MERIDA: A KITCHY KITCHEN GUIDE

Want Claire’s entire guide to Merida? Check out her PDF!

WHY MERIDA?

The Landscape:

Mérida lies about 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the Yucatán, and about 100 miles from numerous Mayan ruins. Cenotes, primal sink holes that act as oases in the sweltering jungle, dot the map to the south and east through the peninsula. Proximity to wilderness and proximity to history gives Mérida the qualities of uno pueblo magico – a place where the modern, colonial and indigenes intersect in a pouring out of creativity and yes, magic. Our driver Daniel explains as we buzz through the parched bush of the Yucatán, that uno pueblo magico also has excellent food and artisans, touched by the Mayan equivalent to the muses. This sounds perfect to me, who’s coming to Mérida for a weekend of relaxation, and perhaps a little magico.

THE STAY

The michelin guide has a famous criterion for three stars, “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” To me, Coqui Coqui is an exceptional experience, worth a special journey to the heart of the Yucatán. Nestled on the bathroom counter of models, celebrities, and hip urbanites, the perfumery’s products are distinct in their jungle meets old world elegance aesthetic. Their scents conjure up images of colonial haciendas, overrun with the flora and fauna of the Yucatán, Coqui Coqui’s base of operations and source for inspiration and ingredients. The line of thirteen scents extends from candles and perfumes to bath oils, linen sprays and custom amenities for each of their four residences, each of which has a personalized fragrance. Tulum is dewy coconut, Coba is lush and green mint, Vallodolid is roses dried with tobacco, and Mérida is the scent of cigar box, inspired by the surrounding tobacco plantations.

The residence in Mérida is why I’m here. The last time I was in Tulum, I enjoyed a few meals at Coqui Coqui and was immediately charmed. The style was effortless and worn in, the tiny perfumery was an unexpected gem on that stretch of beach, and the chicken mole sandwiches were enough to sell me on their own. My trip to Tulum overall was not the quiet journey I was hoping for, but it introduced me to the Yucatán – it’s food, history, and culture – and that was something I wanted to explore further. Coqui Coqui had residences dotted across the peninsula, and I had heard of Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán state, as a pastel oasis in the jungle. Trusting that planning a trip around a Coqui Coqui residence would be worth it, I booked the trip. The hotel was full for almost every night of my window, but I was able to secure a spot. I booked the rest of my trip at the other premier boutique hotel and spa in Mérida, Rosas y Xocolate.

Arriving at Coqui Coqui, near Parque de Santa Lucia in the heart of Mérida, my husband and I enter through the L’Epicerie, a small boutique shimmering with Coqui Coqui’s bottles of perfume and glass candles. Beatrice, the manager, welcomes us. An Italian expat living in Mérida, she’s effortlessly chic but matter-of-fact in tone. Throughout my stay I pepper her with questions, running my itinerary past her to make sure it passes muster. Fortunately there are only a few adjustments she suggests. We’ve arrived early, so we take a seat in the spa courtyard, a cement tiled space shaded by lofty plastered walls and vines. The cook brings out a little cake and a selection of signature teas for us to try, offering some local honey to go with it. The space is small but maximized. Sitting on a 4000 square foot lot (and this is just me eyeballing it), the residence is indeed a home. Completely private with 15 foot walls, every inch serves a purpose. The marble kitchen opens onto the patio for easy access, the fountain echoes off of the tile near the outdoor bathtub and one room spa; stairs curls up to an outdoor breakfast patio, and further still to a wading pool. When we get to our room, it occurs to me that this is all for just us.

The residence is a one room hotel, where the guest gets the entire upstairs floor and patio to themselves. The room itself is gorgeously appointed in a stripped down, colonial style. High ceilings with rich drapes accenting the cement tile floor and minimalist decor, I got practically giddy as I bounced around the easily thousand square foot space. The canopy bed was large with soft, thin sheets; there were two gigantic bath tubs side by side, and then there was the amenities bag. I’m not above lusting over the free soap at a hotel, and I hoarded the contents of this bag like dragon’s gold. A mini bath oil and perfume in both Tabaco and Flor de Naranjo, hand soaps in both scents, custom shampoo and conditioner, and even chic little toothbrushes in tortoise and black were squirreled away into my suitcase immediately. We then walked out to the pool patio and lingered there for the afternoon.

The next morning were our spa treatments – deep tissue massages in the downstairs space. Every scent is laid out as a massage oil, including scents that are rare or hard to find back in the states. I chose Rosas Secas, which smells like an earthy fresh rose with a hint of tobacco. It’s almost impossible to find a perfect rose scent that doesn’t go powdery, soapy, or grandma’s purse, but Rosas Secas was minimalist and modern. Before the massage, you can soak in the large bath by the fountain (it’s in a very private back corner of the property) to loosen and warm up your muscles. The massage itself is deep and effective, while still being relaxing. It’s presented in an a la carte manner – no hot stones or add ons, which feels appropriate for the simplicity of the space. The other options on the spa menu include a one hour Swedish massage ($90) and a one hour organic facial made with oatmeal, honey and avocado (also $90). Loose, relaxed, and smelling wonderful, we left Coqui Coqui for a day in town.

SAFETY & TRANSPORTATION

Walking southward on the thronging Calle 58 in search of hamacas, jumping off the side walk into the street to avoid bumping abuelas exiting the bus or panaderas selling their wares, I paused at Calle 73. In two blocks I had gone from hot, noisy, and crowded to breezy silent emptiness, excluding the dozens of ladies of the night hovering on the sidewalks. That’s how quickly Mérida can change. One block is Easter Egg colonial mansions and the next is empty tiendas with “for rent” signs. It’s a technicolor checkerboard. As a rule, the farther norther you go, especially via the major avenues, the tonier (and honestly, more boring) you get. All of a sudden the panaderas are replaced by Starbucks (I counted three in a ten minute cab ride), and the high-end restaurants are in curated strip malls. The farther south you go, the less developed, commercial, and safe it gets. The happy balance is in el centro, near the Casa Montejo, where the plazas, shops, and snacks, coalesce into the perfect hour long walk. Mérida is on a convenient grid system, with odd numbered
streets running east/west and even numbered streets running north/ south. It’s almost impossible to find street numbers, so most places are described by the cross streets. The city is quite safe north of Calle 65, but during the evening it’s best to take a taxi if you have to walk more than a few minutes.

WHAT TO PACK

The best time to visit Mérida, or the Yucatán in general, is from the late fall through the spring.
That’s when the tropical weather is its least humid and most yielding. No rain and temperatures in the mid 80s welcomed me as the plane touched down twenty minutes from the center of Mérida. The locals kept mentioning how cold it got at night, but I never noticed more than a 15 degree difference – compared to the frigid evening air of Mexico City (dropping from 70 in the day to 40 at night).
The tone is quite casual in the day, and just barely less so in the evening, though I didn’t notice any requirements beyond a shirt on your back and shoes on your feet.

Packing List:

1 pair comfortable, chic sandals

1 pair close toed shoes – or climbing down to the cenotes or exploring ancient ruins, my snakeskin
slip ons were fine for this, as would be desert boots.

2 light weight shirts – cotton is best.

1 pair shorts

1 pair light pants – linen or silk is ideal.

2 dresses, one light day dress and one slightly more formal one

1 bathing suit

1 light jacket – I had a white Jenni Kayne silk blazer I wore at night.

1 light sweater or shawl – I had a traditional rebozo scarf by Carla Fernandez to throw on when the nights got cold.

A giant hat – The sun can pound on your skin, so a big, light straw hat is best)

Sunglasses – Shield yourself from the sunlight bouncing off the pale colonial buildings.

Sunscreen – I prefer Aesop’s 50 spf sunscreen; great protection with none of the usual additives found in generic sunscreens.

Dry Shampoo – the weather leans toward humid, so expect to use a bunch of this to give your hair texture. Bug Spray – If you’re visiting during the wet season,or immediately after it, make sure to spray yourself before venturing out to areas like the cenotes or ruins.

SHOPPING

Other than camping out inside Coqui Coqui’s L’Espicerie, the shopping in Mérida is varied in quality and style, but not category. The area is
best known for its astonishing weavings, and you need to pick up una hamaca (a hammock), una guayabera (men’s linen shirt), una huipil (a women’s embroidered tunic, or any number of baskets, blankets, and rugs.

Note about haggling: Some shops expect haggling, others recoil at it, and it’s pretty easy to tell the difference. Curated shops with hangers and a specifically styled aesthetic tend to have the prices locked in, and if you attempt to haggle you will look awkward and boorish. Shops near the plaza with stack and stacks of rugs next to exploding shelves of pottery expect and encourage a good haggle. The best I managed was 40% off the price tag.

Hammocks:

The best hammocks I found (and I went in dozens of shops) were in Guayaberas Tita (Calle 59 between 60 and 62), but Hamacas Maya gets an honorable mention. Not only was there a ton of variety, but Juan, the owner, also does custom orders. I placed my order on the first day of my trip and picked it up on my way to the airport. There are hammocks woven specifically for tourists that are only woven with one line of thread. The result is a rather flimsy contraption that can unspool the second there is a cut or tear anywhere. Locals use the five threaded hammocks, woven with very thin twine for the most comfortable experience. Practically every home in the area has one hanging in its porch, usually occupied during siesta. I longed for a hammock with fringe or tassels, but those typically have pieces of wood forcing the hammock to lie flat. I ended up ordering two hammocks, both with the higher quality five thread weave, in a natural cotton, without madera (wood) and with orilla (tassles), but not macrame, and haggled Juan down to $75 each. The cheaper, single thread hammocks cost closer to $30 each, and the gorgeous sisal ones (an agave fiber) at Coqui Coqui are about $300 each, to give you a comparison.

Guayaberas y Huipil

The guayabera is the iconic Cuban button down, worn untucked, usually paired with a cigar and straw hat, worn by heavies of the early 20th century. After the Cuban revolution, Yucatecans started weaving the popular shirt themselves. For the best ones, try Guayaberas Jack in the center of town (Calle 59 between 60 and 62), but skip on the cheap poly blends. Find the pure linen ones for the most authentic look, and comfort. Huipil are easily found all over the city, but my favorite were at Color Amor (Calle 55 between Calle 56 and Calle 58)

Other artisanal goods:

Coqui Coqui L’Espicerie // Calle 55 between Calle 64 and Calle 66

This is a must stop if spending the day in Mérida. Not only can you pick up a hard to find scent or bath product (I bought both Rosas Secas and Naranjo Negro perfume), you can also find locally created jewelry, and rebozo dresses – made of fabric woven on a waist loom – designed by Francesca Bonato, the co owner of Coqui Coqui. Honestly, I could’ve come to Mérida with the clothes on my back, shopped there, and would have been ready for the rest of my trip.

Kukul Boutik // Calle 55 between Calle 56 and Calle 58

This curated boutique is definitely more put together than the average artisan shop in the area. They carry the usual mix of woven and embroidered pieces, but their woven sisal (agave) pillowcases are especially beautiful.

Casa de las ArtesanaIas // Calle 63 between Calle 64 and Calle 66

This is a definite tourist spot, so don’t expect quality here. However, there is a large selection here and everything is quite inexpensive.

Ki Xocolatl // Calle 53 between Calle 60 and Calle 62 (inside the Parque de Santa Lucia)

A belgian chocolatier in the Yucatán started this little chocolate boutique. You can purchase a cup of velvety hot chocolate, but I opted for bars of their pink peppercorn studded chocolate bars instead.

El Estudio // Paseo de Montejo between Calle 41 and Calle 43 (further north, near the Palacio Canton)
This boutique has a fun, funky vibe of a 90s Urban Outfitters. Glitter crusted matchbooks emblazoned with a portrait of Frida Kahlo, vibrant skulls, and hand painted glassware fill the shelves.

FOOD & DRINK

: I might be biased by my pseudo-hipster ways, but the most flavorful, most delicious, and best food was from the local spots rather than the white tablecloth restaurants.

Street Food Tips:
Stick to the places with the longest lines. If they’re popular, then they aren’t getting people sick regularly.
Also look for older, professional types. Doctors, lawyers, and cops can’t afford to get sick from street meat, so they’ll be conservative with where they get their street food. Teenagers, on the other hand, play more fast and loose.

Look around: Does it look clean? Is food left sitting around? Use your eyes and nose to tell you if the food looks good to you. If you’re apprehensive, just walk to the next cart. Better safe than sorry!

Water/Ice: Potable water is an issue in Mexico, so if you’re buying a respado (shaved ice) or an icy drink, make sure it’s from a place that uses filtered water.

Have a plan: I’m a research nut, so I looked up street food spots in Tulum that my favorite food writers and publications recommended. It makes the hunt so much easier!

Marlin Azul // Calle 62 between Calle 57 and Calle 59

This tiny restaurant is possibly the best seafood in Mérida. There are a few different options on the menu, but honestly, when a giant platter of ceviche is in front of you, how can you think of anything else? The habanero salsa is especially good here as well.

El Cangrejito // Calle 57 between Calle 64 and Calle 66

Fish tacos for breakfast? Yes indeed, but a far departure from the Ensenada style. These are fresh, served with different sauces and garnishes. You walk up to the front and just point at whatever fillings you like. We got one of everything: bacalao with capers, fried white fish, camarones ceviche, and my favorite, the langostino.

La Michoacana // Multiple locations

Paletas are a must, and La Michoacana is an easy choice. There’s a rainbow of flavors, but mamey is my favorite. If you’re not familiar, it’s a tropical fruit that’s fuzzy and brown on the outside (not unlike a kiwi) and with a rich red flesh that tastes like sweet potato pie. But hey, I won’t blame you if you go with mango con chile.

El Colón Sorbetes y Dulces Finos // Two locations, up on Paseo de Montejo and in the Zocalo

Situated right across the zócalo (main square), El Colón has been serving freshly made sorbet (without extra sugar and preservatives) for one hundred year. The tables on the sidewalk are perfect for people watching and cooling off on a sweltering Meridian afternoon. I ordered my favorite, mamay, but try the guava or tamarindo for a bright kick.

Apaola // Calle 53 between Calle 60 and Calle 62 (inside the Parque de Santa Lucia)

Combining Mexican, Oaxacan, and Yucatecan influences, Apaola is a favorite restaurant amongst travelers. Located inside Parque de Santa Lucia, the restaurant spills out onto a lovely courtyard. The menu is filled with modern fusion dishes (the appetizers were best, so I’d recommend ordering more of those), so don’t expect to find cochinita pibil on the menu. The mezcal and tequila selection is excellent, and the restaurant is very popular, so make sure to make reservations.

Tacos at Wayané, Mérida, Mexico // The corner of Calle 20 and Calle 15 just north of the Parque de Itzimná

Pronounced “why-en-AY,” the name is Mayan for, “here we are.” That’s the perfect name for this taco stand, a favorite amongst locals. This is an almuerzo spot. It’s not breakfast or lunch, but mid morning snack time. The Loría family have run the Wayan’e street stand for 20 years. They serve savory tacos and tortas throughout the morning, scooping flavorful fillings like smoky chicken fajitas and scrambled eggs with Swiss chard out of clay pots that customers point to. All dishes are from 8 to 12 pesos. Everything is cooked fresh every morning and when the food is gone, the place closes down for the day, usually by 2:00 pm. It’s a drive from the center of town, so expect to taxi.

Néctar // Av. Andrés García Lavín, between Calle 41 and Calle 43

Mérida’s newest haute cuisine restaurant is Nectar, where the ambitious chef Roberto Solis, having done time in the kitchens of Noma, Per Se, and the Fat Duck, plays with indigenous flavors and French techniques. My favorite dish was actually the dessert, which played with texture of coconut and was dusted with charred rosemary.

K’u’uk // Paseo de Montejo and Calle 27A (on the round about)

Taking haute cuisine a step further, K’u’uk presents symbolic and metaphoric dishes, relating to Mayan culture. Chef Pedro Evia utilizes locally sourced ingredients and inventive modern gastronomy to create a palette bending experience. If you’re going to do one “big meal” on your trip to Mérida, go here.

Chaya Maya // On the corner of Calle 57 and Calle 62

I’m usually leery of restaurants where servers dress up in traditional costumes, seeing it as
a ploy for tourists, but Chaya Maya is actually enjoyed by the local population as well. This place is all about the Yucatán, so go for Los Tres Mosqueteros, or The Three Musketeers, for a nice overview of three classic Yucatecan dishes: relleno negro (a black sauce made from burnt chiles and spices) over pork; papadzul (egg enchiladas); and pipián (a sauce with a pumpkin seed base) over turkey. There are several other locations, but I like this one’s low key energy

Kii Wik // Avenida Garcia Lavin and Calle 37-B

From the team behind K’u’uk, Kii Wik is a small cafe in the tonier part of town. It’s pretty busy, but has excellent coffee and chilequiles, along with a cute bakery and gourmet shop.

Oliva Enoteca & Kitchen // On the corner of Calle 47 & Calle 54

If you don’t feel like Mexican, Oliva is a beautiful choice. With wine personally selected by the Chef to complement the cuisine, and modern rustic dishes that include an array of burrata, lemon scented ricotta with shrimp, daily fish, and simple antipasti, it’s a beautiful bit of Europe in the heart of the Yucatán.

Poxeria // Paseo de Montejo between Calle 41 and Calle 43 (further north, near the Palacio Canton)

Located next door to El Estudio (the boutique I mentioned above), we stumbled across this coffee and pox (pronounced posh) shop quite unexpectedly. The coffee is from Chiapas and honestly, the best we had in Mérida. Pox is an interesting choice when you’re over mezcal – it’s corn based and tastes quite a bit like moonshine, which isn’t surprising considering that it’s 53% ABV.

Hacienda Teya // Mérida-Cancún Highway, Kilometer 12.5 (about 20 minutes outside of Mérida)

Inside this 17th-century plantation that switched from cattle to henequen, used for making rope, at the end of the 19th century, is a boisterous family restaurant. Large tables are packed with families enjoying a post-misas (we were there on Sunday) meal. Surprisingly, there were no tourists, just locals. Try the classics like sopa de lima, or the sample platter that includes cochinita pibil, Puntas de filete al xcatic, and poc chuc.

SIGHTS

Catedral de Mérida // Calle 60 between Calle 61 and Calle 63

This almost 500 year old Cathedral hovers over the city center, with a constant flow of observants moving in and out of its imposing doors. Finished in 1598, the cathedral is a combination of late renaissance and early baroque styles, with obvious influence from the Roman and Moorish tinged Andalusia.

Casa de Montejo // Calle 63 between Calle 60 and Calle 62

A bank is now housed behind the brilliant façade of this extremely rare example of 16th century civil architecture, but take a step in, and you’ll find a small free museum featuring seasonal exhibits and a preserved dining room from the original house. The ceiling frescoes are gorgeous and the gift shop is actually a lovely mix of artisanal products that aren’t seen anywhere else in the city.

Palacio Cantón // Paseo de Montejo between Calle 41 and Calle 43

Nestled in the center of Paseo de Montejo, an avendue lined with henequen funded Beaux Arts-style mansions, lies the Palacio Cantón. Built in the first decade of the twentieth century as a family residence for General Canton (one of the most prominent figures of his time), it now houses the Mayan Anthropological Museum. Since 1980, its permanent exhibition about the pre-Hispanic Mayan society is presented on the main floor, with exhibitions, educational workshops and cultural events offered upstairs.

Chichén Itzá

An hour and a bit away from Mérida The stepped pyramids, temples, columned arcades, and other stone structures of Chichén Itzá were sacred to the Maya, and the center of their spiritual life from A.D. 750 to 1200. Go in the afternoon, when the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, reveals itself in the light. This impressive step pyramid demonstrates the accuracy and importance of Maya astronomy, which is specifically oriented to catch the light, creating the illusion of an undulating feathered snake going down the steps. This even happens in the afternoon, and is easier to see
the closer you are to the spring solstice. The previous structure was 17 degrees off, so the Mayans made an adjustment, and 52 years later (as dictated by their calendar to be a full period cycle) corrected it with the structure that now stands. The whole complex is awe inspiring in scope, especially when you realize they built it without the use of wheels. We wandered over to the ball court, the largest in the Americas measuring 554 feet long and 231 feet wide.These ritual games were a spiritual rite, with two teams of seven trying to hit a rubber ball through an impossible looking small, high hoop. The winner was put to death, a fact that a German couple on the tour with us refused to believe. It was considered an honor to die, as the games were for the gods’ glory, and not the players.

Cenotes

There are cenotes all of the region, but the one we stopped by on our way back from Chichén
Itzá, near Yokdzonot. A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, that exposes groundwater underneath, sometimes used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial offerings (usually women who would jump in
as an sacrifice to the water god, Chaac). Now they’re open as little oases in the jungle heat. There are three different types of cenotes: jug cenotes, with a small hole at the top; cave cenotes, where you enter through a cave; and my favorite, cylinder cenotes which have vertical walls. The reason why those are my favorite is a bit vain, but I like how beautifully cylinder cenotes photograph. The light bounces on the light, adventurous swimmers can dive in from high up the side, and tree roots dangle overhead. Skip Progresso Beach, which is very privatized and a bit of a challenge to navigate if you’re unfamiliar with the area, and jump into a cenote instead.