If you are making your flight reservations into Cancun for your trip to Costa Maya/Mahahual, and you would like to see one of the more interesting slices of Mexico while you do it, you might take a look at flights into Merida, Mexico instead. Merida, home of a large international airport, that has many flights from the US each day, is also about the same distance as Cancun from Mahahual. If you are driving by car, the time is about the same, by bus it is a bit longer, but still a way to make the trip if you prefer. (ask your concierge how) The difference between Cancun and Merida however, is about like the difference between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Geographically close, but historically, culturally and almost anyway you want to view it, very different than Cancun/Riviera Maya area. If you want a place to party, Cancun is great for that. But if you want to see one of Mexico’s most unique cultural destinations, you might try Merida instead.
Cancun is the commercial center of the State of Quintana Roo and is about 50 years old. The state is even younger, about 40 years. Prior to that, the area was part of a territory in Mexico referred to as the Yucatan, and basically uninhabited, except for the small cities of Felipe Carrilo Puerto and Chetumal, which is now the state capital. That Yucatan territory was eventually divided into three official states, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. The unofficial capital, and undeniable commercial center of that territory though was Merida. Many historians say Merida is the oldest city in the Americas, dating back to 1542, so it’s cultural roots are very deep. Where any cultural roots in Cancun are anchored in 50 years of history, Merida’s is in 500 years and it shows in many ways.
The people of the Yucatan area, and particularly in Merida, of course consider themselves Mexican, but do also consider themselves as different. Their historical roots are Mayan for example, where much of the rest of the main geographic area of Mexico are of Aztec ancestry. This makes the pre-Spanish part of them different. The real difference though is that Merida’s history is as connected to Europe, as it is Mexico City, and you can see that everywhere, particularly in the old architecture.
Historically, the area always resisted control from Mexico City and looked east for its development over the centuries. Locals will tell you that Merida’s unique location, on the point of the penensula, with water on three sides, gave it a vision of the world that the rest of Mexico could not see. In the late 19th century, the 50 year “Caste Wars” brought the area officially under control of the central government, and the people have slowly assimilated culturally into the the rest of Mexico, for the most part. They are very Mexican, but as different as someone from New York City might be to someone from rural Texas. Both Americans, but very different in many ways.
Early “settlement” of the area was of course Spanish, and the crown set up “hacienda owners” in the area, who built giant plantation homes. Many of those old family homes and mansions are still around today and incorporated into the city’s incredible architecture. Today, those homes are small hotels, restaurants and even corporate offices. The Paseo Montejo, a boulavard any architectural junky, like me, could easily O-D on, is lined with hundreds of old historic buildings, all fully restored and many, centuries old. It is really a remarkable drive, walk or even horse drawn wagon trip, for block after block.
Some historians say that at the turn of the 19th century, Merida Mexico had more millionaires, than any city in the world. Today, the population is over a million, but back then, I don’t know what the population was, but it had to be very small, so to have that many wealthy people seems odd. So you have to ask, where did the wealth come from? The area was a large export area for items like rope, which was made from henequin, a type of agave that grows well in the area, as well a exotic hardwoods, and chicle, used to make gum. Lots of money in rope back then I suppose and the streets of Merida today are lined with beautiful old hacienda structures today as proof of that.
Hotel Casa Italia
The main lobby of the hotel we stayed, Casa Italia, was part of a hacienda that was over 200 years old. Today, it is row buildings, and you would never know that one of them was a hacienda. The hotel is all new built, very nice actually, but the main entry was all restored hacienda. There are many of those old buildings throughout the area that are hotels today, with city built all around them.
There is a main square, the centro histórico, with the 400 year old Cathedral of Merida as the center piece. When I was there recently, the park across the street was full of festive vendors, music and even traditional Mayan dance performances in the street. No holiday, just a normal weekend in Merida. For blocks and blocks off this main square, are hotels, restaurants, shops, pubs, you name it. We found a German beer garden and enjoyed stout beers, made locally, in the outdoor beer garden. In Mexico!
Merida is a tourist destination for visitors from all over the world. But unlike most tourist destinations, like Quintana Roo where I live, or Orlando, or Branson or wherever, the locals have not changed for tourism. It is not a tourist city, it is a very real Mexican city, with very real Mexico. Prices for example, were not tourist prices for hotels, food and such. The locals did not seem to treat tourists as ATMs with feet, which usually happens in a tourist town. They treat you pretty normal as they celebrate their culture everywhere, not for the tourist, but because it is who they are and what they do. If tourist want to celebrate that with them, that is great, but not why they do what they do and that is a very refreshing form of “tourism”.
Merida has all the things most want in a big city. World class health care, an international airport with lots of traffic from around the world, museums, theaters, universities and a solid city government apparatus that seems to work very well. The streets are clean and friendly, and the police were everywhere, and equally friendly and professional. For gringos, they have all the usuals too, Home Depot, Chili’s and even an English library if you can believe that. That is why you would want to live there, not why you might want to visit. But if it is great place to live, it is usually an equally great place to visit and I would encourage all to do so. It is really a beautiful and culturally rich slice of Mexico, and one not to be missed if you are coming this way. I can’t wait to get back myself!