In late-December 2017, I spent several days visiting some of the Spanish Colonial cities on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Merida is the largest city on the Yucatan, as well as the capital. Just as Izamal is known as “The Yellow City”, Merida is known as “The White City”. Although don’t expect to see a ton of white paint. The “white” nomenclature comes from the widespread use of limestone and the fact that the streets are kept very clean.
Merida is located in the northwest corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, about 25 miles due south of the cruise ship port of Progreso. We rented a car in Cancun and drove, a journey which takes about 4 hours along the modern, but boring toll road. There are also many non-stop buses available from Cancun (both airport and city center), ranging from basic to luxury. More information on bus transportation can be found at the Ado website.
Merida has its own airport too and for U.S. travelers, there are a handful of direct flights to/from Miami, Houston, and Atlanta. Since we live in south Florida, I strongly considered the convenience of flying direct from Miami, but we wanted to use frequent flyer miles for this trip and no Miami-Merida awards were available within our desired timeframe.
Where We Stayed
Because Merida has many affordable lodging options, we opted to pay cash rather than redeeming hotel reward points which could be better utilized elsewhere. We stayed at the Ibis Merida Centro at a rate of US$38 per night including tax and breakfast for two. If you’ve stayed at the Ibis chain before, then you know that they are all pretty identical. Rooms are small but functional, with minimalist Ikea-style furnishings.
The location of the Ibis is on the northern edge of Centro, nearby to the Monumento a la Patria and the Paseo de Montejo, the beautiful main artery of Merida. But it’s a long 30 minute walk (or a 10 minute taxi ride) south to the Plaza Grande and Parque de Santa Ana areas where, as a tourist, you will be spending the bulk of your time. In hindsight, I would have spent a little more money and stayed closer to Plaza Grande.
Monumento a la Patria
As I mentioned, our hotel was located near the Monumento a la Patria at the top of Paseo de Montejo. The Monumento a la Patria was designed by a Colombian artist, Rómulo Rozo, and completed in 1956. It tells the history of Mexico from the 14th century until the mid-20th century. Do be careful crossing traffic to view it, though. This roundabout is one of the busiest in Merida.
Paseo de Montejo
The main boulevard, Paseo de Montejo, is named after Merida’s founder, Francisco de Montejo. It’s often referred to as the Champs Elysées of Mexico. Indeed, it is lined with some breathtakingly opulent residences. The wealth to build these homes came from the henequen industry. Henequen is an agave which is native to the Yucatan, similar to the tequila agave. But its real value was transforming it into sisal fabric for fashioning rope, twine, and other goods.
However, the prosperity was short lived. In the first half of the 20th century, sisal was replaced by less expensive and more durable synthetic materials such as nylon. Some of the mansions, especially along the paseo, have been converted to museums or commercial space, but many, many others have slipped into severe decay.
At the southern terminus of Paseo Montejo, you will come to the area of Parque de Santa Ana. The park has a pretty church, as well as a market containing many affordable and delicious food vendors.
Now we are getting into the heart of Merida’s old town, with so many cool little shops, restaurants, and cantinas.
And now we arrive at the Plaza Grande. And grande it is! First, we went into the Olimpo Cultural Center with its impressive atrium. I had read that there was an art exhibit on the second floor but it must have recently ended. Workers were taking down displays and cleaning the exhibition space.
And of course the Catedral de Merida. Next to the cathedral is the Passage of the Revolution, an architecturally striking space that is decorated differently throughout the year. Being late-December, there were (of course) Christmas lights during the our visit. We meant to return and check it out at night, but forgot.
By now, we were getting hungry and decided to have lunch at Gorditas Gorda, which came highly recommended for a quick, casual bite. I have to admit that I always thought gorditas were just some Americanized concoction dreamed up by Taco Bell. But it turns out that they really are a thing. A gordita is kinda like a puffy, more doughy version of a tortilla that is slit open and stuffed with various fillings. There were about 20 choices of filling with every combination you could think of.
I would recommend ordering 2 gorditas for a good snack or 3+ if you’re starving. We were lucky to snag one of the small plastic tables inside but you can also order your gorditas to go and eat them on one of the many benches in the plaza. Cheap, tasty and located right across from the cathedral!
The pink building below is the Palacio Municipal, one of several government buildings located on the Plaza Grande. There seems to be some misinformation on tripadvisor and elsewhere about Palacio Municipal versus the Governors Palace (the green building). While simarly named, they aren’t the same.
The Palacio Municipal, while nice to look at from the outside, doesn’t offer much to see inside. All of the murals and the gallery with the checkered floor that you may have seen in photos are located in the Governors Palace. I will be showing the interior of the Governors Palace and the Museo Casa Montejo in a separate post.
And with that, we headed back to the hotel to freshen up before tackling Merida’s craft beer scene this evening. I hope you enjoyed the photos.