Sunday’s in Merida are famous for its car free town centre, La Bici Routa cycle route and the market at the Plaza Grande. Another reason for us to go into town that morning was to find out more about the Day of the Dead. We had heard that there would be more altars on display and that the local population would also head for the cemeteries to lay flowers at their loved ones graves.
Our first stop was the market. I have mentioned before that we love visiting local markets as it gives a great insight into the local life and it is usually a great place to pick up some inexpensive souvenirs, local craft goods or interesting things to eat. The Plaza was busy the day before but on this day there were no cars around and the plaza was heaving with locals and tourists alike.
There were food stalls where you could try some of the local specialities like churros, artisan stalls selling hand made goods like wooden toys, jewellery, hammocks, traditional clothes and of course some of the usual cheap market tat. The local children seemed to get balloons from one of the sellers and sweet treats for the holiday. Jerome was still interested in finding a hammock for back home. We finally got lucky to see one in the colours he liked, as that was the main reason why we had not bought one yet. We paid 600 pesos for an orange and yellow nylon hammock (nylon lasts longer if the hammock is outside), woven with small holes for more comfort and better duration. Soon after I fell in love with a hammock in off white and an unusual weave from an older lady. Unfortunately this one was more expensive as it was made of silk and had more complicated patterns, but at 1000 pesos was still a bargain for us. Not sure where we will put it up but I will find a place for it. We also bought traditional dresses for my nieces, I now regret I did not get more of them. The prices here seemed to be very reasonable; some stall even advertised their prices clearly, so there was even no need to haggle with the vendors as seemed to be common at other places.
Next to the Plaza we found the beautiful old colonial Palacio de Gobierno, housing the local authority offices but open to the public. Beautiful rooms with tiled floors and high ceilings surrounded the green and white painted interior courtyard. The architecture was complimented by huge artworks documenting the local history by local artists.
On our walk home the day before we had taken a look into the courtyard of another colonial palacio on Calle 60, two blocks north from Plaza Grande, that forms part of the local University campus. We had spoken to some of the students who were collecting materials in the inner courtyard for making altars for the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). They had told us that each subject of the university had a group of students that would put together an altar and then decorate it. The altars would be finished the day after and then presented to the public. A jury would choose the best altar and the winning subject group would receive some prize money.
Returning to the University building courtyard that morning, all the altars were finished, the students were dressed in traditional costume, and there were lots of other curious people and guests around. There was even a team from the local TV station, complete with cameras, interviewing the groups about their designs of their altars and the stories behind them.
We found the students from the day before; they seemed very pleased to see us and proudly showed us their finished altar. The girls looked gorgeous in their embroidered huipiles (local traditional dresses) accompanied by jewellery. Even the boys looked smart in the white colonial style trousers with shirts and a hat. They explained to us that they had chosen flowers in front of the altar instead of the sand like many of the other altars, as it would not show the foot prints of the dead walking across. The photo of one of the girl’s grandfather did not have any glass in the frame, as the spirit could get scared away by seeing their mirror image in glass. The candles were there to guide the way to the altar and they had laid out fruit and vegetables for the spirits. They had also covered the altar in palm leaves and we even saw there a hammock and a fire to fry homemade tacos.
We took a walk around the courtyard to look at the other altars. In the end we found that our friendly students had made the most beautiful altar by far compared to the others. We told them so, and they seemed very happy to hear it. Unfortunately we never found out which group won the prize money in the end, they were going to have a party if they would win.
On Sundays in Merida much of the city centre is closed to traffic until early afternoon giving a chance for the locals and tourists to explore the centre on foot or bike. The closer we were to centre the more people we had seen cycling along the roads. There were both children and adults riding their bikes, some also had tandems and trikes or were on their scooters or maybe walking their dogs. As we love to cycle, we had been looking out for place where we could hire some bikes ourselves. A local woman had told us that we should be able to at Parque de Santa Lucia. When we got there we found out that this was not the case and that the places to rent the bikes were near the Burger King at the bottom of Paseo de Montejo and the Monumento de la Patria at the Parque de la Mejorada further away. We were disappointed as we realised that by the time we would walk back to either of those places we would not have enough time to make the bike rental justifiable for us as the traffic free time finishes at 13:00. Apart from cycling on the car free Sunday mornings I would not advise to cycle in Merida at all as the roads are very busy with cars and buses and the streets are not in the best of conditions. It would be far too dangerous, especially for children.
Instead we decided to go for lunch at Avocado, a vegetarian restaurant with a beautiful courtyard. I had ceviche, probably one of the best I have ever had with mango and mint, plus some delicious freshly pressed juices, Jerome adored the pancakes with local fruit. The food was so good that we went back a few more times for bunch during the trip.
Local families celebrate the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead, 1st November) in Merida with a visit to the graves of their deceased loved ones. We had already found out from the students that there is also a procession on the Friday evening before the Day of the Dead, no matter what day of the week it would be, rather than the evening of the 31st as is common in other areas. This fact we think was mainly introduced to make it easier for all who would love to see the people with their painted faces and candles, and walk from the cemetery to the Plaza Grande, local or tourist. We had missed the procession as we did not arrive early enough on Friday evening (30th) and also assumed it would be on the evening after on 31st in line with other cities.
Therefore, I wanted to make sure we would not miss being at the cemetery to see the decorated graves. Compared to the graves in other parts of the world, the graves here were more ornate. Many looked like little houses and were painted in all colours of the rainbow. Unlike in some other parts of Mexico where the families literally have parties by the graves on the 1st November, here in Merida, the family members visit the graves during the day and lay down an arrangement of flowers, photos and other offerings to honour their loved ones and then celebrate at home behind closed doors with a major meal. In many ways tourists expect the Day of the Dead to be more of a carnival atmosphere but we found the celebration to be more like Christmas or Easter in Europe, a family time and a feast day with limited public events.