MERIDA, Mexico — An easy ride through quiet Sunday night streets lined with pastel-colored, old buildings ended at the Casa Lucia Boutique Hotel in the central historic district of Mérida. At light dinner outdoors at a restaurant across the street in Plaza Santa Lucia, the soft air was still balmy at about 75 degrees. Roaming musicians and vendors politely approached one last time before calling it a night.
Mérida is a city of about a million people, known for its safety. Flat like the rest of the Yucatán, it has an historic district that is an easily walkable grid. As we traversed the grid we encountered almost shy vendors with their variety of fans, toys, hats, embroidered blouses and hammocks. Our eyes were sometimes drawn to beautifully restored VW bugs from the 1960s, which have a devoted following.
The somber Catedral de San Ildefonso, across Calle 60 from the Zócalo, is the oldest cathedral in the mainland of the Western Hemisphere. It was completed by the Conquistadores and their missionaries in the 1500s using stone from uncovered Mayan temple ruins and Mayan slave labor on the site of the ancient city of T’ho. A block away on Calle 60 is the exquisite Iglesia El Jesus de Tercera Orden with finely carved wooden alters, domed ceilings and painted frescoes.
Mérida is a city of festivals, including a stellar weekly Ballet Folklorico evening performance next to the Zócalo, with great brass band music, dazzling white costumes and flying feet.
The architecturally stunning Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is at the far edge of the city via Paseo Montejo and its extension, an inexpensive taxi ride. Its outside laced in striking green panels evoking jungle vines, the museum holds comprehensive permanent and temporary displays illustrating eons of Mayan history and culture.
In contrast, La Casa Montejo on Calle 63 along one side of the Zócalo displays the opulent European-influenced lifestyle of wealthy Spaniards. Exquisite furnishings are on the inside while grim carvings on the outside depict colonials stepping on Mayan heads to convey the founding of the city by Conquistadores, led by Francisco de Montejo in 1542.
At the end of that day, our feet told us it was time to sit and our stomachs requested a refill. The open-air Cafe Peon Contreras, a block from our hotel, satisfied both needs. A gent of a certain age slept on a neighboring park bench. I wonder if he heard the strolling musicians only in his dreams.
The next morning, driver guide Vicente picked us up for a day trip to the Chichen Itzá temple complex and city via a smooth four lane toll road. This is the largest pre-Colombian archeological site in the peninsula; its prime is believed to have been from 600-1200 AD.
The centerpiece is the huge Castillo or Temple of Kukulcan, a stone pyramid built over smaller pyramids. It’s mathematically complex and comprehensive to follow the seasons, with countless intricate carvings in stone.
Nearby is the huge ball court, where teachtli, resembling modern jai alai, was played, with celebration for the victors and sometime decapitation for the losers.
The complex contains additional lesser temples, an observatory and residential ruins, and the nearby area is dotted with cenotes, spring-fed wells in the limestone, which may have led to the choice of this site for the major city. One in particular is designated as sacred and was the site of human sacrifices to the rain gods. Other pretty, smaller cenotes invite swimmers to enjoy clear fresh waters for a small fee.
Vicente chose local roads for the return trip, with a tour of the small city of Izamal, known for its sunny yellow buildings, where residential backyards are sometimes temple ruins and their home’s perimeter walls are made from ancient temple stone.
Restaurante Kinich in the middle of town provided a traditional lunch of lime soup and Poc Chuc, a signature dish of the Yucatán—pork marinated in citrus then grilled, served with rice, avocado and pickled onions; enjoyed in a spacious shaded outdoor dining room.
On the morning of our final, and perhaps best, day, driver guide Braulio picked us up to go to the northwest coast of the peninsula. The first stop was the Celestún Wildlife Reserve just in from the Gulf Coast for an up-close look at flocks of flamingos standing in the shallow water, sharing the area with frigate birds, osprey, cormorants, egrets and herons.
A short float through a mangrove tunnel ended at a fresh water spring where daring souls swam, with a crocodile family in nearby residence. Then, a very short drive through the fishing village of Celestún led to a gorgeous and almost empty white sand beach to walk into the warm shallow water of the Gulf of Mexico for floating and swimming, followed by an exquisite lunch at a shaded table in the sand for freshly caught Cobia; one fish prepared with a variety of herbs and the other with copious garlic.
And for dinner on the last day—ceviche. Not just any ceviche, less red and more brown, with chickpeas. Like none we’ve had before, followed by lime soup with chicken. Worth waiting for at La Recova at Plaza Santa Lucia.
IF YOU GO
Passports are required but visas are not. United flies nonstop from SFO to Cancún. Luxury buses are readily available at low prices from Cancún – at the airport or in the city—to Mérida, taking about 3 1/2 hours.
Casa Lucia Hotel Boutique, casalucia.com/mx, 52 (999) 928 0740, email email@example.com/mx, 474 Calle 60, Mérida. About $100 U.S. dollars per night during winter high season, and about a third less in low season. Breakfast is included and the staff is happy to arrange personalized tours and airport transit.