Church bells are pealing as I enter the Plaza Grande, Mérida's main square, which is bordered by 16th-century Spanish colonial buildings and the oldest cathedral in the Americas, built with stones from a Mayan temple. Citizens exchange greetings, "Feliz Navidad," as a drum-and-bugle corps lowers the Mexican flag in a ceremony that is part militaristic, part Main Street Disneyland. A stylish couple roars up on a scooter, stopping alongside nuns in white habits. The cobblestoned streets echo the clip-clop of carriage horses with flowers in their manes and stick-on gift bows decorating their bridles. A palpable buzz in the December dusk, a high-pitched swirl of sounds, adds a countermelody to this urban symphony. Something is in the air—and that something isn't snow. I look up and see a cloud of langostas (locusts as big as my index finger) being pursued by screaming black birds, a scene more Hitchcock than Capra.
It may be Christmas in Mérida, but it's beginning to feel a lot like Judgment Day or, at least, one of the grimmer pages of the Old Testament. I scurry past Pancho's, the colorful tourist bar with huge Warhol-style portraits of the folk-hero bandito Pancho Villa, and take refuge in the more sedate Cafetería Pop, a coffee shop a few blocks away. Pop lives up to its name with an Op Art wall relief and a Modernist mural that looks like a Ben Shahn ink drawing. How retro, I think, how seventies chic—only to discover that the restaurant opened 33 years ago and never bothered to change its now absolutely of-the-moment décor.
Mérida, the cultural crossroads that is the capital of Mexico's state of Yucatán, is layered with history, the layers overlapping like the colorful crepe paper on a piñata, promising sweet surprises to those who crack the surface. Separated from the rest of the country by large rivers, the Yucatán Peninsula, until the last half of the 20th century, was more in touch with the Caribbean than with Mexico. In the Palacio de Gobierno, seventies paintings in a socialist-Cubist style by Fernando Castro Pacheco trace the collision between the Spanish and Mayans, whose presence remains strong. Their ancient language, still spoken today, suffuses everything, from the almost unpronounceable names of villages such as Dzibilchaltún (tse-veel-chal-toon) to a salsa called xnipek ("nose of the dog," so named because its heat causes your sniffer to sweat).
The folklore of the Mayans is equally colorful. A lunar eclipse is said to be the work of ants eating the moon, and during those nights children bang pots and pans to make the bugs stop. The invasion of the locusts on Christmas Day is a mystery even the locals cannot quite explain, but it suggests a fitting metaphor. The birds and locusts might symbolize the Spanish colonialists who in 1542 became the rulers of this city, once known as T'hó. They might also be the 19th-century merchants who made their fortunes here, building plantations and harvesting henequen (agave) for sisal, to make rope. Or the new breed of conquistadors, who today are swooping in to gentrify this city of nearly a million Catholics and Cokeheads (Yucatán's Coca-Cola consumption is said to be the highest in the world).
Over the past few years, American couples have begun to turn Mérida into an expatriate community that resembles the San Miguel de Allende of the 1990's. In the center of town, a centuries-old house with a courtyard can be bought and rehabbed for under $100,000. Sprawling haciendas on the outskirts can be had for a million or so. The Starwood company has already taken over two such buildings, each about an hour outside the city, and made them over as luxury hotels. The gringos transforming high-ceilinged buildings into bed-and-breakfasts (small, clean, and under $100 a night) and vacation properties are a social set, bonded by opportunity and adventure. Over dinner at Frida, an homage to the artist, or drinks at El Burladero, a dark dive where a "matador" ushers you in, they trade stories of gentrification. These expats have a saying about the local mañana mentality—where a contractor says he'll do something tomorrow, but really means next week. "Todo es possible," these arrivals philosophize in Spanglish. "Más tarde." Everything is possible—much later.
But in Mérida, everything seems possible—right now. Though it struggles with small-scale versions of Mexico City's problems (traffic, pollution, power blackouts), this is a tolerant and cosmopolitan city, with its own airport, an English library, a Belgian chocolatier, and an American Costco. Banamex, a large financial institution, is pumping money into the development of artist communities in outlying villages. Ecotourism is also on the rise, and the area is part of a multinational coalition called Mundo Maya, which seeks to promote travel while protecting the indigenous landmarks and culture. Moreover, Mérida's location in the northwest corner of the Yucatán—seemingly the middle of nowhere—in fact makes it close enough for day trips to ancient cenotes (cisterns) and caves, the flamingo preserve at Celestún, and the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. Cancún and Tulum are a four-hour trip along a newly built superhighway.
The Christmas season begins early in Mexico, with Las Posadas, nine days of candlelight processions and parties that start on December 16. In Mérida, the Mayan heritage is as important as Christianity, and the collision of the two is sometimes hilarious. At the ruins of Dzibilchaltún, I stumble across an ancient hut that contains a manger scene strung with lights blinking in time to Casio-keyboard carols. In the city, the Mexican flag flies over Paseo de Montejo, a broad boulevard dotted with 19th-century European mansions and traffic roundabouts filled with huge Christmas-tree ornaments. The Plaza Grande is closed to traffic on Sundays, turning the city center into a lively street fair of vendors hawking tourist souvenirs woven of sisal. Mérida's top shop, the Casa de las Artesanías, has string hammocks, polished bowls made from gourds and native woods, sculptures carved in a local limestone called crema Maya, and silver and gold filigree jewelry.
Seeking even more exotic resources for my Christmas list, I consult John Powell. A former fashion designer, model, and antiques dealer, the 49-year-old is one of the new arrivals in Mérida and runs Urbano, an upscale custom guide service with its own rental, a three-room house called the Orangerie at Santa Ana. "I know everything and everyone," Powell says confidently. "If you like, I will even take you to my private antiques sources." Powell is the best enabler a shopaholic could ever hope to find.