After 4 days in Cancún’s Zona Hostelera, we decided to trust our guts and other travelers’ input about being able to travel safely in Yucatán with children, aged 5 and 6. We have limited vacation time so we decided to spend our family’s remaining 3 full days in Mexico in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán state.
We’re glad we did!
Steeped in history and culture, we had three beautiful summer days learning about Maya culture, admiring a city that reminds us of Spain with its churches, beautiful colonial buildings and plazas, visiting a henequen hacienda, swimming in a cenote – and even learning about dinosaurs.
The locals were welcoming and very helpful. My husband and I can eat tacos the whole day – yes, with habanero! – but there’s so much more to Yucatán’s regional cuisine. Even our family’s picky eater gave the local food a thumbs up.
Parque Santa Lucia
We arrived at our rental in the barrio of Santa Lucia at Calle 55 on a Thursday evening. On arrival, we felt the pulse of the community.
Not far from our rental is the Santa Lucia Park.
In front of the park is a church named after Santa Lucia. A local beckoned us in when we hesitated, “Come in, this is a Maya church. Everyone is welcome.” We did; inside the church, there was pious silence. At the church patio, it was a party atmosphere with vendors and people eating together.
There was also a crowd gathered in the park. On Thursday nights, the Serenata Yucateca has been a tradition since 1965 and features Yucatecan music and mestizo dances.
We were able to catch the presentation while having dinner at 500 Noches, a restaurant right at the park. Our kids got pizza, Cuatro Quesos, Four Cheeses, which is always a safe choice for them. My husband and I had empanaditas, tapas and arrachera, skirt steak, along with local cerveza. Our first evening in Mérida was a pretty good one.
My son had taken a liking to the hamaca, the Yucatecan hammock – there were two in the rental – and I had to convince him to sleep inside on a regular bed.
Centro Historico de Mérida
The city’s Centro Historico is fairly compact and easy to maneuver. The calles, streets are oriented in grid fashion, with even-numbered calles running north-south and and odd-numbered running east-west. Calle 60 was the street we were most frequently on.
Where the current city is now was a Maya settlement called T’ho. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived, the Maya buildings made of stone reminded them of Roman structures in a city in Extremadura, Spain called Mérida.
Mérida, Mexico was founded on 1542 by Francisco de Montejo, the Son. The conquest of the city was started by his father, Francisco de Montejo, the Elder.
The zocalo, or main square, is a good reference point for visitors. 18th and 19th century colonial homes and buildings in Mérida’s Centro and Paseo Montejo reflect Spain and France’s influence.
There is a free walking tour conducted daily by the tourist office located at Palacio Gobierno. Alternatives would be to rent an audio guide from the tourist office, follow suggestions from locals or wander freely.
With two small kids not used to the humidity, we did a hybrid of the last two. It’s always good to punctuate the sight-seeing with snacks, siesta and dips in the pool.
Luz en Yucatan, where we stayed provided us with a good map and suggestions. We met a local named Gustavo, who told us he’s Maya, at Parque Santa Lucia; he gave us directions where to go and what to see in his city. He specifically wanted us to see the murals at the Palacio Gobierno, “our history in pictures”. We found annotations, typically in Spanish, Maya and English in historically notable buildings.
Plaza Grande, also known as Plaza de Independencia is bordered by Calles 60, 62, 61 and 63.
There seems to be something always happening every night. A youth group’s fiercely energetic drum/dance performance on a Saturday drew people in the crowd to clap, stamp and dance along.
Catedral de San Ildefonso
Mérida’s Cathedral, built from stones of prior Maya temples was completed in 1598. It is the oldest cathedral in mainland America.
The Cathedral’s interiors struck us initially as plain, taking into account what is typical for Spanish and Mexican Catholic churches. The Cathedral was stripped of its interior decorations during the Mexican Revolution.
Despite its seeming simplicity, the stones and the simple adornments speak volumes in terms of the complex historical drama of Yucatán and Mexico.
Towering from the altar is a simple wooden image of Jesus Christ on the cross, Cristo de la Unidad, Christ of Unity. In a small chapel at the left of the altar is Cristo de Ampollas, Christ of the Blisters. A Mexican flag is gently draped over the image of The Virgin of Guadalupe. There is a picture of Saint Pope John Paul II who visited Yucatán during his papal reign.
The ceiling design reminds me of the ruins of the Temple of Maxentius/Constantine in Rome.
Catholic Mass is celebrated daily, in Spanish.
On the Saturday that we visited, there was a demonstration game of Pok ta Pok, the ancient Mayan ballgame in front of the Church. It drew a crowd and the atmosphere that evening was festive.
The Museum of Contemporary Art of Yucatán is housed in what had been the 17th Century Episcopal Palace. It’s adjacent to the the Cathedral.
When we were there, there was an interesting poetic exhibit of deconstructed stone: Alberto Bañuelos Fournier’s La liturgia de las piedras. The artist is from Burgos, Spain, another city known for its famed cathedral.
Casa de Montejo
The House of Montejo, which dates back to 1549 is on the south side of Plaza Grande, at Calle 63. The mansion was lived in up to the 1980s by members of the Montejo family. It is now owned by Banamex; there is a bank and a museum at the site. Entrance is free.
At Calle 61, also ringing in Plaza Grande is Yucatán’s government offices and an air-conditioned tourist office.
It’s a beautiful building and houses the murals of local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco, which tell the stories of the Maya and their interactions with the Spaniards. It gives historical and cultural context to a visit to the Yucatán. No wonder, Gustavo wanted us to see this.
Look down from the large windows and enjoy the bustle of Plaza Grande. Hundreds of years of fascinating history here.
Entrance is also free.
This is the street that we found ourselves in mostly. Between Plaza Grande and Parque Santa Lucia, there are 2 small parks: Parque Hidalgo and Parque de la Maternidad. There is a 17th century church by Parque Hidalgo, Iglesia de Jesus built by the Jesuits and like the Merida cathedral, was built from stones of a Maya temple that had been on the same site.
Other notable buildings on the route are the Teatro Peón de Contreras and Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán.
There are many shops, cafes, restaurants and street vendors if someone in the family decides they need an antojito, a craving to be satisfied.
On Sunday mornings, Calle 60 is closed to traffic for Bici-ruta. Families can enjoy bike rides; bikes are available for rent around Plaza Grande.
Paseo de Montejo
We took a horse drawn carriage ride in the evening. There was a nice breeze. Not sure if the fragrant flowers were frangipanis. The scent reminded me of flowers that grew in my childhood street in the tropics, Dama de Noche, Lady of the Night.
The rhythmic clip-clop of the horse’s hooves brought us to Merida’s version of Paris’ Champs-Elysees. Fine mansions built by wealthy families in the 19th century line the paseo. The wealth was brought in by the henequen boom. The mansions have now been converted to banks and businesses. One of the grand mansions, Palacio Cantón, houses the Anthropology Museum.
Hacienda Sotuta de Peón
We found the hacienda‘s office on Calle 55 and booked a shared transport tour. The day trip to the hacienda was one of the highlights of this trip. We learned about the process of growing and processing henequen, also known as sisal, visited a typical Maya house and got to swim in a cenote.
Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
Interesting architecture: modern building but based on the Maya’s sacred tree, the Kapok or Ceiba.
My 5 year old son, aka the family’s dinosaur expert – got excited when he saw the pterosaur exhibit at the entrance, and professorially reminded us that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs. He – and we – were wowed that we were actually on the site of the Chicxulub Crater, believed to be where the meteor that led to the end of the dinosaurs’ reign in the Cretaceous Period, the KT extinction, hit the Earth.
The first part of the museum was very scientific. We learned a good deal about the geology of the Yucatán peninsula. The displays always had explanations in Spanish and Maya. Most of the exhibits, but not always, were translated in English. That did not stop my children from enjoying the interactive display and picking up some words of Spanish.
The Maya display was very informative. We learned about Maya culture, history, accomplishments and challenges. The ancient Maya civilization gave the world astounding monuments, built without draft animals or wheels. They were brilliant with astronomy and mathematics. What, Mom, they counted by 20s?!
The Maya’s resilient culture, despite wars and conquest, survives to the present.
We spent a good 3 hours in the museum.
Stay Chill with Helado
It was hot and humid when we visited Mérida. We were told that on our return, come back November to April, better time to see the flamingos in Celestún and cooler weather to check out other Maya ruins. (Chichen Itza is only an hour and 30 minutes away from Mérida. We went from Cancún on a pre-booked tour.)
Helados Santa Clara was a nice little place to duck into at Calle 60 by Parque Hidalgo to get ice cream. We enjoyed the flavors – mango con chamoy, maracuyá , tamarindo, limón, coco con arándano, cajeta – and the girl at the counter was very patient with answering our questions.
Keep it Sweet with Chocolate
One of the reasons why we were drawn to Parque Santa Lucia is its chocolate shop, Ki Xocolatl. Another place to get ice cream, chocolate flavor, of course! Their cookies with the gooey center were so good – thank goodness for all the walking! They let us sample the different chocolate flavors.
The ancient Maya used chocolate as an offering to their god. The place reminded us of the amazing history of chocolate as we know it, spanning continents and with the contribution of several nations.
Buen Provecho! Yucatecan Food Experience
We were pointed by several locals – staff at the hotel, Gustavo, cab driver – to get ourselves acquainted to Yucatecan food in La Chaya Maya. I was worried that one of the kids will throw a fit, saying “Is there cheese pizza here?”
They had Sopa de Lima and there were absolutely no complaints as we watched in amazement how they demolished the bisteca.
While in Merida, we tried cochinita pibil, pollo pibil, papadzules, poc chuc.
The tacos at Los Trompos are always very filling. Salsa is on the side so you can make it as picante as you want – or don’t want.
Flan will always be my favorite postre; our kids…helado forever.
We got bread for breakfast from Escargot Rustico, a bakery at Calle 58 x 59 and 57.
How to Get to Mérida
From Cancún: we took the Fiesta Americana bus from the ADO bus station in Ciudad Cancún. The other option is to take the bus from the airport. From the bus stop in Mérida, we took a cab to the city’s Centro.
Mérida has an airport; American Airlines, United and Aeromexico fly directly to and from the US. We took Interjet flying out to Mexico City then AA back to the US through DFW.