Five Reasons to Visit Merida

If you have visited the eastern part of Mexico, you may be familiar with the beach towns of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. Inland the state of Yucatan, is a magical city called, Mérida. With a population of 828,000 (2010 census), Merida is the capital of Yucatán, and a cosmopolitan hub of the region. It is relatively easy to get to (only 2 hours from southeast US) and offers a very different vibe than the rest of Mexico.

Here are 5 reasons to go to Merida, right now…

1. Merida is the safest place in Mexico. The country has developed a negative reputation for safety, but just like any other place in the world, there are good and bad areas. The state of Yucatan is open to educated, wealthy, and open minded people. Merida has a very strong culture that has historically been cut off and well preserved. Therefore, the people have maintained integrity when it comes to neighborly friendliness.

2. It’s like Europe, only cheaper. The cobblestone streets of the old town are surrounded by Spanish architecture. Street artists, ongoing exhibitions, families walking in the park square, lovers dining al fresco listening to live music – all gives the feeling that you are in a romantic city in Europe. But you are just south of US, where the Mexican Peso goes a lot further than the Euro.

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3. There’s lots of culture. The famous avenue, Paseo de Montejo, is dotted with sculptures that are commission to artists around the world. Walking down the street you will also pass by museums, restaurants, boutiques, theaters and lovely mansions. Jarana orchestras and vaquero dances can be enjoyed at some restaurants. Listen to Yucatan Symphony Orchestra, watch a live performance at Teatro José Peón Contreras, or spend an afternoon at Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. It is noted that there is at least one free cultural event happening every day in Merida and weekends are dedicated entirely to the enjoyment of arts.

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Click here to see list of cultural events happening in Merida. 

4. This isn’t the Mexican food you know of. Yucatecan food is its own genre of cuisine and very different from what most people consider “Mexican” food. It includes influences from the local Mayan culture, as well as Caribbean, Mexican, European and Middle Eastern cultures. Try local dishes such as Sopa de Lima, Queso Relleno, Poc-Chuc, Papadzules and Panuchos. In Merida, you can find traditional restaurant, hole in the wall taco joint, as well as international bars and restaurants.

Sopa de Lima at Restaurante La Tradicion
Sopa de Lima at Restaurante La Tradicion

Click here to read more about the food from Yucatan.

5. It is is saturated with Mayan history. Mérida has the highest percentage of indigenous persons of any large city in Mexico with approximately 60% of all inhabitants being of the Maya ethnicity. The ancient Mayas left behind many cities with buildings, pyramids, and temples, and new discoveries are being made all the time. Located nearby is Chichen Itzá, Mayan pyramid known as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

merida

10 Essential Dishes of Yucatecan Cuisine

It is located in Southeastern Mexico, on the north part of the Yucatán Peninsula. Yucatecan food is its own unique style and is very different from what most people would consider Mexican food. It includes influences from the local Mayan culture, as well as Caribbean, European (Spanish), (North) African, and Middle Eastern cultures, as well as from the cuisine of other parts of Mexico. Key ingredients in this area are farm raised turkey and pork, spices such as oregano, habanero and xcatik, corn tortillas. Here are the top 10 must try dishes when you visit Yucatan…

1. Sopa de Lima – Whole turkeys are simmered for hours to make a delicious broth. It is then seasoned with with garlic, onion, tomatoes and dried oregano and lots of lime juice. The result is a sour yet refreshing lime soup. It tastes especially good when topped with fried tortilla strips.

Sopa de Lima at Restaurante La Tradicion
Sopa de Lima at Restaurante La Tradicion

2. Panuchos – An appetizer of handmade corn tortillas topped with refried black beans and shredded chicken or turkey. The chicken is marinated in annatto past (peppery achiote seeds) dissolved in juice of sour orange. It looks colorful when garnished with pickled red onions, avocados and chopped lettuce.

3. Salbutes – Looks very similar to paunches, but in salbutes the tortillas are made of corn and flour combined, and are fried till crispy. They are topped with shredded chicken (like above), onions, tomatoes and avocados, and served as appetizers.

yucatan food salutes
Salbutes at Hotel Mayaland

4. Longaniza Asada – Spicy, long, skinny sausage is similar to the Spanish chorizo. In the Yucatan it has a darker color because of achiote and venison (deer meat) instead of pork. It is smoked on charcoal grill and served with beans, tortillas, white cheese and sour orange.

yucatan food longaniza
Longaniza at Restaurante La Tradicion

5. Cochinita Pibil – Shredded BBQ pork is one of the delicacies of the region and can be found at practically every restaurant. The pork loin is traditionally marinated in annatto paste and sour orange juice overnight, then wrapped in banana leaves and gently cooked over charcoal for hours. It is always served with refried black beans and pickled red onion relish. Alternatively, you can get it with chicken instead of pork.

6. Queso Relleno – Probably the most globally influenced dish in the Yucatan. A round block of Dutch Edam cheese is hollowed out and stuffed with ground pork cooked with onions, bell peppers, olives, raisins, capers, and almonds. Hardboiled eggs are added to the meat mixture before it makes its way into the cheese dome. The entire thing is wrapped with banana leaves, baked for 30 minutes, and served with tomato salsa and a cheese sauce. Despite the calories, it is to die for!

yucatan food queso rellenos
Queso Rellenos at Restaurante La Tradicion

7. Poc Chuc – Sounds like pork chop, and it basically is grilled fillet of pork loin. The meat is beaten till thin (Milanese style) and marinated in sour orange, salt and pepper, then grilled over charcoal.

yucatan food pork chuc
Pork Chuc at Hacienda Sotuta de Peón

8. Dulce de Papaya Con Queso – An interesting dessert recipe that can take 3 days to prepare. A whole green papaya is candied by leaving outside (only at night), soaked in lime water, then caramelized with sugar for few hours. The result is a sweet and gummy piece of fruit which is served with shredded Edam cheese.

9. Flan – A common dish found across Central and South America, and at practically every meal in the Yucatan. Flan is made with condensed and evaporated milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla. The carmel custard is delicious when light and creamy.

10. Xnipec – Roasted habaenro peppers are used to make all kinds of sauces that can taste anywhere from mild to burn your tongue hot! Xnipec is a fiery hot chunky salsa made with habanero chiles and Seville orange juice, eaten in small quantities.

Top 5 Meals of 2014

Reminiscing the best restaurant meals of the year has become a tradition for me. In fact, readers request me to share my culinary highlights if they don’t hear from me by January, so here you are, with my top 5 meals of 2015….

1. Restaurant Ulo at Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat, Greenland – Located 280 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, this may not be the obvious choice for one of the best meals in the world, but it actually was! Fresh seafood caught from Disko Bay each morning, combined with the finess of award winning Chef Jeppe Ejvind Nielsen, at one of the finest kitchens in the country, results in the perfect 11-course wine paired dinner. The view was unforgettable from the restaurant, and the scallops carpaccio, smoked halibut, fresh crab salad and reindeer mousse – flavors I cannot find anywhere else. Read 5 reasons to visit Ilulissat

hotel arctic greenland

2. Gu’s Bistro, Atlanta – I reviewed this family-owned Szechaun restaurant for my column Ethnic.City in Creative Loafing newspaper. Buford Highway is a famous street in Atlanta, known for Asian and Latino restaurants, and I have managed to make my rounds through them. Unlike other Szechaun restaurants I have tried, I found the food at Gu’s to not hold back on authentic flavors, at the same time not scaring off the novice spice eater. While my tastebuds crave for Gu’s dumplings, Chengdu cold noodles, and crispy fried fish, there is hardly a dish here I won’t eat again.

Gu's Bistro Atlanta

3. Coco Bistro, Turks and Caicos – While most of the food on this heavenly island was very good, the cuisine focused on fresh seafood and international styles of cooking. The 24 year old Coco Bistro is a popular spot among locals and tourists, serving some of the best seafood in the world. My favorites were melt in your mouth Tuna Tataki served on a fried wanton with shredded cabbage salad and spicy mayo; as well as Lobster and Avocado Rolls with spicy duck sauce. Make sure to get reservations in advance and ask to be seated outdoors, as the gardens are elegant and romantic. Read more about my reviews in TCI.

coco bistro TCI

4. Palazzo Donati, Italy – This was a special meal prepared by a group of nine men, who call themselves Accademia del Padlot, meaning the academy of “a giant ladle that is used to pour wine.” The volunteer group came over to the renovated 18th century palace where I was staying and cooked an elaborate meal from scratch. On the menu was Charcuterie, Bruschetta, Torta pascuela, Coradella (lamb’s liver), Goletta con salvia e aceto o vino bianco (pig’s jowl), Spezzatino di Cinghiale (wild boar stew), Tagliatelle pasta, Radicchio rosso in graticola, Patate Sotto il Fuoco, Crostata, and endless bottles of wines. It was not just the delicious homemade Italian food, but the fact that we were eating it by a fireplace in an Italian home located in a tiny village, along with these local people, that made it even more memorable. Read more about eating and drinking with the Padlots in Italy

academia de padlots, italy

5. Rivea at Hotel Byblos, St Tropez – Critically acclaimed Chef Alain Ducasse, French Riviera charm, seasonal ingredients and Mediterranean style tapas – whats not to love about this place? I started with a French Rose at this elegantly decorated restaurant and made my way through marinated white fish, sardine toast, eggplant dip, arugula pizzetta, ratatouille, blue lobster, and the most amazing Tropézienne on the planet. No visit to St Tropez is justified without eating at Rivea! Read more about Hotel ByblosBook Hotel Byblos.

hotel byblos st tropez

Read my Top 5 meals in 2012

Read my Top 5 meals in 2011