Finding music, moments and magic in Merida

Posted on Updated on

A young schoolgirl keeps the pidgeon population happy in Parque de Santiago on Calle 72 in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
A young schoolgirl keeps the pigeon population happy in Parque de Santiago on Calle 72 in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico on a Friday afternoon.

The thing is, I really didn’t think I could afford the hat.

I liked it. It felt cool and comforting on my head. It sat naturally on my crown with no fussing. The roll of the brim had a slightly rakish appeal that the rest of me certainly didn’t exude.

Still, $3,200 pesos? Taxes are coming up. So is rent. And a trip or two back to the States for both Rose and me. Really, I wasn’t even sure that we should have been taking this mini-vacation to the beautiful colonial city of Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula.

A view of Parque Grande in Merida, Mexico. This one park is the focal point for so much of the activity that takes place in the Central Historic District.
A view of Parque Grande in Merida, Mexico. This one park is the focal point for so much of the activity that takes place in the Central Historic District.

Buying a hand-made Panama hat in Merida seemed so out of the question. So frivolous. So self-indulgent. So . . . expensive.

“Consider $2,400 pesos. Would that put this hat upon your head?”

Really, I have taxes to pay, and rent . . .

Sunday morning in  Parque Grande.  Is there a more perfect expression of a life enjoyed?
Sunday morning in Parque Grande. Is there a more perfect expression of a life enjoyed?

“At the Yaa-Kun Maya co-op we work for the love of our creations. It is not about the money. It is about putting our Mayan creations in the right hands. $2,000 pesos? Would that do it for you, Senor Roberto?”

This guy was so good. All the while giving the local history of the Panama, called the jipijapa (hippie-hoppa), made from sisal, a local strain of agave plant known for its tight and flexible weave, and made by Mayans in Becal, in underground caves where the air is moist and cool. This particular Panama could be rolled up tight and would spring back to the original shape. Not all Panamas can do that.

“Roberto, open your wallet, look inside and tell me what you can afford.”

Kind of the iconic image of Merida, the Catedral  San Ildefonso on Calle 60 at 61st, on the east side of Parque Grande.
Kind of the iconic image of Merida, the Catedral San Ildefonso on Calle 60 at 61st, on the east side of Parque Grande.

I did, and saw two $500-peso notes. Could I really insult him by saying so?

I’m a ball cap kind of guy but striding out of the Yaa-Kun co-op on Calle 62, just a couple of blocks up from Plaza Grande, with a crisp new Panama on my head felt so right. I stood taller, made eye contact with everyone and privately wished that I still owned my old tropical seersucker suit.

Something must have worked. Every time we strolled out into Merida’s historical Central District, I was complimented on the hat. The best came from an elderly gentleman named Victor, a retired professor of Mayan history who used to weave Panamas in his youth. He noted the crease, the tightness of the sisal weave and said, “In some places, this hat would bring $6,000 pesos.”

The crucifix behind the central altar in the cathedral, in Merida.
The crucifix behind the central altar in the cathedral, in Merida — a gaunt image of Christ and excruciating suffering.

I so wanted to talk with Victor some more, but our waiter at the Main Street Cafe in Parque de la Maternidad had snatched away Rose and was leading her by hand down the street and around a corner to another Mayan co-op. Rose had casually mentioned an interest in masks. (She has a collection from all over the world.) He knew just the place, with the best collection of masks in Merida.

As they disappeared around a corner, I apologized to Victor and said that I hoped we would meet up again some day to talk about Yucatan-Mayan history, and then took off at a run to catch up.

We didn’t see Victor again.

On weekends, some streets are closed to traffic and restaurants turn them into sidewalk cafes in Merida.
On weekends, some streets are closed to traffic and restaurants turn them into sidewalk cafes in Merida.

But such magical moments continued to pour down upon us like a refreshing Caribbean rain in Merida.

One evening we strolled past the two foreboding looking policemen and into the Governor’s Palace, just off Plaza Grande, drawn by the open courtyard, warm green walls and glimpses of spectacular looking murals. Indeed, on the walls of the two-story courtyard and a very large upper room were 31 large paintings by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting the often tragic Mayan history on the Yucatan.

IMG_1343

Two views inside the Governor's Palace, diagonal to the cathedral at Calles 60 & 61 in Merida.
Two views inside the Governor’s Palace, diagonal to the cathedral at Calles 60 & 61 in Merida. The palace contains 31 murals by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco, charting the often tragic history of the Yucatan and its Mayan community.

The murals are stunning in their raw power and emotion, showing images of war, oppression, courage, strength, torture, passion and faith. Strolling the thoughtfully lit corridors of the Governor’s Palace on a warm still evening brought the images to life, the quiet allowed ghosts to step out from the walls and tell their stories. We could feel the anguish of the Mayans under Spanish and Catholic oppression, and their defiance.

Directly across the plaza was another museum, on the opposite spectrum of Yucatan life, Museo Casa Montejo. It is a small exhibit of  elegant colonial Victorian-era furnishings within the mansion of the Spanish conqueror of the Yucatan, Francisco Montejo. The building also doubles as a bank (which sponsors the exhibit). The furnishings are beautifully restored and well appointed in the handful of rooms. There is even a gift shop with high-end Mayan creations.

IMG_1401 IMG_1523

Music is everywhere in Merida
Music is everywhere in Merida. In the first image above, a young rock band performed on Friday in the mall space adjacent to the cathedral on Calle 60.  In the next image, on Sunday night, six vocalists were delivering a knock-out performance in a courtyard a few blocks north of Parque Grande.  Above, the people step into Calle 62, west side of Parque Grande, to dance to the sound of a Caribbean Big Band. Below, the Merida Police Band performs at the striking of colors at sunset in the park.

IMG_1493

More magic, on our last evening in Merida, as we walked reluctantly back toward our hotel, we passed by the entrance to a grand courtyard at Calle 60 & 57. Inside we could see stage lights streaking around the room, a large audience and voices — we could here lush pop voices singing.

My first Rule of Merida is: Step through every doorway, into every courtyard; you’ll never regret it.

So we did.

Six young singers were belting out powerful romantic ballads, cool pop songs and hot torch tunes — backed by a tight scorching seven piece band. They each took turns at center stage and sometimes the whole group would sing chorus. Sometimes they sang in duets. I have no idea what they were singing. They were simply singing like there was no tomorrow.

IMG_1485

Folkloric dancers and music fill the street on Sunday afternoon at Parque Grande in Merida.
Folkloric dancers and music fill the street on Sunday afternoon at Parque Grande in Merida.

We simply sat on a stone bench at the edge of the crowd and took it all in. Sitting across from us was an elderly Meridan couple, clearly as into it as we were, and I couldn’t help but notice that they gently held on to each other through the whole show, breaking away only to applaud.

The romantic magic of Merida it seems works for visitors and natives alike.

So much of our five days in Merida was spent either on the Plaza Grande or using it as a jumping off point to some fresh discovery.

On our first full day, we jumped on the all-Spanish language double-decker Turibus for a grand tour of the city, starting in front of the Cathederal de San Ildefonso, on the eastern edge of the Grand Plaza. (There is an all-English tour at another park but with map and a modicum of Spanish we got what we needed from this one.) The 90-minute ride takes you north to the grand boulevard Paseo de Montejo past the Monumento a la Bandera and the Plaza de Toros before returning to the plaza.

The Homeland Monument by sculptor Romulo Rojo, on a busy roundabout at the top of the grand Paseo de Montejo depicts the history of the region from its Mayan roots to the 20th century. Some college kids were spelling out something with their bodies as we cycled by. As you can see, they did a nice job on the letter "C."
The Homeland Monument (Monumento a la Patria) by sculptor Romulo Rojo, on a busy roundabout at the top of the grand Paseo de Montejo depicts the history of the region from its Mayan roots to the 20th century. Some college kids were spelling out something with their bodies as we cycled by. As you can see, they did a nice job on the letter “C.”
Mansions both splendid and decayed line Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard modeled after Champ Elysees in Paris.
Mansions both splendid and decayed line Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard modeled after Champ Elysees in Paris.

Along the way are mansions of breathtaking beauty and architecture and for quite a few crumbling walls and overgrown courtyards hide abandoned shells of old estates, looking like broken wedding cakes. They seem to cry out, “I was once beautiful and admired by men and women of position!” From the molting shadows of their former beauty and glory, they beg for restoration or, at the least, exploration.

IMG_1464

Sundays are for bicycles in Merida. Nearly five miles of the city's prime streets are closed to vehicle traffic until around noon.
Sundays are for bicycles in Merida. Nearly five miles of the city’s prime streets are closed to vehicle traffic until around noon.

On weekends, the streets around the Grand Plaza are closed to vehicle traffic and given over to boulevard strollers, sidewalk bistros, music and dancing and Mayan vendors. On Sundays, more than five miles of major public roads are completely closed (8 a.m. to noon) for the Bici-Ruta. Bicyclists and walkers can travel, unthreatened, from the Ermita de Santa Isabel at Calles 77 and 66 up past Plaza Grande and up Calle 60 to the very end of Paseo de Montejo . It is an exhilarating way to see the city.

Our bike rental shop, Bici Merida, is housed in a crumbling old estate at the beginnng of Paseo de Montejo.
Our bike rental shop, Bici Merida, is housed in a crumbling old estate at the beginnng of Paseo de Montejo.

We rented bikes for two days from Bici Merida on Paseo de Montejo and managed to cover quite a bit of ground. On Sundays there is a mad crush to rent bicycles up and down the Bici Ruta, so renting on Saturday and returning on Sunday afternoon saved us lots of time. Two bikes came to $300 pesos, a total of $20 USD.

I’ve seen some Trip Advisor messages that make Merida sound like a combat zone for cyclists. Clearly they are written by people who do not bicycle or live in the country. Sure it is a city, an old one at that, so it has challenges but honestly we found it easier getting around Merida than San Francisco, one of the bike-friendliest cities in the US.

For one, Merida traffic flows smoothly on one-way streets and it is not fast. The streets allow one lane of traffic, one curb for parking — leaving a very comfortable lane for cyclists.

Life in the parks

Horse carriages are popular on the streets  around the many parks in the historic district of Merida.
Horse carriages are popular on the streets around the many parks in the historic district of Merida.

It was an easy five-block walk from our little boutique hotel to Plaza Grande and that is exactly where we found ourselves, two and three times a day. First, the people watching is simply the best. As is the lemon gelato at a nearby sidewalk cafe.

So much goes on in this one square! On Friday night, Mayans demonstrated their own ancient brand of football (soccer) in front of the cathedral and later Mayan priests patiently “blessed” scores of people waiting in lines. On Saturday day night a rock band played on a platform right next to Cathedral de San Ildefonso.

Walking back to our hotel after a busy day in Merida.
Walking back to our hotel after a busy day in Merida.

On Sunday, the activity shifts to the other side of the plaza where Calle 62 becomes a concert venue for a classical orchestra, folkloric bands and dancers and finally, toward dusk, people young and old  flood the street for tropical big band fueled dancing.

Also around dusk, the local police band — with a sharp line of drummers back by a row of cacophonous horns — and a well-armed color guard, lower the Mexican flag with great ceremony.

There are nearly a dozen parks in Merida’s Historic District. They came in all sizes and personalities. Common to nearly all seems to be a very old Catholic church on one side, facing a government complex on the other. The balance of the parks are filled out with museums, art galleries, sidewalk bistros and rows of street vendors. Most parks have benches and love seats and I’m told there is a concert in a  different park every night of the week.

Some of the parks, especially Plaza Grande, offer free WiFi and there are even power plugs behind benches to re-energize your iPhone.

Grazing through Merida

Tamarind margaritas at the welcoming La Prospe del Xtup restaurant on Calle 59 in Merida.
Tamarind margaritas at the welcoming La Prospe del Xtup restaurant on Calle 59 in Merida.

Just about everyone who offered suggestions on where to eat in Merida mentioned a tiny Italian restaurant on the corner of Calle 56 and 49, called the Oliva Kitchen & Bar. Seriously, it is almost all kitchen. There are about six tables squeezed in and several bar stools.

We bicycled over on a piping hot Saturday afternoon and were able to claim two of the bar stools.

Rose waxed ecstatically over her Il Carbonera and I was pretty stoked over whatever it was that I had, something with an Italian name, maybe Cicciotella. Even the garlic bread had us humming. But the desert, the tiramisu, was like none I’d ever tasted before. I would crawl back there on my hands and knees for another serving of that.

Tiramisu as served at Oliva, an exquisite little Italian restaurant in Merida.
Tiramisu as served at Oliva, an exquisite little Italian restaurant in Merida.

I was a bit taken aback by some reviews of this little gem on on Trip Advisor that complained about the lack of freebies, like water and bread and the size of the wine servings. First, we were given glasses of water and the wine servings came in standard-size cruets beffoe the pour. All I have to say is, if your kind of restaurant experience requires free stuff on the table, maybe a place like Oliva is not for you.

This was Rose’s favorite dining experience, even though we ate at the highly touted Apoala and the Disneyesque Maya Chaya Cafe and enjoyed the hearty portions of Main Street Cafe.

My favorite was the near-unpronounceable La Prospe del X’tup, on Calle 59, between C.66 & 64. The setting is a charming old courtyard with the air of Roman ruins about it. Probably the most romantic setting we’ve ever encountered for a restaurant. And definitely not because the strolling troubadours came up to play “Besame Mucho” for Rose.

The still cool air, the thoughtful lighting, the rose-red walls and creme-white crown molding and limestone pillars, the calm hush (tragically few diners were present), lush vegetation — it all created the welcoming vibe of a Zen meditation room.

But nothing was more welcoming than the spicy tamarind margaritas with chili pepper around the rim. Damn were those good.  The Mayan accented menu was rich with choices and the servings were more than one person could hope to finish. My Poc-Chuc and Rose’s Tacos de Carne Ahumada made us feel we were closer than ever to an authentic Mayan dinner experience.

Going back? Heck yeah!

Art and music are everywhere it seems in Merida. Some pretty cool graffiti can be found too, if you look closely.
Art and music are everywhere it seems in Merida. Some pretty cool graffiti can be found too, if you look closely.

Before talking about going back, I should mention how we got to Merida from Ambergris Caye. We took the long way, not because it would save us so much money, though it did, but because we had the time.

The trip started with a mad dash to the Maya terminal in San Pedro, where we made the 7:30 a.m. flight to Corozal with minutes to spare. Because this was our first ever border crossing from Belize, we used a local transport service from the airport to the bus terminal in Chetumal, Mexico. Henry talked us through the border-crossing process, made sure we got a good exchange on dollars for pesos and got us to the Europe bus with plenty of time.

The 4.5-hour ride to Merida was a breeze in the luxury, air conditioned bus. We had the scenery, some really bad movies and our own books to distract us. There was one pitstop midway to Merida.

There was a hitch in the return trip that had us showing of at the Corozal airport 10 minutes late for the flight to San Pedro. Thank you Maya Island Air for holding up the plane!

So, going back? You bet. There are direct flights from Tropic Air to Merida but they are too pricey for me. I’d always consider using the bus or even renting a car in Chetumal and driving, assuming our hotel had parking as there is very little in the city.

In the future, I’d map out visits according to themes — an all-museum-and-Mayan-ruins week, an all-foodie week, an all-Spanish immersion month, an all-bicycle week (with day-trips outside the city). I would love to set up a Hidden Merida Tour  — a glimpse into the inside of homes and Colonial palaces and especially the lush courtyards that hide behind drab walls.

I think that the most beautiful parts of Merida are hidden behind the plain stucco fronts of the endless rows of houses on narrow streets.

And Merida, we have only had but a small taste of your beauty.

Some of the faces of Merida

FullSizeRender (32) IMG_1375 FullSizeRender (31) IMG_1332 IMG_1318 FullSizeRender (30) FullSizeRender (35) IMG_1259

A city can be defined in the faces of its people. These are just a tiny fraction of the many I fell in love with.
A city can be defined in the faces of its people. These are just a tiny fraction of the many I fell in love with.

And finally, what do you think of my new jipijapa?

Just waiting for the right occasion to be worn in San Pedro. ...
Just waiting for the right occasion to be worn in San Pedro. …
Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Finding music, moments and magic in Merida

    Susan Watts said:
    March 11, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    Merida looks beautiful and another City to put on our list of place’s to visit! You and the snakes! Why did that guy have a snake on his shoulder? I like the hat…worth every peso, we expect to see you in it next time we visit! Cheers!

    Like

    teresacoats1998 said:
    March 11, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    A wonderful article! One of your best yet. I especially liked these lines that jumped out at me:

    “Along the way are mansions of breathtaking beauty and architecture and quite a few in overgrown courtyards hiding abandoned shells of old estates, looking like broken wedding cakes. They seem to cry out, “I was once beautiful and admired by men and women of position!” From the molting shadows of their former beauty and glory, they beg for restoration or, at the least, exploration.”

    What beautiful prose! I was happy to see a photo of “The Hat” at the end.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      March 11, 2015 at 10:09 pm

      Why thank you. Very kind words. And glad you like the hat.

      Like

    paul cloutier said:
    March 12, 2015 at 5:50 am

    Thanks for a very informative piece. Cheers !

    Like

    Michael Capps said:
    March 12, 2015 at 8:26 am

    Thanks for taking me there. My Wife & I are going to Cozumel in July for the 8th time. We will have to visit Merida some day.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      March 12, 2015 at 9:27 am

      Sounds like you have found the right place, Michael. Merida is certainly a very different experience from the coastal communities. But if you are like me, once you get on an island, it takes a lot to leave it! Enjoy the vacation!

      Like

    Linda Czestochowski said:
    March 12, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Thanks for bringing Merida to life for us with the beautiful imagery and photos! Definitely on the “go to” list. It looks a bit like Havana, Cuba, but in much better repair.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      March 12, 2015 at 9:29 am

      I may be able to make that comparison later this year, Linda. If the stars all line up.

      Like

    aarosado said:
    March 13, 2015 at 11:43 pm

    It’s funny how the same weekend you were there my mother and sister were there too. The “rock band” that was in town was Ringo Star from the Beatles. My mother and sister went just for that. They are huge fans.
    I must say, that is one fine looking hat.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      March 14, 2015 at 6:58 am

      Almost! We were in Merida the weekend before Ringo came to town. (I write very slowly …) We saw the posters for the concert and I was sorely tempted to sleep in a tree until Ringo and the All-Star band showed up. I’ve seen several variations of the band in the past (once at a U.S. Marine base, once while floating in a kayak and once while sitting on the curb outside an outdoor venue which I happened to be passing on my nightly walk. Always an exciting collection of musicians and songs. What did your Mom and sister think of the show?

      Liked by 1 person

        aarosado said:
        March 14, 2015 at 7:06 am

        In a kayak? Wow you are so lucky.
        It was great as usual. My sister got a Sgt. Pepper suit made for the concert too (bright pink like Ringos). A year ago he was in Mexico city, they went too. A year before that Paul also had a 3 concerts in Mexico city. Did u know Ringo use to own a house in Belize? It was located in Placencia until he sold it.

        Like

        robertjhawkins1 responded:
        March 14, 2015 at 7:41 am

        No kidding, in Placencia! I always liked Ringo, now I like him even more! Your sister sounds like a super fan.

        There is a waterfront concert venue in San Diego to which canoes, rafts, kayaks — anything that will float — pull up and get front row seats to shows. For years I covered concerts there for the local newspaper and every single artist referenced either the “boat people” or the “people in the cheap seats.” So the last show that I reviewed there was from the seat of my new kayak. Most fun ever. Everybody was sharing stuff — whiskey, jello shots, sushi, joints, chocolate cake…. Dropped my notes into the water and almost tipped over scrambling for them!
        Paddling home, it was a moonless night with a zillion stars. The still black water exploded with a hot white phosphorescence (plankton) each time I dipped my paddle in. I was hooked after that.

        Liked by 1 person

    Emily said:
    March 16, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    Lovely post! We enjoyed several days in Merida when we lived on Ambergris Caye, and I recognize many of the places in your photos. Loved the Bici-Ruta, though I think there were only a couple of miles of closed streets when we participated. We bought similar Panama hats, and in a bit of terrible luck, I left mine in the back seat of our rental car after returning to the US several months later. The hat, of course, was long gone before I realized what I’d done. I was so incredibly sad.

    P.S. Loved your description of the tiramisu. I am sure I would have felt the same — looks absolutely plate-licking good.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      March 16, 2015 at 9:04 pm

      Most lip-smacking good tiramisu ever, Emily!
      I’m so fond of my new hat, the thought of losing one is quite sad. Like an old friend passing away, only it is your head that is left vulnerable, not so much the heart….

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s