How to kill time the Mexican way

It was just a stopover - but before long Mike Gerrard was falling under Merida's spell

"THE HOTEL is not responsible for values". The sign behind the reception desk at the elegant Colonial Hotel seemed to be giving us carte- blanche to enjoy ourselves in Merida, the capital of Mexico's Yucatan state. Whether I would or not, I had no idea. All I knew was that this was where I was staying after the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, and before the ruins at Palenque. A handy stopover or a place worth visiting in itself? I left my values behind and went out to explore with an open mind and a Rough Guide.

At the Artisan's Museum, I disturbed the lone doorkeeper, slumbering to the sound of the radio. He switched on the lights, which somehow also connected his radio to the loudspeakers, so that I toured the rooms to the rasping horns of Mexico's Radio One. Perhaps he just thought I'd be lonely in there.

The Day of the Dead, coming up on 2 November, is Mexico's big day. And here it all was, in the museum: eerie displays of grinning, bony devil masks and skeletons. There were red skeletons riding red dragons suspended from the ceiling, a yellow skeleton grimacing on the back of a giant green and yellow beetle, a skeleton clutching a skeleton baby, even a skeleton in a denim jacket. For light relief, there were rows of masks: red-faced devils with staring eyes, jaguars, men that epitomised Latin evil, and some that looked just like the Mavericks. I half-expected the radio to burst into "Dance the Night Away".

If this was "the people's" culture - embroidery, farming implements, armadillo-shell drums - then "high" culture resides in the Museum of Contemporary Art. I walked back towards the city centre, taking lengthy detours when roads were submerged in several feet of water from that morning's torrential downpour. It was like negotiating one's way around Venice. A long queue of people stretched behind the Iglesia de Jess. Queuing for church? I turned the corner and understood: it was the afternoon showing of Godzilla.

"Hey, good pussy," a local guy was shouting after two tourist girls who, for some strange reason, were leaving his shop. Can't think why. He directed me round the corner to the Contemporary Art Museum, where a narrow doorway opened up into one of Merida's hidden treasures.

The city is laid out on a grid system, the streets spiking out straight from the huge Plaza Mayor, the heart of the heart of Merida. On one side is the imposing Cathedral, and opposite the Palacio Municipal, translated rather lamely as "Town Hall"; on the other side of the Plaza stands the Palacio de Gobierno, and on the south side, the Casa de Montejo, the 16th- century mansion home of the Montejo family. In between these splendid old buildings, people read their papers in the shade of rows of laurel trees, or sit and have their shoes shined. Workers were tidying up the topiary, giving razor-sharp edges to hedges, and signs on the snooker- table smooth lawns said: "Respect the environment" and "Take care of the flowers".

I had expected mess in Mexico, and chaos, and while there was plenty of both, there was also the delight of finding places like Merida, a city of Palaces, seemingly relaxed and at ease with itself.

The grid system means that you walk along a block, past shopfronts and offices, hotels and restaurants, past closed doors and then past the occasional one that opens up to give a glimpse of the world inside - the courtyards and stairways and gardens and fountains that occupy the interiors of those large city blocks. So it was in the Contemporary Art Museum, along from the Cathedral in what was the Archbishop's Palace. The ticket office, no more than a few feet wide, leads through to a spacious garden, with well-tended bushes and fountains flowing. At the far end, a wide stone staircase leads up to the first-floor galleries, where attendants hold the doors open and smile as you enter. At first I feared the worst, that the splendour of the building would turn out to contain the usual motley provincial collection, especially as the first room contained nothing more exciting than photos and models of the world's greatest treasures, from Stonehenge and the pyramids through to copies of modern masters. At the far end of the room, a group of schoolchildren were chattering like starlings. Up some stairs, in a galleried recess, a fake Mona Lisa was half-smiling. Downstairs, a runaway boy was retrieved by his ear.

In other rooms, though, the museum showed its worth. There was the Gauguinesque work of Victor Arguez, featuring huge lumpy nudes. Beyond, there was embroidery as fine art: lovingly detailed floral designs around the hems and necks of white dresses. Beyond that, a temporary exhibition, of Cuban photography: stark images of stark poverty. Local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco has an exhibition, including a wonderful Torteadora, a woman making tortillas with an expression of complete serenity on her face. A Mexican Mona Lisa. The Museum leaflet tells me that Pacheco was invited to paint murals in the Government Palace, so I walk across the Plaza, past the armed guards, and into another wonderful courtyard - a tiled patio, with tropical plants in pots, surrounded by a double-decker row of graceful arcades. In an open-air office, a few people are waiting to see the Mayor, clutching pieces of paper. And there are Pacheco's stunning huge murals, of Mayan Indian life, of Mexican history.

Next morning, I visit two cathedrals. First, the vast 16th-century Cathedral of San Idelfonso, where people pray to Christ of the Blisters, a statue said to have been carved from the wood of a single tree, which has twice burned but never done more than blackened a little and come out in blisters. After that, across the Plaza again to a more modern cathedral, the Banamex Bank, where I pray to a hole in the wall that by inserting my Switch card and pressing four magic digits here in the middle of Mexico, a hundred quid will be taken from my account in Leeds and put into my hand. It works, a modern miracle. I celebrate with a guanabana milkshake at a juice bar, where the Mexican version of Candid Camera is showing on the TV.

Merida is the home of the hammock, and king-sized ones are "heaven on a string", according to our tour leader. In Merida's market, they hang from stalls, while spice smells hang in the air. A woman is frying tortillas, though without quite the beatific expression of the woman in Pacheco's painting. Nearby, a man is playing his sax while his elderly partner, in a battered trilby, bongos away.

Merida's a great place for meandering, and I decide to head north for the Anthropological Museum, without worrying too much if I get there. But I've scarcely crossed the Plaza Mayor when the sky turns from blue to grey, and by the time I reach the Plaza Hidalgo it is black and so close it could tap me on the shoulder and say: are you serious about this walk? When the raindrops start, I duck into the Restaurant Express for a bottle of beer.

The light shower turns into the Victoria Falls. I move back a table as the rain bounces in from the pavement, and the owner pulls the shutter down halfway. Deprived of the pleasure of watching people race by with plastic bags on their head, or in the case of one woman, amble by in just jeans and a T-shirt, soaked but smiling like a Yucatan female Fred Astaire, I move across to the open side and gaze at the torrent. Thirty minutes later and the gutters are gushing, and it is almost time for lunch. Poc- chuc pollo, por favor, and a copa vino blanco. The wine is surprisingly dry and smooth, and slips down so fast it's gone before the chicken turns up. Otro? the waiter asks, one of the more useful words I've learned. Otro, I say, and he brings another, followed by the irresistible smell of roast chicken, served with the poc-chuc sauce, a mix of onions and bitter oranges, which sounds strange but tastes sublime.

Two hours later and it is no longer like sitting behind a waterfall. The rain stops, the sky clears, and I venture out. A man is walking along with a green plastic bag tied round each foot with string. There is a queue for one of the collectivo buses, and halfway along, a man with a painted clown's face waits mournfully.

That night, I tuck into an avocado stuffed with peppery tuna, and down a dark beer, reflecting on two days well spent. At the next table are three British women, the talk dominated by one with a loud Northern accent. "Anyway," she informs the world, "my mum says I should go out with him, but I also know there's a very low side to him. His actions. But he's a very nice bloke." Musing on this and wondering if he'd maybe just left his values behind in his room, I toddle down to the Plaza Mayor to watch the passing show and enjoy a guanabana sorbet. An old Mexican man comes up to me, in a shabby suit and with a wooden box in his hand. I'm about to say I don't want my shoes shined when he asks, "Magic, senor?" Magic, I have to agree. FACT FILE MERIDA Getting there Mike Gerrard travelled to Mexico with the Imaginative Traveller (tel: 0181-742 3049). The company offers a 14-day Markets and Mayans tour for pounds 600, excluding flights, including two nights in Merida and visits to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Palenque. Return flights to Mexico City are available from Lufthansa for pounds 339, including tax, to th e end of November, and from British Airways for pounds 352 to 16 December if you book by 21 October. Return flights to Cancun (much closer to Merida than Mexico City), are available from Virgin and Air Mexico, via Miami, for pounds 385, including tax, to 14 December. Trailfinders (tel: 0171-937 5400).

Further information Mexico Tourist Board (tel: 0171-734 1058).

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