couple of internet cafes and a food court offering everything from tacos to hamburgers to Italian cuisine. Musicians often play there as well, in a small atrium. Along the western side of the zocalo are the Municipal Palace, a few more cafes and a bookstore.
In the square itself, you can sit with a friend in the confidentes, two-seater white chairs that share an arm and face one another, or you can seek shade on a bench.
Méridanos have a well-deserved reputation for friendliness, and the pride they take in their city is noticeable. Each Sunday they flock to the city festival, Mérida en Domingo, highlighted by the Vaquera, an extravaganza of dancers in Mayan costumes. The women are in brightly embroidered white dresses called huipiles, and the men in white pants and guayabera shirts as they dance the jarana to the strains of a Yucatecan orchestra. The action takes place on the west side of the zocalo, whose streets are closed to traffic for the event. The entire day is a festival throughout town. Yucatecans and tourists alike crowd the square to watch the dancers, shop and mingle. The weekly party spills over into all the city’s numerous parks and plazas.
From the zocalo one can travel by carriage up the picturesque Paseo de Montejo.
Built in the early 1900s, the wide, tree-lined street was intended as a smaller-scale version of Mexico City's Paseo de la Reforma and the Champs Elyses in Paris. It starts several blocks northeast of the zócalo and stretches about a kilometer to end at the Monumento a la Patria, a huge sculpture that fills the center of the roundabout capping the majestic street.
On Saturday nights, at the south end of the Paseo, a square known as Remate hosts La Noche Mexicana, an outdoor show featuring mariachis, comedy acts, dancers, food and crafts from all over the region. During Mérida’s annual carnaval, which in 2002 runs from Feb. 6-13, Montejo is closed to traffic so the parades can pass through.
Before the Spaniards conquered the Yucatan in 1542, Mérida was a Mayan city known as The. Covering the Yucatan peninsula and extending into Central America, the Mayan civilization was highly developed by around 250 A.D. and flourished for hundreds of years afterward. Much of the region’s history and geography is on display at the Museum of Anthropology, in a refurbished mansion on Paseo de Montejo. The history of the Mayan people themselves, from the Conquest through the bloody War of the Castes (1847-55), is depicted in paintings that line the wall of a gallery upstairs in the zócalo’s Municipal Palace. In addition, there are a number of other interesting museums, including the Museum of Yucatecan Music, a Mayan cultural center, the Regional Artesans Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum (MACAY).
Mérida became prominent economically during the 1700s and 1800s when the Yucatan was the only place in the world cultivating the henequen plant.
Back then, henequen was used in everything from clothing to rope. Supplanted by nylon, sisal, as henequen is also known, has steadily fallen out of favor over the past several decades and is no longer grown on a large scale. Numerous other businesses have replaced it, however, one of the main players being tourism. From the former haciendas that are now luxury hotels and restaurants to the abundant archaeological zones that pepper the area, there is something for everyone. Besides tourism, Mérida has become host to numerous maquiladoras, as the effects of NAFTA seep into Mexico’s southern tip.
The Yucatan peninsula boasts its own unique cuisine, quite distinct from that of Mexico’s other regions. It seems characterized by dishes that combine ingredients one would never think of putting together. For instance there are papadzules - rolled-up corn tortillas filled with chopped, hardboiled egg and topped with sour-orange and pumpkin sauces, the latter lending a tahini-like flavor. And don’t forget the cochinita pibil, which is pork baked preferably underground in banana leaves. Longaniza is a popular sausage special to the area. Sopa de lima is just what it sounds like: lime-rich chicken broth full of shredded tortillas, chicken and vegetables. For breakfast, try a mountain of huevos motuleños, eggs over a crunchy tortilla piled with beans and topped with peas, chopped ham, sausage, grated cheese and a touch of chile.
A popular place to sample Yucatecan dishes is Los Almendros, a chain of restaurants specializing in regional food. Lesser-known but a lot of fun are venues like Eladio’s bar, La Botanita and La Prosperidad great places to spend an afternoon drinking, eating free snacks and catching live music.
One of the most potent chiles in all of Mexico hails from the Yucatan: the habanera an innocent-looking fellow a couple of inches in diameter at most.
The tiniest sliver of the vegetable can sear your brain, so all one needs to do is cut the pepper in half, hold the stem and dab the cut portion on one’s food. Even that small amount gives a good taste of the habanera’s distinctive, heady flavor.
Seafood is best in the town of Progreso, on the Gulf coast, 22 miles north of Mérida, a 30-minute bus ride if you don’t want to rent a car. Stroll along the malecon and stop in at one of the restaurants to enjoy a view of what locals have dubbed the Gulf of Mexico’s Emerald Coast. One of Progreso’s claims to fame is its six-kilometer-long pier, which enables large ships to dock in the deeper waters beyond the shallow limestone shelf that forms the coastline. The pier has drawn the attention of cruise ships, making Progreso a stopover.
Shopping abounds in Mérida, especially in the Bazaar de las Artesanias and the Mercado de Artesanias in the upstairs section of the Lucas de Galvez municipal market. Go to the bustling marketplace to find everything from produce to hardware to flowers for sale. Mérida is also the place to buy hammocks, a staple in every Yucatecan household.
There are numerous parks throughout the city, as well as a zoo. For a taste of the local flora and fauna, a trip to Celeston, on the Gulf coast about an hour and a half west of Mérida, affords glimpses into a sanctuary of flamingos and other tropical birds. There’s also a freshwater spring that you can swim in, and a petrified forest. Celeston is just one of a number of so-called eco-tourism spots that can be visited along the Gulf of Mexico.
The peninsula is dotted with cenotes, water-filled holes fed by underground springs and by water that has seeped through the limestone underlying the peninsula. In Mayan times these azure cenotes were a main source of drinking water, aside from rainwater, since the Yucatan lacks above-ground waterways and lakes. They were also, as in the case of the large cenote at Chichen Itz, centers of religious significance for the Maya.
As lovely as this tropical paradise is, Mérida does have one drawback: heat, heat and more heat. The months of April through August can be stifling and humid, and some days the only thing to do is plant yourself in front of the air conditioning, as temperatures routinely run into the 90s and can reach as high as 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Not to worry, though: It cools down in the fall and winter and Public Works Director Sauri says that the city plans to double its number of fountains over the next couple of years.
It’s all worth the price of admission. Mérida’s quality of life and overall charm make it a place worth visiting, even staying (as this author did after first coming here in 2000).
Theresa Braine is a Mérida-based freelance reporter covering the Yucatan peninsula.