Merida is full of delightful surprises as well as a familiar charm one would anticipate to encounter in a Mexican town. There is a history that the people of Merida are proud to share with visitors and a passion for cultural preservation that is evident in every meticulously restored colonial building and every exuberant festival.
Not envisioning anything of the dazzling sort, we approached the outskirts of the city with mediocre expectations. We zigzagged through the maze of narrow streets towards our downtown hotel. Eventually we arrived, thankful for the guidance Google maps had provided.
Hotel Mision Panamericana Merida was the first of the many pleasant discoveries on our weekend getaway. For any of you who have experience booking a hotel online, you know it can go either way. We’ve stayed at some that far exceeded our expectations, while others utterly disappointed and completely failed to portray the actual conditions of the property. This restored hotel was a gem, with helpful staff and a lovely courtyard with a central fountain. Its convenient location allowed for us to set off each day on foot, to discover Merida’s magic.
Tip: It’s not always easy to find a room that accommodates a family of 5. This hotel offers a spacious family room with 2 doubles and a twin bed so we were all able to sleep comfortably.
Merida has a personality like no other city I’ve experienced in Mexico. It’s a bustling urban center, with a fascinating contradiction of vintage meets modern. You can spend some time in the colorful city center amongst the centuries old cathedrals, perusing the grand mercado (a typical Mexican market) or drive along the north end of Paseo Montejo and find sprawling, ultramodern shopping centers, galleries and luxury car dealerships.
The colonial city, located just under three hours from Playa del Carmen on the new 305 Federal Highway, has become a desirable landing-place for expats from the United States, Canada and Europe. Woven through the tight-knit fabric of the Yucatecan community, a large conglomerate of international artists thrives.
Tip: The 305 Highway is a toll highway with two tollbooths from Playa del Carmen to Merida. You can expect to pay around $320 pesos ($16.40USD) one-way.
Our first order of business was the Lucas de Galvez Mercado, a 2-level market with hundreds of merchant stalls spanning several blocks. The vendors were peddling every item imaginable from flowers to apparel to jewelry. You could buy your produce and meat for the day, pick up a cloned Kate Spade bag and get a new pair of sandals in a matter of minutes. The place was a buzz with vendors enticing passersby with their wares and buyers leaving the crowded shops with a bag filled with goodies. To give you an idea of the prices, my two daughters and I came back with six pairs of shoes for $580.00 Mexican pesos, which is the equivalent to about $30USD (or 5 bucks per pair!)
Tip: The market opens early, so try to get there in the morning as the narrow aisles become jammed with people by the afternoon.
There are 13 parks within the old city center, each featuring a cathedral engulfed by an army of trees standing tall against azure skies. The picturesque trees provide nice shade for the couples, families and elders seated contentedly on the benches catching up or watching their little ones chase pigeons. Plaza Grande is the main park or zocalo in the downtown core. We came upon this area our first evening on our search for a restaurant.
This busy plaza is the location of the Palacio Municipal building of Merida. The building is a vibrant green hue with halls featuring curved archways. Inside is a gorgeous courtyard flooded by sunlight. The natural light accentuates the remarkable details of the paintings that cover the walls of the building’s interior. On the second floor, you can have respite from the heat and rest on the benches or take advantage of the prime position to view the bustling square below.
Tip: There is no admission fee to enter the Palacio Municipal. It is open from 9-6pm Monday to Friday.
Free, 90-minute walking tours with bilingual guides are offered at 9:30a.m. from this government building. Visitors are guided through the plaza and introduced to the principal historic buildings and a few other points of interest.
We opted to take in some sights via horse and carriage through the old town center. On the 45-minute tour, the driver explained each block as we passed through and told a story of Merida’s first saloon which is still operating today. The old-time bar is complete with the outdoor poles and troughs, which were used to fasten the horses and keep them watered, while their owners were inside enjoying refreshments of their own.
Tip: The cost of the horse and carriage ride was $400 pesos for the whole family. We boarded in Plaza Grande in front of the OXXO convenience store.
At dusk, people began to gather in the square in front of the stately church with its two bell towers. Curious, I asked a local about the crowd that waited outside the Merida Cathedral. He informed me that before it had been built, a Mayan city had stood in that same area. On the site and surrounding perimeter were various stone structures including a pyramid said to be taller than El Castillo at Chichen Itza. Spanish conquerors had ordered the Mayan inhabitants to dismantle their city and its palaces, and then use those sacred stones to construct the cathedral. He said that large groups assemble every Saturday evening for a viewing of the light show, which highlights the history behind the church and illuminates the massive cathedral.
By this time, we were in the mood to sit down for a cocktail and try some authentic Yucatecan food. We found a place bordering Plaza Grande on the opposite side of the cathedral, where a woman sat at a fire warming hand-made tortillas. The tortillas were great, but unfortunately the food was not. We tried dishes like cochinita pibil, marinated pork in an orange and achiote rub that is usually to-die-for but just didn’t cut it at this place. Perhaps we would have been better off sampling the tacos from one of the carts set up within the park.
Plaza Grande was a happening place that weekend. As we sat and dined, dozens of competing runners jogged by towards the finish line of the Rock ‘n Roll Merida Half Marathon. There was also a throng of Meridians erecting special tables, altars and mini palapas for Hanal Pixan. This event begins on October 31 each year and is the Mayan people of the Yucatan’s unique version of the Dia de los Muertos Festival (Day of the Dead.)
On the way back to our hotel, we quickly peeked into the impressive Teatro Peon Contreras and were awed by its grandeur. The staircases, the pillars and the early 1900s design were magnificent. In addition to hosting events such as cultural dances, children’s festivals, operas and theatrical performances, it is the main venue for the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra.
The next day while half of our crew went for a round of golf, we decided to visit the historical center of Paseo Montejo. This nearly 5 mile, immaculate main avenue is where you’ll find a striking mix of new and old. On its modern north end are sprawling shopping centers, (The Galeria Mall even has an ice rink!) Costco, and typical American restaurant franchises like Chili’s and TGI Fridays. However, as we headed south, our eyes lit up at the sight of one outstanding, restored mansion after another.
The cultural society of Merida has done an excellent job at preserving the historic legacy of these splendid buildings. Many have been converted into office buildings, business centers or museums. Banamex operates out of Casa Museo Montes, for example, which was built around 1902. A few of the rooms are open to visitors and guided tours in both English and Spanish are available for a cost of $75 pesos ($4USD). The exterior of the pristine palace alone is extraordinary, while inside are ornate furnishings, original to that time period made from precious woods.
Tip: The tours last approximately 40 minutes between 9 and 5 Monday to Friday and 9 and 1 on Saturdays.
Continuing along the scenic, tree-lined Paseo Montejo, we came upon the Monument to the Homeland. The masterpiece depicts through a great number of intricate carvings, various important aspects of the country and its history. There are images of the Maya, the eagle (Mexico’s national symbol) as well as the shield of the city of Merida.
Tip: Uber driver service successfully operates in Merida and is an economical option for getting around. Just download the app and choose from the list of available private drivers in your area.
We spent the afternoon taking hundreds of photos, sipping coconut infused horchata (a creamy, sweetened rice milk with cinnamon), and shopping near our hotel in the downtown area. It was incredible to see merchants still operating modern day businesses out of what looked like a film set from a country and western movie way back in the day.
A friend from Playa was also in town attempting to finish her project of restoring a hundred year old home. She invited us to visit her and welcomed us at the oversized metal door, which was surrounded by a concrete exterior wall with peeling paint. To our amazement, we entered the property, which seemed to go on forever. There were cathedral ceilings with exposed wooden beams, newly polished floor tiles from the early 1900s and a serene garden in the back with fruit trees and a pool.
On our last night, we ate at the highly recommended Oaxacan restaurant, Apoala in the trendy Santa Lucia plaza. The menu was vast and offered traditional Mexican dishes like mole (a rich dark salsa made with a variety of chiles, chocolate and nuts), arrachera (tender skirt steak) and even flavorful fried grasshoppers!
After dinner, the girls and I followed an enticing aroma that led two doors down to the Ki’Xocolatl Chocolate Shop. We checked out some small pieces of Mexican folk art and took our time deciding which delicious sample of fine chocolate to take home with us. Through this charming café and store, you can book a tour that takes you on an expedition to their factory and cacao plantation. Although we didn’t book this tour, it would be interesting to see the groves of cacao trees and all the work that goes into producing one of my all-time favorite treats!
My friend’s home was a perfect example of the treasures you encounter in Merida. This is just one of the city’s enamoring characteristics I fell in love with. Around every turn was an enchanting surprise. The shopkeepers, hotel staff and pedestrians we met, all presented an approachable aura. When asking for directions, one kind soul not only pointed the way, but also proceeded to walk about 8 blocks to lead us to our destination. While maneuvering through the city, other cars on more than one occasion, allowed us to cut in when we found ourselves in the wrong lane. Our Uber driver stopped a handful of times without me asking, so that I could take photos along Paseo Montejo. He seemed to be quite familiar with the history and was happy to share what he knew.
After spending a significant amount of time in Mexico and taking in the sights and sounds of several of its magnificent cities, I have to say that the colorful, colonial architecture of Merida turned me into a trigger happy photog like never before.
Unfortunately, we only caught a glimpse of the Hanal Pixan festival. But the enthusiasm to keep the Mexican and Mayan culture alive and thriving is clearly noticeable in the many free performances. The city’s packed calendar of events is also proves the city’s passion for their culture.
The deep sense of pride and the hospitality of the Yucatecan people that we witnessed on the streets, in the markets and even in traffic were as warm and as addictive as fresh out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies and I will definitely go back for more!
Tip: Make sure to leave time in your Merida itinerary to stop at the town of Izamal. Known also as ‘The Yellow Town,’ this quaint colonial city is most definitely a sight to see. There is a historic Franciscan convent constructed so that it appears to tower above and keep watch over the town. All of the buildings’ facades are painted a deep yellow and there is a street market, horse and carriage rides as well as cultural festivities on a regular basis. It was given the honor of being one of Mexico’s ‘Magical Towns’ and it is 45 minutes from Merida.
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About the Author
Juanita grew up in a small town in the middle of Canada. Having experienced twenty years of ruggedly cold climate, she had seen enough snow to last her a lifetime. After moving to and working in Vancouver for thirteen years (where she was ecstatic to see the odd palm tree) she jumped at the opportunity to move with her husband and three children to Playa del Carmen. She calls it a ‘dreamy existence’ and cherishes year-round, backyard barbecues with friends, road trips and watching the sunrise over the Caribbean. She writes for Bric Vacation Rentals.