There was something absolutely magical, something that made me tear up, as I watched this massive group of people across an entire city block - teenagers out on the town, families with children, senior citizen couples that have been together for years that I can only imagine, have endured the ups and downs of marriage - all dancing under the stars without a care in mind. I'm talking, getting down to some cumbias! Without a worry of what they looked like, whether they knew the right dance moves, whether anyone was watching, everyone appeared to be so...FREE.
This sense of freedom is in part what brought me to Merida, Mexico: it had been well over 2 years since I had traveled alone - an experience I'm quite familiar with and flourish in - and I sought to once again be the sole driver of an adventure ahead of me. True to my ways, I mixed my love for finding the best food in town with physical adventures - Jumping into cenotes? Climbing Mayan ruins? Yes and please! - and in watching people dance in the streets in such an uninhibited way, I was reminded that free is how I want to live my everyday life, and how much I love to dance, and how long I've been waiting to dance like no one cares that I don't know how to dance cumbias.
Below is not a pure travel guide to Merida, but rather a snapshot into what I did in my three short days in this wonderful city, where I did end up dancing. - Evelyn
But really, why Merida?
I love colonial Mexican cities - hello culture, history, architecture! - and Merida is known to be phenomenally safe! While Merida did not blow me away like Oaxaca's culinary scene and surrounding villages left me longing for more, I have never felt safer traveling not only as a single female, but one walking around with a generously sized professional camera and lens.
Where I wanted to stay: Rosas & Xocolate Boutique Hotel & Spa
My past life working in the luxury travel industry introduced me to the world of butlers and in-room, personal plunge pools, but it also ingrained the value of experience in me: the exposure to something above and beyond my everyday life that leaves me with a memory or a felt emotion. Rosas & Xocolate is THE best known luxury boutique hotel in Merida, but they were sold out over my travel dates and they are located off of Paseo Montejo, a tiny bit farther from the city's cultural center than I desired.
I still checked out their restaurant, where I had most delicious nopales I've had in a while and their tamarindo margaritas that were on point! The place simply smells beyond amazing and service was top notch!
Where I stayed: Casa de las Palomas
Location for me is always key! I wanted to stay in a small hotel, walking distance from the center of town, but not where I would step out and into tourist-ville. Casa de las Palomas fit the bill: I could walk to el centro as well as to local bars and restaurants i.e. La Negrita is 2 small blocks away! Each room's double doors open up to the courtyard with pool, which is the perfect spot for midday dips because Merida gets hot in the summer!
First things first: take a walking tour
Merida's historical center is not massive but having a lay of the land made a world's difference to me and helped me decide what to check out later. Enter Pink Cactus Tours, who offers free, two hours tours of Plaza Grande, San Ildefonso Cathedral, and more. Emilio and Sophia are amazingly knowledgeable about the area and it's historical importance. They are both so warm and welcoming! I'm not cool enough to be paid for any type of marketing, so know this opinion is genuine!
Merida Day Tours: Cenotes and Uxmal
I wanted an 'off the beaten path, only a few people know about this spot' cenote experience, but given that I was traveling alone and had limited time, I went with a group tour to the Santa Barbara Cenotes. Upon arriving, I felt a tiny bit of regret: the place looked clean, organized, and civilized. Where was the adventure? Where was the authenticity!? Well let me tell you: I was very okay with clean and civilized! I was not jumping off a vine and splashing down into a pool of unknown water, but walking down man-made stairs and going straight to swimming in this clear, warm water was everything! There is a restaurant on property as well that serves food good enough to chow down on post swim; I recommend the sopa de limon and pic choc!
Given the significant impact the Mayans had on the Yucatan, I knew I wanted to visit Mayan ruins, but the question was, Chichen Itza, farther away from Merida's town center, but what everyone talks about, or Uxmal, also considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites of Mayan culture and closer to town? I went with the later and had zero regrets: the crowds weren't nuts (as they potentially are at Chichen) and I saw and learned plenty about amazing Mayan architecture and life. I did each day tour on different days.
Cutest Food Hall in Merida: Mercado 60
Give me a place where I can get different types of food, live music, colorful Mexican decor, and throw in cute string lights as a bonus, and I'm in love! Mercado 60, or M60, is an outdoor food hall where you can find everything from Oaxacan tlayudas to pasta while a live Cuban salsa band plays on a Saturday night. Here is where I found both locals and tourists alike yet I returned twice because the atmosphere was laid back and inclusive with communal tables.
Lucas de Galvez Market
I've been to many Mexican markets and I simply love them: this is where you can taste and buy local fruits and food from locals, and this I did! Highlights: having access to cherimoyas (the green artichoke looking thing below), cold pitaya/dragon fruit juice that reminded me of my times spent in Nicaragua, minced meat stuffed and fried 'kibis' (below, left), and spices galore that I brought home with me!
Nightlife in Merida
What amazed me about nightlife in Merida was how present live music was at every bar I walked into!
Pipiripa: With no sign outside, I walked in simply because I could hear a live salsa band, and I needed to follow this sound! Hanging out here was the highlight of my going out in Merida: outdoor seating, live salsa band with room for dancing, and plenty of space to sit and socialize without feeling cramped.
La Negrita: By far the most recommended bar to me by locals, I loved how this 'cantina' had both indoor and outdoor seating. There was live music every time I passed by, day or night!
La Fundacion Mezcaleria: Like Negrita, LFM also serves late night food, however on a crowded Saturday night when a rock band is on stage, be prepared to eat standing or very cramped at the bar. Some nights have cover!