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The Culture of Mérida and Yucatán

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The Culture of Mérida and Yucatán
The chapters of Mexico's pre-Hispanic and colonial history are writ large in the open book of Mérida's culture. Legendary homes, an ambitious museum, a fascinating cathedral, and a lively central plaza are all key points of interest for visitors.
By Julie Schwietert Collazo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Sandra Salvadó/age fotostock
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    Learning about Maya History
    Inaugurated with great fanfare by President Enrique Peña Nieto in December 2012, the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya was established to honor and highlight artifacts and information about the great Maya civilization, which flourished on the Yucatán Peninsula for nearly 2,000 years. Four permanent exhibits and two galleries featuring temporary displays unveil more than 800 pieces at any given time, including important statuary discovered at nearby Maya sites. Another place for learning about the Maya and their monuments is Casa Museo Catherwood, where you will see how pioneers Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens rediscovered numerous Maya settlements.
    Photo by Sandra Salvadó/age fotostock
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    Colonial History
    Casa de Montejo was once the home of the Montejo family, whose members included the conquerors and colonizers of Mérida. The house dates back to the mid–16th century and is distinguished by the fact that it is the only remaining Renaissance-style residence in Mexico. Although its interior has undergone many changes over the centuries, it remains impressive. Guides give tours of the residence, now partly a museum and cultural center; the bedroom and dining room are particularly eye-catching, replete with lavish furnishings. A salon of temporary exhibits features artwork by Mexican artists past and present. Casa de Montejo also has a library and gift shop, where locally made handicrafts are for sale.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    City Tours
    Even if you typically avoid tours, it's worth taking a chance on the Turibus, a double-decker vehicle that makes a complete loop around Mérida's key attractions. Use the ride to get the lay of the land, or hop on and off whenever it strikes your fancy. Try an evening tour to see many of Mérida's most beautiful buildings illuminated at night. For a more active (and free) experience, take advantage of a no-charge walking tour of the city's historical center. These excursions step off from the Tourism Office at the Palacio Municipal at 9:30 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays. You can get the tour in English or Spanish; it's led by a knowledgeable local guide and offers a great way to learn the city's colorful history and highlights.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Mérida's Historic Center
    The zocalo, or plaza square, is the center of social life in many Mexican cities. It's the place where couples and families come to spend an afternoon or evening just enjoying each other's company in the shadow of a city's most important buildings, the cathedral and city hall typically among them; vendors circulate, selling everything from handmade potato chips to balloons. Luckily for travelers, Mérida's zocalo is particularly lovely. On Sunday evenings, bands treat visitors to live performances of cumbia, salsa, and son music; on Mondays, a traditional folk dance is performed on the square. You will, however, find entertainment and authentic local culture here any day of the week.
    Photo by Charles Mahaux/age fotostock
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    Maya Architecture
    Chichén Itzá is the best-known Maya site on the Yucatán Peninsula—perhaps even in the country—but it's not the only one, and it's not the one closest in distance to Mérida proper. Mayapán is less well-known; as a result, it doesn't have the same flow of visitors (or vendors) you'll find at Chichén Itzá. Dzibilchaltún is also not far from central Mérida and light on tourists. Neither site is as large as Chichén Itzá, but both are impressive. If you can't get to any of the archaeological areas, visit the Cantón Palace Museum in Mérida's historic center. In addition to being an exceptional example of the Beaux-Arts style of architecture, the museum's exhibits are devoted to Maya artifacts.
    Photo by Sandra Salvadó/age fotostock
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    Burning of the Bad Mood
    As a largely Catholic country, Mexico sees most of its cities and towns hosting celebrations for Carnaval (Carnival) before the Lenten period, but the people of Mérida like to believe theirs is among the best. Festivities are spread out over eight days in February or March (depending on the year), during which time parades and dances, often performed to live music, dominate local social calendars. Highlights include the ritual “burning of the bad mood”—during which a proclamation is read and a figure representing bad moods is burned—and the battle of the flowers, in which participants throw blooms at each other. The week is capped with the burial of Juan Carnaval, whose “widows” stand by, mourning his death publicly.
    Photo by Charles Mahaux/age fotostock
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    Mérida's Cathedral
    It seems that every town and city in Mexico has a centuries-old cathedral with a fascinating history, and Mérida is no exception. When the Spanish arrived in the area in 1542 and established Mérida, they destroyed the five main pyramids of the pre-Hispanic civilization that had been standing there, and used the rubble to build the cathedral (completed in 1598). Its interior lacks the ornamentation typical of many Mexican cathedrals, but it houses one particularly popular attraction: the Christ of the Blisters statue. Legend has it that this work was carved from a lightning-struck tree that burned without charring; the statue later survived a fire in the church in the town of Ichmul. It has been on display in the Mérida cathedral since 1645.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Local Handicrafts
    Seeking out authentic regional handicrafts is a favorite activity among many visitors to Mexico, and in Mérida, some specific goods are popular souvenirs. Among them are fine linen or cotton guayaberas—comfortable shirts for men that are perfect for Mérida's tropical climate. Some shops have tailors who make bespoke guayaberas for customers. Complete the look with another local item, a panama hat, known here as a jipi. Hammocks are also frequently purchased keepsakes; Mérida once had a robust sisal industry, so hammocks from this region are especially prized. Pottery, baskets, and other local products can all be found at Bazar de Artesanías García Rejón, a handicraft market in central Mérida.
    Photo by Dorling Kindersley/age fotostock
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    Traditional Maya Cuisine
    Maya influence on Mérida's cuisine has not waned in the centuries following the civilization's decline. In fact, modern-day Maya uphold millennia-old traditions in the kitchen, and many of these are even in use in the city's most popular restaurants. The people of Mérida have sophisticated, international palates, but they also take great pride in their local culinary practices. This is epitomized at restaurants such as the casual Chaya Maya, where the very names of menu items—such as poc chuc, a pork dish, and tikin xic, a seafood specialty—sound exotic. Upscale dining with elements of Maya foodways can be had at award-winning K'u'uk and at Frutas y Flores at the InterContinental Presidente Mérida. Established in 1917, La Negrita Cantina keeps the old styles alive while not shying away from new, trendy touches. Swing through saloon doors to find live music, drinks served in mason jars, and lots of free regional nibbles in a lively barroom that extends to a large, open-air patio.
    Photo Travesías