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Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Merida, Mexico

Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatán, lies at the north end of a plateau of porous limestone which is well suited to the cultivation of a type of agave-yielding henequen (sisal) fibre. Before the development of man-made fibres the henequen industry brought prosperity to the town, whose trade connections linked it with Europe and particularly with France.

During this period it became known as the "ciudad blanca", the "white city", since the people of Mérida liked to dress in white and took pride in keeping their town trim and clean. Thanks to its warm and humid climate this attractive town is gay with flowers, and life goes at a leisurely pace.

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Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor (Plaza de la Independencia) is the commercial and cultural hub of Mérida. It is surrounded by some of the town's most important buildings.

Church of Jesus

In the Parque Cepeda Peraza (or Parque Hidalgo), one block north of the Plaza Mayor on Calle 80, stands the Church of Jesus or Church of the Third Order (Iglesia de la Tercera Orden), a favourite church for weddings. On the left of the high altar will be seen an altarpiece of carved and gilded wood in the Plateresque style. The park also serves as a "taxi-rank" for Mérida's calesas (horse-drawn coaches).

State Art Gallery

The State Art Gallery is located just behind the Church of Jesús.

Mérida Cathedral

The cathedral in Merida.
On the east side of the Plaza Mayor, occupying the site of an earlier Maya temple, stands the Cathedral, built by Pedro de Aulestia and Miguel de Auguero between 1561 and 1598. The largest church in the Yucatán peninsula, its façade shows few architectural features of particular merit.
Above a doorway in the interior hangs a picture of the Maya ruler of Maní, Titul-Kiú, visiting the conquistador Francisco Montejo in Tihó. To the left of the high altar is the Chapel of the Christ of the Blisters (Capilla del Cristo de las Ampollas), with a 16th c. Indian woodcarving. According to legend this was made from the wood of a tree which the Indians once saw burning all night long without leaving any traces of the fire. The statue originally stood in a church at Ichmul which was burned down, and after the fire it was found black and covered with blisters. It has been in the Cathedral since 1645, and is the subject of special veneration at the beginning of October every year.

Archbishop's Palace (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Yucatán)

Near the Cathedral, but now separated from it by an intervening street, stands the Archbishop's Palace, which is now occupied by various government offices.
The palace also holds the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Yucatán (Museum of Contemporary Art).
Official site: www.macay.org
Address: Pasaje de la Revolución, #1907, Mérida, Yucatan 97000, Mexico

Casa Montejo

The south side of the Plaza Mayor is dominated by the Casa Montejo, one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture, built in 1549 as the residence of the Montejo family. Originally this palace, with its magnificent Plateresque façade, extended along the whole of the south side of the square. The large and handsome rooms are laid out as a museum around two patios and furnished with antique furniture imported from Europe. Note the coat of arms of the Montejo family and the stone sculptures of conquistadors standing with one foot on the bowed head of a conquered Maya. Until 1978 the house was still owned by descendants of the Montejo family; it now belongs to the state. There is a branch of a bank on the ground floor.

Town Hall

Opposite the Cathedral stands the Town Hall (Palacio Municipal), a 16th c. building with colonnades and a clock-tower. It was from here that the town-crier gave news of the independence of Yucatán in 1821.

Government Palace

At the north-east corner of the square is the Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno), built in 1892 and decorated with interesting murals painted by the Campeche artist Fernando Castro Pacheco in 1971-74. From the balcony there is a fine view of the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral.
Address: Calle 61, Mexico

Churches

A church in Merida.
The Emita de Santa Isabel church, at the corner of Calles 66 and 77, is notable mainly for the surrounding gardens with their Maya statues. The hermitage was once much frequented by travellers to and from Campeche, who prayed here for a safe journey or gave thanks on their return. Another church of historical interest is that of Santa Lucía, at the corner of Calles 60 and 55; it was originally built by the Spaniards for the exclusive use of their negro and mulatto slaves. Concerts are held in the evenings every week (usually on Thursdays) in the Parque Santa Lucia.

Museum of Anthropology and History

At the corner of Paseo Montejo and Calle 43 the former government building known as the Palacio del General Cantón now houses the Museum of Anthropology and History (Museo de Arqueología e Historía). This imposing 19th c. building contains a fine collection of material mostly from the halcyon days of the Maya civilisation, although the other advanced cultures of pre-Columbian Mexico are also well represented. The highlights of the collections are the sacrificial gifts retrieved from the cenotes at Chichén Itzá. There are also reproductions of the sketches of the Maya sites drawn by Frederick Catherwood and the photographs taken by Teobert Maler at the turn of the century. There is another archaeological museum on the corner of Av. Iztáes and Calle 59.

University of Yucatán

The University of Yucatàn, originally a Jesuit boys' school dating from 1618, stands on the corner of Calles 57 and 60. It offers summer courses for visitors in a number of subjects, including Spanish and archaeology.
Official site: www.uady.mx
Address: Calle 60, Mérida, Yucatan 970000, Mexico

Museo Regional de Arte Popular

Textiles and costumes, pottery, jewellery, toys and musical instruments are exhibited in the Museo Regional de Arte Popular ("La Mejorada") at No. 441 Calle 59. Regional folk art of good quality is offered for sale near by (No. 513 Calle 63, a restored monastery building).

Municipal Market

This Municipal Market, south of the Plaza Mayor, is well worth a visit. The main products on sale here include articles made from sisal (hammocks, panama hats, bags, carpets, sandals) together with huipiles (Maya-style dresses with brightly coloured embroidery around the neck) for women, and guayabera (shirts) for men.

Pinacoteca Gamboa Guzmán

Near the Church of Jesus, with its entrance on Calle 59, the Pinacoteca Gamboa Guzmán displays 19th and 20th c. paintings, mainly portraits and religious subjects, as well as pictures by the artist Gamboa Guzmán.

Convento de las Monjas

One block west of the Town Hall stands a handsome conventual building, a relic of the Convento de las Monjas, founded at the end of the 16th c. The viewing tower dates from 1633.

Paseo Montejo

During Mérida's heyday at the beginning of the 20th c. the Paseo Montejo was laid out on the model of the Paris boulevards. It passes through a select residential district and is flanked by a large number of monuments, the most striking of which is the Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Fatherland), constructed between 1946 and 1957 by the Columbian sculptor Rómulo Rozo. The principal sections portray Mexico's history and important personalities in the Maya style.

Parroquia de San Cristóbal

This Baroque parish church was restored in the 18th c. It is similar to the Cathedral.
Address: Calle 50, Mexico

Templo y Ex Convento de la Mejorada

Built in 1640 this Franciscan monastery was used for military quarters during the Mexican Revolution.
Address: Calle 59, Mexico

Ermita de Santa Isabel

This 18th c. church features a cemetery which has been turned into a garden.

Templo de San Juan Bautista

This 17th c. church is unusual in its decoration.

Surroundings

Hacienda Yaxcopoil

Situated 35km/22mi south of Mérida on the Uxmal road, and now a museum, the vast and reasonably well-preserved Hacienda Yaxcopoil offers an insight into life on a sisal (henequén) farm in the 19th c.
Official site: www.yaxcopoil.com
Address: Apartado Postal No. 1, Administracion de Correos No. 4, Mérida, Yucatan 97101, Mexico

Progreso

It is 35km/22mi from Mérida to Progreso, Yucatán's principal port, with a pier 2km/1.3mi long.

Sisal, Mexico

52km/32mi west of Mérida on a good road passing through Huncumá, lies Sisal, the major port in Yucatán when sisal production was at its peak. Visitors can see the house where the Mexican Empress Charlotte Amalie ("Carlota") spent the night in 1865 before embarking for Europe in an attempt to obtain support for her husband.

Celestún

This pretty fishing port lies 92km/57mi west of Mérida by a large, green lagoon. The inhabitants obtain their living from fishing, growing coconuts and salt extraction. The lagoon itself is a national park area, where numerous water-birds such as pelicans, flamingos, herons, cormorants and ducks can be observed. There are, however, plans afoot to build a large port here which will be accessible to international shipping.
South-east of Mérida lie a number of small places, some with interesting churches and convents of the colonial period. This excursion should be combined with a visit to the once important city of Mayapán, 48km/30mi south of Mérida.

Mayapan, Mexico

The Maya chronicles tell contradictory stories about the origin and development of Mayapán. It seems probable that the Itzá (who are now believed to have been a "Toltecised" Chontal-Maya people from Tabasco) came to Yucatán about 1200, resettled the abandoned site of Chichén Itzá and finally founded Mayapán ("Banner of the Maya"). Thereafter for almost 200 years Mayapán, under the Cocom dynasty, was the predominant power in Yucatán. Its end came around 1450 when the town was destroyed during a rising by the Xiú tribe, who had previously been settled at Uxmal. This led to the final collapse of the Maya civilisation, when the empire broke up into some 20 unimportant petty states.
In its heyday the town covered an area of about 6.5sq.km/2.5sq.mi, with some 3500 buildings, and was surrounded by a strong town wall. Its architecture was never on a par with that of Chichen Itzá and has only partially been excavated and restored.
On the right side lies first the "House of the Elders", followed by the Tzompantli (Maya for "Wall of Skulls"). The columned palace somewhat to the left still possesses a large stone-mask and two figures. The dominant building, however, is the Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulkán), with a fine view over the beech forest which surrounds the site. To the east of the Castillo a path leads left to a low structure, impressively decorated with masks of the rain-god Chac in the purest Puuc style, a style which flourished at least 300 years earlier.

Resorts

To the east of Progreso, near Chicxulub, are the summer resorts traditionally favoured by the people of Mérida. Also very popular are the beaches west of Progreso, with the little ports of Yucalpetén and Chelem. In addition to bungalow hotels there are also furnished houses available at very reasonable rents between September and June. It must be admitted, however, that this coast does not compare with those on the Caribbean side of Yucatán.

Scorpion Reef

130km/80mi north of Progreso in the Gulf of Mexico lie the Arrecifes Alacranes ("Scorpion Reef"), a semi-circular collection of islands, sand-banks and reefs around a lagoon. Rich in submarine life and with a number of sunken wrecks, these are popular with experienced skin-divers. Access to the reef is by charter boat from Progreso.
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