Our Introduction to Merida
In late 2001, we felt rather like pioneers moving to Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, considering it was a place we had not heard of two months earlier. There did not seem to be a lot of gringos here, and within months we were pretty sure we had met most of them. Most of the extranjero crowd lived in or near the centro. It seems that most of us who moved here then had come looking for authenticity and historical context… something other than drywall, machine-made-everything McMansions. We were attracted to the history on every block, and the intensity of life mixed with the tranquilo lifestyle we found in the heart of Merida. And just as importantly, we loved how inexpensive these old houses were. We came from a place where a handmade stone wall would cost much more than we could afford to a place where handmade stone walls were de rigeur. We had lived in Central California where stone floors cost a fortune and moved to Southern Mexico where stone and tiled floors were commonplace. We knew about the newer houses in "the north", but we were not interested; if we had wanted a house like that, we would have stayed home.
Years later, we still love the mixed-up, noisy, something-always-going-on life in the centro, though we can confess to understanding why some people appreciate the suburbs. Colonials are not as cheap as they used to be, at least not in the more traditionally-desirable neighborhoods. Building practices and architectural design for new and renovated homes have improved over seven years, and services and conveniences have been growing by leaps and bounds in every corner of the city. Today, we’re pretty sure we could find something to love about almost every neighborhood in Merida, along the beach or out in the countryside.
We made the decision to move to Merida over a weekend. We had seen some houses for sale on the one real estate website that was in English (Mitch’s Propiedades Pyramides, now reincarnated as Mexico International), fallen in love with the colonial architecture and mosaico tiles, and traveled down to explore. We spent one day with Jennifer Lytle, who worked for Mitch at the time, and now owns Tierra Yucatan, saw sixteen houses, picked two (one for our home, and one for our office), thought about it for one night, and dove right in. That was November, and by February, we had sold our house in California, loaded all our worldly goods onto a moving van, driven across the Southwestern USA and most of Mexico, and arrived at our newly-renovated old colonial home in Merida. Such was our state of mind and sense of adventure that we did not even know the neighborhood we had bought into.
Luckily, it turns out that Jen was looking out for us and the Fates were on our side. We considered ourselves fortunate that we had bought a house and an office in the lovely colonia of Santa Ana. These days, most buyers of real estate in Merida are not so cavalier, and they want to know more about the neighborhood where their new house is located.
So we set out to explore and research the different neighborhoods of Merida for our readers, to add to what we knew about each one after living here. We cannot talk about ALL the neighborhoods, because Merida is a city of over a million people and expanding daily. There are still some neighborhoods where you would be hard pressed to find an English-speaking resident. So we are going to concentrate on the more popular neighborhoods for extranjeros, which is a lot! Beyond the area popularly known as ‘Gringo Gulch’ (Santa Ana and Santiago), extranjero residents of Merida are spread far and wide, though still with a tendency to concentrate in the centro historico.
What Is A Colonia?
First, a few explanations. Neighborhoods in the centro are the old neighborhoods, and called colonias or barrios. Most colonias are anchored by a church, whose name is usually shared by the neighborhood. The boundaries are fluid and there are no boundary police as far as we know. If you are halfway between Santa Ana church and Santiago church, for example, you can claim either one and no one will argue with you. Farther outside of the centro, you can always tell where you are by reading the street signs. Below the "Calle 25" on the left will always be the name of the colonia or fraccionamiento. Neighborhoods farther from the centro may be called fraccionamientos. It means "division" or "housing development" and usually indicates a planned community. But fraccionamiento also seems to imply a middle-class area, so the upscale areas of La Ceiba or Temozon Norte are not referred to usually as fraccionamientos, even if they were originally planned communities.
Zocalo is a generic term for the buildings surrounding a central plaza. The term is used by Mexicans to mean THE Zocalo in D.F., but sometimes it is also used by those who are not native to Merida, to indicate the Plaza Grande. The Plaza Grande marks the center of the center, the very centro of the centro historico of Merida. Bounded on four sides by buildings which include the Catedral San Idelfonso, the Governor’s Palace, Casa Montejo (now inhabited by a modern conquistador, Banamex), the MACAY museum, the Olimpo (a cultural center that houses gallery space, a movie theatre and the Planetarium) and the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), the Plaza Grande is a lovely park where people come to meet, sit, get their shoes shined, protest, sell, buy, read the paper, sing, dance, chase the pigeons or just watch the world go by. There are also newstands, coffee shops, a Dante bookstore, a hostel, a few places to buy fresh juice and various and sundry other retail establishments.
The closest colonia to the Plaza Grande in the centro historico of Merida is Santa Lucia. The colonia itself is small and used to be mostly filled with businesses. That has changed in the last few years, and more and more expats are calling Santa Lucia home. Santa Lucia’s importance in the cultural life of the city is large. The salmon-colored Santa Lucia church is on the corner of Calle 60 and Calle 55, just three blocks north of the Plaza Grande. Across from the church is a small park where music and dancing events are held under the watchful eyes of the sculpted heads of famous Yucateco musicians, and where artisans booths are set up on Sundays and other special occasions.
Now, of course, the Santa Lucia park has become incredibly popular. Anchored by the La Tratto Santa Lucia restaurant (owned by the same family that owns Trotter’s and Pancho’s), the park also boasts the very popular Oaxacan restaurant Apaola, the Ki’Xocolatl chocolate shop, and so much more. Right across the street is also the ever-popular Chaya Maya restaurant, and there is even a French bakery, Escargot, nearby. It used to be difficult to frequent downtown restaurants if you lived elsewhere, but Santa Lucia now has a very spacious parking lot behind it, making it a favored downtown destination for people living in North Merida. In fact, Santa Lucia is becoming SO hip, a renovated house in the area was recently featured in the New York Times in their Great Homes and Destinations section.
One of the oldest colonias in Merida, the Santiago district is to the west and north of Plaza Grande. The church, founded in 1637, was once much grander; now little remains of the original structure other than the modest sanctuary with a baroque statue of Santiago and the dated inscription above the entry. The front of the church and the main nave, supported by buttresses, not necessarily flying, was built in the 19th century. There is a park in front of the church and a market next to the church, with fruits and vegetables, meats, and a good flower selection. There are also a host of excellent cocina economicas, sundries stores and an ice cream store. There is also a children’s playground in the park, a beautiful water fountain surrounded by shade trees, and a large concrete area used at various times for skateboarding, big band music (every Tuesday night!), dancing, fairs and temporary markets. Surrounding the park you can find a grocery store, a drugstore, a movie theatre and a branch of Mexico’s pawn shop chain, Nacional Monte de Piedad. Behind the church are a number of hardware stores, paint stores, a bicycle store and Flor de Santiago, a bakery, a milk store, a cafe and restaurant. And on the other side of Calle 59 are two large schools, one public and one private, in beautiful buildings both built during the Porfirio Era (early 1900s).
Originally (350-400 years ago), Santiago was the area relegated to the indigenous indios and artisans. Due to its close proximity to the central square, Santiago was one of the first areas to expand in population. It quickly became the shopping area for residents of San Sebastian, Ermita and other areas who wanted to avoid the downtown. Famous figures hailing from Santiago include Manuel Cepada Peraza (a governor of Yucatan in the 1860′s), composer Guadalupe Trigo, Crescencio Carrillo y Ancona (a bishop of Yucatan who grew up in Santiago) and the educator/writer/reporter Rodolfo Menéndez de la Peña who died in Santiago in 1928.
Our friend Miguel Faller tells us that Santiago was once the German district, with the building on the corner once known as Quinta Los Alemanes. Santiago was the nicest place to live in Merida, before Paseo de Montejo was built around the turn of the century (1900), and Calle 59 was the main formal entrance into Merida after Porfirio Diaz built the Centenario Zoo and Parque de La Paz. It is still the main road if you come from the airport, and all of Calle 59 was renovated in 2013 so that it makes a beautiful entrance into the city. The Germans owned three or four big hardware stores (Faller’s grandfather was one of them) in the Santiago district, all of which did their main trade with the haciendas. The diesel engines that powered the hacienda plants came from Germany in the late 1800′s, so hardware was a natural business for the Germans to expand into in the early 1900′s.
In 1914, Santiago got its movie theatre, then called La Frontera, which also had a hotel and was also located on the west side of the park. That building eventually became the supermarket that is there today. Another theatre, called the Salon, was built in 1915 on the north side of the park. It was later called the Apolo, and presented zarzuelas (Spanish musical theatre) and operettas, as well as films. In 1922, it was renamed the Cinema Rivoli and today it is called the Cines Hollywood. After some remodeling of the plaza between 1982 and 1984, the park began the tradition of holding Remembranzas Musicales every Tuesday night. This event brings residents and tourists together to dance the cha-cha, the mambo, salsa and other Latin dances to live, Big Band music under the stars.
For extranjeros, Santiago is one of the most desirable downtown neighborhoods and there are many American and Canadian-owned renovated colonial homes in this area.
The beautiful little church of Santa Ana, which faces Calle 60 at Calle 45, was founded in the 1500s and rebuilt in the 1700s. During those times, it served the northenmost barrio of colonial Merida with a large population of indigenous Mayans and mulattos. The church is built on a raised platform, probably a former Maya temple platform, and is easily identified by its pyramidal spires. Santa Ana was said to be the city’s farm, as it was the site of plantations that grew food for the city. In a historical document from 1834, Juan Federico Maximiliano Waldeck noted that Merida had 37,801 inhabitants and 3,984 of them were living in Santa Ana.
While Santa Lucia was the site of the first cemetery in Merida, it was soon moved to Santa Ana where it existed until the 1880′s when it was moved to its current location in San Sebastian. The impetus for moving the cemetery was the construction of Paseo de Montejo by a group of engineers headed up by Rafael Quintero, the engineer responsible for paving the streets of Merida. Once this work started, Santa Ana became a more desirable district and the former residents were forced out to other, probably more southern, parts of the city. Santa Ana eventually extended as far north as the Quinta San Fernando, a large country estate owned by the Peón family, and Quinta San Jacinto, both torn down to build the Hyatt and the Fiesta Americana. (Other large estates also were located there, one of which, El Pinar, still stands today in all its pink glory, across from the Hyatt on Calle 60).
Today, the area around Parque Santa Ana is a burgeoning art district, with several galleries and museums. There are also hotels, a few restaurants, a gas station, convenience stores, hardware stores, paint stores, and a frame shop. Banks line Paseo de Montejo in that district, along with more restaurants, the old Archaeological Museum and a handful of mansions dating back from more prosperous times during the henequen boom. Santa Ana also has a small market with a few vegetable stalls and butchers, and a popular group of cocinas serving all the traditional Yucatecan foods and fresh juice. There are now also tourist shops along Calle 47, catering to the tourists that wander between the Plaza Grande area and the Paseo, and who gather at the end of the Paseo (on Calle 47, known as the Remate) for Saturday night Noches Mexicanas to enjoy the live music and shopping in the stands set up for the night (known as puestos). The cocinas are a popular place for early morning meals and the whole area is usually well attended on any morning, sometimes serenaded by local musicians hoping to earn a few pesos.
Santa Ana is also a highly desirable section of town for extranjeros, and the part of it roughly between Calles 60 and 66, and Calles 45 and 55, is known unofficially as ‘Gringo Gulch’. The Working Gringos’ first house, Casa del Panadero, was in the heart of Gringo Gulch… but they do not live there anymore. Perhaps a plaque should be installed? “The Working Gringos Slept Here”.
San Sebastian and Ermita
Expats who live in this area jokingly refer to this part of town as SOME (pronounced Soh-may), which stands for South Merida, because we are south of the zocalo. In the early 20th Century, San Sebastian was known as the Barrio Bravo, a dangerous area where young men fought amongst themselves and with groups from other barrios, especially neighboring Ermita. Between 1900 and 1920, when the rest of the city was swimming in money and building homes whose grandeur is legendary to this day, this area was experiencing a guerra de barrios (war of the neighborhoods) and guerra de esquinas (war of the corners). Men and boys would form gangs that took the names of the corners where they would gather to recount their deeds and plan their next fights. The men of the Barrio Bravo were known for their pugilistic skills, to the point where confrontations became almost institutionalized, with rules for who could fight whom, based on the weight and skill of the participants. The fights eventually were fought cleanly and became a locally-attended sport.
In colonial times, San Sebastian was part of an area given by the senior Francisco de Montejo to his son, who organized the indigenous Mayas from the areas where he wanted to build his estates, and moved them all into the area now known as San Sebastian. For hundreds of years, this was the area where the disenfranchised local Mayans and lower class immigrants lived. When Yucatan Governor Lucas de Galvez (after whom the central mercado in Merida is named) was killed in 1792, it was generally believed that the killer came from San Sebastian. For the longest time, only the poor lived here, "passing their days outside the city walls, living in homes of stone and straw, or in the dark and dusty streets and plazas", as it was effectively abandoned by the city in regard to improvements. Before the building of Calle 59, the de facto entrance to Merida on the south and west was up Calle 81 and Calle 66, through San Sebastian and Ermita. That was the route taken by Salvador Alvarado when he marched from Mexico City to bring the Mexican Revolution to Merida. (Just a little historical note: the name Yucatecans have for people who move here from Mexico City is huaches, which is said to be the sound made by the boots of the men in Salvador Alvarado’s Army who marched from Mexico City into Merida to bring the Revolution to the Yucatan).
On the western border of San Sebastian is the ex-Rastro, Merida’s original meat-packing district, where the butchers, also known for their brawn and testosterone, lived and worked. The ex-Rastro now has a large sports park for baseball, soccer and walking, located just behind the Chedraui supermarket that faces Avenida Itzaes.
Despite the fact that their gangs were at odds, Ermita has always been considered a part of San Sebastian. The Ermita Church was originally built in the 1700′s and was a wayfarer’s shrine, dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Buen Viaje (Our Lady of the Good Journey… Merida’s local equivalent of Saint Christopher). Ermita was the last place to say your prayers before you set out on the dangerous trip to Campeche in the west. The lovely little church is still surrounded on two sides by a botanical garden with very old fig trees, dripping with roots and vines. The garden is inhabited by ghosts (we like to believe…) and dotted with signs describing Maya and colonial sculptures no longer in attendance. With its multi-level pathways and artificial waterfall (often empty), it is a favorite place for residents to walk and wander… and here’s something unusual for a park in Merida: they don’t seem to mind if you bring your dogs.
For the last few years, San Sebastian and Ermita are seeing a revival among expatriates, as these areas have been the target of much beautification by the city of Merida. The stunning church in San Sebastian still stands, flanked on two sides by a shady park and a sports area with a large fenced field for baseball and soccer, as well as a much-used basketball court and a brand new ‘exercise’ court. On the Calle 75 side of the church are government offices that used to be a police station. It is said that the metal fence surrounding the courtyard was built with the muzzles of rifles repurposed after the Mexican Revolution (check it out for yourself next time you’re there…). Extranjeros are moving into the area, attracted by the large plots of land available for lower prices than similar ones uptown in Santa Ana or Santiago, as well as for the authentic neighborhood feel. The park in front of Ermita’s church was also renovated a few years ago with a new playground, Wi-Fi connections and computer docking stations. The streets around Ermita have been reset and repaved with the original bricks.
San Sebastian boasts a food market, with fruit and vegetable stalls, butchers and cocinas economicas on both sides of Calle 70, where dining on Yucatecan food under the stars is a local pasttime. These particular restaurants are very popular with local Meridanos from other parts of the city and are quite busy on weekend nights. There are public and private schools around the park, an Extra convenience store and one of Merida’s favorite antique stores at the corner of Calle 72 and Calle 75. San Sebastian is known for its fairs, and throughout much of the year, booths with penny arcades are set up around the park, sometimes joined by ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds. The first two weeks of August are especially busy here, when it seems like half of Merida comes down to enjoy San Sebastian’s famous fería, complete with voladores (homemade bottle rockets), papier maché bulls and music.
The area around and behind the Parque Centenario Zoo is called Centenario, but was once called the Barrio de Santa Catarina and was a part of Santiago. This is the area where the Penitentiary was built in 1895 and the first Merida hospital, O’Horan, was built in 1906. It was a poor neighborhood where the unwanted members of the population were sent: the sick, the crazy and the criminal. The zoo was constructed as part of Porfirio Diaz’ nationwide building project, and the entrance gate is a lovely example of the monumental architecture of that period.
The zoo, the Penitentiary and the O’Horan Hospital still exist, flanking the lovely Parque de la Paz (Peace Park), though the Penitentiary has been repurposed as city offices. The park also provides shady respite to the nearby Military Hospital, the Medical School across the street, and the Yucatan version of the DMV, where this famous story took place, and where one goes to register a car or get license plates.
The neighborhood behind and around the Zoo is still a humble one, and it too has a smattering of extranjero residents. They are attracted to the authentic neighborhood feel and the lower prices, as well as proximity to the lovely zoo, the wide Avenida Itzaes and the Parque de la Paz. There is no central market here, but homes are within walking distance to the Chedraui on Avenida Itzaes, as well as a San Francisco on Calle 59. Besides the cultural charms of these neighborhoods, homes here are less than a fifteen minute drive to the Merida airport… even less when there is no traffic!
On the opposite side of town, east of the centro, is the colonia known as Mejorada. La Mejorada was once an area of beautiful colonial homes, many of which still exist today in various states of reparation. One of the most beautiful is the downstairs and front rooms of the Mision Hotel on Calle 59, with a lovely open courtyard in the center, surrounded by high-ceilinged rooms with beautiful woodwork and floor tiles. The very first hospital in Merida was built in Mejorada in 1562, and later (1688-1694) the area also saw the constructin of a Franciscan convent. Due to political problems and space issues, both were eventually moved. The convent building served at different times as a women’s jail and a soldier’s barracks, and in 1970 was donated by the State government to the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan (UADY) and now houses the Architecture School, the alma mater of most of Merida’s architects. The stone building houses both the church and the university, and is open to the public. The University courtyard is paved with massive stones… the central patio, surrounded by history and the young faces of Mexico’s future architects is an impressive intersection of past and present.
Mejorada for many years had a strong military presence, and the cuartel, or barracks, took up an entire block just south of Calle 59 and east of Calle 50. That fact is commemorated by a plaque at that corner, El Cuartel, and the cuartel itself now houses a school and buildings for afterschool programs. The grounds even have a railroad car inside, outfitted as a classroom.
Mejorada had its boom time during the railroad era (late 1800′s), when Merida’s magnificent railroad station was built. Friends of ours who grew up in Merida have told us that steam engines still chugged into the station in the 1960′s. Today, one of those steam engines chugs around Disneyworld. Nowadays, the station has been partially refurbished and now serves as the Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatan (ESAY). There are still portions of the station that are unrenovated, as well as a large plot of land where various railroad cars lie rusting in the sun. Rumour has it that the rest of the structure will one day be renovated for performance and retail spaces, and the land turned into an even nicer park. We can’t wait. On the north side of this park is the Yucatan Railway Museum, where a collection of historical engines and railroad cars await visitors in a manicured, park-like environment, tended over by a lonely but dedicated guard.
Mejorada Park itself is one of Merida’s most tranquil, with its large, bronze sculpture commemorating the Niños Heroes de Chapultepec. The park is often used by local youth for dance or parade practice. On the east side, facing the church and the University buildings, you can find a line-up of men and their trucks available for whatever job you might have for them. If you are moving furniture from one house to another, this is the place to go to rent a crew and a truck to help you. On the west side of the park, is Merida’s best Spanish restaurant, El Segoviano, the famous Los Almendros restaurant and the Museo del Arte Popular, the museum of Mexican popular arts and crafts. There is no market in the neighborhood, but the central Galvez mercado is only a few blocks to the south. There is definitely an extranjero presence in this neighborhood, with many a restored colonials and many more on the way.
What we knew about San Juan before we wrote this article would have fit on the head of a pin (in rather large type), but now we’ve learned a lot! San Juan is one of the oldest colonias in the centro. It was a barrio for the Indians in colonial times, but became a nice place to live later on, until the development of Merida started heading toward Paseo de Montejo. San Juan is probably the most historically important park in Merida, as it was here that Vicente Maria Velasquez, a priest that grew up in San Juan, formed a group called the SanJuanistas. His group worked to give the Indians in Yucatan a better life and fought against the colonizers. This priest with high ideals gathered a group of men around him, and introduced them to the books and ideas of Voltaire, Montesquieu and other European philosophers. These liberal-thinking idealists joined with similar groups in other parts of Mexico in what turned out to be the beginning of the Independence movement, which eventually convinced Spain to leave Mexico.
The yellow painted arch, built in 1690, stands out on the south end of San Juan Park, and was once the beginning of the road to Campeche. (The arches in Merida, by the way, have a shape that is unique in all of Mexico, or so we have read.) The church was built between 1769 and 1770, and the fountain sculpture in the park was brought from Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century. The park has recently been remodeled and refurbished, and La Negrita (the statue from France, made of a black material and thus named ‘the little black one’) is back in her place in the fountain. There is a nice children’s playground and a statue of Benito Juarez. Did you know the Anthropological Museum used to be in San Juan, next to the church? We didn’t either! But it was, for a few years, before it found its permanent home in Palacio Cantón (and was later moved to a new building in North Merida, now the Gran Museo de Mundo Maya).
There are quite a few old colonials in the San Juan area, but many of them have been converted into commercial buildings now. San Juan is situated just south and west of the central market area and is also the place where vans and buses stop and pick up passengers going to all points south and east. San Juan is just two blocks east of the CAME bus station on Calle 70.
The San Cristóbal barrio, just southeast of the Plaza Grande, was originally an area set aside by Montejo and his team of conquistadores in the 1540′s to house the Indians from Central Mexico who moved to the area to help Montejo conquer the Mayans. The beautiful San Cristóbal Church was the last one built by Spaniards in the Yucatan, and shows an exemplary level of skill and craftsmanship in its architecture and its stained glass windows. The foundation stone was laid in 1757 and the church was officially dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe the following year to mark the Pope’s official recognition of Mexico’s popular patron saint. The church apparently took forever to build… okay, not forever. Only forty years. It was finally completed in December of 1796, and the architect is purported to be Juan de Torres, who was also the designer and builder of the main church in Uman, another grand edifice worth visiting. San Cristóbal recalls the main Cathedral in the Plaza Grande with its multi-level twin towers and lofty facade. It shares the recessed shell archway with the church in Uman, and has a magnificent Moorish choir window featuring the Virgin.
According to our sources (we’ve never done it), you can climb a stairway of 129 steps to reach the interior gallery of the nave to see the neoclassical stone retablo, supposedly sculpted by an imported European sculptor. The inscription in Latin above the entrance reads "This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven".
This church is a major Merida landmark, not only because of its beauty and its patron saint, but because it is the site of the Virgin of Guadalupe celebrations on December 12 every year. Parking is always a problem in this area, as it is close to the main municipal mercado… and don’t even think about driving through here on December 12! (Do WALK through, though. The celebration is an event worth seeing!).
The area became known as a place for handicrafts, and in the 1800′s was the central Yucatan supplier for leather goods. In the late 1800′s and early 1900′s it was known as the part of Merida where the Rejon family lived. The Rejones were a family of lawyers, some of them working in the Justice Department on Mexican Independence. The Merida airport is named after their most famous member, Manuel Cresencio Rejon. For many years, and to this day, this area is also the main entrance to Merida from Chichen Itza and Valladolid (on Calle 65, which goes right past the church on its south side).
There are many old buildings in this area, a few of which have been restored, but many of which are still waiting for rebirth.
This area was actually a separate Mayan village on the northeastern outskirts of the original city limits of Merida. The first colonial building to be erected here was, of course, the church, built as a chapel for the resident Indian population. Part of the original chapel is thought to form the sanctuary of the current church in Itzimna, built in the 18th Century.
Itzimna was an area where the rich hacendados (hacienda owners) built their summer homes. It’s hard to believe these days that Itzimna was once considered that far away! This is why today in Itzimna you can find some magnificent and sprawling homes. Many of these have been reappropriated (we know of one that houses the Rotary Club and another ignomiously provides shelter for a hardware store). The church is a favorite of Meridanos and the site of many weddings, probably due to its charm and beauty. The church is surrounded by a large square with shade trees, and there are many public and private schools in this area, as well as dance and art schools and restaurants… including the famous original Wayan’e Taco Stand!
The housing development known as Aleman was one of the first planned developments in Merida. Built in 1957, it was named after Mexico’s sitting president at the time, Miguel Aleman. It was a development designated for workers, it was federally funded and it was at the time the only colonia with a sewer system. Here’s an interesting fact: it is STILL the only colonia with a sewer system! It was also the first colonia in the city to get city water. The area is intelligently laid out, with wide streets and avenues lined with trees. Originally it was filled with little, tiny houses (and believe us, houses can be REALLY tiny in Mexico, especially judged by American or Canadian standards). Over time, residents bought up two or three plots of adjacent land to build bigger homes. Today it is an upper-middle-class area with fairly modern homes. Aleman is pretty solidly residential, with a smattering of retail and restaurants, but it is halfway between the historical center and the Plaza Fiesta Mall (Merida’s oldest mall), the Alta Brisa Mall (one of its newest) and the Star Medica Hospital.
Originally this area was the land of a hacienda called Datil y Limon (Date and Lemon), situated far outside of Merida. In the late 19th Century, the hacienda was bought by Don Cosme Angel Villajuana and named San Cosme after himself and his patron saint. In 1904, a Spaniard with real estate acumen, bought the hacienda from Don Cosme, partioned it and sold the lots. His name was Señor Don Joaquín García Ginerés, and when he died in 1915, the area was named after him by official decree. When Don Joaquín first started selling these plots, people were afraid to buy so far out of town. Joanna Rosado, author of ‘Tomando Agua de Pozo’, tells how when she moved to Merida in the 1960s, García Ginerés was still far out of town and crisscrossed by dirt roads.
Today, García Ginerés is a mostly residential area, cut down the middle by the busy, one-way Avenida Colón. The streets are wide, and the houses are a mixture of old and new, though most are less than fifty years old. There are elegant expensive homes and cheaper less grand houses as well, but in general, the area is an upper middle class enclave. In the physical and cultural center of the colonia, at the corner of Calle 20 and Avenida Colón and Calle 20, is Parque de Las Americas, a tree-filled park in four quadrants that was built in a Mayan Art Deco style (also seen in the Monumento a la Patria on Paseo de Montejo) and finished in 1946.
Throughout the park are monuments to all the different countries of North and South America, in a style that pays homage to the Mayan culture in direct opposition to the area’s heritage of Spanish conquest. The park was built to represent the unity of the American people, pre-Hispanic cultures and socialist ideals. The park has a large fountain in one quadrant, a performance space with a concha (half-shell) open-air auditorium in another and the Jose Martí cultural center in a third. The fourth quadrant is fenced off and reserved as a children’s play area. Our friends have told us that there was once (and probably still is…) a cenote underneath the concha. Today, residents enjoy the park for sitting in the shade, attending cultural events, and walking or running around the perimeter for exercise. On weekends, the park is often the site of athletic or cultural events.
Not to be confused with the coastal town of the same name, Chuburná is an area of Merida just to the north of García Ginerés. In the 1940′s, Avenida Itzaes was built running parallel to the railroad, providing a route from Paseo de Montejo to the western outskirts of the city. North of this road was the comisaría of Chuburná, a part of Merida but run by its own government and the largest ejido (community-owned property designated after the Mexican Revolution) in Merida. In the days before it was broken up, the ejido stretched all the way across Calle 60 and Paseo Montejo to Itzimna.
In the 1980′s, Merida expanded into this area, which became an area known for its privadas (private communities sharing a common entrance… the original gated communities). Chuburná became a colonia of Merida aimed at middle-class families, where a family could enjoy a slightly larger plot of land or a small quinta but still be close to the city. If you’re looking for Jorge’s antique shop, you will find it in this part of town.
Chuburná has one of the oldest churches in Merida where a fantastic flea market is held each Sunday. The area also has a market, schools and commercial areas, and it is close to supermarkets like Costco and Mega.
East of the historic center is an area now known as Chuminopolis. According to local tradition, the name is a conjunction of Chumin (a nickname for Domingo) and Polis (the Greek root word for ‘city’). This part of the city was all once owned by Sr. José Domingo Sosa, a rich landowner and distinguished citizen. He built a capilla (chapel) here, which was unfortunately demolished in 1944. The area was the Chinese district where the Chinese migrants lived who had come to work on the railroad.
One of the most beautiful buildings in this area is Quinta el Olvido (House of Forgetting), built at the end of the 19th century by Rafael Quintero, the engineer who paved the streets of Merida. The nearby neighborhood of Chempech is where the original Yucatecan brewery was built in 1900, which was eventually sold to Grupo Modelo, and then closed in 2002. Part of the property was bought by a company that built Plaza Sendero, with supermarkets, a movie theatre and restaurants. The old brewery silos still remain, with plans to create a restaurant there someday. Chuminopolis is also home to the Casa de la Christiandad, a former Franciscan monastery, also known as Hacienda San Pedro Chukuaxí. Just north of this area is a neighborhood known as Jardines Miraflores, an old middle-class fraccionamiento. Over the last few years, the area has seen a smattering of purchases by extranjeros who like the proximity to downtown with the lower-priced homes.
Twentieth Century Colonias
Since the second half of the twentieth century, Merida has been growing enormously to the north and west.
The north is the area which has seen the greatest commercial growth, and it is here where you will find the newer homes, shopping malls, hospitals, department stores, private schools, franchises from all over the world and car dealerships. Driving north on Prolongación de Montejo from the centro can induce culture shock to the uninitiated. We still have to shake our heads sometimes at how much "the north" looks like areas of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles or parts of Phoenix or Florida. Housing developments have continued to spring up in this direction, with names like Montecristo, Montebello, San Ramón Norte, Montes de Amé, Vista Alegre Norte and Altabrisa. Middle and upper-middle class families have built everything from small homes to huge walled compounds in these areas, as well as in the colonias of San Esteban, San Miguel, Brisas, Jardines de Mérida, Los Pinos, Los Arcos and Polignono 108. Three of Merida’s newest shopping malls (at this writing…), Altabrisa, City Center and Macro Plaza, are all in this area.
Colonia Mexico is one of the nicest of these, both for the size and quality of the homes and for its proximity to downtown Merida and Paseo de Montejo. This area began development in the 1940′s, so many of the houses are somewhere in between the modern and art deco styles, in a style called functionalism. As the wealthier families continued to move away from the downtown area, Colonia Mexico was developed around the same time that Paseo de Montejo was lengthened into Prolongación de Montejo, and is still considered an upscale area. There are both homes and offices in this area, and a smattering of restaurants as well.
In the 1990′s, the city also expanded into the west. In the northwest, Francisco de Montejo (the area behind the Siglo XXI (21st Century) Convention Center) saw 40,000 homes built. This new development attracted new residents from other parts of Mexico, especially Mexico City. To this day, few native Yucatecans live in this area as it is inhabited mostly by los huaches (that somewhat derogatory name Yucatecans have for people from Mexico City, as we mentioned earlier) and from parts of central Mexico. Today, the fraccionamiento of Francisco de Montejo is home to more people than the populations of Valladolid or Tizimin.
In the southeast, Fraccionamiento Juan Pablo II (named after the popular Pope) was created and homes were built for lower-income families. This area continues to expand across the Periferico into Ciudad Caucel (next to the once-independent pueblo of Caucel) and Villa Magna. The areas where the poorest families in Merida live is in the south, behind the International Manuel Cresencio Rejon Airport. These colonias bear names like Emiliano Zapata Sur, San Antonio Xluch and San José Tecoh, where Merida’s present-day jail is located.
Like Chuburna, Cholul was a comisaría with its own government and it was ejido land. When henequen production dropped off, the only thing left of value for the ejidatarios was their land… they had nothing else to sell or produce. They began to sell their land in the 1990′s to wealthy Meridanos and things just kept going from there. Today, Cholul still has that small peaceful pueblo feel to it. The town is centered around a large town square with an old and rather plain church. Some of Merida’s richest families live there, and some of Merida’s poorest families live there too, with a dash of extranjeros in the mix for exotic flavor. There is a lot of development going on in and around Cholul, with many private universities nearby, the Star Medica hospital and the Altabrisa shopping center just across the Periferico. Land and houses are no longer inexpensive there, and haven’t been for awhile, but there are still many undeveloped pieces of property.
North of the Periferico
The communities north of the Periferico (the ring road around Merida), on the road toward Progreso, are some of the newest and richest communities in Merida. The most famous of these has to be La Ceiba, a gated private community built around the La Ceiba golf course. La Ceiba was built in the 1970′s, designed by architect Félix Mier y Terán Lejeune, father of the owner of the Yucatan Today magazine. There were 50 original members sharing a golf course, tennis court, pool and clubhouse. Members bought into a community that allowed them to live and practice sports in their exclusive enclave far away from the hustle and bustle of the noisy city. Now there are 400 or so residences in La Ceiba, and the amenities of the golf club have expanded to include a salon, restaurant, shops, bar, a putting green and practice tee, nine tennis courts and a playground. Golf tournaments and other private events are held there regularly, and this is still one of the premiere neighborhoods in Merida.
Anyone who has driven the route from Merida to Progreso can now see that there are other developments bidding for premiere residential destination in Merida. There is the Xcanatun Residences, across the highway from Hacienda Xcanatun. And most famously, there is the Yucatan Country Club, with its Jack Nicklaus-designed course and Academy of Golf. The Yucatan Country Club considers itself the best of the best in this area, rivaling premiere residential developments anywhere else in the world. It plans to eventually have a spa, a five star hotel, condominiums and much more.
Closer to town are the areas of Dzodzil, a small gated community inside the Periferico that was once the grounds of Hacienda Dzodzil, and Temozon Norte, a once tiny comisaría that has been sold off in large plots to wealthy residents. Temozon Norte has only recently being developed, and is a community of mostly very large luxury estates, each in their own walled and gated compounds.
In the last few years, various developers have been building up. Towers are beginning to tower over the north of Merida, providing their inhabitants with some amazing views of the pancake-flat Yucatan Peninsula that goes on forever until it comes to the sea. These towers, like the Country Towers in Altabrisa, are first-class residences, providing pools, gardens, health spas, tennis courts, jogging tracks, kids clubs, movie theaters and private elevators. These residences are about as far from a colonial house in the centro as you can get in Merida.
So Many We Didn’t Mention
There are myriad neighborhoods that we didn’t mention, not the least of which are all the communities along the beach, which is a subject for a different day and a different article. According to the state of Yucatan’s website, the state has 106 municipios (small towns), 12 comisarías (towns that are part of Merida but with an independent local government) and 36 subcomisarías (like comisarías but, well… smaller).
What Will Future Historians Say?
From our experience, extranjeros have found, bought, renovated and built homes in almost every part of Merida’s centro and in the northern communities. As more of us move here and put down roots here, we are expanding our footprints into outlying municipios as well. Merida and the state of Yucatan are big and vibrant communities, with populations, governments and cultures apart from those of us who have migrated here, and a history of growth and change. As a group, we English-speaking extranjeros from the USA and Canada are already given much credit for the continuing renaissance of the centro historico, as it was our attraction to and TLC for the abandoned colonials which encouraged the locals to reevaluate the importance of Merida’s historic center. But others are moving to Merida too, from places as close as other states in Mexico, and from around the world.
We hope that all who decide to move here will enjoy integrating into, contributing to and learning about the communities you find yourself living in as much as we have. We can imagine that someday in the future, someone will be writing again about the neighborhoods of Merida and the Yucatan, and will include a chapter about when the gringos came to town. We hope you’ll join us in making sure that is a chapter about rebirth, restoration and renewal for not only the extranjeros who moved here, but for everyone in the communities of Merida that we now call home.
A complete listing of the 106 municipios of Yucatan
A map of the 12 comisarías and 36 subcomisarías of Merida
A map of the centro historico of Merida with the neighborhoods indicated. (Download map here – 823KB PDF)
A map by INEGI, the Mexican Geographic and Census department, that shows every single neighborhood inside the Periferico. (Download map here – 1.08 MB PDF)