15 Reasons To Visit Merida – Mexico’s “Magic City”

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Sure, you know, or at least you’ve heard of Cancún’s beaches. But in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and in its capital, Mérida, there is so much more. Not only Mexicans from other parts of the country, but an increasing number of foreigners, have discovered and have fallen in love, with this city.

I am one of those.

rida, founded by the Spaniards in 1542 and built on the site of the Maya people’s city of T’hó, is known as “The White City,” and, according to one account, that’s due to the limestone that is common in the area. Many of its colonial buildings, like the cathedral, Catedral de San Ildefonso (see above), were built with it. But to me, a more suitable name would be “the magical city.”

Because magic is never far from you in Mérida.

You find it when people there speak of “aluxes,” or the elves that watch over farmers and travelers. And amidst fancy boutiques, clubs, hotels, and restaurants, one can still discover the Makech, or a beetled dressed in costume jewelry as if it were a kind of living jewel. Some women are said to still wear them on their traditional outfits.

In Mérida, a glorious historical past refuses to vanish even though a present modernity tries to impose itself. Where the Maya culture lives, not just in books, museums, or in millenary archeological ruins, but in the smiles of its people. In their way of speaking. In their cuisine. In their traditions.

Here then are 15 reasons why all that is important. Go ahead, say it: Mérida-ahhhh…

1. Merida is a Fascinating Spot for Tourists

museo (1)Image Source: Great Mayan Museum

Yes, Mérida is hot, in more ways than one. In April, publishing house Rizzoli released Casa Mexico: At Home in Mérida and the Yucatán, a sumptuous book about the area’s colorful houses. And in 2013, The New York Times chose the Yucatán as one of its “46 places to go that year (the peninsula came in at no. 36).

Yucatan also has the fabulous Mayan Museum (above), and much more. There are bed & breakfasts all over the city to make you feel en casa, fancy hotels, and Airbnb. Pools? A must. Everywhere. Head to the Plaza Mayor, or the main plaza, in the Centro Histórico, the city’s historical center, and you’ll be able to experience folk and dance music on Sundays.

2. The Houses are Colorful

merida-old-townImage Source: Casa Italia Yucatan

The streets are safe (do watch out for the drivers, though), and the “Centro Histórico,or the historical district, is undergoing a facelift. Street lamps have been installed, streets refurbished, new sidewalks, buildings, and homes renovated. There are still many structures in need of repair, but houses especially have become quite popular with American, Canadian, and European expats who buy them and refurbish them, many in the vibrant colors of a piñata.

3. Some of Merida Houses are Painted a Magical Sky Blue

colorof theskyImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

How can anyone not love a city where its walls match the color of the sky?

4. Santa Ana Residents Love Dancing on Sundays

baileImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

Forget CrossFit or Zumba. In Santa Ana, one of the city’s many barrios that must be explored on foot, people gather on Sundays to dance in spite of the suffocating heat and humidity. The best workout.

5. Merida is a Hotspot For Medicine

homeopataImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

Even the drugstore signs of yesteryear are pretty. But don’t let the quaintness fool you. In recent years, Mérida has carved out a niche for itself as a hotspot for medical tourism.

6. Merida Ladies Still Wear the Huipil Dress

vaqueria20Image Source: Merida.gob

Although modernity and technology haven’t bypassed Mérida, it is still refreshing to see ladies wearing the authentic and colorful huipil dress. Plenty of stores abound in the area where women can buy this sort of garment, and men can purchase typical guayaberas, most appropriate for the high humidity and temperatures, especially in the summer.

7. Admire the Beauty of the ‘Makech’ Jewels

MeridaMakechImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

Legend has it that a shaman aided a heartbroken princess in keeping her forbidden lover close to her heart by turning him into a beetle and disguising him with jewelry. This “living jewel, the Makech, is still worn by some women on their huipil. I was told that these beetles are endangered, and so the practice of covering them up with ornaments is discouraged, but it’s still practiced.

8. You Can Find Interesting Party Stores

PartyfavorsImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

You probably won’t find a Makech here, but everything you need for your fiesta can be had at a party favors store like this. Who said Party City had the monopoly on the fun?

9. There are Many Street Vendors

streetvendorImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

Got a sweet tooth? Or simply need something refreshing? Let the ice cream vendor come to you. Breads, juices, and pastries are also easily found and in abundance in the Centro. And for more hearty fare, Yucatec cuisine, or the food of the peninsula, is very distinct from your typical Mexican fare, with the incorporation of Mayan and Caribbean influences.

10. Visit the ‘San Antonio de Padua’ Convent in the Town of Izamal

SanAntoniodePaduaImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

If you feel like you’ve been having too much fun, atone for your sins by visiting the spectacular San Antonio de Padua Convent, in the nearby town of Izamal, about an hour away from Mérida by car. Izamal, or “the city of hills,” is one of Mexico’s 35 “magic towns,” small pueblos that have been designated as such by the Mexican government.

In these towns, history and tradition are everywhere, inviting visitors to discover them. Pope John Paul II visited Izamal in 1993. Most buildings are painted egg-yolk yellow, and there are a few important arts and crafts artists in the area worth visiting.

11. There are Striking Maya Pyramids

PiramidImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

There are Mayan pyramids and temples throughout the peninsula, but perhaps the most famous one is Chichen Itzá, about two hours away by car. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

While there, you won’t want to miss the 30-meter-tall El Castillo, or Pyramid of Kukulkán (a Mayan deity known as the Feathered Serpent), the site’s largest and most important building. The place is so popular, however, that it always seems to be overrun by tourists. So, if you’re not one for crowds, head to one of the many other pyramids in the region. They may not be all as impressive, but they’re still striking. In Izamal, for example, you’ll find the much quieter Kinich Kakmó pyramid.

12. Have Fun At the Zócalo Festivities in Mérida

Merida PlazaImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

In the Zócalo, or Main Square, where you find the Plaza Mayor, there are restaurants, a park, museums, the cathedral, food and cotton candy and toy vendors. People sit on benches to chat or relax; rarely do you see them staring down at their phones. The Mexican flag flies high. Sundays there are folk music and dance activities as well as an arts and crafts market. And at night, colorful lights bathe some of the buildings.

13. Visit the Great Mayan Museum 

museoImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

One of the most striking museums I have found anywhere is the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, built in 2012 on the outskirts of the historic city center.

This museum has been criticized for not being right in the downtown area, but it’s only about a 20-minute ride by taxi. Last year, it won a Leading Culture Destination (LCD) Award (kind of like the Oscars for museums), in the category Best Emerging Culture Destination: Central & South America. And you’ll soon see why. From the structure’s impressive architecture that pays homage to the Mayans’ sacred ceiba tree, to the reproductions of temples inside, it’s a must for anyone interested in the Maya people’s culture, or even any museum lover.

14. The Magnificent Museum of Natural History, or Palacio Cantón

CantonImage Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

The city’s main artery, Paseo de Montejo, hosts a collection of modern buildings, including top hotels and restaurants, along with late 19th-century and early 20th-century constructions that speak of Mérida’s former glorious past as a world leader in the production of the henequen, or sisal, fiber. The Palacio Cantón, an ornate Beaux Arts palace built for a governor, today is the Museum of Natural History or Museo Regional de Antropología Yucatán.

15. ‘Our Virgin of Guadalupe is the Most Beloved Symbol For Catholics

8202811Image Source: Yucatan Website

And before you go home, never forget that, wherever you are in Mérida, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most beloved symbol for its Catholics, is always present.

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