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A Pocket Guide To Mérida, Mexico

If you’re a seasoned traveller and want to stretch your wings and experience something outside of Cancun’s party-reputed Caribbean coastline, Yucatán’s capital, Mérida is a great big city with lots of different neighbourhoods and a big dollop of Mayan culture.

An international airport brings tourists and adventurers from all over the world to enjoy the city’s colonial ambiance, ancient ruins, and tropical climate, and you can expect a real taste of exotic Mexico – from the flavoursome food to tequila cocktails and the intricate skull motifs that represent el Día de los Muertos – whilst here.

Rich in history and romantic mystique, Mérida is a perfect base from which to visit the area’s many archaeological sites, ecological parks, authentic villages, beaches, and cenotes. The centre of the city is a fusion of impeccably maintained colonial townhouses, galleries, street stalls, and upmarket shops which give it a hipster, European vibe. If your holiday isn’t complete without a beach, the white sands of Progresso are just a thirty minute Uber ride away.


DAY ONE

WHAT TO DO

You’ll need to visit at least one of the Mayan ruins that define the Yucatán region. Either hire a car or join a group trip to the most famous archaeological site, Chichen Itza, or beat the crowds and travel a little bit further to the less frequented historical landmarks at Uxmal, Ek Balam, or the Cobá Ruins. The country has been home to dozens of indigenous tribes over the centuries, but the Maya civilisation built hundreds of impressive cities along an intricate network of roads, and ruled the region for hundreds of years. Most of their cities were abandoned by the year 900, but what they left behind were remarkable clues to uncovering the details about their history.

Chichen Itza is arguably Mexico’s most famous Mayan ruin, not least because it is the most well-restored; its image is one of Mexico’s most recognised and it is one of the “new seven wonders of the world,” so try to plan your trip to the site early to beat the crowds.

It’s worth getting a guide to enlighten you to all the preserved artefacts in arguably the largest city in the Mayan world. One of the highlights is the El Castillo, a mathematically and scientifically designed pyramid that is the best manifestation of the Mayans understanding of astronomy. There are 365 steps (one for each day of the year), and twice a year on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow appears on the pyramid that takes the shape of a serpent – a tribute to the most important Mayan god, Kukulcan, a feathered serpent.

You can easily spend several hours soaking up history, but sooner or later you’ll need to cool down; lucky Yucatan boasts more than 6,000 freshwater cenotes, which consist of sinkholes and caves that are not only beautiful, but refreshing, if you fancy a dip. They also represent a sacred place and have a connection with Xibalbá – the spirit world. The larger the opening, the more established the cenote, but closed sinkholes are being discovered every few years. Luckily, Mérida has access to all kinds of pools and some are family friendly and have restaurants and first-class facilities, whilst others are more off the beaten track and are perfect for adventurers.

The Cenotes Hacienda Mucuyché is located in the municipality of Abalá and offers two magical cenotes: Carlota and Azul Maya. This is a perfect blend of nature and architecture, as the pools are connected by a channel which you can cross either on foot, or by swimming or snorkelling. You can also take a tour of the restored Hacienda and stop for refreshments.

Whilst the Cenote Dzom Bacal is south of Mérida in San Antonio Mulix, in the municipality of Umán, and is a popular choice due to its proximity to the city; many head here just to cool off from the heat.


WHERE TO EAT

Back in Mérida, the food also takes on a Mayan influence. Of course you’ll still be able to find the ubiquitous tacos, but here local dishes such as panuchos, salbutes, sopa de lima, and cochinita pibil take priority. Street food is a huge part of culture, but you can also enjoy Michelin-quality dining. Turkey is a popular meat here, as is pastor (pork on a spit like shawarma). Tortillas are made from corn rather than flour, and don’t expect salsa sauce at the table – it will be haberno sauce (spicy) or a green tomato sauce or pico de gallo. When it comes to seafood, it’s all about the ceviche.

Micaela Mar Y Lena is a seafood restaurant in Centro. You can order family style and get a whole fish or shrimp by the kilo. With the family platters, you get three sides (which are pretty small), but you may want to order a starter too if you’re more than three people and are hungry.


WHERE TO STAY

Head back to the adults-only Hotel Boutique La Mision De Fray Diego for a nightcap, and enjoy the cosy atmosphere around the rooftop pool. A XVII-century home transformed into an intimate hotel, Hotel Boutique La Mision De Fray Diego is only one block from the city’s historic centre and commercial zone.


DAY TWO

WHAT TO DO

Before you can think about exploring the city, you really need to see how the landowners of the past made their millions. Head out to one of the impressive plantations, or haciendas, that made the region rich during the colonial period to get up to speed.

The stunning Hacienda Mucuyché is a beautiful structure which is where the founders of Mexico’s “green gold” once lived. You will get an understanding of this period of time when Mexico was inhabited by the Spanish, and how big money was being made from extracting the threads from cactus. Take a tour of the historic property and gain an understanding of the origins of algae and how sisal was stripped and imported.

You’ll need to make a booking to visit, but that’s just to make sure there are no bottlenecks whilst swimming in the Mucuyché’s cenotes. Lifejackets are necessary so you can enjoy a guided swim/float starting with Cenote Carlota – which is named after the last empress of Mexico (Carlota) when she visited the Yucatan in 1865. You’ll then enter a small man-made canal which is pitch black and draped in vines, so the guide is essential, but it soon opens out to a giant auditorium-like cenote which is truly magical, and you can spend thirty minutes exploring the natural wonders and harmonics.

There’s also a restaurant and pool onsite for relaxation after your adventure, and then return to Mérida for your evening adventure – which I suggest should be a Mike & Duck Walking Tour, which takes in the cities most famous landmarks including the cathedral, Hidalgo Park, and the Santa Lucia Church. Learn about the city’s rich Mayan and colonial history as well as the importance of cenotes and Mayan mythology, with a friendly English-speaking guide.


WHERE TO EAT

You’ll be in the ideal location to enjoy dinner at Mercado 60 which is close to St. Lucia Square. Enjoy a choice of street food in a lively environment which often has live music or DJs and rub shoulders with the hipster locals who eat here too.


WHERE TO STAY

After a day exploring, relax at the Hacienda Xcanatun by Angsana, a converted 18th-century hacienda close to the centre of  town. It has been transformed into a small luxury hotel with outdoor swimming pool and spa, and fuses modern amenities with original features for a luxury stay.


DAY THREE

WHAT TO DO

It’s time to explore the city on your own. Whether you are intrigued by history or can’t get enough contemporary art, there are enough galleries and museums to keep even the most curious visitor occupied.

You can’t come to Mérida without seeing the grand Paseo de Montejo. This wide avenue built in Mérida’s heyday conjures images of Paris’ Champs-Élysées and is a great place for a morning stroll. Next, head to SoHo Galleries, a contemporary art gallery and cultural centre in the heart of the city. Owner Adele Aguirre, originally from New York City, has always had a passion for art; exhibitions change regularly.

Centro Cultural La Cúpula is situated in a historical building in the heart of Centro close to Paseo de Montejo. You can see artists from around the world showcasing everything from sculpture to painting to music, dance, literature, and film. Promoting artists that push the envelope of high culture and innovative ideas.

Fundación de Artistas is a non-profit organisation that supports the development of arts in Yucatán, Mexico. See some exciting contemporary art and explore the stunning colonial house in which it is displayed. Dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, the house has barely been renovated, apart from being made safe. The historical backdrop juxtaposes the modern art beautifully, making for an even more dramatic viewing experience.

If you’ve had enough of the modern world, pay a visit to the Mayan World Museum – a vast museum which celebrates the Mayan civilisation. With over 1,000 different artefacts, it is sure to satisfy anyone with an interest in learning about natural history from the beginning of time to the life of the modern Maya today.

You’ll find all the attractions in the Centro area. At some point while you’re sightseeing, you’re likely to feel peckish. You’ll notice that most locals are eating traditional Méridian ice cream, which comes in a spectrum of flavours spanning black beans to mango and kiwi; visit the Pola Gelato Shop – they will let you try before you buy. Marquesitas are another popular street food, which consist of a toasted crepe filled with Edam cheese and Nutella – if that doesn’t tickle you, there are other options available.


WHERE TO EAT

After a day pounding the pavements, treat yourself to some fancy Yucatán fare at Nectar and finish your night with a cocktail or local beer at Malahat – so underground, it doesn’t have a website. This is a hidden speakeasy behind the Apoala restaurant in Santa Lucia square. If you want to go somewhere later at night, this is a cool spot and something a little different. You’ll have to ask a waiter at Apoala where the entrance is.


WHERE TO STAY

Unknown Hotel is a new boutique hotel which fuses personal service with beautiful rooms which incorporate the natural surroundings. There’s also a restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, bar, and garden.


DAY FOUR

WHAT TO DO

Mérida has easy access to numerous beaches and you have several options for a day trip to the coast. Puerto Progreso is the closest beach to Mérida and is about a 30-45 minutes drive. There is plenty of parking along the long promenade or it’s very reasonable to catch an Uber. Progreso is the most developed of all Mérida and Yucatán beach towns; it is also popular with windsurfers, kitesurfers, and kiteboarders as it gets quite windy. The sand is white and the water is clear, and there are beach bars serving freshly made snacks, as well as loungers and umbrellas to rent, but you can just set up camp with a towel. Head towards the pier end and it will be busier with cruise guests, but it’s here that you can also get a relaxing massage under a canopy on the beach. If you drive, Galeria Casa Colon is well worth a visit on the way back. Owner Carlos Jorge Macari is an accomplished painter and has just opened his latest gallery – a large pink building with an eye-catching yellow giraffe sculpture by Mexican artist Carmen Arvizu out front.


WHERE TO EAT

Pancho’s doesn’t have a website, but can be found one block north of Plaza Grande. This quaint little cantina packs a big punch in the authentic food stakes. You eat in the large courtyard which is decorated with Pancho Villa and Freda Kahlo themes, and whilst the vibe can be romantic or rowdy, the food is consistently delicious.


WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Zamna is an authentic colonial hotel with plenty of original features and Mexican art. It is set back from the road amongst tropical gardens which also house the pool, and is 1km from Mérida Cathedral.


DAY FIVE

WHAT TO DO

There are many magical beaches around Mérida but you will need transport, so on your last day take a full-day trip to the beautiful, secluded beaches of Celestun. Along with the miles of white sand and transparent sea, you can eat freshly caught seafood at the local restaurants right on the sand. It’s also the destination of the Celestun Biosphere Reserve which is an eco reserve bordered by a mangrove forest, which provides food and shelter for shrimp and blue crab larvae. More than 400 species have been identified here; winter is when migrants abound and the number of pink flamingos peak.


WHERE TO EAT

Push the boat out on your last night and head to Yucatán’s most renowned restaurant, Kuuk. Fusing traditional Yucatec cooking with a high-end gastronomic experience, its all about the tasting menu. Expect to try soursop with sea snail and pibil rabbit with mezcal – a combination that sounds wrong, but works. It’s a world away from Mexican street food, and will round up your culinary experience with a flourish.


WHERE TO STAY

Enjoy your last night in an elegant suite at the Diplomat Hotel. With a pool and complimentary breakfast, you’re only 6km away from Mérida International Airport.

*DISCLAIMER: Travel restrictions are changing daily, so please check the latest government advice before you book anything. Visit Gov.uk for more information.

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