If you’ve always had your sights set on the east coast of Mexico, don’t even think about missing out on visiting the Yucatán. Discovering Mérida, its capital city, in 2 days is possible, but no way near long enough. Still, my advice will hopefully help you make the most of your time there.
Discovering Mérida in 2 days
If travelling from Playa Del Carmen, you can take the ADO bus, or camion, as the Mexicans call it. Thankfully, the buses have air conditioning on board to give some comfort from the scorching temperatures. I’d spoken to many locals who told me that the temperature would be higher in the Yucatán capital — something I wasn’t exactly looking forward to.
‘If you don’t speak Spanish, you may experience a little difficulty in Yucatán.’
While I wasn’t looking forward to sweating even more, I was excited about experiencing first-hand the region’s rich cultural heritage.
After a 4-and-a-half-hour bus ride, I arrived in Mérida. It’s a far cry from the clinically clean and polished tourist towns of Playa Del Carmen and Cancun, and I fell in love immediately. The streets are dusty and noticeably smaller, but filled with crowds of people and market stalls. The architecture is colourful and considerably un-contemporary.
Mérida gives you a taste of the ‘real’ Mexico, and I couldn’t wait to discover more.
I chose to stay at an Airbnb than a hotel to get more of a local experience. My host in Mérida was a charming and free-spirited lady called Isabella. Her house in the Centro district of Mérida was exactly what I’d pictured a Mexican home to be: wide open spaces bursting with colour, locally-made crafts everywhere, and ceiling fans in every room. With her gorgeous dog Ruby wandering comfortably through the house, I felt immediately at home.
There’s a free magazine, Yucatán Today, that you can collect from the local tourist office in town. Dress in loose clothing, always carry a bottle of water and your abanico in hand, and discover historic Mérida for yourself.
Discovering Mérida – Starting the discovery
The most notable architectural feature of the town is the old Spanish stone gates that once separated the Spanish colonialists from the Mayan people. The landmarks provide a clue to the city’s rich historical background, as well as a reference point if you ever get lost. ‘Always follow the gates and you’ll get back to Calle 44’, Isabella advised.
The old cobbled streets lead to Plaza Grande, and along the way, you’ll notice a colourful array of Spanish-style buildings. Among the farmacias and mini supermercados are grand music schools, hotels and empty yet eye-catching structural buildings.
The remarkable ‘Blue House’ draws you in like a magnet with its pop of blue colour. The many well-maintained mini plazas – some of them resembling mini parks, are perfect for taking shade from the sweltering heat. Look around, and you’ll see old men having their shoes shined, and Mayan women selling homemade artesanias.
The heart of the city
Another block ahead and I arrived at the central part of the city, Plaza Grande. It’s a larger version of the mini plazas, with many locals there spending the day in the park. You can really feel the love in this plaza, particularly with the charming white stone conjoined ‘Lovers Seats’.
If you want to buy locally produced handcrafts or souvenirs, I’d recommend going to a Mayan cooperative. It’s far more ethical than the many tourist shops lining the streets.
Moreover, all the products they sell are made by the Mayan people in the villages, and all profits go directly to them. It’s also worth noting that there’s no bartering in the cooperatives. The prices are fixed and very reasonable, so don’t even attempt to try!
Discovering Mérida – Go spicy or go home
While Mexican food is renowned for its picante food, Yucatán cuisine raises the chili scale on a whole different level. Not a usual fan of the spicy suff, I sampled some salsa verde with my tortilla in a traditional restaurant. This salsa was so hot that my mouth was burning, my tongue tingling and my nose started running at the same time. The manager had a few giggles at my expense, and the experience was a wise lesson to always keep my food mild!
Later for lunch, I went to a local restaurant and ate Yucatán style pork ribs followed by a bitingly cool frozen margarita. Portions are large and cheap in Mérida – something that also extends to alcohol. At the time of travel, it cost approximately £1.60 ($35 (MXN); $2.70 (USD) for a glass of wine. It’s a great difference to the price you pay in tourist towns, so drink up and enjoy!
Discovering Mérida – Other must-see sights
The splendid Palacio De Gobierno and the grand Mérida Cathedral sit across from Plaza Grande. The Palacio’s unmissable, and with no entrance fee, there’s no excuse not to go. It’s home to government as well as tourist offices, and the palace has murals produced by local artists depicting the history of the Spanish and Mayan people.
Standing proudly in the heart of the city, Mérida Cathedral beckons you inside its majestic four walls. The fine interior is one you can appreciate, regardless of any religion. The Paseo Montejo a few blocks walk or a short taxi ride from Plaza Grande is also worth checking out.
Admittedly, I wasn’t impressed by the Paseo Montejo. The polished streets and string of modern restaurants and bars reminded me of the ambience – and price tags– I’d left behind in Playa Del Carmen. Nonetheless, the colonial style buildings lining the paseo are certainly worth seeing.
When night falls
Nightlife in Mérida is dominated by one thing and one thing only: salsa music. Whether it’s catching live salsa music in one of the plazas or going into a bar/club, music is king.
I went to one bar where a duo act performed popular salsa tunes on a small stage. Even me, with my two left feet, got up to partake in the local festivities. I left the bar sweaty, slightly merry, but unbelievably happy whistling salsa tunes all the way home.
If you’re wondering whether Mérida is safe, I can assure you that it is. I went back home around 1am from the bar, alone through the quiet cobbled streets, and didn’t feel any sense of danger.
Discovering Mérida – the afterthought
My visit to Mérida was undeniably the highlight of my Mexican experience. The people, atmosphere and the culture left me with a yearning to discover more about the region and its surrounding estados.
Quintana Roo is pretty and feels more comfortable because of its links to a more western culture. However, the Yucatán gave me something far more valuable: the chance to get out of my comfort zone and return home with an enriching experience that no words or photographs could match.