After years of faded glory, the ancient city of Mérida, in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, is a thriving artistic hub, full of world-class restaurants, bustling craft markets and crumbling haciendas. Design writer Susana Ordovás - host of the Prior x Cabana trip to Yucatán - shares her favorite spots in Mérida. 

 

BY SUSANA ORDOVÁS | 30 NOVEMBER 2023

 

Within the lush jungles of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, amid a vast, flat land dotted with crumbling haciendas, mystical cenotes and ancient prehispanic ruins, Mérida stands as a city both dynamic and steeped in history. Founded in 1542 and established on the site of the ancient Maya city of T'hó, it has emerged, after years of faded glory, into a thriving artistic hub with a diverse creative community.

My first visit to Mérida was uneventful; I spent three short days roaming the dusty streets of the centro histórico under a blistering sun, admiring the severe façades of colonial-era casonas. True to their Moorish-Spanish ancestry, they maintain an old-world seclusion behind high walls, and I wondered what lay beyond.

Many years later, I decided it was time to unveil the secrets of this time-honored city, and visited again. That trip was transformative; I became hopelessly enchanted with the city’s charm and decadent splendor. The austere colonial buildings, old churches, leafy plazas, and opulent mansions that grace the streets of Yucatán’s capital revealed tales of splendid bygone eras. These remnants of an illustrious past were shrugging off the effects of a centuries-long siesta, and I was completely captivated.

Where to Stay

Urbano RentalsJohn Powell arrived in Mérida 20 odd years ago and began to breathe life into the sleepy centro histórico by meticulously restoring dilapidated colonial-era casonas. He co-founded Urbano Rentals, a holiday-rental agency specializing in carefully revived houses and haciendas. Some of Mérida’s finest and most breathtaking properties form part of the Urbano Rentals portfolio. 

Casa LecandaCasa Lecanda is a charming boutique hotel nestled along a quiet street just off Paseo Montejo. Housed in a late 19th-century residence with only seven guest rooms, this stylish casona features a delightful patio and dipping pool, making it an ideal spot for guests to enjoy evening drinks.

Casa Olivia: Housed in an historic building, Casa Olivia is carefully designed to maintain the property’s vintage, French-influenced charm. Original masonry, generous linen drapery, and a carefully-curated selection of antiques contribute to this ambiance. From a handsome mirrored oak bar in the veranda to crystal sconces and Louis XVI chairs in the suites, every detail creates a Mérida hideaway that’s at once palatial and intimate, classically chic and comfortably contemporary.

L’Epicerie: Above the boutique Coqui Coqui (see Where to Shop), this stunning one-suite residence retains all the charm of a century-old home. Just steps away from Santa Lucía Park, the decadent belle époque building is a beautiful escape from the bustling, vibrant city streets of Mérida. Beyond the heavy, velvet drapes, the ornately-decorated suite boasts an impressive four-poster iron bed, dripping chandeliers, intricate tiled floors and unique details like free-standing twin French bathtubs.

 

Where to Eat

Oliva EnotecaLocated in an old casona in the historic centre of Mérida, this Italian restaurant with an open kitchen offers a menu of high-end Italian cuisine in a chic, industrial setting. The menu includes time-tested favorites like caccio e pepe, carbonara, and lemon risotto with grilled shrimp and octopus, plus a catch of the day prepared with roast potatoes and picatta sauce, and a T-bone steak Fiorentina.

Picheta: An ideal spot for enjoying drinks as the sun sets, Picheta's roof terrace offers impressive views overlooking the San Isidoro Cathedral. Later, you can transition downstairs to the formal dining room. The menu features dishes crafted by various renowned chefs specializing in Yucatán cuisine. The building, dating back to 1639, is located in Plaza Grande, Mérida’s main square.

Apoala: The motto of Apoala, in Mérida's Santa Lucía Park, is 'Passion for Mexican flavors,’, and indeed, the award-winning chef-owner, Sara Arnaud, is clearly passionate about her culinary creations. She and her co-owner brother, Carlos, have brought a taste of their native Oaxaca to Mérida, blending Mexican, Oaxacan, and Yucatecan ingredients to create new flavors, textures, and aromas.

Kool KabThis simple, stylish café located in Parque Santa Ana primarily operates as a tortillería, focusing on heritage corn cultivated through traditional Maya farming methods. Its mission is to promote the consumption of native corn, specifically the Maya milpa harvested in Yucatán's jungles. Sourcing ingredients from 70 communities in the region, Kool Kaab is not just a tortilla and tortilla chips vendor; it also offers a succinct lunch menu featuring traditional, simple, and flavourful items.

Huniik: Envisioned by chef Roberto Solís, Huniik caters to a maximum of 16 diners. Designed without walls by Cuban artist Jorge Pardo, the open kitchen serves as a focal point, fostering dialogue and allowing visitors to witness the culinary process. Solís and team curate contemporary yet personal Yucatecan dishes, showcasing local, seasonal ingredients acquired through fair trade partnerships with small producers.

 

Where to Shop

Casa T’HÓNamed after Mérida’s pre-colonial title, this concept house is located in an early 19th-century four-column mansion on Paseo de Montejo. One of Mérida’s chicest spots, the small shopping centre has a half-dozen shops featuring local textiles, guayaberas, soaps, fragrances, and more. There’s also a café serving light dishes and cold drinks, in a lovely courtyard dotted with towering palms.

Lucas de Gálvez Market: For an exceptional experience, I recommend exploring this vibrant market situated in the heart of Mérida. Established in 1888, it carries historical and cultural significance for the city. Moreover, it stands as one of Mexico's largest markets, featuring an impressive array of over 2000 stalls offering an eclectic mix of goods, including delicious foods, unique crafts, and local textiles.

Casa Mo Gallery: For those who love midcentury design and high-quality vintage furniture, this showroom is a perfect fit. You'll find Danish wood credenzas, Herman Miller dining tables, and see-through ball chairs. The real star of the show is the chairs: Mexican folding chairs, 1970s Ricardo Legorreta 'Vallartas', black lacquered tulip chairs, studded butaques, and the studio's own leather-slung 'Tatich' chairs.

L’EpicerieThe Mérida boutique of fragrance empire Coqui Coqui is set within a 1903 townhouse reminiscent of the Belle Époque. I recommend you sample their signature scents, among them orange blossom, tobacco, coconut, and flor de mayo, a native bloom of Yucatán. Each is ingredient-forward and hand-made by artisans.

Plaza Carmesí: This restored colonial building houses a design store with a modern take on Mexican craft culture: fringed hammocks that double as wall art, colorful leather totes, straw hats, and an array of minimalist stone ceramics. It is also home to a charming English-language bookstore called Between the Lines, which includes a wide selection of international titles and stationery.

Taller Maya: Built around an ancient tree, seen through a floor-to-ceiling glass window, Taller Maya’s Mérida shop has an outdoor courtyard that offers a quiet space to take a break from the city bustle. The immaculately-made contemporary crafts are sourced from artisan workshops throughout Yucatán. Everything here is indubitably chic: oversized henequen woven bags; embroidered placemats and tablecloths; and tables hand-carved in Yucatán stone in traditional Mayan fashion.

 

What to See & Do

Casa Montejo: A meticulously restored 16th-century colonial home, Casa Montejo was once the residence of conquistador Francisco de Montejo. Run by Fomento Cultural Banamex A.C., a nonprofit that invests in Mexican culture initiatives, it’s now home to art exhibitions and a range of cultural events. The house museum also has an excellent shop, which is stocked with handmade, rarified folk crafts.

Paseo de Montejo: The ultimate avenue for Mérida’s most extravagant mansions, built during the henequen boom. A stroll up Paseo de Montejo is like a portal into that past, with now-faded façades of old mansions creating a sort of weathered beauty. Allow some time to explore the abandoned homes that once housed the city’s finest. Sometimes, the rust is more interesting than the diamonds.

Palacio CantónA pale yellow Beaux Arts-meets-Italian Renaissance-style mansion that towers over Paseo de Montejo, Palacio Cantón is one of Mérida’s most impressive buildings and a relic of the city’s prosperous henequen industry. Home to the Museo Regional de Antropología e Historia, here you’ll find what might be the most formidable collection of Maya pieces in Yucatán.

Montejo 495: The iconic Cámara Houses, also known as the Twin Houses, took centre stage recently when it was revealed that one of them, Montejo 495, would open its doors to the public. Both mansions, located side by side along Paseo Montejo, were built in 1912 for the Cámara family, one of the five richest families in Mérida, whose wealth was derived from the henequen industry. 

General Cemetery of Mérida: Exploring a city's market and cemetery is often considered essential for a genuine understanding of its culture. In the case of Mérida's cemetery, it offers a unique opportunity to delve into the city's history and marvel at the diverse architectural styles of graves and mausoleums. The General Cemetery of Mérida boasts over 25,000 vaults, ossuaries, and mausoleums.

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CONTRIBUTORS

Susana Ordovás is an interiors and design journalist, based in Mexico City, and a regular contributor to Cabana Magazine  | Follow Susana on Instagram @susana_ordovas

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PRIOR X CABANA CARAVAN

Cabana and PRIOR’s spirit of unlocking beautiful homes leads us to the Yucatán Peninsula, a region of Mexico filled with lush vegetation, rich Mayan history and hidden haciendas. During your five day stay, explore archeological sites, beautifully restored haciendas and the rich architectural and cultural imprint left by pre-Spanish history. You'll meet the local stewards of traditional weaving, wood carving, and embroidery; and taste the unique flavors of the Yucatán’s distinct cuisine.

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