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Wait until dark

Faded Yucatan capital comes alive at party time

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MERIDA, Mexico -- The capital of the state of Yucatan is, like an old, vain Hollywood movie star, best seen in the softer, kinder light of evening.

The harsh glare of the midday sun accentuates all the flaws of the once-glorious colonial buildings surrounding the Plaza Grande, or zocalo (square in the centre of the city), that serves as a great base to explore not just Yucatan state, but the much larger Yucatan Peninsula.

The building known as the Casa de Montejo, fronted by statues of Spanish conquistadors standing victoriously on the necks of Mayans, looks not just politically incorrect, but derelict and badly in need of a coat of paint, despite the rather wealthy Banamex banking operation now located inside.

Likewise, many of the other once-majestic buildings around the zocalo could do with a facelift to reclaim their charms. Nearby hotels speak more of glorious pasts than a thriving present.

The relatively young Gran Hotel, built only a century ago, has a spectacular fin-de-siecle lobby with sparkling chandeliers and staircases worthy of an opera house, but the discounted rooms have bare wires sticking out of the walls where sconces should be. The place seems haunted.

Next door is the Caribe Hotel, a much older former convent with a charming colonial-era courtyard, a swimming pool and live, squawking toucans. Unfortunately, the plumbing and air-conditioning also seem more colonial than contemporary.

Even a kilometre or so away on the wide boulevard known as Paseo de Montejo, the Italian-style villas built by the fabulously wealthy sisal barons in the 19th century have fallen on hard times. Some remain glorious, but others are fixer-uppers needing millions of pesos in repairs.

A notable exception on the Paseo is the Regional Anthropological Museum, which is housed in one of these oversized wedding cakes of a building. It is in immaculate condition. And the exhibits in the interior of the museum are a fine introduction to all the past glories of the Yucatan, dating back to the pre-colonial Mayan days, and a great primer to those who plan to visit such nearby famous archeological sites as Chichen Itza.

Just when you tell yourself that you cannot abide seeing one more crumbling building, the sun begins to set. Twilight arrives. That's when Merida comes into its own, just like the faded movie star who only dares show her face on Hollywood Boulevard after sunset.

Suddenly, romantic, flower-bedecked horse carts entice tourists and locals alike to take a tranquil trot around twilit streets readying for a party.

And this is a town that knows how to party. Every night there seems to be a fiesta -- everyone is invited -- in the zocalo or in one of the many small parks, churchyards or courtyards within earshot of the central plaza. Expect music, dancing, poetry readings, clowns and buskers.

The chic street known as Calle 60 becomes a pedestrian mall at night for a few blocks heading north from the zocalo. Sidewalk cafes spring up and instantly fill with revellers drinking Leon Negra beer and other far more exotic drinks, both alcoholic and virgin, in goblets the size of small fishbowls.

Merida's many posh, live theatre venues open after a day's siesta, offering plays, opera, movies and other performances. Women in sleek formal gowns and spike heels expertly negotiate the cobblestones to enter the elegant Italianate Teatro Peon Contreras on Calle 60, just a few steps from the sidewalk cafes.

Waiters smartly dressed in tuxedo-like uniforms stand in front of restaurants such as Portico del Peregrino, beckoning diners to enter the charming courtyard garden and feast on pollo pibil, a Yucatan specialty in which large pieces of chicken are cooked with a variety of savoury spices while wrapped in a banana leaf. This dish is found throughout the Yucatan. Sometimes pork is substituted for chicken.

Those who stay a kilometre or so away from the zocalo in Merida's first-class hotel zone, where the Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Fiesta Americana and other big chains are located, will miss all the fun at or near the central plaza. The air-conditioning and plumbing might be more reliable in that pricier area, but you will miss out on a true Yucatan experience by being far from the action.

Merida has several first-class museums in which to spend your days and escape the hot afternoon sun. The giant Contemporary Art Museum, right beside the cathedral on the zocalo, is one of the largest and best in Mexico. The exhibits, both temporary and permanent, concentrate on Yucatan artists.

Just a few hours' drive from the centre of Merida are various Mayan archeological sites, including the famous Chichen Itza, a vast ruined city of limestone pyramids, ball courts, marketplaces and other buildings.

Various tour operators can arrange minibus trips from your Merida hotel to the archeological sites. Yucatan Trails is owned by a Canadian, Denis Lafoy. I bought a tour with Lafoy to the archeological site of Uxmal. He delivered on everything promised. And the price of 480 pesos (about $39) for a full day of touring, including lunch, was a good deal.

Another way to visit Chichen Itza is to journey slightly more than two hours by bus from Merida to the very charming, much smaller colonial city of Valladolid, a stereotypically sleepy Mexican town. From Valladolid, the Oriente bus company offers hourly air-conditioned service directly to the entrance of Chichen Itza. That bus ride costs 20 pesos, less than $2, and takes less than an hour. Once at the site, you can hire a guide or walk about on your own.

Valladolid is the kind of place that, at first blush, has little to offer in the way of museums or other attractions. It does offer a peaceful, safe environment, friendly people and El Meson del Marques, a charming colonial hotel right on the zocalo.

The hotel's outdoor courtyard restaurant provides tasty regional specialties and reliable, generic western fare. The service is also far better than the lackadaisical, surly variety found in so many Mexican restaurants. The pool area never gets sun, so the water temperature is surprisingly refreshing after a hot day of tramping around the ruins of Chichen Itza.

One middle-aged American woman we met by the pool at El Meson had just hired a taxi to take her on a tour of Valladolid. She returned to the hotel, vowing to buy a house there. She had found her paradise.

Many other Americans and Canadians are discovering a seaside paradise just 35 kilometres from Merida at the port town of Progreso.

There, one finds crumbling summer villas owned by those same families who built the now-derelict mansions in Merida. But, in Progreso, snowbirds are snapping up those villas and remodelling them or buying into various new beach condo developments.

Waterfront prices remain relatively low in Progreso, because the waves lapping at the long, sandy beach are murky most of the year. It's not pollution: Wind and tides stir up the powdery sand in the shallows.

Near the centre of Progreso, there are several excellent seafood restaurants on the beach. Free snacks appear with every drink order. Service is unbeatable.

Canadian expats gather Saturday evenings at the Dutch-run Hotel Yakunah, which is situated in one of the refurbished mansions. The Mexican-European fusion food is excellent. Try the unforgettable tore de tostadas for breakfast.

Nights in Progreso tend to be exceedingly quiet. But remember, when the sun sets, Merida is just starting to party and is only a few minutes' drive away.

-- Postmedia News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2011 D6

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