The Yucatán capital draws travelers looking beyond the beach.
On a Sunday Night in Mérida people gathered on Plaza Grande, the cultural center of the Yucatecan capital, strolling about or sitting in the “conversation chairs” that dot the plaza. I’d been told there would be dancing and arrived to find hundreds of older local couples already in full swing, filling the cobblestoned street in front of the town’s main municipal building. I was clearly the only nonlocal there, and couples smiled at me as I moved through the crowd with my camera.
I visited Mérida in late April, when the temperatures were quite hot. But I was happy to make the tradeoff, as I would see very few other travelers during my week there, and I welcomed settling into an appropriately slow pace. The city, noteworthy for its French and Spanish colonial architecture, offers a culturally rich – and increasingly popular – foil to the Yucatán’s traditional beach destinations. It has also earned the designation of Cultural Capital of the Americas for 2017. With these bona fides come great dining, diverting day trips, and beautiful hotels as well.
Forward-thinking diners need to find K’u’uk, a restaurant where old and new regional traditions collide. Housed in a nineteenth-century mansion with lovely architectural details, the restaurant employs molecular gastronomy methods (there’s even a high-tech lab) and provides a dramatic dining experience. By contrast, there’s no fancy plating at the Mercado Municipal Lucas de Gálvez, where locals gather at lunch, crowding around tiny interior tables. Vendors offer fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, and stacks of warm tortillas.
There are attractions outside town too. About an hour east of Mérida, the small town of Izamal literally glows: The buildings in the older district are painted a deep yellow, with a historic convent rising up above all else. In Parque Zamna, traditional horse-drawn carriages sit idle, their drivers chatting among themselves in the cool of the shade.
Back in Mérida, I plotted a return with my partner. She’d love the cultural history of the town, and I hoped to eat my way through the menu I’d photographed at K’u’uk. I suppose I’d concede to coming a few weeks earlier in the season if it meant cooler weather. We’d just be prepared to dance with the locals on Sunday night and let the tourists photograph us.
“Try the boutique breakfast café Kii’wik, from the chef and owner of K’u’uk. Néctar, by renowned Mexican chef Roberto Solís, is another great contemporary restaurant, and his alfresco Almíbar is the nicest spot for drinks. At Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, don’t miss the tortas de cochinita (pork marinated in spicy achiote) and lechón (baby pork confit).”
Set on a former eighteenth century sisal estate eight miles north of Mérida’s historic center, Hacienda Xcanatún has 18 rooms and suites with marble floors and wood-beamed ceilings, and a spa with garden views. Doubles from $247, including breakfast daily and a 50-minute massage for two.
Located 45 minutes south of Mérida, Hacienda Temozon offers 28 guest rooms and suites (each outfitted with a sleeping hammock in addition to its bed) along with a formal garden. Perhaps the best pursuit of all here is swimming in the private cenote. Doubles from $166, including breakfast daily, a complimentary lunch or dinner for two, a signature drink at check-in, and a welcome amenity from the Haciendas Workshop.
National Geographic Expeditions’ nine-day Mesoamerica tour takes adventurers through Mayan jungles that are home to pyramids, temples, and long hidden murals. Destinations range from colonial Mérida to ancient outposts such as Tikal, Palenque, and Chichén Itzá, ending in Guatemala City. Departures: February 23, November 9, and December 29; from $5,995.
An eight-day private tour of the Yucatán Peninsula from Artisans of Leisure highlights Mayan ruins, beaches, local cuisine or cooking lessons, a visit to a flamingo sanctuary, snorkeling, and market explorations, from inland Mérida to beachside Tulum. Accommodation options include Hacienda Xcanatún and Rosewood Mayakoba. Departures: Any day through 2017; from $10,500.