I’m still obsessing over Mérida, Mexico! Mérida is the capital of the state of Yucatán, in the far east of Mexico. The Maya people have survived invasion, enslavement, disease and oppression and make up a substantial part of the population. Situated in the north east of the flat Yucatán peninsula, this can be a stop-off from the Caribbean beaches several hours away, and is close to the world-famous Mayan Indian ruins at Chichen Itz and Uxmal. It is a city of narrow streets, shady park squares, concealed courtyards and crumbling colonial buildings.
One mustn’t miss the Central Plaza with the charming park square. Plaza Mayor, which is flanked by some of the city’s oldest and most impressive buildings, is closed off to traffic on Sundays, except for horse-drawn buggies and tourists riding in cycle rickshaws. Elderly women and young teens queue to sit at simple cafes and eat warm tortillas stuffed with blackened turkey, refried beans and salsa. On hot afternoons, patrons line up at the oldest ice-cream shop below the shaded colonnade.
Not far from the Plaza Mayor, don’t miss an exploration of Mérida’s main market, a massive covered, but not air conditioned, market. In two immense joined halls plus rows of ancillary stalls around the periphery, more than two thousand vendors sell their wares. It’s an interesting collection of vendors, from freshly hacked-up cows, pigs and fish to hand-tooled leather shoes and bags to numerous varieties of spices, vegetables, fruits, and home housewares; truly an exotic collection of everything a local might need, all under a massive covered field of small stalls. Arrive before noon to avoid the heat and to see the most abundant piles of vegetables and fruits. It is massive and should be explored with a guide if you have a particular need in mind. I always search for local spices or honey.
Spices from Mérida’s main market
The Mayan ruins of Uxmal
The Mayan ruins of Uxmal
And, of course, a few hours out of town lie some of the country’s most spectacular Mayan sites. I spent a few days with the most amazing guides and driver – one day wandering Mérida and the new Mondo Maya Museum, the winding brick lined streets of the old town, lunching at an authentic restaurant and perusing a few local shops. One day should be devoted to seeing the ruins of Uxmal and then perhaps lunching and swimming at a nearby private Hacienda.
Mérida, Mexico Cementerio General
As we drove to the Plaza Mayor, we slowly passed through a vast cemetery, the oldest Cementerio General. If you like moseying through old cemeteries, this one is a particular treasure. It is the largest and oldest in Mérida and is graced with a few very spectacular headstones and mausoleums of wealthy Hacienda owners. One surprise was the grave of an intrepid American woman, Alma Reed, who had a love affair with Governor Felipe Carillo Puerte. He, a Socialist, doing much to reform the and improve the lives of the Mayan workers, was assassinated with some of his brothers and Socialist colleagues. Alma who was a writer for several New York and San Francisco newspapers, was in San Francisco buying her wedding dress when he was assassinated. Crushed by the death of her lover and fiance, she asked to be buried near him. Her grave is across the street from his, lovers separated by a wide road. Her story is quite unique, I encourage you to find her story online or in the several books published about her life. Fully post on this amazing Cemetery.
Mérida is also becoming a capital for foodie’s. Roberto Solis who cooks at and owns Nectar has trod the kitchens of famed Noma, Per Se and traveled to Japan to work under the famed Chef Narisawa. His small restaurant is big on creative delicious cuisine, described as The New Yucatecan Cuisine, incorporating local spices and regional specialties. Highly recommend!
This is a combined post based on activities for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos in Merida, and a post which I wrote after a visit to the Cemetery in Merida. Even if you can’t visit this year, do make a note to visit next year, traditions and local food provide such an intimate exposure to this culture. And we have some of the best guides available in Merida and the Yucatan Peninsula.
Every year, the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 throughout Mexico, in the Yucatán it’s called Hanal Pixán, Mayan for “food of the souls.” This holiday coincides with the Catholic All Souls Day and All Saint’s Day, the local indigenous people combine the holiday with their ancient belief of honoring their deceased loved ones. Offerings to the ancestors entail elaborate preparations, and we can combine several outings to commemorate this yearly auspicious event.
The Mayas venerate their deceased as they believe the soul is immortal and the dead are allowed to travel back to this world once a year, during the designated dates. The name for this celebration in the Yucatan Peninsula, receives the name of Hanal Pixan (Food for the Souls) and unlike the rest of Mexico, it lasts 3 days instead of 1 – it is celebrated every year from Oct 31 to Nov 2. All the families set up altars in their houses with special tablecloths, combining the ancestor’s favorite foods, flowers, candles, photographies, incense, liquor for the grown-ups and candies and toys for the kids. This is a celebration of love, for being reunited with those who have passed-away. But also, it’s a culinary celebration. The star at every house is the “mucbil pollo”, which is only eaten during these dates and is not available the rest of the year. This unique and delicious meal is a large tamal made with corn dough, filled with a kind of sauce, seasoned with spices and mixed with chicken and pork meat, wrapped in banana leaves – all cooked in an underground pit. In main cities, such as Merida and Campeche, hundreds of colorful altars line in the pedestrian streets, along with music and a celebration vibe. The Hanal Pixan is a unique opportunity to be part of a living Maya tradition, learn about this ancient culture and taste incredible food.
Some of the activities than can be experienced in Merida with our esteemed guides include:
Explore Merida, the city that preserves its rich architectural heritage like no other. Travel its shady avenues, lined with exquisite mansions from the end of the 19th century, when henequen (sisal) wealth reached its zenith and the fiber’s producers sought to reaffirm their prestige and world-view in architecture. You will also visit the cathedral and famous restored buildings in the city center. Then we will head to the market and the main cemetery for an introduction of Hanal Pixán, or “Feast of the Spirits”, a tradition that combines food and death in an ancient ritual in which ancestors are revered
Full immersion in a Maya town – Today we head to Yaxunah, a living Maya town, a tunnel of time, to be fully immersed in the celebration of Hanal Pixan. We’ll be greeted by the community and we’ll learn how farmers are committed to the harvest of several type of maizes and how Maya traditions come with it.
Later, we will be welcomed by a local family that will explain how this feast is characterized by flowers, chocolate, stewed chickens and of course, the Mucbilpollo, cooked in a pib – the Maya underground roasting oven. The category of “buried foods” is enormously important in Yucatecan cuisine as foods that are “buried” and then “resurrected” and ingested carry an obviously symbolic resonance.
We will participate in the whole process of making the mucbilpollo, the iconic dish of this celebration.
While it gets cooked underground, we will explore the nearby pyramids and ride a bike through the town to visit two Maya workshops. Haciendas del Mundo Maya Foundation supports the founding of small community businesses that keep traditional arts alive by rescuing techniques and materials used since pre-hispanic times. For women in these communities, producing handcrafts with their own hands helps them to generate income and provide better opportunities for their families.
LUNCH: Lunch today is mucbilpollo, set in the setting of a traditional Maya village. At the end of the day, your driver will bring you back to your hotel.
The Mayans truly believe their loved ones return to visit for three days every year, graves and tombs are elaborately decorated. Folkloric music is usually played in the streets of Cementerio General and on stages near the town plaza.
Luis Ronzón, chef at Chable Resort provided this authentic recipe for Muc Bu Pollo:
MUC BI POLLO
1.100 Kg Corn dough
0.250 Kg Lard
0.100 Kg Achiote paste
0.005 Kg Epazote
0.010 Kg Cilantro
0.500 Kg Pork meat
1 Pz Whole chicken
3 Pz Banana leaf
0.020 Kg Salt
0.007 Kg Ground pepper
0.500 Kg Tomato
0.400 Kg White onion
0.010 Kg Habanero chili
0.004 Kg Allspice
0.004 Kg Whole black pepper
0.002 Kg Laurel
0.020 Kg Garlic
0.040 Kg Salt
Method of preparation:
Mix 1kg corn dough with the lard the 20gr of salt. Cook the whole chicken in water with half the portions of laurel, whole black pepper, allspice, salt garlic and white onion. Carve the chicken into whole pieces. Cook the pork meat in the same way as the chicken.
Col: Place in a saucepan 100gr corn dough and 300gr chicken stock and cook in medium heat for 10 minutes, add epazote, cilantro and achiote paste. Season to taste. Mix with the chicken.
Place one banana leaf flat over a surface and make a base with the corn dough leaving a hole in the middle. Stuff with the chicken and pork meat mixture, on top place some slices of tomato and habanero chili. Place a thinner corn dough mix layer and use this to cover the first layer. Cover both with a banana leaf and tie it with a string making sure that the whole dough keeps its shape.
Cook in the Pib, or oven, for approximately 2 hours.
A post from May when I visited the enchanting city of Merida. As we drove toward Plaza Mayor, we slowly passed through a vast cemetery, the oldest Cementerio General. If you like moseying through old cemeteries, this one is a particular treasure. It is the largest and oldest in Mérida and is graced with a few spectacular headstones and mausoleums of wealthy Hacienda owners, historic figures, groups of musicians, hemp workers, a complete gamut of the locals, albeit deceased locals.
American Alma Reed Headstone – Cementerio General – Mérida
Rosa Benet, gazing at her husband, Alvaro Medina Rodriguez, Cementerio General – Mérida
Rosa Benet, gazing at her husband, Alvaro Medina Rodriguez, Cementerio General – Mérida 1905
Humberto, my guide, led me to another remarkable mausoleum, a shrine to a wealthy Hacienda patron. An enormous full size bed, layered with rippled linen sheets of hand carved marble, is elevated about five feet off the ground. Standing alongside the bed is a elegantly dressed woman, Rosa Benet, gently lifting the corner of the sheet to gaze at her husband, Alvaro Medina Rodriguez, who passed away while she was at a gala. The story is that he had persuaded her to go and enjoy the evening, she protested, but went and missed saying a last goodbye to her beloved husband. The work was an Imitation of the work of Mexican sculptor Almo Strenta.
The Cementerio mimics community life, the wide main avenue is lined by the houses/mausoleums of the wealthy, the casta divina families. Many historic people are buried here, and its memorials are built in Greek, Gothic or French neoclassic styles, often from stone or granite brought from Europe by local wealthy families. They range from classically beautiful to over-the-top displays of wealth, and deeper in the back you will find simple but colorful houses of the dead, all filled with restos – remains.
If you walk deeper into the Cementerio, under the enormous shade trees, you will also discover more modest houses for the deceased, small tomb-houses that seemed to be devoted to just one person. On closer inspection, you will see stacks of osarios, boxes full of bones. The bones of generations, buried one on top of the other. In a family-owned plot, the most recent body will be buried in the ground. That usually involves digging up the old bones from previous generations and adding new family members. The little houses, built by the living for the dead relatives, are kept for visiting purposes. Simple replicas of houses, some are very colorfully painted, others remain white, bleached by years of blazing sun; some have windows or doors and are topped by angels or crosses and inside each house, may be a small memento of the deceased. The living place these trinkets to honor their ancestors, you may see statues of saints, candles or bits of flowers and plants.
Every year, the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 throughout Mexico, in the Yucatán it’s called Hanal Pixán, Mayan for “food of the souls.”
Once, historically held at the beginning of summer, Day of the Dead was moved to coincide with the Christian festivals following the Spanish colonization of Mexico in the 16th Century. On Oct. 31, All Hallows Eve, children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos – children to visit. Nov. 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits are invoked and invited. Nov. 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The holiday and celebration has evolved over the years and is a complex celebration of the deceased relatives and a celebration of life.
Cementerio General – Mérida
Look skyward to view the many cherubs or angels, many missing wings or body parts, spirits guarding the families from above.