And with Mérida designated the American Capital of Culture in 2017, you can expect the cultural boom to be louder than ever.
Morning: get your local grub on
Ease into your first day in the ‘white city’ (known as such because it once had predominantly white limestone buildings) with some tasty eats at Wayan’e, one of Mérida’s premier breakfast spots. Take your time over the immensely popular castacán torta (fried pork belly sandwich), or try one of their savory vegetarian options, such as tacos filled with huevo, chayo and xcatic (egg, tree spinach and native chili pepper).
Midday: take in Maya culture
With a belly full of pork belly, head north of town to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, a world-class museum celebrating all things Maya, the civilization that once dominated the Yucatán and southern Mexico. The museum houses an impressive collection of remarkably well-preserved artifacts, including an iconic chac-mool sculpture from Chichén Itzá (a reclining figure believed to honor rain god Chaac). For background on Maya culture and history before visiting nearby sites such as Chichén Itzá, this is the place to go.
When leaving the museum, have a gander at the building’s peculiar exterior design, which takes the form of a sacred ceiba tree – said by the Maya to connect the living with the underworld and the heavens above. Buses running along Calle 60 will leave you at the museum’s entrance.
Late-afternoon: siesta time
Totally optional of course, but let’s just say Mérida’s steamy hot weather makes it all too easy to plop into a hammock and drift into a blissful snooze. And you wouldn’t want to buck a time-honored tradition now, would you?
Evening: regional cuisine and mighty mezcal
Come nighttime, hit downtown for dinner and drinks. For wonderfully delicious Yucatecan fare, swing by La Chaya Maya. Yes, the place is perpetually packed, but when you try the regional dishes such as recado negro (black turkey stew) or sopa de lima (lime soup), you’ll know why. It occupies La Casona, a lovely hacienda-style colonial building.
After dinner, mosey over to Fundación Mezcalería for mezcal (an alcoholic agave drink, like a smoky tequila) and music. Housed in a retro-styled bicyclists’ hangout, Mérida’s best mezcal bar features local bands and DJs playing everything from hip-shaking cumbia beats to indie rock and electronica sets. If the music doesn’t help you find your groove, the potent mezcal will.
Morning: early ruins run
Now that you’ve got to grips with Maya history, head out to Chichén Itzá, the best restored of the Yucatán’s archaeological sites. Many mysteries of the Maya astronomical calendar become clear when one understands the design behind the ‘time temples’ here, especially the iconic El Castillo pyramid. The pyramid’s four stairways have 91 steps each; add the top platform and the total comes to 365, the number of days in a year.
To truly appreciate Chichén Itzá in all its glory, make it a priority to get there early, ideally around 8am, before the tour buses start rolling in (since being declared one of the ‘new seven wonders of the world’ this has become a very popular place). As well as helping avoid the crowds, an early start also means missing the intense afternoon heat.
To reach Chichén Itzá, which lies about 120km east of Mérida, frequent buses depart from Mérida’s main bus terminal at Calles 70 and 71. In Pisté (the actual name of the town where the site is located), before or after hitting the ruins you can grab a quick bite at a strip of eateries on the west end of town, where they whip up cheap and delish Yucatecan antojitos (snacks) such as papadzules (corn tortillas filled with diced hard-boiled eggs and bathed in tomato and pumpkin-seed sauces).
Afternoon: tap your inner culture vulture
Once back in Mérida, tuck into a late lunch at Manjar Blanco, a family-run restaurant that puts a contemporary twist on Yucatecan cuisine. The tortillas tropicales (fried plantains topped with smoked pork) are delicious, and sweet tooths will love the namesake manjar blanco (a coconut-cream dessert).
Next, make a move to Plaza Grande, downtown’s lovely, laurel tree-shaded main square. Mérida has been the Yucatán’s cultural capital since the colonial era and the spirit lives on in and around this convivial plaza, where you’ll find late-afternoon folkloric dance and music performances, dramatic murals and more fine architecture in the Palacio de Gobierno and an excellent collection of local artwork at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo.
Evening: nocturnal stroll and a nightcap
When the sun goes down and the heat subsides, take a walking tour north of downtown along Paseo de Montejo, a wide main avenue known for its elegant 19th-century mansions. Europe’s architectural and social influence is on full display along this street, home to the city’s wealthiest families back in the day. Today, it’s lined mostly with sidewalk restaurants, banks and bars.
About 2.5km north of Plaza Grande, along the Paseo, you’ll reach the Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Homeland), where you can wind down over mojitos on the upper-deck of open-air bar Cubaro. It makes a sweet setting to cap off a whirlwind visit to the Yucatán’s most invigorating city.