For more information about hotels, restaurants, and things to do in Merida, see the Merida Travel Guide.
Merida: A Good Base for Exploring the Yucatan
A colonial city and capital of the state of Yucatan, Merida has a lot to offer travelers who love culture and history. Built on the defeated Maya city of T’Ho, it was named by its Spanish conquerors for the city in western Spain founded by the Romans nearly two thousand years before. Since its founding in 1542, Merida has been the seat of Yucatan government, commerce, and culture.
Isolated by its distance from Mexico City, Merida was during colonial times left mainly to its own devices. Its inhabitants took vacations and imported goods from Europe and the United States, developing a singular character based on Mexican and Maya culture but infused with these outside influences. Several waves of Christian Lebanese and other immigrants brought more innovation, including many unique and delicious dishes.
Despite its history and the presence of many beautiful old buildings, Merida’s architecture is not one of its strengths. Unlike nearby Campeche, whose historical district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Merida has a jumbled, sometimes downtrodden visage. Although there are plenty of vintage homes and mansions---some nicely restored---overall the architectural integrity of the historical section has been lost. And although it has improved in recent years, bus and car pollution, when combined with Merida’s sultry temperatures, can be unpleasant.
But despite its flaws, Merida is a popular landing spot for travelers to the Yucatan Peninsula. The yucatecos are friendly and welcoming. There are many good restaurants and clubs, movie houses (art and mainstream) and museums, shopping centers and boutiques. But one of Merida’s biggest pluses is its location: it is an excellent base for visiting some of the peninsula’s most prestigious archaeological sites. In addition, Merida is surrounded by endearing small and mid-size towns that seem frozen in an earlier era, dozens of the region’s unusual limestone sinkholes (cenotes), sandy beaches, and plenty of opportunities for bird-watching and other outdoor activities.
Aside from being a good base for excursions, Merida offers loads of cultural activities, many of them free. On Saturday evening and most of the day on Sunday, streets surrounding the main plaza are closed to traffic. Out come the marimba players and mimes along with families enjoying the evening breezes and cooler temperatures. On other days you can see theatrical and musical performances at Teatro Peón Contreras or el Teatro Armando Manzanero, visit a half dozen museums, or take a stroll along Paseo de Montejo. This wide boulevard is lined with mansions built during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when plantations (first corn, later, and most successfully, henequen, or sisal fiber) brought wealth to the peninsula’s privileged elite.
Merida’s history can be seen in its churches and plazas, secular buildings and converted convents and monasteries. Many visitors begin their exploration of old Merida at the main plaza (called la Plaza Grande, and not to be confused with La Gran Plaza, which is a shopping mall outside the historic center). Between Calles 60 and 62, 63 and 61, la Plaza Grande is surrounded by banks, shops, outdoor cafés, and government offices as well as MACAY (the contemporary art museum), the cathedral, and the cultural center. On the southeast corner of the square, Casa de Montejo was the home of the Spanish father-and-son team that conquered the city in the 16th century. Another of Banamex’s many projects, the colonial edifice has been restored with original and period furnishings. A free tour is offered in English or Spanish, depending on the crowd that gathers. There’s a small but fine gift shop at the back of the property.
Merida has lots of shops for browsing. Among the best souvenirs are guayaberas (pleated men’s shirts) of cotton, linen, or polyester blends; embroidered blouses and dresses; huipiles (the sack-like dresses worn throughout the region) and the fancier version of the huipil, called the terno.. You can purchase wonderful, colorful hammocks in a variety of sizes (see our article about hammocks) and fine “Panama” hats.
The municipal market is a covered arcade packed with small stores. There are shops stacked high with baskets, baby clothes, and marzipan candies in the shape of different fruits. Tradesmen make copies of house keys on ancient machines while sellers of cheap wristwatches roam the market’s perimeter. The surrounding streets are dedicated to commerce, too. El Mayab newsstand sells comic books and scandal sheets. Flower shops sell roses from Cuernavaca, gladiolas, and mums. Calle 65 between Calles 56 and 54 is dedicated to piñatas and the candies with which to fill them. Less bustling are other markets and co-ops geared toward handcrafts, including the nearby Bazar García Rejón, the Casa de Artesanias, and Bazar San Juan.
Merida was originally laid out in barrios, and although visitors naturally gravitate to the main square, each neighborhood has its own plaza and church: a good place to rest or mingle. Frequented mainly by locals, these squares are the lifeblood of downtown neighborhoods and a haven from hawkers in the main plaza.
On my last visit, Plaza Santiago’s church was rarely open during the day, but there was always activity in its shady square. A shoeshine man offered his services under the shade of an enormous laurel tree draped in purple bougainvillea. Mothers chatted while their kids ran around, and dapper men in suits scanned the newspaper. Along one side of the park, cafes dispense OJ, hot appetizers, ice cream, and other snacks. All of these venues fill up on Tuesday evenings when a band strikes up and neighborhood couples dance the danzón.
On Thursday evenings it’s the same story in Parque Santa Lucia, north of the main square. Wander around long enough and you’ll find many of these special spots that make Merida unique, charming, and welcoming, too.
A three-hour drive, Cancún is glitzier and far more expensive than Merida, with beautiful beaches. Towns like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, on the Riviera Maya, offer all sorts of beach-related adventures and upscale relaxation. In Yucatan State, diminutive Ticul and Izamal offer accommodations for those fond of provincial towns with less traffic and confusion along with significantly reduced options for dining and nightlife. But bustling Merida, often sweltering in the tropical heat, offers a glimpse into both the peninsula’s Maya past and its lively, friendly, very Mexican present. It’s a city well worth visiting on your next vacation to the Yucatan Peninsula.
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