"So, how much do you know about cenotes?" asked my guide, Sak-nite. It turns out very little.
The Yucatan penninsula is scarred with thousands of underground cave swimming pools, a connected network of the underworld which the Mayan people saw as sacred. Snorkelling under stalactites, surrounded by shimmering sealife in cool glistening emerald waters, I’m starting to see their point.
We’re just outside Merida, capital of Yucatan state, a city that rests within a ring of cenotes, each one formed by the meteor which is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs, “well at least something good came of it” I offered.
These hidden oases, waiting to refresh visitors and provide a little respite from the searing tropical heat at ground level, are understandably the pride of the region, and because of its ideal position, Merida is arguably the best spot to explore some of the most untouched ones.
There’s much more to this welcoming city too though, with a combination of beautiful crumbling colonial architecture, charming squares and plazas plus some of the best cuisine on the whole continent, Merida makes the ideal retreat as part of a Mexican road trip or in addition to a couple of weeks spent by the stunning Quintana Roo coast.
Tight streets organised in to a simple numbered grid system and divided in to ‘Colonias’ make Merida ideal to explore on foot. In the oldest part of town, Centro, pastel-tinged, slim one way calles are punctuated with Meridian-packed gathering points, each helpfully supplied with free wi-fi, for those wishing to avoid roaming charges but still keep their Instagram story up to date.
Start at la plaza grande for the compulsory selfie by the Merida city letters. The grand stone cathedral was built using materials from demolished Mayan temples, it’s thought to be one of the oldest in Latin America and is certainly the first built on Mexican soil.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the city on a Sunday, the whole area surrounding the main square is closed off to cars for markets and live performances. Don’t worry if you’re not though there’s something going on every day of week. Parque de Santa Lucia hosts nightly events, from indigenous dance shows to septegenarian crooners orchestrating their own sing-a-longs.
For an insight in to Merida’s glory years of the late 19th century, take a stroll down the Paseo de Montejo. Commonly referred to as the city’s Champs Elysees, it might not quite offer the same grandeur as its Parisian cousin, but there are some stunning facades to admire. Pull up a pew and take in the view from one of the many ‘confidants’, kissing chairs inspired by the French Renaissance.
Whilst still retaining a real Mexican-feel that can be difficult to find on the Riviera Maya, recent years have seen an explosion of higher-end restaurants that still won’t blow your spends. Slipping in to the local markets though, is where the real action is.
Yucatan scran boasts enough must-try dishes to keep you occupied for weeks if not months, but you can get a real flavour for the area with a food tour of the Mercado Lucas de Galvez. Our guia para el dia, Assur, helped navigate us through Merida’s culinary culture, all on show in its rawest state.
Within Merida’s largest, oldest and tastiest market you can enjoy cochinita pibil (slow cooked pork topped with crispy pick skin), relleno negro (turkey and boiled eggs drenched in a spicy black sauce made from burnt tortillas and blackened chillies) and sopa de lima (tangy chicken soup topped with tortilla chips that packs a spicy citrus punch not far from South East Asian noodle broths).
For something a little less intense, the Mercado Santiago has less stalls, smells and general madness, but also houses La Lupita, a taqueria beloved of locals that needs your attention.
You can’t stop here without sampling the fruits de mer either, we’re still a stones throw from the sea after all. Marlin Azul do a killer cerviche, tacos stained by squid in its own ink, as well as the catch of the day, whatever that may be.
With so much to try, over-eating is, quite frankly, unavoidable. There’s even a phrase for that combination of the midday sun and a little overindulgence – mal de porque – something like pigging out I suppose. Thankfully Assur had a cure. Ice cold horchata, a brew of rice milk, cinnamon and other spices is the life giving beverage found on every corner.
If you’re after imbibing a tipple somewhat stronger, you’re in luck, this is Mexico after all. A thriving collection of cantinas could offer up probably the liviest pub crawl anyone is ever likely to go on. La Negrita is probably the most infamous, and for good reason, live salsa pummels patrons even harder than the clattering of its swirling ceiling fans. Get there before 9 or you might be too late to grab a table. If you miss out, Mezcaleria La Fundacion runs a little later and gets just as rowdy.
Merida makes the ideal base to explore some of the fascinating sites this part of the world has to offer, all whilst avoiding the crowds. Consider swerving the world famous Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza for the much less well travelled but similarly fascinating Uxmal, just an hour’s drive south of the city. We shared our afternoon potter around the expansive jungle site with more iguanas than people, which felt like the right way to be doing things.
Whilst you’re on the road take in a cenote or two of course, the site at Kankirixche is particularly beautiful and a little off the beaten track too. Also worth a mention is Cuzama, where you can travel between a trio of caves by horse-drawn carriage.
After working up an appetite there are plenty of out-of-town options. Many old colonial-era mansions called Haciendas (think palacial Hispanic homestead, not ecstasy fuelled acid rave den) have been renovated to their former glories and now offer some of the finest dining the state has to bring.
We finished our day trip with a visit to a traditional Mayan home to have a go at hand stretching tortillas before a delicious meal of pollo pibil, chicken cooked low and slow after a marination of achiote, the ubiquitous blend of local herb and spices with a unique orange colour and bittersweet taste.
Centro is where all the action is so staying there is a must. There are a multitude of lovingly renovated homes, now transformed in to boutique hotels. We booked early and managed to bag a spot at Luz En Yucatan, which boasts a gorgeous collection of spacious rooms and a lovely little private pool, which the sun helpfully hits around midday. There’s also the small matter of a free tequila trolley, if you think a day utilising those particular hotel facilities is one wasted, then you’re not the holiday companion I’m looking for.
Tim’s Merida Street Food Tour was organised by Adventures Mexico, a tour agency based in Merida specialising in private and group culinary experiences. Find out more and book here.
Tim’s Uxmal, Cenote and Mayan home trip was provided by Mayan Ecotours, a tour agency based in Merida offering guided tours of the area’s many archeological wonders, cenotes and Mayan communities. Find out more and book here.
Luz En Yucatan offer an urban retreat with unique themed rooms in the heart of Santa Lucia, Merida. Find out more and book here.