Even if practically every road didn’t lead to Mérida, it would still be an inevitable stop. Nicknamed “La Ciudad Blanca” after its white limestone buildings (now covered in peeling layers of gem-coloured paint), the capital of Yucatán state is in every sense the leading city of the peninsula, with a population of some 1.6 million. But within its historic core, there’s a sense of small-town graciousness coupled with an extremely lively and sometimes avant-garde cultural scene.
Also known as “White City” because of the large use of white limestone and white paint this traditional city depicts much of the splendor of Colonial Mexico. This is by no means to say that Merida still exists in a time warp and the contrary could be said. There is old and new exhibited in everything from fashion to architecture.
The Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo founded present day Merida in 1542. An insight into the horrendous pain and suffering of the people who were brutalized by the conquering conquistadors exists in magnificent paintings that are on display in the Governor’s Palace located in downtown Merida. Left in seclusion for many years because of the difficulty of traveling to Merida the people of this region have cultivated a distinct contemporary society that is unique in Mexico.
Merida is a safe place to visit and the people are warm and friendly. Being such a close-knit society I took it to mean that violent acts of crime are simply not committed here that often because they are more or less one big family. It draws thousands of visitors, both Mexican and foreign, and has seen a rash of expat investment in the last decade. But even as the buzz increases, the city retains its grace and manners: every street in the centre boasts a well-maintained colonial church or museum, and locals still ride in little horse-drawn taxis, which gather by the plaza in the evenings. Not only can you live well here, but you can also find good beaches nearby, and it’s a great base for excursions to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
There is lots of traffic in Merida, especially downtown. Taking the local bus can be tricky if you do not speak Spanish. The majority of streets are one-way and the bus routes wind all over the place and if you are not on top of things you can end walking more than you expected. If you are in relatively good shape and don’t mind the heat (it’s hot in the summer) then you can walk to almost every attraction if you stay near the downtown main plaza. This is a great way to get to know the city and once you figure out the street numbering system, getting lost is unlikely.
The biggest problem you will encounter in Merida is finding a hotel with a swimming pool that fits into your budget. You may want to inquire if the pool is indeed in operation before you make your booking if you feel you need to have the use of a pool, especially in the summer months.
Merida is nothing like Cancun or Playa del Carmen and if you want to experience Mexican culture while staying relatively close to the Caribbean Sea then Merida is a great place to go. There are lots of interesting shops to browse in, if you seek some familiarity, the Merida WalMart is well stocked and also has a food-court.
Outstanding regional dishes and traditional music and dances local to this region can be found in restaurants, theatres and shops housed both near the main plaza and in palatial mansions along Paseo de Montejo – a boulevard fashioned after Paris’ Champs Elysée. Progreso, Merida’s port city, is 30 kilometers north and is an interesting area to visit to see the salt-flats and flamingos.
Being centrally located, Merida is a practical hub to explore numerous ruin sites and ecological wonders. Many charters fly into Merida or you can take a four-hour bus ride from Cancun. There are also two highways connecting Cancun and Merida plus many roads winding their way through the jungle from Tulum.
Eating and drinking
Good restaurants are plentiful in the centre of Mérida, though the best (and some of the least expensive) are open only for lunch. At dinner, many restaurants are a bit overpriced and cater largely to foreigners; locals tend to frequent the snack stalls on Plaza Santa Ana (Calle 60 at Calle 47) and Parque de Santiago (Calle 59 between calles 70 and 72) for panuchos, salbutes and sopa de lima.
There are also sidewalk cafés on the Parque Hidalgo, along Calle 60 between calles 61 and 59. Juice bars – notably Jugos California, on the southwest corner of the plaza – serve all the regular juices, as well as home-made root beer, and La Parroquia (Calle 62 between calles 65 and 67) is a lechería, serving cinnamon-laced chocolate milk, fruit plates and yogurt. The bakery Pan Montejo, at the corner of calles 62 and 63, also makes a good breakfast.
Although Mérida can get crowded at peak times, you should always be able to find a good, reasonably priced hotel room. Unless you have a very early bus to catch, there’s not much point in staying in the grimier area near the main bus stations, nor in the generic upmarket hotels along Paseo de Montejo; the far more desirable options are all within a few blocks of the central plaza – which is still just a long walk or a short cab ride from the furthest transport and sights. In addition to the usual hotels, Mérida has excellent B&Bs, smaller inns and even hostels, all housed in converted old homes complete with vintage tile floors and lofty ceilings.