(First published in the January 17, 2019 issue of City Pages)
The capital city of Yucatán is rich in history and culture, and a home base for touring nearby Mayan ruins
Mérida’s main plaza
No sooner did I return from my week-long trip to Mérida this past November and I was already figuring out a way to get back there as quickly as possible. Most folks have never heard of this cultural treasure in Mexico, the capital city of the state of Yucatán. It’s located about 25 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico, in the northwest corner of the peninsula.
Mérida (pronounced MEH-ree-dah) doesn’t have the glitz, glamor and name recognition of Cancún or Playa del Carmen, but it does boast a deep historical past bathed in an ever-present sense of culture, a wildly fierce culinary presence and an open-armed welcome to visitors.
Mérida has always been one of my favorite cities in Mexico — it’s an easy four-hour bus ride from Cancún, where I lived for many years—and for the past few years I’ve wanted to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series held there. I landed an unbelievable vacation package, which included round-trip airfare from Central Wisconsin Airport and six nights in a boutique hotel in the central historic district for about $1,700 total for three people. The race occurred around the Day of the Dead celebration, which is a wonderful time to visit Mexico. If you’ve seen the animated film Coco (which I highly recommend), you get the idea why going to a colonial city in Mexico over this holiday is a must.
Cathedral San Ildefonso
With a population of around 892,000, Mérida offers all the amenities you’d expect in a city that size, yet it still holds on to a small town feel. You won’t get lost in a jungle of skyscrapers and traffic. In much of the historic district, as well as along the main boulevard (Paseo de Montejo), there’s a distinctly European flavor. Mérida was named “Cultural Capital of the Americas” in 2017 and in 2000. Because it’s not a huge draw for U.S. tourists, English isn’t as commonly spoken as other vacation destinations in Mexico. But there is also a growing number of U.S. and Canadian expats in Mérida due to the low cost of living, overall vibrancy and safety of the city.
You might also hear Mayan being spoken by the residents. Mérida’s rich history predates the arrival of the Spanish by centuries, and the city was built on the site of the ancient Maya city of T’hó, according to the website Expats in Mexico.
In the 16thcentury, Spanish conquerors named Mérida after a Spanish city and established Christian religious sites to replace the indigenous culture. It’s one of, if not the longest continuously populated cities in the Americas, so you can’t go anywhere in and around Mérida without bumping into history.
The most prominent landmark is the Catedral de San Ildefonso (built starting in 1561) located in front of the main city square, or Plaza Grande. Flanked by other historic and architecturally stunning edifices, it’s a gorgeous structure but also evokes some sadness when you realize it was built from stones taken from the decimated buildings of the ancient Mayan city on which Mérida stands.
Mérida is also surrounded by Mayan ruins. These are the sites you know from history class and documentaries, so being able to get up-close and personal is worth a day trip.
Chichen Itza (named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World) is an easy 90-minute tour, bus ride or drive away from the city.
The Ruta Puuc is a 36-mile roadway connecting five mystical Mayan ruins: Labna, Xlapak, Sayil, Kabah, and Uxmal. Guided tours are available, or drive yourself.
Uxmal, dating from 700-1,000 AD is less visited than Chichen Itza but just as impressive. “The best site of them all, on the entire peninsula, is probably Uxmal,” says Ralf Hollmann a Canadian expat from the Vancouver area and owner of Lawsons Original Yucatan Excursions. “This is due to the amount of preservation and restoration that is evident there. And the fact that no major city was ever built there post-colonization means that the stones were not used to build roads and buildings. It is known here as ‘poetry in stone’ and that’s a pretty good description.”
Always something happening
Street vendors, many offering made-on-the-spot marquesitas, a specialty of Mérida.
There are so many things to do in Mérida proper, I couldn’t possibly include them all. There’s the Bici-Ruta, when the city closes down a large portion of the most picturesque streets for biking, rollerblading and walking. You’ll find traditional music and dance displays, video mapping on the cathedral, and re-enactments of the traditional Mayan ball game pok-ta-poknear the main square, and the vast market to explore, to name a few.
Many of these events are free, with locals as well as tourists taking advantage of them. A brand new city-run tour called Montejo, pasado con esplendor (Montejo, Past Splendor) explains more in-depth about the city’s famed boulevard, according to a recent article in Yucatan Expat Life.
Sitting in any of Mérida’s numerous parks after grabbing a snack from a vendor is a must.
My family was lucky enough to be there for the Festival of the Spirits, one of the city’s most beloved events. The celebration falls the week prior to Nov. 1 with the main parade leaving from the general cemetery through the streets to San Juan Park. It’s a hauntingly beautiful commemoration for deceased loved ones and residents and tourists alike come out dressed in traditional Mexican costumes and painted faces.
Mérida has visitor accommodations for every budget—from popular chain and upscale hotels to hostels, haciendas, homes and apartments. We opted to stay right in the historic city center in a hotel converted from a colonial mansion, the Piedra de Agua Hotel Boutique. The location right next to the cathedral was perfect for most of what we wanted to see and do; everything was within walking distance or a quick and cheap taxi ride away.
The city is set up in a grid system and walking is a great way to get around Mérida, however, having a street map and an exact address is a must. Even if you do get turned around, locals are always happy to help with directions.
One thing, though: Merida can get hot. Really hot. Depending on the time of day, a walk can be scorching. Taxis are all over and run 24 hours a day and are reasonably priced. Merida also has Uber, which residents say is very reliable.
And then there is the food in Mérida. Oh, the food. Not only can you find typical Mexican fare of delicious tacos and tamales, but also regional favorites like poc-chuc (thinly sliced seasoned pork), cochinita pibil (suckling pig in achiote seasoning and baked in banana leaves), sopa de lima (lime soup) mucbipollo (a regional chicken dish) and agua de chaya (a drink made from an indigenous green leafy plant).
Our flight attendant had given me the heads up that I needed to try marquesitas, a large kind of crepe/waffle cone filled with Nutella or jam and topped with freshly grated Edam cheese. Marquesita were first made in Mérida and the streets and parks, especially at night, are lined with mobile vendors selling this sweet and savory confection.
We ate at several restaurants travelers raved about online, but the biggest surprise was the most amazing New York style pizza served alfresco rooftop at Pizza Eskondida near the Santa Ana Park. That was probably the second best pizza I’ve ever had (only behind the now-closed Bell Chalet in Hurley, Wis.).
I had made a list of the restaurants we wanted to hit with their addresses, phone numbers and days/hours of operations. That came in handy to show the taxi drivers exactly where we needed to go.
Mérida has gastronomical offerings from Mexican to Italian to Irish pub fare and, yes, even Burger King. Eating options range from fancy upscale to street food. At the tourist-favorite Maíz, Canela y Cilantro restaurant, our breakfast of eggs, fresh regional fruit with granola, and whole grain pancakes was prepared in a traditional tiled decorated kitchen as we watched from our table.
At El Apapacho, an unassuming out-of-the-way spot (but very highly rated on TripAdvisor), the three of us each ordered delicious specialty coffee drinks, a large carafe of melon water, our own huge, magnificent breakfast entrees and two sides of the best mole we’ve ever tasted— all for $18.
Asking locals for suggestions is also a fun way to experience the food in Mérida and front desk staff at our hotel were always willing to tell us their favorites.
Other nearby places to visit or for a day trip
The Mayan ruins of Uxmal
Mérida is the perfect hub from which to visit a number of sites in the Yucatán. The Maya ruins are probably the number one excursion, but also consider these:
• Haciendas “The former sisal plantations were practically castles and each owner was like a feudal lord, complete with Mayan servants and even slaves,” says Ralf Hollmann. “While the tourism brochures gush about the ‘glorious past’ of these places, they were not particularly glorious if you were Mayan,” says Hollmann. “Many are now luxury hotels, spas, social event venues and even private residences.”
• Cenotes Dotting the Yucatán Peninsula are these magical freshwater sinkholes. The Maya view cenotesas the gateway to the underworld and many traditional rituals are still performed in them. Crystal clear cenotesalso offer a cool and refreshing escape from the heat of the day and a stop to a cenoteshouldn’t be missed.
“There are thousands under our feet here in the Yucatan and you can visit some of the prettiest ones in the area around Cuzama and Homun, where there are dozens now open to the public,” says Hollmann, who has lived in Yucatán for 30 years now. “There is nothing like swimming in a cenote.”
You’ll find plenty of guides online or scout out a guided tour.
• Progreso This port city about 25 minutes northeast of Mérida is a cruise ship destination and the seaside getaway for residents of Mérida. For a day at the beach, Progreso is an easy bus ride that costs only a few dollars for transportation.
• Celestún Sixty miles west of Mérida lies this fishing village with gorgeous beaches and throngs of flamingos as well as countless other bird species. One of North America’s largest flocks of flamingos live here, moving between Celestún and Ria Lagartos, says Hollmann. “There is also a long stretch of beach with lots of shells to explore. If you only have time for a day trip, the round-trip can be done in one day; however, it is highly recommended to spend a few nights in this peaceful, beautiful part of Yucatán.”
For an overnight experience, there are several hotels in the area, and several seafood restaurants, according to Yucatán Today.
• Some helpful websites:
Traveling to Mérida isn’t as quick and easy as Cancún. I found the cheapest flights for our trip were from Central Wisconsin Airport rather than driving to Minneapolis, Chicago or Milwaukee. I opted for the route of CWA to Detroit, then Mexico City to Mérida on Delta and its partner Aeromexico.
Our first leg started a little after noon from CWA, and we arrived in Mérida a little after midnight. Taxi service is available right outside the front doors of the airport and we purchased a $10 fare for a 20-minute ride to our hotel.
The airport in Mexico City is notoriously inefficient and confusing. When making connections there, you don’t know which gate you’ll leave from until about 40 minutes prior to departure. Having some grasp of Spanish helps, but bilingual staff are on hand to assist travelers. Knowing beforehand that it can be a bit chaotic will help avoid a traveler meltdown.
There are other flight options and routes. I had looked at arriving the day prior into Detroit or other large hubs and then leaving earlier the next morning, but the cost of a hotel and the huge hassle of going through TSA in a major airport was unappealing.
There are flights that do go straight into Mérida — thus avoiding Mexico City airport—from Houston, Miami or Atlanta. Price fluctuates greatly. Our package was unbelievably economical, but checking a stay a few weeks later, the cost shot up to over $1,200 per person for the exact same trip.
I also had researched the option of landing at Cancún’s airport (a four-hour flight from Minneapolis) and taking a short flight from Cancún to Mérida. That greatly reduces flight time, but at a substantial cost. There’s also the option of flying into Cancún and taking a four-hour bus ride to Mérida, catching a bus either at the airport terminal or from the downtown hub.
Currently, the Mexican government is working on a project called the Mayan Train, which will take travelers by rail from Cancún south to Tulum as well as a route to Mérida.
A note on safety
Residents and tourists alike get in costume for Mérida’s annual Festival of Spirits
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how safe Mexico is for travelers. I got a lot of questions and comments from people wondering why I would even think about going to Mexico with all the headlines of violence that have peppered the news lately.
I’ve always felt comfortable in Mexico. It helps that I lived there and speak the language fluently. But to be cautious, before we went I did ask friends who live there about how safe they think Mérida really is. All emphatically said that same thing, “Very safe!”
Taxi drivers I spoke to in Mérida echoed that sentiment. Prior to the trip I also kept up with the local news and never read anything even remotely alarming. I also perused online travel boards and the common theme on safety was, “…the most dangerous thing in Mérida is tripping on the sidewalks.” I actually did stumble a few times — the sidewalks can be unexpectedly uneven. At night, I did some shopping and walking around by myself and never once felt ill at ease.
Of course there’s no such thing as zero crime in any large city, and common sense must always prevail. I take precautions and am aware of my surroundings when going anywhere, be it Mérida, Cozumel, Chicago, Minocqua or New York City.
A quick check on the United States Department of State’s website on travel to Mexico (as of press time) the state of Yucatán is listed as Level 2 precaution: “Exercise increased caution due to crime. There are no restrictions on travel for U.S. government employees in Yucatán state, which includes tourist areas in: Chichen Itza, Mérida, Uxmal, and Valladolid.”