Where to go for my first international getaway? Friends have raved about Merida, Mexico. And then I read how 60,000 readers of Conde Nast Traveler named it in the best small city in the world for 2019. Off we went, and it turned out we liked it so much we extended our stay. It has it all – a serious foodie city, incredible mansions built in the late 19th and early 20th century when Merida had one of the most significant numbers of millionaires in the world, very good hotels and museums, major Mayan ruins nearby, and designer shopping. Plus, it’s totally authentic, with hardly an American fast food chain in sight, safety protocols to the max and you can fly nonstop from Miami to Merida, Mexico (Just over 2 hours). Plus you can team the visit up with a beach stay in Playa Del Carmen and get my friend and family discount at a top luxury resort.
Don’t think beach here, though there is one that’s part of the nearby port city. Culture and authenticity are what have attracted European travelers looking to go beyond the beach resorts for years (at one point there were direct flights from Merida to Italy!).
Since the Spanish conquest, Mérida has been the cultural capital of the entire Yucatán Peninsula. It’s also a city undergoing a renaissance thanks to expats from all over the world who are refurbishing the sorbet colored colonial homes and bringing their skills and talents to all aspects of the city.
Emblematic of the colonial grandeur is the treelined boulevard called the Paseo de Montejo, home to the Anthropology and History Museum, the most iconic buildings, landmarks and shops with everything from cutting edge fashion and jewelry to stunning designer straw handbags, sandals and hats (here I did some damage).
Another highlight is the Plaza Grande flanked by historic pastel colored buildings, one of many cathedrals, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s also the site of music performances which, pre-COVID, were held just about every night of the week along with a show of the famed Mayan Pok-a-Tok sport, a cross between soccer and basketball. Hopefully reopening soon are the other numerous notable museums including the Great Museum of the Mayan World with textiles, pottery, books and sculptures; Casa de Los Montejo; and folk art along with many art galleries. Then there are unusual ones devoted to music, trains, and the Museum of Korean Immigration, commemorating the Korean laborers who came to work in the sisal plantations in the early 1900’s.
If you go, you can’t miss the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, about an hour out of town. It is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture for its size and artistic quality..
The food? Some of the best I’ve ever had in Mexico, with restaurants such as Kuuk, Apoala and Rosa Sur 32. In fact, I think it’s next to impossible to have a meal that’s anything less than very good with the freshest of ingredients that you can see at the fruit and vegetable market Lucas de Galvez, well worth a visit.
Unlike most of the rest of Mexico, Yucatan cuisine features a lot of dishes with turkey, pork, and even sometimes duck. Yucatecan food also has many unique sauces and recipes based on Mayan culture mixed with tastes influenced by the peninsula’s historical ties to Cuba, Europe, Asia, and Middle Eastern cultures.. Many dishes feature Pibil. Pibil is a cooking method (from the Mayan word pib, meaning “buried”) where the foods are wrapped, usually in banana leaves, and cooked in a pit oven.
At one of the leading restaurants, the Museum of Yucatecan Gastronomy, every afternoon there are demonstrations of the Yucatecan cooking methods along with a small museum from which it gets its name. As with everything, meal prices are very reasonable — expect to pay about $50 US for dinner for two with drinks.
Before dinner be sure to go to one of the local cantinas like La Negrita or La Fundacion de la Mezcaleria for a locally made beer, mezcal, tequila or craft cocktail.
There’s a big choice of hotels at all price points, from the five star Chable resort outside of town, to the eight suite Casa Azul Monumento Historico, chain hotels and very inexpensive Air BNBs. We stayed at the Casa Azul, a restored 19th century mansion with a Belle Epoque atmosphere, including antique furniture, ornate ceilings, carefully restored ironwork, large courtyards and pool Eight spacious suites are individually themed and decorated, and rates (now about $250 USD a night) include what is said to be one of the best breakfasts in town.
We went to Merida Mexico the last week in October. Though, as I mentioned, some of the museums were closed and there were no live performances in the Plaza Grande, new places were reopening on a daily basis. We found more than enough to do and explore. And re safety protocols, everyone and I mean everyone wore a mask. Plus, every place we went our temperature was taken and we had to use sanitizer on our hands. In some places they also noted our phone number and name for contract tracing so we felt safe on that score. Speaking of safety in general, we walked everywhere at night. Merida Mexico has been written up as the second safest city in North America (first is Quebec City).
Want to team up your colonial city holiday with a stay at the beach? I’m offering a friends and family discount of 30% off of internet rates at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya in Playa Del Carmen, a 3 1/2 hour drive from Merida. Here’s a link to information on the resort. If interested, write to me, email@example.com.
And if you’re wondering about being safe and flying, check out my experience and tips.