Mérida is the capital city and cultural center of the state of Yucatán. It is located 200 miles west of another world: Cancun. The city center sits atop an important ancient Mayan archaeological site. There are many notable archaeological sites in the countryside surrounding Mérida.
In 1937, poet Octavio Paz came to Mérida to work in a school for sons of peasants and workers. He began working on the first of his long ambitious poems, Entre la piedra y la flor ("Between the stone and the flower" 1941, revised in 1976), influenced by T. S. Eliot, which describes the situation of the Mexican peasant under the greedy henequen landlords of the day. In 1942, poet Elizabeth Bishop spent time in Mérida with her companion, Diane and Jerome Rothenberg spent time in Merida in 1960, as did poet William Matthews in the late 1960s. The former world-renowned art collector, Manolo Rivero, hosted many contemporary fine artists, including Julian Schnabel, Roberto Matta, Francisco Toledo and Sandro Chia. Leading archaeologists, have stayed for extended periods of time in and around Mérida. The Gran Hotel has been a hideout for famous writers, musicians, artists and politicians since the turn of the century.
Mérida's numerous museums include: a fine archaeological museum, a natural history museum, a contemporary fine art museum and their newest edition, the Museum del Mundo Maya. There are art galleries, open artist studios and a matriculated college of fine arts. The city also has six performance theaters, a notable symphony, an art-house cinema, a planetarium, music schools, an ever-expanding English language lending library and numerous language schools. Adding further to the cultural life of Mérida, are seven State owned universities, at least thirteen private advanced educational institutions and several national research centers. Collectively, they enroll students from Yucatán and other parts of Mexico, as well as up to 12,000 foreign students (mostly Europeans, Americans and Canadians) full-time every year. Due to the many students in Mérida, the city has a thriving cafe culture. Mérida's culinary scene has increased substantially in the last few years with an influx of young chefs that rival, if not surpass, Oaxaca's restaurants.
Caribbean and Gulf beaches can be reached within 30-minutes (Progresso), or 45-miuntes to Celestun (west-Gulf waters) or Telchac Puerto (northeast-Caribbean waters) by bus from downtown Merida.
Local public cultural events take place every night of the week in neighborhoods and squares throughout the city. Sunday nights are particularly special in Mérida, when streets surrounding the Grand Plaza are blocked and feature live music. Couples, families and tourists take to dancing in the street.
Starting on January 5th every year, th month-long MeridaFest is held in celebration of Mérida's anniversary. The festival features cultural events, including dancers, literary seminars and readings, professional musical performances, films and more. In January 2018, Mérida will mark its 476th anniversary.
The main plaza in Mérida was once the central site of the Post-Classic Maya town of T’Hó (in Maya lanaguage - Ichcaanzihó, or "The Five Points"). The city of T’Hó, in what was then the Province of Chakan, was thought by the Maya to be the center of the universe, the place where the four cardinal directions met. The earliest construction in the city of T'Hó is dated during 400A.D. and pottery from the 300B.C. has been found by archaeologists. However, most structures in T'Hó are dated to 800A.D.
During the mid-16th century, led by the Spaniard Francisco Montejo, Jr., the numerous temples and pyramids of T'ho were destroyed. With T'ho conquered, the city of Mérida was founded on January 6, 1542. Ancient stones from T'ho's five pyramids were used to construct many buildings in Mérida, most notably, on the east side of the Zocalo, the Catedral de San Ildelfonso (1561-1598), the oldest church in North America.
Across from the Cathedral is Mérida's town hall, the Palacio Municipal, built in 1735 with stones from T'ho and renovated in 1928. To the north is the beautiful Palacio de Gobierno (state office building), 1892, which contains extensive murals by Fernanco Castro Pacheco depicting the turbulent history of the Mayan people and the Spanish conquistadors. On the south side of the main plaza is Palacio Montejo, 1542, former home of Francisco de Montejo.
At the turn of the century, Mérida's affluence flourished due to the cultivation and export of sisal ('green gold', 'sisal' or 'henequén'). Sisal (named after the port city on the coast) is a hard vegetable fiber made from the agave cactus and used for rope (supplying the world at the turn of the century), Panama hats, mats and other products.
Vintage "Green Gold" the agave cactus .
Many haciendas, formerly owned by sisal barons from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, are located in the countryside surrounding Mérida. Several haciendas have been converted to boutique luxury hotels or offer tours. Hacienda Yaxcopoil is a fine example of the era of wealthy henequen barons.