First Impressions

History, Gastronomy, and Community in Mérida

by Anna Petrow
All photos by Anna Petrow.

YUCATÁN, Mexico — From our first stroll through Mérida's colorful, fading facades on tree-lined city blocks populated by artists, musicians, and culinary dreamers, we felt the ways in which we were in two cities at once: a time capsule and an emerging destination. The vibrant capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán has a rich Mayan heritage and is close to UNESCO-listed archaeological sites, lush swimming holes and beaches, and a blend of architectural and cultural traditions that spans eons.

A local joked, “If you come to the Yucatán and you don’t sweat, you get your money back.” True enough, the scorching days lend themselves to time spent away from the sun, meandering through museums, enjoying the city’s plentiful coffee shops and heladerías, and browsing the wares of the region’s talented artisans. Soco became our daily wake-up ritual, with creamy iced horchata lattes and sweet dulce de leche pastries. Pola Gelato Shop cooled us off with impeccable scoops of Mexican vanilla ice cream, slurped up in no time.

The streets of Merida lead to delicious pastries at Soco.
Vintage charm.
Museo Casa Montejo (left); and artist haven Casa Ocea.

We got a dose of air-conditioned history when we spent hours wandering through the beautifully renovated halls of Museo Casa Montejo and the National Museum of Anthropology and History. Each provided a glimpse of the grandeur of centuries past – Casa Montejo was built in the 16th century, and the art and artifacts within echo the period. For those drawn to the Yucatán for the rich Maya history, the anthropology museum and subsequent visit to Museo de Maya were excellent precursors to our visit to the ancient city Uxmal. Nothing can prepare you for the awe of witnessing structures built in 700 A.D., but the context for how the Maya lived, and how modern archaeologists worked tirelessly to uncover the buildings, were reference points that amplified the experience. 

On the hunt for souvenirs, we found local honey at Básica Sociedad, hand-embroidered clothing at Kukul Boutik, delicious chocolate blended with remarkable flavors like pink peppercorn, lime zest, and corn chips at Ki'xocolatl, and meticulously crafted home goods at Taller Maya.

Outside of the city, adventure awaits. The strategy to beat the heat is to head to the famous cenotes. We adored the ones we simply stumbled upon roadside thanks to handmade signage and pop-up stands of local ladies frying tortillas. Equally, we appreciated the history lesson that came alongside our visit at Hacienda Mucuyche, a parcel of land with the remains of an 18th-century hacienda and fields where sisal was once harvested, with overgrown paths and a giant swimmable cenote (important tip: reservations required). Although a bit touristy, the work put into the site is undeniably worth the one-hour trip from Mérida: The tour ends with a remarkable swim in a cavern lit from below the water’s surface, showcasing hundreds of thousands of years of slowly growing stalactites in an otherworldly turquoise hue. Heading north another day, we discovered the pristine beaches of Chuburná (on our way to visit to the stunning Casa Ocea, an artist haven available for vacation rentals) and even spotted a few flamingos feeding in the wetlands along the drive.

Finding a roadside cenote is a delight.
Stop and notice design details.

Throughout town, as the heat of the day subsides, locals and tourists alike begin to stir. Just about anything can be hidden behind the cement walls. The sleepy street where we arrived our first morning to stay in a historic hacienda began to come alive at dusk. Bird, a record bar pouring locally brewed beer, was a favorite on our block. La Botillería is unassuming from afar but is filled with treasure in the form of uniquely sourced Mexican mezcal, gin, and raicilla.

For this trip, the food was the initial draw. One of my oldest and dearest clients, Ted Habiger, one of the first chefs to entrust his food photography to me (that’s my day job!), runs Ánima, cooking alongside chef Daniel Ron to much acclaim. I eat a lot in my line of work, and the meal was among one of the best I’ve ever had. It's all about wood-fired cooking — picture handmade tortillas enveloping expertly grilled barbacoa, brisket, and fish. The star was sea bass served on a bed of pineapple puree and plentiful herbs. Grilled broccoli with peanut sauce, dried chiles, macadamia nuts, and ash aioli gave the meat a run for its money.

At the Museum of Yucateca Gastronomy, we sampled Yucatecan specialties like chayitas stuffed with squash and beans and mukbil pollo enterrado, a tamale with chicken, pork, onion, and tomato wrapped in banana leaf and smoked in a pit. A stroll through the museum grounds gave us context for a cuisine that has evolved with global influences and ancient cooking techniques intertwining throughout history.

Perhaps our most memorable meal was in the cathedral square after Sunday mass let out. Scores of vendors line the streets, churning out savory dishes like panuchos, tamales, and tacos alongside sweet snacks such as the ubiquitous marquesitas (crispy crepes rolled up with toppings like Nutella, strawberries, and queso de bola).

Sunup or sundown, the pulse of culture beats throughout the city. Over the course of a few nights, we stumbled across a local orchestra performance, traditional dancing, a Maya history lesson projected onto the grand Cathedral Mérida (spoken in part in the beautiful ancient indigenous tongue), and even a nighttime 5k complete with a DJ. In the mornings, streets shut down for bike rides, roller blading, cookouts, and artisan showcases. Community thrives in Mérida, and the kindness of people welcoming tourists into the fold is the ultimate treat.

The dining room at Ánima (left); the cathedral in the square.
Sunday brunch (left); local watering hole La La Botillería.

Getting There

Travelers can fly into the new, easily navigable Mérida Airport. The city is very walkable, and Ubers and taxis are plentiful. Rental cars (available at the airport) are only necessary for day trips out of the city.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.