As I walk up the famous grand avenue of Paseo Montejo and over to the central square here in Merida, I am struck by how different it feels to what I’ve seen so far in Mexico.
But, also, how similar it is.
I haven’t seen this magnificent colonial architecture in Mexico yet – but I have seen plazas surrounded by buildings displaying the wealth of the rulers. That I saw just a few days ago in an Ancient Mayan city.
And I haven’t yet seen such a long public avenue lined with the important institutions of finance and politics – but I have seen a busy street that stretched for kilometres. I saw that just yesterday in Playa del Carmen with the touristy Fifth Avenue and its bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
Paseo Montejo is one of the iconic parts of Merida – from a heritage point of view, at least. And it fits into an era the falls between the Ancient Maya and the modern tourist.
The enormous avenue and the equally-impressive buildings along it are from the 19th century when Merida was one of the richest cities in the world.
The money was coming from the farming and production of sisal, the fibre from an agave plant that was used to make ropes and other similar products. The sisal barons used this wealth to buy themselves a luxury that was previously unknown in this part of Mexico.
Like most colonial industries, it didn’t last. Now, almost all of the buildings on Paseo Montejo are owned by the new economic rulers – banks and international companies. It’s just another evolution of the kind of thing this country has seen for centuries.
But for people who prefer just to look at the present, Merida is booming. It’s not just economic gains – it’s cultural. The city has caught the attention of artists and social entrepreneurs from across the Americas and there’s a renaissance here.
New restaurants and cafes, tasteful renovations of buildings that have been abandoned for years, art exhibitions and performances, and a growing tech scene.
This new wave of cultural influence sits in harmony with the Mayan culture, that is still strong here. About 60 per cent of the residents consider themselves to be ethnically indigenous and it doesn’t seem odd to walk the streets and see shops selling traditional clothing.
So I find it slightly strange that there’s also an embrace of the cultural legacy of the colonial period, which has been adeptly integrated into modern life. Whether it’s the religion or the politics, it still defines Merida as much as the indigenous culture.
Things to do in Merida
Merida has not had the same kind of attention from tourists as some of the other large Mexican cities but that is changing. It’s getting onto the radar of visitors, and those who take the time to come here quickly realise that there are lots of things to do in Merida.
Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to spend too long in town – just a couple of nights – but I suspect that’s quite common. Still, that’s long enough to see the highlights.
I came through on my G Adventures Mayan Discovery tour for a night – and then liked the city so much I came back again afterwards.
Merida is also an excellent base to explore some of the sights of the region. That justifies staying even a bit longer, I think.
So, to give you a sense of the city and what you can do here, let me run you through some of the best things to see in Merida.
I’ve put them on a map here:
Now, let’s have a look at each of them.
I’ve already mentioned Paseo Montejo, the impressively-grand avenue that is about six kilometres in length.
It’s worth walking along at least some of it (the southern section is better) and having a look at the buildings. You’ll see a mixture of architectural styles but they all share a rather ostentatious approach.
There are several roundabout along its length that are of interest but you won’t be able to miss the largest of them all. It’s called ‘Monumento a la Patria’ and tells the story of Mexico from around the 14th century until the 20th century.
The most important part of Merida is the Plaza Grande, the central square that has the main public buildings.
At its centre is a shady park that always has a lot of action (and the ubiquitos sign with the city’s name for photos). But it’s the institutions around the edge where you’ll probably want to spend most of the time.
The Merida Cathedral (Catedral de San Ildefonso) is one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas. It was built in 1598 and is worth having a look inside. It’s not really that richly decorated but it has a few interesting artefacts blending Spanish and Mayan ideas.
I would recommend popping into the Casa de Montejo, an old mansion that has free entry into a restoration of how it would have looked during the booming 19th century. The rooms are filled with beautiful furniture, artwork, and other items that demonstrate how well the wealthy once lived in Merida.
If you’re interested in art, there’s an excellent gallery at Museo Fernando García Ponce-Macay that has a mix of modern and classic work, with collections of both local and international artists.
And the last place at Plaza Grande that I think you should definitely visit is the Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno). Entry is free and it has the most impressive collection of murals painted on the walls all throughout it. They are from the 1970s and take inspiration from different periods of Merida’s history.
There’s a lot to see at the Plaza Grande and spending some time here is certainly one of the best things to do in Merida.
Lucas de Galvez Market
The main market of Merida is just as chaotic as you might expect. It doesn’t matter which entrance you use for the Lucas de Galvez Market, you’re bound to end up lost and emerging disoriented on the other side.
Most of it is undercover but it has spread over the years to the blocks around the main building. You’ll find the usual fruit, vegetable and meats for sale, along with the household items you seem to find and every market.
But you’ll also come across some wonderful stalls selling local snacks and local items that will make a cheap and special souvenir. Of course, it’s also fun just to wander and get a sense of the buzzing atmosphere.
Iglesia de Jesus
Although the Merida Cathedral in the Plaza Grande is the most spectacular of the city’s churches, the Spanish influence on the city means there are a lot of other historical ones you could visit.
Unless you have a particular interest in the topic, the only other one I would suggest you see is the Iglesia de Jesus, which is quite near the cathedral anyway.
The Iglesia de Jesus was built by the Jesuits in 1618 and was once part of a much larger religious complex. It’s quite spectacular inside and, particularly on a sunny day, is a huge contrast from the bright exterior.
The church was built with stones from an old Mayan temple and you can see some Mayan carvings if you look closely at a couple of spots on the external walls.
Other things to see in Merida
A few other things you could see in Merida if you have time are:
- Mayan World Museum: The museum known as the Gran Museo de Mundo Maya is about 12 kilometres from the centre of Merida but it’s worth the effort. This modern building has more than a thousand artefacts from the Mayan Empire, presented in a compelling way.
- Paneton Florido Cemetery: For something a bit different, you could explore this cemetery, which is full of colourful tombs and beautiful monuments. It is a little bit out of town but offers an insight into a side of the city away from the tourist area.
- Sant Lucia Parque: This small plaza a few blocks north of the Plaza Grande is another pleasant area to have a rest. But come at the right time of the week and you’ll be treated to a local dance performance.
Things to do around Merida
There are lots of things to do around Merida and it’s easy to head out of town and explore different sights. There are two things that are unique to this part of Mexico and I would suggest trying to get a sense of both of them.
The first is the cenotes, the amazing natural pools that are formed when the top level of the ground has fallen away to reveal a water reservoir in the hollowed out limestone below.
Cenotes have existed for centuries and they were sacred for the Ancient Maya. Now they are popular with locals and tourists as swimming hole. Some of them are extremely photogenic and have become extra popular with the Instragrammers!
There are dozens of them around Merida so I would suggest finding some that are near to other sights you are visiting anyway.
It’s also worth trying to visit one or two of the haciendas that are dotted around Merida.
The best translation for ‘hacienda’ in English is ‘an estate’ or ‘a plantation’. In the case of Merida, the word is used to describe the large estates that were established to harvest the sisal that I mentioned earlier (remember, the fibre from the agave plant that was used to make rope).
When the industry came to an end in the 20th century, most of the estates were abandoned. Some of them are still in ruins and that’s quite interesting to see.
But a lot of them have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and museums. They are nice places to stop into while you’re driving around the area – to see the heritage, have a drink, or grab a meal.
Day trips from Merida
Aside from the cenotes and the haciendas, there are a few places that I think need special mention as possibilities for day trips from Merida.
The Mayan ruins of Uxmal are just an hour’s drive from Merida and a lot of people use the city as a base to visit the site.
This is one of the best Mayan sites in Mexico and the ancient city has an amazing collection of buildings, including the famous Temple of the Magician.
There are also wonderful examples of artwork carved into the stone of the main public buildings here and an incredible view from the top of one of the temple that you can climb up.
Chichen Itza is probably the best-known of the Mayan ruins in Mexico and it has some really impressive buildings. In particular, its main pyramid is an imposing sight.
The only downside is that it is the most crowded of the large Mayan cities because it’s the easiest to access from the tourist resort cities like Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
The best way to beat the crowds is to get there early and this is where doing the trip from Merida can help. It’s a shorter drive from Merida (about one hour and forty minutes) so it’s likely you’ll arrive first and almost have Chichen Itza to yourself!
The historic centre of Campeche is an old Spanish city that was critical in the maritime trade during the colonial era. It was attacked so many times by pirates that the Spanish fortified it with enormous walls in the 17th century.
Today, the heritage inside these fortifications has been well-protected and it’s a fascinating place to explore. The buildings are painted in different colours, giving it a vibrancy. And with little traffic, it’s peaceful to walk around.
My feeling is that you’re going to hear more about Merida in coming years. It’s emerging as a new hotspot for travellers who love the east of Mexico but want to get away from tourist areas like Cancun.
With rich history, authentic culture, local food, and lots of surrounding sights, I can see why it’s becoming a destination in its own right, and not just somewhere to pass through.
I travelled on this tour with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Mexico and Central America.