Stunning Cenotes and Underwhelming Cuisine: The Real Deal on Mérida
Greetings, friends! Have you heard much about the city of Mérida? Are you curious about the Yucatán Peninsula’s “second city” after Cancún? I spent about three days there with my cousin Kailyn and her boyfriend Andrew, and as you can probably guess by the title of this post, Mérida is one city I have a few opinions on! Kailyn has appeared on Caffeinated Excursions a couple of times already since we went to Mexico City together in January of 2018. She was also the author of a guest post featuring Puerto Rico, which you can check out here!
I first met up with Kailyn and Andrew in Mexico City, where we tried Quintonil, a top-rated restaurant in the world (you can read more about that experience here). The next day, we flew to Mérida. Kailyn was inspired to visit Mérida by the blog Hippie in Heels, whose author has lived there and published a lot of information about the city. After a few days, we rented a car and drove from Mérida to Cancún, where I bid them a safe journey back to Chicago before taking a bus to the beautiful island of Holbox.
Mérida was an interesting destination because it had a ton of beautiful, colorful buildings. There were definitely a lot of tourists there, but the atmosphere of the city wasn’t dominated by that. In fact, the city felt much quieter than neighboring Cancún. Perhaps this is because Mérida doesn’t have a beach (although the coast is only about a half hour away by car).
My favorite part of this trip was our visit to two cenotes outside of the city, which I discuss below. However, Mérida wasn’t a perfect destination. There were a few things about the trip that I didn’t totally love, including some of restaurants and bars we tried. However, I think Mérida is still worth a visit for anyone who is looking to experience the culture of the Yucatán Peninsula. Read on to learn more about:
- the city itself
- what a cenote is and why you need to visit one, and
- why our dining experience wasn’t the best, but where you can go for guaranteed great food!
Within City Limits
The city’s most prominent feature is its unique architecture. As someone who appreciates architectural styles but has no formal training in it, I really enjoyed exploring Mérida on foot. The city’s most distinctive style is ornate and colonial, as illustrated in the façade below. However, Mérida is a town where old and new stand side by side. There’s also a really good mix of these traditional colonial buildings as well as more typical Mexican styles.
If you walk around and keep your eyes open, you’ll probably see a number of homes that appear to be in disrepair, and some of them look like they were really spectacular before they were abandoned. It’s unfortunate, but this also adds to Mérida’s own unique character. I haven’t seen mansions like the ones here anywhere else in Mexico.
Many buildings here have beautiful exteriors for everyone to see. But you should also try to see their interiors! This best way to do it is to stay in one of the traditional colonial houses. The one we booked on Airbnb had a pretty nondescript streetfront exterior, but inside was a massive home with an eye-catching checkerboard floor, period fixtures, and a small backyard with a pool. It went for about 150 USD per night, but it really wasn’t too bad since we split among three people.
My favorite attraction within the city (which also happens to have a beautiful exterior) is Palacio Cantón. This beautiful structure houses an anthropology museum that has a ton of artifacts and interesting relics from pre-colonial societies. Be sure to check it out!
Cenotes: The Best Part of Our Trip
The vibe of Mérida is clearly nice, but every visitor to the city should book at least one day trip out of town to see some cenotes. Swimming in these natural cave-like pools was undoubtedly the most amazing part of our trip and shouldn’t be missed! Since there are an estimated 6000 cenotes in Yucatán alone, some of them are very easily accessed (but I would imagine also quite touristy). We booked our tour on Airbnb Experiences, and I’m so glad we did because our awesome guide brought our group to two extremely remote cenotes, and we basically had them all to ourselves!
I had never done an Airbnb Experience before this, partly because I prefer exploring on my own, but also because many of them appear to be glorified selfie sticks (i.e., you pay someone upwards of 70 dollars to take your photo in a city’s most popular tourist area. And based on the number of reviews, tons of people actually pay for that!). However, in this case, an Airbnb Experience was probably the best (if not the only) way to visit the cenotes we saw.
Our guide brought us to two cenotes outside of a small Mayan village, which itself was about an hour’s drive southeast of Mérida. In order to get to the cenotes, we had to have a local resident of the village open a series of gates for our van while inching along at a painfully slow pace on one of the most rough and bumpy dirt roads I’ve ever been on. Because of that, it took over half an hour for us to travel about 2.5 miles from the village to the first cenote.
I won’t reveal where our guide took us, but even if you figure it out, I highly recommend against trying to go on your own! Even with an exact GPS location or turn-by-turn instructions, it’s very likely that you could:
- get hopelessly lost,
- trespass onto private property by accident, or
- end up stranding a rental car in an area without cell service.
Book this experience (or a similar highly rated tour) to see some incredible, remote cenotes without having to worry about making it there and back in one piece! You could also visit a more popular one, but I think the experience would’ve been less magical if we had to share the water with tons of other tourists.
So, what is a cenote?
A cenote basically a huge hole in the ground that is filled with freshwater. Many of them are very deep, and they’re formed by erosion of underground limestone. It’s believed that the crater that caused the dinosaurs to go extinct resulted in unique geographical conditions that allowed so many cenotes to form in this part of the world. To read more about what cenotes are, click here or here.
The First Cenote
Pictured below was the first stop on our tour. This cenote had a large, circular dome and a rickety wooden staircase down to the water. The best part of a cenote is when sunlight beams down through the hole in the top, lighting up the water below. For that reason, cenotes are probably best visited around noon on a sunny day.
The Second Cenote
The second cenote we visited was about a twenty-minute drive from the first, although most of that drive was slower than a crawl thanks to the bumpy road. I personally liked the first cenote a bit more, although our guide got some really spectacular underwater shots of Kailyn and Andrew on his GoPro!
I think almost everyone would agree that cenotes are awesome. However, opinions on dining experiences in Mérida ended up being a little less unanimous. We really liked some of the places we ate and drank here; others, not so much. Read on to learn why!
Dining in Mérida
In all honesty, the dining experience in Mérida was a mixed bag. Some of the restaurants and bars we tried were great. However, many of the places we tried either had dishes without much flavor, pretty poor service, or a combination of both.
Some Places We Didn't Love
One example: La Chaya Maya. This popular restaurant was really full when we went for dinner, and we were excited to try some Mayan dishes. When this sampler plate we ordered came to the table, we figured the brightly colored soups and stews would be full of flavor and spice. Unfortunately, all four dishes ended up being really bland. The service and atmosphere here were good, but the food was a bit of a letdown.
Another place where we didn’t have a very good experience was El Cardenal Cantina. We had seen good reviews online and read that they provide free snacks, so we were a bit taken aback when we asked about it only to be told that they were out. This was only moments after we saw another table next to us receive plates of what looked like free snacks that they didn’t particularly want.
When the drinks came, we were ready to enjoy some large margaritas. Look how excited Kailyn and Andrew were! But when we tried them, they tasted like sugary water. How do you ruin a margarita, especially in Mexico? When we tried to express that fact to our waiter, he basically shrugged his shoulders and walked away. We asked for the check without ordering a second round, but to top off this whole experience, they took about fifteen minutes to finally bring it to the table. This was one bar where the atmosphere was good, but the drinks and service were pretty disappointing.
Another bar that was even worse was La Negrita Cantina. Not only was this bar way too noisy and crowded, but it took many, many attempts to have a menu even brought to the table. After we finally managed to put in an order for three drinks, we were browsing the food menu when another waiter grabbed it off the table without even asking if we were finished looking at it. I stood up and walked over to him to tell him we weren’t done looking at it, and he gave me a snarky response. We were so fed up that we just left.
But it wasn't all bad...!
Even though we had our share of food struggles, we still managed to find some really good dishes (including one amazing home-cooked meal)! For some delicious cuisine and good service, check out one of the following restaurants.
1. Katun for Lunch
We happened to be near Katun right around lunchtime, and we were unsure what to expect. It had a simple but modern interior and a large dining room. The steak I ordered here ended up being good, but the best part of the meal was those rolled-up sausages (which I know, probably don’t look too appetizing). They’re called “longaniza de Valladolid,” are made of pork, and are very flavorful!
2. El Dzalbay Cantina for Drinks
This was definitely the best bar we went to. They had great service, a really fun atmosphere, a good mix of tourists and locals, and a live dance performance when we were there! If you go to just one bar in Mérida, this is the one I recommend.
3. Cafetería Impala for Breakfast
We had breakfast at this diner with a 1950s vibe, and it was a simple but enjoyable dining experience. I don’t remember what this dish was called, but it was a good way to start the day.
The only funny thing that happened here was that I ordered an iced coffee, and I think there was a little bit of confusion because they ended up bringing basically an Oreo milkshake. It was still good; just a bit too much sugar for 9:00 a.m.!
4. Homemade Lunch
Our favorite meal by far though was the home-cooked lunch we had as a part of our Airbnb Experience. After we visited the cenotes, our host brought us to the home of a family he knew in the nearby village. He introduced us them, and they gave us a short tour of the crops they were growing and animals they were raising in their backyard. We were then seated at two big picnic-style tables and served a lunch of rice, meat, veggies, and tortillas.
It may look relatively simple, but this was definitely the most flavorful meal we had here! The family was so incredibly welcoming and hospitable; I’m sure this is one dining experience that Kailyn, Andrew, and I will remember for years to come!
Looking back, Mérida was a really unique and insightful place to visit for a few days. I think at this point I’d consider myself a foodie, which is probably why I focused so much on the dishes we tried here that didn’t live up to my expectations! However, our day trip to the cenotes and the village where we had lunch were two of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in Mexico.
The fun didn’t stop after I parted ways with Kailyn and Andrew! From Mérida, I headed directly to the island of Holbox in the state of Quintana Roo, which is one of Mexico’s best beaches. To read about that, click here, or to check out other destinations in Mexico, click here. Have you been to Mérida? Do you agree with me about the city, the cenotes, and the food? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading!