Pyramid in Xoclan

There is no doubt that amongst the many attractions Yucatán has to offer, the cities left behind by the ancient Maya are one of the most significant draws for visitors. While Chichén Itzá and Uxmal attract the biggest numbers of travelers, there are in fact another 17 archaeological sites open to the public within the state and this is to say nothing of the thousands of structures and monuments that dot the countryside.


Many local residents have stories of stumbling upon ancient artifacts during a construction project or finding mounds hidden in their corn fields. For example, at my high school there was a cenote where, according to rumors, several jade artifacts were found (How cool is that?). This is not surprising since Mérida (founded in 1542) was built atop the Maya city of T’hó (also known as Ichcanzihó). We know from the writings of the Conquistadores, that after their arrival they re-christened the city as Mérida because the large stone structures reminded them of the Roman remains found in the city of Mérida, in Spain. 


Sadly, much of the evidence of this once great Maya city has faded over the centuries. In many instances, the materials from leveled pyramids were used to build Colonial Era churches, roads, armories, city walls, and homes. Lucky for us that’s not quite the whole story, because if you know where to look, evidence of T’hó as well as other surrounding Maya cities and settlements can be found all around town.


El Imposible

As the downtown section of Mérida occupies the same space as the core of ancient T’hó, it should come as no surprise that this is one of the areas where we find remnants of this metropolis of old. Although no pre-Colonial architecture remains in the Centro, until the early 20 century, structures such as the San Antonio pyramid, known additionally as El Imposible (The Impossible One), were still being purposefully dismantled to make way for new city streets. This is evidenced by a plaque on the corner of Calle 50 x 67 that boasts “The Defeat of El Imposible,” as if this was something to celebrate! But if the intention was to completely erase the past, the goal was not achieved. Echoes of the Maya persist to this day (rather ironically) on the facades of the buildings whose purpose was to announce the power of a new order. 


Flower detail at Tercera Orden Church

Tercera Orden Church and Felipe Carrillo Puerto Theater

For example, if you find yourself walking on Calle 59 (and passing the 17 century Jesuit baroque church known as Tercera Orden), you may want to look up and inspect the stone work. It will not take much time before you notice something that feels a bit out of place. Perhaps you will first notice a pre-Hispanic geometric pattern known as a Greca Maya? Or maybe you will see what looks like a framed stone flower or a cylindrical stone pillar set on its side. Either way: congratulations! You have identified a piece of history to which most passers-by are completely oblivious. Other great examples of Maya stone work can be found along Calle 60 such as the one seen on the wall of the Felipe Carrillo Puerto Theater. Why not take a little walk downtown and see how many you can spot? 


Maya detail on the wall of the Felipe Carrillo Puerto Theater

Moro Moza

Many of Centro’s archaeological treasures have been moved to indoor locations in order to protect them from the elements. Such is the case with the sculpture known as the Moro Moza which for centuries adorned the corner of Calle 56 x 65. There are others, known to archaeologists and the authorities, that are purposely kept buried to protect them from the ever increasing traffic of the bustling Centro. 


Parque Arqueológico de Xoclán

But if you thought that Maya archaeological remains in Mérida were limited to carved stones or a handful of sculptures you would be wrong. For instance, the Parque Arqueológico de Xoclán (Calle 130 x 71-B, Fracc. Bosques del Poniente) features several structures, enclosed plazas, and a pyramidal structure almost 10 meters tall. It is also an excellent spot for bird watching or for a picnic. Recent excavations have also revealed Chaac rain god masks, a Sac Bé (Maya road), and several objects that suggest trade with Maya cities as far away as modern-day Guatemala.


Ball Park at Xanilá site in Caucel

Parque Xanilá in Ciudad Caucel

Parque Xanilá is located in a nondescript and densely populated part of the city known as Ciudad Caucel. Within this park you can find one of the most interesting archaeological features in Mérida – a complete pre-Hispanic ball court. It’s approximately 20 meters long and features a central marker and inclined walls. It’s interesting to note that this ball court is believed to have been built in the 5 century BC, making it substantially more ancient than most other archaeological remains in the city. The park can be found on Calle 67 x 92, in Ciudad Caucel and is certainly worth a visit. 


Parque Arqueologico de Oriente

Parque Arqueológico de Oriente

Other interesting parks that feature Maya architectural remains include the Parque Arqueológico de Oriente (Calle 40 x 27 y 21, Salvador Alvarado Oriente), and the Parque Arqueológico Dzoyilá Granjas (Calle 48, Reparto Granjas). This second park is mentioned by name in the Chilam Balam, one of the few surviving written Maya historical accounts.


While there are many other points of archaeological interest within the Ciudad Blanca’s limits, hopefully this article has awoken your interest and will help you sharpen your eye to the wonders of Mérida’s past that lay below the surface to the casual eye. 


Editorial and photography by Luis Carlos Rosado

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