|The following was written by two Institute of Modern Spanish students describing their experience in the city of Merida and the Yucatan peninsula.
THE YUCATÁN PENINSULA
By Ray and Barbara Shaw
The northern half of the Yucatán Peninsula is flat limestone covered with a low scrub jungle...There are no surface rivers; water runs under the porous terrain. When flying over the peninsula one can spy perfectly round cenotes, which are sink holes that dot the area. The coastal edges provide the most beauty and natural interest: mangrove lagoons on the Gulf coast where flamingoes and others birds breed; the Caribbean shore is lined with powdery, pure white sand lapped by warm, clear, turquoise water.
Mérida: This is a colonial city. Our translation of the term “colonial city:” after the Spaniards defeated the local Mayans; a Spanish-style city was built on top of the defeated Mayans’ city. It is said that at Mérida, the Spanish forced the Mayans to tear down their buildings. Then, the Mayans were forced to use their stone and labor to build the Cathedral and other buildings.
The ruins here reminded the conquerors of the Roman ruins at Mérida, Spain; hence, the name.
We spent 3 weeks here and came to enjoy Mérida immensely. Mérida is a big city (a million or so) that has been able to keep a small town charm. People here are very friendly and the pace of life is just right: neither too fast nor too slow. The culture here is amazing: live music and/or dancing is presented every night in one of the many plazas downtown. On Sunday, the streets in the center of town are closed to traffic and the restaurants, singers, vendors and dancers set up in the streets. People stroll about with no cars around. Others ride the calesa’s, or horse drawn carriages.
The Zocolo or Plaza Principal is one of the most charming public squares or plazas we have seen. Surrounding this plaza are the Cathedral, Palace of the Governor, Ayuntamiento (City Hall), an art museum, shopping arcades and La Casa Montejo.
Francisco Montejo was one of the conquistadores. He built his enormous house, La Casa Montejo, in 1542. The remaining part of his casa now serves as a bank. The main gate is still in good shape and features two Spanish soldiers holding halberds and standing on the heads of the indigenous people. Nothing like truth in tyranny.
Around 1900, Mérida claimed more millionaires than any city in the world. The money came from hennequin, an agave similar to the blue agave of tequila fame. The Yucatán’s rocky soil and tropical climate is ideal for this plant. The sword-like leaves, once processed, yield sisal, which is made into rope (crucial for the time’s sailing ships), burlap bags, matting, hammocks and similar products. Mérida had a corner on the market for the world’s commercial and home uses. Over 100 enormous haciendas (think Southern plantation with a fabulous house and conscripted Mayan laborers) sprung up around the peninsula.
Due to the huge demand for sisal, owners of the haciendas became fabulously wealthy. Many spent part of the year in Europe, shipping back art and furniture for both the haciendas and their houses in town. These French-styled “houses” in Mérida are clustered around a handful of streets. Many of these elegant mansions line the Paseo de Montejo, Mérida’s imitation of the Champs Elysee. While this is not Paris, the Paseo is impressive, especially for an evening stroll: the mansions and the statuary lining the street and its glorietas (round abouts) are beautifully illuminated.
The downtown has a number of very nice small hotels. Restaurants here are numerous and many serve terrific food, especially Yucatecan specialties. If you visit Mérida, we recommend that one of the first things you do is take the guided bus tour of town. The bus leaves from Parque Santa Lucia several times a day. (This tour is included in all Institute of Modern Spanish packages.)
A worthwhile side trip from Mérida is to the “Yellow City” of Izamal. Here, in the middle of this village, is a huge Mayan pyramid, looming over both the town and the impressive Convent of Saint Anthony of Padua. The Convent and town are painted a golden yellow. At sunset, the village glows.
Ruins: Mayan ruins are abundant on the Yucatán. Chichen Itza is the most famous and easily accessible by car or bus from both Cancun and Mérida. It is about halfway between the two cities but an hour closer to Mérida.
Chichen Itza is not pure Mayan but a mixture of Mayan and Toltec The Toltecs invaded around 1000 AD. The excavated and restored Chichen Itza encompasses a large game court complex, a tall and steep pyramid, platforms used for ritual music and dance dedicated to Venus. Eagles and jaguars grace various temples; there is a two-tiered observatory and more! The Temple of the Warriors stands next to an ever-expansive group of columns; along with Chac Mool (the Mayan rain god). Many depictions of serpents demonstrate the Toltec influence.
Another major site is Uxmal, about 30 miles south of Mérida. The area around Uxmal is loaded with the remains of Mayan cities and complexes all of which were once connected by arrow straight roads radiating from Uxmal. Uxmal (“Thrice Built”) once was home to 25,000 Mayans.
All of this development was created around Uxmal’s magnificent temple complex. Built on different levels (necessitated by the famous Puuc hills on which it perches), enormous buildings create the complex. Perhaps the most impressive of the stunning edifices is the Magician’s Pyramid. Unlike other pyramids built by the Mayans, this colossal stone temple has an oval shaped footprint. It slopes severely up to a summit crowned by intricate stone facades and platforms. The Magicians Pyramid is one of Ray’s favorite buildings of antiquity.
Nunnery Quadrangle is multi-storied and nudges near the Magician’s Pyramid. Here the stonework is incredibly elaborate: lace-work lattice, glyphs, and bas-relief, with snakes curling through the entirety. The Nunnery is the arena for the interesting sound and light show each night.
Perhaps the finest example of architecture at Uxmal is the Governor’s Palace, high on a hill overlooking the complex. The artwork on the exterior walls is stunning: surviving and thriving 1,000 years after the residents suddenly left.