A guide to living in Mérida

23 Aug

As a travel-weary soul after living in Bolivia, Peru, Samoa, and India for the past 2 years, I coasted in Mérida.  Mérida,  the capital of Yucátan, México and self-proclaimed, and accurately so, city of peace–key in a narced-up Mexico, is the most comfortable city outside of the United States that I´ve ever lived in.  In fact, it could be more comfortable than some American cities.  Mérida has the culinary chops of New Orleans, cultural happenings of Chicago, the tranquilness of a small suburban city, and the malls typical of Texas.  Not to mention the superb central location for taking weekend trips around the state.  Though these attractions have brought a small community of expats and students, Mérida never feels gringified.  Below is small guide to living in Mérida.

What to Bring

There is nothing in the United States that you can´t find in Mérida.  Missing your favourite cereals?  The Costco, Walmart, Mega, Chedraui, or other large supermarket chains got them.  That said, you will be using a lot of sunscreen and bugspray, which is considerably more expensive in Mérida than in the U.S.  Typical price for a bottle of SPF 70 runs $16.  I also recommend bringing snorkel gear, if you have room.  I think you can buy them for $14 at Walmart and it´ll cost you around $10 each time you rent them.  Otherwise, most items (except for clothes) run the same price, if not cheaper in Mérida.

Where to live

One of Mérida´s few weaknesses is its city sprawl and slightly inconvenient transportation system (bus/combis).  Mérida is divided into many neighborhoods, which are hard to get to between them, but all have bus routes, oftentimes lengthy, to the center.  They are almost all equally safe (living in downtown can be a bit sketchy).  I suggest finding a place next to your work, because you will be transporting yourself there 5 days a week.  I lived in García Gíneres, which was quite comfortable and a short 10 min bus ride or 30 peso taxi to the center.

List of apartments and rooms in family homes from the University of Mayab

Cellphones/Internet/Banking

Cellphones start at around $30 for basic and run up around American prices from there.  My office had an extra cellphone and I never put minutes on it–never had to make many calls.  If I needed to contact someone, I sent an email from the office or home or called with Skype (it´s about $0.02 a minute to call the U.S. and probably less to call México.)

The ATM fee from Mérida is about $2 each time + the fees your bank charges.  Even on the free Bank of America partnership, the ATM will charge $2.  It´s cheaper to bring dollars from America.  There are plenty of money change centers in downtown, off calle 59, between 60 and 62 that offer fair rates and real dollars/pesos.  I haven’t had a problem with fake money, as much as I did in Bolivia and China.

I’ve heard, but didn’t bother to investigate, that short-term internet in the form of portable cards or a short-term lease is not available.  Everybody’s house is wired up and one of the advantages of renting a room in a house was that I got access.  Otherwise, there is wifi in coffee shops, free wifi in all parks (if you can withstand the mosquito attack!), and internet cafés run about 8 pesos an hour.

Where to Eat

I have to admit that I haven’t been to very many restaurants in Mérida, mainly because it’s a lot of work to get around! Also, between work and taking weekend trips, I didn’t spend a lot of free time in Mérida.  Food in Mérida is generally meat—the vegetarian side is lettuce–but chaya, a superplant filled with vitamins, is delicious and served as drink or with fish/meat.

  • Cocina Economica (calle 17, entre 16 y 18, García Gíneres, cerca Parque de las Américas, (9999) 253 9888): Solid quality economical kitchen featuring Yucatecan and Méxican dishes, such as cuchinita, mole, pollo empanizado, tortas, and tacos.  I ate here everyday and local customers bring gallon-sized tupperware to carry away the food.  It is pretty busy around 2 p.m., lunch hour.  $27 pesos for a half-plate (more than sufficient) and $40 pesos for a full order (enough to take home for dinner).
  • Los Platos Rotos (calle Colón y Av. Reforma, García Gíneres, cera the Hyatt):  Local favourite lunchspot for chalangan (D.F.) dishes.  $50 pesos for a half-plate.
  • La Chaya Maya (centro):  A tourist and local haunt, La Chaya Maya offers a superb environment (staff is dressed in traditional garb and hand-making the tortillas and panuchos in front of you!) at pretty reasonable prices.
Where to go:
Mérida’s tourism department does a sensational job of publishing updated, free monthly magazines (Yucátan Today, Yucátan Travel–both include excellent street maps of Mérida if the numbers confuse you) as well as a monthly schedule of free cultural events.   These are both available at the tourism office in the Plaza Grande.  There is basically at least one free cultural event every day, including jaranas (local dance showcasing impressive foot speed and ability to balance beers on the head) every Monday, Yucatecan guitar concerts every Tuesday, an art fair every Saturday, and mariachi parades every Sunday, If you live near the Allianza Francesa (French cultural center), there are some cultural events and language courses there, though my French roommates thought the place strange compared to other Allianza Fracesas (snobby, more expensive, and tiny.)

Nightime jarana in downtown Mérida: yes, they're balancing a beer tray on their heads

Possible weekend trips (ranked in order of impressiveness):

Calakmul, a bioreserve and Mayan ruins, Indiana Jones style

Holbox. Never been, but it's the favourite of almost everybody here

Celestun. Never been, but lots of flamingos, swampy lands.

Tulum, a lovely time. Ruins are unimpressive, but lots to do around the beach.

Chichen Itza, classic.

Uxmal, another set of Mayan ruins with a nice light and sound show

Surrounding cenotes. You can throw in a visit to an awesome chocolate musuem/plantation along the way

What to buy
  • Coffee: Coffee grown in México is soft, with warm tones and a lot of caffeine.  Supposedly, Café Organico is the best and wallet-friendly organic coffee shop in Mérida, with a delightful owner, Guadalupe.  If you’re looking for more organic shops, here’s a nice list compiled by Yucatan Today.
  • Honey: Though apiaries in the Yucatan have diminished in recent years, there is still plenty of local honey production here.  Notable products include honey candy (with flavors of chamoy, chile, seasame, and propoleo), propoleo cold spray, chapstick, and pollen (a health food supplement).  LOL Cab, calle 47, no. 519B x 64 x 66, 9999 243586.
  • Henequen: Used to make strong sailing ropes, henequen fibers put Mérida on the map, turning the city into a colonial showcase of wealth.  However, when plastic fibers were invented, the henequen industry went bottoms-up, and historical mansions converted into Starbucks and McDonald’s.  Today, you can find plenty of henequen artesanal products, such as bags, turtles, bowls, etc.  Recommend buying at the annual Dzitya Art Fairat the end of July, Casa Maya, Artesania Contemporanea Maya (Calle 10 #608 x 25B x 25C, Col. Benito Juarez-Oriente, acnmaya@hotmail.com, 999 982 6856)

    Henequen baskets (20 pesos)

  • Buying at Touristy Areas: A word of warning.  The souvenirs at Chichen Itza tables, are, obviously, not really stone, as advertised.  They are cement or plaster of paris, painted over with some good quality gray acrylic.  The value of the cement mask is less than 25 pesos and of the plaster of paris snake, less than 70 pesos.
  • Tequila/Xtabentun/Liquor of Nance: An old Mayan recipe, Xtabentun is a tourist liquor, meaning that locals don’t drink it, claiming that it’s too sweet.  As for tequila, Don Julio is widely regarded as the best, Don Eduardo is pretty smooth, and Cazadores is a good budget tequila.
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