It’s hard to beat Merida as far as colonial cities go. Although most Mexico-bound tourists gravitate to Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Merida has been gaining in popularity in the past few years.
It’s a massive city, one million population, and only three hours from Cancun by paid highway. This city truly has it all: An impressive main plaza, a large promenade with stately mansions (Paseo de Montejo), horse-drawn carriages (calesas), museums, roving mariachi bands, Mexico’s oldest cathedral built in 1561, towering trees, lovely gardens, and a teaming market (Mercado Lucas de Galvez) that takes up several city blocks with everything from fresh vegetables, meat and spices to live birds, hardware, and hammocks.
Sundays are special in Merida, called Merida en Domingo. All streets around the zocalo are blocked off for artisans and food vendors. A block off the main plaza at Parque Hidalgo near the historic Gran Hotel, chairs are set up for acts by singers, comics, clowns and mimes who entertain locals for the day. At this plaza, vendors sell jewelry, hammocks, embroidered purses, gauze clothing, wood and stone carvings, Mexican toys and balloons.
Merida’s streets are narrow and crowded, teaming with life and at times difficult to walk on. The city makes you feel alive because you’re so often surrounded by other people. The historic district is worth a walk (four blocks around the main plaza) as the architecture is in the Spanish colonial style, very austere on the outside but often painted in bright colors. If there is one thing you will remember about the city, it’s the architecture which parallels much of its history. The Spanish villas allude to the Spanish era and Paseo Montejo’s mansions were built during the early 1900s when French immigrants arrived to make Panama hats from henequen, the Yucatan’s main crop. The area exploded with commerce, and along with the large homes on the main promenade, three hundred haciendas were built in the outlying areas.
Food is plentiful and cheap and a welcome rest from the high prices on the coast. The flavors are unique. The Yucatan prides itself on its food, so don’t fail to try out local fare-from salbutes, tortas, and panuchos to pibil chicken. Fresh fruit ice cream—mango, coconut, banana—is a must at the hundred-year old ice cream parlor on the main square, Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon.
Lodging runs the gamut from inexpensive hotels like the Trinidad (Calle 62 at 55) to high-end, like El Presidente Inter-Continental, with everything in between. There are many small, smart and charming hotels that can be had for reasonable prices, usually in the historic district that makes for easy walking to shops and restaurants.
Topmost in Merida is the presence of the modern Maya. Merida has the highest indigenous population of any city in Mexico. It’s heartening to know the descendants of the ancient Maya are thriving in this massive metropolis that teams with life, history, and a combination of old and new.