Merida is often ranked as one of the most charming cities in Mexico. As the capital of the Yucatan region, it has plenty of restaurants, people, and worthy attractions. Yet it is far less touristy than Cancun or Playa del Carmen. In addition to all that, it is a great place for exploring the charms of the Yucatan region, whether you want to take in Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza or swim in the cenotes. Join me for a full day of exploring ruined factories, swimming in secret pools, eating a magical spinach, and exploring the homes of dead Spanish noblemen. It will be Yucatantastic!
Morning: Hacienda Living
Most articles you read about the Yucatan will mention three things: the henequen hacienda buildings, the beautiful cenotes (natural limestone pools), and the FOOD! I lucked out and found a morning tour around the area that combined all three: Gray Line’s Yucatecan Haciendas and Cenotes tour. I happened to be the only one on the tour that day, so I got a private tour for a public tour price. Lucky me!
We stopped at two haciendas on the tour: San Pedro Chimay, which has been restored, and Hacienda Uayalceh, which definitely has not. But each one has its own unique charm, so I’m glad I got to see both of them.
“But Travelerette!” I can hear you asking. “You are getting way ahead of me! What is a hacienda? What is henequen? How do you even pronounce Uayalceh? Glad you asked, Internet Stranger! I will be happy to provide a response in the form of…
three fun facts about henequen haciendas
- Henequen haciendas in the Yucatan were like plantations in the Caribbean and American South, except instead of producing sugar, cotton, or rice, the henequen plantations produced henequen, which is an agave plant. Henequen was valued because it can be turned into rope. If you tour the haciendas, you can see the old manufacturing equipment for turning the henequen into rope material.
- You may have noticed that the equipment doesn’t look to be in very good condition. That’s because once synthetic fibers became popular for rope making, people stopped using henequen, and the henequen plantations went out of business. Time marches on, and all we are is henequen in the wind…But some haciendas like San Pedro Chimay are kept up as hotels or country homes for wealthy families. Some like Hacienda Uayalceh, well…
- The haciendas would have been owned by well-off Spanish colonial families, so the houses were furnished with tiles and goods from Europe. There is even a chapel in each hacienda. But the families would not have lived on the haciendas. The haciendas were staffed by Mayans who, according to my guide, were paid and treated quite poorly. This accounts for quite a bit of the pro-Mayan, anti-Spanish sentiment that can still be found in parts of the Yucatan today.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite part of the tour was when we arrived at the ruined Hacienda Uayalceh, and my guide got the caretaker to open up the old chapel so I could see inside. The yellow color and the Spanish tile were amazing, even if the chapel isn’t maintained in the best condition. The guide asked the caretaker, who spoke no English, “Todos son originales?” and the caretaker answered “Si!” The guide began to translate for me, but I told him my Spanish wasn’t that bad, and I understood what had been said.
Early Afternoon: San Antonio Mulix Cenotes and Lunch
After the history lesson at the haciendas, it was time for some swimming! We went to two different cenotes in a community called San Antonio Mulix: X’Batun and Dzombakal. I use the term “we” very loosely, as the guide stayed in the van while I went swimming. I was happy about this because I wanted more privacy when I went swimming anyway.
But privacy was hard to find at our first stop, the X’Batun cenote, because it was so popular. I had to be careful taking pictures because there were a few families there, and I especially want to avoid taking a photo of a strange child–it tends to upset their parents and rightfully so. The water here was nice and warm and deep enough to go swimming in.
Our next stop was Dzombakal cenote, which is a little bit hidden, as you can see above. I preferred this to X’Batun, not because it was prettier, but because no one else was there and I could swim as much as I wanted to all by myself. There actually was one young man who stood at a distance watching me, but I think he was a lifeguard. I hope he was a lifeguard, but I guess he could have just been a random creepo. Yay to lifeguards, boo to creeps, as I always say.
After I spent about an hour at the cenotes, I was ready for lunch. We headed to the local restaurant in San Antonio Mulix, which I think is called Aak Ya Abil. (Don’t ask me what this means. I’m sure it’s Mayan and not Spanish.) There I had a two-course lunch. It started with tacos topped with creamy, fresh avocados. I have to say that I was so impressed with the tortillas and taco shells in Mexico. The guide told me that they are so good because they are made with corn and they are made by hand. I tried to tell him about eating flour tortillas made in a factory and he just laughed at me.
The main course was the Yucatecan classic, poc chuc, which is grilled pork marinated in citrus. If you really want it to be authentic, use the citrus from the sour orange tree. The marinade makes the pork extremely flavorful. Once again there was avocado on the side, and once again the avocado tasted much better than any avocado I have had in the US.
Late Afternoon: Museo Regional de Antropologia
Address: 485 Paseo de Montejo
Hours: 8-5 Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Mondays
Price: 52 Pesos
After lunch, we headed back to Merida and arrived at my hotel between 2 and 2:30. If you follow this itinerary, I suggest asking your driver to drop you off at the Anthropology Museum if possible. This will save you walking time!
The museum is located in the beautiful Spanish colonial building, Palacio Canton. It is dedicated to the history and artifacts of the Mayan people. As I mentioned earlier, the people of Mayan descent are very proud of their specific heritage, so definitely don’t get it twisted and think of them as being the same as all other Mexicans or worse, Spanish.
As you can see from my photo, the place is worth visiting for the architecture alone. It was built for General Francisco Canton Rosado in the early 20th century and based on the ostentatiousness of the palace, I can only assume that General Fran was a VIP. Also, his last name Rosado means pink in Spanish and the house is pink and that is amazing. My last name is also a color, and I think someday I would like to own a house painted all over in my last name just like Gen. Rosado.
Travelerette Tip: The signs are mostly in Spanish, so bring your best Spanish language interpreting skills. I speak incredibly bad Spanish, but I can read it fairly decently because I am fluent in French. If you have any familiarity with a Romance language, you should be fine.
Travelerette Treasure: This creepy little fellow is a figure of Kisin, the Mayan god of the dead. He is represented as a skeleton for incredibly obvious reasons. I looked him up online later and apparently he is often shown smoking a cigarette as well. I can’t decide whether having a cigarette-smoking-skeleton god of death would make smoking more popular or less popular.
Early Evening: Exploring the Plaza Grande
The Plaza Grande is the big square in the center of Merida, and most of the attractions you will want to see are located there.
the approximately top five best things to see around the plaza grande
1) Casa Montejo is a 15th century house with a lovely courtyard that has been restored to look all shiny and new. It is located on the southern side of the Plaza Grande. I was amazed to learn from reading the signs in the house that, as fancy as the furnishings look now, originally this house had no dining room. Where did the inhabitants of this luxurious house eat? Surely not in the kitchen like a servant. That simply will never do.
Travelerette Tip: You will want to make sure to see Casa Montejo before it closes at 7PM. I recommend stopping by around 5. (Be aware that it closes much earlier on Sundays.)
2) The Cathedral in Merida, which just like everything is located on Plaza Grande, is famous for being so old. It dates back to the 16th century, which is super aged for a cathedral built in the Americas.
The interior is not the last word in sacred luxury, but I enjoyed the feeling of roundness given by the arches and the patterns at the ceiling. I find it soothing and reassuring. I’m sure Freud would have something to say about that.
3) The mint green Palace of the Governor which is, say it with me, on the Plaza Grande is a great place to go for free to get a nice view of the sky at night. Just be aware that you will have to walk past stern looking men holding guns to get in. But I’m sure those men mean you no harm, Internet Stranger!
It’s also a great place to go to see a whole bunch of sad murals about the murder of Mayans at the hands of the colonizer. Why must people be so terrible to each other? Why can’t we just all hold hands and swim in a cenote and eat poc chuc? (Maybe not all at the same time.)
4) The contemporary art museum in Merida, AKA MACAY, is located right next to the Cathedral. It will be too late for you to go in, but not too late for you to enjoy the display of contemporary art that MACAY has out in the open under the covered walkway next to the Cathedral. (I assume so that rain doesn’t bug the art.) You can see everything from a beast made out of tin cans to a car that is having a very bad day.
Also, I’m pretty sure something is very wrong with this tree.
Yup, that can’t be right.
Dinner: La Chaya Maya
Address: Calle 55 x 60 y 62
Of course after our tasty lunch, you will be wanting more of those yummy Mayan treats! I direct you to go straight to La Chaya Maya for any kind of Yucatecan delicacy you could want. There will probably be a wait, but I was seated fairly quickly out in the beautiful courtyard, so I’m sure you won’t have a problem either.
To drink, I enjoyed the X’tamay cocktail which is a drink made with xtabentun, a local spirit made with anise and fermented honey. It’s quite sweet and quite delicious. I found it very refreshing on a warm February day.
For your first course, you simply must have some Crema Chaya soup. After all, Chaya is in the name of the restaurant. Chaya is a kind of tree spinach from the Yucatan. It is nutrient rich and very healthy if you eat it cooked. Apparently if you eat it raw, it is toxic. Who knows why? Mother Nature is very weird. Anyway, I thought this soup was way more flavorful than spinach soup so I don’t really care why the raw chaya is not good for you.
My main course was Cochinita pibil, another Yucatecan delicacy. This is pork that is slow-roasted in a hole in the ground. This steaming hole is called a pib. I suppose that makes the cocinita the piggie. This tasted a little like the poc chuc I had earlier because similar flavors are used in the marinade, although of course the cochinita pibil was more tender than the grilled poc chuc. This dish was accompanied by more of those handmade corn tortillas I became obsessed with in Mexico. Looking at these pictures is just a sad reminder to me of how hard it is to get good Mexican food here in NYC.
This dessert is called a caballero pobre, which literally translates to “poor gentleman”. I suppose it is called that because it is made with day-old bread turned into a kind of sugary bread pudding. But this version is called a rico caballero pobre, which means a rich poor gentleman, because it is topped with ice cream and some of that tasty xtabentun liqueur. I don’t feel sorry for any poor gentleman if he’s lucky enough to eat this well!
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Merida!
What would you do if you could spend a day in Merida? Would you rather have a cenote that is pretty and crowded, or ordinary looking but private? And what is wrong with that tree????? Please leave your thoughts below!
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