It is often said that Mérida is the safest city in Mexico. The rumoured reason for this is that it’s home to the families of several Mexican cartels, resulting in an agreed and respected truce. This reassuring attribute (I think) was not the reason why I had arranged to spend seven weeks there though. The real reason was because I was looking for the cheapest way to stay in Mexico to wait for a certain special someone before we headed south for a bit of the ol’ travelling. The way to do this was to volunteer.
Out of the surprisingly few volunteer placements in Mexico, I settled on a program run by an organisation called International Volunteer HQ, which was happily based on environmental research.
Once the richest city in the world, Mérida is a sprawling white mass of basic and cuboid buildings, interspersed with large modern malls, spreading outwards from an impressive, colourful and historic city centre. This ‘Centro’ is host to the second oldest cathedral in the Americas (the oldest being in Cuba) and was, unsurprisingly, built on top of Mayan ruins. The Spanish inquisition strikes again!
The large plaza that is laid out in front of this ominous monument to Catholicism is a popular setting for evening entertainment, social gatherings and a weekly market. It also offers free wifi to anyone who enters – an unexpected perk in a country like Mexico. Bordering the south edge of the plaza is the House of Montejo, where the invader and founder of colonial Mérida Francisco de Montejo and his kin have lived for generations. The building is adorned with typically brutal sculptures of colonial soldiers forcing their views, boots and spears upon the Mayan people, and it’s easy to feel the history of the place.
Heading south from here is the Passage of the Souls, the location of a famous procession during the Day of the Dead festivities, which I was fortunate enough to witness. In fact, although it is apparently nowhere close to the level of Oaxaca’s celebrations, Mérida is known as one of the top five places to visit during the festival.
On the big night itself, I joined the crowds in getting my face painted and wandered down this Passage of Souls, respectfully observing the hundreds of altars set up to welcome loved ones back to the world of the living. There were displays of traditional dances, outfits and Mayan ball games, the most dramatic of which is called ‘Pok Ta Pok’ – just imagine a mixture of hockey and Quidditch, played with a flaming puck.
Due to its recent rise in popularity, I think most are more or less aware now of the importance and meaning of this fascinating festival, so I won’t dwell on its apparent morbidity. It is actually a respectfully happy occasion, something that becomes obvious whilst walking around the huge cemetery in the dark, waiting for the main procession to begin – the start of which was probably the highlight of my experience.
I don’t like the use of the word ‘spooky’, which was bandied around by plenty of fellow tourists at the time, because I don’t believe that is the intention. But the commencement of the ‘procession of the souls’ certainly had impact. At the centre of the cemetery, in front of a large tomb-like building, a bell was rung continuously for around five minutes, with smoke billowing from the ground. Once the last chime had sounded, the doors of the crypt then swung open and dozens of ghostly figures floated into the open. Children and adults, their faces ornately decorated and their bodies dressed in white, poured out and slowly marched along the main street towards the city centre, representing the souls that are permitted to visit their loved ones just once a year. It was an incredible sight.
I myself was lucky enough to get more of an insight than most into the lives of the modern Mayans. Many descendants, who still speak the language, live in the rural areas of the Yucutan – in fact many of the names of the more remote towns are Mayan in nature. South of Mérida, near a town called Oxkutzcab (Osh-koots-kah), is a farm that is purposefully Mayan in nature and aims to bring traditional practices back into the norm. I spent a few days working and living there with no running water or electricity, eating purely what was grown and sleeping in the open, vulnerable to the whims of scorpions and tarantulas. What I saw seriously impressed me. But…
That’s for next time.