The Yucatán Peninsula: Mérida
This post is Part Two in my series on the Yucatán Peninsula. Check out my first post on Isla Holbox!
I originally planned to take a long bus to Mérida, but I ended up driving with some other travelers I met on Isla Holbox. We spent most of the car ride blasting Beyoncé down the jungle highways (Lemonade’s greatness transcends borders) and stopping at roadside shops to browse ceramics and hand tied hammocks—way better than a five hour bus! Mérida, while just as charming, was the aesthetic opposite to Holbox. Where Holbox had palm-lined sandy streets and a relaxing, lazy, vibe, Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán state, is colonial, artistic, and cosmopolitan.
In Mérida I stayed at Hostal Zocalo—it ended up being less social than I had hoped but it did have hands-down the best free breakfast I have ever had at a hostel. Every day they had a spread of sweet ripe fruit, eggs, and bread on their courtyard terrace. Seriously—don’t underestimate the power of a great breakfast when booking your hostels!
Exploring Mérida throws you directly into Mexico’s colonial past. You’ll walk inside an ornate colonial mansion only to find a museum with Maya textiles. Or tour a sixteenth century cathedral to find it was built using stones from a Maya temple. Walking down the pristine colonial boulevards is bittersweet. It truly is such a beautiful city, but the presence of the Maya society that was in equal parts absorbed, violently crushed, and transformed, is tangible.
Nowhere is the former grandeur of Maya society as present as in the ruins of Uxmal, just outside the city. Uxmal (pronounced oosh-mal) is a large site with a number of sprawling, intricately carved buildings. The crown jewel is the towering Pyramid of the Magician, but you could spend all day wandering through the stone halls taking in the incredible carvings.
Instead of springing for a tour guide, I took a detailed guide book that walked me through the buildings. Whether you get a guide or a book, in a place like this—where a conquering power had total license to tell their version of events—it’s important to know the history. I took my book to a crumbling stoop and learned about customs of the 15,000 or so people who lived there and about the carved gods that still adorned the buildings.
The next day, back in Mérida I wandered through the markets. I bought a few trinkets—how could you not?—but I also spent the afternoon peaking into the many galleries and shops away from the main square. In Mérida, history is everywhere, but you’ll also find evidence of a thriving, modern, artistic city where residents—many of whom identify as and speak Yucatec Maya— craft their city’s future.