Traversing the Yucatán Peninsula was like hopping across a chain of sunny pastel islands surrounded by an opaque ocean of jungle green. Out of the dense shadowy camouflage, we found four bright bastions of Spanish colonial charm in the amiable town of Valladolid, yellow city of Izamal, well-to-do metropolis of Mérida, and coastal capital of Campeche.
In all four of these places, the Spanish located their colonial settlements on top of former Mayan communities, repurposing the building stones according to their own architectural requirements. In Valladolid, to protect themselves from the displaced native Mayan population, the Spanish had to fortify their Franciscan monastery San Bernadino of Siena like a medieval castle.
For us, the relatively small and navigable town of Valladolid was a convenient base for exploring the surrounding area. From there we rode bikes to several cenotes, visited nearby Mayan ruins, and toured a nature preserve where crocodiles and flamingos coexist.
The next colonial stepping stone in our Yucatán crossing was the all-yellow city of Izamal. In preparation of a papal visit by John Paul II in 1993, the people of Izamal painted their entire town center ochre yellow to match the colors of the Vatican flag. Sauntering through the streets of brown mustard, we marveled at the color conformity but sadly failed to find a hot dog vendor.
What we found was the Franciscan convent San Antonio de Padua, and the second largest church atrium in the world. The two-acre arcaded quadrangle includes 75 arches and enough lawn to cover two football fields. Besides praying and chanting, I suppose the monks got pretty good at kicking field goals.
From brown mustard to pastel wedding cakes, our next colonial stop was Mérida, once home to the greatest concentration of wealth in the world. Its affluence, evident in its soft-hued French-styled mansions, was due to its 19th century henequen industry and profitable production of rope and rigging.
In the Spanish way, Mérida is centered on a square plaza, dominated by the church. From the central plaza, Mérida and the Yucatán’s other colonial cities followed a regular reticular pattern of square blocks and numbered streets. Like the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, the sprawling gridiron of Mérida’s historic center is one of the largest in the Americas.
Before solving the entire puzzle, we concluded our trip across colonial Yucatán in the walled port city of Campeche. Here the fortifications were erected to protect the city from English and Dutch pirates and buccaneers including Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, and Cornelius Jol (aka “Pegleg”).
Even today the walls still safeguard the city center from the outside world. Regulations and restrictions have transfigured Campeche’s encircled center into an immaculate Disneyesque attraction. To find authentic street scenes with their ubiquitous stray dogs, pushcart vendors, cracked sidewalks, and genuine smiles we had to pass outside the walls, and back into the real Mexico.
The real Mexico is a complex and multi-faceted collection of images across a wide range of geographic regions. On our fun and interesting crossing of the colonial Yucatán Peninsula, from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, we formed new pastel-colored impressions amidst a deep jungle of dark and incomprehensible green.
Featured Image: Palacio Municipal, Mérida