Now that Cancun and its neighboring cities are drawing an international party crowd, travelers are looking inland.

By Scarlett Lindeman
February 04, 2020
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Mérida — the capital of Mexico's Yucatán state, a half-hour drive inland from the country's Gulf coast — has long been a destination for Mexican travelers. This safe, tranquil city has an intoxicating mix of cultures and a cuisine brimming with local produce. Add in a recent upswing in new restaurants, boutiques, and stylish hotels, and Mérida is quickly blooming into an international destination in its own right.

Mérida is the perfect size to absorb over a long weekend, and an excellent jumping-off point to access the treasures of the region: restored haciendas, underground cenotes, Mayan ruins, and more. With daily nonstop flights from Mexico City and beyond, it's easy to soak up the city's vibrant street culture, beautiful architecture, and the decidedly sloooow pace.

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​​​​Friday

Arrive early to jump into the local cuisine at Taquería La Lupita, in the Mercado de Santiago, one of the city’s best purveyors of cochinita pibil. (Yucatecos like their breakfasts hearty, and things start to sell out by 1:00 PM.) Don't sleep on the lechon tortas, topped with crunchier-than-a-potato-chip chicharrones, and the agua de chaya, the region's ubiquitous green juice made with a wild, spinach-like green.  

Stroll over to the Paseo de Montejo, the Mérida's central avenue. The wide, tree-flanked street features many important monuments, iconic buildings, and pastel-hued mansions that glow in the morning light. As you walk, grab an espresso at Márago Coffee and hop over to Casa T'hō, a concept store with pieces by edgy Mexican designers like Carla Fernandez.

No trip to Mérida is complete without a visit to Dulcería y Sorbetería Colón, just a few doors down. This storied ice cream parlor, founded in 1907, offers sorbets and ice creams regional tropical flavors: soursop, mamey, coconut, mango. Try a champola, a tall sundae glass filled with the sorbet of your choice and topped with cold milk.

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Check into Rosas & Xocolate, a boutique hotel on Paseo de Montejo known for its wellness programming. Each of the high-ceilinged rooms has a private outdoor tub, and the spa offers massages and body scrubs with locally ground cacao.  

For dinner, head downtown to the recently opened restaurant from Hacienda Teya. The main hacienda, located just outside the city, was founded in 1683; originally known for its production of henequen, an agave used for fiber, it eventually became known for its kitchen. Like the legendary original, the new urban outpost turns out pitch-perfect variations of traditional dishes like sopa de lima, a chicken consommé fragrant with the local bergamot of the region, and excellent cocktails.

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Saturday

Time to head into the rainforest to visit Uxmal, considered by many to be the secret best Mayan archaeological site on the peninsula. Uxmal is much less crowded, and arguably much more impressive, than Chitzén Itzá. Renting a car is the best way to get to there — you can also go by taxi, bus, or tour group, but it's just an hour drive and you'll want freedom to meander.

Take a few hours to marvel at the ornate friezes and steep pyramids of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, built between 700 and 1,000 CE. Then, a dip is in order. The Yucatán is scattered with cenotes, the natural sinkholes connected by underground rivers that often manifest as otherworldly pools of fresh water. (There are literally hundreds. There is even one in the parking lot of Mérida’s Costco.) Each cenote is different: some are open-air, surrounded by sheer rock faces, while others are more like caves, requiring an underground descent and populated with bats and stalactites.

With a rental car, the intrepid can pull onto one of the many sideroads with hand-painted signs advertising a cenote. There are also options with a bit more infrastructure — life-jackets, sturdy platforms, and guides. Cenote Kankirixché in Abalá, just 30 minutes from Uxmal, is a semi-open cenote with a wooden staircase and platform to access the water. With a depth ranging from two to 50 meters, it's great for snorkeling. Cenote Yax-Há, just west of Abalá, is a multi-room, cave-like cenote with swinging ropes and ladders. Nearby Cenote X’Batun is popular with families: surrounded by jungle, it's relatively shallow and covered with floating lily pads. 

Courtesy of Hacienda Santa Rosa, a Luxury Collection Hotel

Haciendas, like cenotes, are the other hidden treasures of the Yucatán. Historically funded by henequen production, many have preserved their gorgeous on site mansions and remnants of the region's agricultural past. Hacienda San Pedro Ochil is a highlight — call ahead to reserve lunch and a tour the elegant grounds. As dusk falls, make your way to the secret James Turrell installation on premise: an hour-long light-show projected onto a tree at the base of a cenote.

Finally, make the hour drive to Hacienda Santa Rosa, one of five haciendas around the peninsula that have been remodeled into boutique properties by the Luxury Collection. The 11-room Santa Rosa occupies a historic, bright blue manor that offers access to many Mayan sites. Enjoy a nightcap on the patio, then plush bedding and complete silence. 

Courtesy of Te extraño, extraño

Sunday

Wake up to a stunning view of the tropical forest, and the type of calm that comes only from being in the middle of nowhere (with good wifi, of course). Spend the morning on the porch with a coffee and a plate of fresh papaya, then walk the grounds. The garden is beyond lush and features plots of indigenous herbs that make their way into tinctures available on site. Further in, you'll find platform hives housing the region’s famously stingless Melipona bees, which produce a type of rare honey that is used locally as medicine. Pick up a jar to take home before you make the hour drive back to Mérida.

A leisurely lunch at the chic Te Extraño, a restaurant from Mexico City star chefs Joaquín Cardoso and Sofía Cortina. Dishes reflect the mix of old and new in the city: cold pea and mint soup, roasted octopus with sour orange, and even cocktail made from a mezcal-like distillate of henequen.

Courtesy of Te extraño, extraño

In early evening, head to the Parque Francisco Canton, where a 10-piece local band plays in the open square while older couples dance. There are food courts where you can grab a marquesita: a crispy, salty-sweet rolled crepe made with shredded gouda cheese. The local specialty is best eaten while soaking up the fading light — a sweet ending.

The Luxury Collection provided support for the reporting of this story.

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