What To Do In Merida As A First Time Visitor

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23 April 2022

What To Do In Merida As A First Time Visitor

Apr 24, 2022 | Mexico | 0 comments

Deciding on what to do in Merida, Yucatan State’s bustling capital city can be a challenge for the first-time visitor. But the truth is that most of its essential sights are concentrated around the historic centre and the tree-lined boulevard of Paseo de Montejo.

We spent ten days in the city during April 2022 amidst afternoon temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). So we took things fairly slowly and restricted most of our activities to the morning or evening. 

To be honest, the fabled beauty of the city’s buildings didn’t quite match the hype that led us to them. Indeed, rather than admiring the mansions that line Paseo de Montejo, or the historic buildings that surround Plaza Grande, we took greater pleasure from simply wandering the streets and photographing the crumbling exterior walls, doors and window frames of much humbler dwellings. 

And, for us, these are the city’s true riches. Along with its excellent food scene and proximity to a wealth of nearby attractions.

So, rather than just walk you through everything that Merida has to offer, here’s our personal guide to getting the best out of your visit.

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About Merida

Merida was one of the first cities to be founded (1542) in Mexico by the Spanish Conquistadors. Specifically by Francisco de Montejo, whose family name still dominates all around.

Before then, it was home to the Mayan city of Th’ó, which in turn was the cultural centre of the Maya in Central America. The site included a set of five pyramids, whose stones were used by the Spanish to construct many of the buildings in the centro histórico which remain standing today. Including the Cathedral. And, if you look closely, it’s easy to spot Mayan inscriptions and symbols engraved on individual blocks of stone as reminders of their origin.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Merida was considered to be home to more millionaires than any other city on the planet. Largely as a result of its new-found prosperity on the back of the Yucatan’s huge supply of agave plants, whose fibres were used for manufacturing rope and twine. And it’s these former homes of such well-heeled residents that populate the area around Paseo de Montejo.

Students of natural disasters and amateur geology enthusiasts might be intrigued to know that the area around Merida was also the site for THAT asteroid which crashed to Earth some 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs almost overnight. The resultant Chicxulub Crater is now, in turn, responsible for housing the 6,000-or-so cenotes (freshwater-filled sinkholes) dotted around the peninsula. Once used by the Mayans for their water supply and sacrificial offerings, they’re now a major tourist draw as natural swimming holes, largely protected from the blazing sun.

A pinkish building with a red door in the centre on Paso Montejo, Merida
One of the buildings on Paseo de Montejo

Take the free walking tour of Merida

When visiting cities of historical significance, we always make a point of taking in one of the inevitable “free walking tours”. And Merida was no exception. Although this one was more of a short two-hour stroll around Plaza Grande and across to Parque Hidalgo than a full-blown walking tour.

Our English-speaking guide spoke with such speed and a heavy accent that much of what he was saying was perhaps lost on those whose first language wasn’t English. But his enthusiasm for the subject matter was entertaining if nothing else.

There’s no need to book beforehand. Just turn up at the Tourist Information Office (beneath the pink arches of the Palacio Municipal on Plaza Grande) before it starts at 09:30. Tips are optional.

Explore the historico centro

Plaza Grande

Merida’s grid system makes it relatively easy to find your way to Plaza Grande, the main square in town. Like many other central plazas in Latin America, it features grand old buildings and a cathedral overlooking a tree-lined square, complete with white kissing chairs. And, of course, the ubiquitous multi-coloured sign bearing the city’s name.

Pride of place goes to the Catedral de San Alfonso – reckoned to be the oldest in the Americas. Partly constructed with stones from the original Mayan temple on the same site, it’s an imposing sight. And it’s free to go inside. Although access was restricted during our visit.

On Friday evenings (8 pm) there’s a video show of the cathedral’s history projected onto its facade. And, every Wednesday, it serves as a backdrop for a re-enactment of the ancient Mayan sport of Pok Ta Pok. The basic idea is that a five-pound ball of rubber is kept in the air by two teams of five people without the use of their hands or feet. The goal is to “score” through the hole of an oversized bubble blower stick. Thankfully, the re-enactment doesn’t include the fate of the losers, who were often sacrificed through beheading or the removal of their hearts. “Kick-off” is at 8 pm and tickets are free.

On the adjacent corner, the Palacio de Gobierno is a green arcade-filled government building, noted for its murals. Again, it can be accessed for free.

Then there’s the pink Palacio Municipal de Merida with its 1920s clock tower. Although it might not be obvious because of the security guards at the door, it too can be accessed free of charge. Including a first-floor balcony that provides the best views of the plaza.

What to do in Merida - view of the Palacio Municipal in Plaza Grande
The Palacio Municipal in Plaza Grande

Continuing to the fourth side of the plaza, Museo Casa Montejo is the former home of the Montejo family and, as its name implies, has now been converted into a free museum.

And, finally, the Pasaje a la Revolución commemorates the Mexican Revolution in the form of a passageway adorned with temporary sculptures.

Statues at the Pasaje de la Revolucion
The Pasaje de la Revolucion

Other plazas

Merida is blessed with a good number of plazas that feature churches, luxury hotels, coffee shops – and free wifi. Near to Plaza Grande, Parque Hidalgo is housed on another former site of a Mayan pyramid, whose carved stones can be seen on the adjacent Iglesia de Jesus.

And Parque Santa Lucia features oversized kissing chairs, together with regular open-air dancing and cultural events in the evening.

A statue looks up to the tower of a church on Parque Hidalgo
Parque Hidalgo

Grab your camera and photograph the crumbling buildings

But, as we’ve said, we found one of the best things to do in Merida is to wander around the streets that lead off Plaza Grande to photograph some of the many colourful buildings. Many of which have seen better times but remain wonderfully evocative remnants of the past.

A grey building with one pink door surrounded by blue
An orange building with two light-blue doors
A brown door cuts through a blue, green, and cream coloured building

Walk Paseo de Montejo

By contrast, the wide avenue of Paseo de Montejo is lined with perhaps the grandest of Merida’s European-inspired buildings. Some of which now house cafes, restaurants and museums. Like the yellow Canton Palace, home to the Museum of Anthropology & History. And the Renaissance-style mansion Montejo 495.

But perhaps the most photographed structure on the paseo is the Monumento a la Patria (Monument To The Fatherland). Built on a roundabout, it features 300 hand-carved figures representing the evolution of Mexican history from ancient times to the first half of the 20th Century. Disappointingly, the front of it has been partially spoiled with graffiti, but there’s no doubting it’s a spectacular piece of art.

Not surprisingly the paseo is popular with tourists who like to take a casual stroll along half of its two-mile length, stopping off for the occasional coffee or ice cream. There are plenty of restaurants and bars to be found, too. And on Sunday mornings, the whole place is closed to traffic while it transforms into a cycling, running and dog-walking venue.

Monumento a la Patria from the front
Monumento a la Patria (from the front) – including graffiti
Monumento a la Patria from the rear
Monumento a la Patria (from the rear)

Acquaint yourself with Yucatecan food

OK, so that’s the streets and buildings done and dusted. Now for one of our biggest reasons for visiting Mexico. The food. And we were constantly on the lookout for the best food in Merida.

Not to be eaten in swanky restaurants, though. Our go-to dining venues are typically local markets, street vendors and simple cantinas. And, as Yucatecan food has its own Mayan-inspired influences, we just had to take it upon ourselves to experiment.

For instance, cochinita pibil is a dish that dates back to Mayan times and is traditionally suckling pig marinated in bitter orange and achiote, wrapped in banana leaf and cooked in a hole underground (a pib or “earth oven”). The resultant meat is melt-in-the-mouth pulled pork, which can be served in a variety of ways. 

Of course, it can be eaten with the ubiquitous taco, along with pickled red onion, lemon and salsa. Or maybe a torta – a freshly baked baguette that soaks up the glorious juices like a sponge. A polcan, on the other hand, is a fried tortilla that opens up like pita bread.

But our favourite is the panucho. It’s a deep-fried tortilla filled with a layer of refried beans. Topped with conchinita pibil and a liberal helping of salsa, it’s Yucatan-on-a-plate.

And the best place in Merida to try one? Taqueria de la Union, on Calle 55, will take some beating. It’s a no-frills place with just a few tables available. Their panuchos not only look like works of art, but they taste so good they’re guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone’s face. Especially when they cost as little as 29 pesos (currently $1.45 / £1.10) each. So, cheap enough to order several then!

A list of menu items on the wall at Taqueria de la Union
A list of Taqueria de la Union dishes for your tacos, panuchos etc
Two panuchos on a plate
Panuchos: heaven-on-a-plate

An even cheaper option though is Taqueria La Lupita in Parque Santiago’s market. A favourite breakfast haunt of ours, the tortas are to die for. And, with additional fillings such as relleno negro (pulled turkey in a black chilli paste) you can easily fill your table with a whole host of dishes.

Elsewhere, the Museo de la Gastronomica Yucateca is both a museum and a restaurant offering Yucatecan specialities in a grand old building filled with archways. And, if you’re a fan of ice cream, make a beeline for Pola on Calle 55. With flavours such as Beso de Luna (chocolate, almond, orange peel & coffee), Flan de la Cubanita (Cuban vanilla custard) and Cremita de Coco (baked coconut with cinnamon), they’re a gelato fan’s wet dream. Although the “blue cheese with apple compote” was perhaps one experiment too far!

Experience a traditional Mexican cantina

Of course, you can also opt to eat in one of Merida’s traditional cantinas. In the past, they were loud, male-only drinking venues filled with tables of card-playing amigos. Nowadays, their rules of entry are much less restrictive. If you neglect to visit one during your visit, it would be like visiting London without checking out at least one of its Victorian pubs.

Two of Merida’s best-known cantinas are La Negrita and Dzalbay. Both feature food and live music, although while the former is a full-on raucous experience (especially at weekends), the latter is more intimate and has a roof-top terrace. We can recommend both.

However, if you fancy a totally non-touristy experience, get yourself down to El Cardenal on Calle 63. You might be the only tourist in the place. And your ears might well be ringing for days afterward. On our visit, we were “entertained” by a tribute band whose musical tastes ranged from pop to hard rock and everything in between. And their lead singer almost managed to hit the right note on one magical occasion.

La Negrita cantina - a grey building with a green/blue stable door
La Negrita Cantina

Check out the markets

There are plenty of markets to entertain shoppers on the lookout for fruit, vegetables, chilli pastes, flowers and…er…hammocks. 

One of the most chaotic  – and certainly the biggest – is Lucas de Galvez market, just off Calle 65. Expect also to see plenty of vendors selling marquesitas – French-style crepes filled with Nutella and cheese. 

Another is San Benito market on Calle 69. A striking feature here is the row of Taco al Pastor restaurants each seemingly vying to create the largest flame for searing the spit-grilled pork.

A taco al pastor restaurant
One of San Benito Market’s Taco al Pastor restaurants

Take a day trip from Merida

A day trip from Merida, whether by renting a car, catching a bus or booking on to an organised tour, is worth the effort if you have the time. Indeed, if you plan to see as much of Yucatan State as you can, then Merida makes for a great base.

To be fair, apart from the hills of the Ruta Puuc, the landscape is mind-numbingly flat and uninteresting. Including endless miles of straight road flanked by wild semi-jungle. And, although you’re only an hour by road from the coast, the beaches on offer pale in comparison to those down on the Caribbean coast, such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

Celestun

One such beach is at Celestun. And, yes, it’s fairly humdrum. But there’s a good selection of fish restaurants along the front. The main attraction, however, is the pink flamingos that congregate along the estuary to the east of the town. Boat tour operators will offer to whisk you up the estuary for a closer look, but the big numbers are only there between December and February. After which they congregate in Yucatan’s other flamingo hub, Rio Lagartos, a good three-hour drive from Merida.

Izamal

To the east of Merida, the town of Izamal is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a distinctly yellow-tinged colour scheme. Combining Mayan ruins with Spanish colonial architecture, it’s a fascinating place to spend a morning.

Indeed, it’s worth the journey alone just to see the magnificent Convento de San Antonio de Padua in all its yellow-saturated glory. Naturally, and true to form, the Conquistadors built the convent on the foundations of a previous Mayan temple.

A horse-drawn carriage pulls up outside a yellow-walled church in Izamal
Izamal

Uxmal

To the southwest of Merida, the Mayan site at Uxmal is as spectacular as its more famous cousin at Chichen Itza. But without the army of hawkers and with just a fraction of the tourists. And, if you’ve managed to catch the Pok Ta Tok re-enactment in Merida, you can also see an original ballcourt here.

If you’re renting a car you could combine it with the Ruta Puuc, a stretch of road that passes through another four Mayan sites at Kabah, Sayil, Xlapac and Labna.

A word of caution, though. At the time of writing, some of the sites remain closed following the COVID-19 restrictions. Which we didn’t find out until we saw a notice at Uxmal. And there’s been a noticeable hike in entrance fees all round, particularly for foreign tourists. For instance, access to Uxmal now costs 495 pesos ($25 / £19). And a personal guide will set you back another 800 pesos ($40/£30). So, add in one or two other sites on the Ruta Puuc, together with the cost of your car rental, and it’s not exactly a budget day trip. 

So, if cost is an issue, stick to Uxmal via the ADO bus from Merida’s TAME terminal. And, because of the afternoon heat, we’d suggest catching the morning’s first bus at 09:05.

Steps lead down from a Mayan pyramid at Uxmal
The Magician’s Pyramid, Uxmal

Cenotes

Even if you only have time time to visit one cenote (pronounce say-noh-tay), we’d recommend you do so. If for no other reason than they as much a part of experiencing Yucatan as visiting Mayan ruins and drinking mezcal. And there are so many to choose from.

Most of those that are accessible are privately owned, and so come with an entrance fee. The most spectacular (and therefore the most popular) can set you back upwards of 300 pesos ($15 / £11). But you’re likely to have onsite facilities such as a restaurant, bar etc.

We took the opportunity to cool off at the remote Kankirixche cenote en route back from Uxmal. With a multi-coloured cave ceiling of greens, oranges and blues, bearing stalactites that have formed over millions of years, it was a glorious sight. And the crystal clear water, illuminated with a shaft of brilliant light from the cave entrance, made it all the more welcoming. Entrance was 100 pesos ($5 / £4).

Where to stay in Merida

Unsurprisingly, most accommodation is based around the historico centro and Paseo de Montejo. Which, of course, comes with the Mexican staples of barking dogs, impromptu late-night parties and general street noise. You’ll need good earplugs – like these ones (we swear by them). 

We stayed in two separate Airbnb properties and can recommend both.

We spent our first three days at one of the four rooms (ours was called Baroque) at Casa Lotto on Calle 63 and just five blocks from Plaza Grande. Beautifully decorated, with shared kitchen facilities and a pool, it was just about perfect for our budget. Although we were made very aware of the “entertainment” on offer at nearby El Cardenal Cantina!

We shared our second Airbnb accommodation with a couple of friends. This time, a 30-minute walk away from Plaza Grande, in a residential district on Calle 32. Casa Cocay is a two-bedroomed house with an excellent kitchen and a lovely pool area at the rear. And, with it being in a residential area, it felt more of an authentic experience. 

Which meant buying ice creams from a guy on his trike who’d honk his horn to let us know he was around. Knocking on the door of the house opposite where another guy was selling huge bags of hielo (ice) for 20 pesos. And buying a bag of freshly made tortillas and barbecued pork straight off the grill from a house around the corner for an impromptu lunch around the pool. 

Oh, and to be woken up at 4 am each morning by the rooster next door. Not even the best earplugs and a ceiling fan at full speed could block out that racket.

Our room ("Baroque") in Casa Lotto
Our room (“Baroque”) in Casa Lotto
The pool area at Casa Lotto
The pool area at Casa Lotto
A Day of the Dead figurine at Casa Cocay

A Day of the Dead “Catrina” at Casa Cocay

How to get to Merida

If you’re coming from abroad, a flight into Merida airport will normally involve a connection in Mexico City. Which is the option we chose. Although we did have a four-hour wait in Mexico City airport overnight before our early morning flight.

Taxis into Merida from the airport are easy and convenient. As soon as you’ve picked up your bags there are a couple of taxi stands (we chose ADO) within the airport building from where you can prepay for your taxi and take your ticket to the ADO pickup point outside. We were charged 200 pesos for the 20-minute ride to historico centro. Although it was half that price in an Uber on the return journey.

Alternatively, there are plenty of international flights into Cancun airport, from where you could pick up an ADO bus for the four-hour journey to Merida.

A suggested one-day self-guided walking tour

Begin on Calle 57 at Parque Santiago by grabbing a table at Taqueria La Lupita for breakfast.  Then head to Plaza Grande, taking in a visit inside Museo Casa Montejo, Catedral de San Ildefonso, Palacio de Gobierno and the Palacio Municipal.

After that, make your way over to Mercado Lucas de Galvez on Calle 65A or San Benito on Calle 69 and immerse yourself in a truly Mexican experience.

Returning to Plaza Grande, head north on Calle 60 until you reach the junction for Calle 55. Take a right on to 55 and grab a table at Taqueria de la Union. If you’ve managed to work off your breakfast by now, we’d suggest going for a small selection of their panuchos. And, if you’ve still got room for ice cream, head back along Calle 55, past Parque Santa Lucia, until you reach Pola on the corner of Calle 62.

Now fully refuelled, walk north along Calle 62 until you reach La Negrita Cantina (you’ll be returning here later). Take a right onto Calle 49 until you arrive at the head of Paseo Montejo (Calle 56A) on your left. Take a stroll along either side of the wide boulevard stopping to admire the mansions, grabbing a coffee or taking a step inside Canton Palace or Montejo 495. 

Continue until you reach the Monument a La Patria and take a walk around it for a closer look, before returning back along the paseo.

After all that walking, you’ll no doubt want to rest and freshen up back in your room before heading back out for the evening. Catch an Uber (or walk!) to La Negrita Cantina on the corner of Calle 62/49 for tequila cocktails or craft beer and live music (be prepared to queue outside at weekends, though). From there continue along Calle 49 to Calle 64 and take a left until you reach Dzalbay Cantina, where more drinks, live music and a less frenetic atmosphere awaits.

When the time is right, cross the road and walk east along Calle 53 before turning left onto Calle 62. After one block you’ll arrive at Museo de la Gastronomica Yucateca for dinner and more live music in gorgeous surroundings (you may want to book ahead at weekends).

After dinner, depending on what day of the week it is, you can head back to Plaza Grande to watch the Pok Ta Pok re-enactment (Wednesdays), the cathedral video show (Fridays), or Parque Santa Lucia for outdoor dancing (Thursdays).

Final thoughts on what to do in Merida

As an introduction to Mexico, we found Merida to be a good choice. It’s a safe city, easily walkable, and has some great food and drink options. And whilst our suggested itinerary covers many of the main sights, we’d suggest you also do what we did and spend a morning or two just wandering around, taking in a market or two and thanking your lucky stars that you’re able to travel once more. 

Ian with a panucho

FAQs

Is Merida safe?

There’s a lot of chatter online about how safe Mexico, in general, is for visitors right now. You don’t need us to tell you that there are certain areas of the country where drug cartels are currently engaged in territory wars. And that you’d be wise to avoid going there.

Thankfully, Merida is not one of them. In fact, far from it. It’s regularly touted as one of the safest – if not THE safest – city in Mexico. That may or may not be true. But, as with all cities and major tourist areas throughout the world, as long as you remain aware of your surroundings and don’t offer would-be thieves a reason (or opportunity) to target you, you should be perfectly OK. 

Although, at night you might want to consider catching an Uber back to your accommodation as they’re safe and relatively inexpensive.

Where is Merida located?

Merida is located in the northwest of Yucatan State (not to be confused with the Yucatan Peninsula which also incorporates the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Campeche, together with parts of Belize and Guatemala).

It is 35 kilometres away from the port of Progreso on the Gulf of Mexico and 300 kilometres away from Cancun on the Caribbean coast.

What is the best time to visit?

The best time to visit Merida depends on what your priorities are. Bear in mind that the city’s location within a flat peninsula away from the cooling breezes of the coast makes it a HOT destination year-round. 

The months between November and March are arguably the best for more manageable temperatures and humidity. But with that comes additional crowds. 

Meanwhile, afternoon temperatures between April and August are more akin to that of an open furnace. You can expect the mercury to top 38 degrees C (100 F) with some regularity. But then again, there are fewer people around. 

And you can get around the issue by rising early and doing your sightseeing before mid-day. For instance, the ruins of Uxmal in the morning and a cenote in the afternoon; a trip to Izamal in the morning, followed by a late lunch in a shaded restaurant.

What's the best way to get around Merida?

The city if very walkable – if you can handle the heat. You just need to understand that the streets (“calles”) are laid out in a grid system. Even numbers run north to south, while odd numbers run east to west. For instance, by walking north along Calle 60, you’ll cross Calle 59, 57 and 55, in turn. Of course, this will be very familiar to North American visitors, but Europeans (like us) may take some time adjusting.

Otherwise, if you’ve got a smartphone and a data plan, you can order an Uber to take you anywhere. And, even if you don’t have data, most of the public squares have free wifi.

Merida Photo Gallery

For your viewing pleasure, please visit our SmugMug gallery for more of our Merida photographs.

What did you think?  Do you have any recommendations on what to do in Merida? ? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting the city in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.

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Our personal guide on what to do in Merida, Mexico - Yucatan's sweltering capital of Mayan culture and food. Including a self-guided walking tour

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Ian and Nicky New Zealand

Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.

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