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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Beautiful Merida, Yucatan, Mexico

Three Roads at Once, Part II: 
Evening and Morning in Merida

After a day visiting Ek Balam and Chichen Itza, our group of four — guide Angelo with ducklings Bill, Leonore, and I, ducklings because by now the three of us have completely imprinted on Angelo — proceeded to Merida, capital of the state of Yucatan, for the night. Angelo has lived in Merida since he was one year old and knows the city so well he zoomed us through fascinating, narrow back streets. The majority of buildings in the capital (population 1,000,000) are only one story high, and even downtown one- to three-story hotels are the norm, with only a very few taller buildings. Our hotel was one of those tall ones, offering a panoramic view over the city by night.

Rather than dining in the hotel, however, Leonore and I decided to venture down Calle 59 to the Plaza de Santa Lucia to look for a restaurant, and we were not disappointed. My seviche (which the program I’m using wants to spell ceviche, and that may be more Spanish — I’ll have to check — but I’m used to spelling the word with an ’s’), made with octopus (an important regional ‘crop’), shrimp, grouper, two or three mussels, delicately julienned vegetables and the characteristic Yucatan lime, was the most memorable of many good meals in Mexico. We dined outdoors, looking out on the lighted plaza, where the people-watching was as good as the food.

Morning brought the rising sun through a romantic haze, providing an even more spellbinding view over the city. When we convened as a group after breakfast, Angelo took us on a tour of his city, beginning with the lovely Plaza Mayor or Plaza Principale — officially the Plaza de la Independencia, though no one calls it that, he told us — and important, imposing buildings surrounding it. In addition to shade and convenient benches, the plaza offers free wi-fi. One of the municipal buildings facing the plaza provides free coffee, as well, making the square a natural gathering place, while nearby architecture features a variety of styles, from classic colonial to Victorian to art deco, and Mayan stones from the older city once here can occasionally be spotted in the walls. An entire day, educational and leisurely at once, could easily be spent here.

They contain so much architectural beauty that it would be a mistake not to visit churches and cathedrals in traditionally Catholic countries, and I was glad to see the lovely interior of the cathedral (above) in Merida. I was also happy to see horses in downtown Merida (does this one, however, need hooves trimmed?) and liked to imagine I detected a descendant of Andalusian horses from Spain. It is true that the people who inhabited the Yucatan had no horses before the Spaniards came….

But the municipal building featuring paintings of the history of Mexico by Castro Pacheco (see all here) provided the makings of a unique set of memories. 

Like the history of our own country, that of the United Mexican States is soaked with blood, from the violence of the Mayans through the Spanish conquistadores and on. Heroes and villains abound. I only wish I had made notes of all the names of men in the portraits, but I will be looking for their faces as I pursue the study of Mexican history this winter. For now, please notice also the faces of the crowd of indigenous children, collateral damage in the making of a temporary empire.

On a smaller nearby square, we had a chance to see a couple of beautiful old hotels. The first below is the oldest in the city, the second equally lovely. 

For my part, however, I found ordinary houses on side streets as fascinating as all the monuments, hotels, and churches. I like to see ordinary life in general, wherever I travel, but in Mexico, bright paints make the most ordinary scene, and even the smallest and shabbiest dwelling, wonderfully colorful and cheerful-looking. As a wonderful example of bright colors, I was fortunate to capture from a moving vehicle a fantastic tiled wall along one very ordinary urban street. 

We drove to a very different part of town to tour the archaeological museum. The museum is housed in a former private residence on a wide boulevard lined with similar mansions of the rich, most still in private hands. Photography is permitted inside the museum, but my camera was acting up, so Leonore took this photograph of the stone frog for me, a little artifact I found very appealing.

The broad Paseo Montejo, named for the founding family, ends at a roundabout encircling a beautiful monument to Mayan myth and history. 

Before leaving town, we did something different. Leaving the ancient world for the most modern, Angelo took us for lunch to a Mexican fast food chain restaurant, Los Trompos. “This is where the locals eat,” he told us. Un trompo is a spinning top, the name of the restaurant coming from the shape of the huge, hanging, pressed-together pork (similar to the lamb in a Greek restaurant) from which pieces of meat are sliced. Images of tops decorate the walls. We had plenty of tortillas, with different fillings, and what instantly became our favorite luncheon beverage, cold sweet hibiscus flower tea.

But now, although I had planned to present my Yucatan trip in two parts, the flurry of images from Merida has me somewhat overwhelmed (again) in retrospect, and I’m thinking that Merida deserves to hold the stage alone today. You do see, I hope, that the city of Merida, like my days of travel in Mexico, is composed of multiple historical layers? Starting with re-used Mayan stones from the original city, there are colonial buildings, Victorian, modern, and reminders everywhere of the entire history covered by Paz — indigenous peoples, conquest, colonial times, independence, reform, revolution — to the present day with free wi-fi in the beautiful principal plaza. Yes, the twenty-first century has arrived in Mayaland. 

And now the words of Octavio Paz from the latter half of the twentieth century seem a good way to close this second of my three posts on the Yucatan. 

The contemporary crisis is not a struggle between two diverse cultures, as the conservatives would have us believe, but rather an internal quarrel in a [global] civilization that no longer has any rivals, a civilization whose future is the future of the whole world. Each man's fate is that of man himself. 

...The past has left us orphans, as it has the rest of the planet, and we must join together in inventing our common future. World history has become everyone's task, and our own labyrinth is the labyrinth of all mankind. 

- Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude 

And we are moving on....


Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

I was so hoping you would write about this journey and I am not disappointed! I love the photos and the historical references and the mix of the public and private moments! Thank you!

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Barbara! Did you see the previous post? That one covered my arrival in Cancun, visits to Ek Balam and Chichen Itza, and overnight in Valladolid, at a lovely hotel to which I was glad to return a couple days later -- in Part III!

Dawn said...

Merida, with the sun coming up, looks a little European, and the red building with the curves reminds me of the palace in Venice. Lovely images! And such an interesting town. We didn't get there, but it looks like we should if we are ever in that part of the world again.

P. J. Grath said...

It is indeed worth a much longer visit than we had, Dawn. It was good to have a guide to explain so much to us, but then it would have been lovely to spend a few days just soaking it in. I just learned that a friend's daughter and family recently lived in the city for eight months. I'm jealous!