The Artistic Vibe of Merida

October 3rd 2023 in Explore
The Artistic Vibe of Merida

The Artistic Vibe of Mérida

Mérida, a Mexican city known for its golden age in the early 20th century, is experiencing a resurgence a hundred years later. With new hotels, restaurants, galleries, and museums, many of Mérida's residents find inspiration in the town's rich history and throughout the lush Yucatán peninsula. They are taking bold steps to create something new with something old.

Walking along the Paseo de Montejo, named after the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1542, is a great way to experience the city's past. The city's heyday began in the final decades of the 19th century by exporting henequen, a native plant. By 1900, the use of this plant as a significant industrial textile had brought prosperity to the city. Today, tree-lined boulevards in Mérida still have enormous, art nouveau mansions which range from romantically crumbling to carefully preserved.

Compared to Mexico City, Mérida offers the benefits of city life while still efficiently providing access to nature. The Yucatán region has around 8,000 cenotes, or natural freshwater sinkholes, that are usually open for a dip. Additionally, awe-inspiring ancient Mayan sites like Uxmal and Chichen Itza are never more than one or two hours away. The present-day architects and artists of Mérida subtly mirror the distinctive Puuc stle of those Mayan sites.

Most of the people I met during my stay in Mérida told me how livable the city is. You can cycle around town, cool down in cenotes all summer, and rent or buy unique heritage properties. Plus, it's officially Mexico's safest city. Even as a visitor, the town quickly unfolds as one of the country's most unmissable destinations. With the development of the historical centre forthcoming, the creation of a new park, La Plancha, in an old rail yard promises even more innovation within this Yucatán gem in the coming year.

Where To Stay

If there is one area where Mérida's tourist offering has felt a little lacking, it is hotels, but a series of new openings is set to change that. With the city's unique offering of late 19th and early 20th-century colonial mansions, restoring such homes provides an opportunity for memorable stays that feel like stepping back in time. Casa Colon is one such mansion, which is only bookable via Instagram and has been in the owner's family for generations. This Parque de las Américas-adjacent home combines original period details with an up-to-the-minute curation of design objects and artworks that reflect the owner's esoteric tastes.

On the walls, black and white images by Mexican photographers, like Luis Barragan-collaborator Armando Salas Portugal, hang alongside portraits of the family through the generations. Antique typewriters and radios belonging to Jorge's grandparents can be spotted throughout the property, along with vintage furniture like Florence Knoll and Philippe Starck or a colourful Henry Moore print. A lush garden with sweet-smelling fruit trees reveals a concrete-poured swimming pool in the back. The water is from the naturally-occurring garden well, a feature of such homes due to the underground springs that the city is built on. It can sleep up to eight people, and it is possible to have each stay personalized to your needs, such as eating fresh ceviche on the lawn upon arrival.

Meanwhile, a new entry on the scene is Hotel Cigno. The property is housed in a mansion dating from the 19th century, nestled on the quiet cobbled streets of the central La Ermita neighbourhood. The property has been painstakingly restored and updated to offer the perfect marriage of original details, such as mosaic tiled floors and corniced ceilings as you enter, with a thoroughly modern sense of space. Across ten rooms, a restaurant, and two pools at multiple levels, architect Roger González has created a peaceful enclave of tall, pale terracotta walls and blue-tinted tiles that reveal hidden details around every corner. One such surprise is the architect's tribute to his favourite neighbourhood church, the sunshine-yellow La Ermita de Santa Isabel.

One of the benefits of Mérida as a city is just how easily you can get out of it, and if you fancy a break from the hustle and bustle of the centre, look to Chable Yucatán, an established resort just half an hour's drive from the airport. Chable is located in the middle of a dense Mayan forest and is regularly voted one of Mexico's best hotels. Set across 750 acres of the Maya jungle, Chable was formerly a vast hacienda dating from the 18th century, and throughout the grounds, you will come across the original, time-worn gates from that time.

But the resort's most impressive asset is a sense of genuine privacy among all this vastness—with aviaries, orchards, and a private cenote all best explored by the provided bicycles. With an emphasis on personal casitas surrounded by lush greenery and an in-house, world-class spa, Chable takes relaxation seriously. Rest assured that the resort promotes its protection and preservation among all this breathtaking nature. The hotel endeavours to encourage the best conservation of endangered species local to the Yucatán and native plant restoration and reduce plastic use in every possible respect.

Where To Dine

Mérida has a great dining scene with many options, making it tempting to spend the entire day eating. The restaurant that started it all is Apoala, located on Parque de Santa Lucia and has been serving unique Oaxacan cuisine for the past decade. Chef Sara Arnaud's dedication to showcasing the best Oaxacan cuisine has earned Apoala a prestigious reputation. The restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes, including fried zucchini blossoms, beef short rib with pineapple sauce and the Fortini cocktail, a mescal-based drink named after the Oaxacan mountain. The food and people-watching experience at Apoala is hard to match.

El Remate is a recently opened multi-purpose dining and drinking space at the tip of the Paseo de Montejo, the city's classic tree-lined boulevard. A New York City ex-pat opened it and offers a downstairs main dining area, a casual pizza restaurant named Neo, and a bar upstairs called El Gato, which provides an unrivalled view of the boulevard. For dinner, groups can explore Mexican mains or share the restaurant's specialities from the grill, such as traditional mustardy pescado zarandeado.

Ramiro Cocina is a small, daytime-only restaurant located nearby. The restaurant offers a choice between sitting in the sun-dappled garden or the stone-topped bar, where you can watch the chefs at work. The food, featuring various kinds of mole, minguiche (a tomato soup with milky cheese), gooey pork or squash blossom quesadilla, or the signature bacalao to share (cod stew), is just as good in either setting. The restaurant's recipes are all inspired by the founder's grandfather, who can still come into the kitchen occasionally and show the team how it's done, even at 95 years old.

If you crave non-Mexican cuisine, Oliva Enoteca is a great option. Located by the Parque de Santa Ana, the restaurant is gaining regulars for its homemade gnocchi, classic pasta dishes, and lemony seafood risotto with fresh octopus. Other notable spots include Salón Gallos for its wine bar, gallery, and cinema showing classic movies, while Pan & Køf.feé

and newcomer Soco are recommended for their freshly baked sourdough and pastries in the morning.

What To Do

If you're planning to visit Mérida, your cultural itinerary can be broadly categorized into two parts: you can explore the city's rich history or immerse yourself in the current cultural scene. For an authentic experience of the Gilded Age, you must not miss Quinta Montes Molina, which the Montes Molina family has owned since they purchased it from a Cuban businessperson in 1919. The mansion offers a unique opportunity to explore a well-preserved family home filled with objects from around the world collected over generations. The villa is well-lit and is far from feeling like a museum. It provides a glimpse into the family's lives that once lived there. The spacious grounds of Quinta are currently being developed into a restaurant and cultural centre that aims to attract contemporary artists and antique collectors alike.

If you're interested in shopping in Mérida, head over to Paseo de Montejo, which is home to Casa T'hō. This store transforms into a cocktail bar with a beautiful courtyard in the evening. The store features different works of Mexican creative talent, including perfumery Xinú, which offers botanical scents from across the Americas, and the fashion brand Carla Fernandez, which showcases unique accessories and loosely tailored separates created in collaboration with indigenous and mestizo communities. At Taller Maya, located on the Parque de Santa Ana, you'll find clothing, accessories, and homeware handmade by Yucatán artisans in a floor-to-ceiling windowed space. The platform collaborates with more than 200 artisans and 40 communities in the peninsula. Each label displays the artisan's name, their community's name, and the material and technique used. When I visited, I was immediately drawn to a gigantic black and red checkered tufted rug, but unfortunately, it wouldn't have fit in my hand baggage.