MERIDA (The White City) – When exploring Yucatán, all roads lead to Mérida, its beautiful capital. As well as being the Colonial city for excellence, Mérida is the ideal departure point for excursions to the main archaeological sites, cities and colonial towns. The state capital is better known as the White City.
Up until 500 years ago it was the ancient Maya city of T´ho or Ichcaanshiho, or “Face of Infinity”, Merida was founded in the year 1542 by Francisco de Montejo, “El Mozo” (The younger), after he overcame various Maya lords, the splendid temples and places of worship reminded him of Spanish warriors. The beautifully carved limestone buildings with their ancient Roman moldings of Merida, Spain, inspired de Montejo to baptize this city with the same name as the imperial and secular Spanish metropolis.
Since its foundation, Merida has existed as a colonial city, with streets and squares in a symmetrical grid in the style of the old Castilian and Andalucian towns: the original patterns prevail today. The land was shared out among the noblemen, and once assigned, a large area was reserved in the center for the town square (the Plaza Mayor).
It kept this name until 1812 when it was changed to Independence square (Plaza de la Independencia), although nowadays it’s known as the Main Square (Plaza Grande). In the west were two native neighborhoods: Santiago and Santa Catarina. To the east San Cristobal was populated by Indians from the high plains, while blacks and mulattos occupied Santa Lucia to the north.
In the center, around the square, the main civil and religious buildings were erected: royal palaces which would house visiting governors and captains from Spain; the Town Hall destined for government authorities, and the Great Church, later to be replaced by the Cathedral. Passing through the heart of the capital the visitor cannot fail to be impressed by the group of antique buildings which make up the historical center.
To one side of the Main Square, surrounded by leafy laurels, the majestic cathedral of San Ildefonso rises up. It is the oldest Cathedral on the American Continent, built during the second half of the XVI century, and exceptional for its monumental, austere architecture, softened by the graceful rise of its twin towers.
Construction took more than 40 years and used, in addition to quarried rock, stones from destroyed Maya temples. It was the first erected on American soil, and the figure of Christ in its interior is considered to be the largest indoor representation in the world. On the south is the House of Montejo (Casa de Montejo), built by El Mozo for himself and his wife between 1543 and 1549: a jewel of first Spanish Renaissance Art.
The building is conserved intact and is flanked by two Corinthian columns where the frame has chiseled tablets in high relief combined with renaissance motifs. The upper part has Elizabeth gothic characteristics; however a substantial indigenous influence is apparent throughout the work. As the city spread, the original geometric style of the founders began to be lost.
To the north, another ethnic neighborhood that of Santa Ana was forming, and towards the end of the XVII century there were a total of 80 street blocks measuring almost two square kilometers. Seven stone archways were built to mark the city limits, as well as to separate the city from the indigenous quarters.
Urban growth has swallowed up all but three of these: only the archways of San Juan, Dragones and El Puente are still standing today.
At the end of the XIX century the population of Merida was growing so fast that new residential areas began to materialize, in turn leading to the emergence of theaters, hospitals, schools, clubs and social centers.
But perhaps the most significant appearance at this time was that of the haciendas, the result of a boom in the embryonic heneken industry in the state. This led to economic development, which in turn spurred the restoration and construction of innumerable public buildings, temples and private houses that adorn the city’s most beautiful avenues to this day.
An example of this is the Jose Peon Contreras Theater with its marble staircase and elegant design, in the traditional style of European theaters. September 15th 1892 marked the inauguration of the Government Palace, built on the north side of the Main Square. This building is Neoclassic in style and currently is home to several murals by the local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco.
Considered one of the most important artists in Yucatan, his work portrays the life and history of the Maya from the Conquest to the Caste Wars. To the north of the square is the recently opened planetarium. Situated inside the Olimpo Cultural Center of Merida, it boasts an auditorium and several exhibition rooms.
Among the many others attractions is the traditional Montejo Avenue (Paseo de Montejo), an elegant thoroughfare and site of the magnificent Italian Renaissance architecture of the Canton Palace. This splendid building is now the Museum of Anthropology and History. Also along this avenue the imposing Monument to the Nation has become yet another of Merida’s icons, telling the history of Yucatan and Mexico in its sculptured stone.
Of the many parks, fountains and gardens that grace the city, one of the most notable is Centennial Park, which opened its gates in 1910 as part of the celebrations marking Hundred Years of Independence. It has an artificial lake, open-air theater, zoo and children’s area among other attractions.
Another well-visited park is the Park of the Americas with its monumental Maya-style fountain, exhibition hall, library, open-air theater and ample gardens. In fact, almost all the residential and other areas benefit from recreational parks and squares around churches and fountains, which all the family can enjoy.
In addition to the parks, another of the White City’s treasures is the bullring. Bullfighting fans will fully appreciate the art in the Plaza de Toros, although many other kinds of event are also held her. And as if that weren’t enough, the city has countless museums dedicated to anthropology, archaeology, antiques and popular art, proving once again that this really is the cultural heart of Yucatan.
Viewing the streets you can’t help but feel the romantic, provincial atmosphere, testimony to a past rich in history and legend. In spite of modern touches, Merida has conserved her colonial flavor, full of light and color in every corner. After dark a delightful transformation takes place, when horse-drawn carriages and sidewalk cafes appear as if from nowhere, and mestizos and troubadours fill the starry night with music and poetry.
The wonders and possibilities of the legendary White City will surprise you. The hospitality of the local people will enchant you. For this and much, much more, come to Merida!