Into The Heart Of The Yucatan
with Brett Christie
of San Ildefonso in Merida
Dining room at Casa de Montejo museum in Merida
Serenade Yucatan in Santa Lucia Park
Cenote in Valladolid
Our hotel in Merida, Casa Del Balam
The main structure at Chichen Itza - Castillo De Kukulcan (Castle of the Snake)
Best-dressed horse in Izamal outside the convent
San Antonio de Padua Convent & Temple, Izamal
Coqui Coqui Perfumerie, Valladolid - outside
Coqui Coqui Perfumerie, Valladolid - inside
Flamingos in the Ria Celestun
Hot peppers for sale at Merida's Mercato Centrale
The team at Coco Cuisine: Chef Juan Mendez, and owners Ana Lucia Munoz Alonzo and Sergio Gonzalez Alonzo
There’s been a lot of buzz about Merida in the travel industry the last few years and with good reason. It is one of the most well preserved colonial centres in Mexico.
I had the pleasure of touring the area recently, courtesy of Yucatan Tourism and WestJet Vacations via Hispano America. Merida is situated in the northwest part of the Yucatan Peninsula, and for clients with a passion for all things Mexico, this is a gem of a destination. Beautiful colonial architecture, rich history, great food, unique shopping experiences and a vast array of nature preserves – all dipped in the warmth and friendliness of the Mayan culture.
WestJet offers direct service to Merida from Toronto throughout the winter season which begins again in December.
Here are some the highlights of this diverse region of Mexico.
Merida looks like a colourfully painted Mexican movie set. Beautiful buildings and cathedrals set around typical town squares with manicured trees, and playing children. You could spend an entire day exploring the surroundings of the Plaza Grande in the Centro Historico alone.
Merida also has some of the best museums in the Yucatan. We had the opportunity to visit Casa De Montejo, once the residence of Francisco de Montejo, conqueror of the Mayans that dates back to 1549 and is now a museum showcasing spectacular architecture and stunning Victorian furnishings.
The crowning glory is the Passeo de Montejo, the so-called “Champs Elysees” of Merida. Lined with tall shady trees, the street reveals a spectacular display of Spanish and French colonial heritage buildings, some of which are still family homes, but most have been carefully converted into restaurants, hotels and museums. I could have walked up and down that street eating sorbet from Dulceria Sorbeteria Colon all day.
Even though the city is growing and evolving into a metropolitan hub, the Mayan culture is still alive and well in the Yucatan with a large portion of the population still speaking Mayan and about half the population of Merida being of Maya ethnicity. There are many surrounding traditional Mayan villages, some of which offer tours through local operators. Authentic Mayan handicrafts are abundant for a reasonable price due to the high population of descendants from the ancient civilization.
There are free open-air cultural performances within the city every night of the week in Merida. We got to witness the Serenade Yucatan in Santa Lucia Park on Thursday night while we dined on delicious Italian food on the terrace of restaurant Trotto in the park. There were musical acts as well as traditional Mexican dancing to entertain the huge crowd that formed in the park.
Escaping the heat
I was there at the beginning of April and the temperature was amazing. Apparently in the summer the temperatures can soar and locals head to one of the many nearby beaches to cool down. Our hosts said that many people even stay at the beach for the whole summer, much like cottagers do here in Toronto.
Cenotes, a defining landscape feature of the Yucatan are underground fresh springs and rivers. With a notable lack of surface water, creating a very dry landscape for most of the year, these underground cave-like springs are thought to be sacred so some are off limits for swimming, however a number of cenotes in the area provide residents and visitors a wonderful opportunity to cool off. Unfortunately, I only saw photos of those ones and didn’t get to dive in myself. I’ll just have to go back.
We stayed in Hotel Casa Del Balam right in the heart of the city. It was a classic, colonial hotel with a beautiful open courtyard in the centre and a small, quiet, pool in the back. Shared balconies throughout were dotted with plants and rocking chairs which I took advantage of on the upper floors every night before dinner. I would have a glass of wine, watch the sunset over the low-lying city and listen to the streets below come alive, turning from day to night - horse drawn carriages clopping by, groups of friends talking and laughing, and live music starting to play. It was a very natural and welcoming buzz and I couldn’t wait to get down there and join in.
The staff were all incredibly friendly and helpful, although at times I could have benefited from knowing a few more phrases in Spanish, namely “cork screw” or “bottle opener”. The hotel itself I wouldn’t call luxury and the wifi was forgivably a bit spotty, however it was beautiful and the location couldn’t have been more perfect. You can find lots of hotels similar in style to Balam in the city as well as the bigger, more familiar and seemingly more upscale hotel chains like the Hyatt Regency Merida Hotel and the Intercontinental Presidente Merida, (both available through WestJet Vacations) although these didn’t have the same centrality that Balam did.
There are many bars within the city and most of the raucous nightlife exists over the weekend from Thurs-Sat, although there is a university in town so I’m sure the eager party animal could find somewhere to let loose any night of the week with the young crowd. The “discos” or the more late-night venues are all located outside of the city centre, so if you want to stay out past 2, you have to be dedicated to the cause.
Just an hour and 20 minutes east of Merida lay the archeological Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, cited as one of the wonders of the world. Most people visit the site for a whole day with a tour operator from Merida or Cancun. It’s worth it to get there early (before 10am) so you can have a few hours of relative exclusiveness before the tour buses roll in. These ancient Mayan grounds transported me back thousands of years into the fascinating history of the Mayan people and their impressive engineering and architecture as well as astounding astrological knowledge.
About halfway between Merida and Chichen Itza, Izamal “The Magical Town” is a quiet, beautiful place to stop and take in more colonial architecture and Mexican history. All of the buildings in the city centre are painted the same yellow hue as the towering San Antonio De Padua Convent and Temple.
There are varying stories about the reason for the chosen colour pallet, including; It’s the colour of the Vatican; It’s the colour of corn, an important staple for Mayans; And my personal favourite – ‘Everyone had the plague and the colour yellow made it disappear’. Ok, that last one probably got a little lost in translation but I’m sure there’s more to the story that follows some logic. I loved all the stories our guides shared with us and the various interpretations and meanings that have evolved over the years.
About halfway between Merida and Cancun (about 2 hours from each) is Valladolid, a frequent tour bus stop between Cancun and Chichen Itza with the same beautiful colonial architecture I came to expect from the region. We took a walk down the Calz.de Los Frailes which had a combination of some of the most beautiful homes, restaurants and shops I’ve ever seen. I wanted to buy everything and I never wanted to leave.
One of my favourites was Coqui Coqui Perfumeria, a beautiful sun-filled, tile-floored perfumery with an imaginative array of scents in a very ancient apothecary-style display that evolves into different experiences as you move through the space. Passing through the doorway into the next room you’re greeted by beautiful locally-made men's and women's clothing, jewelry and accessories. Moving in further, you enter a stunning café where different chocolate samples are offered and can be enjoyed with a fine cup of coffee. To top it off, it is also a hotel and a day spa where you can indulge in facials, wraps and botanical baths. If only I’d had the time!
Heading 1.5 hours southwest from Merida to Celestun along the coast, we reached the Ria Celestun, a Biosphere Reserve where local guides took us on a boat tour. From the pier we set off in the shallow, murky waters outlined by dense mangroves towards the spectacular flocks of bright pink flamingos. Along with the famous flamingos, the area is home to over 300 different bird species including herons, pelicans, osprey, and eagles. Hispano America plans bird watching tours of the area for birders from all over the world.
On the coast, it’s only right to indulge in fresh seafood from the area and there are plenty of places to do so along the beach. We went to La Palapa Restaurant set right on the white sand and we made small work of ceviche, shrimp, snapper, and tortillas while sipping on margaritas before we took a dip in the refreshing ocean water.
For travellers looking to stay along this beautiful coastline, we were told about a beautiful 4 star eco-resort just 20 minutes north of our lunch spot called Xixim Unique Mayan Hotel. I suggest checking it out for your clients as it seems like the perfect combination of luxury resort-relaxation, cultural exploration and environmental respectfulness. We almost begged our hosts to let us visit, but alas our schedule wouldn’t permit it. Other places to see and things to eat…
The most important part: Food.
The food of the Yucatan is unique from the rest of Mexico in that it has drawn influence from many different culinary cultures including Mayan, Aztec, Spanish, European, and Middle Eastern. We learned quickly that it’s hard to go a day without having turkey or pork and that the chaya leaf, unique to the region is used in many culinary settings from marinades for meats to fresh juices. The combination of flavours, textures and colours made every meal exciting.
Although we enjoyed all of our restaurant meals, the story and setting of Coco Cuisine really stole the show. A local brother and sister team, Ana Lucia Munoz Alonzo and Sergio Gonzalez Alonzo, bought a house and turned it into a restaurant where you cook your own meals with the help of the infectiously enthusiastic Chef Juan Mendez in a backyard setting made up of what I can only describe as a pinterest dreamland.
As we walked in, we weren’t sure if we had the right place as it seemed we had just waltzed into a family home. We later learned that this is part of the intended experience. We walked through a cozy living room setting complete with record player spinning Motown tunes, through the rest of the quaint house and out into the long, narrow, canopied backyard with twinkling lights and cooking utensils -turned light fixtures where the cooking stations were set up.
The idea first came from Sergio and a friend while travelling. To save money, they decided to go to the market for ingredients and make their own dinner with fellow travellers. Realizing they were onto something, upon returning home they started operating out of the friend’s place and did so until he took on a head chef position at a local restaurant. Enter brilliant sister Ana and the current, larger-scale version of Coco Cuisine on Calle 17 was born. They host guests from Thursday to Sunday evenings, and change the menu every week to feature dishes from different types of cuisine including Italian, Japanese and of course, Mexican.
For travellers who want a true taste of Mexican culture and heritage, in a beautiful, relaxing, and safe setting, Merida and its surrounding area is a perfect destination. With its incredibly rich history, character-filled narrow streets, beautiful colonial architecture, and welcoming residents, it’s no wonder that Merida is gaining popularity as a tourist destination and a perfect jumping off point to experience the diverse offerings of the surrounding areas. I feel like we barely scratched the surface!