Exploring the Chic Inland Towns of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula
If your idea of a Yucatán vacation doesn’t extend beyond the beaches of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, you’re missing out on the Mayan heritage, colonial history, and appealing creative enclaves found west of the chaotic coast. Fly in to the capital city of Mérida rather than Cancún and rent a car for a quick trip of the area, which still remains largely free of tour buses. On a recent Friday afternoon I found myself in a manual Volkswagen heading toward Mérida’s well-preserved downtown, which is blooming with new restaurants and shops.
Friday: 4:30 p.m. | LA68
Behind every stucco façade there seemed to be another enterprise reflecting the city’s increasingly contemporary tastes. Take this cultural center, popular with Mérida’s artists and intellectuals, in Barrio de Santiago, a neighborhood with indigenous roots. Its amenities include a yoga studio and a cinema where patrons can watch films from handwoven hammocks. I sipped an agua fresca in the cheerful patio café before heading to the adjoining mercantile to buy hand-carved walking sticks.
Friday: 7:30 p.m. | Dinner at Apoala
There was live music scheduled in Parque de Santa Lucía, one of Mérida’s many downtown squares, so I snagged a park-side table at this restaurant, which draws culinary inspiration from Oaxaca and the Yucatán, among other regions. The chapulines (crunchy, smoked crickets) and fried zucchini flowers stuffed with queso oaxaca in a citrusy tomato sauce paired perfectly with mezcal. Entrées $13–$18.
Saturday: 11 a.m. | Morning Market
The Mercado Lucas de Gálvez is four square blocks of stalls where vendors hawk Gulf fish caught off Campeche, bunches of green chiles, hand-stitched huipiles (traditional Mayan dresses), and stacks of woven baskets. I walked away with a handmade wooden birdcage—and no idea how I was going to get it home. (Answer: in a box stuffed with newspapers.)
Saturday: 1 p.m. | Lunch at Restaurant Reforma
While the newcomers have brought a lot to Mérida’s culinary scene, there’s still something to be said for the classics, like this Pepto-pink dive, which sports Christmas decorations year-round. I ordered hearty chiles rellenos—steaming poblanos stuffed with ground beef, cheese, raisins, and almonds—and washed them down with a michelada. 425 Calle 72; 52-999-923-1432; entrées $4–$5.
Saturday: 3 p.m. | Shopping in El Centro
At Color Amor (510D Calle 55; 52-999-923-0944), sisters Rossana and Cristina Herrera sell items by Mexican artists, like skull-dotted aprons, leather huaraches, and chunky necklaces. Across the street, I found lilac-painted pottery and sneakers in bohemian fabrics at the year-old Kukul (513 Calle 55; 52-999-923-2240).
Saturday: 8 p.m. | Dinner at Oliva Enoteca
At this months-old Italian restaurant, house-made pasta hangs in an open kitchen and dishes such as paper-thin pappardelle with a short-rib ragù evoke Rome. I hadn’t ordered crème brûlée since the nineties, but chef Stefano Marcelletti’s rosemary-infused version won me over. Entrées $18–$30.
Sunday: 9 a.m. | Highway 180 from Mérida to Valladolid
The old route is longer than 180D, the neighboring tollway, but it’s more rewarding, since it passes through tiny villages full of life. Goats and chickens roamed through roadside brush, women wove hammocks on front porches. For a snack on the two-hour drive, I stopped at a fruit stand stationed by one of the massive speed bumps known as topes to buy peeled mangoes and jicama sprinkled with powdered chile and lime.
Sunday: 11 a.m. | Shopping in Valladolid
The town’s proximity to Chichén Itzá has long attracted backpack-toting tourists, but artistic expats and wealthy Mexicans have turned it into a chic bohemian enclave. In 2008, Argentine ex-model Nicolas Malleville and his wife, Italian fashion designer Francesca Bonato, opened outposts of their Tulum boutique hotel Coqui Coqui here (there are also locations in Mérida and Coba) along with a perfumería. They recently opened two new stores: At Cestería y Alfarería, I swooned over henequen hammocks and hand-dyed cotton table runners. And at Sombrerería, I examined hats from Campeche and bone-handled razors and kitchen knives, eventually selecting a meat cleaver (all shops at coquicoqui.com). Next I visited Dutzi, the flagship of German designer Ariane Dutzi, whose rustic handbags are also carried in London and Paris.
Sunday: 1 p.m. | Lunch at Yerba Buena
A highlight of this restaurant near the Parque de Sisal was cazuela, a clay pot containing egg, cheese, and plantains topped with a mole sauce that the chef’s family ships up regularly from Oaxaca. While I ate, my waiter cut aloe stalks near our garden table for smoothies made with chaya, a spinach-like local plant. 217 Calle 54A; 52-985-856-1406; entrées $12–$15.
Sunday: 8 p.m. | Parque Francisco Cantón
A 10-piece band plays music here all day after mass on Sundays. By nightfall, smartly dressed seniors were dancing the cha-cha. Their faces put them in their 80s, but their hips told a different story.
Monday: 9 a.m. | Highway 79 from Valladolid to Izamal
After toast topped with house-made pumpkin jam at the 19th- century Posada San Juan (doubles from $115), I made the 90-minute drive to this small village, known as the city of the hills after the eight Mayan ruins inside the town limits. According to the driver of my horse-drawn carriage, its colonial buildings are painted yellow to represent maize.
Monday: 12 p.m. | Studio visit
Izamal has a thriving community of artisans, many of whom welcome travelers into their studios. I met Gabriel Lopez Rajón, a woodworker whose pieces are carried in galleries throughout Mexico and watched as he sat below a slew of intricate birdcages whittling hummingbird figurines. Arrange visits through the Izamal Tourism Office, Calle 30 at Calle 31; 52-988-954-1096.
Monday: 1:30 p.m. | Lunch at Kinich
This outdoor restaurant offers regional dishes like dzic de venado, venison leg that has been slowly cooked underground, served with sour orange and cilantro. I drank an horchata under a shady palapa, delaying the hour-long journey back to Mérida as long as I could. 299 Calle 27; 52-988-954-0489; entrées $7–$13.