Merida, Mexico

Let’s get the complaints out of the way early. There are only two: that the temperature was about 8 degrees too high and there were about 45% too many mosquitoes. Aside from those two minor things, Merida is an amazing city. The food was incredible, it was very walkable, everyone was friendly, and many of the city’s museums are free.

The city itself is full of history – it was built over the top of the Mayan city of T’Ho (which was sadly destroyed by the conquistadors) during the 1500’s. The Cathedral is the second oldest in the hemisphere. It reused stones from the Mayan temples, as did many other structures. Now the downtown core is full of narrow, one-way streets and brightly painted houses.

On Sundays, many central streets are closed to traffic and the plazas are turned into markets. There are music and cultural events and lots of cheap food. It feels like most of the population comes to hang out in the parks and enjoy the weekend.

Casa Montejo and at the contemporary art museum.

We were in town for Hanal Pixan, the Day of the Dead. The main avenue to the General Cemetery was closed to traffic on a Friday night. Families set out altars to honor loved ones who have passed away. Tables are filled with crosses, pictures, candles, food, and marigolds. The public celebration also features musicians and demonstrations of a traditional Mayan ball game called Pok ta Pok. The main procession (it wasn’t really a parade) took place after dark. Hundreds of people, their faces painted to resemble skulls and wearing traditional white clothing, carried candles as they walked out from the cemetery. They represent the souls of the dead returning to spend time with their still-living family members.

Hanal Pixan and the free zoo.

Of course, food also heavily features in the celebrations. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and other sweets were very much in evidence. This includes marquesitas – basically it is a crunchy crepe rolled around cheese and chocolate or vanilla filling… all things I already like, now even more conveniently packaged. Families were selling tortillas or tortas from tables alongside their memorials. Some were just store-bought food repackaged, but others were homemade deliciousness.

Murals in the Palace of Government – Mayan creation story and a wall-sized version of the national symbol.

Local everyday cuisine is surprisingly tasty and cheap. Local ceviches were wonderful. The Marlin Azul was our favorite restaurant for seafood – their fried fish smothered in sauces and peppers accompanied the raw mixtos really well. El Pollo del Rey, a chicken place right across from our house proved that grilled chicken is an art form in Merida. Local places will have a grill covering an entire wall, and will send you home with a whole chicken, tortillas, salsas, rice, lettuce, and onions for just a few dollars. Inevitably, about 11 a.m. we would start smelling the roasting chicken and get hungry.

Walking anywhere, at any time of day, was a challenge because the smells wafting from food carts were so tempting. Tortas, tacos, fresh fruit (rambutan!), just-squeezed juices, and bags of snacks were never far away. Tortas are maybe a dollar each and one or two is enough for whole meal. Shredded pork is a perennial favorite for street vendors – and therefore for me.

Yucatecan meals are distinct from other regional dishes in Mexico. Panuchos (tortillas stuffed with beans and deep-fried, topped with pork and veggies), papadzules (tortillas filled with hard-boiled eggs and topped with pumpkin-seed and tomato sauce), and sopa de lima (chicken or turkey stock with lime and crunchy tortillas) are all brilliantly tasty.

Also, I’m going to claim Pake Taxo as my favorite junk food, anywhere in the world. I can eat a whole bag in one sitting. I’m not proud of that. But I can do it. The Quexo flavor is clearly abusing and tricking my brain into needing a daily dose of it. I’m probably going to cry if I can’t find it in the U.S. later.

Free zoo, (mostly already eaten) ceviche, and a cemetery.

The free museums include Casa Montejo, the Museo Fernando Garcia Ponce-Macay (art museum), the zoo, and the Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatan. Casa Montejo was the conquer’s mansion. It now houses a bank in the back, but the front few rooms are preserved in nineteenth century grandeur. Both art museums feature modern artists and lots of vibrant, colorful works that celebrate the local culture. I liked “Arbol de las artesanias” by Oscar Soteno Elias. The picture below is a small part of all the people, flowers, and objects in the sculpture.

Chocolate drinking cup and carved jaw from the Mayan museum, new favorite snack, modern art.

The only museum we did pay for was the Museo del Mundo Maya on the north side of town. We visited Chichen Itza (a previous post) and Uxmal (a future post) and wanted to learn a little bit more about the Mayan culture and see a few non-stonework artifacts. It was a good way to spend a few intensely-air-conditioned hours. They had all sorts of jewelry, carved bones, and displays about the complicated calendars the Mayans developed over centuries.

My favorite piece was a ceramic cup specifically for drinking chocolate and designed to look like a stylized coco pod. The owner had his named written on the side as well as the use and/or a recipe. I can totally relate and now want one of my own for Christmas. I think that person and I could have been friends.

Cathedral and happiness from the Museum of Popular Art – lower right is ‘Arbol de las artesanians’

In a bit of an unusual move for us, we took a week-long intensive language class in Merida. We wanted to polish up our Spanish before spending the next several months in South America and practice what we had learned on Duolingo. The result is that I can answer the most simple questions with more confidence but that I still have to ask what others say two or three times because my brain can’t catch up with their talking speed. We were told that people speak even faster in Peru… so I’m not sure there is much hope for me comprehending anything but the more basic basics…