Even if practically every road didn’t lead to Mérida, it would still be an inevitable stop. Nicknamed “La Ciudad Blanca” after its white limestone buildings (now covered in peeling layers of gem-coloured paint), the capital of Yucatán state is in every sense the leading city of the peninsula, with a population of some 1.6 million. But within its historic core, there’s a sense of small-town graciousness coupled with an extremely lively and sometimes avant-garde cultural scene. It draws thousands of visitors, both Mexican and foreign, and has seen a rash of expat investment in the last decade. But even as the buzz increases, the city retains its grace and manners: every street in the centre boasts a well-maintained colonial church or museum, and locals still ride in little horse-drawn taxis, which gather by the plaza in the evenings. Not only can you live well here, but you can also find good beaches nearby, and it’s a great base for excursions to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
Founded in 1542 by conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger, Mérida is built over, and partly from, the ruins of a Maya city known as Tihó or Ichcansihó. Like the rest of the peninsula, it had little effective contact with central Mexico until the 1960s and looked to Europe for influence. This is especially evident in the architecture of the older houses, built with French bricks and tiles that were brought over as ballast in ships that exported henequen, the rope fibre that was Yucatán’s “green gold” from early in its colonization to World War I.
Trade was interrupted in the spring of 1849, when, early in the Maya uprising that became known as the Caste Wars, rebel armies laid siege to Mérida. They were within a hair’s breadth of capturing the city and thus regaining control of the peninsula, when, legend has it, the Maya peasant fighters could no longer neglect their fields and left the siege to plant corn. Thus spared, the Yucatecan elite quickly arranged a deal with the central Mexican government ceding the peninsula’s independence in exchange for support against future Maya rebellions, which ground on for some fifty years.
By 1900, Mérida had become an extraordinarily wealthy city – or at least a city that had vast numbers of extremely rich haciendados (estate owners). Much of this wealth was poured into grandiose mansions on the outskirts of town (especially along Paseo de Montejo) and European educations for upper-class children. Today, though the henequen industry is all but dead (it petered out around World War II, when nylon became the rope-making material of choice), Mérida remains elegant, prosperous and intellectual – it’s said to have Mexico’s highest number of PhDs per capita. The streets are filled with a vibrant mix of Maya, mestizos, Lebanese (who emigrated here in the early twentieth century) and more recent transplants from Mexico City and abroad, all drawn by the city’s mellow yet cosmopolitan feel.