Merida is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan on the north of the Yucantan peninsula. The city has a very nice and lively colonial centre radiating around the main square (Plaza Grande). Recently, it has also attracted a lot of investors from the US due to its favourable climate, security and proximity to the beaches.
We spent a short weekend in Merida and the surrounding Maya archaeological sites. The city of Merida is not that big and does not offer that many tourist sights. However, the Yucatan food is delicious and is one of the traditional Mexican food varieties. Merida is also excellent to explore the state of Yucatan, which offers archaeological sites, natural wonders such as cenotes and pink flamingos, as well as nice beaches.
We spent the first day exploring the city of Merida, which can be seen in less than a day. On our second day we rented a car and went to the ruins of Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc to the south of Merida, as well as Loltun caves and a henequén hacienda. The day was quite packed and we were still left with things we wanted to see.
Sightseeing in Merida
Most of the tourist sites are concentrated on or close to the Plaza Grande (the zocalo of Merida). The square itself is very nice and is surrounded with beautiful buildings. There you can also find the typical ‘couples’ benches, i.e. benches for two people facing each other.
The main sights are the Palacio de Gobierno (the green government palace), which features some beautiful murals made by Fernando Castro Pacheco. Especially the front room on the upper floor is really worth visiting.
On the western edge of the square there is the (somewhat) modern Centro Cultural Olimpo where they have art performances and temporary exhibitions. At the time we visited, there was a rather interesting exhibition of Carlos Monsiváis y Francisco Toledo. Definitely worth peeking in what is on offer. Next door is also the Palacio Municipal with a few more murals.
On the south end, there is the Museo Casa Montejo, which features original furniture used by its inhabitants and photography exhibition. But it is most interesting from an architectural point of view, mainly the facade outside and the courtyard inside.
To complete the circle, on the eastern side there is the Merida cathedral and a museum of modern art, which we didn’t visit. However, the best thing in Merida is that everything is open late. I’m sure that is due to the unsupportable heat during the day. The whole square is really cool at night and there is even a video projection onto the cathedral.
Calle 60 is the main street with most of the other places of interest. It leads north from the main square passing by the Parque Hidalgo, a nice church, Teatro Peón Conteras, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán and Parque de Santa Lucía. All of these are worth seeing, but especially the latter one has a very nice atmosphere in the evening with lots of restaurants.
Another famous street is the Paseo Montejo, which was the local attempt to create a modern boulevard, inspired in French boulevards. There are some nice houses monuments lining the Paseo, but all in all it is a bit sad nowadays.
In the north of the city there is the Museo del Mundo Maya, which shows the Maya civilisation from today all the way back to antiquity. The museum does not have a very large selection of objects, but many are well placed and there are models of Maya buildings, which are quite interactive and show the Maya life. So I think it’s quite worth visiting. In addition, there is a small exhibition on the famous Chicxulub meteorite that fell on Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago and wiped out most of the life on the planet.
From the museum it is another 10km to Dzibilchaltún, a small archaeological site. We didn’t go, but some friends went and they said it was worth it.
Day trip to the South from Merida
We started the day early and drove directly to Uxmal. It takes about an 1.5h to drive there, so we arrived at the height of the heat. Uxmal is quite big and really worth visiting, one of my favourite Maya sights so far. We spent some 2 hours exploring the ruins. There is the main pyramid that you can climb up and also a really nice patio.
After Uxmal we continued along the Ruta Puuc, which is a small road that leads you by several sites – Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná. We decided to stop only at the last one. It is quite small, but has a nicely preserved arch and a pyramid with a roof-comb on top.
The road ends at caves – Grutas de Loltun. There is an obligatory guided tour of the cave, which takes for 1h 20 minutes and leaves at predetermined times (last one is at 4pm). The guide explains some interesting things, but at times is also quite long-winded. The tour could definitely have been shorter.
On the way back to Merida we stopped at the Hacienda Ochil. It is just along the road between Uxmal and Merida and for 40 pesos you can have a look around the old henequén production farm. It also has a cenote, but it doesn’t look inviting at all.
Food in Merida
The Yucatán food is really something special. There is a very large selection of dishes, such as cochinical pibil (or other pibil meat), sopa de lima, panuchos, queso relleno, brazo de reina, relleno negro, marquesitas, and much more. Merida is full of great restaurants to savour their great food.
Mercado 60: A relatively new and very popular outdoor market. The food stalls surround a seating area, so you can choose form whatever food you like and sit in the middle with your friends. They also have live music on the weekends and are open late (until 1am). We chose the food stall serving Yucatan food – Ki’o’och (down at the back). We had some cochinita pibil, costras (taco with fried cheese instead of tortilla) and panuchos. The food was delicious. We also had plenty of beers there, as the atmosphere is great. A must in Merida!
Chaya Maya: A very popular restaurant that has an extremely long list of Yucatan specialities. I really recommend going here for lunch and ordering several dishes to taste the variety of the local cuisine. We had a queso relleno, brazo de reina and plato yucateco. The food was delicious and the seating is in a nice patio of this old colonial house. A must in Merida!
Amaro: A restaurant in a nice patio that serves Yucatan and other international food. There are plenty of vegetarian options and the cochinita was also good, but in general the restaurant was very average and the service poor. They even added 15% tip automatically to the bill, which we found steep and rude, especially as the service was not worth it at all. I think it is very bad practice to include 15% on the bill. Not recommended at all.
Marquesitas are some sort of Yucatan-style crepe. It’s made of similar dough, but it is hard and usually filled with cheese (queso de bola). However, you can chose other toppings, my favourite are banana and peanut butter. You can find them all around Merida in the evenings, however the best one I had was just in front of the Parroquia de Santiago.
Restaurante Loltun: Right opposite to the Loltun caves there is this very simple restaurant. After the caves we were very hungry, so we went there for convenience. We didn’t expect much and we were very positively surprised. The food was actually very good and fresh, especially the sopa de lima and the pork plate.
Bars and clubs: The centre of Merida is full of bars and clubs. We went to one called La Fundacion Mezcaleria and it was a very interesting experience. You pay 30 pesos as the entrance fee to this lady behind bars, and for that they give you a mezcal. Inside it is like an old house with crazy decor and a back patio.
Hotel La Mision Panamericana: Old and kitsch hotel. The rooms were quite old, but decent. The building is really kitsch and the service is quite poor. All in all it was OK, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend staying there.
SPECIAL CONTRIBUTION: Cenotes around Homún by Mauricio Rodríguez
Mauricio (thank you!!!) was very sweet to provide me with his personal experience of a day-trip to the cenotes around Homun, hence here “I” refers to Mauricio.
For next time: Places we didn’t manage to go to
There’s plenty of really nice restaurants on the Parque de Santa Lucia, but they are also extremely busy for dinner, so I recommend reserving in advance. We particularly wanted to go to Apoala.
The the areas there are plenty of other ruins that can be explored and the ruins of Mayapan have been highly recommended.
There are also the pink flamingos that can be seen on the coast in the village of Celestún.