Paseo de Montejo is amusingly referred to here as the Champs Élysées of Mérida. Well… I’m afraid to disappoint the people of Mérida, because it isn’t quite that… It is however, an impressively wide grand green boulevard – splendid in the faded kind of way that only the steamy tropics can give you and a lovely place to stroll in the cool early morning under the shady canopy of the mature trees.
The boulevard is named after the Spanish conquistador and ‘self-professed’ founder of Mérida, Francisco de Montejo in 1543 and was laid out as a French-inspired boulevard in the late 19th century and early 20th and lined with grand mansions, many of them elegant belle-epoque piles and a few of them duplicates, side by side. They were built by wealthy Yucatecans, many having made their fortunes during the henequen boom – the Mayan ‘Green Gold’, the fibre or sisal extracted from the Agave plant that’s so abundant in the Yucatan.
Paseo de Montejo is still grand in parts but I’m afraid time hasn’t been a great friend and many of the palacios that would have once stood here have now disappeared to be replaced by modern concrete edifices, or have been left in a state of disrepair – awaiting renovation perhaps. The banks and multinationals ultimately saved many of these once crumbling buildings, tapping into the prestige of doing business from a grand landmark building over say a nondescript tower block, whilst several of the grander mansions are now museums.
We popped into one of them, the Palacio Cantón, now the Museo Regional de Antropología de Yucatán. Sadly, the museum didn’t quite live up to expectations, with a rather sparse display of Mayan artefacts (actually a travelling exhibition from the state of Michoacan), which is a shame given the stunning, grand marble interior, ripe I would have thought to house a serious collection of pre-Colombian treasures. Still, it was wonderful to get access into one of these mansions and get a sense of the space and grandeur of another time.
Towards the top of the boulevard is the splendid Monumento a la Patria, or Monument to the Homeland, a huge sculpture by the Colombian artist Romulo Rozo that seeks to capture the history of Mexico with its hand-carved figures. It’s all extremely nationalistic and jam packed with symbolism including at the back a reflecting pool (during the summer wet season) that features a reproduction of the events that gave rise to the national coat of arms, an eagle devouring a snake perched on a nopal, a symbol of the foundation of Tenochtitlán, the legendary Aztec city which is now modern-day Mexico City.
I went at the height of rush hour, in the relative cool of the early morning, but the traffic was really something else, totally surrounding the monument with a sole traffic cop doing his best to control the constant flow of heavy traffic heading down the boulevard.
Right then, perhaps this elegant tree-lined avenue does have aspects of the Champs Élysées, if only its fabled congestion.