Merida: Capital of Culture
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
When talking about visiting Mexico, most people immediately start talking about trips to Mexico City, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun or Tulum. It's no surprise as these destinations are full of fun activities and many flights are offered from multiple US cities.
But have you ever ventured to the capital of the state of Yucatan? If you've ever considered Tulum for its famous cenotes and Mayan culture, I invite you to consider Merida, Mexico as an alternative. Trust me, you will NOT be disappointed.
I like to call Merida Tulum's lesser known cousin, as they both offer a variety of the same attractions. In fact, Merida is considered the best city to visit outside the United States by Condé Nast Traveler magazine. Read on to discover why you should consider Merida as your next Mexican destination:
1. Cenotes Galore
Did you know that there are thought to be as many as 6000 cenotes across the Yucatan Peninsula but barely half have been officially explored and documented? So if cenotes are what you are looking for, there are plenty to be explored.
As expected, I explored the lesser-known cenotes as I wanted to avoid crowds, and I was happy we got to enjoy the Noh-Mozon cenote in Pixyah alone. My pictures just don't do the clear water justice (and it is said the water in cenotes have healing properties). I believe it, as the peace and tranquility you experience in these caves is indescribable. Definitely something you have to experience in person.
I did a tour with a local who took us to his favorite isolated cenotes, but I am looking forward to going back to Merida to visit some of the famous "Instagram worthy" cenotes. I will admit I was so caught up in enjoying my swim, I didn't take many pictures.
I honestly believe this is a selling point on the cenotes in Merida, even the popular ones will have half the crowd of the cenotes in Tulum. Here's a great article with 7 must-visit cenotes in Merida.
2. Mayan Culture
With destinations like Cancun and Tulum what's the one place anyone thinks of for exploring Mayan culture? You guessed it, Chichen Itzá. Well, I'd like to present you a wonder I discovered while visiting Merida. It is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture and I absolutely loved it: Uxmal. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance. Between the 2 historic sites: this one is my favorite.
While the Pyramid of the Magician (above) is its most impressive structure, we also got to see a large ballcourt the Mayans used to play the Mesoamerican ballgame, the Governor's Palace, the Nunnery Quadrangle, and the throne of the Jaguar.
We spent hours walking the entire complex and felt like we missed so much! I will say: I do NOT recommend visiting in May. I had read it was the hottest month of the year and insisted on going anyways since it was for my birthday, but this was the main reason we couldn't keep exploring. It was unbearably hot and there is really no shade in the open complex.
The only opportunity you have to purchase water is at the entrance, and thankfully an employee gave me the great advice to buy a hat to protect me from the sun. Hence, the fancy hat that doesn't match my sporty outfit.
3. Extraordinary cuisine
Please take it from me: I have travelled to nearly every continent and I consider myself very adventurous when it comes to tasting foods from around the world. So do not take it lightly when I say: the food in Merida is some of the best I've EVER tried. There I said it, and I do not take it back.
Every dish I tried was loaded with flavor and the textures all worked so well together. This was probably what I was looking forward to the most, and Merida delivered. We even had a local Mayan family cook us Panuchos and I could not get enough!
Here are 4 local dishes you must try when visiting:
Sopa de lima - citrusy soup made for the Merida heat (my favorite).
Cochinita Pibil - Pork marinated in citrus juices traditionally slow cooked in a fire pit in the ground.
Salbutes - fried tortilla topped with all the local favorites of shredded turkey, cabbage, picked red onion, avocado and pickled jalapeños.
Panuchos - similar to Salbutes but they add refried beans on top. I strongly dislike beans (unpopular opinion) but these were actually delicious.
While the food the local family cooked for us was honestly my favorite (nothing like a home cooked meal); I will recommend a few restaurants worth checking out.
El Barrio - We ate here TWICE for breakfast. Oh my goodness. The food here blew my mind. Full of flavor and cooked to perfection.
Mercado 60 - cool spot full of different food stands. Great choice if you and your travel partner would like to eat different types of food. They also have live music certain days, so it's nice even to just sit and have a drink.
La Chaya Maya - While this wasn't my favorite restaurant in Merida, it's certainly one of the most known ones. I always like to visit the most famous restaurants in any city to see if they hype lives up to the name. The food here was good, but my favorite part was watching local women at the front window hand making corn tortillas for the guests. It added character.
4. Historic buildings
This is where I believe Merida edges out its competitors. As I always say, I'm a huge fan of culture and history and Merida offered that in many ways.
The downtown area of Merida has beautiful colonial architecture from it's days as a Spanish colony. Its cathedral is one of the oldest in Latin America and its central plaza came alive during the weekend with cultural dance shows where local dance academies showed off their skills. They also had street food so I was in heaven taking it all in.
We even got to visit the famous Hacienda Temozon, now a Marriott luxury hotel. It has a nice restaurant and small museum area dedicated to highlighting its glory days of being a sisal Hacienda.
*Interesting fact: Sisal is rope made out of an agave plant native to Mexico, and was once the driving force of the economy in Merida.
It was a beautiful property and we visited it for dinner after our day trip to Uxmal. It's located about 45 min away from Merida's downtown center.
So much more...
These highlights are just a portion of what made Merida so great. I could go on and on about Choco-Story just outside Uxmal where we learned about the history of chocolate in the region, or La Negrita Cantina where we saw live music and had Mezcal pops (just amazing), but this post would be so much longer. I just really think the capital of Yucatan doesn't have enough words or pictures to describe it, it must be experienced in person.