You may have visited Mexico but when you come to Merida, Yucatan, you’ll be transported to another world. Merida, as the capital of the state of Yucatan, is a city with a rich Mayan heritage. The 1.6-million-person city was founded in 1542 by the Spanish conquistador, Francisco de Montejo. The city itself was built on the site of the ancient Mayan city of Tho. While Spanish is spoken here, you’ll also find yourself interacting with modern Mayans and hear their language.
Yes, you’re still in Mexico but a large percentage of the population is of Mayan descent. Originally a walled city that was designed to protect citizens from Mayans in rebellion on the outside, Merida has grown to be a vibrant metropolis. While completely captivating in its own right, Merida is also well situated for great day trips. Several beaches are close by, but the best experience is to swim in the many cenotes in and surrounding the city. With children not long removed from their swimming lessons, the open-air cenotes are best, while snorkelers will prefer the more cave-like dives.
Merida is also a trading city, with one of its biggest commodities being henequen, a fibrous material similar to sisal. This material, useful in the maritime trade, put Merida on the world map, and by the early twentieth century, significant partnerships had developed around the world, creating a record-setting number of local millionaires for any city. Evidence of this is still seen in many of the foodways that focus on Gouda cheese and other products from the Netherlands.
Paseo de Montejo
Evidence of the wealth created in the city can be seen on the boulevard, Paseo de Montejo. This wide avenue is lined with stately mansions from the past eras. The street is also home to many cafes, coffee shops and restaurants. It’s a lovely place to walk. If you are there on a Sunday, the streets are closed off for people to cycle, walk and simply enjoy the trees and architecture. While there are many beautiful examples of classic architecture, the Twin Houses – “Las Casas Gemelas” – captivate many visitors. These almost identical Spanish/French style mansions are still privately owned – for now.
No visit to the Yucatan is complete without a visit to one of the historic cantinas. Businesses like El Cardenal (the oldest in the city), La Negrita or Dzalbuy are a place to get a beer or cocktail and a snack. To be clear, cantinas are not necessarily bars. They are a place to meet up with friends and listen to some music. While these were once only the providence of men, everyone is now welcome. You can identify a cantina by its swinging doors.
Food, Glorious Food
Yes, you may be in Mexico but your conception of Mexican food does not apply in the Yucatan! Yes, you can have tacos but they will be cochanita or poc chuk. These are dishes that are born out of the Mayan tradition. Cochanita is a slow roasted pork that is covered with red achiote and spices then buried underground in a pit until it’s pull-apart tender. Pok chuk is a slow-roasted pork in sour orange juice and spices. Many enjoy starting the morning with huevos motuleños which combines eggs on tortillas with ingredients like ham, green peas and salsa. The food may be unfamiliar at first, but you will find many dishes that you fall deeply in love with.
Arts and Culture
Merida is a vibrant city that is focused on arts and culture. During a simple walk down the street, you will hear a wide variety of musical styles. It may be someone playing classical music on a baby grand piano or traditional Mexican musical styles. Twice a year, the city celebrates all things cultural with the Noche Blanca festival. During these events, the arts come out onto the streets. As you walk through Centro, the center of the city, you’ll see impromptu plays, singers and magicians, and people painting. Many concerts are also held for the public.
In the center of Merida, Plaza Grande serves as the focal point of the city. Visit the historic Catedral de San Ildefonso that was constructed in 1561. On weekend evenings, the story of Merida is told through a light show that is projected against the building. Also on weekends, the plaza is filled with many vendors selling handcrafts that they have brought from their towns near the city. And during one day, one of the plaza’s streets is blocked off for the big performance. There are classic dancers, comedians and lots of singing. Visitors are also able to view a reenactment of the Mayan ball game, Pok-ta-pok. Men wearing traditional Mayan dress play with a heavy ball to get it through a hoop. Some say that back in the day, the winner was often sacrificed. While this may have been true, it’s not something that you will see today! When you visit any Mayan ruins in the area, most will have a ball-pit in the complex.
Mercados and Parques
Most neighborhoods are centered around a local church and mercado or marketplace. These are often accompanied with a parque. Shop in the mercado for fruit, vegetables and flowers – and you’ll also find economic eateries clustered around them. Then, stroll through the parque. These are places where many come to relax, meet friends and enjoy a coffee.
Many wonder when visiting Mexico how safe things really are. In Merida, you can be assured that you and your family will be safe, even when walking alone at night. The city has been named the second safest city in all of the Americas so don’t worry when walking home from dinner in the evening. You’ll also see a very high police presence wherever you go. If you have a question, there are policia turistica in the area. They speak English and use small electric vehicles. They can help you if you have a problem.
Merida is a very old city that welcomes everyone. Wander around. Eat everything and discover what this “other world” is all about. You’ll be surrounded by history and an ancient culture. It’s a very different part of Mexico – like another country.