Cancun and the Riviera Maya may have their miles of white-sand beaches, year-round sunshine, and endless frozen margaritas, but venture inland to the state of Yucatán and you’ll see a different, more gracious side of Mexico.
Capital city Mérida is a fascinating study in contrasts: chaotic yet laid-back, style-conscious yet steeped in tradition, cosmopolitan yet disarmingly friendly. The threads of European colonialism and ancient Mayan civilizations are woven through the fabric of this region, from the colorful facades of the 19th century colonial casas in Mérida’s elegant downtown to the archeological ruins of Chichén Itzá.
5…Take in some free culture
Mérida has been a cultural and artistic center since the conquistadors rode into town in the 16th century and long before that when it was an important Mayan settlement. Celebration is endemic here: something lively goes on every day in the city’s many squares or plazas.
The Vaquera Folkloric Ballet, the traditional dance of the Yucatan, is a free event that happens every Monday at 9pm. Held on the first floor of the Municipal Palace in the main square or Plaza Grande, it’s a great introduction to Yucatan folk dancing, with women in huipiles or traditional white embroidered dresses and men in guayabera shirts, accompanied by the Jaranera Orchestra
Old-timers pack Santiago Park on Tuesday nights, dressed in their finery and solemnly dancing to a big band playing rollicking 1950s tunes, while Saturday night is Noche Mexicana, a raucous street festival that takes over the Centro Historico. As soon as the sun goes down, prepare for crowds in the streets off the main plaza. On the main stage, deafeningly loud music acts play to audiences in rows of seats lined up in front of restaurants and cafes, while hammock sellers and trinket-vendors weave in and out of the crowd hawking their wares.
For a dose of calm, tour Mérida’s most beautiful theater, the stately Teatro José Peón Contreras (Calle 60 between 59 and 57; 999 930 4708), a neoclassical building just off the plaza that often hosts opera and international performances.
4… Add a new World Wonder to your brag list
Head east of Mérida on a 1 ½ -hour bus ride for one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Chichén Itzá, an ancient Mayan city and archeological site. Historians estimate it was built around 600 AD. Stone pyramids loom out of the jungle and rows of monolithic stone columns stand like sentinels in the Temple of the Thousand Warriors.
Up close there’s even more to marvel at. The sides of the structures are embellished with intricate carvings of animals and sacred deities like Chac, the Mayan rain god. At the center of the site, the majestic El Castillo pyramid is remarkable for both its size and the plumed serpent sculpted along its stairs. At sunset and sunrise during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadows and light move in such a way along the structure that it appears the serpent is “slithering,” a sight that draws hordes of tourists. Don’t miss the ghoulishly fascinating Great Ball Court, in which teams would engage in a soccer-like game for the dubious honor of being sacrificed by beheading. . The admission fee, around $7, includes access to the daily light and sound show, 8pm in summer, 7pm in winter.
Buses run by company ADO leave for Chichén Itzá three times a day from the Came station at Calle 71, between 69 and 70; around $5 each way.
3… Master the art of Yucatecan cooking, and eating
The state of Yucatan’s relative isolation from the rest of Mexico has given rise to the evolution of a unique cuisine. Menus around town yield worthy traditional dishes like cochinita, pit-roasted pork marinated in achiote paste, and sopa de lima, a fragrant chicken soup. Try Panchos (Calle 69, between 60 and 62; 01 999 927 0434; trottersmerida.com; main dishes, from $10-25) a buzzy restaurant with a romantic, leafy patio and performing waiters; the flamboyant pouring of flaming Mexican coffee laced with spirits is a particular crowd pleaser.
Be sure to take time to hit the city’s colorful markets. The labyrinthine corridors of the main mercato, just off the Plaza Grande, are intoxicating, fun, and maddening all at once. Vendors selling towers of glossy fruits and vegetables or fragrant herbs and spices jostle with the ubiquitous hammock sellers for your attention, as do the butchers, grinning from behind gruesome displays of hanging flesh. The smaller markets at Parque Santiago and Parque Santa Ana, both a short walk from the Plaza, are less chaotic. After perusing the wares, pull up a plastic chair and tuck into cochinita with freshly pressed tortillas from one of the many street stalls.
You can also learn the basics of Yucatecan cuisine at cooking school Los Dos (Calle 68 No. 517; book in advance, $125 per person.) Former New Yorker David Sterling is an enthusiastic chef with a devotion to local history and cuisine. A full-day class with Chef David Sterling starts with breakfast on the elegant Los Dos patio, followed by an introduction to Mayan culinary history and a tour of the markets. Instruction begins at midday, and finishes with a lavish meal poolside.
2… Get house envy
You can peek inside some of Mérida’s finest restored colonial homes with a House and Garden walking tour that leaves from the Mérida English Library each Wednesday morning. Arrive at the library at 9:45am, from October through March; tours last until about 12:30 pm (Calle 53 between 66 and 68; no reservation required; around $15 per person). The entertaining American guides choose three properties from a roster of homeowners willing to fling their doors open to the masses. All the homes are within walking distance of the library, in the Centro Histórico, and each has a story to tell. Some are fully restored to their former glory, floors gleaming with beautiful colored pasta tiles (originally brought over as ballast in Spanish ships), and ceilings resplendent with vigas wood beams. Others are palatial Spanish or French Colonial gems currently under restoration.
Not only are the tours ideal for borrowing decorating ideas, they also provide a wonderful insight into Mérida life, both historic and contemporary. Refuel after all that walking and gawking at Amaro (Calle 59 between 60 and 62; 928 2452), a restaurant set in the courtyard of a house once belonging to politician and poet Andrés Quintana Roo, after whom the adjoining Mexican state is named. A spreading tree provides welcome shade while Mexican menu staples like fajitas and mole are satisfyingly hearty.
1… Walk in the footsteps of the conquistadors
While many visitors to the city don’t leave the Centro Historico, it’s well worth visiting the Paseo Montejo, the wide, elegant boulevard regarded as Merida’s answer to the Champs Élysées. After the cramped, noisy, bus-clogged streets of Centro, Paseo Montejo - named for Francisco de Montejo, who formally claimed the city for Spain in 1542 - provides welcome relief with its wide sidewalks and majestic trees.
Stroll north of Calle 37 past palatial 19th century Beaux-Arts mansions that reflect that era’s obsession with European architecture and lifestyle. Finish with a margarita on the rooftop bar at Rosas and Xocolate (Paseo de Montejo 480; +52 999 924 4304; rosasandxocolate.com) Merida’s first true luxury boutique hotel. You can’t miss this place; its painstakingly restored exterior is painted hot pink. Inside, all is light-filled and serene, and the bar - reached via a cedar spiral staircase - catches the always-welcome breezes as the sun sets on another perfect Yucatan day.