Friday, April 20, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 6: The Centro Historico District north of Mérida's Plaza Grande

One of many colonial-era bell towers that dot the city-scape of Mérida. After returning from Celestún (see Parts 4 and 5), we continued our informal walking tour of the area north of Mérida's Plaza Grande. I sneaked up to the top deck of a hotel along Calle 60 (60th Street) in order to catch this late afternoon shot through an arch. Calle 60 is a north-south street that runs along the east side of the plaza. It is one of the nicer streets in the area, with colonial churches, sidewalk restaurants, lovely little parks, and other attractions along the 10 blocks leading north between the Plaza Grande and Parque de Santa Ana. In this posting we will take a look at some of  those places. For detailed tourist maps of this area, click here.

Tourists and vendors stroll Calle 60, which is pedestrian-only on Sundays.  On the left,  a Maya woman hurries by, loaded with hand-embroidered textiles. To her right, a group of female tourists sets a more leisurely pace. On the balcony above, customers of Café Serenata enjoy a broad view over the street and the Plaza Grande . The café sits on the northeast corner of the plaza, just across the street from Catedral San Ildifonso. We never sampled the fare at Café Serenata, but it looked like a great spot for people-watching. The café was originally the 16th Century home of Gaspar Juarez de Avila. In later years, it became a tavern. A 1919 photograph shows it as Salón Chino, serving Cuauhtémoc beer. Eventually the tavern closed, but it reopened recently as a restaurant-bar under its current name.

Mundo Maya carries Maya handicrafts aimed at the tourist trade. The elaborate facade identifies it as a former mansion from the colonial era. Given the width of the entry, this was probably the carriage entrance. Inside, there would have been a large, cobblestoned courtyard with balconies all around. Just to the right of the entrance is a rust-colored sign that I neglected to photograph. Had I done so, I could have told you some of the history of this building. There is something interesting nearly everywhere you turn in Mérida, so I missed my opportunity. As a photographer, I felt like a kid in a candy shop.

A sidewalk cafe graces the front of the Gran Hotel.  The Gran Hotel has a stained-glass awning extending out from the front door. The restaurant tables are under the green umbrellas to the left of the awning. The hotel opened in 1901 during Yucatan's great sisal boom. It became a favorite meeting place for actors, writers, musicians, and politicians. In recent years, the Gran Hotel has been elegantly restored to its former glory. We ate a couple of good, reasonably-priced meals at the hotel's attractive outdoor restaurant called (no kidding) "The Main Street Café." However, tour guides like to bring in busloads of people around lunch time. In an instant, a quiet meal can be transformed into a mob scene. We had a hard time attracting a waiter, even though we had arrived before the tour groups. I suspect the guides probably had an arrangement with the waiters to serve their parties first.

Directly in front of The Main Street Café is pedestal with a military statue. Beyond the statue is an attractive colonial church that I had previously photographed, but not identified, on a brief 2-day visit to Mérida in 2010. This time we had 10 days, so I was determined to find out as much as possible about the church and its surroundings. This took a surprising amount of detective work. I could find no historical signs around the church, and even the name was difficult to determine, although I later came across an obscure map reference to a church called "Tercera Orden." The statue and its pedestal are the centerpieces of Parque Hidalgo, established in 1871 by Governor Manuel Canto Cirerol as Mérida's second public park. The area had been used for a variety of purposes since the 17th Century. The statue itself provided no information except for the name of the figure, Manuel Cepeda Peraza. Fortunately, Google and Wikipedia came through for me, as they so often do.

General Manuel Cepeda Peraza, stern and sword-bedecked, gazes across the park. General Peraza was born and died in Mérida. He was a career soldier and a leader of the Liberal Party of Benito Juarez,  serving during some of the most tumultuous periods in the history of Yucatan and Mexico. He began his career as a young officer in the 1840s, just in time for the US invasion of 1846.  In 1851, Peraza participated in the Caste War against Maya rebels in Yucatan. He strongly supported Benito Juarez and led troops in the Reform War (1857-1861) between the Liberal and Conservative parties. When the Conservatives lost, they encouraged the French invasion and occupation of Mexico from 1862-1867. Peraza was forced into exile twice during his long career, including deportation to Cuba after he was captured by the French in Campeche. Each time he returned to fight again, liberating Oaxaca, Puebla, and Vera Cruz from French forces. Finally, in 1867, General Peraza re-entered Mérida in triumph, and became Yucatan's Governor. Unfortunately, he died only two years later but, before his death, he established the Literary Institute which became the University of Yucatan. He also founded the State Library, the Museum of Archaeology and History, and the Academy of Music, all of which survive today. Manuel Cepeda Peraza was a true patriot in a time when such a choice was both difficult and dangerous.

Church of Jesus or the Third Order

The Church of Jesus  is also called the Church of the Third Order. The Renaissance-style church was built by the Jesuit Order in 1618. The Jesuits have a long history of involvement in education and founded many colleges and universities. In Mérida, the Church of Jesus was closely associated with the Order's College of St. Francis Xavier. The exterior of the church is roughly finished stone, but the interior is gorgeous. Both on my earlier trip and on this one, I tried several times to gain entrance so I could photograph the interior. For reasons that are still unclear to me, the church always seemed to be closed when I came by. I finally succeeded late one evening during this second visit. It was not until I returned home and engaged in fairly extensive research that I was even able to determine the correct name (or names) of the church. The Church of Jesus is on Calle 60 at the corner of Calle 59, just to the north side of Manuel Cepeda Peraza's statue.

A side door to the Church of Jesus. A close examination of the exterior walls reveals the shells of ancient sea animals embedded in the limestone. The large wooden double doors above were studded with old hand-crafted iron bolts. Mérida was built upon the foundations of the ancient Maya city of T"ho, and many of the colonial edifices, including this one, used building materials from dismantled Maya temples and palaces. I am told that old pagan designs can be found on some limestone blocks. The overall Jesuit compound used to be much larger, once including the area now occupied by Teatro José Peon Contreras. Calle 57A, the street that separates the theatre from the church, was cut through the middle of the original property. The process of gradually reducing and demolishing the old religious compound began in 1823, shortly after the end of the War of Independence.

The interior of the church is beautifully decorated. It does not have the over-the-top, cover-every-square-inch aspect of many Baroque churches of the same era. Instead, the decoration is serene and very elegant and I liked it a lot. Fairly or not, the Jesuits developed a reputation of interfering with the internal affairs of royal governments throughout 18th Century Europe. In the New World colonies of those countries, conflict often arose when the Jesuits attempted to defend the rights of native peoples and to oppose their enslavement. In 1767, 227 years after the founding of the Jesuit Order by former Spanish soldier Ignatius Loyola, Charles III of Spain unceremoniously rounded up the Jesuits and kicked their Order out of all his possessions, including Nueva España.

The dome over the altar is surrounded by 4 circular oil paintings of biblical scenes. The paintings are set so high that a telephoto lens is required to examine them in detail. I have noticed this interesting aspect in many colonial churches. Exquisite works of art are often placed in locations where they are not easy for the average person to appreciate. Apparently the art is intended to glorify God and not to just to entertain Man. After the expulsion of the Jesuits, the Franciscan Order took over their possessions. This included Mérida's Church of Jesus, which the Franciscans renamed Iglesia de la Tercera Orden, or the Church of the Third Order. That is how this church ended up with two names, something that considerably confused my research efforts.

The main altar features a crucified Jesus as the central figure. I have often found Jesus relegated to lesser positions, sometimes to side chapels, in many colonial churches. Here, in the originally-named Church of Jesus, he occupies center-stage.  The extensive flower arrangements were apparently for a local religious fiesta. Notice the beautiful arched mural behind the altar and the delicate gold tracery along the top and bottom of the walls.

Side chapel for the Virgin of Guadalupe. You will nearly always find the Virgin of Guadalupe somewhere in a Mexican church, sometimes the central figure, sometimes in a side chapel. The Virgin is not only a deeply revered religious symbol to Mexican Catholics, but has become a national political symbol as well, associated with both the War of Independence and the Revolution.

Parque Maternidad

Parque Maternidad occupies a small space between the Church of Jesus and the theatre. A semi-circular structure of pillars partially surrounds the statue after which the park is named. Flower beds, shady palm trees, and inviting benches make this a quiet oasis in the midst of a bustling city.

The central focus of the park is a statue glorifying "maternidad" (motherhood). It is a reproduction of a statue in Paris by André Lenoir called Mother and Child. The park was originally called Morelos Park, but was renamed in February, 1909, when the statue was erected.

Sundays bring art to the park. Parque Maternidad becomes one of the focal points along Calle 60 on Sundays when the city closes the street to vehicles for several blocks. Local painters display their work, and other artisans set up tables for jewelry, embroidered textiles and many other items.

Cafes, clowns, and Guayaberas

Café Peon Contreras was another of our favorite spots. Just north of Parque Maternidad is the José Peon Contreras Theatre, inaugurated in December 1908 and named for a famous Yucatan who was a poet, novelist, playwright, doctor, and politician. On the side of the theatre facing Parque Maternidad is Café Peon Contreras. The food and prices are about the same as the Gran Hotel's Main Street Café but--as least when we visited--the Peon Contreras café did not get overrun by hungry tourist-bus passengers. The quiet ambiance provided excellent opportunities for more people-watching.

Touching up. As we strolled along, my eye was caught by this clown standing in front of the pull-down gate of a closed store as he touched up his makeup. This was only one of many odd vignettes we encountered while wandering through the Centro Historico. Like many Mexican cities possessing a vibrant Centro Historico, Mérida abounds with street musicians, mimes, clowns, and other performers. Rounding a corner, you never know just what you will stumble across.

Guayaberas Tita is located in another old mansion now used for commercial purposes. Similar to Mundo Maya, the wide entrance seen above was almost certainly for carriages. The limestone of the building, now somewhat discolored, shows why Mérida is still nicknamed "The White City." This store specializes in Guayabera shirts, a garment that is extremely popular in Mexico and is often called the "Mexican Wedding Shirt". It is also popular in other countries of Latin America, as wells as the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe. Each of the countries in these areas has its own claim to originating the shirt, but it probably came from either Cuba or Mexico. A guayabera is usually short-sleeved and is worn outside the pants where it extends to mid-thigh. There are usually 4 pockets, two on the breast and two just below the waist. According to legend, the guayabera got its name when a poor woman sewed some extra pockets on her husband's shirt so he could carry guayabas (guavas). The shirts are generally--but not always--light colored with a pair of vertical pleated stripes called alforzas running up the front and back sides. The material is light, which makes the shirt very comfortable in warm climates. I have owned a guayabera for several years, and it provides my "formal wear" in Mexico. In fact, Cuba has declared the guayabera to be "official formal dress."

Restaurant Amaro

Restaurant Amaro is located on Calle 59 between Calles 60 and 62. On separate days, we ate two excellent meals here, a lunch and a dinner. The courtyard setting exudes a quiet, elegant feel that is very relaxing after the hustling streets of Mérida. The restaurant is the site of a former colonial mansion with an important history. On November 30, 1787, statesman and journalist Andrés Quintana Roo was born here. After studying at the Seminario de San Ildefonso in Mérida, he eventually became a lawyer and presided over the 1813 Constituent Assembly that drafted Mexico's Declaration of Independence from Spain. His wife Leona Vicario was a great patriot in her own right who worked for the insurgency by gathering intelligence and supplies until she was caught and imprisoned by the Spanish. She eventually escaped to Michoacan where she married Andrés. After independence, Andrés Quintana Roo served as a Legislator, Senator, Secretary of State, and member of the Mexican Supreme Court. In addition he ran one of Mexico's early and very influential newspapers, the Semanario Patriótico. The State of Quintana Roo, located on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, is named after him.

A long afternoon lunch with friends in the cool shade of the Amaro patio. Our friends Denis and Julika (lelft and middle) chat with Carole about the day's events. Carole and I have fallen in love with the Mexican habit of long, leisurely lunches in quiet patios or sidewalk restaurants. What a different life it is from the fast-paced, eat-a-bite-on-the-run life we had north of the border.

This completes Part 6 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next two segments, we will look at some more of the interesting and historic sites around Mérida's Plaza Grande. If you would like to comment, I would love to hear from you. You can do so either by using the Comments section below or emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Fabulous pictures and write up. Very well done.

  2. Great pictures. I can't wait to make it to Mérida some day.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim