Merida in Mexico is a Culture Lover's Paradise
Merida in Mexico has a rich culture that reveals its colorful and multi-facted history. The capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, Merida has numerous venues that present the region's history and culture. The city's squares and boulevards are like an open-air museum of Colonial architecture and host frequent performances. There are numerous institutions dedicated to showcasing Yucatan's past and way of life ranging from music to folk art to Mayan history.
Merida is located on the western side of the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. If you spend time on the Riviera Maya first, you can fly to Merida from Cancun in less than an hour, or make the drive in three hours. The city is inland, with beaches about 90 minutes to the west in Celestun and 40 minutes north to the coastal town of Progreso. Ancient Mayan temples and small "Pueblos Magicos" like Izamal and Valladolid are all easy day trips.
Make no mistake about it, Merida in Mexico is a sprawling and crowded center of commerce. Anyone expecting a quaint Colonial outpost will be disappointed. The population is almost one million and the area is an industrial powerhouse, home to manufacturing, construction, and the generation of water, gas and electricity. Nonetheless, Merida is a historic, safe and friendly place to visit with much to offer culture-lovers!
That said, Merida has one of the largest centro histórico districts in the Americas. Large scale production of the fibrous agave plant at the turn of the 20th century fueled economic prosperity that created a legacy of stunning architecture. Many of these sublime structures today are home to an array of world-class museums that display the distinctive history and culture of the Yucatan.
Merida State Capitol Building
An excellent starting point to visiting Merida is the Palacio de Gobierno, the Yucatan's government's administrative seat. This gorgeous arcaded building features a series of murals painted by Merida-born master painter Fernando Castro Pacheco in the late 1970s. Pacheco was a member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a print-making collective founded in 1937 that used art to support revolutionary social causes.
Merida in Mexico has the highest percentage of indigenous population within any large city in the country; 60% of the population are Mayan. Pacheco's series in the State Capital building chronicles the traumatic history of the Maya in the Yucatan, from early days hunting and worshipping, to the realization of the apocalyptic vision of the high priest Chilam Balam of the white man, a new religion and destruction.
The highly stylized murals depict the battles with the Conquistadors, the Mexican War of Independence from 1810- 1821, and the Caste War of 1847 - 1901. The paintings also tell the stories of figures like Gonzalo Guerrero, a 16th century Spanish sailor considered the father of the Mestizo, or mixed Spanish-indigenous race, in the Yucatan, and Carrillo Puerto, who fought for the rights of the Mayan people and served as governor of the Yucatan for two years before being assassinated by political rivals.
Where To Stay in Merida in Mexico
While in Merida, I stayed at the Casa Del Maya Bed & Breakfast. I highly recommend it. This is a very charming hotel and the staff are very friendly and helpful. The B & B is located in central Merida, a 15-minute walk from the Plaza de la Independencia and Cathedral and offers complimentary breakfast and has an outdoor pool. Owners Steve & Jordy are super knowledgeable and helpful and really go out of their way to make your stay comfortable and facilitate accessing all that Merida has to offer. The rooms feature colorful beddings and tiled hand-painted sinks in the bathrooms. The rooms are air-conditioned.
Here are some more highly-rated hotels in Merida that cater to all budgets.
El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, or the Great Museum of the Mayan World in Merida is a must-see. With 1,160 pieces of artwork, collectibles, and luxury items, this museum is a gateway to the culture of the Mayan world. Of the many types of work featured in the museum, perhaps some of the most notable includes works from both the colonial and pre-Hispanic eras; ornaments and luxury objects of gold, jade, and shell. Just as powerful are the exhibits on the daily life of the Mayan. With a desire to contribute to social progress and intercultural dialogue, the museum helps visitors identify with and appreciate the Mayan culture.
The Great Museum of the Mayan World of Merida is located at Calle 60 Norte No. 229 E, Unidad Revolucion, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. It is open Wednesday to Monday from 9 am to 4:30 pm. Tickets cost 150 pesos for foreigners, 100 pesos for a National adult, 50 pesos for a National child, 50 pesos for Yucatecans, and a “children, seniors, teachers and students” discount at 25 pesos. There is parking available at the museum for 20 pesos for three hours.
Free Walking Tour in Merida
If you’re looking for an economical option to explore the city and to learn more about its history, check out a free walking tour from the Merida Tourism Office. The 90-minute stroll through the historic center offers background on the history of the cathedral, the Plaza Grande, Parque Hidalgo, and more! The friendly, knowledgeable guides offer not only facts on architecture but also share insights on the different cultures that have melded to make Merida the vibrant place it is today.
Merida Folk Art Museum
Another way to connect with the region's culture is at the Merida Folk Art Museum, also known as Casa Molina. The museum is housed in a mansion built in 1900 by Italian architect Enrico Deserti and engineered by Manuel G. Cantón Ramos. It was financed by a rich father as a wedding gift to his daughter Carmela Molina. After her death, the house was restored into a museum in 1989 to display the works of popular Mexican and Yucatecan artists. Today, the bedrooms on the second floor of the home have been converted into exhibition rooms. However, the original dining room, kitchen, and laundry room are still intact and serve as a great preservation of Merida’s cultural heritage.
Get up close and personal with fine furniture, colorful jewels, textiles and more, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. On Sunday, the museum is open 10 am to 3 pm. It is located at Calle 50-A x 57, Centro, beside Parque de La Mejorada in Merida. With free entry, it’s hard to skip such a pleasant experience!
Museum of the Yucatecan Song in Merida
Just a block away is Merida’s Museum of the Yucatecan Song, called "a gateway to the world of romantic music". The museum includes over 50 oil portraits of composers, performers, poets and promoters of Yucatecan music, which evolved from strong influences from Cuba and Spain. This is one of the most important museums in the country for its invaluable collection of musical memorabilia received as donations from descendents and relatives of famous Yucatecan performers and composers. The Museum is a wonderful place to see how local music was influenced by other cultures and, in turn, was able to influence music on other parts of the world.
The Museum of Yucatan Song is open Tuesday through Friday, from 9 am to 5 pm. On Saturdays and Sundays, the Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with free entry on Sundays! On other days, the entry fee is 20 pesos. The museum is located on Calle 57, right near the Parque de La Mejorada and the Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatán.
Traditional Music, A Part of Yucatecan Identity
We were lucky enough to catch a rehearsal by a youth group preparing for a concert, conducted by José Luis Chan Sabido, Director General y Artístico de la Vienna Music and Art Academy-Yucatán.
I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Maestro Sabido, who shared with me the story behind the concert for which the group was rehearsing.
“It was a project that brought together three hundred young professional players and fans of trova, everybody playing a guitar and singing at the same time, concluding with a concert in the public park where around 2000 people had gathered to listen and enjoy this beautiful music that we use to identify as Yucatecans,” he explained.
“My brother Gabriel Chan Sabido, who was the master of musical education, organized musical groups that prepared and published trovas in different school publications,” José explained. “Gabriel dedicated himself to the creation of musical ensembles that played traditional Yucatecan music. My brother passed away, and I decided to organize a large event to pay respect to my brother, who I loved very much. The song we played was “Flower of Azar,” and the song is about a man talking to a woman who is very attractive.”
“In the Yucatán we love our traditional music and we play it as part of our identity,” he continued. “There are two forms that stand out in our music, the trova and the jarana. The trova consists of songs in which the lyrics describe the beauty of nature, of a woman, or describe stories of everyday life. The jarana, although it has lyrics, is usually music that you dance to and was used in celebrations among Mayans, which were known as “Vaquerias.”
Join the Dance with Vaquerias!
Prefer music that you can dance to? Merida in Mexico has several options for you! Four nights a week from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., a stretch of Calle 60 is closed to automobiles to make way for a fiesta! Along with vendors and street food, bands perform and locals and tourists alike show off their moves. Never one to miss an opportunity to shake it up, I was delighted to be asked by a gentleman to join him on the cobblestones. He skillfully subverted my tendency to try to lead and we twirled and swirled until I was damp with perspiration and happily tuckered out.
If you'd rather be an observer than a participant and enjoy experiencing a local tradition of another sort, every Sunday at 1 p.m. and Monday at 9 p.m., the city holds a free performance of Vaquerias on Plaza Grande, the main square. This traditional celebration is unique to the Yucatan and has its roots in a three-four day celebration held annually by a hacienda or village to pay homage to its patron saint. Pairs of dancers are elegantly attired, the men all in white, sporting a pale blue apron, red bandanas around their necks and jaunty straw hats; the women's costumes display colorful embroidery on a field of white, complemented by a brightly-ribboned hairpiece.
The performers dance to a Jarana orchestra, which includes two trumpets, two clarinets, one trombone, saxophone, kettle drums, and a guiro, a flute-like instrument made from a gourd. Jarana has a sly and distinctive feature that might catch you off guard--in the midst of this precisely choreographed, high-stepping performance, one of the male dancers shouts out "Bomba!" The music stops, and another man recites a silly rhyme. The music recommences, and the dance resumes.
Izamal and San Antonio de Padua Monastery
From Merida in Mexico, I visited the Yellow City of Izamal, a drive of 40 miles east, which takes about an hour. The city gets its given name from the Mayan Zamná, which means “Heaven’s dew”; he was the priest of the god Itzamná. Constructed between 600 – 800 A.D., Izamal was actually founded in 550 A.D. by people known as the Itz. Izamal is believed to have been the largest of Mayan communities in Northern Yucatan—over a ten-year period, archaeologists mapped 80 pre-Hispanic structures.
Today there are five pyramids in Izamal that can be experienced, located amidst the yellow Colonial buildings for which the city gets its moniker. The largest is Kinich Kak Moo, dedicated to a solar deity, where worship is offered with flowers, fruits, animals and aromatic substances.
Izamal was the seat of worship to the god Itzamatul for the Mayan, and the 16th century Spanish conquistadors, true to form, built atop the Mayan sacred sites as part of their conversion campaign. The Franciscans opened the San Antonio de Padua monastery, erected where the Mayan acropolis had been, in 1561. A statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception was installed and there began to be reports of miraculous healings. Soon, a cult of "Our Lady of Izamal" developed; today, this incarnation is the Yucatan state's patron saint and an annual celebratory procession and fiesta are held each December 8.
Izamal remains a place where the expression of faith is a cornerstone of daily life. Its heritage as both a Mayan ceremonial center and a Catholic mission have merged into a religious syncretism to which people were clearly devoted. San Antonio de Padua monastery is a place of pilgrimage today for the Mayan community. As I arrived, I passed a young mother departing with her two daughters, outfitted alike in Sunday best dresses, and several elderly couples who took the stairs gingerly.
Explore San Antonio de Padua Monastery
The San Antonio de Padua Monastery’s interior has numerous rooms and open spaces where people were comfortably at home for an extended visit. In a chapel, family members sat together in pews as if in their living room, happily engaged in conversation. A young couple huddled in a corner of an open-air courtyard engaged in an intense exchange. Along a colonnaded corridor, an assortment of people lounged and chatted. The overall impression was of a community center where people spent time together with each other and their God.
The religious imagery left me with an ambivalence likely rooted in my own Catholic upbringing. Prominently displayed in a niche was a sickly white half-naked Franciscan in a pose of self-flagellation, his face gaunt with deep circles under his eyes. A black Jesus on the cross was festooned with cheerful faux flowers of red, orange, purple and blue, his waist draped with a linen loin clothe embroidered with dainty blooms in the same colors. I could buy into the duality represented by the image of a dying Christ adorned in lively happy symbols but the self-loathing priest creeped me out.
The Yellow City of Izamal
Exiting out the monastery’s side I came upon Itzamna Park, which struck a lighter note. Lined up along street were a series of horse-drawn carriages, where friendly mustached men and their hatted equines wait for tourists who want a tour around town and to the Mayan temples. I decided to walk instead and after taking a peek at the rear of the monastery, interestingly devoid of any paint, I enjoyed taking in the egg-yolk colored buildings lining the almost-empty streets and admiring the whimsical work of an artisan selling his wares outside the bus station.
From sherbert-colored mansions to powerful murals, romantic music, lively dances and Mayan ceremonial centers, Merida in Mexico has a colorful history and welcoming ambiance that you are sure to love! If you've been to Merida, share a tip in the comments below. Or, if you're planning a trip, please feel free to ask a question!
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