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Merida’s Mayan Ghost Town

June 11, 2011

The chopping block of history amputates and edits without mercy.

In January of 1982, Mexico was careening toward financial collapse, Francisco Luna Kan, Yucatan’s first governor of pure Maya descent since the Conquest, ceded the governorship to a controversial newcomer, and Jose Lopez Portillo made the briefest presidential visit in Yucatan history: a mere hour and forty minutes. 

The previous few years weren’t much easier for Yucatan.  In 1976, Luna Kan was thrown off a train to Mexico City because the conductor refused to believe that a full-blooded Maya was indeed the governor of Yucatan.  In 1979, three inmates at Merida’s Juarez prison took twenty-three hostages and threatened to execute them if they were not granted safe passage to Cuba.  The prisoners were harmed when police threw tear gas grenades into the building, and the authorities agreed to transport the criminals for treatment at O’Horan hospital.  When they arrived dead, Miguel Nazar Haro, the Federal Director of Security, was accused of having the prisoners murdered en route to the hospital, creating a national scandal.  Refusing to comment on the incident, Luna Kan left Mexico on a diplomatic tour of the Soviet Union.

And in February of 1982, less than twenty-four hours after Jose Lopez Portillo responded to rumors of an upcoming devaluation by declaring that he would “defend the peso like a dog guarding his bone,” he announced that the Mexico’s currency would undergo a catastrophic devaluation.

This plaque on the building's facade reads "Mayan City: First Stage. The Constitutional President of the United Mexican States, Jose Lopez Portillo, and Governor of the State of Yucatan, Graciliano Alpuche Pinzon, inaugurate this work. February 1, 1982."

Perhaps no better relic exists in Merida of this tumultuous period than La Ciudad Maya, a sprawling campus of crumbling neo-Mayan buildings behind the Merida zoo.

Sitting on a 10,000 square meter plot of land (roughly two and a half acres,) you’d never guess you were only a block from one of the city’s busiest intersections.  It is absolutely quiet, save for the piercing screeches from peacocks in the zoo.  The musty funk of giraffe dung occasionally makes way for the sweet smell of fresh-baked bread wafting from the bakery of the grocery store at the end of the block.

At the northernmost end of the complex sits a large two-story parking structure that was abandoned before its construction was complete.  On the second floor, windows and Mayan arches are carved out of bare cinder block in a pattern that suggests the original plan was to have a neat row of stores atop the parking lot.

The entrance to the parking lot is blocked by an ornate iron gate depicting a Mayan figure with a bone through his nose standing before a cluster of cornstalks.

Behind the parking structure is a swimming pool, about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide.  The floor of the empty pool is matted with brown palm fronds, garbage, and other debris.  Next to the pool is a two-story building that looks like it was once a motel or a small office building.

There is a staircase leading up to this building lined with intricate carvings of Maya glyphs, but atop the staircase is an iron gate, flanked by a stone bust of the serpent god Kukulcan.

There is a corridor, also blocked by an iron gate, that is riddled with garbage.  It runs beneath the main building, but it is too dark to see where it leads.  Emanating from this corridor is the unmistakable stench of human urine.

Behind the primary structure itself is a scale replica of el Castillo at Chichen Itza, visible only from this location (unless, of course, you can get inside.)

A pack of stray dogs has made this area its home, and they can be seen sleeping, roaming the grounds with their puppies and trying to chase away any intruders.

The tallest building on the premises, however, is a tower located at the back of the courtyard.

It is clearly visible peeking over the houses that line Calle 82, which runs behind the Ciudad Maya.

From the front of the structure it is only visible through a small alley between the front structure and what appears to be a caretaker’s house, with some signs of life (such as fresh fruit on the kitchen table) but appears to be seldom occupied.

This alley is blocked by yet another iron gate, this one featuring the famous figure depicted on Chichen Itza’s Temple of the Descending God.

So, what is La Ciudad Maya?

Page through the January and February 1982 sections at the archives of the Diario de Yucatan at the Biblioteca Carlos Menendez on Avenida Colon in Garcia Gineres and you won’t find a single word about this mammoth complex of buildings, dedicated by the President of Mexico and the Governor of Yucatan that same month.

Rather, you’ll see news of the president’s disastrous visit to Yucatan and the peso’s collapse; both incidents that far trumped whatever was happening behind the Parque del Centenario in terms of public interest.

The archives’ supervisor, a bookish and formal and eminently helpful Yucatecan lady who’s usually a fount of information, has no idea what La Ciudad Maya was or is.

The people I was able to speak with who live along Calle 84 have no idea, either.

Beryl Gorbman, who has lived here the better part of twenty five years, has no idea, but she vaguely recalls it being the home of a gay cabaret at some point.  Whatever its original intended purpose was, it looks as though Mexico’s economic collapse prevented it from ever fulfilling that purpose.

It is the proverbial tree falling in the woods.  Nobody was around to hear it, and if it did make a sound, its echoes have long died out, eclipsed in the annals of Mexican history by far more pressing concerns.

For an update on this story, with photographs of La Ciudad Maya as it was in 1997, click here.

All photos copyright 2011, Expats Anonymous.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2011 8:23 am

    More Mayan ruins, right in the heart of Mérida. Amazing to me I have never noticed the place…as a walker and centro resident, I thought I knew the area fairly well. I’ll have to take a look.

    It’s interesting that it is so hard to find out about the place. Obviously there is a good story here.

  2. June 12, 2011 10:35 am

    Marc: I added a map to the end of the post so you can see where it is, and get a nifty aerial view. Happy exploring!

  3. mcm permalink
    June 13, 2011 7:25 pm

    Ah ha — an alternative site for the ”Museum of Maya Civilization”…who knew?

  4. June 13, 2011 10:09 pm

    MCM: Exactly! It’s practically ready to go!

  5. June 14, 2011 3:34 pm

    Enjoyed the well researched post, You guys really get around.
    As you mentioned, I was in one of the buildings when it was a night club. I remember a young man with no clothes on dancing to hearty applause by a roomful of seemingly heterosexual men. Ah, the mysteries of Merida.

  6. June 17, 2011 9:02 pm

    Beryl, you are a veritable “estuche de monerías”. What haven’t you done–I mean, witnessed?

    This is a fascinating article. Your well-chosen chronology of the times hooked me right at the beginning. It just got better after that. Thanks for the photos. They capture the eerie Maya abandonment theme well.

  7. June 18, 2011 2:38 am

    Thank you for your kind comments, Jody. I can’t remember if you’re in Merida or not, but if/when you are, you should go check it out! There is a lot to see that I didn’t include here.

  8. June 18, 2011 2:07 pm

    I’ll be in the White City July 5th-12th. La Ciudad Maya is now on the list of things to see while walking very slowly in high humidity and heat and thinking about the next cold drink. How will I recognize you if I should run into you?

  9. June 18, 2011 3:29 pm

    I’ll be researching in the Biblioteca Carlos Menendez, wearing a ski mask.

  10. Virginia E. Miller permalink
    July 6, 2011 10:58 pm

    I lived in Merida in 1997 when La Ciudad Maya was a thriving nightclub–I had no idea it had been abandoned, nor that it was so mysteriously unremembered now. There cannot possibly be two of these complexes! They alternated shows–imported Cuban dancers (who lived in the complex), very popular with local and visiting foreign men, and then a “typical” Maya show with the tray with glasses on it on the head, etc. I didn’t see a performance but have tons of slides of the exterior and interior. I am currently writing an article on neo-maya architecture in Merida so ran across this image while trying to locate one of the long-gone Cine Maya.


  1. La Ciudad Maya As It Used To Be « Expats Anonymous

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