Merida, together with Campeche, plays the role of wingman in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Frankly, I don’t know why. It lives “under the shadow” of the Mayan Riviera, which is extremely famous.
All the tourist facilities are clustered on that strip of coast that goes from Cancun to Tulum. Every day, tourists are taken on daily trips to see a part of Yucatan. Only those who follow a road trip itinerary by car or bus, can also get around the west coast and can appreciate cities like Merida or Campeche.
What to do and see in Merida, Mexico
I got to be honest: Merida didn’t succeed in bewitching me. It didn’t fully conquer me, even if I consider it an important stop along an Mexican road trip. Maybe it was the first approach that influenced me. I arrived in the city in the late afternoon after 200 km and a day spent between the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and some bathing in the cenotes. In short, when I got there I was particularly tired and immediately I had to face what is a hurdle in Merida, the traffic!
Damn, there’s so much traffic! It was the only place on my mexican itinerary where I had a real hard time keeping my head on straight. Among non-existent road signs and people in post-work hysteria, I would have needed a few drops of tranquilizer to stay calm among the thousand intersections of Merida. If you’re travelling in Mexico by car, I suggest you to read this my post about the Mexico travel tips to remember.
You should know, in fact, that mexican cities are almost all made up of square blocks. Most of the streets are one-way and cross with as many one-way streets. A delirium.
So my arrival wasn’t the best, but that’s not the only thing that changed my opinion about Merida.
Merida, called “the white city“, is a big city, the biggest in Yucatan and is considered its cultural capital. It is served by an airport where direct flights from Italy land and is therefore very convenient as a base for exploring the whole peninsula.
Although it is a very large city (whose old center is second in size only to that of Mexico City) everything revolves around its beautiful main square: the Plaza Grande.
It reflects the classic style of mexican squares. It’s very well-kept, with a central fountain and lots of vegetation. The inhabitants of Merida appreciate it, and you can see it. It is always populated and is the hub of city life. The Plaza Grande is overlooked by all the main places of interest in the city, the Catedral de San Ildefonso, the Casa de Montejo, the Government Palace and the Fernando García Ponce-Macay Museum of Contemporary Art.
The cathedral is extremely important for the people of Merida. When I entered, a Mexican boy approached me and with great pride told me that, a few months earlier, the pope had visited Merida and had knelt in a specific place in the cathedral. I let you imagine the pride he showed.
A quarter of an hour’s walk from the centre, the small streets turn into the great Paseo de Montejo. It’s an elegant tree-lined avenue that is home to the commercial life of the city of Merida. There are hotels, historic buildings, shops, restaurants. However, it didn’t impress me.
Local handicraft and Yucateca cuisine
Besides being the cultural capital, it is also important for two other aspects: cuisine and handicrafts.
The Maya culture is very strong and many inhabitants still believe they are 100% Mayan. Several shops scattered around the city try to preserve this identity and sell objects created by the indigenous Mayan communities. The money from the various purchases contributes to the support and protection of these minorities.
Everything is beautiful, until you walk through the city and you are constantly stopped by people who claim to be Mayans and want to sell you their product. I suppose we cannot throw the baby out the bathwater, the smart people will always be there and can not undermine the authenticity of an ideal like this one. I would recommend a shop that seemed consistent with the cause, if I may, go to the Mundo Maya. It is located a few steps walk from the main square.
I have not yet told you about Merida’s most important craft object: the hammock.
If you want to buy a hammock, you are in the best place for it. Affordable prices and very high quality. I have discovered a lot of things about hammocks and also debunked some clichés that the same famous paper guides talk about. Mexicans, and especially the people of Merida, use the hammock constantly, and not just to take a nap but to sleep in it at night and… do other things too. So much so that there is even a little book called Kamasutra for hammocks, also called Amakasutra, which is kindly offered in case you buy one. I don’t know if it’s a marketing stunt. I won’t comment on it, but the guy who explained it to me seemed very satisfied.
Merida has a very interesting cuisine, perhaps the best in the Yucatan Peninsula. It has been influenced by Caribbean, European and indigenous cultures. There are two dishes that I will not forget: sopa di lima and cochinita pibil.
Where to stay in Merida
The city offers a wide choice of hotel accommodations. They range from hostels to expensive hotels. I chose my accommodation simply based on three factors: cost, proximity to the centre and parking availability. The choice fell on the Yucatan Vista Inn. Close to the center and affordable. The good thing is an extravagant and eccentric English-born owner. In the morning he cooks breakfast for you like your mummy. You won’t be able to say no to his omelets.
Excursions from Merida
Besides being an interesting city, Merida is also an important hub to other destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula.
If you spend several nights in Merida you will have the opportunity to get around to see the pink flamingos in the Celestun biosphere on the west coast or the Rio Lagartos Reserve on the north coast.
From Merida you can reach the famous Mayan site of Chichen Itza and the Cenotes of Dnitzup. On the way to Campeche you can stop and enjoy the beautiful archaeological site of Uxmal which has left me speechless. There are many excursions that you make from the center of Merida and they are all very interesting.