A journey through the Yucatan’s White City
By Jaime Riley
Beyond the spring break hotspots of Cancún, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen lies one of Mexico’s hidden secrets: Mérida. This historic city abounds with economic opportunity, historical landmarks and delicious regional cuisine. It is a fantastic destination for travelers looking to experience a true taste of Mexico.
Mérida, Yucatán’s capital city, offers a wealth of historical sites, many preserved over four centuries. It is also experiencing an influx of urban development, solidifying the city’s position as a significant site of commerce and cultural growth. Located on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mérida’s international airport and large network of highways serve as a gateway to the rest of Mexico and Central America.
Known as the White City for its light-colored buildings and exceptionally clean streets, Mérida was once the ancient Mayan city of T’Ho. In 1542, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo conquered the city and ordered the construction of urban building. Since that time, the city has embraced its colonial architecture and works to preserve the historical buildings that reflect its Mayan roots and European influences.
Exploring Mérida’s historical monuments is an entire trip in itself. The city’s historic district houses the public square established in 1542, the municipal palace built in 1836, the home constructed for Montejo, the Ateneo de Yucatán Museum of Contemporary Art, the City Museum and the Cathedral of San Idelfonso, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas. Take a stroll through historical downtown’s Santa Lucia Park on Thursday nights to experience the Yucatán Serenade, an open-air concert featuring talented troupes of dancers dressed in traditional costumes. It’s mesmerizing to watch the dancers balance trays of drinks on their heads while dancing with their partners — it’s definitely the highlight of the performance.
Lodge in luxury
Mérida’s most prestigious hotel, the Presidente InterContinental Hotel Villa Mercedes has impressed guests with its elegant atmosphere and top-notch service since it opened in 2006. Converted from a breathtaking 19th century mansion, the hotel reflects the city’s significant historical background with conventional Yucatán architectural design that features large archways and columns.
The cornerstone of the city’s hotel district, Villa Mercedes is a popular destination for business executives from around the world. In addition to housing nine meeting rooms, the hotel offers banquet rooms accommodating up to 350 people. When business is finished guests can order a cocktail at the El Consulado Bar and take a dip in the pool; the nearest beach is approximately two hours away. The hotel’s Frutas y Flores restaurant serves international cuisine as well as traditional Yucatecan specialties such as pollo pibil (chicken roasted in banana leaves) and lime soup.
A trip to Hacienda Sotuta de Peon is an eye-opening opportunity for any traveler looking to get a glimpse into the past. This historic plantation grew henequen, a plant with hardy fibers used to make rope. Even though many henequen products have been replaced by those made of synthetic fibers, Hacienda Sotuta de Peon serves as a tribute to the product that dominated the Yucatán’s economy in the 1920s.
Visitors can take a tour of the plantation and learn about the production of henequen products. From the intricate process of cutting cactus leaves to riding on mule-drawn carts used to transport the leaves to machine houses, guests experience authentic plantation lifestyle. Workers dress in traditional white shirts and large-brimmed hats. The atmosphere transports you into another time and gives a glimpse into how workers spent their days in the henequen fields.
Another Meridian adventure is a swim in one of the Yucatán’s natural wonders, a cenote. Visiting a cenote is much like going to the lake, except these bodies of water are in underground caverns. The water in cenotes is crystal clear; it is also freezing cold. A swim can be refreshing after a long day trekking through the henequen fields.
Mexico’s White City is not a party destination with beaches, frozen margaritas and American tourists on every corner. It is a haven of authentic Yucatán culture: world-renown museums, incredible architecture, natural wonders and ancient ruins. Mérida is a true taste of old Mexico.
Mérida Economic Development Department, Tourism Office, www.merida.gob.mx
Presidente InterContinental Hotel Villa Mercedes, Mérida, www.intercontinental.com/merida