A kind of aging decadence permeates the sultry streets of Mérida. Like many aging beauties that languish under weight of time and humidity, much of this Yucatecan city’s architecture is of another time, in some cases lovingly preserved and in others crumbling delightfully in front of your eyes. But don’t let the heat and history lull you into thinking that this town isn’t bubbling with new projects and youthful energy. Unlike places on the Yucatán peninsula like Tulúm or Cancún, Mérida is a real working city where locals and foreigners alike are investing time and money. If you thought that Mérida was just some southern backwater whose heyday was in the 19th century, think again.
The city can give off somewhat of a provincial feel at first. On weekday nights the residential streets around Mérida’s downtown are pretty sleepy and the high daytime temperatures are a great excuse to sit on one of the city’s lovely little plazas and while away a few hours. But on weekends there is a buzzy scene of food, drink and culture that finally has a local and visiting population that supports it. This is bringing both national and international tourists to a place that has otherwise gone under the radar for years.
Sara de Ruiter and Neil Haapamaki opened The Diplomat ten years ago as a luxurious little retreat for travelers by travelers. This 5-room boutique hotel sits just east of the city center near the Yucatecan food mecca which is the Santiago market. Early in the morning, you will see the line snaking through the market for La Lupita’s – a stand that sells “cochinita pibil” (roasted pork), “lechón” (suckling pig), and “recado negro” (black spice blend), three iconic Yucatecan dishes. Apparently, the Diplomat is a trendsetter because it’s rumored that luxury hotel group Chable is opening an in-town location of their hotel blocks away, set to open next year. If you want to stay closer to downtown, there are dozens of great options, including the Misión de Fray Diego, a relic of 1800s Mérida in all its glory.
These days most of the newest and hippest locales are located just outside of the city’s Centro Histórico, which for much of the city’s modern history has been the area visited by tourists. Now visitors are wandering further afield. Clustered around the Parque La Mejorada is Largarta de Oro, an old-school cantina turned hip bar and listening room; Vana, an all-Mexican wine bar inside a gorgeous 19th-century mansion; and Patio Petanca, an indoor/outdoor bar with bocce ball courts inside the crumbling skeleton of an ancient building whose door is trendily unmarked. During the day you can stop by Pancho Maíz for traditional Mexican “antojitos” (snacks) made with heritage corn from the peninsula. Next door a bee collective offers tastings of regional honey types including honey from the now-famous melipona stingless bees.
While upscale dining options Kuuk and Nectar are the steadfast executors of fine dining in this town, a lot of young chefs are facilitating a new wave of dining and reinventing the traditions of local cuisine. Alex Marcin started Cocina Ramiro in honor of his grandfather and focuses on the traditional dishes he grew up with in their finest presentation (the banana cake is a must). Mohit Bhojwani Buenfil, the chef of the restaurant El Remate has expanded to include a great pizza place, Pizza Neo, and a rooftop hangout, Terraza, where you will find one of the city’s best “aguachiles” and some of its more interesting cocktails. Salon Gallos is another great spot for cocktails with options like the “El Posh”, a frappé with pox liquor, “xtabentun” (an absinthe-like liquor made from honey), sweet lime and cilantro, in an old oat factory that has been converted into a restaurant and movie theater.
Eating and drinking your way through the city could take up all your time, but there are also lots of cultural spaces for breaks in between that should not be overlooked. Several great galleries grace Calle 60, including the Taller Maya, the Nahulli Gallery, and the Soho Gallery for contemporary art. Come during February for the MEL Artists’ Studio tour, when artists around the city open their studios to the public, or arrange a private art and design tour with Yesenia Lope any time of the year. Casa Tho on Paseo de Montejo is a boutique shop that features high-end items by Mexican designers and El Minaret has weekend bazaars that focus on local producers in a gorgeous turn-of-the-century home. Try the Nuup collective or Takto for unique home décor pieces – one of Takto’s founders, Angela Damman has her own separate project converting local henequen and sansevieria fibers into luxury textiles.
For museum-goers, La Casa Museo Montes de Molina will let you experience late-19th- to early 20th-century Mérida, but for contemporary and modern art try the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ateneo de Yucatán MACAY-Fernando García Ponce or the Centro Cultural La Cúpula. While the heat often keeps folks indoors, on Sundays, the city shuts down one of the lanes on Paseo de Montejo for cyclists and the local government offers a free historical walking tour to give you the lay of the land.
There are also endless options for day trips from Mérida including going to see the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá, as well as learning how to make cochinita pibil and having a local cenote all to yourself in the town of Yaxunah (home of the famous Amazonas women’s softball team). You can also take a gorgeous drive past ancient sisal haciendas on the way out to Isla Arena and pick up a handwoven hat along the way, or bask in the sun on the beaches of Sisal or Celestun – where you can gawk at the most famous local resident – the young American flamingos that feed there during the winter months.
While the city has always had a certain draw, it’s undeniable that right now its food and cultural scenes are abuzz with activity. For visitors who are tired of the internationalism of some of the nearby beach destinations, Mérida offers a great chance to get to know the Yucatecan culture and cuisine on a deeper level. All this and the city remains affordable and is a great base to explore the entire peninsula if you want to make it an extended stay.
Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator based out of Mexico City. She has been published widely both online and in print, writing about Mexico for over a decade. She lives a double life as a local tour guide and is the author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma. Follow her urban adventures on Instagram and see more of her work at www.mexicocitystreets.com.