PRIME MERIDA

With spacious colonial homes to temporarily call your own, colourful streetscapes and an exuberant local culture, Andrew Brudz proposes that now is the time to visit the historic Yucatecan capital

Interior Pool at Rosas & Xocholate Boutique Hotel and Spa

Angel breaks it to me gently. “I don’t think Canada houses can have hamaca. Your house will get broke,” he says, in accented English.

Pointing out the sturdy hooks embedded in the concrete walls of the two-storey house I’ve rented in Mérida, the charming 28-year-old local I’ve befriended explains, “You need this to hang.”

Dreams of installing one of my own back home dashed, I resolve to enjoy as much hammock time in Mérida as I can. Here, they stretch across bedrooms, courtyards and shops during siesta time, designed to keep you cool in the unforgiving heat and, in some circumstances, keep sleepers out of the way of ants and other pests.

The hammock is as close to a metaphor for the city itself as you’re likely to find: colourful, locally crafted, impossibly comfortable and hard to leave.

“They say Mérida’s fascinating,” wrote Gore Vidal in his seminal 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar. And they’re right. Only four hours from Cancun, yet a world away from that city’s bustling resorts, it’s the heart of the Yucatán’s unique culture and home to almost 900,000 Méridanos. With its vivid Mayan culture (many of the people here still speak the traditional language) with Spanish and Caribbean influences, Mérida is proudly Mexican, yet somehow, unlike anywhere else in the country.

The plaza in front of Santa Ana church

The centuries-old Mayan city was known as T’hó before Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1542 and renamed it. For a time, it was one of the continent’s richest cities, a fortune made from agave-fibre rope sold around the globe. But 20th-century synthetic rope-making techniques hit the area hard and its magnificent infrastructure began to crumble. For a look at the city’s opulent past, you only need stroll past the weathered historic homes on Paseo de Montejo. Throughout the years, however, the city held onto its charm and reputation as one of the country’s safest destinations.

Today Mérida is having a 21st-century moment. A new generation of visitors has discovered the city, historic homes are being restored and rejuvenated, and new attractions, including the stunning Mayan World Museum, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary, are turning heads.

The Cenote Yokdzonot, formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock, is a natural swimming hole. Photo by Jiri Duzar

I feel the city’s history while meandering through its streets, crisscrossed with gently waving strands of papel picado, Mexico’s ubiquitous paper-flag banners. In Centro Histórico, each stucco façade painted a different, vibrant hue harbours something intriguing, beautiful or delicious. Through open shutters and intricate lattice work, I get a glimpse of the lives happening inside. Naps in hammocks, of course. Prayers being whispered. TVs flickering. Dogs lazing on unique patterns of traditional pasta tiles. 

Through one such doorway is the home of Elsie Perez, famous (here, anyway) for her freshly pressed orange juice. Inside her sparsely adorned home, the 70-something shuffles from one room to another in her floral caftan. Her oranges stored in a shopping cart in one room, juicing apparatus in another and to-go cups in yet another all make the process more of an endeavour than it need be. In a faster-paced city, this might not fly, but things move slowly here. And despite the wait time, or maybe because of it, there is a lineup each morning down the sidewalk, where a sign lists the “market price,” painted over each day. And after one sip of her sweet and tart creation, it’s clearly worth waiting for.

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Another much grander doorway leads into the Fundación de Artistas. The hacienda, built by a Frenchman thought to be escaping the First World War, was purchased in 2015 by the owners of Coqui Coqui, an upscale perfumery next door. Since then the space has functioned as a non-profit arts centre and café.

Stepping inside feels like I’ve wandered into the long-forgotten palace of an eccentric millionaire. In an open courtyard, cacti and flowers surround a trickling water fountain. Floors are decked in a black-and-white optical illusion of more pasta tiles. Layers of peeling paint reveal decades of blues, reds and yellows.

Exhibits in the rooms surrounding the courtyard often include contemporary art in stark contrast to their historic surroundings. Like a dedicated butler, manager Enrique Ckokom keeps his distance yet is immediately there with anything I need: details about the history of the space or a cappuccino he whips up seemingly out of nowhere. I sip it in blissful silence. Enrique invites me back later that night for a party celebrating the installation of Mexican artist Ruben Maya’s black-lit, mutant sculptures that fill the rooms of the hacienda like an alien invasion.

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Amidst a culture as rich and friendly as this, I am more than happy to stay right where I am in Mérida. But locals press me to visit attractions outside city limits. I rent a car and make the 40-minute drive to Dzibilchaltún, a small collection of Mayan ruins, most notably the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a simple stone structure atop a small pyramid. The site is particularly popular during the vernal equinox when the sun shines through its doorways in a spectacular display.

The entrance to the Dzibilchaltún Mayan Ruins.

At nearby Cenote Xlacah, a lilypad-filled watering hole, locals swim in their clothes to avoid sunburn. The place provides me the perfect reprieve from the relentless heat, and there is something special about watching local people enjoying their land, rather than them watching foreign tourists enjoy it. My initial reluctance to leave the city is whisked away, and I am ultimately happy for the brief interruption.

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Is it possible to become addicted to a place? It’s a question I ask myself back at the house, gently swaying on the hammock that I am told my Canadian house could never hold, the splaying leaves of a palm tree the only thing blocking my view of the stars.

I am nearing the end of my second visit to Mérida within six months. Back for more of its intoxicating charms, another dose of its warm breeze, another fix of brightly painted stucco and more of the people who have never stopped being proud of their home and their history.

I don’t just want to come back to Mérida again. I have to.