I’ve been in Merida less than a week but I already feel like an expert. There’s a good reason for that: there’s not much there there. That may seem to some a summary dismissal of The White City, but after driving through it from one end to the other for nearly a week I have the evidence of my own eyes as corroboration. My experience leads me to wonder what controlled substance is in use by the people whose blog posts and articles I’ve read on the Internet. It can’t be that I’m missing something because I’ve driven through all the tourist hotspots more times than I care to remember. The fact that everything melts down in my head into a mediocre sameness can’t be due solely to my own faulty perception. My eyes work just fine, thank you very much, and I still have my wits about me despite having spent far more hours in Merida traffic than I planned or wanted. So I’ll limit my comments on Merida to generalities. There are no accompanying pics. I saw no point in making the effort to capture what can be reproduced from the urban footprint of any other Mexican city you care to name and there’s plenty of documentary evidence in Google Images already.
The backstreets of Merida are like the backstreets of any other Mexican city — or town, for that matter. Single storey buildings of concrete and stucco stacked next to each other, most often with a communicating wall — something that puzzles me in a country with so much space available. In the past few days I’ve walked at length through the central district, the Centro with its flagship avenue the Paseo de Montejo which is Merida’s claim to fame. Well … if I say what I think I’m going to get myself into trouble, so let’s leave it at “counterclimactic.” And that one street is it, babes. After that you’re awash in faded colonial-style streets with sidewalks barely wide enough for one person. One supposes that people were much smaller in those days — no other explanation for the measly sidewalks springs to mind. So it’s our fault for becoming bigger, that must be the trouble.
I’ve been travelling for nigh on three years now and the visit to Merida pushed me over a threshold. As I’ve been walking and driving around the city a single thought has surged repeatedly into awareness: all people really do is shop, eat and reproduce. Yes, they build stuff, but that’s usually done cookie-cutter style these days. The Paseo de Montejo, for example, is touted as the architectural zone ne plus ultra of the White City, yet it’s a spotty mishmash of 19th century mansions tipping their hats rather too obviously to the likes of the Palais Garnier in Paris, sometimes missing the point entirely as they descend into an eclectic chaos of broken arches, gee-gaws and finials. We are amused but not particularly impressed. We would as soon go to Paris to see the Palais Garnier itself in all its cool elegance. Alongside the Frenchified structures the Paseo offers up all manner of modern architecture strung together higgeldy-piggeldy. Some modern buildings use neoclassical architectural elements to try to pass off as historical, others are completely modern and would do just fine in downtown Chicago. There’s no such thing as zoning in Mexico, either, so God only knows what you’ll find stacked next to each other.
To be honest, we’ve seen it all before. The threshold over which the Paseo catapulted me was impatience with the unimaginative offerings of a modern city regardless of its location on the globe. You can shop. You can eat. You can walk around while the traffic swirls past you. What a meagre repertoire of activity. I’d much rather fix my attention on the natural world with its stupefying variety and ingeniousness. I don’t really need to see another Hyatt Regency. I’m now certain doing so will not make me a better person. It has certainly done nothing of the sort for me in Merida.
The reason I’m in the Yucatan Peninsula has nothing to do with the Paseo, in point of fact. I came here for two reasons: to experience the natural environment of the Peninsula and to visit several Mayan archeological sites. I organized the trip with the precision of a dental technician doing a deep cleaning. The days are mapped out so that I know exactly where I will be along the course of the hours. Of course there’s room for spontaneity, but not for dilly-dallying. We have things to see and places to go, oh yes we do. So without further ado let me discuss the first site I visited: Dzibilchaltun, just a bit north of Merida.
It’s an easy get from the city on the highway that goes to the coastal town of Progreso — the beach spot for Merida. The highway is what’s called “libre” — meaning it doesn’t have tolls. If you have wheels then it’s about a half hour to get from the city center to the archeological site, which is about the same amount of time it takes to get from one end of the city to other, as it so happens. I found my half hour much, much more amply rewarded by directing myself to Dzibilchaltun than by stopping-and-starting through the streets of Merida.
First, a shoutout for Steve Mellard and his website “The Mayan Ruins Website” (here) — it’s by far the best resource I’ve found for information on Mayan sites for both the ample nature of the information given and because it’s carefully organized by country and location so that finding info on a particular site is a breeze. I’ve used Mr. Mellard’s site many, many times in both planning and executing my visits to Mayan sites in Yucatan. Don’t leave home without it.
Rather than drone on using information I’ve gathered from various sources, I’ll let the description from Mr. Mellard’s website do the talking:
Dzibilchaltun was originally known as Ch’iy Chan Ti’Ho This well-known site is renowned for the appearance of the sun shining through the doorway of the Temple of the Seven Dolls on the spring equinox. The ruins are a short drive north from Merida just off Highway 261 on the turnoff to Chablekal. The site at one time covered approximately 12 sq. miles/19 sq. kms, however the current core zone is much smaller and easily visited.
It has been estimated that upwards of 40,000 people inhabited the site and surrounding area. There are three main plazas in addition to the Temple of the Seven Dolls which is located at the east end of a long sacbe (raised stone causeway). Apart from being an archaeological zone it is also a National Ecological Park.
The site has a fine museum with numerous stone monuments and statues found at the site and surrounding area, along with a complete history of the Yucatan with an emphasis on the Caste War 1847-1901.
The entrance fee is fairly hefty for foreigners — some of the major archeological sites have differential pricing for Mexican citizens and foreigners, Dzibilchaltun happens to be one of them. The same is true of Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Others of less developed nature, for example the Ruta Puuc sites of Kabah, Sayil and Labna, have one price for all visitors. The more developed sites have more facilities — visitor centers with proper bathrooms, a cafe perhaps, and in the case of Dzibilchaltun, a museum in a very nice building. It’s a small collection and compared with the Museo del Mundo Maya in Merida it’s a pipsqueak, but it’s a pleasant wander if you visit Dzibilchaltun.
Dzibilchaltun is not particularly impressive for the number of buildings it has on view. The setting itself is worth half the price of admission, in my humble opinion, because it gives you the opportunity to wander about in the natural setting and even to swim in the cenote if you want. Here are some introductory pics: