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Destination: Mexico : Dancing in the Streets : After the party ends in Merida, the music never stops and the caterer keeps the great food coming

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I had come to this graceful Spanish colonial capital because it was awash in flowers and bathed in art, because old men in white played guitars and marimbas in the city’s parks, because the food was the best in Mexico.

How was I to know there was a party going on?

It was Carnival time in Merida, four days of pre-Lenten merrymaking. Mardi Gras with a touch of innocence. The streets were flooded with gold and silver balloons, tiny children snacked on corn, teen-agers flaunted taut bodies, men with weathered faces leaned against storefronts and clutched frosty bottles of Negro Modelo in their thick brown hands. Half a dozen pale American men in their 50s and 60s, on a tour for the newly sober, chain-smoked and gulped down coffee.

And then we heard the sirens. We jumped behind the barricades and cleared the streets. The parade was coming.

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For two hours, I watched a dazzling show of energy, beauty and infectious music. The street overflowed with sequins, sparkles, flowers, floats and thousands of magnificently costumed dancers. No one stood still. The dancers laughed, preened and blew kisses. They threw candy, ice cream, soft drinks, fruit juice, water bottles, corn chips, toys, lipstick and tampons. Once I was hit in the head, and a liquid that tasted like bubble gum ran down my shirt and pants. But hey, this was Carnival.

After the last float passed by, we jumped the barricades and thronged the streets. Tens of thousands of us snaked toward the zoocalo , the central plaza, the eternally beating heart of the city. Dancers mingled with us, taking compliments and showing off their costumes. The male dancers drank bottles of Montejo beer; the female dancers kissed little shawled men on the tops of their heads.

Musicians assembled in Parque Santiago, a few blocks from the parade route, and drumbeats shook the city. The music was festive, and exotic to foreign ears, but the musicians, knowing Americans were in the crowd, sang out, “Hot, Hot, Hot!”

From as far away as the Hyatt Regency, uptown from the zocalo, revelers echoed back, “Ole, ole, ole, ole!”

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Merida may seem like an odd spot for a party. It rests on a flat plain, in a steamy state with no lakes or rivers. You’ll find no dense rain forests here. What you will find is a city of painters, of planters, of people who turned to the worship of beauty, beauty that they themselves created. Where scrub once ruled, a garland of parks now rings the city.

Merida is laid out in a tidy grid of numbered streets. Even-numbered streets run north and south; odd-numbered streets run east and west. You can’t get lost. Though the city has nearly 1 million people, the tourist’s Merida is a walkable village. In four days here last March, I never needed a taxi.

(Merida’s landscaped terrain, infrastructure and services were “completely untouched” by hurricanes Opal and Roxanne last month, according to Jorge Gamboa, regional director of the Mexican Government Tourism Office in Beverly Hills and a native of Merida.)

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The zocalo is the city’s village green, the sprawling front yard of the 16th-Century complex of cathedral, city hall and governor’s palace. Under spreading laurel trees, villagers sit on confidenciales --benches shaped like S’s so friends can face each other and gossip quietly. If you live in Merida, the zocalo is where you hold hands with your beloved, teach your babies to walk, buy drinks of guava and papaya juice, laugh at puppet shows and duck to avoid the priest.

A typical Mexican plaza? Not exactly. While many zocalos smell like lard and diesel fumes, Merida’s smells like oranges and plumeria, Yucatan’s cousin to frangipani. I never heard the blare of a mariachi band at the zocalo, never saw a taco or a painting of baby Jesus on black velvet. No prostitutes hustled me, no one tried to shine my shoes. No barefoot little girls tried to sell me Chiclets.

The Yucatan peninsula, making up the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatan --of which Merida is the capital--has long been the Other Mexico. It was the last area to be conquered by the Spaniards, the last to accept Catholicism, the last to speak Spanish. Yucatan seceded from Mexico twice during the early 19th Century and rose up against Mexican rule in 1847 in an insurrection so bloody that ultimately half its Mayan inhabitants were killed.

The rebels raided the cathedral and stole its art treasures, leaving it oddly barren inside, in contrast to Merida’s other gleaming Spanish colonial monuments, built around central courtyards dense with palms and giant ferns and rich in murals and statuary.

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Like most visitors to Merida, I was using the city as a base of operations for day trips to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Uxmal. And as much as I loved climbing pyramids, I still looked forward every day to the soaring Spanish architecture, the Moorish arches, the dense gardens and the spirit of joy in Merida.

Most of all, I loved the gentle, soft-spoken descendants of the pyramid-builders, with their broad, open faces, their little turned-up noses, their have-a-nice-day demeanor. They also knew how to run a hotel, and how magnificently they cooked!

After the parade on Carnival’s opening day, I followed a chic clique of revelers in their 20s into Restaurant Express, a sidewalk cafe and crossroads two blocks north of the zocalo. I ordered pollo pibil , chicken baked in banana leaves with sour oranges, lemon, tomatoes and peppers, for $3.50, along with a pitcher of sangria poured over papayas, oranges and watermelon for $1.60. On the side was a dish of very hot salsa.

The show was free, a passing promenade of young Americans peeling from Cancun sunburns, stylish Mayan boys in jeans and work boots, and chic mestizo women in little black dresses and heels. A dozen teen-age girls whizzed by on in-line skates. Elderly couples in loose white guayabera shirts and rebozos strolled by, arm in arm.

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Yucatan cuisine is a blend of Caribbean, Mayan and French cooking and has little in common with the Sonora-style Mexican food popular in the United States. It is baked or steamed, not fried in lard. The major seasoning is achiote , a blend of fragrant red annatto seeds, oregano, garlic and masa. On the side are served locally grown habanero chilies, so hot they make jalapenos seem like marshmallows.

Late one night, I walked to the most elegant restaurant in town, La Bella Epoca. The maitre d’ put me in an open-air box projecting over Calle 60, the main street. Five people waited on me. Red and gold horse-drawn carriages with white wheels clop-clopped below. I felt like a czar.

I sniffed the cork of my Baja wine, and my dinner began. Sopa de lima was made from lime, chicken, tortillas, peppers and tomatoes, served with bolillos , hot little rolls. Pollo pipian , the entree, was a classic of Merida cuisine: breast of chicken baked in green pumpkin sauce with cilantro. A food designer had clearly been at work. On my plate was a perfect mound of rice with a slice of red pepper on top, and a neat ovoid of mole over which cheese had been grated, with two corn chips strategically placed to make it look like a hat. For all this, including wine and a dish of fresh strawberry ice cream, I paid $13.

For lunch the next day, I dropped into Merida’s best Lebanese restaurant, Alberto’s Continental Patio, in an 18th-Century villa with a 12-foot cross amid its Mayan idols. There are 50,000 Lebanese in Merida, and local interpretations of Lebanese dishes abound. I ordered the plato arabe , an Arab platter. My pita was served with hot salsa, not sesame or garbanzo paste, and my shish kebab was made with beef, not lamb.

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I sat beneath a five-panel oil of cherubim and seraphim, not the least bit strange in a city where food is an object of reverence. Other diners sat under saints and angels, and the Virgin Mary was out on the patio.

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One night, the sound of marimbas and drums caught my ear, and I found myself at Tiano’s, a 24-hour sidewalk cafe in the Parque Hidalgo, tossing down big coco locos (coconut milk, grapefruit juice, grenadine, rum, tequila and vodka) for $1.75 apiece. Tiano’s menu was in Spanish and something resembling English. One memorable phrase: “Yoching money during meals UNHYGIENIC or you can CHOKE.”

I ordered huachinango a la Maya, red snapper wrapped in banana leaves, baked with achiote, sour oranges, lemons, peppers, onions and tomatoes. My waiter brought me salsa and three kinds of hot sauce, two of them made from habaneros. He said Mayans believe that at the end of a good meal you should be “wet, hot and red.” At the end of a great meal, “you should be wet, hot and red and you should not remember the maiden name of your mother.”

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By then I was breathing fire--and what was my mother’s maiden name, anyway?

The marimba-and-drum trio played “La Cucaracha,” “La Bamba,” “Man~ana,” “Guantanamera” and, though it was March, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Merida was a bargain in every respect. The biggest bargain of all was art. Rich and brightly colored oil landscapes and portraits started at $25 in the art gallery of the Holiday Inn and much less in the casual art markets in the zocalo and city parks. Merida was simply exploding with art.

I found artistry gone wild a few blocks north of the zocalo on Calle 60 at Trinidad Galeria, a haven for backpackers, with rooms starting at $18 a night. In the front lobby, over a fountain, stood a statue of a woman, vaguely Roman, with what looked like webbed feet. Sixteen abstract paintings hung on the walls and, in a second lobby, eight more paintings and a tapestry. Greco-Roman statues lined the walkway to the guest rooms. In an upstairs sitting room, seven more paintings were on display.

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Only on one expedition in Merida was I hustled. I was heading for the central market, looking for gifts for my wife and kids, when one sidewalk middleman after another tried to sell me a hammock. Maybe it was the camera I was carrying or the shorts or the purple cap that said “Guatemala.” The market was frantic, full of pigs and chickens, dead and alive, and of jeweled beetles (alive and walking about) that you attach to your shirt with a tiny chain and safety pin.

I ended up with a street tag-along who claimed he was from Santa Monica--he passed a little geography exam that I gave him--and he got me an embroidered shirt for $11 that I later saw at the airport for $50.

Although it was Carnival, Merida was not overcrowded. Parks and public plazas comfortably accommodated us all. I had no problems getting a hotel room or a seat at a restaurant.

Merida’s Carnival is, after all, not the only one. Veracruz’s is bigger, and there are other medium-size carnivals in Cozumel, Mazatlan, Campeche and Chetumal. Carnival in Mexican cities lasts officially for four days--beginning this coming year on Feb. 18--but Mexican cities put on their party clothes well in advance, and in Merida the music never seems to end.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: The More the Merida

Getting there: Best connections from LAX to Merida are on Mexicana (direct and connecting) and Aeromexico (all connecting), with round-trip fares starting at $435.

When to go: Merida has a Caribbean climate, potentially hot in summer, rainy in early fall. Carnaval for 1996 begins Feb. 18.

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Where to stay: Casa del Balam (488 Calle 60; tel. 800-624-8451), double rooms about $60 per night. Trinidad Galeria (456 Calle 60; tel. 011-52-99-232463), doubles about $18. Hyatt Regency (344 Calle 60; tel. 800-233-1234), doubles start at $85.

Where to eat: Alberto’s Continental Patio (482 Calle 64; local tel. 21-22-98). Dinner for two, about $32 with wine. Cafeteria Pop (501 Calle 57; tel. 28-61-63). Dinner for two, about $10. Restaurant Express (502 Calle 60; tel. 21-37-38). Dinner for two, about $10 with sangria.

For more information: In Merida, the tourist information center is at Teatro Peon Contreras, Calles 60 and 57, tel. 011-52-99-249290 or 99-249394.

--B.Z.

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