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Mérida — an appealing destination in Mexico's south

Stroll the streets and discover why this beguiling city has become a magnet for Americans.

March 24, 2013|By Catherine Watson
  • The Cathedral of San Ildefonso, built in 1561, is a landmark in Merida, Mexico.
The Cathedral of San Ildefonso, built in 1561, is a landmark in Merida, Mexico. (Catherine Watson, Catherine…)

MÉRIDA, Mexico — Until this winter, Mérida had just been a busy city I passed through on my way to the ancient Mayan ruins.

Then, in mid-December, I made it my destination.

I pretty much had to: I'd been hearing the city's name all fall, from house-hunting shows on TV to acquaintances in Minnesota trading tips about winter getaways. Even my new dog groomer turned out to be renovating a house here.

Was Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state, going to be Mexico's next big Yankee magnet — a new Ajijic or San Miguel de Allende?

I needn't have worried, though the city offers Americans many temptations: warm weather, cheap building stock, good healthcare, inexpensive insurance, property taxes a fraction of what they are at home, free cultural events and a trove of builders, woodworkers, blacksmiths and stone masons who do quality work for prices Americans can't quite believe.

Mérida was particularly appealing on weekend nights when the narrow streets around its central plaza were closed to traffic, music flooded from the sidewalk cafes and people of all ages went strolling in the warm evening air. I went too.

Maya girls from Chiapas state were carrying armloads of embroidered shawls, hoping someone would buy them. Artists had watercolors and beaded jewelry spread out for sale. Food-cart vendors were making cheese roll-ups to go. And the drivers of Mérida's romantic horse-drawn carriages, their white-painted rigs decorated with roses, were patiently waiting for fares.

I knew this was the crowded center of a city of a million people, but it felt as sweet and safe as a village in the countryside.

In all the evenings I spent walking there, nobody hassled me. Nobody hassled me by day, either, which gave me the rare joy of being a tourist without feeling like one.

This sense of safety wasn't an illusion, and "it's to Mérida's credit," said Brent Marsh, a New Zealander who leads house tours for visitors, including prospective home buyers, for the Mérida English Library. "People from farther north — Monterey and Mexico City — are moving their families here for safety."

Geography plays a role in this: The Yucatàn Peninsula lies too far east to be on the drug-smuggling routes running north through central Mexico.

But then, the Yucatán has always stood apart from the rest of the country. The Spanish conquest took longer here, and bloody resistance flared up again in the mid-1800s. And until the 1950s, when good roads arrived, it was easier for people to get to Paris than to Mexico City.

In the 19th century, when Yucatecan landowners began to get rich raising "green gold" — henequén, a big, tough, agave-like plant that yields good fiber for rope — the only way they could get it out was by ship to Europe, which was where wealthy families sent their children to be educated.

When the ships returned, they carried ballast that changed Mérida's architecture, said Keith Heitke, a former New Yorker who leads house tours for the English-language publication Yucatán Today.

Iron rails from European train lines replaced termite-vulnerable ceiling beams, French red tiles covered the roofs, and ceramic floor tiles took the place of carpets.

Isolation also helped the old culture survive. Today, more than 6 million people identify themselves as Mayan. Mayan dialects are widely spoken in the states of Campeche, Chiapas, Yucatán and Quintana Roo and southward into highland Guatemala and Belize.

Mérida's centro historico is now one of the biggest historic districts in Latin America, and local government favors preserving old houses to protect the city's authentic character. That alone might make locals look on the newcomers kindly, but they probably would anyway.

"The Yucatán people are very accepting," said Evalynne Engle, who moved to Mérida from Nevada with her husband in 2006. "I mean, they accept us gringos."

Local people also seem to appreciate those efforts to save the old houses, even though 20 years ago, "you couldn't give these houses away," Engle and other expatriates told me.

Younger people were tired of crumbling walls, termite infestations, peeling paint and balky plumbing. They moved out, and centro became, as one man put it, "the place where Grampa lived."

Now, in the leafy neighborhoods to the north, there are suburban-style homes, high-rise hotels, multiplex theaters, car dealerships and familiar names: Starbucks, Home Depot, Wal-Mart.

But the old city core is still a tight network of one-story façades set shoulder-to-shoulder and flush to the sidewalk, street after street, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood.

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