Mérida is the hub of the Yucatán, sitting in the middle of the peninsula with easy access to archaeological sites, funky beach towns, and colonial culture. It’s a hip and visitor-friendly city, with bustling restaurants, cute cafés, and events and festivals that take place downtown. Mérida has certainly been discovered, but you’ll find that prices here are lower than what you’ll find in Cancún, Tulum, and the Riviera Maya. Mérida is small enough that three days is enough time to soak up the sights and sounds and do a little exploring outside of the city. There’s a huge expat community here, so at times it can feel touristy, but after spending a few days here, you may want to relocate too.
Most U.S. flights to Mérida arrive in the afternoon, so hop in a cab (or rent a car) and head to your hotel or rental to freshen up and walk around town before dinner. Mérida is a small city that’s easiest to navigate by foot, so walk over to the main Zócalo to get your bearings. (As the sun goes down, the light reflects of the pastel buildings in a warm glow, so make sure to always have your camera handy at sunset.)
At the main square, you’ll see the Cathedral, the theater, and some beautiful government buildings. You might also happen upon a local festival or “Pok ta Pok” tournament in the town square, where local teams don traditional headdresses and body paint to reenact the incredibly difficult Mayan game of Pok ta Pok, where players use just their hips (no hands, no feet) to pass a heavy rubber ball through a hoop. In ancient Mayan cultures, the winning team was sacrificed to the gods, but this version is decidedly less bloody. The events are a fun way for tourists to mingle with locals and get a taste of life in Mérida.
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Indulge in romantic Amaro for dinner, a traditional restaurant situated in a courtyard close to the main square. It’s a vegetarian-friendly spot with choices like chaya (a spinach-like leaf) soup, but don’t miss out on meaty local dishes like cochinita pibil (roast marinated pork) and panuchos, bean-filled tacos topped with either roast pork or chicken and lettuce, avocado, tomato, and pickled onion.
For dessert, head to Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon on the main square, an ice cream shop next to the Palacio de Gobierno. The ice cream here is made with goat milk, which gives it a rich texture and tangy aftertaste, almost like frozen yogurt. Opt for a flavor of something local, like coconut, and eat your ice cream at the tables set up on the sidewalk.
Today’s the day to do a bit of exploring and walking around in Mérida. Wear comfortable shoes, but if you get tired of walking you can always hire a horse and carriage to take you to your next stop.
After breakfast, make your way down the Paseo Montejo, the Champs Elysees of Mérida. The avenue is filled with gorgeous colonial mansions dating from the late 19th century, when wealthy plantation owners competed to have the most beautiful house on the block. There’s not much to see inside the opulent buildings—some are still private and some have been turned into office buildings—but they are great eye candy. If you’d like a peek inside, visit Palacio Canton, a private residence that has been converted into a museum. Built in 1909, the mansion is filled with marble interiors and Beaux-Arts details.
For lunch, take a stroll through Mérida’s market, located on Calle 56. The sights and smells of produce, roasted pork, seafood, and fresh tortillas can be overwhelming, but do a lap to see what’s offered before you decide on a snack (or snacks). If you like tacos, opt for a stand selling tacos al pastor (look for the vertical spit-roasted meat). There’s also a heavenly pork sandwich, served on a baguette and filled with melt-in-your-mouth roasted suckling pig. Don’t be scared if you’re a vegetarian: you can also find delicious treats like empanadas, chiles rellenos, and fresh juices.
Insider Tip: The market is also a good place to pick up souvenirs for the food lovers in your life. Opt for spices, papakzul (pumpkin seed paste), and habanero hot sauce.
After lunch, head to the main square, where you can venture inside the imposing Catedral de Mérida. Nearby, pay a visit to the Casa de Montejo. The stately home was originally built by the Franciscos de Montejo, the first conquistadors of the Yucatán Peninsula, in 1549. A visit here is quick, but rewarding (and it’s free!). Visitors get the chance to walk through the ground floor of the house with rooms elaborately decorated and filled with household objects. You’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time as you stroll through the lavish library, parlor, dining room, and bedroom. The museum is also home to a gallery that showcases modern works and contemporary photography.
Now it’s time to stroll around town and do some shopping. Mérida is a hub for crafts, and you’ll find beautiful handmade clothing, bags, and hammocks at any of the little shops in the centro. There’s beautiful bead and leather work, vibrant textiles, and folk art. Visit Miniaturas on calle 59 for a delightful selection of tiny figurines and art works.
Return to your lodgings to relax or take a dip in the pool and freshen up before dinner.
Since street food was on the menu at lunch, dinner tonight is the total opposite. Make a reservation at Kuuk, a chic and unique restaurant that has a modern take on ancient Yucatecan ingredients. The tasting menu here is an experiment in molecular gastronomy and will take you through the flavors of the Yucatán with small, artful dishes prepared with fresh ingredients and cutting-edge techniques.
If you have the energy after dinner, head to La Fundación Mezcalería, a fun and funky bar where you can try a variety of Mezcals while listening to local bands and DJs. Depending on the season it can be loud and hard to find a seat, but there’s a little outdoor courtyard too.
Wake up, fuel up, and do a little educational sightseeing today. Rent a car or hire a driver for a trip out of Mérida to Dzibilchaltun, an ancient Mayan site located 25 minutes from the city. You can hire a guide or just stroll the grounds on your own. The site isn’t the most impressive site in the Yucatán, but it’s a lovely place to visit for a morning. There’s a temple, a main square, and even a crumbling Colonial church. Don’t forget to bring your bathing suit—there’s a swimming hole on site where you can jump from rocks into cool green water.
Insider Tip: The site is home to temple with doors that perfectly align with the rising sun during the spring and fall equinox; huge celebrations are held here to mark both dates.
At lunchtime, get back in the car and hit the beach at Progreso. There’s a long pier for cruise ships and a long strand filled with little beach restaurants. Pick one that strikes your fancy and relax with a cold beer.
After you’ve had your fill of the beach, return to Mérida in the afternoon and get a table outside at La Negrita Cantina, a bar with live music, strong drinks, and a delicious assortment of bar snacks that make a great last meal in Mérida.
Where to Stay
No matter where you stay, make sure there’s a pool. Mérida has some gorgeous and affordable boutique hotels like Casa Lecanda and Coqui Coqui; it would be a miss to visit Mérida and not stay at one of those hotels. If you’re traveling with a group, however, you can easily find a beautiful hacienda with a courtyard and pool for under $200.
When to Go
Mérida has a hot tropical climate that’s lovely year-round (hence the retirees). However, it can get beastly hot during the summer months. There are short tropical storms during the fall, and winter has slightly lower temperatures and clear sunny skies, making it the best and busiest season for a visit.
AeroMexico, United, and American Airlines all have direct flights from the United States to Mérida’s international airport.
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