Merida in Mexico

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.
Accommodation

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.

Yucatan

The three states that comprise the Yucatán Peninsula – Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo – are among the hottest and most tropical parts of Mexico, though they lie further north than you might imagine: the capital of Yucatán state, Mérida, is actually at a higher latitude than Mexico City.

Until the 1960s, when proper road and rail links were finally completed, the Yucatán lived out of step with the rest of the country and had almost as much contact with Europe, Cuba and the US as with central Mexico, resulting in a very distinct culture. Tourism has since made major inroads, especially in the north around the great Maya sites, such as Chichén Itzá, and on the Quintana Roo coast, where development has centred on the “superresort” of Cancún and the islands of Mujeres and Cozumel, but is now shifting to the so-called Riviera Maya, the stretch of beachfront that includes Playa del Carmen and Tulum. But away from the big centres, especially in the south, where towns are sparsely scattered in thick jungle, there’s still a distinct pioneering feel. In northern Yucatán state, the landscape is relatively spare: shallow, rocky earth gives rise to stunted trees, and underground springs known as cenotes are the only source of water. Campeche state, by contrast, boasts a huge area of tropical forest, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve – though the trees are being thinned in places for cattle ranching and timber.
The entire peninsular coastline is great for spotting wildlife – notably turtles at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo and flocks of flamingoes at Celestún and Río Lagartos in Yucatán – but the most spectacular, white-sand beaches line the Caribbean coast, where magnificent offshore coral reefs form part of the second largest barrier reef system in the world.

Yucatan beaches

The Yucatan is full of beaches.

Caught between the relentless beat of progress and the echoing shouts of tradition, the Yucatán Peninsula stands at a crossroads. On one side you have the brawny mega-resorts like Cancún and Playa del Carmen with their oft-preposterous pomp and circumstance.
On the other are the proud, steadfast traditions of the Maya, the mystery of the ceremonial centers created by their ancestors, and the Old World allure of colonial masterpieces such as Mérida and Campeche. And in between, on every peroxide­-blonde beach and every patch of jungle still echoing with the roars of howler monkeys, beats the heart of Ixchel, the earth goddess, marveling at her remarkable creation.
Despite overzealous development, the natural beauty of the Yucatán abides, and with it, the reverberations of civilizations past. Set in a vast, jungle-swathed natural reserve, the pyramids of Calakmul are a prime example of nature and ancient history in perfect harmony.
Far more famous and crowded – but absolutely unmissable nonetheless – are the ruins of wondrous Chichén Itzá, seventh modern wonder of the world. There’s a Maya ruin near Xcalak, too, although that’s probably not the reason you’d be visiting – this tiny beach town in the middle of nowhere has another attraction: its absolute isolation from the tourist trail…

Cancun

If nothing else, Cancún is proof of Mexico’s remarkable ability to get things done in a hurry – so long as the political will exists. In the late 1960s, the Mexican government decided to develop a new resort area to diversify the economy. Computers crunched weather data, and surveyors scouted the country’s natural attractions to identify a 25-kilometre-long barrier island just off the about cancunnorthern Caribbean coast as the ideal combination of beautiful beaches, sparse population and accessible position.

Construction of the resort paradise began in 1970, and when the first hotel opened in 1974, it relied on a generator for electricity and trucked-in water. In the twenty-first century, Cancún has struggled to shed its reputation for tacky fun, and it has also successfully courted Mexican tourists. But it is facing a mild crisis as seasonal storms in recent years have significantly eroded parts of the beach, the city’s literal raison d’être. Independent travellers often find the glitz of the hotel strip off-putting and the beachfront pleasures expensive, and, for anyone who has been out in the rest of the Yucatán or is eager to get there, all the concrete can be a downer. But a night spent here on the way in or out doesn’t have to be wasted, so long as you appreciate the city as an energetic, successful frontier experiment, rather than lament its lack of history.

A closer look reveals lively salsa clubs, bare-bones beach bars and inexpensive taco stands, all frequented by cancunenses who are friendly and proud of their city’s prosperity.

Cancún has two parts: the zona comercial on the mainland (also called the centro or downtown), which has developed a bit of soul in its short lifetime, and the zona hotelera, a narrow, 25-kilometre-long barrier island lined with hotels and tourist amenities. It encloses a huge lagoon, so there’s water on both sides. Paseo Kukulcán runs the length of the hotel zone, from the airport up to Punta Cancún (where the road splits around the convention centre and a warren of nightclubs and bars) and back onto the mainland. From Punta Cancún it’s a half-hour bus ride to Avenida Tulum, the main avenue in the downtown area that runs north–south and eventually turns into Hwy-307, the highway that follows the length of the Caribbean coast.

The superb location of Cancún, its year-round mild climate, and its gorgeous, warm, sandy white beaches washed by the Caribbean Sea are ideal for water sports.

The waters of the bay sheltered by Isla Mujeres are calm and perfect for surfing, sailing, underwater diving and boat trips; those facing the open surf have stronger currents but are also suitable for fishing and snorkeling.

Cancun has a first rate tourist infrastructure and services. The most famous hotel chains in the world have combined luxury and comfort with hospitality and all of them offer access to tennis courts and relaxing spas.

Nightlife in Cancun’s hotel zone is extremely varied. You will find some of the largest discotheques in the world and restaurants with some of the world’s most famous chefs as well as fast-food outlets. If you are looking for a calmer atmosphere, there are jazz or piano bars, as well as those with traditional mariachi music.

The numerous marinas facilitate all kinds of aquatic activities in both the bay and Laguna Nichupte where we recommend you try kayaking.

Cancun has fascinating Mayan remains, as well as a museum displaying pieces from this culture. Its excellent overland and air links will whisk you to some of the most impressive places in the Mayan World in both Quintana Roo and neighboring state of Yucatan.

However, Cancun also has plazas and malls carrying everything from handicrafts from all over the country to an impressive array of imported goods.

The city and beaches:

There’s little in the way of sights in downtown Cancún, though it is a pleasant place to stroll in the evenings, particularly around the central Parque de las Palapas, which is ringed with food stalls and often serves as a venue for live music; smaller parks in the neighbourhood host craft or art shows. For a sense of the city’s hum away from the tourist trade, head for Mercado 23, north of the bus station off Avenida Tulum at Calle Cedro.

The market is a small maze of stalls with the flavour of a village market, complete with butchers, herbalists and vegetable sellers. The bigger Mercado 28, west from the park on Avenida Sunyaxchén, was formerly the city’s main general market, but now stocks primarily tourist tat; it’s good for food stalls, though. Most visitors head straight for the zona hotelera and the beaches. The public ones on the north coast of the zona hotelera – playas Las Perlas, Langosta and Tortugas are the nicest – face a bay, so the water is calm and very good for swimming; they can be crowded, however, and all have loud bars nearby.

On the east coast, playas Ballenas, Delfines and others have more surf and occasionally dangerous currents; between beach erosion and condo construction, some have become quite narrow, but Delfines is by far the most scenic. All are free, but you may have to pay a small charge for a shower.

You can see a small Maya ruin at El Rey, at Paseo Kukulcán km 18, overlooking the Nichupté Lagoon. They’re the largest Maya remains in Cancún, but that’s not saying a lot. There’s very little information available to explain them, but the area is peaceful and good for spotting birds and iguanas. The best snorkelling in Cancún is at Punta Nizuc, at the far southern point of the peninsula. Its coral has been damaged by unchecked crowds, but the array of fish is impressive. When you visit by boat, a national-park fee is charged. The typical outing is the so-called jungle tour, which entails riding two-passenger speedboats through lagoon mangroves, then out to the reef.

Eating and drinking

In downtown Cancún, the most popular eating-places line Tulum and its side streets. For budget food, follow the locals for lunch at the downtown markets: Mercado 28 and Mercado 23. At night, excellent food stalls at Parque de las Palapas serve open-face huaraches and quesadillas with an array of toppings; they’re open until about 11pm. Almost all of the restaurants in the zona hotelera are geared towards one thing only: parting tourists from their money. But the few recommended here are solidly delicious. If you’re staying on the beach, you’re often better off taking a cab or bus downtown, where you’ll find more satisfying food at reasonable prices, plus a congenial mix of people.
Entertainment and nightlife

As Cancún’s goal is to encourage some two million visitors a year to have fun, the zona hotelera’s array of huge dance clubs, theme bars and top-volume everything (most clustered around Punta Cancún and rolling from about 10pm till the wee hours) is lavish – or remorseless, depending on your mood. Downtown, people often dance on weekend evenings at the Parque de las Palapas to traditional Mexican music, and the stretch of Avenida Yaxchilán north of Sunyaxchén is a popular local hangout, with terrace restaurant-bars and karaoke open till 3am or 4am, all punctuated by roving trovadores.
Accommodation

Cancún has a dizzying number of hotels, but most are very expensive for the casual visitor. Downtown, on or near Avenida Tulum, holds the only hope of a true budget room; in the zona hotelera, you can stay on the lagoon side for less than in the glittering beachfront palaces – but last-minute or low-season online deals can be impressive. All-inclusive resorts are on the wane – if you do book one, don’t skimp, as the cheapest places are all very old constructions, and usually cut corners on food. Hostels are numerous, though generally poor quality, and some have quite short lifespans. The most reliable hotels for Cancún are listed here.