13 May 2015

Mérida: The Colourful Yucatán Capital

After a long bus journey, a flight, a long wait at the unlovely Cancún airport and another longish bus journey, I finally made it to Mérida on the northwest corner of the Yucatán peninsula. Sadly, I had to book my internal flight from DF to Cancún before I knew my exact itinerary, so I ended up taking the bus from Oaxaca to DF, spending the night in DF and then flying to Cancún and taking a four-hour bus to Mérida. With hindsight, I would have ponied up and booked a flight from Oaxaca to Mérida, but I was at least treated to an aerial preview of the Gulf of Mexico.

By the time I got to my hotel in Mérida on Monday night, I was hot, tired and very hungry. Although DF and Oaxaca were warm, Mérida is seriously hot and humid, even at night. Although it has a population of 830,000, the city centre of Mérida is relatively small and easy to explore on foot. The streets have a handy, if slightly confusing grid system, whereby north–south streets have even numbers and east–west streets have odd numbers. I strolled down to the cathedral, which was very pretty by night.

For dinner, I went to La Chaya Maya on Calle 55, for some tasty Yucatecan fare. My frozen margarita Chaya was very green (chaya is a type of tree spinach) and, I suspect, not very alcoholic, but was only 28 pesos (about £1.60). I also ordered the cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork marinated in lime and chillies and wrapped in a banana leaf; 115 pesos, or just under £5), which was very tasty, and came with beans and tortillas, which were being made by the two Mayan women sitting in the window.

I only had one full day in Mérida, but that’s about all you need to visit the city’s main attractions — I would have liked an extra day to visit some of the nearby Mayan sites or to a few cenotes (natural limestone swimming holes in the jungle.

There are free walking tours of the city in English and Spanish that leave at 9.30 each morning from the tourist office next to the Palacio Municipal on Plaza Grande, a large, verdant public square in the city centre. The tour took about 90 minutes and focused mainly on the buildings around Plaza Grande, which form the bulk of the main historic sights. First, we went into the lovely peach-coloured Palacio Municipal, where we learnt about the history of the city — it was built on the site of the Mayan settlement of T’hó, which was conquered by the Spanish in 1542. The Mayan name means ‘five’, as the settlement had five pyramids, none of which survived the Spanish.

Next, we walked to the Casa de Montejo, which dates to 1549 and is the city’s oldest remaining building. If you look carefully, you can see the two armed men flanking the gate standing on the heads of generic barbarians. I think that’s what’s called sending a message. The building is now owned by a bank and in the newer wing (on the right of the photo), there is a little museum highlighting some of the 19th century furnishings of the house.

We also went inside the cathedral and the Palacio de Gobierno, currently the office of the Yucatán governor, which is a fabulous pistachio green colour. Inside, you can see some of the murals painted by Yucatán artist Fernando Castro Pachecoco, If you only have a short time in Mérida, the guided walk is definitely a great way to learn about the city and its key sights.

After the tour, I went in search of more small souvenirs and found that the government-supported Casa de las Artesanías was the least stressful place to shop — partly because it’s big and I was free to browse by myself, and partly because the prices are fixed (and reasonable) and I hate to bargain. It was starting to get really hot again and I was getting hungry, so I went to the Artesanías Bazar Garcia Rejon. This is primarily a crafts and general goods market, but there is a section with various comedores at the back (on the south side). On the recommendation of economist and blogger Tyler Cowen, I went to Lonchería Punto y Coma and had some delicious tostadas with turkey, cheese, sour cream and avo (16 pesos each, or 70 p). I also had a nice chat with the waiter, who complimented me on my Spanish, although I expect it says more about the lack of Spanish spoken by the majority of foreign tourists to Mérida than my improving linguistic skills.

I also walked through Mercado Municipal Lucas de Gálvez, a huge, sprawling food market a few blocks southeast of the Plaza Grande. As well as fruit, veg, meat and spices, there are also a number of food counters serving tortillas, tacos and seafood to eat in.

By then, the temperature had neared 40 degrees and I needed to be in the shade, so I walked back to my hotel. As with Oaxaca, Mérida’s colourful buildings make it easy to play match-your-clothes-to-the-building! I was very grateful for my hotel’s small pool, where I spent a happy hour splashing around in Mérida’s coolest place.

I had hoped to try somewhere different for dinner, but I only had two recommendations and one was either permanently closed or hidden to me, and the other was a little too romantic. I had hoped to find something nice on my own, but most places in the downtown area were very touristy, so I went back to La Chaya Maya, although to the larger branch on Calle 55, which has a nicer vibe with the tables set around an al fresco central patio filled with greenery. This time, I knew to order the regular frozen marg, and I tried the sopa de lima (another Yucatecan dish, this one a soup made with limes, chiles, onion, garlic, various herbs and tortillas), which was delicious. As were the panuchos (small soft tortillas, with a layer of black beans in the middle, served with cochinita, pickled red onions and avo). I didn't really have room for the latter, but I made a good effort.

Afterwards, I went for a quick poolside nightcap and the funky al fresco bar of the Piedra de Agua hotel on Calle 60, just north of Plaza Grande. The margs here are a little stronger, but still only 60 pesos, and it's a cool place for chilling out on a hot night.

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