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The Toronto Sun
September 8, 1996
, Sunday, Final EDITION



Does the very idea of Cancun bother you? Legions of the world's least adventurous tourists in an artificial paradise, marching sunburned from McDonald's to Planet Hollywood complaining about their $ 200-a-night rooms?

I craved some real Mexico with my Mexico, so I purchased an $ 8 deluxe bus ticket out of Cancun to the colonial capital of the state of Yucatan, a sublime place called Merida. Four hours later I disembarked in an unquestionably authentic, elegant city, architectually influenced by France and Spain, full of some of Mexico's most amiable citizens, the brown-skinned, round-faced descendents of the great Maya civilization that once ruled the Yucatan Peninsula.

When the first Spaniards arrived, they came upon T'ho, a huge, prosperous commercial settlement with elaborate stone structures reminding them of Roman ruins in the Spanish city of Merida. After a 15-year war and the deaths of thousands of Indians, in 1542, T'ho became Merida. Today, life is a lot more serene, and the 600,000 residents are a comfortable mix of progeny of the conquerors and the conquered.

The oft-advertised phrase "graceful living" must have been created with Merida in mind. This city of parks and squares teems with greenery, regal colonial buildings and palatial residences crowned by Moorish and Classical flourishes. The air is full of the hollow-cola-bottle tones of the marimba, a wooden xylophone whose gentleness contrasts with the blaring mariachi bands emblematic of Mexican tourist traps.

Low prices make Merida equally seductive. Hotel rooms paid for in pesos were about half the rate listed in guide books of just two years ago. Winter is a great time to go, much cooler and less humid than summertime, less rainy than in fall.

Merida is quite safe, and a grid system of numbered streets makes exploring easy. Begin at the focus of the Meridano spirit - the central Plaza de la Independencia, bounded by the cathedral, city hall and governor's palace. This social mecca is full of friends and family and sweet scents. In the mornings, old men in white sombreros congregate for a bit of joshing. Before long, everyone in Merida seems to be there, sipping horchatas, tropical milkshakes, and strolling, enjoying the music under the shade of laurel trees, staying until all hours of the night.

Peasant women from small villages, in town for the market, look terrific in their huipiles, brightly hand-embroidered blouses, and chat happily on park benches. Vendors offer fried bananas and elote, corn on the cob served with cream or cheese. Discretion meets playfulness in the form of confidenciales, s-shaped cement loveseats where lovers face in opposite directions as if strangers.

Whatever you do, try to be in Merida on a Sunday, when cars are barred from the centre. Crowds swell as music and dance performances are staged out-of-doors throughout the city. Mid-week, there's always a marimba-and-drum trio playing in Parque Hidalgo, a block from the square. Pull up a chair at Tiano's, a 24-hour sidewalk cafe and sample a Coco Loco (coconut milk, grapefruit juice, grenadine, rum, tequila and vodka).

If you stay in the turn-of-the century Gran Hotel, and have a room facing the park and the marimba trio - as I did - bring ear plugs. But come to this Italianate mansion and feel like King Sam or Queen Edie as you promenade beneath crystal chandeliers and past classical statuary, or gaze through the Corinthian arches into the open central court. Guest rooms are small and simple, but redeemed by tile floors and soaring ceilings with wood fans and elegant window frames. Ornate doors open onto broad landings with couches for chatting with fellow guests. Breakfast in the pleasantly shaded patio is included. Start with fresh papaya, terrific with a squirt of lime juice.

Most sights are nearby. The Cathedral, one of the oldest buildings in North America, was built in the late 16th century by enslaved Maya. The Yucatan Maya were the last holdouts against the conquistadors, the last to be subdued, to accept Catholicism and the Spanish language. When it was all over, the Maya were forced to build cathedrals, mansions, and administration buildings from the stone of their former palaces and temples.

During several rebellions, the cathedral was stripped of its art treasures. Still, in a chapel you'll find the carving, El Cristo de las Ampollas (Christ of the Blisters). Legend says it was made from a tree that miraculously survived a fire; the carving itself supposedly endured another inferno, in a church, with only human-like blisters.

Next, head up Calle 60 to No. 456, Trinidad Galeria, a hostelry whose drab rooms are irrelevant to the grand show - lobbies and courtyards and landings packed with paintings, statues and fountains.

If you can tear yourself away from Merida, you'll want to visit some of the state's archeological wonders. Chichen Itza, en route to Cancun, is more famous, but the Maya city of Uxmal, 80 km south of Merida, is a lot less crowded, and wins hands-down on historic purity. No incursion left its mark on Uxmal; everything is from the Mayan Puuc civilization. Detailed mosaics and long-nosed serpent masks grace the facades. Maya tour guides will instruct you in the nuances of the culture and pause often so you may scale the narrow steps of the pyramids. Tour companies offer day trips for $ 25, all-inclusive.

Then it's time to hang out at the famed Restaurant Express, facing Parque Hidalgo and the Gran Hotel. While you enjoy a cafe con leche or Lima soup (chicken with lime), you can tease the ancient waiters or chat with fellow patrons, including Meridano businessmen and intellectuals. If the traffic plying the narrow streets in front of the Express is grating, try the quieter cafes on Parque Hidalgo.

Or head north to the Champs Elysees of the city, Francisco de Montejo. Spectacular Parisian-style mansions abound; some still as private residences. The anthropology and history museum, on Paseo Montejo inside the Palacio Canton, is worth a visit.

At a traffic circle crowned by a statue, hop one of the efficient, inexpensive buses back downtown to the mercade municipal, the sprawling central marketplace. In this primitive and cacophonous warren of stalls at Calles 67 and 56, locals examine animal carcasses and select from brilliantly-hued fruits and vegetables. Vendors hawk gleaming silver. Scores of food stalls purvey fried delicacies while small boys cluster around songbirds for sale. A particularly strange touch: You can purchase jeweled beetles that happen to be alive - and pin them to your shirt if so inclined.

Meridano food does not necessarily match its stellar reputation, but it is often healthful and always satisfying. From traditional Yucatacan fare - a blend of Caribbean, Maya and French - to pasta or pate, you'll find it all. I had fileted grouper one time, chicken baked in banana leaves with tomatoes, peppers and sour citrus fruit another, with good wine or tasty local beer and dessert, never paying more than $ 10.

After dinner, enjoy a ride in a calesa, a horse-drawn buggy. The streets were once full of them, and a paseo in one will put some perspective on a city that prizes its heritage. And certainly remind you why you're not in Cancun.


GETTING THERE: Canadian tour operators offer air/hotel packages to Cancun and Merida. From Cancun, Aeromexico has service to Merida, as do bus companies like Caribe Express.

MORE INFO: Mexico Government Tourist Office, call 925-0704.

FESTIVALS: Carnaval begins Feb. 18.



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