Merida is the capital of the state of Yucatan (Mexico), and dubs itself “the cultural capital”. I have also heard it called “the white city”. I arrived there on January 15 with rather high expectations. I figured there would be a lot to see and do, so I booked myself a room on AirBnB for a whole week.

The house and the neighbourhood

My AirBnB room was a nice surprise: big room, big private bathroom, and common spaces consisting of a large kitchen, dining room, and living room, plus access to a washing machine and rooftop patio. All this for only $208 CAD for the whole week, including cleaning fees and AirBnB fees.

There were three other rooms being rented in the house, so I got to meet other guests too. The only negative was that it took 15-20 minutes to walk to the main plaza and central streets.

Given the nice kitchen, I was able to do a little self-catering and limit myself to one restaurant meal a day. Mexico’s restaurants are not as cheap as, say, Thailand’s, so the costs do add up. Groceries are very cheap though if you stick to local products. Here are some examples (prices in Canadian dollars):

  • one avocado: less than 40 cents
  • 2 medium bananas: 40 cents
  • cookies (180 grams): less than $1
  • dry pasta (200 grams): 40 cents
  • 1 litre of low-fat milk: $1.16
  • a can of beer (355ml): about $1

Cereals were more costly (not a typical breakfast here so they’re imported) but still about half the Canadian price. Activia yoghurt was also about half the price.

The “centro” (downtown)

On my first afternoon, I eagerly made my way to Plaza Grande, the main square, surrounded by the usual suspects: cathedral, municipal palace, and some of the most impressive colonial buildings in the city.

After breathing the fumes of passing buses and lots of cars (rush hour?) I finally laid eyes on the plaza and well, it wasn’t anything special. Sure, it was a large plaza, but not especially beautiful. Its centre was occupied by a big circular concrete platform with a flag in the middle, instead of a gazebo, or fancy fountain.

More puzzling though, was the lack of the white buildings in this “white city”. The government palace was painted green, and the municipal building was pink. My host later told me that the “white” qualifier refers to the colour of the limestone that the city sits on, rather than the colour of the buildings.

I do like colourful buildings though, and the ones around the plaza were nicely renovated. But after just a couple of blocks in any direction, the facades started showing signs of wear. By the time I got to my neighbourhood, the streets were just ugly, with broken sidewalks. Early in the morning, there was often garbage floating around, and possibly a drunk lying on the curb.

The sights

I joined a free walking tour offered by the Municipal Tourist Office on my first morning. The tour started at 9:30 am, lasted an hour and a half, and covered the history of the area while we walked around the main plaza buildings, peaking into some of them. We learned that the cathedral, along with a few other buildings, were constructed from the stones of earlier Mayan temples, a current practice by the Spanish in the 16th century. Once again the cathedral was strangely unadorned, but the Government Palace showcased beautiful murals on two levels plus a European-style gallery with view over the square. Our guide was very good, even though he provided more information in Spanish than in the English translation.

Besides a few other churches (that always seemed close except for mass), the sights revolved around a few small (and free) museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the Paseo de Montejo. The latter is a  divided boulevard (in the Champs-Elysées style) which runs for ten blocks and is shaded with trees and lined with mansions built in the late 19th century for rich families who made their fortune in the sisal business. Because the sidewalks themselves were wide and clean, and the traffic didn’t have to inch past you, walking down this boulevard was actually pleasant.

One of the nicest mansions along here is home to the Museum of Anthropology which only charges a few dollars, so I paid it a visit. I’m not a big museum person, but those spaces are usually air-conditioned so they provide a nice respite from the ferocious sun.

If unlike me you’re a museum aficionado and are interested in Mayan culture, you’ll probably want to visit the new Museo del Mundo Maya (opened 2012) even if it means taking a taxi or a camión (speeding mini-bus) to travel 12 kilometres north of downtown.

Sunday is a nice day to walk around as parts of the main street (Calle 60) and Paseo de Montejo are closed to traffic and taken over by families on bicycles.

The culture

Merida has cultural events pretty much every day, and many of them are free. However many of the performances take place downtown in the evenings. By the time I got back to the house in the late afternoon, I was usually too tired to go back out again and walk twelve long blocks back to the centre.

I did catch some traditional dancing on the Sunday afternoon though. I also planned ahead for an event on the Tuesday night, since it was in my neighbourhood, but it turned out to be pretty awful: a loud discordant brass band with couples slow dancing in front of the stage. Oh well.

Visit to Uxmal

On the Monday (January 19) I went on a day trip to Uxmal (a Puuc Maya archeological site) organized through Nomadas Hostel. It was a little pricey at 475 pesos but the cost included transport (Uxmal is 80 kilometres from Merida), English-speaking guide, lunch in a restaurant, and visit to a minor Mayan site called Kabah. At the hostel I met a young German couple, Carla and Andre, and mostly hung out with them.

On the way we also drove alongside Merida’s Cemetary, an entire “village” of tightly packed tombstones and monuments.

I must say that I liked Uxmal even more than Chichen Itza. Having a guide definitely helped, but other factors were the amount of intricate reliefs and sculptures on the temples, being able to climb on some of the structures, as well as a smaller number of tourists and virtually no handicraft vendors!

Kabah was also interesting but by then I was so hot and hungry that I didn’t pay too much attention.

Yucatecan food

I have mentioned before that I wasn’t overly impress with Yucatecan food. Unfortunately, Merida didn’t dispel this impression. The best meal I had was “chile en nogada” (stuffed poblano pepper in a nut cream sauce) and that is not a Yucatecan dish.

My theory is that the lack of fruits and vegetables in local dishes stems from the fact that, except for a small region near Uxmal, the Yucatan doesn’t have cultivable land. The soil consists of a thin layer of earth on top of a limestone shelf. (This is why, incidentally, the Mayas were able to find all the rock they needed to build their temples, even though the Yucatan peninsula has no mountains.)

Although the food is nothing to write home about, refreshing drinks called aguas frescas are ubiquitous on restaurant menus. They consist of water (and possibly ice) with the juice or flavour of a spice, flower, fruit or veggie. They have names such as horchata (cinammon), jamaica (hibiscus flower), and chaya (a green leafy vegetable) in addition to the more common orange, lemon and pineapple. My favourite Yucatecan food was probably panuchos: fried tortillas spread with refried beans and piled with shredded chicken, lettuce, red onions, tomatoes and avocadoes (shown on my Facebook page).

Here are a few restaurants and foods that I enjoyed:

Cafe Chocolate: good cappuccinos, paninis (I had chicken caesar), sandwiches, and crepes. (60th street and 59th)

El Trapiche: On weekdays, they have set meals including soup (very good), main course (OK) and drink for only 50 pesos. (On 62th street, one block north of the main square)

La Chaya Maya: Nice restaurant in a courtyard offering local specialties.

La Casa de Frida: Yucatecan and more standard Mexican fare. This is where I had the chile en nogada. It was 160 pesos which is more than I normally spend on a dish in Mexico, but it was well worth it. (Calle 61 between 66th and 68th)

I think Merida could do better if it revamped more of its colonial centre and created more pedestrian spaces. And please, put something nice in the middle of that big plaza! On the positive side, this has been my cheapest city stay and most spacious accommodation so far.

Yes, I’m still behind by about a week. Next destination: Campeche. Hang on to your hats! (Don’t have a hat? You could buy a Tilley and look like me. And no I don’t work for them. I only wish!)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email