Nicknamed “La Ciudad Blanca” after its white limestone buildings (now covered in peeling layers of gem-coloured paint), the capital of Yucatán state is in every sense the leading city of the peninsula, with a population of some 1.6 million. Within its historic core, though, there’s a sense of small-town graciousness coupled with an extremely lively and sometimes avant-garde cultural scene. It draws thousands of visitors, both Mexican and foreign, and has seen a rash of expat investment since 2000. Yet even as the buzz increases, the city retains its grace and manners. Every street in the centre boasts a well-maintained colonial church or museum, and the plazas throng with locals enjoying free music and other attractions. Not only can you live well here, but it’s a great base for excursions to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
Founded in 1542, Mérida is built over, and partly from, the ruins of a Maya city known as Tihó or Ichcansihó. Its fortune grew as the capital for exporting henequen, the rope fibre that was Yucatán’s “green gold”.
Trade was interrupted in the spring of 1849, when, early in the Maya uprising that became known as the Caste Wars, rebel armies laid siege to Mérida. They were within a hair’s breadth of capturing the city, when, legend has it, the Maya peasant fighters left the siege to plant corn. The Yucatecan elite quickly arranged a deal with the central Mexican government ceding the peninsula’s independence in exchange for support against future Maya rebellions.
Mérida became an extraordinarily wealthy city, much of it poured into grandiose mansions along Paseo de Montejo. Then the henequen industry all but died around World War II, when nylon became the rope-making material of choice. But Mérida remains elegant, prosperous and intellectual, a vibrant mix of Maya, mestizos, Lebanese (who emigrated here in the early twentieth century) and more recent transplants from Mexico City and abroad.Read More
Though it varies across the peninsula, food in the Yucatán has a few unifying elements, most based on traditional Maya combinations and accented with many earthy spices. Little of the food is hot, but go easy with the salsa de chile habanero that most restaurants have on the table. It’s also called xnipek, Maya for ‘dog’s nose’, because the fiery chile induces a clammy sweat. The most popular dishes are:
A mutable stew that often includes chicken, beef, pork, squash, cabbage and sweet potato in a broth seasoned with cinnamon and allspice, all garnished with radish, coriander and Seville orange.
A combination of pork with tomatoes, onions and spices, widely considered the region’s signature dish.
Sopa de lima
Chicken broth with fragrant local citrus and tortilla chips, and the most popular appetizer or evening snack.
Pollo or cochinita pibil
Chicken or suckling pig wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pib, a pit in the ground, the shredded meat then utilized in many other snacks.
Tacos filled with hard-boiled eggs and covered in a very rich red and green pumpkin-seed sauce.
Pavo en relleno negro
Turkey in a black, burnt-chile sauce.
Crisp corn tortillas topped with shredded turkey, pickled onions, avocado and radish, ubiquitous at dinner time.
The same as salbutes, with an added dab of beans.
A spinach-like green that’s reputed to cure everything that ails you, often blended into a drink with pineapple.
A sweet-savoury mix of fried eggs and beans on a crisp tortilla, topped with mild salsa, ham, cheese, peas and fried banana slices.
Mérida’s free entertainment
Mérida’s free entertainment
The historic centre hosts a party nearly every night of the week, all free and attended largely by locals. Many films and concerts happen at the Centro Olimpo de Cultura, on the northwest corner of the plaza. In addition, these are the recurring events:
Mon Jarana folk dances, in or in front of the Palacio Municipal on the west side of the main plaza. 9pm.
Tues Big band music, heavy on the mambo, Parque de Santiago (C 72 at C 59); trova at the Centro Olimpo. 8.30pm.
Wed Concert at the Centro Olimpo. 9pm.
Thurs Serenata Yucateca, traditional trova music, Parque Santa Lucía; classical music at the Centro Olimpo. Both 9pm.
Sat Noche Mexicana, music from all over Mexico, at the start of Paseo Montejo, Calle 56-A; jazz, salsa and more on the Plaza de la Independencia. Both 8pm.
Sun Car-free centre: in the morning (8am–noon), bicycles take over the streets for the Bici-Ruta; in the afternoon and evening, the plaza is filled with music, dancing, food stalls and more. There‘s also an all-day flea market in the Parque Santa Lucía.
Buying a hammock
Buying a hammock
One of the most popular souvenirs of Mexico is a hammock – and Mérida is one of the best places in the country to buy one. If you want something you can realistically sleep in, exercise a degree of care and never buy from street vendors or even a market stall – their products are rarely good quality. Comfort is measured by the tightness of the weave and the breadth: because you’re supposed to lie in a hammock diagonally to be relatively flat, the distance it stretches sideways is as crucial as the length (although obviously the woven portion of the hammock, excluding the strings at each end, should be at least as long as you are tall).
Cotton threads (hilos de algodón) are more comfortable and better hold their shape, but nylon is easier to wash. (Sisal hammocks are generally scratchy and very poor quality – avoid them.) As a guideline, a decent-size cotton hammock (doble at least) will set you back about M$250.