You will love the relaxed vibe of Mérida, a city sprinkled with sun-kissed colonial plazas, colourful traditional markets, an impressive 16th century cathedral, original haciendas and plenty of live music events. With a flourishing contemporary arts scene and plenty of stylish boutique retreats, the city makes a great base for exploring ancient Maya sites and modern Mexican culture.
Located around a three-hour drive west of Cancún, Mérida is a charming colonial city, with a burgeoning reputation for modern and contemporary art. The state capital of Yucatán, the city was first founded in 1542 and was built on the site of the ancient Maya city, T’ho. At the heart of the historic centre, lies a large tree-lined square surrounded by quaint boutiques, lively restaurants and fashionable art galleries, while the twin-towered cathedral finished in 1598, is one of the oldest in the Americas. For those that worship at the altar of art, next door to the cathedral is the impressive Museum of Modern Art, a showcase for Yucatán artists, it has been designed and built around a lush courtyard.
With a tropical climate not subject to the extremes of heat and rain in other parts of the country, this handsome city is perfect for exploring on foot. We’d recommend a stroll along Paseo de Montejo, Mérida’s Champs Élysées, past the mansions, shops, cafes, bars and restaurants of this wide tree-lined avenue. Many of the broad avenues in this neighbourhood are flanked by large colonial villas, in shades of yellow, green and terracotta. Built by prosperous sisal barons, they remain a legacy of the industry that once made Mérida one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
The local food here is a treat, zinging with flavour and freshness and there’s a lot more on offer than the usual tacos, burritos and fajitas. Dishes here are cooked with local products not found in other Mexican states and we’d recommend the kibis, fried wheat treats filled with meat, onions and chili, followed by champola, delicious ice-cream with coconut milk. As night descends and the temperature drops, do visit the plazas and evening markets, with music and dancing, where you can party with the locals.
Mérida is only 20-kilometres from the beach and is well-located for visiting the ancient Maya sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Visitors will also enjoy spending the day at Celestun Biosphere Reserve, 90-kilometres west of Mérida, home to colonies of beautiful pink flamingo, along with nearly 600 plant species, 75 mammal and 64 reptile species. We’d recommend taking a bird-watching boat ride through the mangrove forests, a lovely and relaxing way to pass an afternoon. Mérida is also well-placed to explore the underground sinkholes, known as cenotes found throughout Yucatán, where you can take a dip or a dive, although some are more accessible than others with stairways and ladders to take you down into the depths of the water.
The range of accommodation is extensive and for those looking for a special and authentic place to stay, we’d recommend the old converted haciendas, sympathetically restored to provide boutique accommodation. We love the colonial charm and laidback tempo of Mérida and think it will appeal to both couples and families looking for culture, history and fun on the Yucatán Peninsula.