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A First Timer’s Guide to Merida: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Why You Should Go To Merida

Palacio Canton, Merida Mexico

There are 2 great reasons to visit Merida:

1.     If you’re a digital nomad

2.     If you’re a lover of culture and the arts

If you happen to be both then happy days, make sure you put this historical city on your itinerary!

Merida is a digital nomads dream because the colourful colonial city offers lovely cafés and excellent WIFI.

This is your city if you’re looking to knuckle down with some work and have the odd day off to go and explore.

I visited Merida because I fell into Category Two. As much as I’ve tried, I’ve never been a museum and art gallery enthusiast. Photography exhibitions, festivals, hiking, scuba diving, adventure travel – YES!

History and the appreciation of classic and contemporary arts – not so much.

BUT if you do love culture then keep reading as I’ve still highlighted some of the top cultural spots in Merida for you.

The Colonial City of Culture

Located in the south-eastern region of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula is made up of 3 states:

  • Campeche (south-west),
  • Yucatan (central); and
  • Quintana Roo (south-east)

Lying in central Yucatan, you’ll find one of the largest historical cities of the Americas, the city of Merida.

Colourful colonial buildings in Merida MexicoThe state of Yucatan is characterised by Mayan culture and Spanish influence. This is most evident in Merida where the indigenous Maya people were pushed out from the area when the Spanish founded the city in 1542 on top of the Maya city of T’HŌ.

Leaving behind their carved Maya stones, the Spanish used them to build the impressive colonial buildings and Catholic churches that mark Merida’s grandeur and prosperity following the boom of the henequen industry (the extraction of the agave plant that is then processed as a textile).

Today, Merida has become a hub for culture, the arts and gastronomy as well as history and architecture.

With its close proximity to the popular beaches in Quintana Roo, such as Playa de Carmen, Tulum and Cancun it’s an obvious city break option for those who also wish to visit Chichen Itza, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Chichen Itza is only 75 miles from Merida

 

The Good…

Merida’s Cultural Hot Spots:

Merida’s Free Walking Tour

Available in both English and Spanish, this free walking tour is a brilliant introduction to the city of Merida.

Address: Meet Palacio Municipal (Tourist Office) on Calle 62 between 61 and 63. Every Mon – Sat at 9.30am

Further Info: Tripadvisor reviews

Soho Galleries

Contemporary art gallery housing local and international artists.

Address: Calle 60 #400A 43 & 41 Centro, Merida.

Further Info: Soho Galleries  

Estación 72

Café that also exhibits great works of art by Mexican artists.

Merida free walking tour. Inside Merida University

Address: Avenida Colón x Reforma, Merida

Further Info: Estación 72

Centro Cultural La Cúpula

Cultural centre that hosts concerts, recitals, live performances and art every month.

Address: Calle 54 no.407 x 41 y 43, Centro, Merida

Further Info: La Cúpula

Merida General Cemetery Free Tour

Taking a cemetery tour of one of the Mexico’s oldest cemetery’s, Cementerio General may sound a little eerie but I found it offered another fascinating glimpse of Merida’s cultural heritage and wealth.

The cemetery began in 1821 and has over 25,000 vaults and mausoleums in a breadth of styles ranging from Greek to Gothic to neoclassic. Many historic people lay to rest, including famous musicians and songwriters. 

Opening Hours: The cemetery is open daily from 8am – 5pm if you prefer to wander yourself, or I’d recommend the tour every Wednesday at 8pm.

Address: Calle 81-A and 90, Merida

Further Info: I found this article from Yucatan Living really interesting.

Peón Contreras Theater

Opera house the holds orchestral performances, opera, and musical theatre.

Address: Calle 60 490, Centro, Merida

Further Info: Culture Merida

Palacio Canton, Merida Mexico
Palacio Canton

A magnificent mansion that captivates your attention as you wander down Paseo de Montejo. It was originally built in the 20th century during the boom of the henequen industry and was the home for General Francisco Cantón Rosado and his family. Rosado was a high profile entrepreneur, politician, and served as governor of Yucatán twice.

Nowadays, Palacio Canton is known as the Regional Museum of Anthropology of Yucatán. Open to the general public to discover the history of Mayan culture.

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 08:00 – 17:00 hrs.

Address: Calle 43, by Paseo de Montejo, Mérida

Further Info: Palacio Canton

Buzzing with Live Music & Salsa Dancing

There are many spots to catch some live music performances or try your hand at salsa dancing.

  • Noche Mexicana – Santa Ana area by the Paseo de Montejo monument hosts live music, food and craft vendors every Saturday.
  • Parque de Santa Lucia – Sit in 500 Noches bar and catch the live music played in the square.
  • Parque de Santiago – Every Tuesday for Cuban inspired 30s and 40s music.
  • Mercado 60 – Hosts salsa nights every Friday and Saturday and free salsa lessons on Sundays at 8pm.

TIP: Pick up a copy of the Yucatán Today. It’s a free monthly magazine written in both English and Spanish that provides invaluable information on things to do in the city that month, new restaurant and bar openings and includes a detailed map for Merida. They are usually found in hotel lobbies or restaurants.

Meandering down Paseo de Montejo

Step back in time by wandering the streets of Paseo de Montejo. This is the longest and most renowned avenue in Yucatán. It was constructed in 1888 to commemorate the founder of the city, Francisco de Montejo y León.  There’s a monument in his name that is situated near the Santa Ana Park (also where I recommend you start from).

The wide avenue houses beautiful grand palaces and mansions – a result of the booming henequén industry.

Nowadays the avenue is also peppered with a wide selection of cafés and restaurants and lined with trees making it a pleasant stroll in the heat should you want to dive into a café for air con and lunch.

There are also a few museums on Paseo de Montejo that you can check out.

Paseo de Montejo was my favourite area of Merida and also conveniently close to where my Airbnb was located.

Paseo de Montejo starts from Calle 49 up to Monumento a la Patria

Drinking Coffee & Watching The World Go By

I had a lot of work projects on during my stay in Merida so embraced the fast WIFI and took the opportunity to beaver away on my laptop in coffee shops, soaking in the atmosphere and the good coffee.

Read my guide to the Best Cafés in Merida for Digital Nomads

Marago Coffee Shop, Merida Mexico

Riding the Biciruta on Sundays

Sundays felt like a joyous time for family and friends in Merida because most locals have Sundays off work. To encourage this, Merida closes many of its main streets to allow for the Biciruta.

A long-standing tradition where cars are banned and the streets are open to explore only by bicycle (or foot) from 8am – 12.30pm.

You’ll find that a few roads in the centre of Merida, such as the road that wraps around the Plaza Grande are closed off for pop up food stalls where the locals gather for breakfast or even a morning churro!

There are lots of places to hire bikes dotted all over the city if your hotel doesn’t provide them.

A Central Location To Escape The City For Day Trips

Merida has a constant flow of buses and colectivos that in a matter of 2 hours can transport you to Mayan ruins, cenotes, cities and beach destinations.

Read More on my Top 5 Day Trips from Merida.

The Bad…

It’s a Big City!

It may seem harsh to flag this as a negative point but I found Merida too large and unmanageable. Days were often spent traipsing around the city getting from A to B.

The Heat

City life means city walls and with that comes stifling heat kept in by the buildings.

Make sure you wear lots of sunscreen and always venture out with a bottle of water to hand.

An Uninspiring Tourist Trap

It’s expected that popular cities are going to have a tourist area, and Merida was no exception. However, the lack of originality disappointed me.

Apart from the magnificent Cathedral de San Ildefonso, the Plaza Grande felt like a tacky tourist trap. Lines of shops that surround the square sell the same souvenirs and the same tours.

It’s a shame there isn’t any originality in the form of small boutiques or unique souvenir shops that you get in nearby Valladolid. It’s obvious the same wholesaler serves practically all the shops in Merida!

It’s the same story for the street sellers offering brightly coloured fabrics and bags. It’s nice to have a look at one seller’s wares but there was no variety. The ladies were selling the exact same thing.

On a Saturday evening, the area is buzzing with food vendors, but look closely and every one is selling marquesitas.

If you’ve never tried this typical Mexican sweet treat, then I’d recommend it. Cheese and Nutella are rolled into a pancake crepe and toasted to create a wafer texture. It’s a strange but tasty combination!

Nevertheless, it’s baffling that there isn’t more variety of food on offer here. The marquesitas vendors are literally lined up one after the other.

The Ugly…

Watching The Pok Ta Pok Re-Enactment Game

I heard about the buzz of activity at the Plaza Grande on Saturday evenings, especially the not-to-be-missed reenactment of the Mayan game, Pok Ta Pok, that starts at 8.30pm. So Adam and I dumped our bags and headed straight there taking the advice of others to arrive for 8pm in order to get a good spot to watch the game.

As we approached the Plaza Grande, there were lights, dancing, music, people and a crowd gathering for the Pok Ta Pok game. Brilliant!

In anticipation for the game, the stadium seats were already packed but in hindsight loitering at the edge of the huddle was a blessing in disguise. 

In a nutshell: Pok Ta Pok was the oddest game I’ve ever witnessed.

The historical purpose of the ritual game was to give thanks to the gods when the Maya people had a fruitful harvest.

The men re-enacting the game painted their bodies and dressed only in a cloth to cover their modesty.

A 20-minute introductory ceremony explains the history of the game in Spanish. However, it was just our luck that out of nowhere live music started up at the other side of the Plaza Grande, which completely drowned out the podium speaker. Such a shame.

The aim is for players to score a 4kg rubber ball into a wall-mounted hoop only by using their hip or thigh.

Traditionally, it was a fast paced game of a maximum of 4. The consequence of losing was even death!

If you go to Chichen Itza, this’ll make more sense standing in the ball court.

In stark contrast to this, the re-enactment was painfully slow and lacklustre. There was no tackling or action. Middle-aged men dressed only in a cloth to cover their modesty passed the ball to each other and on the odd occasion made a half-hearted attempt to score. This goes on for half an hour.

It’s very unusual for a goal to be scored but we miraculously witnessed one. The whole crowd cheered at this slice of excitement!

Adam and I couldn’t watch for the full half an hour but instead bought tamale from a nearby shop and sat in the one of Merida’s iconic Las Sillas Confidentes (“Confidant” Chairs) and soaked up the atmosphere of the Plaza Grande.

Sitting in Confidant Chairs Merida Mexico

Tip: Arrive at the Plaza Grande for 9pm to catch a glimpse of the Pok Ta Pok game. It really isn’t riveting enough to sit there through the whole hour, especially if you don’t understand Spanish.

Language:Spanish
Time Zone:CST (GMT -6)
Currency:MXN Pesos
Credit Cards:Accepted in most convenience stores, restaurants, bars. Check for “cash only” signs
ATMs:Banks are located near the centre including HSBC. As a general tip in Mexico, draw cash out only during the day and from bank where ATMs are located inside.
Getting Around:Merida is one of the safest cities in Mexico so it felt ok to walk at night. The city has a huge public transport infrastructure including buses, colectivos and taxis. Uber works here but is more expensive than regular taxis.
Roads:Roads are in a grid structure so there are a lot of cross roads without traffic lights. Be extra careful when crossing the road.
Driest Months:December – April
Warmest Months:April – June
Wettest Months:August – October
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