One of our favourite parts of Mexico is the Yucatan Peninsula. Most visitors here flock to Cancun and the Maya Riviera along the east coast, home to famous beaches and resorts. But for a taste of authentic Mexico, it’s best to head inland away from the international resorts. Fortunately, it’s very easy to do.
The city of Merida makes an excellent base, about 4.5 hours west of Cancun on a comfortable express bus (less than $30). Founded in 1542, Merida reveals its history at every turn. The imposing San Ildefonso Cathedral on the main square is the oldest church anywhere on the American mainland. Facing another side of the square, the ornate mid-16th century Casa Montejo has an elaborately decorated facade depicting the glories of Spanish conquistadors. Across the square, the state government building features a gallery dominated by massive murals by famed artist Fernando Pacheco. They depict the story of the region, from the time of the ancient Maya to present day.
Besides the city itself, Merida is surrounded by a wealth of nearby attractions, from many important ancient Mayan ruins to early colonial sites.
Free events abound in Merida, from the excellent bilingual walking tour of the historic city centre, to free entry to many museums, galleries, and historic sites. In addition, the city sponsors daily free cultural activities. Depending on the day, there might be music, folklore dancing, handcraft displays, re-enactments of the ancient Mayan ball game, or sound and light shows. Long famous for its public events, Merida kicked things up a notch recently when it was named the 2017 Cultural Capital of America.
We timed our travels to be back in Merida for the weekend – the best time for a visit. On Sunday, streets near Plaza Grande, the main square, are closed to traffic, food stalls pop up everywhere, and the area takes on a carnival atmosphere. One street becomes a stage with free performances throughout the day. It’s folkloric dancing that draws the most crowds – men in their brilliant white outfits and women wearing distinctive intricately embroidered dresses. After the last performance in the evening, another orchestra takes the stage and the street turns into a massive public dance hall.
At the same time, a hubbub of activity continues in Plaza Grande. This is a great place to experience how important the centre square is in the life of Mexico. People come in the evening to relax and visit, kids run around and play, and lovers smooch on more secluded park benches. A fire and brimstone evangelist urges everyone to repent, while wandering vendors hawk everything from cotton candy to popcorn and toys to tempt the kids. In short, a slice of Mexican life on a pleasant, warm evening.