"The Greeks of America": A Journey to the Yucatan Peninsula

Learn more about the Yucatan pyramids of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza, one of the Wonders of the World, and the Pyramid of the Soothsayer in Uxmal. Also the city of Merida and the Magic town of Valladolid.

"The Greeks of America": A Journey to the Yucatan Peninsula
Chichen Itza is one of the main archaeological sites of the Yucatan Peninsula, a vestige of the Mayan civilization. Photo by Luis Aceves / Unsplash

Who would have thought that in this peninsula of gold, as José Castillo Torre calls the Yucatan peninsula in his book "El país que no se parece a otro", the memorable Mayan civilization would settle? And there is no need to think about it: it was written that "the Greeks of America" would flourish here and that they would contribute to the world an exemplary calendar, profound astronomical studies, their vigesimal numeration, their discovery of zero, and remarkable buildings that today are the admiration of the world such as the pyramids of Kukulcan, in Chichen Itza, one of the new Wonders of the World, and that of the Soothsayer in Uxmal.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is an archaeological vestige of the Mayan civilization, one of the main archaeological sites of the Yucatan Peninsula. The main buildings that survive there correspond to the Late Classic or Early Postclassic period (800-1100 A.D.). This Mayan site is a source of great value for the knowledge of the pre-Hispanic past. Due to its architectural and aesthetic characteristics, it is a cultural reference to the Mayan civilization.


Uxmal is located in the Santa Elena valley next to a series of hills known as Puuc. Occupation dates back to 500 B.C., however, during the IX and XII centuries A.D. it was the seat of peninsular Maya political and economic power in the Puuc region. It is one of the archaeological zones of the Mayan culture whose architecture is one of the most majestic in Yucatan. Its beauty is characterized by low, horizontal palaces, placed around patios or quadrangles.


Urban spaces

Merida of Yucatan, founded on January 6, 1542, on the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of T-Ho, was born with the historical variety of political and administrative capital of the province that covered the entire Yucatan peninsula. In this long evolution of 476 years, the city today is the result of different stages of its development, accompanied by the consequent creation of urban space.

Witness of remote times, in the Yucatecan capital its pre-Columbian roots, are palpable through the Mayan vestiges existing in diverse peripheral parts, but also in the old walls that formed a colonial space of worship different from the ancestral ones of this land, because the same stones of the Mayan buildings the viceregal ones were erected.

The new city was being gestated with the creation of its urban landscape according to the times and the taste of its inhabitants. Undoubtedly, from those early times of the XVI century, the buildings that gave rise to the conformation of the urban space were the house of the conqueror Francisco de Montejo, with its beautiful and polemic stone façade, and what would be the first cathedral built on the mainland of the continent, both constructions in the area destined to be the main square of the new city and seat of the powers of the region.

Soon after, they would be accompanied in that strategic place by the palace of the general captains, converted centuries later into the seat of the Executive, and the episcopal palace that after political changes inaugurated physiognomy and new utilitarian function at the dawn of the twentieth century. This colonial monocentric structure, characteristic of the novo-Hispanic cities, is still, after almost five centuries of life, the main space for the location of political, religious, and commercial activities. An urban space that mutates its social landscape according to the hours of the day and night.

Walking through the streets of colonial Merida, Porfirian Merida, the one with expressions of identity born from the post-revolutionary airs, or the contemporary one, constitutes a lesson of dialogues between the voices of yesterday and the present that envelops us in a fascinating history of the production of urban spaces through almost five centuries.

Buildings and monuments of Yucatán

It has been spoken of as a Franciscan Yucatecan style, characterized by the use of limestone, barrel vaults, and austerity in facades and interiors. The Merida Cathedral stands out, the first to be completed on the mainland of the American continent, along with churches in Merida such as San Juan Bautista, La Candelaria, San Cristóbal, La Ermita, Santa Lucía, Santa Ana, Santiago and La Mejorada, the latter next to the former Franciscan convent that is currently home to the Faculty of Architecture of the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán (UADY).

In military architecture, the three colonial arches that survive from the eight originally built stand out. Two are located on 50th Street and the other in the San Juan neighborhood, where it begins an adobe street that leads to the Ermita de Santa Isabel.

Until the 1940s, parts of the 18th-century Citadel of San Benito were visible, of which only a few vestiges remain, inaccessible to passersby. On the other hand, the Cuartel de Dragones, built on the border of Independencia, a building that served military functions for more than 160 years and which since 1994 has been the headquarters of the Cultural Center of the Yucatecan Child (CECUNY), survives.

You can also visit a small building that housed gunpowder in colonial times, in Colonia Cortés Sarmiento, which is now the Casamata Cultural Center. In the enormous central plaza of Sotuta, the Palacio de Nachi Cocom, currently, the Cultural Center of Sotuta, stands out.

Municipal Palace

The Municipal Palace of Mérida is a colonial building with some ornamental elements from the 20th century. In the two corridors marked by semicircular arches can be seen murals by Manuel Lizama related to Mérida. One of the entrances to the interior has a recessed stone frame of a colonial house and on the upper floor is the meeting room of the Cabildo, which boasts pictorial works by Ermilo Torre Gamboa and Sergio Cuevas.

Government Palace

The Government Palace, on the other hand, is a construction of Porfirian times, concluded in 1892, and whose façade, unlike the two colonial buildings of the same street, shows a pillowed (coating based on rectangular parts protruding with grooves) from the solid corridor of arches, supported by pillars. The interior has a central courtyard and at the back a staircase that turns into a two-way staircase. In the corridors of both floors and the Hall of History, you can admire the murals of the mythical and historical themes of Fernando Castro Pacheco, made in the 1970s.

Peón Contreras Theater

The Peón Contreras Theater, completed in 1908, has a marble staircase, various sculptural ornaments, and a fresco on Apollo and the muses in the dome.

Montejo House

The Casa de Montejo, with several transformations in its façade and interiors, has a limestone façade from the XVI century with strange symbolic elements, as well as windows from the beginning of the XX century with attached sculptures of Aztecs with truncated bodies. It currently houses a bank and a museum.

Canton Palace

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, thanks to the unexpected henequen bonanza that made many landowners multimillionaires, the architecture of the city of Merida abandoned the simple colonial style in favor of the neoclassical style imported from France. Testimonies of this are the Canton Palace, which General Francisco Canton, governor of the state (1898-1902), had built as his home. Soon the wealthy had their residences built, some of them very outstanding, such as the so-called Casas Cámara, huge Porfirian mansions neighboring the Canton Palace.

Porfirian Houses

In Paseo de Montejo we find houses with monumental sense and display of porches, openings, and staircases. Among them are the Casas Cámara or luxury houses in gardens, AS la z Casas Gemelas, the Canton Palace Museum, the Molina Montes House Museum, and several others, which stand out in an uneven array of buildings of later styles or that lack the will of style.

Paseo Montejo

The elegant road known as Paseo de Montejo was created as a space for the residences of the wealthy men of the henequen world, such as the mansion "Villa Beatriz", now known as "Casa Molina", and the palace built by the Cantón Rosado family.

In the forties of the last century, the famous Colombian sculptor Rómulo Rozo was hired by the state government to be in charge of the erection of the Monument to the Homeland as a sort of finishing touch to the Paseo de Montejo, concluding its construction in the early fifties. It is an imposing monument that contains the figures in low relief of the illustrious personages of the history of Mexico.

Other sculptures worth seeing on Paseo Montejo are those of Justo Sierra O'Reilly, the father of the novel in Yucatán, and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the latter by architect Leopoldo Tommasi López. From the same 20th century date the neo-Maya style buildings of the Casa del Pueblo (built by Italian sculptor Ángel Bachini), the massive Park of the Americas project of the 1940s which includes an acoustic shell, a children's play area, a fountain, and the José Martí library.

Centennial Zoo

The Centennial Park is an example of a wooded area, with avenues for walkers to enjoy not only the well-known zoo but also the architectural, sculptural, and historical works integrated into this ample Porfirian enclosure.


Regional cuisine is one of the most representative elements of Yucatán's cultural heritage. Of millenary origin, it has its origins in the very creation of human beings, since "from yellow corn and white corn their flesh was made, from corn dough the arms and legs of man were made" (Popol Vuh). For the ancient Maya, food was not only a means of subsistence but also the enjoyment of the creative combination of flavors, aromas, and colors of endemic ingredients.

But that was long before what we now identify as Yucatecan cuisine. The pre-Hispanic cuisine, always rich because of the protagonist's presence of corn, squash, chili, and beans, together with sea and land meats, fruits and roots, herbs, and leaves of shrubs such as chaya, was transformed from the XVI century onwards with the use and fusion of techniques and inputs from overseas brought by the conquistadors: new meats, new herbs, new grains, spices with enigmatic aromas.


The history of the present city of Valladolid, Yucatan, dates back to the year 1000 B.C., the importance it had during the colonial era can still be perceived today with the presence and conservation of its churches in the historic center and neighborhoods of that city, including the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena.

On the north side of the main park is the church dedicated to San Servacio, with a carved stone facade, the top is topped by two symmetrical towers topped by two stone crosses, on the roof between the two towers was an old clock. It was demolished and rebuilt in 1705, changing its orientation to the north and its altar was also moved.

Valladolid was elevated to the rank of the city on December 13, 1823, by decree of the State Constituent Congress. The decree stated that "The government will issue the title and designate the corresponding motto or coat of arms". The city's coat of arms was made 150 years later by the initiative of Mr. Juan H. Alcocer Rosado, mayor of the city at that time. The coat of arms has the motto "Heroic City".


The so-called "City of the Three Cultures" had its beginnings 2700 years ago, in the Preclassic period, but it was around 150 BC. - 500 A.D., when its inhabitants built monumental buildings, as well as an important network of "sacbeo'ob" (roads, in the Maya language) that allowed them to dominate a territory of six thousand km² in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula, its name derives from the word Itzamná or Zamná that means "dew that falls from the sky" and refers to the Maya god of wisdom.

It was built on the plain of the main pyramid of an ancient indigenous religious complex "popolchach" (castle of the kings); the arcade forms an unequal rectangle, elongated from north to south, of approximately 8000 m2 of the surface. It has 75 arches in total, they were finished in 1618.

The Convent of San Antonio de Padua was built on it, and the interior of the temple has two images: a black Christ and, most important, Our Lady of Izamal. The dressing room where the virgin rests has a gilded and polychrome altarpiece in the background in which paintings and styphites are combined, in the center is the space dedicated to her.

The present facade of the church dates from the late seventeenth century; the corners of the atrium, the largest in the Americas, give access by several ramps and still retain in its corners the famous chapels wells, connected by large corridors. This religious construction began to be built in 1553 by Fray Juan de Mérida; in the Yucatan Peninsula, it was the fifth to be erected.

Hacienda Yaxcopoil

This hacienda was founded in the 17th century, its name means "place of the green poplars" in the Mayan language. It was considered one of the most important haciendas in Yucatan in the cattle and henequen industry. The main altarpiece, which covers the back wall of the presbytery, has three sections divided vertically by Corinthian columns, between which and filling the spaces, there are niches with sculptures of saints; four wooden religious images, apparently the oldest, are in the main altarpiece. Its historical characteristics are worthy of admiration and it is part of the Convent Tour.

San Miguel Arcángel Church Maní, Yucatán

It is a jewel of sacred art, built with the work and effort of the descendants of the Xiu's around 1559, and it is the third convent built of its category in the Yucatan Peninsula, it is the work of the architect Fray Juan Merida. Its structural qualities are the wide facade that adorns the main square where the primitive open chapel converges with the present temple crowned by two belfries, each with three spaces located at both ends of the main entrance. The statue of the archangel St. Michael complements the decoration of the frontispiece.

Former Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán

The Temple and Former Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzman were built with stones extracted from nearby archaeological cities in 1646; unfortunately, the first construction was destroyed during the Caste War, so in 1891 it was built again, trying to leave no trace of Spanish influences, it has an atrium and a large courtyard.

At the beginning of the restoration work, the original decorations were left to be seen, rescuing the figures stamped on the interior and exterior walls. The tones used have a meaning: the red color represents the martyrdom and suffering of Jesus Christ; the green represents the hope of the faithful; the stars and roses refer to the Marian veneration, giving a joyful aspect to the population.

It has a single nave and two doors on the sides, in addition to the main one; on the north side is the convent, with two porticoes, one in front with three arches and the other on the side with eight, one of them becoming a chapel. Its beautiful ornamentation leads it to be considered one of the most outstanding ex-convent of Yucatan.