Most visitors to the Yucatan come for the sun, sand and surf of Cancun and the Mayan Riviera. Those who want to experience the history, culture and architecture of this region of Mexico will want to make the 4 hour journey west to Merida.
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There are two parts of Merida that are not to be missed. The first is the historic area around the Cathedral (with its unfortunate history of being built from the stones of the destroyed Mayan pyramids after the Spanish conquest) and the central plaza. On one street adjoining the plaza, a visitor will see the facade of an historic home built by one of the founding families of Merida in the 1540’s and which continued to be occupied by the same family for another 5 centuries. Another street adjoining the plaza is closed many evenings for folk singing and dancing. A number of historic buildings around the Plaza are now retail outlets and restaurants.
Moving away from the plaza, a visitor may have the impression that Merida is a sleepy city, closed to the outside world by forbidding and sometimes crumbling concrete and stucco walls. It is only by entering behind some of those walls that one will truly understand the beauty and history of the city. For behind the walls, one will find some beautiful homes from the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result of extensive trade between this part of Mexico and Europe, the design and architecture of these homes reflect strong French and Italian influences.
Many of these homes have been restored by members of a growing expat community, and some have been converted to beautiful guest houses. No better example of such a restoration can be found than Villa Verde. Just opened in February, 2013, Villa Verde is meticulously maintained by Robert and Michael. Guests will enjoy rooms with cathedral ceilings, a large courtyard with Greek columns and intricate tile floors from France, a beautiful pool, decks and garden area.
The second “not to be missed” area of Merida is Paseo Montejo. A broad boulevard in the French tradition, the Paseo is lined by beautiful mansions built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These mansions were built by entrepreneurs who benefited from a flourishing hemp industry that, at one time, made Merida home to more millionaires than any other city in the world.
While some of the mansions remain as private residences, others have been converted to museums, or commercial or retail spaces. One such mansion is now what must be one of the world’s most beautiful Starbucks outlets.
One mansion that is now open to the public is Quinta Monte Molina, built in 1902 by a wealthy Cuban entrepreneur, and taken over in 1913 by the grandfather of the present owner. The home is operated as a private museum, with members of the family continuing to stay at the home on their visits from Mexico City. Visitors are offered tours in English or Spanish, and can also view the gardens that are used for weddings and other special events. A tour of the home will include glimpses of the private quarters where you may see two women, one 91 and the other 76 years old, who continue to live in the servants’ quarters after a lifetime of service to the home and its residents.
Another historic mansion on Paseo Montejo is el Palacio Canton, built in the early 20th century by General Francisco Canton Rosada. The mansion is now the home of the local anthropology museum, featuring exhibitions that provide insight into the rich history of this region of Mexico. During my visit, one exhibition told of the exploits of the great Italian explorer Teoberter Maler, who discovered many of the historic Mayan sites of the Yucatan. Upstairs in the museum was Nacimiento del Hipil, featuring the intricate and beautifully embroidered dresses and textiles of the region.
All in all, Merida deserves the attention of anyone who wants to experience the history and beauty of the Yucatan.
******Note: This blog entry is contributed by FM.