MĂ©rida is the largest city on the YucatĂˇn Peninsula and the capital of YucatĂˇn state â€“ its cultural and business hub, and an international gateway to the archeological and natural beauty of the Mundo Maya. While travelers to the peninsula have been focusing on the glitter of CancĂşn or the restored brilliance of ChichĂ©n ItzĂˇ, MĂ©rida has been creatively positioning itself as a premier vacation destination.
At its heart and under it streets, MĂ©rida is first a Mayan city. It is built on the ruins of the ancient town of T'ho, also known as IchcaanzihĂł, the "city of the five hills," for the five pyramids that once dominated what is now MĂ©ridaâ€™s Main Square. Above this Mayan base, Spanish colonists placed their most important edifices and plotted a street grid aligned with the north, south, east and west directions so important to Mayan astronomers. The founders called their new town MĂ©rida, after the Spanish city, because Tâ€™hoâ€™s impressive buildings reminded the newcomers of the Roman architecture for which the first MĂ©rida is still famous.
MĂ©rida is nicknamed â€śThe White City,â€ť which might refer to formerly white-painted buildings or the cityâ€™s cleanliness. As you walk the narrow streets, you will pass decaying colonial homes but many are newly restored and brightly painted now, housing hotels, shops and restaurants.
MĂ©rida is located in the northwest corner of YucatĂˇn state, 36 km (22 miles) from Progresoâ€™s Gulf of Mexico beaches, where MĂ©ridanos head to on weekends to escape the cityâ€™s heat. Itâ€™s a flat, straight shot, passing by abandoned henequĂ©n fields, the crop that fueled MĂ©ridaâ€™s 19th century economic boom. The worldâ€™s rope was made from YucatĂˇnâ€™s henequen, also known as sisal, until nylon came along and the â€śgreen goldâ€ť market collapsed. But, before it did MĂ©ridaâ€™s millionaires built lavish mansions along the Paseo de Montejo, the Parisian-style boulevard that heads north from the Historic Center.
Culturally speaking, MĂ©rida is one of Mexicoâ€™s most sophisticated cities, presenting Mayan and European performance and visual art, handicrafts, and cuisine. The cultures often fuse and create experiences that are uniquely MĂ©rida. Shopaholics can choose from bartering in public markets or slipping into finely woven linen fashions. Foodies can chow down on tacos from street vendors or sample tapas spiced with the regionâ€™s reddish seasoning paste, called recado rojo. Visitors also drive out of town and climb 1,500 year-old pyramids, kayak coastal waters, or lounge poolside at 17th century haciendas.
Today, MĂ©rida is a modern city, boasting professional soccer, baseball and basketball teams and 18 institutes of higher learning. American-style shopping malls abound, and MĂ©ridaâ€™s excellent hospitals now attract tourists on a new kind of trip: the medical vacation, with cosmetic surgery and dental care available at a fraction of North American and European prices.
Three Spanish conquistadors named Francisco de Montejo â€“ El Adelante, The Son and The Nephew â€“ thought that they had destroyed the Maya. Fortunately, for all of us who visit MĂ©rida today the Montejos actually only began the fusion of two strong, luminous cultures that has made MĂ©rida one of North Americaâ€™s most fascinating cities.