Yucatan: Merida and Progresso
I have been to Merida before but this time it was a little different. I think that visiting a place a second time is so much more interesting. You are less of a tourist then and can immerse yourself deeper in the life and culture of the place.
We drove to Merida to take a cooking class at Los Dos cooking school but this is not all we did. This time we explored the gorgeous architecture of the old restored mansions of the past.
Merida is a large city spreading from the old town (centro historico) out towards the more modern suburbs and beyond. It seems to have a split personality. You would never know from the old and worn facades along the narrow streets of the old town what is hiding behind them or that there is a large modern city just beyond. In the old town the plain street-side facades hide incredibly beautiful casas, homes that used to house families as far as 300 years ago. Many of these homes are now being restored by new owners to serve as residences for locals or expats or boutique hotels for the many visitors that frequent the area. The old town is pretty compact, centered around the main square where you’d find the oldest cathedral in the Americas, built back in 1561. There are museums, the Mercado, restaurants and several historical monuments to explore and you can do it all by foot.
We went on a house and garden tour (thanks Val) conducted by expat realtor and TV personality Keith Heitke who has been leading these tours for over a decade now. We visited three properties within walking distance of each other that presented an opportunity to step into homes that otherwise we would have never seen. The first property was still under constructions and it was interesting to see what these houses looked like pre-restoration. Restoration is a monumental task that can take years to complete. The next two homes were fully restored private residences of expats living in Merida and gave us an insight into the possibilities in local architecture and design.
The homes were built around a courtyard and a wide open breezeway. The kitchens were inside-outside open air workspaces and each of the homes had a dipping pool to cool you off on hot days. Furniture were local and exotic and the houses were decorated with beautiful and unique accessories handcrafted by local artisans. The owners were themselves a work of art, artistic, adventurous, open and eager to share their experience with us as we walked through and photographed their homes. They arrived at Merida on their own and soon connected with other residents like themselves. They formed a close community of expats that gets together regularly to socialize, discuss issues they have in common and help each other out as part of a community.
Driving north out of the old city you get on Paseo de Montejo, the grand avenue of Merida inspired by the Champs Elysees in Paris, lined on both sides with magnificent old colonial mansions. Once residences to the wealthy colonialists, these mansions have now been converted into museums, official government offices, restaurants and tourist attractions.
There is good food to be had in old town Merida (we didn’t venture into the new part of town beyond looking at architecture). Parque Santa Lucia is a relatively new square surrounded with good restaurants. Bottella Verde is a tapas bar / cafe situated at the corner of the square, owned and operated by the Villa Verde group where we stayed. Next door there is a Ki-Chocolatl which is essentially a cafe serving only chocolate drinks and desserts. We ordered our hot chocolate, one white and one dark, and were presented with a cup of steaming milk and a large cube of chocolate on a stick intended to be stirred into and slowly melt in the hot milk.
Next on the same square is Apoala, a restaurant serving authentic Yucatan and Oxacan foods with a few Peruvian dishes using quinoa. We had stuffed zucchini blossoms in yellow mole sauce and a corn and vegetables soup in a light broth. I intended to go back to try other items on the menu but didn’t make it back there for lack of time. One of my favourite restaurants in Merida was not Mexican but Italian. Oliva Kitchen and Bar, on the corner of 56 and 49 is run by an Italian expat from Rome and delivers great food in the tiny restaurant on the corner. The pasta was cooked to perfection and the salad inspired me to make one at home, featured in a previous post.
We also drove out of town to Casa de Piedra at Hacienda Xcanatun, about 30 minute drive from the old town. The hacienda is beautiful but was empty on the night we visited and we were the only diners in the large restaurants. The food left some to be desired but I may give it another try when I know the place is busy. Another restaurant that was a must on my list and left me cold was Ku’uk. Again, we were the only diners during the entire evening (8-10 pm mid-week) and the food did not meet my expectations for such a highly recommended restaurant. The chef-owner was very friendly, showed me around the beautiful kitchen, the wine tasting room and pastry kitchen and explained the innovative oven his partner designed to simulate the cooking method for pibil (traditionally cooked under ground). Ku’uk offers a 10 course tasting menu that on line looks quite spectacular but that is not what we ordered. The 5 items we ordered off the menu were not the success I was anticipating. I had a long list of other restaurants to try but this is as far as we were able to experience this time.
On our last day, on the way out of town, we made a detour and drove to Progresso, a town on the beach on the north shore of Yucatan, only 25km from Merida and easily accessible by a 4 lane highway ending practically at the beach. Progresso has a very long cruise ship pier but does not have many ships coming in so it is pretty laid back and local. We had one of the best tasting and most authentic foods at a beach cafe Eladio Bar. It was also where we noticed the Moorish influence on local cuisine. As soon as we sat down they brought plates with gorditas, kibi, ceviche and refried black beans appetizers on the house. As we emptied one plate another one was brought to the table, even before we had ordered anything off the menu. This custom as well as the food were clear evidence of the significant Moorish influence on the cuisine of the Yucatan. I ordered panuchos expecting one and receiving four which I was too full to finish, and my husband ordered a dish of large butterflied shrimps with lemon and garlic that he says was delicious. There were several other Yucatan items on the menu that I wanted to try but had to leave it for another time. We walked the beach, photographed shells that lined the sand and begun our return trip to the Caribbean coast.
I need to go back for a little longer stay next time.
Other restos on my list that I read about but haven’t tried. Here is what they say:
Nectar restaurant: artful cuisine on the plate
Roses and Xocolate: upscale indoor dining in the new part of town.
Amaro – vegetarian Yucatan cuisine in a lovely setting.
Lucera del Alba: free typical Yucatan botanas (snacks) with drinks.
Piedra de Agua: near the cathedral
Trotters restaurant: great food in stunning setting
Cafe Peon: people watching outdoor patio.
If you can, try the panuchos around Santa Anna Parquet sidewalk cafes and tell me how it was.