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Monday 25 February 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Mexico - City of Merida

The capital of the Yucatan state, Merida has been a major city since before the Spanish conquered and renamed it (from T'ho) in 1542. With around one million inhabitants and with many different barrios spreading in all directions, Merida has the historic charm of neighbouring towns but also all the amenities of a major city.

That said, Plaza Grande or the main square is the city's focal point with most sites of interest to visitors located within a 5-block radius. At night, this area comes alive with live music in almost every bar, tables outdoors and street hawkers.

If you are not flying to Merida from Cancun or Mexico City, it can be reached by ADO bus (a good, frequent and great value service) from Cancun (4-6 hours) or Valladolid or the walled town of Campeche (both 2.5 hours). It is also the most convenient spot from which to visit the magnificent Mayan ruins at Uxmal. 

Where to Stay

Rosas y Xocolate

The über-cool Rosas y Xocolate Hotel is on the Paseo de Montejo, the city's answer to the Champs Elysées. It is a wide, green boulevard dotted with fine mansions built by wealthy families at the end of the 19th century, some chic shops, the city's anthropological museum and a smattering of banks.

Two such mansions were purchased and renovated by Carol Kolozs to create the boutique hotel and spa Rosas y Xocolate. No expense was spared in the process, and today the hotel, part of the Design Hotels Group, is an ultra-stylish example of contemporary Mexican architecture.

In tones of chocolate brown and rose pink, the modern feel of the hotel is accentuated by the clear lines and elegant Italian furniture, discreet lighting and beautiful Mexican artefacts in its rooms and common areas.

There is also a swimming pool in the central courtyard, a fully equipped gym and luxury spa where massages and other treatments make use of chocolate.

Our room was very spacious, with a huge open air stone bath, and the highest ceilings I have ever seen helped to keep the room cool despite 35C temperatures outside (air conditioning is available, but we didn't use it). I liked the way the designers (Salvador Reyes Rios and Josefina Larrain) sympathetically incorporated modern features like plate glass walls, Bose sound systems and flat screen cable TV, blending them with colonial architecture to create a room in which they didn't feel out of place.

The hotel breakfast is served in its open air cafe, with a number of options available. Jams and pastries are made in house and were delicious, as were the Mexican specialties on the menu, including Huevos Motulenos and Huevos Rancheros.

The open-air roof-top terrace bar has a DJ or live music being played most evenings of the week, and is a place where Merida's in-crowd get together for cocktails and music. We had a lovely evening there with an American jazz band, a few Margaritas and a couple of Montecristo Cuban cigars.

The hotel's restaurant is well regarded in the city, and although I didn't get the chance to sample its food, I saw from the menu that it presents an interesting fusion of local Yucatecan ingredients with French and Italian techniques and influences.

I very much enjoyed my stay at Rosas y Xocolate, it is one of the most stylish boutique hotels I have stayed at, with very personable and friendly service.

Where to Eat

Los Trompos

Los Trompos is a few metres from the main square, and is mainly notable for its live and rather loud Mexican music, and tables outdoors in the evenings. It's in a touristic corner of town, and looks fairly undistinguished but is a good place for people watching, has a wide selection of beers and cocktails, and serves reasonable food.

We were recommended on more than one occasion not to be put off by its appearance, but to go and try one of their 'Combo' dishes.  There were several different Combos at £15 that feed three people, and we went for one including a selection of barbecued pork, beef and chicken pieces, along with a large pot of melted Manchego cheese, salad, tortillas, guacamole and refried beans.

I enjoyed this dish - although simple, it was quite a nice break from the rather stodgy Yucatecan fare we had been eating since our arrival. There was so much that we couldn't eat more than half of it, and I'm not one to leave food on my plate. This was also where I first came across Horchata, a delicious and very popular Mexican rice drink, sometimes also flavoured with coconut.

What to Do

An attractive city, Merida is a good spot to stay for a few days, from which to enjoy the nearby Mayan ruins, or its colonial architecture and squares. It has innumerable grand colonial houses, many of which have been restored as private homes, hotels, banks, shops or restaurants, but still quite a lot are looking rather neglected (and incidentally are going for a song if you have some spare cash).

Merida's main square (Plaza Grande) is regarded, since Mayan times, as the grandest in Mexico outside the capital, and is the centre of interest both for visitors and locals. This is a good place to idle away a few hours over some chilled beer in one of the square's open-air bars and soak up this city's lively atmosphere.

Catedral de San Ildefonso

There are several interesting buildings around the square, including the Catedral de San Ildefonso (built between 1561 and 1598, it is the oldest cathedral in the whole of the Americas), the Palacio de Gobierno for its stunning murals depicting the troubled colonial history of the Yucatan state, and the 16th century Casa de Montejo (now a Banamex Bank).

Palacio de Gobierno

Parque Hidalgo, another beautiful and smaller square in the corner of calles 59 and 60, has many restaurants and bars with outdoor tables, live music and street vendors and is also a great place to visit and spend a few hours.

A few blocks away from Plaza Grande, the Paseo de Montejo was constructed much later (19th century) than the city centre (16th century), but is worth strolling along if only to appreciate the wealth of the late 19th century city landowners, who built huge mansions for themselves on this wide and leafy boulevard. There is found the hotel Rosas y Xocolate, but also a number of much larger mansions, one of which now houses the Museum of Anthropology (Museo Regional de Antropologia). Sadly this was closed for a 3 month renovation when we were in town, but it is said to be very informative in its own right, and also to provide an interesting insight into the extremely prosperous lifestyle of the city rulers who built it.

Travel Essentials

Merida can be reached by ADO Bus' extensive network. A first class ticket from Valladolid costs around £8, and the journey takes approximately 2.5 hours. Alternatively, flights are available from Mexico City and Cancun with AeroMexico or Mexicana de Aviacion.

Hotel Rosas y Xocolate 
Paseo de Montejo 480 x 41
Col. Centro, Merida
Tel: +52 (999) 924-2992
Email: info@rosasandxocolate.com
Website: www.rosasandxocolate.com
Rooms cost from US$ 235 to US$ 695 (master suite) 

Restaurant Los Trompos
Calle 59 por 60 No. 602, Centro, Merida 
Website: www.lostrompos.com.mx

Museo Regional de Antropologia

Paseo Montejo Nº485  97000 Mérida, Mexico
Tel: +52 999 923 0469
Website: http://www.arqueomex.com/

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