After a few days beach-bumming it up in Tulum, we caught the 3.5-hour long Ado bus to Mérida, the capital city of the Yucatán region.
Mérida definitely doesn’t feel like it’s geared up for a mass of visitors like Tulum and Oaxaca are. It’s not slick, brand new or heavily restored; instead it’s a little dusty, faded and slightly hard to acclimatise to (literally – it was also scorching hot!). On the streets and in the bars are mostly Mexican people: locals plus visitors from other part of Mexico who come for the Yucatánean food and weather. It took a couple of days to settle in and enjoy its charms.
We got quite disoriented on our first night, arriving just before dark and taking a stroll into downtown. We must have timed it perfectly for work kickout time on a Friday because the streets south of the zocalo (central square) were heaving, hectic and insanely loud, with the shops blasting out music and people trying to get around the traffic and each other. But if you escape the downtown area a few blocks either way you’re back on streets that feel much more chilled out and quiet, even semi-derelict. The city is a suburban sprawl of over 1 million people but it’s quite pleasant to walk around these quieter streets and reach the occasional park or square where the action congregates. The block layout and street numbering system make it simple to navigate, too!
Aside from a day trip to the coastal biosphere reserve of Celestún (about which more later) we mainly walked those blocks a lot, bumping into shops, restaurants and markets to dip into. It was especially nice to be there in the run-up to Christmas and see all the (amusingly-Western-influenced: a snowflake when they never get snow?!) illuminations, plus a lifesize nativity scene and brass bands playing carols.
On the Saturday night, Paseo de Montejo was home to a Christmas concert and street food and crafts market. Eating tamales and esquites while watching little kids sparkily dressed at Christmas trees doing a ballet show is a pretty charming way to spend an evening.
The best food we had was generally from the markets, although it was a bit tricky to find vegetarian options at times. Various pig parts made into dishes like cochinita pibil and chircharrones rule here, along with the local specialty sopa de lima, chicken soup. The main market is pretty huge and disorienting to navigate!
Two of the higher end restaurants we went to (Rosa sur 32 and Nectar) both attempt to blend Mexican food with European styles, and to be honest the combination just doesn’t work for me. If it ain’t broke, don’t mess! We had great nibbles and local brews at Hermana República, and tasty mezcal cocktails at La Negrita Cantina and Mezcaleria La Fundacion. There were other restaurants and cantinas we’d have liked to try, such as Apoala, Manjar Blanco, El Barrio and Pipiripau, but we didn’t have that long in town and some days it was simply too hot to raise much of an appetite.
We did a fair bit of hotel lounging to cool off and recharge between walking the dusty streets with the sun beating down. We stayed at Casa de las Palomas which was super pretty and quite a steal.
One day we took a trip to Sotuta de Peon, a hacienda and old sisal plantation and factory about an hour south of the city. It was a nice informative tour, containing some social and cultural history too. This hacienda stood in ruins from the 1950s, when sisal production was made obsolete with the invention of plastic, until the 1980s, when a German-Mexican man bought it from the original owners, the Peon family. He carefully rebuilt and refurnished the house in a period style, and painstakingly sourced and reassembled original machinery in order to open for tours and demonstrations. The hacienda still produces sisal on these machines on a small scale, which is sold to local craftspeople to make mats, baskets and souvenirs.
After seeing the house and production facility, we took a mule-driven railroad cart over the agave fields to one of the eight cenotes on the hacienda’s 500-hectare grounds. Cenotes are one of the Yucatán state’s unique natural features: they are underground sinkholes caused by a large meteor strike to the limestone rock, which has left cavernous pools and and tunnels all over the peninsula. Some lunatics even like to swim from cave to cave along the narrow underground channels. NOPE to that. It was a great experience to swim in this more staid cenote at any rate. The water is crystal clear, low-saline and refreshingly cool, like a luxurious natural swimming pool. Finally we had a very nice buffet lunch at the hacienda’s on-site restaurant before heading back to town.