Hey guys 🙂 How about brushing your knowledge on one of Mexico’s top tourist destinations this weekend?
Cool, huh? I thought so 😉 So let me introduce you to the Yucatan region of Mexico. But before that, here is a link to a related post I had written last year on this blog : Archaeological Sites of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Kabáh in Yucatán, Mexico
In my next post, I will share with you detailed information on one of the most important archaeological sites of the Maya Civilization – the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
For now, here is a brief introduction of the state of Yucatan and its charming capital city, Mérida, sourced from one of my e-books on Mexico: Discovering Mexico
Happy Reading 🙂
Introduction of Yucatan
To start with, here is a funny story as to how Yucatán got its name. According to the first letter written by the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortés to the King of Spain, ‘Yucatán’ represents a misnaming of the land by his political antagonist Diego Velazquez. Cortes alleged that when Velazquez initially landed in the Yucatán and asked about the name of the well-populated land, the indigenous people answered, ‘We don’t understand your language.’ This was rendered as Yucatán by the Spaniards, who were not used to the phonetics of the Maya.
The first expedition authorized by the Spanish crown to conquer and colonize Yucatán landed in 1527, led by Francisco de Montejo. While the chiefs of some states quickly pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown, others waged war. Montejo was forced to retreat from Yucatán in 1528. He came back with a large force in 1531 and briefly established a capital at Chichén Itzá. But he was again driven from the land in 1535. He turned over his rights to his son, also named Francisco, who invaded Yucatán with a large force in 1540. On 6th January, 1542, the younger Montejo set up his capital in the Maya city of T’ho, situated on what is now the Zócalo, which he renamed as Mérida. T’ho had been a centre of Maya culture and activity for centuries.
Because of this, many historians regard Mérida as the oldest continually-occupied city in the Americas. It was one of the four main Spanish towns, along with Valladolid, Campeche and Bacalar, on the Yucatán Peninsula. After the conquest, priests and monks soon set forth to bring the population into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. The first Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, burned alive many of the Maya and destroyed all their ancient scriptures saying ‘they contained nothing but the lies of the devil.’ He suppressed any remnants of pagan beliefs with such vigour that he was for a time recalled to Spain to answer charges of improper harshness.
Due to its geographical location, Yucatán has traditionally been isolated from the rest of the country. Until the mid-20th century, most of the contact with the outside world was by sea. Trade with the USA and Cuba, as well as Europe and other Caribbean islands, was more significant than that with the rest of Mexico. In the 1950s, the Yucatán was linked to the rest of Mexico by railway, followed by highway in the 1960s, ending the region’s comparative isolation.
Being enclosed by the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and with poor land communication with the rest of Mexico, Yucatecan Spanish has preserved many words that are no longer used in many other Spanish speaking areas of the world. The Spanish spoken here is heavily influenced by the Yucatec Maya language, which is still spoken by a third of the population of the State, although mostly in smaller towns and villages. The Maya language is harshly melodic, filled with ‘x’ sounds (‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’ in the Maya language) and very full throated vowels. Even if fewer younger Yucatecans are fluent in the Maya dialect today, it is still the second language of the State. Also unique among Yucatecan speakers is the heavy use of diminutive language that shows affection towards even mundane objects. However, with the improvement in transportation and especially with the overwhelming presence of radio and TV, their isolation has been eroded, and many outside elements are now slowly but consistently permeating the local culture and language.
The northern and central area of the Yucatán Peninsula is a porous limestone shelf devoid of surface rivers. Instead there are subterranean rivers, sinkholes, and caverns which were formed over the passage of millions of years when water dissolved the porous limestone. The natural treasures of Yucatán, these water-filled limestone sink holes called ‘cenotes’ were very sacred to the Maya. Their cities were usually located next to the cenotes. Magical, enigmatic and unique in the world the cenotes were the only resources for fresh, sweet water. There are four different types of cenotes – those that are completely underground, those that are semi underground, those that are at land level like a lake or pond, and those that are open wells. There are over 3000 cenotes, but only about 1400 of them have been actually studied and registered. Some are well-kept secrets while others are promoted for tourism. Besides the crystal-clear turquoise waters, the stunning stalactites and stalagmites inside these million year old cenotes attract many visitors from all over the world. The Maya considered the caves, caverns, and cenotes as entrances to the underworld. The Xcalah cenote at the Mayan site of Dzibalchatún, the massive Zací cenote at Valladolid and the Ik Kil cenote near the ruins of Chichén Itzá are few of the most beautiful cenotes. Other cenotes are hidden from view within underground caves like the breathtakingly beautiful Dzitnup cenote which is a short drive from Valladolid. Among the caves the most famous are the Grutas de Balankanché (Balankanche Caverns) and the Loltún Caves.
Traditional Yucatecan Cuisine
Traditional Yucatecan dishes like the cochinita pibil – suckling pig dressed with a marinade of mild achiote paste (made with the ground seed of the annatto plant, garlic, peppercorns, oregano and cumin), onions, tomatoes, sour orange juice, and salt, and then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pib, basically a pit in the ground – and Poc Chuc, a Yucatecan Maya version of barbecued pork with tender slices of pork marinated in sour orange juice, served with a tangy sauce and pickled onions.
Tourist destinations in Yucatan
Travellers normally keep Mérida as their base to explore the surrounding tourist areas – Maya archaeological zones (Chichén Itzá, Ek Balám, Dzibilchaltún, Xcambo and Mayapán) and the Puuc route tour (Uxmal, Kabáh, Sayil, X-Lapak, Labná and the Loltún Caves), villages and colonial towns (Valladolid, Mani and Izamal), Biosphere Reserve of Celestun (the only pink flamingo settlement known in North America), beaches (Progreso), haciendas, etc.
Traditional Yucatecan dance
The folklórico dance called Suerte de la Vaquerias performed by nimble dancers balancing bottles and later, a fully loaded serving tray, on their heads. The men were dressed in white with red kerchieves and white panama hats, while the women were dressed in huipil, a traditional Maya blouse.
The state capital, Merida
Till the mid-19th century, Mérida was a walled city intended to protect the gachupines (those born in Spain but living in Mexico) and criollo (creoles, born in Mexico of Spanish blood) residents from periodic revolts by the indigenous Maya. Several of the old Spanish city gates have survived till today. Its colonial Centro Histórico is the largest in the Americas after Mexico City and Havana in Cuba. The cathedral, situated on the east side of the Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza), is only one of Mérida’s many interesting buildings. It is the oldest cathedral built over the foundations of a Maya temple. Directly across the Plaza is the Palacio Municipal, the city town hall. In the city’s history, there were three Spanish conquistadors – Francisco de Montejo ‘El Adelantado’ (father), Francisco de Montejo y León ‘El Mozo’ (son), and Francisco de Montejo ‘El sobrino’ (nephew). On the southern side lies the Casa de Montejo, the home of Francisco de Montejo y León ‘El Mozo’ (son) which was built in 1542. Today, the building is occupied by Banamex Bank. To the north of the Plaza lies the Palacio de Gobierno (Governor’s Palace) which houses murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco illustrating the somewhat violent history of Yucatán.
Although, Mérida is called ‘the white city’, the exact reason is unknown. Perhaps because of its white-washed old buildings (though today the buildings are not all white!) or the fact that the residents keep the city particularly clean or that it was named after the Spanish town of the same name. Thanks to its tranquillity and cleanliness, this city of around one million inhabitants has become a popular place for families from the other states. It has the lowest crime rate per capita in the country.
One of the major influences on Yucatán history is the henequen plant, also known as ‘sisal’ (named after the Yucatecan city of Sisal from where the shipments left the continent). Henequen, a variety of the agave cactus, became known as verde oro (green gold) for the wealth it lavished upon the haciendados or hacienda owners who produced rope from this plant which was exported for the booming shipping industry. In the early 20th century, as a result of the henequen or sisal trade, Mérida became home to numerous millionaires who built their lavish homes along the elegant main avenue, Paseo de Montejo, and constructed impressive haciendas throughout the jungle surrounding Mérida. It is said that at one point of time, Mérida had more millionaires than any other city in the world. The result of the concentration of wealth can still be seen today in Mérida. Many large and elaborate homes and mansions still line the main avenue and the city streets, though few are occupied today by individual families. Many serve as office buildings for banks and insurance companies.
Mérida celebrates an intense cultural life 365 days of the year. It is one of the music capitals of Mexico, with performances every night in the squares. The Centro hosts cultural events including performances of the traditional Trova, Jarana, Son, and Bolero. The week’s events include art, music, dance, cultural presentations, etc. which are publicized in advance. On Sundays, the streets are closed off to traffic to provide space for live music, outdoor handicraft markets, street stalls and public dances like the traditional Vaqueria.
The exquisite huipil and terno Maya embroidery is famous throughout the world. Colourful flowers are the main motif of this native craft practiced by women since the Pre-Hispanic times.
Mérida is the best place to buy Yucatecan arts & crafts, particularly, Panama hats and hammocks. The city markets offer some of Mexico’s best panama hats (hand-woven from jipi palm fibres in the underground caverns of the town of Bécal, which lies between Mérida and Campeche) and world-famous hammocks. Most of the hammocks sold in the country are manufactured in Yucatán. The hammock is an essential part of all homes – from the rural thatched-roof cottages to the modern city mansions. Weaving hammocks is part of the daily chores of thousands of families throughout the state and the most common traditional craft. Many claim that the hammock came from the Caribbean islands, whereas others state that it came from Asia, and was brought here by the Spaniards.
The popular local food includes papadzule, rolled up tortilla stuffed with chopped hard boiled egg and covered with green pipian salsa (made using pumpkin seeds) and tomato salsa; panuchos, fried tortillas filled with black beans, and topped with turkey or chicken, lettuce, avocado and pickled onions; and salbutes, soft-cooked tortillas topped by lettuce, tomato, turkey and avocado.
The popular local shirt is the guayabera. This short or long sleeved shirt has four large pockets, two sets of either pin tucks or embroidery patterns in front, and three sets of pin tucks or embroidery in the back, all running from shoulder yokes to hem. Apparently, at the end of 1800s, the Yucatecan upper class used to wear guayaberas, which they bought on their frequent trips to Cuba. Later, when Fidel Castro assumed control during the ‘60s, this was no longer possible. But recognizing the local market demand, a group of Yucatecan entrepreneurs, decided to manufacture guayaberas in Mérida and so the city became the centre of the guayabera industry. Since, Yucatán is much too hot and humid for traditional menswear, the guayabera was the perfect alternative, fitting a certain lifestyle and image while providing a degree of comfort in the oppressive heat.
Well guys, if you enjoyed reading this post you will also enjoy reading my three books on Mexico covering everything about Mexico and my travel experiences across this beautiful ancient land. Check them out right here on this blog:
If you’re a fan of Mills & Boon novels or love reading romance novels, here’s one for you on this blog:
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