Away from Mexico’s bright-white beaches is an alternative proposition. A colourful town of fading glory that’s now attracting a crowd of creatives
Dilapidated but still grand, the colonial city of Mérida was once home to the greatest concentration of wealth in the world. It was the sisal barons of the 19th century who hired Parisian architects to build the opulent villas along Paseo de Montejo, a wannabe Champs-Elysées. Yet Mérida, the inland capital of Mexico’s beach-famous Yucatán, is not an Important City and herein lies its charm. It is not packed with visitors. You never feel you are trudging the well-worn path of someone else’s Grand Tour. The white horse-drawn carriages gaudily decorated with lurid fake flowers bear more Mexican families than foreigners as they clip-clop along.
Like Havana, for which the city doubled in the film Before Night Falls, the historical centre known simply as Centro has had a Unesco makeover. It’s not always easy to spot. While the cobbled streets are mostly swept, and the gardens of the Plaza Grande are manicured and in flower – its glossy-leaved trees sculpted into squat oblongs or perfect spheres – still the tangled wiring of telephones and electricity hangs low and wild, and local buses belch black fumes as they charge down the narrow streets.
There are as many derelict buildings as there are restored ones. Here a newly painted white façade with Yves Klein-blue brickwork, there a faded terracotta one with peeling, panelled shutters. All are secured by old iron bars. Peer into a run-down house, with windows hanging off their hinges, and you’ll see impressively proportioned rooms with intricately tiled floors just visible through the layers of dust, an overgrown tropical courtyard and, as an estate agent might phrase it, bags of potential.
The opportunity to buy into this fading glamour has been taken up quietly by mostly American artists and bohemian sophisticates, including chef Jeremiah Tower (Alice Waters’ partner at Chez Panisse in California) and sculptor and ceramicist James Brown and his wife Alexandra. For this reason, Mérida is a destination to live in rather than visit, even if that’s just for a few days. It is behind these closed doors that the secret life of the city takes place. The key to this domain lies with John Powell of Urbano Rentals and his restored houses. Rent one and, if you are lucky, you may become part of his world. Having modelled in a previous life in New York and been a button maker for Hervé Léger in Paris, he came to the Yucatán dreaming of converting one of the many fading haciendas, previously the sisal farms, into a hotel. But the city itself took hold of him.
Days with Powell will unfold in a joyfully authentic ride through local life. Breakfast might be buttery croissants from Escargot, a chandeliered bakery that could hold its head up on the Left Bank in Paris, accompanied by segments of oranges and grapefruit sprinkled with chilli from a yellow street cart and washed down with agua de frutas squeezed in a hairdressers-turned-café. Lunch could be the best seafood in town, at Marlin Azul, a turquoise-walled joint with red vinyl booths and noisy families tucking into deep-fried fish fillets so fresh they still taste of the ocean.
At the weekend, he may sweep you off half an hour down the highway to swim in a huge pool commissioned by New York interior designer Laura Kirar as a surprise birthday present for her husband, Richard Frazier. It is hewn out of the rock next to their crumbling hacienda, now almost reclaimed by the jungle (they live in the glass-box poolhouse next to it). Your contribution could be a smoky, charred chicken and a dish of melting slow-roasted pork to feast on, picked up from a roadside shack on the way (you’ll know it’s the right place to grab lunch if two well-fed policemen are also standing in the queue).
Then it’s back to the city, for a party at the eye-popping home of Puerto Rican patrons of the arts César and Mima Reyes, designed by expat Cuban artist Jorge Pardo, where one side of the internal courtyard is taken up by a tiled lap pool. Pardo’s wife, Milena Muzquiz, half of the performance-art band Los Super Elegantes, may give an impromptu lip-synch rendition of a new track, accompanied by heavily styled deadpan dancing redolent of Uma Thurman’s twist in Pulp Fiction. You may end up discussing the merits of avocados with Noma’s René Redzepi, a friend of local molecular chef Roberto Solis, but by midnight you’ll all have greasy fingers from eating cochinita pibil, pork baked and smoked in the ground and served lovingly by the house cook.
It’s not just the city’s expat social life you get access to. The houses Powell and his partner Josh Ramos design are original and fantastically comfortable. Ermita, a pretty hideaway in the low-key neighbourhood of the same name, with an iron four-poster bed and chalky paints in stony colours, is home to their collections: decorative Oaxacan bowls in one glass cabinet, ghoulishly beautiful ceramic skull sculptures, antique cloth animal toys on the bedroom shelf. At centrally located L’Orangerie, the colours are soft blues and pinks, with two terraces and an arcaded colonnade. Their grandest, El Pórtico, is peppermint and pink, with a cool stone pool, views of the cathedral from the roof, and room after room with stunning Marseille tiling.
At the very least Powell will come and spend an hour or two with you at the start of your trip, providing a detailed guide to the city. Advice, for example, about what time is best to visit Parque Santa Lucia to watch couples dancing to classical salsa (before 11am on a Sunday – and make sure to taste the melting, fragrant vegetable-and-turkey tacos at Ana Sabrina’s stand), as well as where to go to have early-evening cervezas and snacks (tiny Cantina La Negrita for Mexican brews, chilli-dusted popcorn and often a band to complete the buzzy atmosphere). And, of course, where to buy the best hammocks.
If ever you’ve lusted after a hammock, this is the town to get one. Meridans are serious about hammocks – most homes have them indoors as well as outside and locals are justifiably proud of their intricate weave work. Hamacas el Aguacate is a family-run shop opposite the house of some rather beautiful ladies of the night. Red-lipped and generously bosomed, with tropical flowers in their hair, they will watch you from their stools as the old man with bottle-top glasses carefully lays out the most recent creations made in his workshop at the back: subtle chocolate browns matched with smoky greys, hot pinks clashing with jungle green, singles, doubles, family-sized ones.
This is not the only shopping experience in town. Mérida is where anyone in the state who has anything to sell – and everyone does – congregates. Walk down any of the main streets in Centro and you’ll pass shops with retro typewriters, engine parts, embroidered blouses from Chiapas and traditional guayabera shirts of every colour and style. Panama hats of varying quality are available from holes-in-the-wall near the cathedral, there’s a huge clothes shop called Liz Minelli and in the market district you’ll find star-shaped piñatas, frilly nylon girls’ party dresses and knock-off backpacks.
The central covered market, Lucas de Gálvez, positively hums with inclusiveness. Ladies with coiled, oiled hair in the back of cheap shoe shops selling plastic flip-flops alongside sparkly baseball caps, torches and sunglasses will be making tacos by hand from speckled-yellow cornmeal dough. A line of heavily made-up plastic baby Jesus statues welcomes equally lurid shepherds with their plastic flocks.
At the next stand are huge bowls of stacked chillies: red, orange, yellow but mostly green, some small and squat and surprisingly fierce next to slimmer ones that are more likely to be hiding their heat in their seeds. Pale, lumpy-skinned courgettes sit next to fat, scallop-edged squashes, bags of fresh coriander hang in the corner alongside some kind of fruit that looks as if it’s been soaking in syrup since the dawn of time.
Stagger out into the plaza to have a cold drink on the bench where the old ladies sit and you’ll see Casa Rubio across the road, with its colourful, stitched Mexican belts and shirts, cowboy-style hats (in kids’ sizes, too) and over-the-top, excellent value traditional cowboy boots in hot pink, orange and white.
Afterwards, we go to the chic Oaxacan restaurant Apoala on Parque Santa Lucia, to recover on the terrace. Order is restored with a seriously delicious lunch of sea-snail ceviche with buttery avocado, sharp lime and smoky chipotle, and charred vegetable salad with fresh tuna and jicama, the sweet radish relation that crops up in everything, and a glass of very cold white wine. Jorge Pardo, his daughter and, most significant to our entertainment, her minute puppy – too small to sit still – walk past and then come in to join us. This is what happens here; meet someone once and you see them every day. For Pardo, Mérida was appealing for lots of reasons. ‘It’s an easy way to feel removed from America without having to travel too far,’ he says. So appealing that in the end he transferred the family’s life to Mérida and hasn’t looked back.
Later that evening, up at the sculpted concrete rooftop bar in Rosas and Xocolate, a funky, modern, seriously pink hotel, I am drinking shots of tequila and salt-encrusted sangrita, a citrusy, spicy Bloody Mary-type mix, and having a debate about where to go for dinner. It’s either world-class gastronomy at Roberto Solis’s restaurant Nectar, or tacos. After much discussion, we opt for the tacos at Noche Mexicana, the weekly Saturday-night street party on Paseo de Montejo, a few steps down the road. Street-food vendors and silver and semi-precious jewellery makers compete to cluster around the stage, where performers, including dancing troupes straight out of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, wait in the wings to take their turn after the resident slapstick duo. The night ends, late, at La Fundación Mezcalería, a bar and club with hundreds of different tequilas and rough, smoky mezcals stacked up against the wall among neon art. The clientele is young, lounging on velvet sofas. The bar staff are pierced, the music is jumping, the crowd primed to let loose on the tiny dance floor. I leave town the following day, head ringing, heart filled up by the generosity of the Meridans. If it’s true you can only love a place if you have lived there, I lived in Mérida and I loved it.
WHERE TO STAY
Life doesn’t get more splendid than at the ornate one-suite hotel Coqui Coqui. There are three baths (one outside), a rooftop pool, a menu of massages and handmade perfumes and candles in the ground-floor boutique. +52 999 923 0216. Doubles from about £275
Colonial-style Casa Lecanda has dark wood, polished original tiled floors and elegant hammocks swinging in the courtyard. There’s a proper bar, large, airy rooms and the hush of grown-up sophistication throughout. +52 999 928 0112. Doubles from about £130
Urbano Rentals offer a collection of the loveliest houses. Most have pools, courtyards and rooftop terraces. Check out owner John Powell’s brilliant blog www.bestofyucatan.com for information on what to see, eat and buy. From about £75 per night
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WHERE TO EAT
A tiled corner restaurant, Los Platos Rotos[/b] serves homespun dishes such as tamales and refried beans in cazuelas (traditional earthenware dishes). +52 999 925 3097. About £10 for two
When you just can’t take any more guacamole, go for authentic Neapolitan pizza baked in a wood-fired oven at Raffaello’s Pizzeria. +52 999 924 9943. About £10 for two
It’s breakfast heaven at Hotel Casa San Angel, which is fragrant with freshly baked goods, but it’s the jungly, painted, Rousseau-esque courtyard that you eat in which steals the limelight. About £15 for two
At El Principal there are exotic ice creams and sorbets in flavours you can’t even translate, including guanabana, mamey and elote. +52 999 185 0437
WHAT TO DO
Swagger around town like a sisal baron in a horse-drawn caleche; hire one from beside the cathedral.
Join locals for open-air dancing to swing and salsa bands, with an evening market and food stalls: on Thursday in Parque Santa Ana, Tuesday in Parque Santiago and Sunday in Parque Santa Lucia.
The whole Centro closes down on Sunday morning for the town bike ride, it’s a multi-generational affair, with toddlers and grandparents alike.
Learn how to make specialities such as cochinita pibil at Los Dos cookery school, navigating the market and ending with a spread you whip up with the help of chef David Sterling.
WHAT TO BUY
Plaza Artesanal Santa Lucia is the best place to buy crafts at reasonable prices – no haggling, please.
Ki Xocolatl sells sophisticated chocolate buttons in every hue. It’s also good for people-spotting over a cup of velvety hot chocolate.
British Airways flies from Gatwick to Cancún. Mérida is a four-hour drive away. For more information on Mexico, contact the Mexican tourist board through www.visitmexico.com
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