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Merida Magic

Photographs by Kevin J. Miyazaki

On December 21, 2012, the residents of Mérida were told the world was ending.

That was how international media framed the significant date, which marked the conclusion of the 13th baktun, a phase of the long-count calendar of the Maya people that lasted nearly four centuries. “Doomsday nears!” headlines blared, perpetuating apocalyptic prophecies: At 11:11 p.m. on 12/21/12, would a cosmic shift occur for the modern-day Maya of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where Mérida is situated?

The Maya understood, of course, what the media did not: Their world was not about to end. In fact, Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who had taken office just 20 days before the momentous date, made an appearance in Mérida to inaugurate the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (Grand Museum of the Mayan World), where he reiterated what historians, archaeologists and the Maya themselves knew: The closure of the 13th baktun was not an ending, but a beginning, a reset of sorts. “The start of this new era is an opportunity for all Mexicans to be protagonists in a new age of prosperity,” the president said. “At this moment, we are prepared to initiate a new chapter.”

Whether it was by cosmic coincidence or conscious effort—or, perhaps, a bit of both—the end of the 13th baktun did usher in a new era in Mérida. Residents of the Yucatán Peninsula’s most important city (also its capital) seemed to take the president’s message to heart, launching all sorts of ambitious projects and businesses that are typically found in larger cities. Many of these highlighted the unique contributions of Maya culture or gave a nod to other storied chapters in Mérida’s and the Yucatán’s history. In the three and a half years since the president’s “new era” speech, Mérida has become an increasingly popular destination. Walk through its main square, Plaza Grande, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by the buzz of Spanish, Mayan and English—as well as German, French, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin.

But even though the number of visitors in 2015 exceeded government officials’ projections, Mérida remains a city that’s under the radar for most Americans. Beyond the beaches and resorts of Cancún, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, this part of Mexico’s eastern coast is more likely to draw archaeology buffs keen to explore Maya sites (and there are many) than couples, families or groups of friends seeking tropical weather, fantastic food, lavish pre-colonial and colonial-era architecture and plenty of cultural attractions—all of which Mérida has in spades.

“I wasn’t really interested in history until I started working here,” says Gabriela, a hostess at K’u’uk, a restaurant within the sprawling Villa Donata, a 19th-century mansion in central Mérida that has been a private home and, in the 1950s, the archbishop’s residence. As evidence of the latter, she points to a niche above the bar that’s painted a celestial blue. The statue that once must have occupied it is now gone, but the niche itself remains. “We decided to keep that,” she says, “as a tie to our past.”

K’u’uk, which means “sprout” in Mayan, opened in 2012 and has somehow managed to avoid notice by international “best of” lists, which probably won’t be the case much longer. Influenced by the same innovative ideas and experimental energy that characterize Can Roca, Noma and other restaurants run by global superstar chefs who prioritize local ingredients, K’u’uk and its self-taught chef, Pedro Evia, are quietly doing for the Yucatán what Ferran Adrià did for Catalonia and Spain and what René Redzepi is doing for Danish cuisine: elevating it to international prominence.

After my meal—the 10-course tasting menu, which includes an unexpected and delightful sugar wafer-esque cookie made entirely of freeze-dried cauliflower powder—Gabriela takes me into K’u’uk’s nerve center, its lab. A few books from Adrià’s multivolume elBulli 2005-2011 are spread out atop a wood table, and Gabriela points to all the machines one expects to see in a restaurant inspired, at least in part, by the molecular gastronomy movement Adrià popularized. She names each machine and tells me the ingredient or corresponding dish that is made using it. But more than Adrià or any of his protégés, whose books are also spotted on bookshelves just outside the lab, what truly inspires Chef Evia is the Yucatán itself. Gabriela shows me a gigantic map of the state of Yucatán that hangs on the lab’s wall. It is dotted with more than 100 neon-colored Post-it notes, an astonishingly detailed in-progress catalog of the Yucatán’s natural bounty, accompanied by 8.5-by-11-inch pages with observations about the ingredients’ known and potential uses. “Yes,” says Gabriela, who notices my mouth slightly agape. “It is impressive. Once we finish this investigation, we will share it with the public,” she says, explaining how the restaurant wants to expand understanding of Yucatecan ingredients and cuisine to a much larger audience. Then she opens the lid of a plastic container and offers my 6-year-old daughter, Mariel, a perfectly cut, dun-colored square. “Chicle,” she says, “natural gum from the sapodilla tree. Give it a try.” Mariel pops it in her mouth. “Yum,” she says, smiling. “That’s from a tree in Mexico? Cool!”

Chicle used to be big business
in the Yucatán Peninsula, which, according to Jennifer Mathews, who wrote a book about the history of chewing gum, had the largest stand of sapodilla trees in Mexico in the 19th century. It wasn’t the only industry, though: Henequen, an agave from which fiber is extracted, made Mérida truly wealthy. Called “green gold,” henequen created a wealthy class that was unrivaled anywhere else in the world at the beginning of the 1900s. Though the industry all but collapsed by midcentury, evidence of the henequen barons’ wealth remains, nowhere more visible than in the city’s many mansions. Today they are in various states of preservation—with some, sadly, abandoned and languishing—but plenty are restored to their gorgeous former glory, operating today as museums, event spaces and boutique hotels.

In the latter category is Casa Azul, a rich blue-hued confection with eight sprawling suites, each decorated in period-era furniture: dark woods, gilt-framed mirrors, elegant chandeliers and the strikingly beautiful original tiles. With a restaurant and a small outdoor pool—tantalizingly visible from the wrought iron gate outside—plus a charming garden, Casa Azul attracts lots of curious visitors who are keen to get a closer look at this beauty in a neighborhood that appears to be gentrifying. The only way they’ll get a complete glimpse, however, is if they book a room. “We have a policy of absolute privacy,” a manager tells me, “and when we have guests, no one else is allowed to visit.”

The atmosphere at The Diplomat Boutique Hotel is less rarified, but no less beautiful. The four suites here are decorated with vintage typewriters, globes and photos taken by the owners, a couple who emigrated from Canada and provide all guests with personalized service, including recommendations for activities in and around Mérida. And there is plenty to keep visitors busy here. Along the periphery of Plaza Grande, travelers can cool off with a visit to the Centro Cultural de Mérida Olimpo (Olympus Cultural Center of Mérida), which features several small galleries where artists from Mexico and abroad exhibit work, or the stunningly beautiful Museo Casa Montejo, built in the 16th century and lush with decorative flourishes. One of the only examples of Renaissance-era architecture still in existence in Mexico, Museo Casa Montejo is now a museum with a living room, bedroom and dining room set up as they would have appeared in the late 19th century. The museum, which is free, also has an onsite shop where visitors can purchase locally made crafts, including textiles, baskets and other woven goods, as well as the more elaborate arbol de vida, a ceramic “tree of life” whose many vividly-colored objects usually tell a story about an aspect of Mexican culture—food, favorite pastimes, music, etc.

Apart from museums, one of the best ways to spend time in Mérida is just strolling around and frequenting locals’ favorite places. Calle 60, from Plaza Grande to the Parque de la Maternidad, is always lively, with vendors selling handmade toys, embroidered shirts (called huípils) and colorful hand fans, an antidote to hot and humid afternoons. As the sun slips into the nearby sea and the evening cools a bit, the cultural life of Mérida really begins, with free music and dance performances in the Plaza Grande every night at 9 p.m.

It’s here where my daughter and I find ourselves on the last night of our visit. “It’s Wednesday, right?” she asks, incredulous at the sight of so many people and so much fun so late—and on a school night, no less. “You know,” she says, as she takes a lick of coconut sorbet from a cup served up by the locally famous Dulcería y Sorbetería Colón, “I think I really like it here.”

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