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. Within its historic core, though, 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 since 2000. Yet 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 the plazas throng with locals enjoying free music and other attractions. Not only can you live well here, but it’s a great base for excursions to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
Founded in 1542, Mérida is built over, and partly from, the ruins of a Maya city known as Tihó or Ichcansihó. Its fortune grew as the capital for exporting henequen, the rope fibre that was Yucatán’s “green gold”.
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, when, legend has it, the Maya peasant fighters left the siege to plant corn. 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.
Mérida became an extraordinarily wealthy city, much of it poured into grandiose mansions along Paseo de Montejo. Then the henequen industry all but died around World War II, when nylon became the rope-making material of choice. But Mérida remains elegant, prosperous and intellectual, a vibrant mix of Maya, mestizos, Lebanese (who emigrated here in the early twentieth century) and more recent transplants from Mexico City and abroad.