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Trip Report Trip to Merida - Very Long and Lots of Info on Restaurants

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First of all, a little about us. We’re in our mid-60’s. John is retired, and I still work 3 days / week. We’re independent travelers who have travelled a lot in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. We speak a little Spanish as well. We were last in Merida about 25 years ago, and with WestJet introducing direct flights from Toronto, it seemed like a good idea for a 2 week holiday in the winter. We booked as soon as they scheduled the flights and got a great deal - $435 CAD each for a return flight (including the taxes). We booked for 2 weeks.

When we arrived in Merida, we promptly found an ATM at the airport to get some pesos. We had booked a little house on AirBnB. Our taxi (which cost 200 pesos and included a couple of bottles of water and crackers) had no problem finding the house, which is located on Calle 74, between 49 and 51. Paula, the owner, met us at the house and gave us a quick tour of the neighbourhood. She also recommended a couple of restaurants as well as telling us which restaurants she thought were overrated (always helpful to hear from a local). She stopped to buy water for the house and I picked up some beer for the fridge.

The house is lovely – one of those typical houses that seems like a railroad car, with one room after another. Two of the rooms have king sized beds in them. The ceilings are very high, with a big ceiling fan in each room and an A/C unit in one of the bedrooms and the kitchen. The kitchen is well-equipped. We only really used it for breakfasts and the odd meal, but I could easily see staying there longer and making better use of it. There was also a washer and dryer and we did laundry midway through the trip. The garden is perfect – very private with high walls around it, lots of shade and greenery and a little dipping pool that we used at least once a day. It was cold, but just what I needed after a long walk. I can’t imagine not having a pool down there now!

After Paula left us, we headed to Manjar Blanco (near Parque de Santa Ana) for lunch, which was one of Paula’s recommendations. It was also one that Rick Bayless had recommended. We ordered the papadzules (tortillas with lots of eggs and a sauce), queso relleno negro and cochinita pibil. It was a lot more food than the 2 of us needed. The queso relleno was very unusual and very very tasty. With 2 lemonades, the bill came to about 490 pesos. We walked around a bit, ended up at the house and slept the rest of the afternoon. We were exhausted and slept until 8:30. We both woke up and then slept some more! So much for our first day!

General impressions are that Merida is a safe and interesting place to visit. We were looking forward to being able to speak Spanish, although you could get by without it. People are very friendly - it's common to say buenos dias when you meet someone on the street. Maybe it was just the neighbourhood where we were staying, but we didn't find it as easy as we thought it would be to get taxis. (Luckily we were usually prepared to walk.) We didn't take buses, although there seem to be a lot of them. Food was excellent overall - I had no stomach issues and I wasn't overly careful about what I ate and drank. There seem to be a huge number of homes for sale. We did hear from an American that there are a lot of Canadians in Merida, more Canadians than Americans, although I'm sure about that. There's a lot of art and music in the city - always a positive sign!

Coffee (the essential) – Because of our lazy day when we first arrived, we didn’t have any groceries. When we got up, we headed to a place called Dilan Coffee to pick up coffee and cake. They are a small and very popular place near the Mesoamerican University, which is around the corner from the house. Later we found another coffee place called Bengala Kaffeehaus on calle 60. The coffee there is excellent and worth seeking out if you’re looking for good coffee. It’s across from Parque de Santa Lucia. We ended up there a couple of times, including the only afternoon it rained. Very handy that we were already there! The only thing I’d change at Bengala is to offer more pastries. They have sandwiches, but limited sweet offerings. We also ended up at Starbucks a couple of times when we found ourselves on Paseo Montejo. Say what you like about Starbucks – it’s reliable.

Restaurants

Our cheapest full meal had to be the Santiago market, where we ordered delicious panuchos with cochinita pibil and carne asada with a couple of drinks – 90 pesos for 4 panuchos and 2 drinks. A real deal!

Another cheap meal was hojaldras (puff pastry with ham and cheese and sugar) and cheese turnovers picked up at a bakery (called Hojaldras) and taken back to the house for lunch. All the pastries only came to 44 pesos (about $3.25 CAD) – delicious and typically Yucatecan.

A very inexpensive but tasty lunch can be had at Mais, Canela and Cilantro, a small place on calle 70 and calle 55. I don’t think they have a written menu. We had one of the 2 daily specials – vegetable & bean soup, rice, tortillas, vegetables and pescado veracruzana. With a large bottle of water, it came to 90 pesos each (about $14.50 CAD between the 2 of us).

Another inexpensive little place is Organico, located at calle 53 between 60 and 62. We went there in the evening and had very tasty toasted sandwiches, one with avocado and goat cheese, the other with string cheese and mushrooms. We also had a big slice of carrot cake, delicious drinks and 2 espressos, all for 240 peso (less than $18 CAD). The service was excellent. The menu and the conversation with the waiter were all in Spanish. It’s a small place and we got into a conversation with a Mexican family who were there for dinner.

On our final Saturday, we planned to do the art walk through the Merida English Library. We happened to notice that some of the artists were near Wayan’e, so we started out there with a taco breakfast. We ordered 2 castacan, 2 chili bull, and 2 others (maybe with sausage) – delicious and cheap with a big bottle of water. Highly recommended! We were lucky enough to get a couple of stools right in front. Honestly I could have eaten there several more times.

We ended up making it an all taco day, since we finished that day eating street food from the food stalls at Noche Mexicana. The show was pretty corny, but the tacos were great – 2 veggie options (rajas con elote and nopales), 1 with chorizo and potatoes. (I think we might have been at the famous Sabrina’s stand – it seemed the most crowded.) We also had a marquesita – they are ok, but I have to say I prefer churros.

On our one excursion out of the city (to Izamal), we had lunch at Los Arcos which is on one of the squares, where we shared sopa de lima, an order of panuchos with carne asada, and an order of poc chuk tacos (each had 3). They also serve the best chaya lemonade we had on the trip. The bill came to 225 pesos (about $16.50 CAD) before tip. After wandering around in the heat, we stopped and had a jarra de tamarindo (55 pesos) where the guy served us complimentary chips and a several dips, including the pumpkin one that I like so much. I don’t remember the name of that restaurant, but it’s just down from Los Arcos. Service was friendlier there.

We had 2 high end dinners in Merida. We had made a reservation at Kuuk for Valentine’s Day. That was definitely an experience. It’s located in an old mansion. We ordered the 11 course tasting menu (990 pesos each – about $73 CAD) which was amazing. Each course was like a work of art. I can’t begin to describe each of the dishes, although some of the standouts were the scallops, pineapple and coconut, the bone marrow and the black recaro plantain tamal and coconut pozol. The service was very good. Their cocktails are interesting and the wines good. After we finished our meal, the hostess took us on a tour of the house, including their kitchen and lab, where they come up with all these ideas, and the wine cellar. She sent us off with a little gift bag of wonderful chocolates. A similar meal in Toronto would be considerably more expensive.

Another higher end restaurant is Apoala, which features Oaxacan cuisine. It’s on Santa Lucia square, and we made a reservation there as it’s very popular. Oaxaca food is wonderful and we were not disappointed. We started with the stuffed squash blossoms, which I loved. John had the beef short ribs and I had the fish of the day. Dessert was a berry crumble. It is a more expensive restaurant (1236 pesos, which included the tip - $93 CAD), but worth it, we thought. They seem to specialize in mescal – unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I don’t care for it, but we watched a couple at a nearby table get a lesson in the different mescals.

Friends that I had worked with 30 years ago were in Merida for a month, and we met them a couple of times for dinner. One dinner was at Chaya Maya (their choice). It was just ok. The margaritas were disappointing – absolutely no flavour of lime or tequila at all. I had the poc chuk, which was tasty enough, with a bit of rice, avocado, etc. John had the pollo pibil, which was ok as well. We split an order of ice cream (pina with chaya) for dessert. We split the bill with everyone and it came to 500 pesos a couple ($37 CAD), so not expensive. Service seemed a little rushed, I thought. Although the location is lovely, I wouldn’t go back unless someone else really wanted to go there. (It was also a place that Paula, our hostess, had said wasn’t very good.)

Another evening, they chose Panchos. Again the space is lovely and service is good, although everyone spoke English to us even when we spoke Spanish to them. Our dinner came to 600 pesos - $44 CAD (wine for me, lemonade for John, chicken for me, chimichanga for John, 2 espressos, plus an interesting starter made at the table). It wasn’t a particularly memorable meal, but it was a nice opportunity to catch up with people we hadn’t seen in decades.

We had a wonderful seafood lunch at El Marlin Azul, a local seafood restaurant. We ordered excellent ceviche mixto, then John had shrimp brochette and I had shrimp with mojo de ajo (garlic sauce). Messy but I was licking my fingers! All that and 2 lemonades and a stack of tortillas came to 325 pesos (about $24 CAD). I will be craving that ceviche in the days to come!

One place near us where we ended up twice was Casa Montejo Merida – it’s on calle 59 between 72 and 74. The courtyard is very nice, and the music is jazz. We had iced lattes and pastries there one morning and ended up going back for pizza on our last evening. (By that time, I had walked my feet off and didn’t want to go too far.) The pizza was delicious – pear and roquefort, although the pizza isn’t available until after 9 PM. (I think that’s when the pizza chef arrives.) So we enjoyed a delicious salad with lots of different lettuces, goat cheese and nuts, then waited for the pizza chef to show up. I don’t think they sell alcohol, including beer, but I may be wrong. I can’t remember what we paid – I know it wasn’t a lot.

I knew we’d eat a lot of Mexican food (which I love), but we also tried a number of non-Mexican restaurants.

One wonderful lunch was at Momacoa, which is close to the Liverpool mall. I heard about it on one of Rick Bayless’s Facebook feeds. We took a taxi out there – seemed like a long way but it was definitely worth it. The food is wonderful. Paloma, the chef, has a special non-alcoholic cocktail made of hibiscus, ginger and mandarin with mineral water. It was probably one of the best drinks I had on the trip. We ordered huge ribs, roast beef thinly sliced, pulled brisket, potato salad, baked beans and 2 bowls of chaya cooked like collard greens. The chaya was fabulous and 1 bowl was definitely not enough! I can’t remember for sure, but I think that the bill came to about 380 pesos before tip (about $28 CAD).

Momacoa also sells pulled pork at the Slow Food Market. Paula, our host, had told us about the market, and we headed there on our first Saturday. We bought excellent cheese, fabulous onion bread, and the best granola I have ever had. We introduced ourselves to Ludi, who we recognized from Momacoa, and tasted their excellent pulled pork.

For lunch that day, we took the recommendation of someone who was selling tickets to the art walk for the Merida English Library and we ended up at the Korean restaurant called Younghee’s Kitchen. I had the buckwheat noodles with veg and John had the pineapple and pork. We had very interesting fruit drinks as well. The whole meal came to 280 pesos before tip (less than $21 CAD). This restaurant is only open on Saturdays. The owner is very sweet and says she plans to open the restaurant 4 days / week when she retires! The food is excellent – very fresh and delicious and I definitely recommend it, especially if you combine it with a trip to the Slow Food Market.

We had a lovely lunch at Ave del Paraiso, a Thai restaurant on calle 66 not far from our house. The chef is Swiss. I ordered the green curry with fish, John had the special of the day, with shrimp and red curry, served in a pineapple. I had an interesting drink with ginger, lemongrass and so on. For dessert, we shared the mango frozen yogurt with cream and a fabulous “swiss lemon cake’’, (a very delicious lemon loaf), and 2 double espressos. The bill came to 429 pesos before tip (about $32 CAD).

There are a few French restaurants in Merida, and we arranged to meet fellow Canadians (actually French-Canadians from Montreal) at Café Crème (calle 41 at 60) for lunch. They are friends of friends, and they’ve bought a house in Merida and plan to spend half the year there. The patio at Café Creme is lovely and sheltered. John had a nicoise salad and I had a cheese & ham baguette. We shared carrot cake, each had a lemonade and coffee (espresso and latte). The bill came to 330 pesos (about $24.40 CAD). Their cheese plates looked really good too.

We also had a brunch at Bistro Cultural – croque madame and croque monsieur for each of us, juice (chaya / pineapple and jamaica), 2 lattes, 1 espresso and a big piece of chocolate cake – all for 255 pesos (about $19.30 CAD) before tip. The garden there is lovely and peaceful, definitely a nice spot to linger.

We did try to go to breakfast at Café Sukra one Sunday morning, but couldn’t get a table. We ended up back there a few days later for lunch. I had a vegetarian sandwich, with lots of grilled veg and cheese and a fried egg on top (I love dishes with an egg on top), with an iced latte and John had another vegetarian sandwich. It’s a pleasant place and bill was very reasonable. I think the sandwiches were only about 60 or 65 pesos each, and service was good. I love ordering vegetarian – the vegetables are usually so much better than they are at home.

There are lots of Italian restaurants in Merida, and we had dinner at more than 1. One evening we went to La Tratto which is on Santa Lucia square. We shared a pizza with sausage and a really good salad (called a caprese but with grilled vegetables, which were very good). I ordered a quarter of red wine and John had lemonade. We shared a chocolate peanut butter dessert with espresso and fairly good latte. It was definitely too much food for me and I waddled home. It came to about 650 pesos before tip (about $48 CAD). I really enjoyed the salad and should have stopped there! Service was ok, but a little rushed.

Despite its odd name, we actually liked the food at dadaumpa better. They are located on calle 55, between 66 and 64. In fact we enjoyed the overall experience more. We had inexpensive pasta carbonara, delicious pizza with sausage, good caprese salad (although the basil was not fresh), red wine for me, lemonade for John. The waiter also came around serving little toasts with delicious tomato and balsamic vinegar on them. The bill was about ½ what it was at La Tratto. I like the atmosphere there – the reggae music was a different choice and the waiters are very attractive! They also had a nice looking male cat who has been neutered – very responsible!

We found that there were not a lot of restaurants open on Sunday night, and we ended up at Portico de Peregrino, which seems like a more old school Italian place. The service was not unfriendly, it just wasn’t friendly. We didn’t feel welcome at all, even though there were only a couple of other tables occupied. The food was fine – 313 pesos ($23 CAD) for a spaghetti with roquefort sauce, eggplant with chicken, 2 glasses of wine for me and a glass of lemonade for John. Not sure what the wine was other than vino tinto! We definitely feel like hanging around after for coffee and we ended up going over to Plaza Grande for churros. It’s too bad, as the courtyard space is really pretty in the evening.

Ice cream – there are a number of ice cream / gelato places in Merida, and all of them seemed pretty good. On Plaza Grande, we had sorbets – I had coconut and John had elote. Delicious! On the Sunday where we wandered along the Paseo Montejo, we stopped for more sorbet (banana for me – it really tasted like banana! – and mango for John). However, I think the place I liked the best is Pola, which has some unusual flavours. I had a scoop of blackberry and a scoop of cardamom with espresso. John had the beet with ginger and mango with chilis. Pola is more expensive than the other places, but their choices are wonderful.

Activities

We did a lot of wandering! I was wearing a step counter and generally walked between 12,000 and 16,000 steps a day. Considering that I have ‘bad’ knees and it was all pavement walking, I was very proud of myself! Generally we’d have a slow start to the day, take a break in the midday and go out in the evening. We took cabs a couple of times, but mostly walked.

One early start was the day we took the free walking tour of the Plaza Grande offered by the tourist bureau. It starts at 9:30 AM. The tour was very good, and well worth the tip. The guide spoke very good English, but also very fast English so we had to listen. Other tourists were from the US, Canada, Netherlands and Germany.

One evening we went to the Merida English Library to listen to Swinga Tu Madre. There was a good crowd out for that, and we enjoyed the evening – 100 pesos each for admission.

Another musical evening was the Yucatan Symphony at the Jose Peon Contreras theatre. Our tickets were 100 pesos each for second tier, right in the centre. (They were the best tickets that were available – anything closer was sold.) The concert was excellent and the crowd was very appreciative. We had a laugh about the musician who played the cymbals and the triangle – it seems like something I could do, although it’s probably more difficult than it looks :)

We dropped by the free Macay museum on the Plaza Grande one day. It features modern art which was quite interesting. The space is really nice. Another museum that I liked is the Museo de Arte Popular. Again it’s free. It’s a small exhibit, but well done. Probably the most impressive museum is in the Palacio Canton. It is small and accessible. Entry is 55 pesos. Most signage is in Spanish, but I was able to follow it. I loved the juxtaposition between the old mansion – all the ceiling mouldings and so on – and the Mayan relics. The space also felt oddly modern in some ways.

One day we headed to Izamal, the “yellow town”. We caught a taxi to the Terminal Noroeste and bought tickets to a bus that was leaving in about 15 minutes. Return tickets were 54 pesos each. The trip is quite easy and you get dropped in town. We wandered around, went over to the pyramid and John climbed it while I watched from the shade under a tree. Then we went to the convent, which is quite stunning. Earlier that day, we saw a nun walking through one of the squares with flowers. Definitely a low key day, but I totally enjoyed it.

Both of us like art, so we did some gallery hopping which was fun. There are a number of galleries near Plaza Santa Ana, so we spent some time there.

While at the Slow Food Market, we had bought tickets to the Merida Art Walk. As mentioned, we started at Wayan’e. We needed the energy from those tacos! It was a long day for us, with lots of walking, although we did cab from one area to another. We realized we had already seen a few of the studios earlier in our roaming, but it was still a big area to cover and we didn’t get to see everyone. There were some very impressive artists, and if I had a place down there, I would have been very tempted. As it was, I did end up buying a piece from Lorraine Toohey, who is an artist originally from Canada, who lives in Merida full time now. Her work is wonderful! She does have a gallery on calle 66 called Galleria Amapola but she doesn’t have regular hours there. Lorraine was wonderful – she had a heavy cardboard box constructed so that I could carry the piece home and even gave us a ride back to our house after we picked it up from her.

Lorraine directed us to the cemeteries that are in town. I had heard about a tour of the cemeteries, and I’m thinking it might have been quite interesting. I always enjoy visiting cemeteries. There are 2 that are basically beside one another. One is more ‘basic’ – the graves are closer to the ground and we saw a lot of iguanas who make their home there. The other is very impressive, and almost seems like a small town. We happily spent some time wandering through it and taking photos.

When we were out at Momacoa, we walked over to the Liverpool mall and watched ice skating. Bizarre! There were a couple of very good skaters, obviously working with coaches, as well as little children and a group of younger people who were having a lot of fun out there.

Much of our time was spent wandering around. The city is fairly walkable, although the sidewalks leave a lot to be desired – typical of Mexico and other part of Latin America. I definitely had to watch where I was going. We didn’t do a lot of shopping, although we did a fair amount of looking. I did buy an interesting necklace at Kukul, which is across from Chaya Maya. I had hoped to find some textiles (although I’m running out of run at home for textiles). I saw a lot of Otomi textiles, which I love (and I already have a couple of pieces) – but honestly I started to wonder how authentic they were, given that there were so much for sale.

A lot of our time was spent people watching and drinking a cold beverage. We don’t like to be on the go all the time, and this was perfect for us. Our patio was so comfortable and inviting – I really enjoyed our time there.

We thought that we’d go to Uxmal, but somehow never got around to it. The fact that there likely wasn’t going to be a lot of shade was a major deterrent for me. Maybe next time.

I can easily see us going back again, maybe next year. In the meantime, we’re planning something completely different – we’ve got a trip booked to Iceland in August!

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