Sunday, March 11, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 1: Mérida, the "White City"

The walls of the Catedral de San Ildefonso and the Ateneo Peninsular glow a soft white in the dusk. Carole and I paid our second visit to Mérida in January of 2012. Our first visit had been for a brief 2 days during our 2010 journey through Southern Mexico with Caravan Tours. That experience convinced us to return this year for a more in-depth look. Mérida is situated in the northwest corner of the Yucatan Peninsula and is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. With a population of more than 970,000, Mérida is the largest city on the whole Peninsula, which includes Campeche and Quintana Roo States as well as Yucatan. The Peninsula has a pre-hispanic history going back thousands of years. The area was visited by Spanish expeditions in 1517 and 1518, both of which were driven off by fierce Maya resistance. This was prior to Hernán Cortés' landing on the mainland of what would become Nueva España in 1519. The Maya's hot reception was an indication of the fierce resistance to come when the Spanish conquistadors later attempted to subdue them. In fact, the Maya outlasted every other Mesoamerican civilization the Spanish encountered. Their last outpost, the city of Tayasal in Guatemala, did not fall until 1697. This was a full 175 years after the Aztecs surrendered. Maya culture has shown amazing resilience in the face of the most brutal treatment by the Spanish authorities and their Mexican successors. Today, Mexico has begun to recognize the value of its wonderful Maya heritage.  The government is encouraging various aspects of Maya culture including art, dance, food, music and language, and showcases its great Maya ruins. Much of this was proudly on display in Mérida when we visited. For a Google map of northwest Yucatan and Mérida, click here.


Mérida rests on the ancient foundations of its Maya predecessor. Above you can see a scale model of the Maya city of T'ho, known as "the city of 5 hills" in a reference to its 5 pyramids. The ancient Maya architects used the Peninsula's abundant white limestone as their primary building material for pyramids, temples, and palaces. As was their usual practice, the Spanish dismantled the Maya buildings at T'ho and used the white stones to build their cathedral and many other structures. Thus Mérida came by its nickname: "The White City". Ancient T'ho was laid out in concentric circles, with the center containing the religious and administrative complex seen above. Immediately around it were the homes of the nobility. Surrounding that ring were the homes of the commoners. (Scale model from the Museo de la Ciudad)

Urn recovered from the site of ancient T'ho. The reassembled stone urn is carved with relief designs around its circumference. Visible above are two very loose-limbed dancers, frolicking at an ancient fiesta. According to the writings of Bishop Diego de Landa, who wrote "Relation about the Things of Yucatan" shortly after the Conquest, there were 3 great edifices in T'ho. A structure called Pocobtok (Knife of Flint) was located where the Convent of San Francisco now stands. Another stood to the east of Mérida's main plaza and was called H'chumca'an (Center of the Sky). The third was dedicated to the Maya god Baklum Cha'an (Phallus of the Earth in Plain Sight). The Catedral de San Ildefonso now stands over the Phallus of the Earth. The conquistador Francisco de Montejo stayed for a year in the Baklum Cha'an complex after conquering T'ho. (From Museo de la Ciudad)

Maya grave from T'ho. Funerary rituals were very important to the pre-hispanic Maya. They believed the dead still experienced sensations, feelings, and needs. Accordingly, they carefully placed various objects around the body to help the dead person on his way through Xilbalba (the Underworld). Often bowls placed in crypts would have a hole punched in them, as a way to "kill" the pottery. If the person was a noble, priest, or royalty, a group of their servants might be killed and placed in the crypt so that they could continue to attend their master in the afterlife. In the 500 years since the Conquest, ancient T'ho has completely disappeared under Mérida. However, at the time the Spanish arrived, the city was still populated and functioning. This makes Mérida one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the Western Hemisphere. (From Museo de la Ciudad)

Mérida's Plaza Grande, as it looks today. The view above is from the northeast to the southwest. In the center is the Jardin, or plaza garden. All the streets in the Centro Historico are numbered, whether they run north-south or east-west. The street running from the bottom left on a slight diagonal to the right is Calle 61. The street running from the bottom center to the upper left corner of the photo is Calle 60. Where they cross, two important buildings stand on adjacent corners. The one with the double steeples on Calle 60 is the Catedral de San Ildefonso. On the corner of Calle 61, facing the Jardin, is the Palacio Gobierno, or Governor's Palace. It is the headquarters of the State of Yucatan. The street that crosses diagonally from top center to the center of the right side of the photo is Calle 62. In the middle of this block is the Palacio Municipal, or City Hall, with a single bell tower. The fourth side of the plaza is Calle 63. In the center of this block stands the Casa de Montejo, built by one of the original conquistadors. It possesses a spectacular facade that is unique in Latin America. Both Calle 61 and 62 have long, covered walkways bounded by the arches and pillars called portales. For a walking-tour map of the Centro Historico area, including the plaza, click here. (Scale model from Museo de la Ciudad)

Catedral de San Ildefonso

Catedral de San Ildefonso is the oldest cathedral in Mexico. Construction began in 1561 and was completed in 1598. The temple to the Maya god Baklum Cha'an lies beneath the church and materials from the Maya structure were used to built San Ildefonso. The Catedral was named after Ildefonsus, a Visigoth whose Germanic name was Hildefuns. The Visigoth barbarians sacked Rome in 410 AD and eventually overran much of the Western Roman Empire, including Spain. In 589 AD, they converted to Christianity, and by 657 Ildefonso had become Bishop of Toledo. His writings made him a potent force among Spanish Christians for centuries, eventually leading to his canonization. To honor him, Yucatan's colonial church authorities gave his name to their new cathedral. The Visigoths themselves were not so fortunate. In 712 AD, their king and many leading men were killed by invading Moors from North Africa. The Moorish Muslims ruled Spain for the next 700 years, until they were finally defeated and expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela. These are the same two who financed Christopher Columbus' voyages of discovery which eventually led to the conquest of Yucatan.

The left tower of the Catedral and its great coat-of-arms. King Phillip II of Spain ordered the building of the Catedral and awarded it a coat-of-arms.  Phillip was the same Spanish king who ordered his Armada (naval fleet) to sail to England and invade the domain of Queen Elizabeth I. The Armada was defeated by English sailors led by Sir Francis Drake, and most of the Spanish fleet later sank in a great storm. Drake was a ferocious pirate and plunderer who--with the connivance of Queen Elizabeth--had raided many Spanish New World settlements, including some in Yucatan. His actions helped trigger the launching of the Armada on its ill-fated voyage. They also brought about the fortification of many Spanish settlements including the Yucatan Peninsula city of Campeche. Drake has been dead for almost 400 years, but those massive fortifications can still be seen today.

Interior of Catedral de San Ildefonso with its massive crucifix. The Cristo de la Unidad is the largest indoor crucifix in the world, standing 7.62 meters (25 ft.) tall. It was commissioned by the Church to try to solidify a sense of unity between the Maya and the Catholicism. The cathedral was built in a mixture of styles, including Moorish, Renaissance, and Baroque. Its chief architects during 37 years of construction were Pedro de Aulestia and Miguel de Auguero. The cathedral in Mexico City was also built by Auguero, but at a later time. In addition to the crucifix, there are two other notable features in the interior. One is a painting above a doorway depicting the Maya ruler Titul-Kiú, meeting with conquistador Francisco de Montejo el Mozo. These two allies defeated other Maya who were resisting the Conquest. Such alliances were typical of the Spanish divide-and-conquer strategy. Titul-Kiú converted to Christianity and his descendants still live in Mérida. The Catedral's other interesting feature is a Maya woodcarving of Christ. The wood for the statue was taken from a tree that the Maya saw burning all night without being destroyed, leading them to believe it was sacred. The carving was originally kept in a church at Ichmul which later burned down. However, the statue survived intact except for some blisters. It was removed to the Catedral in 1645 and is now kept in a nook called the Chapel of the Christ of the Blisters.

View toward the entrance of the Catedral showing the organ pipes. The church interior is very impressive. Beautiful limestone columns rise to support Moorish arches high above. The church seems a bit austere today because it was sacked during the Mexican Revolution. In 1915, General Salvador Alvarado was appointed Governor of Yucatan by the revolutionary government in Mexico City. He is famed today because of the many social reforms he implemented to help the Maya and other ordinary people. However, because the Church had provided political support for the ousted dictator Porfirio Diaz, General Alvarado ordered the sacking of the Catedral. He even went so far as to use it as a stable for his horses. In 1924, he was murdered in Chiapas, possibly in retaliation for his social reforms. Since that period was the prelude to the Cristero War between the revolutionary government and Catholic fanatics, it could also be that Alvarado was an early victim of that conflict.

Intriguing statue in a wooden retablo. A retablo is a large wooden structure, often found behind altars or at the back of side-chapels. The wood is often carved and gilded, and there are niches for religious paintings and sculptures as you can see above. This particular niche contains a tableau I found unusual. Christ hangs from a cross which is gently supported by much larger figure who appears to represent God. I have seen many statues, paintings, and other representations of saints, the Virgin, and Jesus Christ in Mexican churches. However, God, seems to be a very remote figure in Mexican Catholicism, and I can't recall ever seeing another painting or statue of him. The saints, the various Virgins, and Christ are felt to be intermediaries to whom one can appeal for intercession with God. Rarely does God appear directly, as in the statue above.

Offerings of thanks drape a saint. This is one of the more charming practices that I have encountered in various Catholic churches in Mexico and Guatemala. The faithful pray to a saint for help in a personal matter. If the prayer is answered, a ribbon is marked with some brief statement of thanks for the favor granted. The ribbon is then left draped over the saint's arms, or around his neck. I have seen similar offerings draped around a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a tiny niche deep in the mountains overlooking Ajijic. In Santiago, Guatemala, people who have safely returned from the US leave expensive designer scarves around the necks of statues of their saints.

Anteneo Peninsular

The Museum of Contemporary Art glows under floodlights. The museum is sometimes called "Macay" for short. Like many colonial religious buildings in Mexico, this one experienced a turbulent history and has been used for a variety of purposes. Construction began in 1573 under Bishop Diego de Landa, mentioned earlier in this posting. The building process lasted  into the period of Bishop Gonzalo de Salazar (1608-1663). The building functioned as the Bishop's residence and administrative center for the next 250 years. The Macay sits adjacent to the Catedral on the south side, filling up the rest of the block. Retail stores occupy most of the ground floor. Beyond its construction dates, little is known of the early history of this structure, because the records were lost during a violent episode in 1705. Alonso Valverde was the Franciscan head of the Convent of San Francisco. He apparently displeased Bishop Pedro de los Rios de la Madrid, who imprisoned him in this palace. In the attempt to rescue Valverde, his supporters destroyed the early records. In the 1850s, the palace was deemed to be State property under the Reform Laws of Benito Juarez. However, not much actually changed and the Bishop continued to reside in palace into the 20th Century. Then, in 1915, General Salvador Alvarado arrived.

Ateneo Peninsular is the name on a crest adorning the top of the building. General Alvarado promptly evicted the Bishop and quartered his troops in the palace for several weeks. In June of 1915, the military formally took possession and began renovations that led to the building's present appearance. The name Ateneo Peninsular seems to have come from a literary society that used the building for a period after Alvarado's troops pulled out. At some point they installed the crest with their name. Then various state and federal agencies used some of the space for offices. In the 1930s, the military again took over the building as its headquarters for the area. By the 1980s, the Ateneo Peninsular was virtually abandoned. Finally, in the early 1990s, the Yucatan State government renovated the building yet again, and re-opened it 1994 as the Museum of Contemporary Art, or Macay.

La Casa de Montejo 

A home for conquerers. La Casa de Montejo (Montejo House) was built by Francisco de Montejo el Mozo in 1549, seven years after he completed the conquest of western Yucatan. There were actually three conquistadors named Francisco de Montejo: the father (el Adelanto), the son (el Mozo), and the nephew (el Sobrino). Together, they participated in the conquest of the Aztecs under Hernán Cortés. After that, el Adelanto won permission from King Carlos I of Spain to conquer Yucatan. He had previously participated in the unsuccessful Grijalva expedition to Yucatan in 1517, so he had some sense of the ferocity of the Maya. In 1527-28 he attempted to invade the Caribbean coast from the east, but was driven off. He then switched to a western approach from Tabasco, where his son el Moza played a key role in putting down resistance from 1528-31. From Tabasco, el Adelanto launched his assault on Yucatan in 1531. This new campaign lasted until el Adelanto was driven out in 1535. It turned out that the Maya were a very different kettle of fish than the Aztecs. Cortés conquered the Aztecs in a relatively short time by capturing their capital at Tenochtitlán and overthrowing Emperor Moctezuma. The Maya had never been part of a unified empire and were very decentralized. This required the Spanish to conquer them piecemeal, one small city at a time. It was brutal, bloody, and dangerous work in the heat and humidity of Yucatan. In the end, el Adelanto's troops deserted and he fell back to Tabasco in defeat.

Montejo family coat-of-arms decorates the facade over the main door. It fell to el Adelanto's son, el Mozo, to complete the conquest of Yucatan. He reinitiated the fight in 1537 and, in the process, founded the city of Campeche (capital of the modern State of Campeche) in 1540. Using Maya allies, he finally subdued western Yucantan in 1542, and established his capital in the ancient city of T'ho. El Mozo named it Mérida, after a city in Spain whose buildings were also of white limestone. Montejo laid out his new city with the Plaza Grande as the center. He assigned the whole south block of the plaza to himself so he could build the great house that we see today. Ultimately, Francisco de Montejo el Mozo moved to Guatemala where he died in 1565. However, descendants of the Montejo family lived in the house well into the 20th Century.

The Plateresque architectural style of Casa de Montejo is the finest in Mexico. The house built by el Mozo was constructed in the Plateresque style and is considered its most outstanding example not only in Mexico but in the Western Hemisphere. Plateresque developed in the 14th and 15th Centuries in Spain and is a mixture of Gothic, Moorish, and early Renaissance. In a following posting, I will show you details of the amazing facade of the Casa de Montejo, and we'll also take a peek inside. Today, the Casa is a museum housing a number of rooms filled with fine examples of 18th and 19th Century furnishings. Unfortunately, photographs of these rooms are not allowed, so my interior shots were limited.

Palacio Municipal

The Palacio Municipal sits in the middle of its block. You are viewing the Palacio Municipal from the southwest corner of the Plaza Grande, looking north up Calle 62. The Palacio is the red building with the clock tower. The yellow building in the foreground is another fine old colonial home that has been restored and filled with shops. There are many similar restorations in the Centro Historico, but much remains to be done.

The Palacio Municipal is a two story building lined with graceful portales on both floors. The site of the Palacio was originally occupied by one of the five pyramids of T'ho. The first Palacio was built between 1734-1736 during the period of Don Santiago Aguirre. Up until then, the Ayuntamiento (City Council) needed to meet in Aguirre's store next to the Palacio Gobierno (Govenor's Palace) on the north side of the plaza. Once their new building was complete, the councilors moved in and began conducting business, much of which seemed to involve Palacio renovations over the next couple of centuries. These included two renovations in the 19th Century and six in the 20th Century. The white building at the end of the block is the Centro Cultural Olimpo, which contains a theatre, a planetarium, and space for exhibits and conferences. Every Tuesday evening, Olimpo sponsors a free concert which includes traditional Mexican songs and dances. The gleaming white building was inaugurated in 1999.

The Palacio's clock tower lights up at dusk. Lacy palms of the Plaza Grande nicely frame the graceful old tower. The tower has quite a history in itself. The original clock tower was built in 1870-72. It was replaced by another, grander one in 1919. Less than ten years later, in 1928, the tower was replaced again, along with renovations to the facade of the building. These final changes give the Palacio the appearance it has today. Unfortunately, the clock no longer functions and its bells are silent.

North side of Plaza Grande

Calle 61 was pleasingly free of traffic on the Sunday I took this photo. Mérida is a very busy, fast-paced city and the streets are usually full of careening traffic. On Sundays, however, the city government shuts down several of the streets around the Plaza Grande so that strollers can enjoy street vendors, dance and musical performances, and the general relief from dodging cars and buses. The green building in the right foreground is the Palacio Gobierno, or Governor's Palace, the seat of the Yucatan State Government. In a following posting, we'll visit this Palacio to see the huge murals contained within its interior courtyard and salons. As you can probably tell from the blue skies and fluffy white clouds in many of these photos, the weather in January was gorgeous. I recommend visiting this time of year, as the summers can be oppressive.

More portales and second-story wrought-iron balconies. These portales are on Calle 61, just to the west of the Palacio Gobierno.There are tables under this walkway where you can order some of the excellent local coffee, or enjoy an ice cream, or even a full meal. Upstairs is a bar/restaurant where some of the tables sit on the little balconies overlooking the street. They provide an excellent vantage point to take in some of the action below. I took some of my photos of the Plaza Grande activities while sitting at one of these balcony tables. While I was at my balcony table, small children gathered on the sidewalk below and begged me to drop a peso or two so they could buy ice cream. I obliged, of course.

Bathed in the golden afternoon sunlight, horse-drawn carriages wait for customers. You are looking east on Calle 61, just across the street from the Palacio Gobierno. To the right, out of sight in the photo, is the Catedral de San Ildefonso. We tried a variety of ways to see the sights of Mérida. These included double-decker tour buses, taxis, walking, and riding one of these carriages. In a later posting, when we take a look at the grand avenue called Paseo de Montejo, we'll do it from the seat of a  carriage. As you will see, the carriage ride was a tour not for the faint of heart.

Mérida attracts tourists from all over the world. These two young women appear to be from the Middle East. I saw them several times around town and they seemed to be with a group of young Europeans students, perhaps from one of the universities frequented by the children of well-to-do Middle Eastern families. The number and variety of foreign tourists was striking. A great many of them, especially at our hotel, were from European countries like Germany, France, Spain, and Belgium.

Keeping a watchful eye. These cops seem ready for anything. They wear body armor, and the beefy guy on the left is fondling an Uzi submachine gun as he talks on his radio. There was a pretty substantial police presence in Mérida, although not all of them were as combat-ready as these appear to be. Actually, Yucatan is one of the safest areas of Mexico, with very little of the drug cartel violence seen in some other areas. These guys seem determined that it should remain that way.

This completes Part 1 of my Northwest Yucatan series. I hope you enjoyed it. I always enjoy comments and if you'd like to leave one, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. Also, feel free to send a link to my blog to family and friends if you'd like.

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Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I read your Merida posts in reverse order! As always, enjoy the extremely rich historic background you provide. We visited the city in '95, while anchored at Isla Mujeres. It was lovely and rich with cultural events then...but seeminly more so, now! Hope to return one day.

  2. the saint with the ribbons is St Charbel Maklouf


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