Yucatan . Mérida
The roads in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan are in excellent shape. Autopista 180 (the toll road) traverses the 200 mile corridor between Cancun and Merida, making the trip in an easy 3.5 hours. Not bad for the middle of the jungle. The old road parallels 180 a few miles south and intersects many small towns along the way, (something we did later).
The roads were smooth, void of heavy traffic, (not surprising given the $22 toll), and in better condition than the freeways in my home state of Michigan. We stopped for lunch in Valladolid and ate at the tropical Maria de la Luz Hotel, which has a beautifully bright and sunny indoor/outdoor courtyard overlooking the Zocalo. We enjoyed the short time in Valladolid so much we returned on the way back.
Below: Cathedral of San Idelfonso, oldest church in North America. Below: some typical heavy duty architecture.
We arrived Merida in the late afternoon. The city layout is easy once you get to know the street system. Almost all streets are numbered. Odd numbers run east/west, and even numbers run north/south. But finding an address marked “Calle 55 #499 60×58″ was difficult even for a map geek like me. ( 60×58 is a reference to the streets it’s between, which actually quite logical).
Calle 55 #499 was actually my destination: the Luz en Yucatan, a small 10 room and suite hotel, housed in some adjoining homes. I had found the Luz on the internet a few weeks earlier, and within two minutes of seeing the colorful photos I called and spoke with Madeline for a reservation.
Places like the Luz en Yucatan are what separate “traveling” from simply “vacationing”. Many people travel to Mexico to relax in the sun or party hard. It’s easy to bash Cancun for the vapid culture of the hotel and service industry. However the tourists provide a great number of jobs and income to the Mexican economy, and the people working in the tourism industry, tacky as it often is, are able to sustain a good living and provide for their families better than in other small Mexican towns. But for those searching for a true cultural experience, it’s easy to be found with just a little internet research and open mind. The Luz en Yucatan reaffirmed my commitment to staying at small independent run places, knowing places like these will provide the most interesting and most memorable experiences.
To me a small place in the heart of a city or town is actually MORE convenient than an all inclusive resort. Many mega resorts have more real estate than a Las Vegas Casino, and navigating the grounds can be a complicated ordeal. At our resort down the coast from Puerto Morelos it took us 10 minutes to walk to the pool and beach, and dodging other people was a constant. Contrast this to the Luz’s mellow lush tropical courtyard pool. Muffled by the heavy limestone walls of the old house, the only sounds were birds chirping and the occasional plum falling from the tree next to me. A coffee shop and internet cafe were right across the street, less than 20 steps from the front door. Plaza Mayor, the heart of Merida was three blocks away, which has a number of restaurants offering authentic Yucatacen food.
I give Madeline and crew the best regards, only regretting I couldn’t stay longer!
The courtyard and Madeline’s dining room, en route to the pool.
I was amazed by the French Colonial architecture and culture of Merida, a blend of Spanish and Mayan. The many arches and thick limestone walls were a reminder of the few hundred years it’s stood. I haven’t seen this style anywhere in Mexico. Small towns don’t have grand architecture save for the town church, and in Mexico City the architecture is a hodgepodge of all different styles. Merida was clean, classy, and the people were friendly. It was a city of almost one million, but it’s compact, and most sights are in the centro area.
The first evening we walked north to Paseo de Montejo Street, named after the founder of the city Francisco de Montejo. The street is where the original wealthy land owners built their mansions, with more space than the cluttered centro area. The mansions now house banks, restaurants, and businesses, and along the street modern art projects adorn the sidewalks.
Mansion and art along Paseo de Montejo
Merida is highly focused on tourism. The best way to introduce yourself to the city and it’s history is the free walking tour. The tour begins every morning at 9:30 in front of the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) on Plaza Mayor, and visits every major building surrounding the Plaza. On my tour I was joined by a Spanish and French couple, and my guide spoke all languages.
Cathedral of San Idelfonso, oldest church on the continent
Hammocks are a big commodity in the Yucatan. Because of the heat and humidity, throughout the years many people have simply slept in their hammocks instead of a bed, and still continue to do so. Many rooms I saw, including the living room and suites at the Luz have hooks in the walls for their hammocks. Even though the days were hot, nights were breezy and cool, and all of our meals were outdoors.
Cafe Peon Contreras was two blocks north of Plaza Mayor, with live music and a huge outdoor seating area away from the streets. During the hottest part of the day we relaxed at the Cafe Club coffee shop, across from the Luz. This small cafe had books, magazines, internet, and sandwiches for a few dollars. In fact most cities inland from the Mayan Riviera (Cancun to Tulum) are significantly cheaper. Merida was an excellent bargain, and we ate well for a reasonable price.
Our coffee shop, and another good way to see the city
If you really want to see the city beat of Merida walk a few blocks south of Plaza Mayor and dive into the central market. It’s crowded, noisy, but filled with deals of clothing, food and other sundries. Many small “mini markets” are tucked back into buildings, and walking into one building we found a long hallway with about 10 different haircut and salon vendors, and another hall featuring just seafood. Exploring the maze of vendors can take hours, and you can find almost anything.
Another excellent experience is the free music shows every night at various parks. The Yucatan Today site has plenty of info on events in Merida, but the best event we saw were the drum performances at the park. For about three hours both nights we watched a group of young people perform and dance for crowds coming and going.
Old gates to the city, when it was walled to protect the Spanish residents from Mayan revolts.
The site Yucatan Living has some stories about life in Merida and the Yucatan that I’ve enjoyed reading.