The capital of Yucatan state, Merida, Mexico, is a charming colonial city in a tropical locale and one of the conquistadores' first strongholds in New Spain. Built over a Mayan settlement, Merida retains a strong Maya influence even today: Many people still speak the language, and women dress in white huipiles, long, loose-fitting dresses with lacy hems and elaborate embroidery.

The cultural center of the Yucatan Peninsula, Merida has an enduring quality that attracts repeat travelers. Although an old Mayan prophecy claiming a catastrophic "end of the world" in the year 2012 didn't pan out, it did prompt Merida to spruce up the city for the start of the new millennium. Colonial buildings, museums, streets and historical town plazas with new hotels welcomed the hoards of visitors who arrived for the December 23rd celebrations

Unlike other regions of Mexico, Merida never had an oil boom or silver rush, but it did go through an era of "green gold"—the prosperity brought on by the export of sisal in the 1800s. The wealthy owners of sisal plantations built imposing haciendas, many of which have been transformed into luxurious hotels just outside town.

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