The Romantic "White City"
Merida Yucatan, also known as the “White City” is the capital of the State of Yucatan, Mexico and was founded by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo in 1542.
Constructed out of the Mayan ruins of T’ho, Francisco de Montejo y Leon, the son, used the monstrous temple stones to build the Cathedral of San Ildefonso in 1556. This cathedral is the oldest in the Americas.
It is known as the safest city throughout Mexico. It is quite common to see couples strolling down Merida's city streets in the middle of the night. This actually is the best way to get to know the city streets and being well lit, a great time to stop and enjoy the architecture of its beautiful buildings.
Writing about Merida Mexico must begin in the main plaza called the zocalo and work its way outward toward the ever expanding city limits with its incredible malls and shopping centers. Our discussion will focus on many of the main must see attractions and we’ll expand our discussion later on.
El Centro, or central downtown is a very busy place as would any downtown area of a city of one million plus and also the capital of the state. The narrow streets are nearly all one way streets due to the downtown being begun to be built in the 1500’s. The central city is a grid of streets that run North to South (Even Numbered) and East to West (Odd Numbered).
The City of Merida Yucatan, recognizing that many, if not most, of the old homes downtown were dilapidated , and realizing its importance to tourism, have followed the lead of expats and are restoring the exterior façade of all of the homes and buildings downtown in El Centro.
The Zocalo or central plaza of : Merida Yucatan
The Zocalo, as called by the locals, is the Plaza de la Independencia, a beautiful central park lined with palms and Flamboyan trees and is the central hub of the city. The plaza is busy both day and night and Merida en Domingo, Merida on Sunday, is number one on the list for visitors. On Sundays the downtown streets near the plaza, along with 60th Street, and the restaurants set up out in the streets and the downtown fills with activities. Dance Bands set up and one entire street next to the plaza becomes a dance floor. Vendors abound from around the region and the atmosphere is electric.
The Cathedral of San Idelfonso:
The oldest Cathedral in the Americas was built from the massive stones from the temples and Pyramids of the Mayan city of T’ho. (The name still used by many Mayans for Merida Yucatan). The interior is massive with its 7 meter stone carving of Jesus it is difficult to imagine that such beauty could be built in such rustic conditions 550 years ago. Entering the side chapel is the huge stone baptismal chalice and simply touching such an old religious relic is a true experience.
The Governors Palace and its murals:
The Governors Palace is most likely missed by many tourists due to the intimidating oversupply of heavily armed police officers standing guard. The palace is worth visiting and the officers are very polite. The interior courtyard has been covered with a mesh to keep birds out and to protect the beautiful murals painted by Fernando Castro Pacheco depicts his artistic expression of the Popol Vuh, the Mayan history of creation and of the universe.
The Casa De Montejo:
The House of Montejo sits on the south side of the plaza or Zocalo and was built in the Spanish Plateresque style. You literally can spend hours studying the adornments of this house and it is open for public viewing.
The Market Place:
The Mercado, or marketplace, is a couple of blocks east of the Zocalo and is worth the visit. There you can find most anything from handmade pots and pans, hamacas, birds, sandals, on up to fine dresses, huipiles, and fine jewelry. The venders can be aggressive but enjoy a good bout of wheeling and dealing. When he won’t come down to what you want to spend walk away. If he can come down more he will at that point. If he can’t he can’t. Have fun!
The Artisans Market:
The Artisan’s Market is full of vendors selling their artistic wares. Anything from wood carving to paintings to handicrafts are available.
60th Street is lined with a multitude of jewelry stores, t shirt stores, fine clothing, bars, restaurants, parks, hotels, churches, etc. All in a 5-10 block area. A shopper’s dream!
Paseo de Montejo:
The Paseo de Montejo was an Avenue designed by the Henequen hacienderos to leave the centro and to build their palatial residences. The avenue for most of the last century was an example of splendor and a treat to see but gradually many of these mansions were torn down or their facades “Modernized and Commercialized”. In the past 20 years many businesses have sprung up along the avenue and finally the government realized that these architectural jewels were disappearing and no do not permit their destruction.
Canton Palace and Museum of Anthropology and History:
The incredibly beautiful building and museum was once the private residence of General Francisco Canton, an ex-governor. The Palacio sits along the Paseo de Montejo and is the grandest home, now museum, in the city. The museum boasts an impressive collection spanning the history of Yucatan.
El Centenario Zoo:
The Zoologico in Merida Yucatan is a child’s wonderland where they can get up close and personal with the animals and there are many rides for the children. To the American eye you will find it rustic and confining for the animals but when you see the pleasure and excitement in your child’s eyes you may just find it enjoyable. By the way it’s free.
Living in El Centro
While the neighborhoods may not be the typical tourist attraction, it does have merit in that when you fall in love with Merida Yucatan upon your first visit, you’ll wish you knew more about them and wish you had visited the area further.
Santiago may not qualify as a tourist attraction but it is one of the first areas to visit if you are thinking of someday becoming an expat. Santiago is a city within a city with its own, well, everything. It’s easier for residents to go there to shop rather than venture into the Mercado even though Santiago is a mere 3-4 blocks from the Zocalo.
Santiago and El Centro of Merida Yucatan are the two main area where expats seem to be concentrating and have been purchasing many diamonds in the rough and restoring and modernizing the interiors for their retirement homes.
Finding and choosing a home in Merida Yucatan
First you need to understand that behind those high walls and great old doors lays homes that often are a century or more old and are in various stages of disrepair. But how do you know or find out?
My experience is that since there isn’t much to go by to determine the size of the home that hides behind I have learned to count the windows. Some houses have double doors with no windows. Hence, a long narrow home.
One window homes are small yet would do for a retired couple and a two window or more is a large home with a yard large enough to install a pool, a patio and that tropical garden paradise. These windows are seldom open but sometimes you can get a glimpse inside at night but don’t linger.
I actually have been invited in to see some homes simply by complimenting them to their owners as they sit at their front door at night as is the custom.
Many of the oldest homes nearest to the plaza are simply two –four rooms and often had a separate kitchen away from the main house. The rest often is a large garden. These homes are waiting for you to save them.
Yucateco cuisine has the broadest selection of foods and should leave no one’s taste buds wanting.
Upon our latest visit I found myself asking my friends about various new restaurants we were passing and they looked at me with surprise that I hadn’t heard of nor experienced many of these foods from around the world.
The cuisine choices in Merida Yucatan are mind boggling.
Here are some great recipes from the region...
The culture of Yucatan is extremely varied. Much more than you would think. Yes the population is comprised of a large Maya indigenous population, a large mestizo or mixed population, a relatively pure Spanish blooded population and surprisingly families from all over the world along with a growing American and Canadian expat population. Cuban families have been coming here for years and I actually found relatives descendant from our ancestral family in Scotland. In a way, they actually found me but that’s another story.
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