Mention Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and most people conjure up mental images of lush emerald jungles and awesome Mayan pyramids. That preconception is what makes a visit to Merida, the capital city and cultural center of Yucatan State, such an eye-opener.
In this sophisticated colonial city, visitors will discover an award-winning symphony, acclaimed dance companies, top-notch art and history museums, and a Jack Nicklaus-signature golf course, as well as culinary artistry that alone makes the trip worthwhile.
Above all, travelers will find an energetic night time city whose throbbing pulse beckons all to come out after dark to dine and be entertained, to dance the streets, shop the late-closing stores and revel in Yucatecan nightlife.
Merida is also a convenient hub for day trips in all directions. The ocean is just 25 miles away, but most folks also motor to the Mayan treasures of Chichen Itza and its even more impressive but lesser-known counterpart, Uxmal.
Too, the city is arguably Mexico's safest, primarily because there is respect across the classes, according to residents who say it's like family.
Early on, Merida's growth was propelled by production of henequen, the plant material used globally to make rope, until the advent of synthetic materials undercut the market for the fiber. In the late 1800s, the city's henequen barons decided Merida needed a boulevard modeled on Paris's Champs Elysees.
The resulting broad artery, Paseo de Montejo, remains one of Merida's top lures today. The roadway's center islands are riots of rosy bougainvillea, and its quiet brick sidewalks are sheltered by ramon and other flamboyant trees so large they can obscure the soaring mansions behind them. Many of those mansions have been turned into museums and consulates, others remain family owned.
You'll want to walk the serene sidewalks of Paseo de Montejo, just as you'll yearn to hoof the walkways of the narrow, European-style central city. Those sidewalks will take you through a cityscape of light blue, pale green and salmon-hued buildings to open-air cafes and lively plazas filled with people.
The Plaza Grande, heart of an historic city center, offers inviting benches, walks and sculpted ficus trees, and is a relaxing place to meet friends. The plaza is bookended with an assortment of architectural masterpieces. None is more impressive than Cathedral San Il De Fonso. Built between 1561 and 1598, it's the oldest cathedral on the continent.
Any time is a good time to dine in Merida, and you'll spot large parties of diners sitting down to sup al fresco even late into the evening.
Yucatan's historic isolation from mainland Mexico, but not from ships crisscrossing the Atlantic to and from Spain, meant Yucatecan cooking evolved as a flavor fusion blending ancient Spanish dishes and Mayan ingredients. The result is a distinctive cuisine marked by specialties like pavo en escabeche, a dish of turkey cooked in vinegar and spices.
Pork and turkey are staples of the Yucatecan cuisine, and many visitors find the pork in particular the tastiest they've ever sampled. Try the cochinital pibil, a pork dish cooked in a red sauce and accompanied by tortillas and rice.
Once you've gotten the lay of the land, you may want to spread your wings and visit other attractions of Mundo Maya, or the Mayan World.
Start with legendary Chichen Itza, about 90 minutes from Merida. Dating from approximately 500 to 1200 A.D., it is one of the largest sacred Mayan sites. The centerpiece of the city is the impressive great pyramid El Castillo, a structure so exactingly designed¿it served as an architectural calendar for the Mayans.
Chichen Itza is among the most famous Mayan archaeological sites, in part because it is easily reached from Cancun. But only those who have not seen Uxmal (oosh-MAHL) consider Chichen Itza the unquestioned top attraction.
While Chichen Itza covers a comparatively compact footprint, Uxmal seemingly sprawls for miles, offers breathtaking perspectives from high vantage points, showcases more intricately carved stonework and is far less crowded.
Less well-known but worth a visit is Ecomuseo del Cacao on the Plantation Tikul, located 20 minutes from Uxmal.