1,440km (895 miles) E of Mexico City; 320km (199 miles) W of Cancún

Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatán, has been the peninsula's lodestar since the Spanish Conquest, yet many visitors treat it merely as a base camp for forays to the surrounding ruins. Though "The White City" (named after its limestone buildings) endures the traffic and noise common to many colonial cities, its vibrancy, eye-popping architecture, and kind, dignified people are what you remember. The heady brew of ancient and modern is at its most piquant in the bustling, genial historic center, and the Meridanos' celebratory proclivities are infectious. This is the best place to shop for regional specialties, such as hammocks, Panama hats, guayabera shirts, and embroidered huipiles, the colorful native blouses. Mérida enjoys a remarkable bounty of bed-and-breakfasts and beautifully restored colonial homes, many of which are available for vacation rentals. Expatriates have been flocking to the city in recent years -- not only retirees but young couples with boundless energy to explore and show off their adopted home. In the midst of this cultural explosion, you never have to look far to find a festival, concert, theater production, or art exhibition.