Mérida, Mi Amor

Featured image
Palacio de Gobierno as seen from the Cathedral in Mérida, Mexico.

After visiting different areas of the Yucatan for years, I had decided that it was time to visit Mérida. We knew many friends who had bought homes there, some of them over twenty years ago. They called Mérida the Paris of Mexico and sang the praises of its architecture, restaurants, cultural scene; and the affordability of the city. We had driven there last year, but found it hard to park and difficult to navigate the grid of streets. If we had a base there, discovering the city would certainly be easier.

Spring Break in Cancun
Spring break in Cancun.

As is now the norm with commercial travel, the trip got off to a rocky start. Our (American Airlines) flight took off more than an hour and a half late. The incoming equipment was the problem, we were told.  We arrived into Cancun in the very late afternoon and did not want to drive the three and one-half to four hours to Mérida in the dark (there are no lights on the highway between the two cities, and some of the roadway was still under construction). So, we were stuck in Cancun for the night. Furthermore, upon landing, we learned that it was Spring Break in the states and so the city was jammed! Mea culpa.

On the Strip In Cancun
On the strip in Cancun.

Not happy about getting to Mérida a day later than planned, we did manage to find a hotel room, and booked a seafood dinner in what turned out to be an extremely overpriced restaurant.

As if you already didn’t know, Cancun is party central during Spring Break. DJs were blasting music from the clubs in the hotel zone ’til three or four in the morning, so much so that the windows and walls of our room were rattling. The next morning we learned that the hotel was renovating its kitchen and dining room, so breakfast was a no go. Out on the strip, seeking coffee, all we found were streets covered in broken glass. Happily, Cancun was soon in the rearview mirror!

The Palacio Canton in Merida
The Palacio Canton in Mérida.

Once we got to Mérida, we headed to the Palacio Canton. Located near the Paseo de Montejo, this large home was built around 1910 and was designed with European neoclassical, classic, and French Baroque design elements. It currently houses the Museum of the History of the Yucatán, and Mayan culture. It was recently renovated, and is full of impressive architectural details.

The Museum of Anthropology
The Regional Museum of Anthropology.

There were several different exhibits including two featuring finds from the Ek Balam and Palenque Mayan sites. And the museum was air conditioned. As the temp was hovering in the mid-90s, that was a big plus.

Palacio Cantón Regional Museum of Anthropology, Paseo Montejo no 485

One of The Grand Buildings on the Paseo de Montejo
One of the grand buildings on the Paseo de Montejo.

There are many different kinds of homes in Mérida. The city was the hub of the lucrative henequen trade in the 19th century, the material that makes ropes. The Paseo de Montejo was created in the late 1800s as the Merida version of the Parisian Champs-Élysées. And one of the more famous homes on the Paseo is Las Casas Gemelas, or the twin houses. These were built in the early 1900s in the neoclassical style.  There are many grand house like this on the Paseo, and many are now home to businesses. The Casas Gemelas remain private, and one floor is open as a museum. And it did remind me of a Paris gone tropical.

Montejo 495 Casa Museo

Car Culture In Merida
Car culture in Mérida.

Mérida is a city with personality. It is also a city that loves vintage cars. From woodies to VW bugs, they are everywhere. And on the broad Paseo de Montejo, there is even a restaurant sporting an Impala.

Dinner in A Modern Setting
Dinner in a modern setting.

Mérida is also a city with many different architectural styles. There are the small streets, or calles, lined with two-story bungalows, and business districts with jumbled stores and markets. It takes a while to understand how the city is laid out as most of the streets are numbered and not named. We went to one of the better seafood restaurants in town, Crabster. The restaurant is located, unexpectedly, in a mall in a neighborhood of high-rise hotels. The food, from shrimp tacos, to pistachio crusted salmon, was great.

Crabster, calle 60 entre 35y Av. Colon

The Wide Paseo de Montejo in Merida
The wide Paseo de Montejo.

The Paseo de Montejo is a long, north-south boulevard, and it runs through a very upscale neighborhood. We were on our way to the Plaza Grande, the center of the city.

La Palacio Municipal in Merida
La Palacio Municipal on the Plaza Grande.

We ended up using Ubers and taxis to get around the city. It was easier than driving, and the areas we were exploring did not always have parking. The Palacio Municipal, or city hall, was built in 1542. You can enter the building and take a look around. On Sunday afternoons, and Monday nights, traditional dance performances take place.

La Palacio Municipal, calle 62 s/n on the Plaza Grande

The Museo Casa Montejo in Merida
The Museo Casa Montejo.

Around the corner, on another side of the plaza, lies the Museo Casa Montejo. The house was built from 1542 to 1559, and remains pretty much the only house left from the mid 16th century in Mexico. Francisco de Montejo was a conquistador who came to take Mexico with Cortes. Statues over the door are typical of the era, and represent Spanish soldiers brutally standing on the heads of the vanquished Mayans. The property is now owned by the National Bank of Mexico, and is a “house of culture.”

The Dining Room and Inner Garden
The dining room and inner garden.

The family lived here until the mid 1900s. There is a furnished suite of rooms on the ground floor with heavy decor from the Victorian era as well as a lovely courtyard replete with fountains and trees.

A Piece From Miguel Peraza
A piece from Miguel Peraza.

There is also an exhibition space on the ground floor.  The sculptures of Miguel Peraza, a Mexico City based artist, were on display in March. Most conveyed a nautical theme and were very fanciful.

Museo Casa Montejo, calle 63 No 506

A Historic18th Century House
The Little Rooster — a historic 18th century house.

This house in called The Little Rooster. The older buildings of Mérida are all done up in clear pastel colors. During the French Intervention in the 19th century, the Empress Carlotta resided here on her way from Sisal to Mexico City. It now holds a pharmacy and an inexpensive shoe store.

The Cathedral And The MACAY in Merida
The Cathedral and the MACAY.

Across the street is The Ateneo de Yucatán MACAY-Fernando García Ponce Museum of Contemporary Art. The building was built in 1573 as a cultural center by a Spanish archbishop, Bishop Diego de Landa. Ten years earlier he had burnt all the Mayan books, and tried to wipe out their culture. Perhaps building this palace as a cultural center was his penance. Then again, maybe not.

Sculptures In The Courtyard
Sculptures in the courtyard.

The building is huge, and is currently under renovation. A large display of sculptures fills the ground floor. The artists in the museum are Mexican, and many of them are from the Yucatán.

Works by Fernado Garcia Ponce Are in The Permanent Collection
Works by Fernando Garcia Ponce are in the permanent collection.

On the upper level there are galleries with permanent exhibits, like the one above. The museum is free of charge (and it has fantastic air conditioning). Since the temperature was now hovering around 100 degrees, that was another plus.

A Sculpture by Melva Medina in Merida
A sculpture by Melva Medina.

There are other galleries that rotate every three months, bringing different artists into the museum. Melva Medina is a Mérida based artist, whose work reflects the city.

The Courtyard of The Macay Museum
The courtyard of the Macay museum.

A huge portion of space is currently not yet open, including the central courtyard garden. The architecture invites you to relax and enjoy the space.

The Ateneo de Yucatán MACAY, Pasaje de la Revolution s/nbtw calles 58/60

The Entance to The Trendy Anima
The entrance to the trendy Anima.

That night we had dinner with friends at Anima. Located on restaurant row, calle 47, the restaurant is owned by an American chef. It houses a popular bar, and food is served in a spacious garden. Meat, fish and vegetables are creatively cooked in the large fire pit in the center of the garden. It is original and delicious.

Anima, calle 47, no 461 x 52 y 54

One of The Many Vintage VW Bugs In Town
One of the many vintage VW Bugs in town.

Out on calle 47 was one of the collectible cars of Mérida. This VW belongs to the restaurant Rosa Mexicano. Pristine or run down, vintage wheels are everywhere.

The Entrance to the Hacienda Xcanatun
The entrance to the Hacienda Xcanatun.

The next morning, it was time to leave the house we had rented and head to the countryside. There are many hotels in the old sisal haciendas around Mérida. Always wanting to try one, I chose the Hacienda Xcanatun. It was about 20 minutes out of town, and is part of the luxury Banyan Tree Hotel group. The main building was from the 18th century and the estate was used for breeding horses. In the 19th century, acres and acres of henequen were grown. When that industry died, the buildings fell into disrepair and the property was restored to its former glory as a hotel in the 1980s.

Buildings Scattered Around the Property at The Hacienda
Buildings scattered around the property.

There are rooms in the restored buildings around the property. New buildings with spacious suites were also added, and the gardens were brought back to life. The staff spends hours maintaining everything.

A Family of Friendly Coatimundis in Mexico
A family of friendly coatimundis.

There are several families of coatimundis scampering around the grounds. The animals are native to Mexico and South America and resemble a mix of squirrel and raccoons. Guests and staff love them as they are very friendly. Doesn’t hurt that the staff starts giving them treats from birth.

An Alley of Palms and Th Original Entrance at The Hacienda
An alley of palms and the original entrance.

The original entrance is framed by an alley of palms. The hotel had hosted a large wedding the weekend before we arrived. The wedding family had set up a large structure in the garden, which was still in the process of being taken down. The structure took four days to go up, and the same to come down. The main restaurant, La Casa de Piedra, is located to the right. The menu features classic Yucatan dishes like Cochinita Pibil and inventive Mexican dishes created by the chef. We loved the patio tables.

The Olympic Size Pool
The Olympic-size pool.

One of the drawing points was the large pool, and its shaded beds. The temperatures were still between the 90s and 100 degrees. Given the weather, and the fact that there were only two or three other couples, it was the perfect spot to do nothing. There are also several smaller pools on the property.

A Chic Pool Side Restaurant in Mexico
A chic poolside restaurant.

A open poolside restaurant, Lol-Ha, serves food all day — raw bar, pizzas, salads and sandwiches — and has cocktail service til 8PM.

The Luxury Spa
The luxury spa.

There is a full luxury spa offering massages and treatments with an Asian accent. The Banyan Tree group is Singapore-based. A fully equipped fitness center is across from the spa.

On Calle 47 in Merida
On Calle 47.

We took the short drive into Mérida, and headed back to calle 47 for dinner. There are more than 18 different restaurants on a few short blocks. The street was crowded with people enjoying dinner al fresco.

Dining at Oliva
Dining at Oliva.

We ate at Oliva Enoteca, an Italian restaurant that was recommended by several  friends. It was another extremely good choice. The restaurant is on the small side and broken up into two floors. A sister pizza restaurant is located down the street.

Oliva Enoteca, calle 47 & Esquina con 54S/N

Some of The Historic Suites and The Chapel
Some of the historic suites and the chapel.

The next day was another slow and relaxing day. We explored some of the smaller buildings, like the red chapel that is now home to some guest rooms, and also used for private dining experiences.

Lunch in Progresso
Lunch in Progreso.

Since it was about a 2o-minute drive from the Hacienda to the beach, we had lunch at the beach and took a quick dip in the sea. Situated midway between the city and the ocean, it is a great base for exploring the area.

A Patio Off The Restaurant
A patio off the restaurant.

We went back to the Casa de Piedra for dinner, and were not disappointed. The chef, Ernesto Flores, offered us a tour of the restaurant and we learned a lot from him about how he works and where all the local ingredients come from. It was our last night in the hotel. The stay had been too short, but it was very pleasant. The hotel also welcomes dogs at no charge, so maybe a return visit with our pup is in the cards.

Hacienda Xcanatun, calle 20 S/N x 19 x 19A Comisaría Xcanatún

Barbara Hodes is the owner of  NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.

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