The Town of Uman Yucatan
We have been meaning to write about Uman for a long time... years! But that is the thing about Uman... it is so close to Merida, it is easy to overlook it. Because Uman is so close, it is not usually the place you think of when you want to go for a day trip into the Yucatan Peninsula. When you live in the Yucatan and you think of a Yucatan destination for a day's adventure, it is usually Izamal or Uxmal or Valladolid that pops into mind.
We are here to tell you that Merida's closest neighbor, Uman, is not only worth thinking about, it is also worth the visit. There is much to see and do there... and it is completely representative of a typical Yucatan pueblo, with the outstanding exception that it is only about 20 minutes and 18 kilometers from the center of Merida.
Uman was established... well, no one knows when exactly Uman was established. In fact, in the early 1800's, nearby Hunucma was the larger city and Uman was part of their jurisdiction.
Sometime between then and now, Uman grew into its own, probably largely due to its convenient location on the road out of Merida towards Muna and Campeche (before the 180 detoured the Campeche-bound travelers around it). Now Uman boasts a population of almost 40,000 people (as of the official 2010 census), which is fewer people than lived there in the previous two censuses, and almost a quarter of them speak Maya or Zapotec in addition to (we assume) Spanish. There are a few international corporation with maquiladoras in Uman (including Avery Dennison), but probably the majority of Uman residents work in or around Merida. In the Maya language, uman means 'your purchase', but it can also mean 'the road' or 'the way'... all meanings which seem to be fitting.
The Mercado in Uman
For besides being along the way to other major destinations, Uman boasts a pretty large central market and may have been a place to stop and stock up before hitting the road for western and southern destinations. Today, Uman's mercado is a bustling center of the town and a great place for visitors to get a feel for a Yucatecan market, while skipping the overwhelm and crowding of the Lucas Galvez mercado in Merida's centro. The market, as you can see in the photos, can be downright empty-ish if you go in the late morning or afternoon, which gives you the time and space to walk around and really look at what is there. It also gives you the ability to admire the huge Virgen de Guadalupe altar that is in the center, reminding everyone there who is really in charge.
Uman and la Virgen de Guadalupe
Speaking of the Virgen de Guadalupe, Uman is a center of activity on el día de la Virgen, December 12. While the area around the destination church in Merida, San Cristobal, gets incredibly crowded on the night of December 11 and 12, the church in Uman, the ex-convento de San Francisco de Asís, does not. Many of the antorchistas (torch bearers), the runners and bicyclers who make a peregrinación (pilgrimage) from places all over Mexico, end up in Uman as well as in Merida. The church there is huge, as are the grounds around it (as is the big red front door, as you can see in the photo), and many teams of travelers end up there resting on the lawn or giving thanks inside the church.
Saying that the church is huge is a bit of an understatement. In fact, the San Francisco de Assis is one of the largest churches in southern Mexico, not just for its square footage, but also for the height of its stone walls. It was constructed by Franciscan brothers in the 18th Century, and it features a distinctive and beautiful entrance with three concentric arches. The towers at the top were never actually completed, but that does not seem to detract from the majesty of it all. While there is not usually much inside in the way of decoration, the interior is also impressive (and is usually open from 7 AM to 1 PM, and again from 4 PM to 8 PM).
When we visited one year during that time, we arrived just after the sun had set and groups of travelers were streaming into the city, honking their bicycle or car horns. Runner with torches were easy to spot as night gathered, and traffic stopped to let them pass down the main street, up the steps and through the front gate of the church grounds. The groups of young men and women were all wearing uniforms, some of them looking quite tired and dirty, yet happy to have reached their destination. Group by group, they would park their bicycles on the grass and gather together. Then they would walk into the huge and fairly empty church, open and lit up, and kneel as a group in front of an altar to la Virgen on the side of the church. They would say their thanks for safe passage, as we are sure they were feeling accomplished, relieved and also excited that they had completed their promise to la Virgen... so now maybe she fulfill her part of the bargain. And then they would leave the church, smiling and laughing, to go find something to eat and a place to spend the night. Uman is a happening place during those days in December and a fun place to visit when you want to get an idea of what does on in honor of la Virgen during those important days in Mexico.
Any Time of Year
But you do not have to wait for December to enjoy your visit to Uman... there is much more to see! After a visit to the church and the market, you can just walk the streets during the day, enjoying the small town atmosphere. You might even come upon a gremio, like we did, and take the time to stop and watch the local residents parading their patron saint on his or her annual walk around town before they return him or her to their place in their church. You might take a moment to visit Evolución, one of Merida's two very active animal shelters. Evolución can always use an extra bag of dog food, a donation or a friendly pair of hands. If you are there at the right time of year, you might even participate in their annual Spay & Neuter Clinic for Uman, their effort to lower the stray population and the numbers of dogs and puppies dropped on their doorstep.
You might enjoy a visit to Uman's colorful cemetery... yes, we know this might sound a bit counterintuitive. Who enjoys a visit to a cemetery? But in Mexico, lots of people do and you could be one of them. Uman's cemetery is colorful and full of interesting miniature houses, built as homes for the spirits of loved ones. The cemetery is located on the road out of town (as in many Yucatan pueblos, there is one main road into town and one main road out of town, making navigation just a bit easier...).
Haciendas Near Uman
You might also enjoy a visit to one of the haciendas surrounding Uman. We have been to a few near there. The two we visited the day we took photos included Hacienda Hunxectaman, and we might love it mostly because of that wonderful old sign. The hacienda itself has a smallish (for a hacienda...) residence that is not open to the public. Next to that is a large area that has been renovated so that it looks picturesque for photos, and it has large, clean, empty indoor and outdoor spaces and bathrooms. Obviously, this is one of those haciendas that is rented out for quinceñeras and weddings, neither of which was happening the day we stopped by.
More impressively and importantly, the Hacienda Dzibikak is also nearby Uman. This hacienda was renovated to perfection by expatriate Richard Nichols and his wife, who comes originally from Asia (the reason we mention this will become apparent shortly!). Besides being a lovely home for Richard and his family, the hacienda also has a few rooms that are occasionally rented out to guests. And it too is an event site, for weddings, corporate events and other parties, as well as for the increasingly popular Merida Music Festival, which is held on its grounds each year in the spring. Hacienda Dzibikak, like many haciendas in Yucatan, was originally a place that grew henequen and cattle, but fell into disrepair and neglect after suffering a huge fire. In fact, the name Dzibikak means 'written with fire' in the Maya language, which we would assume a tribute to the events that took place there.
Nowadays Dzibikak hosts events of a tamer sort, but is probably even more magnificent than in its heyday. When we visited that day, we were graciously hosted by the owner and shown around the elegant grounds. The place has lawns and gardens that seem to go on forever, making it a lovely place for a big event. The interiors are beautifully decorated in a updated hacienda style, hardly the kind of place we expected to find just on the outskirts of Uman. But that is how the Yucatan is these days... amazing contrasts, right next door to each other. After a short visit with Mr. Nichols, we mentioned that we would be leaving and looking for a place to eat lunch. Nichols encouraged us to try a cocina economica in town that was run by a woman from China. He and his wife had discovered this place and she said the food was very authentic and good. As anyone who has lived in Merida for any length of time knows, it is difficult to find good Chinese food here, so we were anxious to try it. We took our leave and thanked them for the tip!
Mangoes and Chao Main
On the way back into Uman from the hacienda, we found this Maya woman sitting on the side of the road in what appeared to be a semi-deserted neighborhood, selling mangoes out of a color-coordinated plastic bucket. No doubt, these mangoes came from a tree at her house or somewhere nearby. How could we resist stopping? The woman gladly let Working Gringa pick the mangoes she wanted and sold her a bowl of them for $10 pesos. Highway robbery, if you ask me! We felt like we were stealing gold...
Once back in the town of Uman, we headed straight for the recommended cocina economica, which is located on one of the side streets that pour into the main intersection in front of the church, just about a block from the church. That was back in 2011, so we cannot guarantee the place is still there, but if it is, we highly recommend it if you are in the mood for Chinese food! The woman who runs the place is from China, and moved here just a few years ago with her son. She barely speaks Spanish and at the time, could not communicate about much more than the food she was serving. She depended heavily on the menu, printed on the wall inside and outside the establishment. Which did we prefer... Pollo agridulce (sweet and sour chicken)? Or Chao Main? Ha! We had a delicious lunch with more than enough food for one person, all for the low low price of $30 pesos each, plus of course the ubiquitous Mexican Coca fria. We left completely satisfied customers, and by the looks of the line forming when we left, we were not alone.
Uman, Close to the Heart of Merida
Our day in Uman when we took these photos was a few years ago, but judging by a recent visit, not much has changed. Though Uman continues to grow and improve and add the services necessary to living in the 21st Century, it still also continues to maintain its small-pueblo feeling. We are not sure if the restaurant is still there (if you see it, let us know!) and we are pretty sure the lady selling mangoes is not still there (although someone is bound to be there selling something from their back yard!). But the haciendas are still there, and more beautiful, more popular and more accessible than ever. The mercado, the city streets, the cemetery, the animal shelter and the church with the big red wooden doors are all still there, too.
And of course, when you go to visit, you will find something else special there. Uman is a special town, close to Merida and close to the hearts of many who have visited there. But in the end, there is no town more special than the one you just visited... or better yet, the one you plan to go to next weekend or next month. The Yucatan Peninsula may seem like a finite geographical place, but the magic you can find there is endless!
Hacienda Yaxcopoil (also within Uman's municipality, also available for weddings and overnight stays)
Hacienda Hunxectaman's wedding rental page
Watch our video on the celebration of La Virgen de Guadalupe in Yucatan
Uman's Facebook page
Evolución Animal Shelter in Uman