There is not, as far as I can tell, an official, data-based ranking of the safety of Mexican cities. But there's a lot of talk. And in that talk, the city of Merida is often spoken of as one of Mexico's safest. That's great, except for the reason the gossip cites for why Merida is safe. It's because, the gossip says, a couple of drug cartel leaders have homes in Merida. And they don't want any violence or drugs in the town where they live.
That may or may not all be true. But I can testify that I spent five days recently wandering Merida's streets, carrying a fairly expensive camera. And everyone I met was friendly. Not once did I feel in any danger. If I had to pick a Spanish word to describe Merida, it might be tranquilla.
That may have been because the bad guys, like everyone else in Merida, were watching Mexico play in the World Cup. The guys above were peering at a screen in a small apppliance store during the second half of Mexico's game with Saudia Arabia. At the time, the score was 2-0 in favor of Mexico, and the sidewalk aficionados were optimistic that Mexico would score the third goal that it needed to both win the game and break a tie with Poland on the basis of goal differential. Alas, Mexico could only win by a final score of 2-1. Poland advanced. Mexico's World Cup was over. Not that anyone seemed to mind too much.
It was the beginning of December, and the official Christmas season was getting underway. Outside my hotel, on the Remate de Montejo, the city erected an official tree, Santa Claus's mailbox, and a stage. There was a Christmas show, and the little girls above left danced in it despite a persistent drizzle. As soon as they saw my camera, they vamped.
The Remate de Montejo lies at the southern end of a boulevard (the Paseo Montejo) sometimes called the Champs Elysees of Mexico. The boulevard extends northward from the center of the city. In contrast to most Merida streets, it's wide--four lanes of traffic and another two for bikes and motorcycles, split by a median. The mansions alongside it weren't built in the traditional Spanish colonial style. That style usually presents a blank wall to the street and passersby. Only the invited get to see the courtyards and arcades within. On the Paseo Montejo, you can see the whole exterior of the house.
There's a reason for this, and it begins with a plant called agave. (That's an agave field above right.) Margarita fanciers will recognize it as the plant base for tequila. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, it had a more lucrative use. Its fibers made good rope, at a time when sailing ships, which require lots of rope, carried the bulk of the world's commerce.
The city of Merida was founded in the 16th Century by a conquistador named Montejo. He built it on the base of an old Mayan city named T'ho. Modern historians aren't sure why Mayan civilization declined and collapsed even before the Spanish arrived. Some people in Merida believe it was because the Mayan peasantry of the countryside revolted and destroyed the Mayan elite that lived in cities like T'ho. In any case, the Spanish rather easily imposed their civilization on top of the Mayan. And they rather easily dominated the Mayan peasants, turning them into a labor force to tend the agave, not very different from the enslaved Africans who worked the cotton fields of the American South.
As long as the agave plant was the source of much-in-demand rope, Merida was a very wealthy city. The aristocrats sent their sons to Europe for schooling, and the sons came back with European ideas about streets and architecture. They built the Paseo Montejo and its mansions as a kind of homage to the grand boulevards of Europe.
But the agave riches didn't last. Eventually, steamships replaced sailing ships and artificial fibers became more practical than agave fiber. The center of Merida began a slow decline, a decline that lasted until the early years of this century. Merida still had a wealthy elite, but it migrated to the city's northern suburbs, which offered gated communities, shopping malls, and country clubs.
In recent years, however, a process of gentrification has begun. You can see refurbished and renovated houses on the Paseo Montejo and the nearby side streets. There are little cafes and even a couple of wine bars. The Paseo boasts restaurants with pricey menus.
A lot of the gentrifiers are foreigners, judging by the languages I heard in the sidewalk cafes along the Paseo. A sign advertising the sale of an old building ripe for a teardown is carefully translated into English.
And why not? As I write this, the temperature at home is 42. The temperature in Merida is 86. Because it's at least 25 miles from the ocean, and therefore has no beach, Merida has been spared the spring-break culture of Cancun. A gringo looking for a winter home could do a lot worse.