Days 7 & 8

We pulled into the inspiring capital city of Yucatan, Mérida, on day 7 of our Caravan tour, excited with the prospect of a 2-night stay.  Mérida is the largest city in the state of Yucatan and the cultural and financial capital of the Yucatan Peninsula.  It was founded in 1542 by Spanish Conquistadors and has a current day population of approximately 1.5 million people.  The first rulers here, beyond the ancient Maya, were influenced by Spain, which is reflected in its rich colonial flavor.

Mérida was built on the former Mayan center, T’Hó, which for centuries was a cultural and activity center of the Maya world.  Because of this, many historians consider Mérida to be the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Mérida had become quite prosperous with the production of henequen, an agave used to make rope and twine.  At this time it was said to house more millionaires than any other city in the world.  This wealth can still be seen today in many of the elaborate homes along the main avenue, Paseo de Montejo, where stunning sculptures are also on display.  Many of these homes have been restored and now house banks, insurance companies and other commercial space.

A majestic monument, standing as a tribute to the Mexican people, is on display upon entering the city.

Detailed carvings along some of the monument’s panels provided a representation of the rich Mayan history of the area.

Our 2-night stay was at a hotel that is one of the few original art deco houses remaining in Mérida, Casa Del Balam, house of the jaguar.  It was once occupied by the distinguished family of Fernando Barbachano Peon and is located in the heart of El Centro.

A courtyard in the center of the hotel lobby held bistro tables surrounding stone fountains and plants where one could enjoy a quiet meal.  The pool area was equally charming, particularly at night.

Our room was lovely and had a Moorish feel to it.

While heading out to view the city, we came across a small plaza with a monument paying homage to Maternidad (motherhood).  It is apparent, when looking at statues such as this or people watching, family is of utmost importance to all in this country.

The Plaza Grande is one of the anchors for the city, with the cathedral and municipal buildings bordering it.

Plaza Grande with Cathedral in Background

The Catedral de San Ildefonso was built between 1561 – 1598, making it one of the oldest in the Americas.  Carved  stone from ancient T’Hó can be seen in the walls of the main cathedral.

Cathedral Night View

Although the interior of this cathedral was not as ornate as some we had seen earlier on this tour, we found the marble archways and columns to be magnificent.

A statue of St. Charbel is represented in the cathedral, with a multitude of colorful prayer flags hanging behind him and across his outstretched arms.  His reputation for holiness prompted people to seek him in life to receive a blessing and to be remembered in his prayers.  This tradition continues long after his death.

The Plaza de la Independencia, built between 1734 – 1736, houses the Palacio Municipal, and lines one side of the main plaza.  Its striking red color, with white portales (arches and columns) and grand clock tower make it an impressive contrast to other buildings in the area.

The Palace of Don Francisco de Montejo, now a museum and art gallery, was occupied by the family until the 1980’s.  This very ornate structure was completed by the son of the Spanish conquistador who attempted to conquer the Maya in the 1540’s.  Although difficult to see from the picture below, each of the large figures depicting conquistadors to the left and right of the balcony are standing on two heads crying out in terror.  Many speculate that these victims represent the Maya who Montejo sought to conquer with fierce brutality.

This palace was constructed in the “plateresque” style, which is a blend of Gothic, Moorish, and late Renaissance.  Many architectural historians believe that it is the finest work of the plateresque styling in all of Mexico.  Note the detailing in the window framing below.

We discovered that there is frequently free entertainment at night at parks scattered throughout the city.  The first night of our visit we spent some time at a wonderful concert at the Santa Lucia Parque just up the street from our hotel.

Entertainment at Santa Lucia Parque

After our tour of Chichén Itzá the following day, we had time prior to dinner to walk the Paseo de Montejo, a beautiful tree-lined avenue with brick walkways, featuring many mansions with ornate facades and interesting looking museums.  I have included a few photos below to provide a flavor for the breathtaking architecture in this city.

Anthropology Museum
Pretty Pink Restaurant
Another Stunning Mansion

And last, but not least…

Turquoise Tempter

This business would capture anyone’s attention!

What a great introduction to a fascinating city.  Terry and I both decided that this is on our list for future visits as a 2-day stay has just whetted our appetites.


Day 7

Early morning on day 7 we hopped on our bus  and traveled through the Puuc Hills to visit the ancient Mayan site of Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-Mahl), in the state of Yucatan, dating back to 600 AD.  Many believe that its name means “thrice built city” as there is evidence that the Maya built temples over existing structures. Uxmal has some of the most authentic examples of regional Puuc-style architecture, matched only by that of Palenque in elegance and beauty.

Estimates are that 25,000 Mayans inhabited the area between 600 – 900 AD, when it was abandoned for unknown reasons.

The Sorceror’s Pyramid (or Magician’s Pyramid) is an elliptical structure, unlike most others that are rectangular in shape.  What one sees is the last of five pyramids, built on top of each other, each larger than the last.  It stands 117 feet tall, which gives it a commanding presence at Uxmal.  Mayan legend has it that this pyramid was built overnight by a dwarf, hatched from an egg and raised by a witch, so many refer to this building as the Pyramid of the Dwarf also.

This pyramid has 92 steps on one side and 120 steps on another.  Legend has it that human sacrifices occurred at the highest portion of the temple.  With the victim still alive, the priest would carve the heart out of his chest and throw the body down the steep steps.

Puuc architecture has many notable features, typically a plain lower section with a highly adorned top section.  Carvings found on the top of the structure most often include latticework, serpents, and masks of the god Chac, the god of rain.  A giant Chac mask marks the entrance to the Sorceror’s Pyramid , with the door being his mouth.

Chac was greatly revered by the Uxmal Mayans due to lack of natural water supplies in the city.  Quite often the Maya used cenotes (sinkholes) to access underground water, as the Yucatan has few surface rivers.  Uxmal had no cenotes so it was necessary to collect water in cisterns, built into the ground.

The Nunnery Quadrangle is a set of four buildings around a central courtyard.  It was named Casa de las Monjas (The Nunnery) by the Spanish as the 74 small rooms within this complex reminded them of a Spanish convent.  Ceremonies were most likely held in this large open area.

The Nunnery

One of the buildings within this quadrangle depicted a plumed serpent on the top section, with feathers on his tail and his body woven around the latticework.  A corner of another building was adorned with stacked faces of the rain god Chac.

Plumed Serpent
Stacked Chac Faces

The Palace of the Governor is regarded by many as one of the best examples of Puuc architecture in existence today.  It was the final building constructed at Uxmal and was probably the administrative center within the city.  It actually is comprised of three buildings, connected together.  Its grand staircase consists of 52 steps, which is a significant number in Maya mythology.  This structure was very difficult to build due to the platform on which it sits.

Palace of the Governor

The House of the Turtles, next to the Palace of the Governor, was named for the molding of turtles carved around its cornice.  The turtle was closely associated with water, which was sacred to the Maya.

House of the Turtles

Virtually all Mayan cities contained a ball court and Uxmal is no exception.  Two vertical walls within the ball court, opposite to one another, each reflected a large stone ring in the middle of the wall.  The object of the game was to propel a hard, very heavy, rubber ball through the ring.  This game was played somewhat like soccer, in that one could not use their hands.  The ball could not be kicked either, but must be moved by way of the forearms, waist, or legs.  The game held deep religious significance for the Maya and was played with seven priests on each side.  When the ball was projected through the hoop, the priest responsible for this was offered up to the rain god Chac.

Ball Court
Stone Ring within the Ball Court

Although we thoroughly enjoyed our time at Uxmal, it was a warm, humid day, so we were pleased to move on to a leisurely lunch on the grounds.

From here we headed to the beautiful city of Merida.


Day 6

Day 6 of our Caravan tour took us on a bus ride from Palenque to the Yucatan peninsula, stopping for a shrimp lunch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.  The waters here were a light jade in color and the weather was balmy.

When we arrived in the city of Campeche it was late afternoon, so we all rushed out for some photo opportunities while the light was still with us.

Campeche is the capital of the state of Campeche and is a Spanish colonial city of 275,000 inhabitants, founded in 1540.  In 1999 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the architecture of the downtown buildings and forts.  Forts and seawalls were constructed from 1685 – 17904,  fortifying the city against others attempting to take advantage of their economic development.

As has been true of the other cities we have visited in Mexico, the main square is surrounded by lovely shops and anchored by the cathedral.

Campeche Cathedral with Twin Steeples

The stunning architecture that earned the city the World Heritage Site designation housed many interesting shops, along with the Paleontology Museum in this building that resembled an old church.

Paleontology Museum

Remnants of the bastions and sea walls surrounded the downtown area.  Note the cannon placement in the top of the wall in the photo below.

Baluarte de San Carlos

One of the most interesting buildings that we saw in the short time spent in Campeche was that of the Palacio de Gobierno (Governor’s Palace) with its tiled mural front.

Palacio de Gobierno

The Puerta del Mar is one of the four sea gates to the city and was used to receive and dismiss travelers and their products.  It now stands as a great doorway to the picturesque downtown area.

Puerta del Mar

We had time for a quick stroll along the waterfront before heading back for dinner.  Then it was “early to bed and early to rise” as we were headed to the mysterious Uxmal ruins the next morning.