Mérida is the colorful and culturally rich capital of the Yucatan. It makes a great home base for a vacation in the region thanks to its safety and central location. Plus, there are so many things to do in Mérida itself!
How to Get to Mérida
Unfortunately my arrival in Mérida was delayed thanks to the worst car rental agency ever. If you are traveling in Mexico, I highly suggest NOT renting from America Car Rental in Cancun. They took almost four hours to bring out our car, which was on the verge of breakdown.
In fact, it did break down halfway between Cancun and Mérida. That’s right, as darkness was falling, we were sitting in a broken down car in the middle of rural Mexico with no cell phone service.
Luckily, after jiggling with some things under the hood, we were finally able to get it started.
(I don’t know who I think I’m fooling with this “we” business, as clearly I was sitting in the car continuing to not know a single thing about mechanics. But regardless, crisis averted. And lesson learned: bring your dad on vacation!)
If you’re traveling to Mérida, you can drive from Cancun or fly straight there. All the major airlines (United, American, Delto, Aeromexico) serve Mérida.
Where to Stay in Mérida
Our home base in Mérida was Hotel Medio Mundo. It’s a stylish and colorful boutique property in the city’s center. And after a long and stressful day of dealing with car troubles, it was the perfect oasis to collect ourselves in before exploring the city.
The owners of Medio Mundo opened a gift shop after receiving inquiries about where to buy the bedspreads, pillows and decorations in the rooms. Now they travel Mexico, hunting down the most beautiful artisan crafts. I parted with quite a few pesos in this shop before checking out!
Hotel Medio Mundo is about a five minute walk from the zocalo or Plaza Grande of Mérida.
I’ll never forget the lively nightly gatherings in the town square from my first international trip to Spain at 13. The same thing happens every night in Mérida, a Spanish colonial city.
One evening there was a street food festival and the next, a live band and salsa dancing. The crowd ranges from young couples on a date to families with small children, making it one of the best free things to do in Mérida for all ages.
Here are a few more of my favorite things to do in Mérida, Mexico.
Feast on Homemade Tortillas at Chaya Maya
Chaya Maya consistently draws crowds. But don’t let the wait put you off: it’s located on a street with plenty of cute shops to kill time in!
Chaya Maya serves delicious traditional Yucatecan cuisine, including handmade tortillas made right near your table. We could clearly sense that this is a staple in the Mérida dining scene; a favorite of locals and visitors alike.
Don’t forget to try the chaya, Mexico’s “miracle plant.” If you thought kale was a superfood, just wait until you hear all the supposed benefits of chaya. This plant does it all: improved blood circulation, lower cholesterol, decongested lungs, improved brain and memory function and a natural remedy for arthritis and diabetes.
I chose to enjoy chaya in cocktail form, which likely negated most of its health benefits. Oh well!
Enjoy Botanas and Live Music at La Negrita Cantina
Another great spot in Mérida is La Negrita Cantina. Live music and delicious botanas draw a large hipsterish crowd to this recently revamped historic cantina. Get there early on weekends to snag a table, as most patrons arrive for “hora feliz” and stay all night.
Botanas are essentially tapas that are complimentary as long as you are sitting down and ordering drinks. An excellent concept, in my opinion!
Bike La Bici Ruta
On Sunday mornings until noon, the city of Mérida closes the Paseo de Montejo to traffic for a giant bicycling street party called La Bici Ruta. Renting a bike is cheap (about $2USD for three hours) and easy.
This is *the* thing to be doing on a Sunday in Mérida. Practically everyone in the city shows up to partake in the fun! Some of the bikes are really unique and not something you’d typically see in the city, such as four-person bikes and bike-drawn carriages.
Even those who don’t cycle can enjoy the day, watching from sidewalk cafes and listening to live music performances.
Eat Authentic and Tasty Tacos (Duh)
After La Bici Ruta, we kept our bikes and continued to Wayan’e’s, a local favorite spot for tacos.
Despite its fame, the Wayan’e taco stand is literally a hole in the wall. You order at a window where tacos are less than the equivalent of $1USD.
There are endless options on the menu. So I asked the employee at the counter for his recommendation, and he pointed me toward the chorizo tacos. He even let me try one, and after taking the first bite I promptly ordered two more. Yum! Grab a seat at the counter or one of the plastic tables nearby on the sidewalk to dig in.
Be a Tourist: Eat the Gelato and go to Pancho’s
Just a couple blocks from Hotel Medio Mundo, I stumbled upon the super cute POLA Gelato Shop. After tacos, gelato is probably my second go-to food so naturally I went once a day during the trip.
The shop’s background is pretty interesting, as it’s owned by four different people from the US, Mexico, Poland and Guatamela who met in Mérida and realized the city lacked good gelato. The shop’s wall also features a really cool mural depicting the skyline of Pula, Croatia, where apparently you can find some pretty tasty gelato all summer long!
It’s safe to say that indulging in gelata is level 100 on the “I’m on vacation” scale, probably right below themed restaurants. But because I never begrudge someone a good touristy indulgence, I’ll share my favorite in Mérida: Pancho’s.
Located right near the zocalo, Mexican Revolution-inspired Pancho’s has a great ambiance both inside and on its patio. The food is slightly more expensive than other restaurants we ate at. And this was the only restaurant in Yucatan where the waitstaff spoke to us in English. Touristy-ness aside, the food was really good. The guacamole was my favorite (it was made fresh, right at our table) and the shrimp tacos were pretty tasty as well.
Day Trip from Mérida: Flamingos in Celestun
If at this point you’re thinking, “hmm Anna, sounds like all you did there was go for a bike ride and eat,” that’s because I spent almost a full day during our three nights in Mérida on a trip to a nearby nature reserve hanging out with FLAMINGOS!
The reserve, called the Biosphere Reserve, is located in Celestún, a small fishing village near the border of Campeche. It’s easily accessible on a day tour from Mérida.
Since we had rented a car, we drove ourselves (if you’re in a group, this is the way to go as the tours are really expensive). Driving in the Yucatan is really easy as there aren’t too many different highways, so it’s pretty tough to get lost!
Once you arrive in Celestún, it’s impossible to miss the welcome center where you can purchase a ticket for the flamingo tour.
The reserve is a mix of saltwater and freshwater, creating an ideal habitat for all kinds of birds. And within 10 minutes out on the water, we spotted a flock of flamingos. There were tons of them!
In addition to the flamingos, our guide pointed out many other birds and even a baby crocodile. He also took us into the mangrove forest, where the clear, calm waters allowed us to see fish swimming around the boat.
After the tour, the small town of Celestún is a fun place to enjoy the beach for a couple hours. There are a few restaurants right on the beach to enjoy lunch and cocktails.
And that’s my guide of things to do in Merida, Mexico!
Oh, and if you’re in the Yucatan for more than just a weekend, I highly recommend tacking on a visit to the beautiful city of Valladolid. The pyramids of Chichen Itza and the “yellow city,” Izamal, are also close by.