After a mystical dive into the ancient Maya culture at the ruins of Palenque, I headed toward Mérida, my last stop on this long Mexican sojourn. I had been traveling for almost five months, beginning in the north of the country and slowly making my way south. I had seen the Copper Canyon and twice descended into its depths. Among other towns, I’d visited Mazatlán, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Mexico City, the wintering grounds of the monarch butterflies, Oaxaca, and finally San Cristobál de las Casas and Palenque. It had been a full, rich, satisfying immersion into the culture, vitality, cuisine, and spirit of the country. I loved it.
But I was feeling the pull toward home. It’s easy to get homesick, especially when vulnerability and the unfamiliarity of a place feel overwhelming. When you have to take that step toward the next unknown or when you’re still figuring out how the systems work. (How many times had I wandered in circles lugging my gringo roller bag looking for the right bus station or the right dusty corner on which to catch the bus?)
This was different. This gnawing sense of loss just meant I’d been away for a long time. My grandbabies were growing, and I was missing my family. I’d learned that phrase in Spanish early and used it often: Extraño mi familia. People always nodded knowingly. I guess everyone understands that feeling.
My son was getting his MBA at the end of April after two years of hard work, and my granddaughter was making her First Communion in May. (That’s a big deal in the Catholic world, involving frilly white dresses, veils, and a special liturgy.)
I changed my flight to get back in time for both. Mérida would be my final stop. I planned to be there for Semana Santa—the high holy days of the Christian year. Holy Week is celebrated solemnly in my part of the world, too, but I was looking forward to experiencing the Hispanic version.
Mérida is located in the Yucatán, the low, dry, hot peninsula that sticks up like a thumb into the Gulf of Mexico. Americans tend to vacation there, (Cancún is in the Yucatán peninsula), so I heard a lot more English, which was jarring and confusing after so many months of bumbling along in Spanish.
In keeping with the climate, traditional dress for women is a white, light, and flowery three-piece number (a terno de gala) that includes an embroidered capelet, a long overblouse and a long embroidered skirt. It looks refreshing on the hot streets of Mérida. Men wear the guayabera, which is a light, untucked shirt with lots of stitched pleats in front.
Mérida is all about hamacas made from sisal, a tough natural fiber that comes from a type of agave—the same useful plant that brings us tequila and mezcal. For a time, sisal brought enormous wealth to the peninsula. This humble fiber cornered the international market on production of everything from burlap bags to baling twine, and of course, hammocks, until synthetic rope partly upstaged it.
The result of such stupendous wealth lines the stately Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard fashioned after the fabulous Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. The mansions along both sides were built by the owners of the haciendas who made incredible fortunes in sisal.
Hammocks are sold on street corners and in the rip-off tourist shops. A guy who’s been making hammocks for two decades told me to stay away from the shops (“They’re robbers”). He sells his on the street. The shops were fun to browse in, however, and were really the only way to sample the full variety of products made in the Yucatan .
Mérida had a craft market, sort of. It had a produce market, sort of. But I didn’t find the cornucopia of goods that is a hallmark of Mexican markets. Most local products were sold in the aforementioned shops for inflated prices, and I’m thinking the extra profit wasn’t going to the artisans.
The Yucátan was, and is, rooted in Maya culture. Mérida, in fact, was a Maya city named T’hó until it was conquered by the Spanish father and son duo, Don Francisco de Montejo #1 and #2. The Spaniards may have conquered the city and used the limestone blocks of its sacred buildings for the cathedral in Mérida’s beautiful central plaza, but tens of thousands of people throughout the Yucatán and the rest of the Maya world, are proud of their heritage.
Ruins are dotted throughout the peninsula. The most expansive, regal, and well-known is Chichen Itza, an easy day trip from Mérida and one of the reasons I was there.
The city is an absolute delight with a pretty colonial vibe and one of the sweetest central squares I’d seen. There are certainly tourists, so there is an infrastructure to appeal to them, but it doesn’t overwhelm the city’s character. There are restaurants of all stripes. Hotels at all levels of luxe. Mérida is in the Goldilocks zone—not so big as to be overwhelming; not so small as to be boring.
I found a quirky, tumbledown, yet fairly comfortable hotel not far from the central plaza. I think they called it a gallery, but it was really more like a combination flea market/antique store/junk collection. My room had a fan, and there was a fairly clean pool, and it was fairly quiet (no 3am wakeup call from the neighbor’s roosters), so I was happy to while away a week or so in Mérida, which included a lot of churchgoing during Semana Santa and a short side-trip to Chichen Itza.