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Mérida: My Introduction to a Beautiful and Historic Yucatecan City

Our classes pose for a photo in front of the large Mérida sign in Plaza Grande. The government provides major cities with these letters as a place for tourists to take photos.

The first thing I noticed about Mérida on the drive from the airport was a mother and her two children walking along the street slowly, the kids cheerfully chatting and skipping. They looked at home outside at night, framed by the short, colorful buildings and engrossed in their conversation. I wasn’t used to seeing such ease after dusk in a major city. Over the next week, I would realize that Mérida is different from a lot of the cities I’ve been to in the past—but also similar in many ways. 

Because I grew up in Southern California, I was used to many buildings only being one or two stories, even in cities, but I wasn’t used to the bright colors and mixture of architectural styles. Or the humidity. If I had to describe my first week in Mérida in one word, I would say “hot.” With temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit and humidity levels upwards of 50-80% daily, along with walking an average of 5 miles a day, I have to say electrolyte drinks saved my life several times. However, it was all worth it for the sights we saw while on those walks. The environment, while sweltering, was welcoming. The buildings, while somewhat unfamiliar, were beautiful. 

One of the large, French-style houses off of Paseo Montejo. There are many bright pink, yellow, and red houses in Mérida.

This first week in Mérida, we jumped straight in to learning about the place we’re going to spend the next month. We went on several tours to get acquainted with the area, traveled to the Museo del Mundo Maya for a background on the Mayan world of the past and present, and began the history class with a deeper look into pre-colonial Mayan history. In our free time, we began exploring the restaurants, shops, and various activities the city offers. It was almost overwhelming—I felt like every day I was having a new life-changing experience, seeing a new coolest thing ever, or interacting with someone interesting and multifaceted. 

On our first free day that weekend, many of us students took a trip to the nearby beach town of Progresso. We swam, ate, watched the sunset, and did all the other classic beach things. However, the most memorable part of the experience was the people we met. There was a man who’d moved to Progresso from Las Vegas to open a bar on the beach who talked to us about his experience living in Mexico as an American. A young waiter told us about his family that owned the place where we went to lunch, pointing to his younger relative in a baby carrier across the restaurant. Several of my classmates met Mexican and American college students on the beach for summer break. Of course, there were people who just wanted to sell us stuff, but there were also people who seemed genuinely interested in connecting on a human level and were curious about why we were there. 

The sunset on Progresso beach was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

One thing that kept coming up in conversations that I hadn’t been prepared for was how many communal activities there were for everyone in Mérida. Many of them cater to tourists, like the traditional dance performances in the town squares at night or the demonstrations of Pok-ta-Pok, a Mayan ritual ball game, in front of the city’s main church on weekends. However, some of the other activities are attended by locals and tourists alike, and some had almost no foreigners. Some of my favorite activities were the ones that focused less on a spectacle for tourists and more on general enjoyment. 

There were several pop-up markets selling jewelry, fans, traditional clothing like huipil and guayaveras, and local-made food. The vendors at these markets are usually willing to have a conversation about their goods or lives in Mérida. Because many only speak Spanish, I had some difficulty having longer conversations with them, but everyone was so kind, and I seldom felt judged for getting a conjugation wrong or forgetting a word. There was also a corn festival one of our first nights in Mérida, where vendors had all sorts of food, toys, and desserts made from corn. I had some of the best quesadillas of my life there. My favorite activity, though, had to be the bike ride across town. Every weekend, Mérida shuts down some of the roads in the city from one end to the other and hundreds of people come out to ride their bikes on the street. Street vendors sell food and water ice, families ride large two- or three-person bicycles with shade coverings, and everyone has a wonderful time outside together. 

One of my friends and I pose with our rented bikes at the end of the biciruta.

This week has gone by so fast with every activity more interesting than the last. The museum was a fascinating introduction to what we’ll be studying, the beach was a whirlwind meeting with some of the people of Yucatan, and the events we went to in Mérida were priceless experiences that I want to remember forever. I feel like I’ve seen so much already, but I also know that I haven’t touched the surface of everything Mérida has to offer. I’m so excited to see what the rest of this program will reveal and to get to know more about the Mérida beyond the tourist activities. 

If you’d like to read more about what Mérida is like from another student on this program, please check out my classmate Sera’s blog. 

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