The capital city of Merida is a great place to soak up the Yucatan state's colonial and Mayan cultures, whiling away the hours in one of the city's beautiful squares, with live music being played in almost every bar and restaurant in the old town and a seriously chilled beer (see earlier review here).
It is also the most convenient spot from which to reach some of the state's most impressive archaeological Mayan sites at Uxmal and Kabah, and the fine coastal towns and nature reserves of the Mayan Riviera.
The city also boasts some of the best Yucatecan restaurants in the region, and this is where I had one of my best meals in Mexico (see 'Where to Eat' below).
Where to Stay
Hotel Hacienda Merida
Hacienda Merida was by far the most elegant hotel we stayed at during our trip in Mexico. A small boutique hotel, it was recently named one of Condé Nast's best new hotels in the world under US$200.
The hotel is owned by French ex-corporate executive Alex Degoute, who travelled the world on business in his former life, but decided to settle in Merida when the opportunity to purchase a couple of derelict colonial houses arose, which now make up Hotel Hacienda Merida.
The hotel is on Calle 62, just a stone's throw from the main square, and has a very unassuming appearance from the street which adds to its charm, as few would anticipate such grandeur on walking through its doors.
The hotel is divided into two - the original building with 8 rooms having a reception area and small bar open to the public, and a second 'VIP' building with 6 larger rooms with no reception or direct access to the general public. It is quieter and more private, and it was in this latter section that we stayed.
It was a long, painstakingly hard process taking Alex's total devotion to bring the houses to their current state, but it has definitely paid off. Dotted with beautiful French antique furniture and paintings, the hotel has discreet indirect lighting, white drapes between the Romanesque columns, polished ochre floors, and crystal-clear, well-sized swimming pools with loungers.
Our room faced one of the swimming pools, and included a private veranda, a large separate closet and luggage storage room, and a very spacious bathroom. The room was huge, with high ceilings and was very elegantly furnished. I have stayed in a few 5-star luxury resorts that didn't have half the sense of style that the Hotel Hacienda Merida has but charge twice as much.
Breakfast is taken in the courtyard by the swimming pool, and includes individual cafetieres of good strong coffee, a generous platter of freshly cut fruit, pastries and a cooked breakfast of bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. It was wholesome and generous, and started us off on a good footing for both our days there.
Where to Eat
Merida was also where I had the best meal of my trip in Mexico. La Chaya Maya, opened only a year ago, and is now considered one of the best restaurants in the region. There are two branches in the city, and I was so impressed on my first visit that I decided to visit the second branch during our four-day stay in Merida.
Both restaurants are in the historical centre of town, close to the main square, and are within easy walking distance of each other. They have the same menu, but are very different in style. The original restaurant is smaller, modern in style, occupies a corner on Calle 62 and is busy and lively. The newer version, occupying a large colonial home, is more elegant with an open courtyard and several different dining-rooms including al fresco and indoor dining options.
La Chaya Maya - newer, larger and more elegant branch
I was surprised to see turkey being featured in many of the dishes on the menu but was later told that it is the poultry of choice for that part of the country. I am not a great fan of turkey but the "Sopa de Lima" (£2) a soup made of shredded turkey, turkey stock flavoured with lime and topped with crisp tortilla sticks was delicious and an excellent start to our meal.
Our second choice of starters were "Panuchos" (£3). These were handmade crisp corn tortillas which had been split and filled with black bean purée and then topped with shredded turkey, lettuce, cucumber and tomato, pickled red onion and slices of avocado. I really enjoyed this, they had a fresh and well balanced combination of flavours and great texture - crunchy, creamy and meaty.
The best dish of the evening however was the "Tikim Xic" at £5.50. This was a generous portion of fish fillet marinated with achiote (the seeds from the Annatto flower), cooked in banana leaves and stuffed with shrimps, squid and clams. The achiote gave a nice, reddish colour to the dish but also imparted earthy, peppery and smokey notes to the fish and seafood. In retrospect, this was the best dish I had in my entire trip in Mexico, and a good break from the more stodgy and meat laden local Yucatecan dishes.
For dessert, Dr G and I shared a "Dulce de Papaya" (£2). This was a portion of pumpkin in chunks cooked in a sugar syrup flavoured with spices including cloves and cinnamon and topped with grated cheese. This is a similar dessert I grew up eating in Brazil which brought back many happy childhood memories.
La Chaya Maya - original and smaller venue
Of our four days in Merida, we decided to return to La Chaya Maya for our last meal in the city. This is the original La Chaya Maya, a smaller but equally busy venue. Given that this restaurant is relatively pricier than most restaurants in town, I initially thought it catered primarily for visitors, but it was nice to see many Mexican families also eating there.
For this meal, Dr G and I decided to go for "Los Cuatro Yucas" which is a set of four traditional Yucatecan dishes for 2 people (£9.50). This offers a good opportunity to taste four dishes at once (each individual dish is priced at £5). I enjoyed all dishes, they were well seasoned and delicious although I was craving for some vegetables or greens of any kind as an accompaniment rather than the ubiquitous tortillas which was served with every dish.
Cochinita Pibil - pork marinated with achiote, sour orange juice, spices, sweet chilli, tomato and onion, then cooked in banana leaves and served with black bean purée.
Pavo en Relleno Negro - turkey and minced pork cooked in a spicy sauce made from different varieties of black beans, chillies and spices.
Pavo en Sac col Indio- thick slice of baked turkey served in sac col, a rich turkey gravy seasoned with dried herbs and Mayan spices, garnished with olives.
Pavo en Pipian - turkey simmered in a deliciously rich pumpkin seed mole.
What to Do
There is a lot to occupy a few days in Merida (see earlier review here), but here I focus more on the places of interest outside of the city. However, a couple of things I enjoyed doing while staying at the Hotel Hacienda Merida were relaxing by the hotel's pool, and strolling around Parque Hidalgo.
|Relaxing and people watching at Parque Hidalgo|
The Hotel Hacienda Merida has a beautiful pool, good for relaxing in the hot afternoons, as well as spa with affordable rates for massages, at around £25 for one hour. Parque Hidalgo on the intersection of Calles 59 and 60, about 50 metres north of the Main square is a pretty spot surrounded by hotels and restaurants, and is a good place to retreat and relax with a drink, being calmer than the main square and surrounding streets with their continuous music and wandering street vendors.
Beyond the confines of the city, It would be a shame not to visit one of the Mayan ruins in the vicinity, of which Uxmal is probably the best and largest example. We took a whole day excursion, being picked up from our hotel at 09.00, and returned at 17.30, with Turitransamerica.
Carlos, the larger than life guide, drove us around and gave a very detailed explanation of all the sites. Although it was entirely in Spanish, he was so expressive that it was not difficult to follow what he said for anyone with a smattering of the language. There was certainly much more detail on the buildings in his tour than we had in our guide book.
The ruins at Uxmal are in many ways more impressive than those at Chichen Itza, but far less visited, and are within an hour's drive from Merida. Thanks to its good state of preservation, it is one of the few Maya cities where visitors can get a good idea of how the entire ceremonial centre, pyramids and buildings looked in ancient times.
After a few hours at Uxmal, we had a good lunch included in the tour price (£25 per person), and then visited the smaller but equally impressive ruins at nearby Kabah before returning to our hotel.
Another option for a day trip from Merida, which unfortunately I did not have time to visit is the coastal town of Celestun ( 2 hours each way by bus), for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico, and a visit to the wildlife reserve to see great flocks of flamingos and other waterfowl. This is also provided as a day trip by Turitransmerida, including a fish lunch on the beach.
Hotel Hacienda Merida
Calle 62, 439 x 51 y 53
Centro Historico, Merida
Trip to Uxmal and Kabah was arranged with Turitransmerida, at a cost of £25pp including a pick up from the hotel and transport to and from all sites, lunch and a guide
Calle 55, 504 x 60 y 62
Centro Historico, Merida
La Chaya Maya (New Branch - more elegant)
Calle 62 481, Centro
97000 Mérida, Mexico
+52 999 928 4780
La Chaya Maya (Original Restaurant)
Calle 57 x 62 (corner), Centro
97000 Mérida, Mexico