As a rule, Sundays are slower and quieter in the Centro Historico, where many of the gringos here in Merida live. The main zocalo and a few blocks on Calle 60 are shut off to traffic and booths are set up to sell everything from panuchos to guayaberas. Music is in the air and there is dancing in the streets. Sunday is traditionally a family day and it is always a pleasure to walk downtown and see the people of Merida enjoying their city. Merida en Domingo (Merida on Sunday) may seem perfect for tourists, but the party is mostly staged for and enjoyed by residents.
Now, the ayuntamiento (city government) has added a new program for the local residents that promises to be an incredible success.
When the Working Gringos rolled back into town on Friday night, we noticed large banners strung up above Calle 60 announcing the Bici-Ruta. We had no idea what this was, though it did seem obviously related to bicycles. We haven’t owned a bicycle since we moved here, because though Merida is a pancake-flat city (which would seem to make it a easy place to ride), there is so much traffic that it just didn’t make bicycling particularly appealing.
Walking the dogs on Paseo Montejo this morning we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Bici-Ruta is a new city program that closes down Paseo Montejo and all of Calle 60 (from the Plaza de la Bandera on Paseo Montejo all the way to the La Ermita church) to car traffic and opens it up to bicycles. Gas-powered traffic is now closed on this route from 8 am until Noon every Sunday.
Starting at about 7 am this morning, we saw men and women in orange vests putting up professional signs all along the route. At exactly 8 am, a truck drove the route, blowing a whistle and the signs were put out into the street. Car and bus traffic was rerouted. At 8:01 am, the bicyclists started arriving from all the side streets. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
Before we knew it, Paseo Montejo was filled with all kinds of cyclists: professional cyclers with their tight shorts and aerodynamically-correct helmets, leisurely older people cycling in pairs, teenagers riding in groups and showing off for each other and parents with children.
Lots of children. Children just learning to ride, children with training wheels, children on tricycles. There were roller skaters, power-walkers, dog walkers… we even saw one man on a recumbent bicycle (a rare sight here).
At the park at the end of Paseo Montejo (roughly in the middle of the Bici-Ruta) a man on a loudspeaker announced a free Tai-Chi class starting at 8 am. About 8 people jumped off their bikes and began participating in the stretching and dance-like movements. Later on, when we passed by the same location, a crowd of children were working with a few adults creating piñatas, which the man on the loudspeaker assured us were for taking home (para llevar a su casita…). Each week, he added, there would be an adult health program at 8 am, and something for the children from 9 to 11 am.
All along the route were both local police and Bici-Ruta officials, directing traffic and ensuring safety. There was even an ambulance parked near the park, waiting to swoop in and take care of any emergency. People were laughing, children were yelling and onlookers were smiling. The mood was joyous and full of fun. It felt like someone had called “Olly, Olly, Oxen-Free!” to the city, and people had come out from behind doors and under tables to play again in the streets. The city had been taken back from the cars and given over to the people.
Needless to say, the experience made us want to run right out and buy a bicycle.