The Mundo Maya Tourism Fair hosted in Yucatan’s capital, Merida, “city of peace”, June 19 – 20, 2011, afforded an enticing glimpse into the splendors of this vast region. International travel professionals and media met with Mundo Maya tourism boards, tour companies, hoteliers, and airlines in the modern Convention Center XXI with the objective of promoting this alluring land. Yucatan’s Secretary of Tourism, Juan Jose Martin Pacheco, welcomed participants to this third annual event in anticipation of intense worldwide interest, embracing the timely concept of “2012 – Year of Maya Culture.” And rightly so!
Archaeo-astronomer Alberto Haggar, the keynote speaker, predicted that the year 2012 would inaugurate a new epoch of peace and understanding, ushered in by physical changes as the sun and earth line up with the rift in the Milky Way on December 21, 2012.
The fabled Mundo Maya includes the five Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Chiapas, as well as the nations of Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. No other region on earth possesses such a wealth of magnificent archaeological sites. Here, too, travelers experience countless natural wonders in landscape, seascape, flora and fauna, charming colonial cities, magical villages with exquisite heritage of arts and handcrafts, gastronomy which fuses the indigenous with influences of Caribbean, Spanish, French, and Arabic flavors, and the warmly welcoming residents of the Maya World.
The advanced civilization of the Maya miraculously constructed their “universities of the cosmos”, the astounding cities now revered as archaeological sites, over a thousand years ago. This was at the very time of Europe’s “Dark Ages.” Here in the Yucatan, one can explore the seventh new wonder of the world, Chichen Itza, and the classically beautiful Uxmal, among countless others, many of which lie buried within the jungle’s embrace.
Host-state unique Yucatan lies on a flat limestone slab covered by a tenacious growth of scrub and bush beneath which undulate vast underground rivers, caves (cenotes) in which to dive and mysterious caverns to explore; here the mangrove-lined estuaries of water fowl sanctuaries including nesting grounds of the fabulous pink flamingo. The year-round climate is hot and humidity ranges from moderate to high; the rainy season extends from June through October.
When conquistadors arrived to dominate the region, Francisco de Montejo founded the capital here in 1542 and named it Merida after a city in Spain. This was the former Maya ceremonial center of T’ho. Buildings in the Plaza of Inde-pendence were partially constructed with the limestone blocks of T’ho’s temples. Now a bustling city of one million inhabitants, it exudes a captivating charm. The original home of Montejo is now a Banamex bank with a Museum of Culture. The exterior sculptures depict Spanish soldiers with feet firmly planted on the heads of the subjugated Maya. The Cathedral of Saint Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in the mainland Americas, was completed in 1598. The Government Palace’s hall of history displays bold paintings by famous muralist Francisco Castro Pacheco. One can sit back in one of the s-shaped white stone benches, the “confidenciales”, to survey these buildings and the beehive of vendors and shoppers in the plaza.
The arts are especially favored in this university city. Yucatan’s Upper School of the Arts (ESAY) provides professional training in dance, music, drama and visual arts. The Juan Peon Contreras Theater, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Olimpo Cultural Center are some of the venues giving Meridans access to the arts. The Regional Museum of Anthropology on Paseo de Montejo, the broad boulevard framed by opulent mansions, houses an interesting collection of Maya artifacts. Romantic boleros can be heard in numerous little plazas (especially at moonlight). The “Merida on Sunday” program offers music, poetry recitals and romantic ballads by the roving Trova Yucateca, when the historic center is closed to traffic. The Concert of the Maya Sun scheduled for July 12 – 16 will feature a performance by Shakira!
Hotels in Merida run the gamut from eclectic B&B’s to five-star properties such as the Hyatt and Fiesta Americana, and elegant restored haciendas on the outskirts of the city. The centrally-located Casa del Balam (“house of the jaguar” in Mayan) (www.casadelbalam.com) never disappoints. Owned by the Barbachano family who helped develop tourism in Mexico, one finds serenity in the midst of frenetic city life. How pleasant to enjoy breakfast in its adorable courtyard-patio!
For true enchantment and pampering, Hacienda Xcanatun (“tall stone house”) (www.xcanatun.com) , designated a Small Luxury Hotel, stands in a category all its own! Guests will luxuriate in its eighteen artistically-furnished spacious suites; enjoy sumptuous cuisine and fine wines in the Casa de Piedra restaurant, stroll in eight acres of tropical gardens, bathe in refreshing pools, and rejuvenate in the fabulous spa! Attentive, talented Carolina is the mistress of this domain. The massages and facials are to-die-for…whether a massage with Maya stones or decadently, a “chocolate caress”!
Travelers can choose from a wide array of restaurants, those featuring distinctive Yucatecan cuisine with emphasis on chilies, maize, tomatoes, chicken, turkey, pork, beef, beans and rice, as well as those offering an international menu. A favorite dish is the cochinita pibil, a marinated pork dish; a favored liqueur the anise and honey-flabored xtabentun. Merida also boasts of a vibrant nightlife. One longtime favorite, Pancho’s, delights with its amusing ambiance and tasty food and drink.
When sisal production was in its heyday in the 19th and 20th century, Merida was home to more millionaires than anywhere in the world! The haciendas were self-contained villages with housing for workers, stores, medical facilities and a chapel. The immensely wealthy hacendados (hacienda owners) often sent their children to be educated in France and filled their magnificent mansions with European imports.
One prominent hacienda, the Yaxcopoil, (“place of green poplar trees”) (www.yaxcopoil.com) has been converted into a hauntingly beautiful museum where visitors wander as if caught in a time-warp. A monumental Moorish double arch stands in front of the property offering a unique welcome.
Some thirty-five towns in Mexico have been designated as “pueblos magicos” (magic towns). Izamal was the first to receive this honor. The buildings in the historic center were painted an ochre color (hence also called “city of yellow) at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit here in 1993. The convent of St. Anthony of Padua was constructed atop a flattened Maya temple in 1561. One climbs precipitously over ancient Maya stones to enter the vast atrium, a stunning setting for festivities, the façade of the gorgeous church illuminated.
Daylight hours are well-spent here, sightseeing in a horse-drawn carriage (calesa), serving as a taxi. This was the residence of the infamous Bishop Diego de Landa in 1562. The cruel auto-da-fe in nearby Mani’s Archangel Saint Michael’s convent took place under de Landa’s direction. Irreplaceable sacred Maya manuscripts were destroyed (except for four which miraculously survived), and hundreds of the Maya were brutally slaughtered. Recalled to Spain after these atrocities, de Landa wrote “The Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan”, a record of what he remembered of the codices and Maya way of life.
A definite must is a visit to the archaeological site of Uxmal which leaves one awestruck! The Pyramid of the Magician’s massive curvilinear shape reigns in splendor, surrounded by other enigmatic buildings. The symmetrical Palace of the Gov-ernor resembles the architectural wonders of ancient Greece.
The venerable Hacienda Uxmal with its rather Spartan guest-rooms, exudes an appealing historical ambiance. Nestled close to Uxmal, once can relax in a rocking chair on a balcony overlooking the pool…and go back, way, way back in time, imagining how the proud Maya lived all those many centuries ago.
Climbing into the immense Loltun Caves (“stone flower”) seems very much like entering Xibalba, the Underworld! Enormous limestone stalactites and stalagmites formed over millennia in fantastic shapes and colors meet the eye. These caves have provided shelter since prehistoric times.
Another natural attraction not to be missed is the Celestun Estuary, a biosphere reserve situated a two and one-half hour ride from Merida on the west side of the peninsula. Small boats race toward the habitat of the beautiful pink flamingos, taking care not to disturb them! They seem to move ever so slowly across the river, occasionally rising up in a rose-colored rush of glorious wings. The boats then winds through thick mangroves to a crystal clear pool for swimming. Appetites whetted, lunch can be enjoyed in one of the seafood restaurants or at Hotel Eco Paraiso Xixim (www.ecoparaiso.com), a veritable ecologist’s paradise.
Now is the ideal time to visit this remarkable region and sense the energies of impending transformations! The Mundo Maya is not just a clever advertising moniker to entice visitors. It is a sacred entity, a huge region of unparalleled beauty, of cautionary tales and of redemption, of life affirmation. Partake of the Maya mystique! Why, you may even find yourself.