The best city for tourists is the one that puts locals first. Any good holiday should be part escape and part experience, but too many places in the tourism-dependent Yucatan peninsula focus so much on the former that there’s no chance of the latter. Mérida’s charm is that it caters to the locals, and as a tourist you feel welcomed into the city.
You want to get to know it better, dig deeper, go exploring, meet people. You have an open invitation to join in on the fun, you feel as if you belong. Spanish mansions lining wide paseos, towering stone cathedrals, and beautiful public plazas around every corner; Mérida’s architecture reflects its history as the colonial capital in the majority Mayan Yucatan. It’s wealth came from henequen, an agave fibre used for everything from making hammocks to tying ocean freighters to docks, and it was one of the wealthiest cities in the world throughout the 1800s. These days the city celebrates both the Spanish and the Mayan heritage. As a visitor, it appears to have taken the best from both.
When you work in tourism it’s much nicer to cater for people who are seeking an experience. Instead of being treated like a servant, you are treated like an old friend sharing your insider tips about your favourite places.
When I am the tourist, I love being able to get a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who live in the place that I’m visiting. It’s partly professional curiosity, my background is in community development and I have a masters in urban planning. I’m always curious to see how a city and its inhabitants shape each other. I’m also a fiction writer, and we’re a notoriously nosy bunch, always trying to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. An anthropologist friend of mine once compared his discipline to writing fiction, but with academic research. To which I replied, fiction writing sounds like anthropology, but more fun. Mérida is full of public life, it is an epic city for people watching, and for imagining what other people’s lives might be like.
There are a lot of tourists in Mérida, but it’s the locals that dominate the social scene. Couples on dates exploring public art exhibits, families with their kids walking down cobblestone streets, groups of teenagers having dance practice in the park.
Cafe seating and food carts taking over city streets. Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles – the sign of a city made for locals.
There is live music in every public plaza, and in every bar. Eastern European influenced bands with clarinets and strings, jazz bands with trombones and trumpets, traditional salsa bands.
Everybody’s talking; to their friends and to the neighbouring tables. Everybody’s dancing; with their friends and with everyone else in the bar. The other customers are all people that you want to get to know.
I remember being frustrated on the Riviera when I was trying to find hair ties and could only find shops with beach cover-ups and shell wind chimes. In Mérida the public market is big enough to get lost in, all day.
Not only can you find everything you need, but you are also exposed to the process of things. Fishermen hang the catch of the day from hooks and fillet the fish in front of you. A seamstress makes a bag by sewing together pieces of leather on an industrial sewing machine. Butchers hack through an animal’s hindquarters with a cleaver. Merchants grind spices and create mixes for you on the spot.
Achiote forms the base of the classic Yucateco cuisine. Also called annatto, it’s ground up and mixed with citrus to create a paste that is used as a marinade. It’s bright orange and delicious and you’ll find it everywhere. Adobo stands line the roads throughout the province, grilling chickens whole and chopping them into halves or quarters to order. On Isla Mujeres you’ll find it in fish tacos, achiote grilled Tikin Xiik served from a standing grate in the town square.
But my favourite is the version that Mérida made famous, cochinita pibil. The slow cooked achiote pork served with habañero in a banana leaf reminds me of the pulled pork I grew up with in Texan and Kansan BBQ joints. I know I said that this blog would never have recipes, but I like to think of this one as more of a short film starring Robert Rodriguez.
Another of Mérida’s culinary contributions to the world is the successful marriage of chocolate and cheese. Two foods that I love dearly, but that I never thought would go together (except in my favourite Ween album). The Marquesita is made in a press like a crepe, but rolled up into a crispy waffle cone like a flauta. The nutella and cheese melt together inside and extra cheese spouts out the top like confetti from a party horn. Legend has it that the Marquesita was created by an ice cream vendor whose sales were low during the cold winter months, but that story seems suspicious to me because I can’t imagine Mérida ever being cold.
The carts are usually parked in public plazas, but on our last night in town we waved down a passing cart from the roadside, as if it were a taxi. As soon as it pulled over, others started flocking to it. Last memories of Mérida, wiping chocolate off my face and laughing with strangers.