- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

MERIDA, Mexico — Four hours by bus from Cancun’s turquoise waters, talcum beaches, all-night discos and manicured boulevards lies this architectural gem, a world away from the playground of the touristas.

For centuries, Merida was the stronghold of Spanish colonialism in the land of the Maya. Dubbed the White City because of its clean streets, white facades and the white clothes worn by its residents, this bustling city of one-way streets and narrow sidewalks is home to 1 million inhabitants.

Yet Merida, with its quiet pleasures, feels like a small town. It prides itself on being crime-free and is a perfect base from which to explore fascinating countryside. You can see most of the city on foot.

I chat with two elderly gentlemen in white outfits, hats and leather sandals. They laugh, showing broad smiles, and tell me in rapid-fire Spanish where to eat and to drink good Yucatecan beer and then ask what I’m writing on a notepad.

I tell them, “It’s a novella about you.” That brings more laughs and a flood of Spanish lost in translation. We’re crowded together in folding chairs under the granite arches of the pink city hall awaiting “Merida en Domingo,” a free Sunday night Yucatecan folkloric ballet.

Across from us is the zocalo, or plaza mayor, a historic center filled with balloon sellers, stands of steaming food, silver jewelry, Panama hats and anything anyone could want. Horses pulling brightly decorated calesas, or carriages, canter past. People chatter and meet as the quadrangle around the dance area fills.

Behind the zocalo looms the massive double-towered, sandy-colored cathedral, exuding colonial power. Once the zocalo was the center of the powerful Mayan city T’Ho, now only a dim memory reflected in the broad features of its Mayan descendants. The conquistadors, dazzled by the city’s brilliance, named it after the Roman city of Merida, Spain.

A slightly inebriated uniformed gentleman brings a gaily dressed elderly woman a chair, calls her “tia,” or aunt, and requests a “proprio,” or tip. She grabs him and gives him a kiss. Her female friends explode in laughter, then cheer.

Viva, Mexico. Never dull, never predictable.

“Momentito” blares over the public address system. The band fires up, the music flows, and the colorful Yucatecan dancing begins as a candle-carrying procession of men in white pants, hats and jackets, with hanging red handkerchiefs, picks up the step.

Veiled, candle-carrying women, wearing colorfully embroidered white dresses and white dancing shoes, form the other half of a triangle. A mestizo wedding is re-enacted in solemn splendor and ends with a kiss and a yell, “Fiesta.”

The women’s veils come off, revealing colorful flowers in their black hair. Partners pair up, twist, stomp and turn, form lines and move forward and back. Groups circle and weave; heels and toes tap; and fingers snap to the joyous rhythms.

Dancers grab brilliant ribbons, then weave complex patterns as they circle a pole in the traditional Mayan ribbon dance. Each new dance reveals intricate steps as the past comes alive. Three nights a week, Merida offers folkloric dances — Sunday at the zocalo, Wednesday at the Parque Santa Lucia and Friday at the University of the Yucatan.

As Merida’s mayor says, “Music is an important part of our lives.” Merida offers the best carnival festivities, the week before Lent, in the Yucatan.

Come morning, we set off with our guide, Carlos Sosa, to explore the city’s superb restaurants, markets and unique blend of Spanish, French and Mayan architectural styles. Streets are numbered, not named, with even numbers going north to south and odd east to west in this perfectly square city. Centuries-old signs or symbols on buildings — a cowboy, a horse, a chicken — that once pointed the way for the illiterate survive today.

We head for the elegant 10-block-long Paseo de Montejo, named after the conqueror of the Maya whose house is now a bank. Francisco de Montejo’s conquest of the Maya took 24 years and three gruesome wars, ending in the 1540s.

The magnificent French-style homes lining this 19th-century boulevard patterned on the Champs Elysees in Paris were built by rich hacienda owners who made fortunes selling henequen or sisal, used for making rope, to Europe. It is made from agave, the same cactus that gives us tequila.

The mansions once were filled with imported Carrara marble and European antiques. Stone ballast from ships now lies in streets and plazas.

Some mansions along this green swath have been destroyed or turned into banks, hotels and insurance companies. One houses the Museum of Anthropology, which documents Yucatan’s history from prehistoric times to the rise of the Maya. Exhibits display their carvings, codices and tools.


All of Mexico’s 31 states are represented at the Flag Monument; on it, a ceiba tree connects the Mayan underworld to the upper world, and its fountain recalls the lake upon which Mexico City stands.

The Governor’s Palace houses murals painted by the noted local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. The murals, 25 years in the making, were completed in 1978. To me, they equal those of Diego Rivera in Mexico City. They depict Mayan life and customs; corn, the Mayas’ sacred food; the violent Maya-Spanish clashes; and much more.

The massive cathedral, begun in 1561, is the second-oldest in the Americas. Dedicated to St. Ildefonso, it took Mayan laborers and Franciscan monks 36 years to complete; they used limestone from the ravaged Mayan city. Oddly, plans for the cathedrals in Lima, Peru, and Merida were switched accidentally. The cathedral’s gunnery slits act as windows; most of its gold was stolen during the Mexican Revolution.

Lunch is served along with fine guitar music at the Hotel Caribe’s restaurant, where we enjoy frijol con puerco, the Yucatecan version of pork and black beans, served with rice and garnished with cilantro and onions, and also pollo pibil — chicken marinated in herbs and spices, then wrapped in banana leaves and baked.

We do our shopping at the government-run Casa de las Artesanias on Calle 63, No. 503, the best spot for regional folk art. All items have a fixed price and support 20,000 artisans who rescue and promote traditional handicrafts.

There is much more to see — the zoological park, hermitages, municipal markets, museums of contemporary and modern art, palaces, parks, universities and theaters — but time is limited.

The next morning, we track the ancient Maya and seek out their mysterious gods: Chac, the long-nosed rain god; Kukulcan, the feathered serpent known to the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl; the four Bacabs, who stand at the world’s four corners, each holding up his corner of the sky.

The Mayan kingdoms, their pyramids or “lofty houses” as they called them, their temples, palaces, royal courts, sacred precincts, art and poetry may have rivaled the golden age of Greece. Originally, all their buildings were brightly colored.


The Puuc Hills south of Merida are very rich in archaeological sites. We traverse bumpy, little-used roads that cut through the lowland tropical forests that stretch to the horizon and then descend carefully amid stalactites and stalagmites into the Loltun Caves, Yucatan’s longest cave system. As our guide says, “We’re entering the Mayan underworld, where the Maya would descend to commune with their gods.”

The caverns, some of whose vaulted chambers rise to 100 feet, contain wall paintings and stone artifacts dating to 2500 B.C., plus ancient mammoth and mastodon bones. Although some of the caverns have been lighted, much remains to be explored. Occasionally we look up at sunlit openings where liana vines drop hundreds of feet. National Geographic explorers investigated the cave about a year ago.

We walk on the original stone steps cut by the Maya, who made offerings to the underground gods and talked to their ancestors, who acted as intermediaries with the gods.

One mysterious stone head is thought to be from the Olmec, the forerunners of the Maya. During the Yucatan Caste War, a series of peasant uprisings that started in 1847 and continued sporadically for about 50 years, the Maya retreated to the cave.


Our next stops are three small, independent Mayan cities once ruled by majestic Uxmal, with its 40,000 inhabitants. All three are little visited, surrounded by silent forest and offering a profusion of decorations, variety and beauty in their structures.

Labna is known for its 25-foot arch, the old entrance to the city. Its ancient sacbes, or raised white roads, connected it with other Mayan cities.

Sayil means “the place of the ants” and is famed for its classic, 279-foot Mayan palace, a magnificent complex of 50 rooms and 90 bedrooms on three terraces that once housed 350 nobles. Finely chiseled friezes of the rain god Chac and other gods decorate it. From atop the palace, the Puuc Hills reach across the horizon. It is the only edifice excavated.

Like other Mayan cities, Sayil was surrounded by a population of administrators, artisans, farmers and merchants. Succeeding Mayan rulers enlarged structures, building atop earlier constructions. Then, 500 years before the arrival of the Spanish, the Maya mysteriously abandoned these cities.

At Kabah, another important Mayan site, we watch a bright green snake high in a tree slowly devour a large red-feathered bird. Then we walk to the Codz Poop Temple, adorned with 300 masks of Chac.

Symbols — the jaguar, the sun, the stars, Venus, even the cross, which amazed the conquistadors — decorate buildings, where traces of color remain. The colors were made from local vegetables, minerals, even animal parts. False facades once topped many structures.

Farmers in the surrounding area lived in thatch-roofed homes made of palm and wood. The upper classes elongated their children’s heads to look like jaguars, snakes and eagles; crossed eyes were a mark of great beauty, as were filed teeth implanted with jewels.

Wheeled toys have been unearthed, but the common Mayas were not allowed to use the wheel in order to keep them hardworking, says Mr. Sosa, our guide. We hike to the smaller pyramids, the cemetery, the tombs and the quadrangle.

Grandiose Uxmal, founded in 400 B.C., once rivaled Palenque, Chichen Itza and Tikal in its magnificence. The name means “thrice built,” although it was rebuilt five times and is the most beautiful Mayan city of the classic period (A.D. 300 to 900).

It is dominated by the 125-foot Pyramid of the Magician, which eerily returns to life during the sound-and-light show and remains pale beige under a full moon. About 20 years ago, I climbed this majestic rounded pyramid, but this is no longer allowed.

We spend the day amid the mysterious ruins named by the Spanish — the House of the Pigeons, the pyramids, the House of the Turtle, the Nunnery, the ball court and the 320-foot palace with three corbeled arches, sometimes called the most beautiful building ever built in the Americas. Mr. Sosa explains the Mayan cult of Venus, the brightest planet here; one of the cult’s activities was making war.

As the sun sets, we retreat to the Lodge at Uxmal across from the ruins’ entrance. Our room has red-tiled floors, polished wooden doors and furniture, and air conditioning and looks out over a pool. We rock on the veranda, then walk to the sound-and-light show in the Nunnery.

The show recounts Mayan legends, but its value lies in the way the colored light brings out mosaics and carvings easily overlooked in the bright sun. The music is powerful under a full moon. The English version of the narration isn’t working during our visit, but an elemental knowledge of Spanish suffices to help us understand the wars, love stories and rituals to bring rain.


Morning brings a trip to Dzibilchaltun, the place “where there is writing on the flat stones,” a city of an estimated 8,000 structures that grew wealthy from the salt trade.

A path lined with trees of the region takes us to the Temple of the Seven Dolls, where seven tiny grotesque clay dolls of human form were discovered. The rising sun of the equinoxes sets doors and windows ablaze, shining precisely through the East Door onto the white road, or sacbe.

Established in 350 B.C., Dzibilchaltun was abandoned with the arrival of the conquistadors. Its 25 square miles contain mounds, low platforms, piles of rubble, plazas and stele that lend an air of mystery as one wanders over the unexcavated sites.

A family is swimming in the nearby 120-foot-deep Cenote Xlacah, where National Geographic divers recovered 30,000 objects in 1958. As rain was the only source of water in the jungle, cenotes were sacred to the Mayas, who believed them to be spiritual doorways to the underworld.

We end our visit at the fine Museum of the Mayan People at Dzibilchaltun, which brings the history and culture of the Maya to life.

Izamal, possibly Yucatan’s oldest town, is a gem with its timeless atmosphere, cobblestone streets and colonial lampposts. The Spanish colonial town is nicknamed the “yellow city,” as all buildings are painted an egg-yolk yellow. The enormous Monastery of St. Anthony of Padua, perched atop the remains of a pyramid devoted to Itzamna, the god of the heavens, dominates the town. Nearby is Kinich Kakmo, all that remains of the once-flourishing royal Mayan city.

Before the monastery stands a statue of Diego de Landa, a Franciscan friar who became bishop of Yucatan. He arrived in Yucatan at age 25 in 1549. He was told to build the monastery because the monks were living in straw houses.

Vandalizing one of Mexico’s oldest pyramids, he built this fortress-cathedral. A cruel fanatic, he destroyed 5,000 Mayan idols, numerous altars and priceless rolls of Mayan hieroglyphics on deerskin.


At the restaurant Kinich Kakmo, we enjoy a sumptuous lunch of lime soup made of shredded chicken bits, pieces of fried tortilla and lime juice and poc chuc, tender slices of pork marinated in sour orange juice and served with a tangy sauce and pickled onions. Delicious tortillas are made fresh over a wood fire.

It has been 25 years since I climbed El Castillo, the steep-sided pyramid at Chichen Itza, and marveled as dawn spread its pearly light over the jungle below. The vast site’s name means “the mouth of the well of the Itzas.” Now, about 2,000 people daily visit this most important city of Yucatan from the 12th to the 15th centuries.

Theories concerning its origins and structures change as excavations continue. Buy one of the many guidebooks and ponder the site’s astronomical significance, mysteries and enigmas. Study the 13 ball courts and this controversial game, hike its jungle trails, visit the sacred cenote, or deep pool created by the disintegration of land above an underground river where precious jewels, silverware and human remains were discovered.

Marvel at the columned Temple of the Warriors and its jaguar, plumed serpent and warrior bas-reliefs. Be sure to visit the main pyramid’s inner chamber and enjoy the evening’s sound-and-light show. Chichen Itza is a must-see.

The following day, Mr. Sosa takes us deep into the nature reserve of Kaxil Kiuic, where we meet our Mayan guide, also named Carlos, and follow a rutted road and twisting paths deep into the dense jungle to remote, partially excavated Mayan ruins. The land has been designated an “ecotourist corridor,” where nature and human history will be forever preserved.

Pesky mosquitoes join us as we climb over rotted branches along trails where the unknown lurks around each bend and we encounter unknown Mayan edifices protruding through roots, plants and fallen trees. We experience a feeling of discovery as we enter a dark building that may go back to 400 B.C.


Carlos tells us of the many birds and 300 species of plants that call this unsoiled jungle, a living laboratory, home. We lunch with Carlos, his wife and nephew at their home, where we enjoy tortillas freshly baked over an open fire and other delicious specialties. Carlos proudly shows us his devotional altar, hammock and the embroidered blouses made by his wife.

Outside is their 160-foot well. Carlos and his nephew circle the well, pushing a large wooden device with armlike spokes that slowly winds up a rope that brings up two gallons of water after 20 circles.

On our return to Merida, we stop at the little-visited ruin of Chacmultun, where we gaze upon the old city walls, the remains of stucco friezes of ancient warriors in long abandoned structures and climb over the limestone remains of this once-flourishing town as the sun sets.

The trip is one of discovery, typical of any visit to Merida and its surroundings.

Visiting Merida, Yucatan

For information on Merida and the historic sites in Yucatan, visit www.yucatan.gob.mx or www.mayayucatan.com.

Travelers to Yucatan might like to take along one or two of these: “Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan,” the 1843 classic by John Stephens; “The Lost Realms” by Zecharia Sitchin; “Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids” by Peter Tompkins; “A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya” by Linda Schele and David Freidel; Fodor’s “Cancun, Cozumel, Yucatan Peninsula” and the Lonely Planet’s “Mexico.”

Average temperatures range from 72 to 79 degrees. The rainy season runs from June to September. During July and August, heavy rains fall in the afternoon.

An excellent place to shop is the government-run Casa de las Artesanias at Calle 63, No. 503, in Merida. A fine hotel is La Mision de Fray Diego. (Visit www.lamisiondefraydiego.com.) Bargain hunters will enjoy the Hostal del Peregrino. (Visit www.hostaldelperegrino.com; click on “contact us.”) Reservations for the Lodge at Uxmal can be made at 800/235-4079. For information, visit www.mayaland.com.

Carnival festivities take place the week before Lent with parades, floats, dancing, music and fireworks. Birders will enjoy the annual Yucatecan Bird Festival in November. (Visit www.-yucatanbirds.org.mx.)

Merida is serviced by Aeromexico, Mexicana and Continental airlines.

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