Church bells are pealing as I enter the Plaza Grande, Mérida's main square, which is bordered by 16th-century Spanish colonial buildings and the oldest cathedral in the Americas, built with stones from a Mayan temple. Citizens exchange greetings, "Feliz Navidad," as a drum-and-bugle corps lowers the Mexican flag in a ceremony that is part militaristic, part Main Street Disneyland. A stylish couple roars up on a scooter, stopping alongside nuns in white habits. The cobblestoned streets echo the clip-clop of carriage horses with flowers in their manes and stick-on gift bows decorating their bridles. A palpable buzz in the December dusk, a high-pitched swirl of sounds, adds a countermelody to this urban symphony. Something is in the air—and that something isn't snow. I look up and see a cloud of langostas (locusts as big as my index finger) being pursued by screaming black birds, a scene more Hitchcock than Capra.
It may be Christmas in Mérida, but it's beginning to feel a lot like Judgment Day or, at least, one of the grimmer pages of the Old Testament. I scurry past Pancho's, the colorful tourist bar with huge Warhol-style portraits of the folk-hero bandito Pancho Villa, and take refuge in the more sedate Cafetería Pop, a coffee shop a few blocks away. Pop lives up to its name with an Op Art wall relief and a Modernist mural that looks like a Ben Shahn ink drawing. How retro, I think, how seventies chic—only to discover that the restaurant opened 33 years ago and never bothered to change its now absolutely of-the-moment décor.
Mérida, the cultural crossroads that is the capital of Mexico's state of Yucatán, is layered with history, the layers overlapping like the colorful crepe paper on a piñata, promising sweet surprises to those who crack the surface. Separated from the rest of the country by large rivers, the Yucatán Peninsula, until the last half of the 20th century, was more in touch with the Caribbean than with Mexico. In the Palacio de Gobierno, seventies paintings in a socialist-Cubist style by Fernando Castro Pacheco trace the collision between the Spanish and Mayans, whose presence remains strong. Their ancient language, still spoken today, suffuses everything, from the almost unpronounceable names of villages such as Dzibilchaltún (tse-veel-chal-toon) to a salsa called xnipek ("nose of the dog," so named because its heat causes your sniffer to sweat).
The folklore of the Mayans is equally colorful. A lunar eclipse is said to be the work of ants eating the moon, and during those nights children bang pots and pans to make the bugs stop. The invasion of the locusts on Christmas Day is a mystery even the locals cannot quite explain, but it suggests a fitting metaphor. The birds and locusts might symbolize the Spanish colonialists who in 1542 became the rulers of this city, once known as T'hó. They might also be the 19th-century merchants who made their fortunes here, building plantations and harvesting henequen (agave) for sisal, to make rope. Or the new breed of conquistadors, who today are swooping in to gentrify this city of nearly a million Catholics and Cokeheads (Yucatán's Coca-Cola consumption is said to be the highest in the world).
Over the past few years, American couples have begun to turn Mérida into an expatriate community that resembles the San Miguel de Allende of the 1990's. In the center of town, a centuries-old house with a courtyard can be bought and rehabbed for under $100,000. Sprawling haciendas on the outskirts can be had for a million or so. The Starwood company has already taken over two such buildings, each about an hour outside the city, and made them over as luxury hotels. The gringos transforming high-ceilinged buildings into bed-and-breakfasts (small, clean, and under $100 a night) and vacation properties are a social set, bonded by opportunity and adventure. Over dinner at Frida, an homage to the artist, or drinks at El Burladero, a dark dive where a "matador" ushers you in, they trade stories of gentrification. These expats have a saying about the local mañana mentality—where a contractor says he'll do something tomorrow, but really means next week. "Todo es possible," these arrivals philosophize in Spanglish. "Más tarde." Everything is possible—much later.
But in Mérida, everything seems possible—right now. Though it struggles with small-scale versions of Mexico City's problems (traffic, pollution, power blackouts), this is a tolerant and cosmopolitan city, with its own airport, an English library, a Belgian chocolatier, and an American Costco. Banamex, a large financial institution, is pumping money into the development of artist communities in outlying villages. Ecotourism is also on the rise, and the area is part of a multinational coalition called Mundo Maya, which seeks to promote travel while protecting the indigenous landmarks and culture. Moreover, Mérida's location in the northwest corner of the Yucatán—seemingly the middle of nowhere—in fact makes it close enough for day trips to ancient cenotes (cisterns) and caves, the flamingo preserve at Celestún, and the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. Cancún and Tulum are a four-hour trip along a newly built superhighway.
The Christmas season begins early in Mexico, with Las Posadas, nine days of candlelight processions and parties that start on December 16. In Mérida, the Mayan heritage is as important as Christianity, and the collision of the two is sometimes hilarious. At the ruins of Dzibilchaltún, I stumble across an ancient hut that contains a manger scene strung with lights blinking in time to Casio-keyboard carols. In the city, the Mexican flag flies over Paseo de Montejo, a broad boulevard dotted with 19th-century European mansions and traffic roundabouts filled with huge Christmas-tree ornaments. The Plaza Grande is closed to traffic on Sundays, turning the city center into a lively street fair of vendors hawking tourist souvenirs woven of sisal. Mérida's top shop, the Casa de las Artesanías, has string hammocks, polished bowls made from gourds and native woods, sculptures carved in a local limestone called crema Maya, and silver and gold filigree jewelry.
Seeking even more exotic resources for my Christmas list, I consult John Powell. A former fashion designer, model, and antiques dealer, the 49-year-old is one of the new arrivals in Mérida and runs Urbano, an upscale custom guide service with its own rental, a three-room house called the Orangerie at Santa Ana. "I know everything and everyone," Powell says confidently. "If you like, I will even take you to my private antiques sources." Powell is the best enabler a shopaholic could ever hope to find.
Over the next week, Powell and his partner, Josh Ramos, become more friends than guides. They invite me to their house, an oasis inside a battered exterior, just south of the city center. (I am struck by the beauty of its old polished-concrete floor tiles in exuberant Moorish patterns, as common in Mérida dwellings as linoleum is in American basements. The ever-resourceful Powell offers to take me to a factory in Ucu where the tiles are still made.) We barge in on other B&B operators, Southerners who could be characters in a comic novel in the style of Evelyn Waugh. Powell even takes me to the doctor. I'm not sick and he doesn't currently practice medicine, but Dr. Roberto Guzmán, another antiques dealer, is a tonic nonetheless. He invites me to his mother's house in the prosperous neighborhood of García Ginerés for a holiday party, where the men smoke cigars on the terrace and the women sit inside sipping coffee. We drink Cokes—what else?—from glasses brought on a silver tray. Dr. Guzmán asks if I will be ringing in the new year in Mérida and tells me about two longstanding New Year's Eve traditions in Mexico.
The first is to eat 12 grapes, one for each stroke of midnight, for good luck in the coming year. The second insures even more good luck: "On New Year's Eve," the good doctor informs me, "everyone wears red underwear."
When I prowl the flea market in Santa Lucía Square, just north of the Plaza Grande, I look for red boxers and find Dr. Guzmán, who has a stall there. I snap up four sterling silver-and-glass highballs from him for 150 pesos ($15). In another corner of the square, a band plays onstage for couples of all ages, until a teenage girl in tight white jeans gets up and belts out "I Will Survive" to a recorded track. I purchase her CD, which she signs: "Con todo mi amor para David, su amiga, Tania Dinarzade" ("With all my love to David, your friend, Tania Dinarzade," with stars instead of dots over the i's in her name). I run into Deborah La Chappelle, a friend of Powell's (he really does know everyone), who directs me to a stand where a woman named Sabrina sells panuchos (bean-stuffed turkey tacos), salbutes (soft turkey tacos), and Coke.
The cuisine in Mérida is irresistible, influenced by Mayan, Caribbean, and Spanish cuisines and fired with habaneros, chiles so hot they make a jalapeño taste like a cucumber. At Powell's urging, I try elote, an ice cream made with corn and guanábana, a fruit that looks like a hairy radioactive pickle but tastes as sweet as a mango. At Wayané, a tiny stand in the Itzimná district, we wash down tacos with a barley drink called agua de cebada, possibly the sweetest, lumpiest digestif in the world; later, we dine by candlelight at Néctar, a lounge-style bistro with Mexican-Asian fusion dishes such as Vietnamese taquitos and duck chimichangas. Fortunately, the kitchen has run out of huitlacoche, a delicacy that Powell insists I try. And that would be?
"Corn smut," he says. "It's a fungus, like a mushroom."
"Más tarde," I reply.
Despite all our efforts, neither Powell, Ramos, nor I have been able to find a restaurant that serves the traditional Christmas dish of pavo en relleno negro (blackened-chile turkey). I tell them that I will prepare this for them before I go, which seems like an extravagant thank-you. But they don't know that I have enrolled in a one-day course at Los Dos, Mérida's first Yucatecan cooking school, which has two guest rooms for rent and is located in the lavish colonial residence of David Sterling. Though he is semiretired as an art director, Sterling is no culinary dilettante. In his blue-and-white-tiled kitchen, he holds forth on the history of Yucatecan cooking techniques. The menu runs from crema de cilantro soup to a salad made of jicama and pepinos, and, of course, the turkey. When the bird is finally stuffed with ground pork and a boiled egg, I offer to do the trussing, unaware that he has no needle to draw the strings through the bird. (If you have ever contemplated sewing a turkey shut using a nut pick, I have one suggestion: Don't.)
By the time the turkey goes in the oven, I have lost my appetite. It will take a siesta before I can face the fiesta. I leave word with my instructor that I will join the party más tarde. The dinner is a stunning success. My teacher proclaims me "best in class" for turkey trussing and grants me a second serving of caballeros ricos, a chocolate bread pudding.
The next day, I depart for the Hacienda Petac, a half-hour drive on bumpy roads from the center of Mérida. As serene as the city is bustling, it is a nearly 100-acre compound with 17th-century pink buildings sporting curvaceous Moorish arches that have been beautifully restored by a Texan couple, Chuck and Dev Stern. "Even in the terrible state we found it in, we could tell Petac was a jewel," Chuck Stern tells me. They hired Salvador Reyes Rios, a Mexico City-based architect and historic-restoration expert, who added water features and a game room decorated with graffiti and machine parts from the hacienda's former sisal processing factory.
Petac is designed as a vacation villa and is rented, complete with meals and a staff of 16, to groups of up to 10 people. I spend three delightful days there as the sole guest, acclimating easily to the hot days and cool nights and the warmth of the staff, including one local woman who is also the sheriff of Petac. My room, originally a threshing facility for sisal, has ceilings that soar to nearly 30 feet and a carved wooden bed that could comfortably sleep three. Over meals of pork poc chuc and pumpkin pudding, Nancy Lara, the manager, instructs me in the Yucatecan dialect. I must make my vowel sounds last longer, she says, and speak aporreado (with strength).
Powell picks me up at Petac one morning in a battered jeep to tour the area. Fortified with Mexican pastries, we climb a ruin undergoing reconstruction at Acancéh, as a boom box somewhere nearby blasts out Eminem. We visit Izamal, a village known for its yellow buildings and the convent of San Antonio de Padua, which has one of the largest cloistered courtyards in North America. There, we are met by Paula Haro, a cultural emissary from Banamex, which, as part of its community development initiatives, helps native artisans build their trade. It has also established an Izamal art crawl, the more grandly titled "Rutas y Paseos de Artesanos y Fiestas." Haro leads us to a horse-drawn carriage, our transport for the tour.
Despite the language barrier—my Spanish is bad, but my Mayan is non-existent—the people of Izamal are as welcoming as Méridans, who have clearly seen more of the benefits of tourism. We meet a wiry man of indeterminate age and unbelievable strength who carves wagon wheels out of cedro, a local cedar. In a dirt-floored workshop on the other end of town, a husband-and-wife couple polishes nuts from the cocoyol tree to create deep-brown beads for jewelry. Our last stop is a small house that sells herbal teas in the living room and has a piñata factory in the yard.
Powell and I continue on from Izamal, winding along unmarked roads. Our attempt to visit Ochil, an old hacienda with an artists' community, meets with little success. The place is closed. We hop the fence. A landscaper meets us. "When will it reopen?" Powell asks, rising to his responsibility as a guide.
At Temozón, one of the Starwood haciendas, we find the front entrance closed to nonguests. "No problemo," Powell says in his finest dude-gringo drawl. He whips the jeep around and drives to a hidden back entrance, where we breeze in and wander about. The 26-room Temozón is enormous and so authentically decorated that it feels a little stuffy. We drop by the other Starwood property at San José Cholul, 18 miles east of Mérida, which looks more like a small village, with 11 tropical-mod rooms in the main hacienda and four thatched-roof huts on the grounds.
It is sunset and still blazing hot when we emerge. A quick trip to the seaside seems in order. Progreso, a tiny port north of Mérida, on the Gulf of Mexico, announces itself with a sharp smell of salt and fish even before we have parked. At an oceanfront restaurant, we sample ceviche, cerveza, and Coca-Cola while a procession of young ladies from Chiapas who have been riding in a bus for hours offer to sell us tourists beads, bags, and clothing. It is cool enough to need a long-sleeved shirt, so I buy an embroidered cotton blouse from one of the strolling salesgirls. The bell-shaped sleeves drape comically into the salsa.
The next morning, it is time to leave. Powell offers me a ride to the airport. No hurry, he says, there are never any lines. I ask him to make a stop at Casa de las Artesanías for just a few more souvenirs. We make the airport with 20 minutes to spare, and the flight connects through Mexico City, so customs isn't an issue.
Tell that to the ticket agent.
"Cerrado," he says.
Closed?Why isn't the flight still boarding?There's time.
"Orange alert," he says.
And when will it be possible to get on another flight?
I know the answer before he gives it: "Más tarde."
The nights are cool in winter, but days in Mérida can be hot and humid year-round (everyone has those charming string hammocks for a reason—they're a great way to cool off). Direct flights from Mexico City arrive at the local airport; Cancún's international terminal is a four-hour drive. Planned on a grid that radiates outward from the Plaza Grande, Mérida's east-west streets have odd numbers that get higher as you head south. Those running north-south have even numbers that get higher as you head west.
WHERE TO STAY
FOR GROUPS UP TO 10, MINIMUM FOUR-NIGHT STAY, FROM $5,657. 52-999/910-4334; www.haciendapetac.com
Hacienda San José Cholul
DOUBLES FROM $300. KM 30, CARRETERA TIXKOKOB-TEKANTO; 800/325-3589 OR 52-999/910-4617; www.starwood.com
Book the rock waterfall suite. DOUBLES FROM $240. KM 12, CARRETERA MÉRIDA-PROGRESO; 888/883-3633 OR 52-999/941-0273; www.xcanatun.com
A new bed-and-breakfast. DOUBLES FROM $70. 516 CALLE 49; 52-999/928-3377; www.hotelmarionetas.com
DOUBLES FROM $95; COOKING COURSES FROM $75. 517 CALLE 68; 52-999/928-1116; www.los-dos.com
Orangerie at Santa Ana
FROM $100 A NIGHT. 52-999/924-4145; email@example.com
DOUBLES FROM $300. KM 182, CARRETERA MÉRIDA-UXMAL; 800/325-3589 OR 52-999/923-8089; www.starwood.com
RESTAURANTS & BARS
DINNER FOR TWO $25. 501 CALLE 57; 52-999/928-6163
605 CALLE 59; 52-999/928-5870
DINNER FOR TWO $65. 412 CALLE 1; 52-999/938-0838
509 CALLE 59; 52-999/923-0942
LUNCH FOR TWO $15. 92E CALLE 20; 52-999/927-4160
Casa de las ArtesanaIas
503 CALLE 63; 52-999/928-6676
Roberto Guzmán Antiques
Afternoons, by appointment. 199B CALLE 22; 52-999/965-2137
CUSTOM TOURS FROM $300 A DAY. firstname.lastname@example.org
Yucatecans believe that the biggest meal of the day should be the first. So they arrive in droves to this corner stand come seven in the morning for addictive tacos such as chaya con huevos (eggs with chaya leaf) and castakan (twice-fried pork belly).
Orangerie at Santa Ana
Hacienda San José Cholul
American expat David Sterling teaches cocina yucateca, one of Mexico’s great regional cuisines. Daylong workshops start at the Lucas de Gálvez market to look for Maya staples such as chaya, beans, achiote, and epazote. After sampling snacks at street stalls, students head back to Sterling’s brightly tiled kitchen to learn the techniques for squash soup with maize dumplings, achiote-marinated red snapper, and pit-roasted venison. Don't miss side trips to artisanal producers of rum, herbs, honey, and chicharrónes (fried pork rinds) arranged by the school.