A Wonderful article from The Dallas News by Sharon McDonnell

This historical gem of the Yucatán is the antidote to Cancún

photo by roger lynn

Casa Mexilio interior courtyard - photo by roger lynn

Casa Mexilio Reception - photo by roger lynn

" I was looking forward to Mérida. Like Cancún, it's on the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, a 3 1/2-hour drive west. But there all resemblance ends.Once a very wealthy city due to sisal, rope made from the fiber of an agave-like plant, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mérida is chock-full of crumbling old mansions. Sisal barons built haciendas in the countryside to make sisal, called "green gold" -- as they also did for agriculture, cattle ranching and mining -- and townhouses in Mérida itself, borrowing hacienda-style features like huge arches, thick stucco walls, solid wood doors, massive ceiling beams and delightful interior patios. Many facades have Neoclassical details and richly ornamented white stucco friezes above doors and windows.The Paseo de Montejo, a street in Merida inspired by Paris' Champs-Elysees, has many mansions like this. But boom turned to bust after artificial twine was invented. Thousands of people left Mérida, poorer people moved into the mansions in the historic center but simply couldn't afford to keep them up, and it decayed. But sisal's loss is tourists' gain: Many of the mansions were bought for a song and converted to exquisite boutique hotels, often by European or American expatriates."There are 40,000 abandoned buildings in downtown Mérida. Major families left for Mexico City," said Alejandro Duneton, a Frenchman from Lyon (by way of Montreal) and owner of the boutique Hotel Hacienda Mérida. "I came 15 years ago, and first bought this as a vacation home."Rosas y Xocolate hotel in Merida has chocolate spa treatments and a chocolate boutique. In my giant bathroom here, the size of many New York and San Francisco studio apartments, I touched the loofah made from sisal, a reminder of the city's changing fortunes, thoughtfully.On a grand boulevard inspired by the Champs Elysees in Paris, Paseo de Montejo, where 10 blocks are lined by mansions, I found a hot-pink mansion, now Rosas y Xocolate, a boutique hotel whose theme was chocolate. Very fitting: Chocolate was discovered by the ancient Mayans, who used it as a drinking beverage. And Yucatán state, of which Mérida is the capital, has the highest number of Mayans in Mexico.At the Rosas y Xocolate spa, you could have a cocoa-based massage or rub. At its chocolate boutique, you could buy locally made chocolate bars flavored with pink peppercorns from Veracruz or coffee from Oaxaca. The chocolate firm's owner was a Belgian chocolatier, Mathieu Brees. Fresh-cut roses and pink pillows and throws adorned guest rooms, which featured open-air bathtubs, novel indeed in an urban hotel. Winner of an award from Architectural Digest in 2011 for the best architectural renovation in Mexico, the hotel is owned by a retired Mexican industrialist of Hungarian parentage, Carol Kolozs.At Casa Lecanda, the whiff of luxury was in every guest room and public area behind this boutique hotel's white facade -- literally. Its reception area was fragrant with orange blossoms, its lobby, eucalyptus, scents from Coqui Coqui, a Mérida perfume shop whose owner was an Argentine model of French-Austrian-Basque-Italian ancestry. Owner Nicolas Malleville achieved his lifelong dream of living in the tropics by owning small boutique lodgings on the Yucatán Peninsula. Above his shop, a guest room was decorated in Belle Epoque style, with red-velvet ottomans and a chandelier in the bathroom.I took a Yucatecan cooking class with a Top Chef Mexico 2016 contestant at Casa Lecanda. The Italian owner, Stefano Marceletti, has an American accent derived from his high school and college years in Southern California.Yucatecan folkloric dancers in Merida, capital of Yucatan state. Sharon McDonnell But beneath its veneer of European sophistication, Mérida has solid Mayan roots. I watched women in Yucatecan dress -- long white dresses with colorful floral embroidery -- dance (with trays of drinks atop their heads, at one point) in Parque Santa Lucia, a square lined by sidewalk cafes and restaurants. It was one of several nightly free music and dance performances outdoors in the city.Mayan ruins surround Mérida, from Dzibilchaltún, less than 8 miles away, where I swam in a round cenote with lily pads, to better-known Uxmal, a 45-minute drive, and Chichen Itza, a 1 1/2-hour drive.Cenotes, or natural sinkholes, supplied fresh water to the Mayans, who often used them for ceremonies, believing them to be bridges from the divine to human. There's even a cenote in the Costco parking lot in Mérida, found during construction (not open to swimming, though).Fittingly, there's a Mayan Museum in Mérida, Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. From 1,100 artifacts from archaeological sites, like stone sculptures from Chichen Itza and jewelry made from jadeite, to gods of the sun, rain and earth, worshipped by peasants, and gods of trade and war, revered by the elite, to the importance of maize -- from which man was made, the Mayans believed -- the museum offers a great overview of the civilization that once ruled southeastern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.Uxmal, a Mayan ruin near Merida, was built from 600-900 AD. Sharon McDonnell At an excellent museum about chocolate, Choco-Story, located in Uxmal just outside the well-preserved ruins, I learned how it evolved from Mayan beverage to solid bars in Europe -- plus oddball facts like how Voltaire, the brilliant Enlightenment thinker, attributed his mental acuity to drinking chocolate-flavored coffee each morning. At a demo, I drank Mayan chocolate, so very bitter I added five sugars before finding it even palatable.A culinary mystery nagged at me during my stay in Mérida. Dutch Edam cheese was everywhere, in Marquesitas de Queso Bola (rolled wafers stuffed with "bowl" cheese, topped by caramel sauce) sold by street vendors; Queso Relleno (a casserole of hollowed-out Edam cheese stuffed with ground pork, raisins, almonds, olives, bell peppers and capers); Helado de Bola ("bowl" ice cream); and Dulce de Papaya con Queso (candied lime juice-soaked papaya served with shredded Edam). While I'd eaten Keshi Yena, very similar to Queso Relleno, in Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire in the Caribbean, that was perfectly understandable: They were former Dutch colonies. But Merida wasn't, so how did this happen?So, I asked the tourism bureau. A boat from Holland was forced to dock on the Yucatán Peninsula near Mérida due to bad weather in the 19th century, legend says, and exposed to Dutch cheese for the first time, the locals fell in love. But in reality, during Mérida's sisal glory days, Holland was an active trading partner: Goods were swapped, Edam was introduced, and it became very popular in local food culture. Mystery solved.If you goHow to get there: Nonstops from Houston on United, and weekly nonstops from Dallas on American." -- from The Dallas News by Sharon McDonnell with photos from archives of Casa Mexilio

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