Even in the pre-dawn dimness and with eyes blurred from sleep we knew we were going to like the “White City” as Merida Mexico is known. As our taxi drove through the quiet streets from the bus station to Centro Historico we were impressed by what we could see of the lovely architecture lining the avenues. I could barely contain my excitement when the driver pulled up in front of a beautiful sandstone faced Spanish Colonial building with columns and pediments and lovely wrought iron balconies overlooking the Plaza Grande. It was barely 5am and we were unable to rouse anyone at the hostel to let us. However as Merida is known to be one of the safest cities in Mexico we felt perfectly secure sitting on the steps in the little alcove waiting for the sun to rise. It was actually a great opportunity to see the city at that strange cross over time between night and day. There were surprisingly quite a few people out and about and we watched as a young couple snuggled on a bench in the square, a group of young men stumbled along the street after their night out and early morning workers set off to start their day.
Merida is the capital of the Yucatan state and it is a charming laid back yet highly cultural and cosmopolitan city with some very obvious European influences. In fact for many years it was relatively cut off from the rest of Mexico and instead looked to Europe as an example. Sitting on the steps looking at the beautiful Plaza Grande I could almost convince myself that I was indeed somewhere in Southern Europe although in some ways I was also reminded of the main square in Havana, Cuba. As the sun rose and the buildings around the square became bathed in a warm morning glow I decided that “like” was not going to be a strong enough word for my feelings toward this city.
We arrived on a Sunday morning and as mentioned in a previous post this is the day of the week where Mexicans of all ages come out to relax and play in the squares of the cities. Here in Merida the Plaza Grande is the focal point for such activities and the roads around the square are closed to traffic. By noon the square was fully alive and packed with people eating at the food carts and pop up cafes, socializing with friends and neighbors, strolling along with kids and dogs in tow or watching the free performances around the Plaza. It was also the week of Carnival and although the big event had been moved outside of the downtown area there were still some signs of the festivities in the square. As we were staying at the Hostel Zocalo right across from all the activity around the Plaza we naturally didn’t venture far that first day and when we weren’t actively participating we were watching from our little balcony.
We spent six days in Merida and we loved every second of it. Even our working hours were more enjoyable as we were able to sit on our balcony with a view of the Plaza as we worked on various tasks. Of course part of our work is to experience the sights so that we can report back to you so of course we divided our time accordingly.
The city is laid out in a grid fashion with even numbered streets running north to south and odd numbered from east to west and most of the sights are within walking distance from the Plaza Grande so we were able to explore with ease. The Plaza itself is ringed by some of Merida’s oldest buildings including Catedral del San Ildefonso, Casa de Montejo (1549), Palacio Municipal (16th century) and Palacio de Gobierno (19th Century). There are also many shops and restaurants around the square and a Tourismo center which offers a free daily walking tour of the Plaza at 9am.
Most of the other monuments, museums, restaurants and shops are north of the plaza along Calle 60 and Poseo de Montejo. Poseo Montejo is a broad tree lined boulevard inspired by Champs-Elysees in Paris. At the end of the nineteenth century its magnificent mansions were occupied by families made rich from henequen production and who basically ran the state. The mansions are still there but are now home to businesses and museums.
Aside from the museums, art galleries and architecture Merida is one of the best places to shop in Mexico. If you’re looking for traditional Maya craftwork, beautiful hammocks, famed (but expensive) Panama hats or clothing, especially men’s Guayabera shirts, Merida is the place to get it. There is also a huge market called Plaza Technologia where you can find pretty much anything electronic. Be cautious though as items not in their original packaging are likely refurbished in China and may or may not work long term…as we found out the hard way.
Although you can certainly walk to most of the sights in the city if it’s a hot day or mobility is an issue there are several other options to see the city sights. Probably the nicest way is a two hour tour by horse and buggy. You will see these all over the city but they tend to congregate at the Plaza Grande. Many Meridans even use these as an alternative to taxis. There is also double decker hop on and off tour bus tour which take you on a 90 minute loop which is a pleasant way to get an overview of all the main sights. The down side is that it is in Spanish only and even though you can hop on and off all day you are limited to getting back on the same bus so be sure you want to spend a 90 minutes wherever you hop off. Also they don’t stop unless you ask so if you’re on the top deck you’ll have to navigate your way down while the bus is moving. You can also rent bikes and the city is actually pretty easy and relatively safe to navigate if you stick to the main tourist route.
Aside from the city itself Merida is also a good place as a base for day trips to Maya ruins like Chichen Itza, beaches like Progresso and beautiful nature preserves like Celestun or some cooling and magical cenotes. We saved Chichen Itza and the cenotes for Valladolid but we did do a couple of trips from Merida including the nature tour with Oscar at Hostel Zocalo which you can read a bit more of here.
Our other day out was a visit to Carnival. For us Carnival was a bit disappointing and from what we heard the locals in Merida felt the same way. Apparently the city decided to move Carnival out to a fairground setting this year rather than have it in the city itself as has previously been the tradition. We did not hear from a single person who was happy about this and so hopefully next year they will move it back. On a positive note the grounds were very nice…clean, spacious and very well organized (other than the parade which I’ll get to later). The Carnival goes on for a week and they alternate opening hours, one day being from 9am until 9pm and then next being 3pm until 3am then next morning. We assume this is their way of having a different atmosphere for families during the day and then a more adult version on the late night openings. We took a bus from downtown and arrived about 30 minutes later and at 4pm we had the place almost to ourselves. It was a bit of an odd feeling actually because when we first walked through the gates we felt as though we could be at any fairground back home in the US or Canada. There were food stands, games and stages for entertainment and the place was a sensory overload of sights and sounds. As we looked a bit deeper though we did see some pretty big differences. For one thing we were possibly the only Gringos in the whole place and for another there were very few rides and games but instead there were a plenty of stages and beer stands, it seemed that the focus was to be on music and drinking. We were given a coupon book when we entered which offered deals on food and drink. When we went to take advantage of one of the coupons stating 2 for 1 beer we found out that the beer in question was actually a huge cup holding two full beers each. We did our best to take advantage of the deal but two coupons were all we could manage. There were also a lot of large stalls selling household products and at first we likened them to the demo stands at fairs back home…”It slices, it dices, but wait there’s more!” However as we found out later these stands were very different from what we were used to and were in fact a form of entertainment themselves. The items were sold in an auction like fashion with a full on speed talking auctioneer who had numerous helpers throwing bedding and cookware up to him which he in turn packaged and sold off in a matter of seconds. It was like a cross between a state auction and the fish vendors at Pike Place Market in Seattle.
As promised I will talk a bit about the parade. Entry to the Carnival grounds was free but we were told that if we wanted a seat for the parade we would need to pay $30 pesos each or we would be stuck in the general admission area with hoards of other people. We decided that for less than $3 USD it was worth it. The parade was to start at 7pm so we went to our seats with our giant beers in hand at about 6:50. The fact that we were pretty much the only ones in our seats was not a good sign. After a while people did start to filter in but the parade itself didn’t actually start until 8pm (7pm Mexican time I guess). At first we were kicking ourselves for paying $30 pesos to sit and wait for an hour just to see group after group (one from every community in the surrounding area apparently) show off their less than impressive traditional Mexican dancing skills. However after a while we began to find the humor in it all and started to lighten up enjoy the experience. Our patience was eventually rewarded by a more Carnival atmosphere when the dancers were replaced by colorful floats and performers throwing beads and treats and even beer out to the crowd. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement as the predominantly adult Mexican spectators waved frantically like ten year olds in an effort to catch a cheap prize from a scantily clad showgirl or a clown on stilts. Joining in the game ourselves I think we impressed our Mexican amigos with our catching skills and managed to score a T-shirt, beads and several packages of nuts and chips.
Although we had mixed feelings about our Carnival experience and can see how it could be much better in the vibrant city streets of Merida we did end up having a good time and were glad we had the chance to experience Mexican Carnival.
The last thing I want to mention is the food in Merida. It is abundant and delicious and for the most part very reasonable, although you can definitely find the higher end options as well. You can find pretty much anything here but I do have to mention my new favorite tasty treat called a Marquesita. It’s a popular street vendor desert and it’s like a cross between a very thin waffle and a crispy crepe which they make in front of you on a special cast-iron waffle maker. It’s then rolled into a sort of tube and stuffed with your choice of fillings. Traditionally they stuff it with “Bola De Queso” which is Edam cheese and then add a sweet filling such as peanut butter or caramel. My flavor of choice was cheese and Nutella…sounds strange I know but it’s delicious!.
After almost a week of great food and culture and a stay in one of our favorite Hostels so far it was time to say goodbye to Merida and hello to Valladolid. We both sincerely hope to return to the White City someday and highly recommend adding it to your Mexican travel itinerary.
Now get out and Live fully, Dream big and Discover the world people!
Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.