The story takes us back to 1542 when “El Mozo” as he was nicknamed, Francisco de Montejo founded Merida, a Spanish colonial city that exudes tradition in its streets, plazas and avenues, which belies its cosmopolitan reality. Its reputation of peace and serenity has led many Mexicans to move there, looking for the security long lost in the major cities. Not only Mexicans but also Europeans and Americans seeking something more than sun, sea and sand, are beginning to gravitate to this enchanted city, captivated by its nightlife, theater, cinema, street performers, restaurants, and people watching. Being a university town, keeps a younger spirit, intermixed with locals, expatriates, businessmen and outlying Indians dressed in their traditional garb, selling their wares on the streets and plazas. Merida is also well known for its textiles, leather and handicrafts, which are very reasonably priced, due to it’s being off the tourist route. This is an old, well kept, clean and lovely city, which has something for everyone, and deserves at least a three day stay, especially on a Sunday, to get to know it better.
That’s why, every year possible, Bill Milligan M.D. returns to this city with his huaraches, seeking the perfect shine, only to be found in the main plaza, with its variety of shoe shine boys and men. His latest pair of huaraches was bought on his previous trip in February of this year, while attending Merida’s five day carnival. Since that time he hasn’t had a shine. He loves his huaraches and they have become his summer and spring favorites, as he says, their simplicity, soft leather and comfort, become a natural extension of his feet, whether walking short or long distances, around the house or outside working in the yard. The soles are made of old, thick tire treads, which last forever, and the uppers, of soft, pliable leather, that molds to the foot and allows the environment to flow through, cooling and massaging the foot. Were it not for the cold weather, he would live in them year around.
At times he sounds like a tour guide for Merida, obviously in love with this city, and enjoying his return to “center city”, reminding him of previously living in Philadelphia, and now living in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. His previous carnival trip here, he describes as civilized and both adult and family oriented, which he viewed from the balcony of his hotel, overlooking the carnival route, while enjoying a glass of vino. He was “hooked” on Merida after his last trip, thinking of what it would be like to own a center city, Spanish courtyard type of house, perhaps converting it to a wine bar with local artists decorating the massive interior courtyard walls with their indigenous and more sophisticated pieces of art. He’s a dreamer, but a realist, and has seen many previous dreams come to fruition with time.
The culinary delights of this city are impressive, with regional Mayan dishes predominating, but tucked away are special jewels, of which our favorite was Amaro, serving a combination of regional and vegetarian dishes in a large courtyard, under a huge hundred year old tree, while listening to a guitarist sing beautiful Cuban ballads. This became our respite from the outside and sometimes noisy city. Once you walk through the ancient wooden doors and take that first sip of vino, you are transported to another time, limited only by your imagination. Restaurant Amaro, was an eighteenth century mansion, where Andres Quintana Roo was born, a journalist, poet and dreamer, and where his spirit still lingers in that courtyard. He became an Ambassador and congressman with a devout social sensitivity, which eventually led to the southern part of the Yucatan, being named after him.
Two vinos later we exited those ancient walls and headed for the main plaza, with one thing in mind, ShoeShine, shoeshine and shoeshine. We weren’t disappointed, as the plaza was full of people, activity, and shoeshiners. Now came the hard part, which one could take on the task of lovingly clean, rehydrate and shine my most coveted pair of shoes. Finding the right person requires the analytical mind to step aside and permit the right brain to intuit the correct path, which occurred within minutes of entering the plaza. Even haggling over the price was avoided, as he knew he would get the “gringo fee”, but it was OK. Twenty pesos seemed a fair price, the equivalent of one dollar and sixty cents, and it was settled.
As he sat back in the chair on that beautiful, sunny day, in that lovely tree lined plaza, I knew everything would be fine. Dialogue was minimal, he knew he had a task in front of him, and here sat a foreigner with a Latina, which was probably a bit discombobulating for him, but it would all be over in a matter of fifteen or twenty minutes and he would be putting a twenty peso bill in his pocket. As he began cleaning one shoe, it was evident that he was serious about his work, rarely looking up, even when hit with mundane questioning.
Stepping down off the chair, it was obviously one of the best shoe shines he had ever had in Mexico. That sense of guilt about not taking care of my huaraches was now gone, and he felt relief, at least for the present, before he started putting them through the everyday grind again. Now it was time to enjoy the delights of the plaza and its people.
All over the plaza, activity was buzzing, from the vendors with their small stands, selling handmade jewelry, purses and clothing, to the taco stands with their mixture of aromas, beckoning one to step closer for further gustatory inspection. All ages, sizes, shapes, and colors were represented, many with traditional Indian garb from their respective villages, each unique in its own way. Classical music could be heard coming from a remote area of the square, which was the Friday afternoon special, presented by the local orchestra. Looking across the square, one could see them, all in starched uniforms, seated underneath one of the large arches of a government building. Another small group, with men in all white garb and women in beautifully embroidery dresses were wandering around the plaza, playing folkloric music and dancing from Oaxaca. This was a special group, specially trained in regional music and dance, which came from Mexico City as a cultural exchange program with Merida. After strolling through the plaza, we headed for the sorbet café, located outside and underneath one of the grand arches, where we indulged in a mango sorbet and double espresso.
The main plaza in Merida, built by the Spaniards, houses a magnificent Cathedral, the oldest in Latin America, along with an imposing two story governmental building, the Palacio municipal, which occupies one complete side of the plaza. Lovers chairs are sprinkled around the interior of the plaza, where young and old alike, sit facing each other but separated physically by a concrete arm, which insures minimal touch, in case the chaperones attention has been diverted. This is a place for one to go sit, relax, walk; people watch or play, if of the appropriate age. There is a civility here, which is accepted by all, and makes this a very special place for people to congregate. Merida has all the trappings of a bustling little city, whether it be a new and imposing Theatre, an old and prestigious University in downtown, an up and coming art district, impressive museums, numerous café and espresso bars, restaurants of all varieties, art galleries, major department stores (Sears, Liverpool, Homedepot,etc.), and a fine cigar and wine bar. It has a bit of everything for everyone and surely deserves a stay, making sure a Sunday is included, as streets are closed, traffic diverted, and pedestrians and bicycle riders take to the streets. And when tired of the urban life, take to the highways, as the surrounding terrain extending from Merida outwards for a one to two hour journey, is loaded with interesting towns and ruins, many still undiscovered, and lovely people who complete this archaic journey back to pre-Columbian times.
Bill Milligan and Yndiana Montes thank SEFOTUR for their support on this trip. Also Maison Lafitte and Hotel Intercontinental Presidente for their stay; as well as Turistransmerida for their transportation from Merida to Chichen Itza.
Amaro Restaurant: Calle 69 by 60 and 62. Centro Histórico, Merida.
Text and photos: Bill & Yndie