Known as the White City, Mérida has been attracting larger numbers of expats in recent years who are looking for a tropical climate, a culturally diverse city, proximity to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico and historic colonial homes to renovate.
This city of over a million people got its White City nickname from the white limestone used in the construction of many of its historic buildings. As the capital of the state of Yucatán, it is the financial and cultural center of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Mérida’s Centro Histórico district at the heart of the city is the third largest in the Americas and is attracting many expats who are renovating centuries-old colonial homes.
Plaza Grande is the soul of the city and its central square. It is surrounded by the historic main cathedral, the MACAY Museum, the Ayuntamiento or old city hall, the Governor’s Palace and Casa de Montejo, the former palace of Montejo the Conquistador, which was built in 1549. The Cathedral de San Ildefonso is the oldest cathedral in North America, built between 1561 and 1598.
The city’s Paseo de Montejo is home to many houses developed by the henequen-industry millionaires and has a number of original sculptures lining the street. Sculpture also receives top billing each year at the MACAY Museum in Mérida when it mounts a new sculpture installation, featuring works from Mexico and one other chosen country. It is the only Yucatán Peninsula museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art and receives nearly 75,000 visitors annually.
The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is a world-class museum celebrating Maya culture. It has a permanent collection of more than 1,100 well-preserved artifacts, including a reclining chacmool sculpture from Chichén Itzá, the well-preserved ancient Maya city just an hour and a half drive from Mérida.
With 60 percent of the local people tracing their roots back to the Maya, some of the rich Maya heritage and traditions remain. Holidays like Hanal Pixan – a Maya/Catholic Day of the Dead celebration – remain today. Hanal Pixan is celebrated on November 1 and 2. Elaborate altars are built and dedicated to dead relatives. Crucifixes coexist with skull decorations and food offerings, such as Múkbil pollo, the Mayan tamal pie offered to the dead on All Saints’ Day. It is traditionally accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate.
Since Mérida is one of Mexico’s ethnic melting pots, its cuisine reflects influences of the Maya as well as the Caribbean, Mexico, Europe and even the Middle East. It liberally integrates tropical fruit into many of its dishes. Papadzules is a Maya meal with pumpkin seed soaked corn tortillas filled with egg and spices. Poc Chuc is a local version of boiled or grilled pork. Panuchos are fried tortillas with lettuce, tomato, turkey and avocado on top. The Queso Relleno is a carved Edam cheese ball stuffed with ground pork and served with tomato sauce.
Mérida also goes all out for Carnival each year. The celebration for both adults and children lasts eight days. A king and queen preside over multiple cultural celebrations. One of the events in the city’s main square is the burning of the bad mood. The bad mood is read aloud and a fire is set, ending in a firework show. The rest of the celebration continues with other events, including parades and dancing. The final event of the celebration is the burial of Carnival John. Women who pretend to be widows mourn him as his will is read.
For classical music lovers, Mérida is home to the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra, which plays regular seasons at the Jose Peon Contreras Theatre.