Message in a bottle in Merida

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North America » Mexico » Yucatán » Merida
May 4th 2016
Published: May 18th 2016
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This afternoon we were travelling west from Chichen Itza to Merida.

After a mix-up with the public bus, we were left standing under a tree in the Chichen Itza car park at 6pm, only to discover that the bus we were booked on had left right under our noses at 5:10pm. Our guide caught a taxi into nearby Piste and returned 15 minutes later with a minibus and a driver. We squeezed into the minibus with our packs and left the Chichen Itza ruins at 6:30pm. We also gave a young guy who missed the same bus a lift in the nimbus – he had travelled from Mexico City to look for a new life in Merida – it was a big leap of faith on his part, and it would have stalled completely if he had missed the bus!

We arrived in Merida around 8pm, and within minutes of driving into the city we immediately loved the old world charm and feel it exuded. We checked into Hotel Reforma, dropped our packs into our tiny room and headed around the corner to El Trapiche for dinner. This fantastic little restaurant had a great atmosphere and specialised in local cuisine. I ordered the burrito pastor (burrito with marinated pork), while Ren opted for the cochinita pibil (pork marinated with achiote, epazote, tomatoes and onions and slow cooked in a banana leaf). The meals were great, and so was Ren’s green juice (a blend of chaya, celery, lime, pineapple and orange).

We finished our meal at 9pm and went for a walk around the bustling streets of Merida. The park was full, with a gigantic screen projecting an open air movie. There were people everywhere, and many of the shops were still open. We got our bearings and then headed back to the hotel. It had been a long travel day, but we were not so exhausted this time, because the middle of the day had been so casual and relaxing. I caught up on my travel writing and crashed at 12:30am. We were both looking forward to exploring Merida, and we had a full day to do it.

We slept in again, waking at 7am, but feeling completely refreshed. We headed down to the hotel’s breakfast area and had tea, coffee, toast and pastries (with a small group of female soccer players). It was a reasonably ordinary breakfast, but enough to sustain us for a day’s walking around Merida. We headed to the main plaza, booked our place on the free city tour through the tourist office and then walked into the Cathedral of San Idelfonso. The cathedral was magnificent, but it was hard to admire given its beginnings (where the conquering Spaniards dismantled all the surrounding Maya pyramids and used the huge stones as the foundation for the cathedral). We then wandered over to the Palacio de Gobierno, which acts as a gallery for the murals of local artist Fernanco Castr Pachero, which depict the violent and oppressive history of the Spanish occupation.

We then headed back to the tourist office and met our local guide, who took us on a 90 minute city tour in which we hardly left the main plaza. I think he was averse to the city’s streets. However, it was an interesting tour, and in one of his many historical analogies I discovered the best wood for Mexican guitars is paracho. We finished the city tour around 11am and headed to the Museo Casa Montejo (on the advice of our guide, who had actually taken us to the museum entrance on one of the rare occasions he ventured beyond the safety of the main plaza). We ambled through the stuffy Victorian exhibits until we found ourselves in a room full of black and white images by photographer Martin Chambi Jimenez. The photographs were mesmerising images of Mexican and Peruvian life in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a long time since I have been so impressed and moved by a photographer. As we finished viewing the exhibits in each room of the museum, a security guard would guide us to the next room of exhibits. It may have been small, but it was a very well-structured museum.

We then walked out of the town centre towards Paseo de Montejo, a stretch of road lined with the remains of ostentatious mansions that once housed families riding on the wealth of henequen plantations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On our way back to the main town centre, we chanced upon a small cooperative shop (Tags) selling shoes made by local artists together with artisans using traditional techniques. Ren picked up a pair of fantastic shoes, and we chatted at length with the store manager. He gave me the name of a luthier he knew in Mexico City, and I’ll try to look him up when we arrive in the capital in a few weeks’ time. He also gave us a great tip for lunch – La Casita – which was just around the corner. We walked to the small cafe and decided to share an asado sandwich (carne asada, frijol and cebolla asada y aderezo) and a huevo sandwich (huevo con longaniza, frijol and cebolla y jalapeno). It was a fantastic choice, as both were delicious. We also ordered a couple of agua de horchata (milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon) and a agua de jamaica (iced tea made with hibiscus flower), which were very refreshing. We then retraced our steps back to the main town centre, dropping into Cafe Riqueza on the way for an espresso cortado and a brownie.

It was now time to explore the archways we had seen from the main plaza during the free city tour. As we walked towards the distant archways, we realised there were very few tourists this far out of the main town centre. It was very local, and we welcomed the chance to see this side of Merida. We reached el arco del puente and el arco d drago nes at 4pm, and the heat from the mid afternoon sun was intense. We retreated back to our hotel, picking up some cold drinks on the way, and settled in our private courtyard to catch up on our travel writing.

We headed out to La Chaya Maya for dinner at 7pm, which was only a few blocks from the hotel. Ren ordered the relleno negro (turkey and ground pork in a spicy sauce made from blackened chillies and spices), a dish she had been wanting to try ever since she arrived in the Yucatan. I ordered Flavours of the Yucatan, a selection of four regional dishes (i.e. panucho, relleno negro taco, vaporcito and cochinita taco). The food was OK, but not as good as our other Merida meals. We were serenaded by a couple of guitarists while we waited, and they certainly added to the atmosphere of the place.

After dinner we walked to a park opposite the restaurant and settled on some level seating to watch a cultural performance. It was a public holiday (May 5) and the performance was scheduled to start at 9pm. We watched a brass band with a singer, a performance poet, dancers in traditional costume and young guitarists. The music was good and the atmosphere among the large crown was fantastic. Unfortunately, the metal seating was a little uncomfortable, so we had to call it a night at 10pm. We walked back to the hotel, organised our packs and retired at 11:30pm. We had an eight hour bus trip to Palenque tomorrow, so we had to be ready for the trip.

After missing our public bus in Chichen Itza, we continued to Merida in a minibus which took just under two hours. We arrived at 8pm, and as we drove into the city, it became immediately apparent that it was a beautiful city. We checked into the grand old Reforma Hotel, just a block away from the city centre. We walked up a beautiful old staircase and discovered we were in the tiniest of rooms, with the smallest hotel bathroom we’ve ever encountered! What a letdown. We consoled ourselves that the location and a private little courtyard just outside our room door made up for the crappy room.

Fabian recommended dinner at El Trapiche, which was just around the corner from the hotel. Andrew ordered a burrito pastor which was delicious and I ordered a local Yucatan signature dish of cochinita pibil (suckling pig marinated in recado rojo/achiote paste then wrapped in plantain leaves and slow-roasted). It wasn’t as tender as I thought it would be but it was still very tasty. I think I’ll need to order it once more before I make up my mind. I wanted an Agua fresca, but the waiter got very excited about a jugo verde (green juice) that he wanted me to try with chaya (a local spinach like green leaf), celery, pineapple, orange and lime. It was delicious, but very green tasting.

After dinner Andrew and I walked to the Plaza Grande to check out the location of the tourist office, and to get our bearings for the next day.

Merida is the capital of Yucatan State, on the west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. This vast limestone peninsula is the country’s eastern-most point, and physically closer to Cuba than to other parts of Mexico. Merida was not only lovely and friendly, but also cultural and vibrant. It has a lot of old-world charm with a well-preserved Old Town, wonderful museums and city streets alive with art and culture. I loved the quiet grandeur of Merida. It exuded charm and a sense of ease. Some historians believe Merida is the oldest continually settled city in the Americas.

Merida couldn’t have been more different from our previous stop – Playa del Carmen – which has purposely geared itself towards resort tourism. Even though there appeared to be many American and European ex-pats in Merida, it seems to be relatively off the radar for most tourists. This was especially puzzling given the masses of tourists we’d just experienced at the ruins of Chichen Itza (which was only two hours away). It was nice to be on a less touristy trail, and I was starting to feel like we were getting closer to the real Mexico where we could eat and drink with locals rather than with a mass of very loud tourists from Mexico’s northern neighbours. However, more than a few people have hinted that the Yucatan has always been a bit apart in vibe and character from the rest of Mexico.

The next morning (after a quick breakfast) we joined a few others on the free city tour offered by the tourism office. Our guide was very passionate about historical details and spent the majority of the walk in a circuit around the Plaza Grande (main city square). The beautiful laurel-shaded Plaza Grande was lively and full of people. The plaza was surrounded by gorgeous architecture – the cream coloured Catedral de San Ildefonso on one side, with the renaissance style Casa de Mantejo, the pink City Hall (Palacio Municipal) and mint green Palacio de Gobierno on the other three sides.

When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century and found the Maya settlement of Tiho with its limestone temples and pyramids, it reminded them of the old Roman city of Merida in mainland Spain. The Spanish had the structures demolished, and the enslaved Maya were forced to recycle the limestone into an imposing cream, twin-towered Renaissance style Cathedral (among the earliest built in the New World) and a smaller Jesuit Church of the Third Order of Jesus. I’m not sure why I found the Jesuit Church a little odd – probably because it felt a bit ostentatious with its ornate interior adorned with chandeliers.

The Conquistadors’ brutality and the Maya resistance to their occupation was detailed in a series of powerful murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco, one of the Yucatan’s most revered painters. The murals and paintings were displayed over two storeys of the Palacio de Gobierno. This was one of my most favourite spaces in Merida. The entrance to the building was guarded by stern looking armed police, as the building also houses the Governor’s offices. However, after walking past them, we found ourselves in a beautiful cloistered internal courtyard which was filled with art. The upstairs gallery contained the most poignant work.

After the city tour we decided to walk through as much of Merida as we could. However, I first need to stop off at a handmade ice creamery to have a paletas (fresh fruit popsicle)… there were so many gorgeous flavours, and I just couldn’t decide. In the end I grabbed a guanabana (soursop) that was tasty and refreshing, but because it’s made with actual chunks of fruit, it got a bit sour after a while… which Andrew found delicious.

Merida is known as the Ciudad Blanca (White City), but most of its originally white limestone buildings are now pastel-coloured. Desert red and burnt orange were also popular building colours, all with white trim. Wandering its grid of streets, we saw many refurbished properties with well-maintained facades, shining wrought ironwork and elaborate stucco work. Most of these buildings are now boutique hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. This was in stark contrast to the not-so-well maintained buildings which have been abandoned, or are hosting small family-run businesses and ‘old-man’ type bars.

For such a gorgeous town, I was surprised that it wasn’t more touristy. Apart from in and around the Plaza Grande, everything else felt very local. But even in the Plaza Grande, it wasn’t too bad… there were hammock sellers who asked ‘wanna buy hammock?’ on repeat, and moustachioed guayaberas (traditional loose white cotton shirts) wearing men carrying packages of Cuban cigars who whispered ‘I give you good price! best price!’ while flashing smoke stained smiles… sale pitches are the same the world over. Beneath the pastel-coloured arcades that frame the plaza, Maya women sat in groups selling bright multi-coloured traditional fabrics.

It was Cinco de Mayo (5 May) on our second day in Merida, so I was surprised that there weren’t celebrations for it. It seemed to be just another public holiday. We set off to walk to Paseo de Montejo, a boulevard in the north of the city. On the way we explored the old barrios of Santa Lucia and Santa Ana. These are old neighbourhoods that are typically defined by a church and a square. I loved the church of Santa Lucia that was painted a deep red, leaving no doubt that it was a Mexican Catholic church.

Despite its size, Merida has a charming country town vibe. It was a hot walk, but there was a lovely breeze that kept things pleasant in the shade. The tropical heat and the local weaving skills has led to hammock-swaying being popular. Colourful hammocks dotted many of the shaded courtyards we walked past. If we had been further along in our trip, I would have loved to buy a colourful hammock, cotton guayabera shirts and jipi hats (the Mexican version of the Panama hat) as souvenirs.

Some goods are still made of henequen, derived from the stalks of the native agave plant which produces strong natural fibres (also called sisal after the nearby port it was exported from). Originally used by the Maya, it became known as ‘green gold’ during the late 19th century when Spanish owned plantations began mass producing it to meet worldwide demand for rope, sacks and ship sails. The henequen trade declined in the 1950s (superseded by nylon), but the enormous wealth from the trade is still very evident in the grand hotel-sized haciendas on Merida’s Paseo de Montejo. It was weird looking at such grandeur, knowing it was built on the back of Maya slavery, but it was also sad seeing such grandeur now in a derelict state. Some of them have been restored and converted into museums, but others have peeling paint and rusty wrought iron gates.

On our way back I noticed a cute little shoe shop, so we ducked in to have a look. Turns out it was a collective called Tags – a group of young designers using modern printing and design techniques who work with indigenous groups – who in turn hand-make the shoes using their traditional techniques. I bought a pair of shoes… well, I had to really. [😊

One of the guys at Tags was very friendly and chatted to us a bit about Merida. He said we were lucky that a cold front had come in the day before, which had made temperatures pleasant (we found this quite funny, as it was still pretty hot for us). However, according to the guy, it would have been impossible for us to walk across the city as we had if it hadn’t been ‘cool’. He was also very helpful in giving us his local tips on where else to shop, eat and drink, so we walked a block back to the Santa Ana neighbourhood and ordered tortas at the very local La Casita (on his recommendation). We shared two tortas (filled bread rolls) with asado (carne asada, refried beans, cebolla and aderezo) and huevo (eggs, longaniza, refried beans, cebolla and jalapeño). The meal deal came with agua de horchata (milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon) and agua de jamaica (iced tea made with hibiscus flower). Merida has some cool shops, and a funky little cafe called Cafe Riqueza (which we had passed earlier) had also been recommend by the guys at Tags, so we stopped by for an espresso cortado (similar to a short cafe macchiato) and a delicious brownie.

We went back to our hotel to cool down in our private courtyard (Andrew) and have a nap before dinner (Ren). As much as I disliked our hotel room, I loved the coolness of the beautiful tiles underfoot after hours of walking. We then walked to the two remaining city arches that are still standing (of the original eight). This took us to the city’s local commerce area, and it was flourishing (even on a public holiday). We always seemed to end back at the Plaza Grande – it was only a block away from our hotel and a great spot to people watch.

We retreated once more to the hotel and this time I managed to stay awake and catch up on writing and sorting photos so that we could post our Caye Caulker blog.

After the heat of the day was eased by the nightly breeze from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, we wandered back out for dinner at Chaya Maya. The smell of cooking saturated the beautifully balmy warm night air. I tried relleno negro (turkey and ground pork stewed in an inky black sauce made from charred chillies and spices), as it is a renowned Yucatan dish, while Andrew had the Taste of Yucatan taco and tamale platter. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten pitch black food before, and while I liked the dish, I don’t think I’ll order it again. Unlike the popular perception we have of Mexican cooking, not all Yucatecan food is very spicy, though most restaurants place a hot salsa or a hot sauce made from habanero chiles on the table.

After dinner we walked to the Santa Lucia plaza to watch the Thursday evening folk dances. The plaza has free cultural entertainment every night, usually showcasing the region’s traditions and music. There was a brass band, and the first act involved a dozen dancers. The guys were dressed in white, while the girls had bright flower-patterned embroidery on their white outfits. Their folk performance livened up the square, but sadly it went a bit downhill from there. Next there was a dramatic monologue, which we thought was a comedy act, but no one laughed, so we figured it was a theatrical piece of some sort. The last act we hung around for was a group of four musicians playing guitar, bass and bongos. We guessed they were (very long) love ballads, but they may not have been. By now the thin metal seats were getting very uncomfortable, so we walked back to the hotel to prepare for a very long travel day tomorrow.

My Spanish is virtually non-existent (outside of asking where the toilets are or ordering from a menu), so I was surprised when my ears distinguished that there were a few different languages being spoken. The native Maya speak their traditional languages punctuated with Spanish words. In the Yucatan, apparently both languages are spoken interchangeably.

I was pleasantly surprised that the ancient Maya heritage has been preserved to a certain extent in Merida, perhaps expressed strongest in dress and food. Though the native ingredients were the same as those in the rest of Mexico—corn, tomatoes, chiles etc—the Yucatan is apparently where the Maya became skilled at cultivating and cooking them. The Yucatan cuisine has Maya, European and Caribbean influences.

I loved Merida. I enjoyed the experience of mingling with locals in the squares; looking at the well maintained colonial architecture; checking out the Yucatecan food; and people watching in the shade of the trees on Plaza Grande.

Next we travel southwest to Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico.


18th May 2016

Merida is one of our favorite cities in Mexico. We know it well as we lived in a restored colonial house about 6 blocks west of the Plaza Grande for 2 months. While there is lots for tourists to do, it still has a sense of being an actual city instead of the Playa del Carmen/Cancun area of the Yucatan. Don't give up on Cochinita Pibil, it is one of the most tasty (and unique) things we tried in Mexico. Good blog and we continue to enjoy following your travels. Can't wait to hear what you think of Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas.
18th May 2016

Re: Merida
Thanks Nanci and Dave. We could easily live in Merida for two months! We loved the local aspects of the city very much. It's a very special city, especially considering the history. We should get moving on our blog on Palenque :)
18th May 2016

Merida sounds lovely
This is a location we have not made it to yet. We'll add it to our list. As always you've found some amazing foods to taste. Hope you are enjoying Mexico. So many amazing small villages.
18th May 2016

Re: Merida sounds lovely
Merida really was a lovely place... and they have some very unique dishes in the Yucatan that we haven't come across anywhere else in Mexico. I think you and Dave will love it :)
18th May 2016

The Yucatan
Loving following your footsteps where I went so many moons ago with my family in the 70s! Palenque is the best.
19th May 2016

Re: The Yucatan
Thanks Meryl... we loved Palenque very much :)
19th May 2016
yucatun folk dancers

Lovely, genteel, hot Merida!
While I loved the two weeks I spent there, the heat drove me away. I imagine expats must have A/C or a great fan. Still, as you said, the graceful architecture and relaxed way of life is beguiling. Love that you bought hand-made shoes there, supporting local people. I got my hammock for the jungle and a white, flower-embroidered blouse that I wore forever. As ever, I'm so impressed with your food scouting and sampling--thanks, undoubtedly to your earlier research and chatting with locals! I'll follow your recommendations when I return!
19th May 2016
yucatun folk dancers

Re: Lovely, genteel, hot Merida!
I don't know how we would have coped if that cool front hadn't come through Merida... it was still hot in the middle of the day but so pleasant in the mornings and evenings. I love my hand made shoes and have been wearing them almost everyday since I got them. We always try to buy from local artisans, and where possible directly from the maker. So glad we stumbled upon them :)
19th May 2016

Another Martin Chambi fan
Saw some of his work when in Peru and ended up buying a book of his photos as they were so good. Merida sounds pretty special, despite the heat. I hate being somewhere so good and you want to keep exploring but the heat just drives you back in doors to the air con and/or fan.
19th May 2016

Re: Another Martin Chambi fan
How ace that you have his book! If they'd had them on sale we'd have bought one for sure... will look it up when we get home. Like you, we hate having to surrender to the heat and retreat to the hotel too, we feel like such wusses :)

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