Modern MÃ©rida was founded in 1542 by Spanish colonists who built their capital over the remains of an ancient (12th century) Mayan city. Since that time, MÃ©rida has been the cultural center of the region.
In fact, recently Merida won the honor of being the “Cultural Capital of the American Continent” for the year 2000 in a competition among cities throughout North, Central, and South America. Here is Merida on the map:
What To Do First
If you arrive by bus, don’t get depressed by the first glimpse you get of Merida. The bus station is in Merida’s least attractive section of town.
As you exit the bus station doors, downtown is three blocks to the left, then four blocks to the right. If you arrive at night, though, don’t walk; for the reasons stated above, take a taxi downtown, which should cost you about 30 Pesos. Public transportation is inexpensive and reliable in Merida, except in the south side of the city, e.g. near the bus station.
When downtown, the first thing you should do is pick up a copy of the free local magazine called “Yucatan Today.” You can find copies in most hotels and travel agencies, and it’s the most up to date written guide to Merida available in English. You will need the street maps published there asap, because none of the guide books cover enough territory.
Merida is, as you would guess, culturally rich. It is the home of the American continent’s oldest Cathedral, a variety of classical Spanish (and French!) architecture and urban design, several public and private universities, institutes and museums, and a population of approximately one million people.
The city is probably best known, though, as the point of entry for exploring the ancient Mayan world. Archeological zones such as the the pyramids at ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡ and Uxmal make popular day trips. Several subterranean rivers (“cenotes”) attract swimmers, scuba-divers, and naturalists. Some of these rivers enter intricate systems of caves which were used by the Maya for performing secret religious ceremonies (see rivers and caves).
National parks and the wild flamingo populations of nearby CelestÃºn are popular day trips as well. Merida fits into the ruins travel circuit quite easily. Two daily buses travel back and forth between Merida and the ruins at Palenque. And for approximately US$20, you can travel by bus from Merida to the Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala.
Yucatan’s geography and tropical climate differ from the rest of MÃ©xico, more closely resembling that of Cuba or Florida. MÃ©rida is situated nine meters above sea level. Twenty minutes outside of the city is the 18th century port of Progreso, where the Gulf of Mexico joins the Caribbean Sea. Very inexpensive buses leave MÃ©rida every half-hour for the beach. Unlike heavily trafficked tourist areas such as CancÃºn, Progreso is a beach community enjoyed almost exclusively by native Yucatecans. The only months of the year that the beach is very busy are July and August, when the tradition here is for everyone to take the month off from work and spend it at the beach.
Nightlife in restaurants and bars along the beach’s “malecon” however, is lively throughout the year. There are even more remote and tranquil beaches than Progresso, such as in the nearby towns of Telchac and Santa Clara.
“Santa Ana” is the downtown neighborhood which leads into Paseo Montejo, the main avenue in the north. This is an excellent area to get very inexpensive traditional Yucatecan foods in outdoor market type restaurants.
Eladios is a very popular pub where beer is expensive, but the food is free. You are served a variety of excellent Yucatecan foods for as long as you continue drinking. There is live music, lively conversation, and lots of fun. There are rarely tourists in Eladios because it’s out of the zocalo zone and because they’re too busy to advertise.
Billy Pizza on Paseo Montejo has really good inexpensive thin crust pizzas with a loud rock-n-roll kind of atmosphere.
CafÃ© La Habana on the corner of Calle 62 and Calle 59 is a good place for coffee/expresso and desert, or for something more substantial, and it’s open 24 hours.
Restaurante Leo is maybe the best place for tacos in town.
Las Mil Tortas for “tortas” (Mexican sandwiches), the equivalent to TacoBell here. They may not be the best for your waistline, but they’re delicious and inexpensive.
For something more upscale, the best beef in town can be found at the Argentine, La Cabaña del Gaucho, or for seafood Soberanis. Inexpensive Italian food with quiet, romantic atmosphere: Luigi’s in colonia ItzimnÃ¡.