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6 Days in Merida, Yucatan - a long report w/ pics

6 Days in Merida, Yucatan - a long report w/ pics
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  • 6 Days in Merida, Yucatan - a long report w/ pics

    Post #1 - September 15th, 2007, 6:24 pm
    Post #1 - September 15th, 2007, 6:24 pm Post #1 - September 15th, 2007, 6:24 pm
    Hi All,

    Just returned yesterday from our maiden voyage to the Yucatan. Our party consisted of myself, the husband, and my in-laws. While we've all been to various parts of Mexico before, none of us had ever traveled to the Yucatan. I'm really not a beach person. If I'm not careful, my skin can go from porcelain, to bright red, peel, and be back to porcelain over the course of about 4 days. Seriously, the only way I'm ever tan is if I'm wearing khakis. So we decided to focus our trip around the beautiful inland city of Merida. After a fairly brutal day of travel that included a 4am wake-up and a lengthy layover in Mexico City's airport, we finally arrived in Merida around 6pm last Sunday evening. Merida's airport is quite modern and user-friendly. We probably could have got into town via bus or taxi, but I had arranged with our hotel to have a van pick us up. Given how tired we all were, it was a good thing. The airport is about 20-25 minutes from the center of the city. We stayed downtown at the Casa del Balam. It's in the heart of the city - just a couple of blocks from the zocalo. I can't say enough good things about this restored hacienda and it's accomodating and gracious staff. It is not the cheapest place in town to stay, but certainly far from the most expensive. We had Junior Suites for $85/night and felt every dime was more than well-spent. A few words about the weather - as one local put it to us - "Here in Merida we have two seasons - hot and hotter." The heat is almost indescribable. It is a damp, soggy, sweat-running-from-the-top-of-your-neck-to-the-crack- of-your-a**, kind of heat. Walking three blocks at times brings the desire for a fresh shower, despite the fact that you just took one before you walked 3 blocks. September is also part of the rainy season. Although we had one rain-free day, most days late afternoon or evening it rained for an hour or two, then cleared up and went back to being HOT.
    After settling into our rooms and freshening up a bit, we got together to discuss our dinner options. Discussion ended pretty abruptly as the above mentioned rain started to roll in and pour down. We decided to find a place within a block or two of our hotel and run. Well, sort of run... I should mention that my mother-in-law has had both hip-replacement and back surgery within the last year-and-a-half. She gets around with a cane and deserves some serious kudos for being a major trouper on this trip. So we walked in the rain as quickly as possible to Portico del Peregrino. As with many of Merida's restaurants, Portico has an open-air seating area as well as a covered one. This one had the extra bonus of the covered area being air-conditioned. The decor here was very charming, as was the staff. I didn't take any pictures as I was hungry and a little over-tired at that point. I started with a good conch ceviche, which had big chunks of conch and lots of diced tomato and grated onion. My entree was the seafood zarzuela. The white wine sauce was slightly thickened and studded with soft cloves of garlic. It was so good, I would have liked to lick my plate. However the seafood in it was a mixed bag. The octopus was the best I've ever had anywhere - and I like octopus. It was incredibly tender and flavorful. The shrimp were just a tad over done and the fish was way overdone. The others at the table had similar mixed experiences. The waiter pushed the lime soup, so both my in-laws started with it, but were underwhelmed. My husband's tortilla soup had more depth of flavor. The guy's entrees were deemed good, not great - pollo pibil for the FIL and chicken enchiladas en mole for husband. My MIL was disappointed in her grilled snapper as it, too, was overcooked. We passed on dessert and retired to our rooms.
    Continental breakfast was included with our rooms at the Casa. We had two dining areas to choose from. The lobby area has a fountain with cafe-style tables and chairs around it. You can dine there or in the restaurant which opens up onto the pool area.
    Lobby Breakfast Area:
    Each day, we were treated to coffee, fresh squeezed juice, a plate of fruit, and grilled, buttered bread w/ papaya marmalade. I'm not a big papaya fan, but the marmalade was delicious.
    Fruit plate at Casa del Balam:
    We were also offered a menu with mostly egg dishes, but passed on day one, as we were anxious to start exploring. I was particularly excited to see the main market, and my lovely family was game enough to join me. We headed out on foot and took our time strolling and poking into churches, government buildings, and anything else that looked interesting. We found the market, sort of. As I learned later in the week, what we saw that morning was the tip of the iceburg. We approched from the wrong direction and got lost in a sea of t-shirts, kitchenware, nick-nacks, etc... The market area was very crowded and the sidewalks very narrow. Our group was getting hot and weary, so we headed back to the zocolo. It was mid-afternoon and we decided to stop at a cafe for some nourishment and people watching. Cafe Contreras, located in the Teatro Peon Contreras, has a nice outdoor seating area right on the zocalo. Here, we had our first of the area's excellent (IMO,) local beer - Montejo. It would not be our last. :D In Merida, whenever you order a drink, you are brought something to eat, even if it is just a small dish of peanuts w/ chile. At Contreras, we were brought a small plate of chips w/ some salsa. We also ordered some guacamole and some nachos w/ black beans. Those were fine, but nothing special.
    Contreras Salsa:
    By this point in the day, it's too hot to consider doing anything but lounging by the pool or in an air-conditioned room, so that's what we did.
    After another round of showers, we decided to venture out for a cocktail. We hadn't gone far before a waiter from La Bello Epoca gestured for us to come over. He was trying to sell us on dinner, but couldn't have been more accomodating when we told him just a drink. He offered us the patio in the back or a table upstairs on the balcony overlooking the zocolo. We chose the later. Below is the view from our table. The green umbrella tables on the left are where we had our earlier afternoon snacks.
    According to the others in my group, La Bella Epoca makes a mean mojito. I went with a Vampiro - a bloody mary made with tequilla.
    Cocktails at La Bella Epoca:
    We had all done some on-line and guidebook research before our trip and one of the places my MIL really wanted to dine at was La Casa de Frida. Their specialty is one of her favorites - Chiles en Nogada. So off we went for dinner. The place is decorated as you would suspect from it's name. It's very charming and quaint, but also very dark. None of my photos turned out. I should also mention, no A/C or fans that did much good, and to some degree that did effect our enjoyment of the meal. This was the only place we dined at where all the patrons were either American or European and was also probably the one I would not return to if I went back. Husband and I both started with the Trotsky salad, which we wound up sharing w/ the IL'S as they were large. The salad was the highlight for me, but was something I could have easily created here at home - romaine lettuce, orange vinaigrette, beets, avocado and white cheese. My entree disapointed - Crepas de Huitiloche. It was done with a very heavy hand - au gratin with a ton of crema and cheese on top overpowering the delicate crepes. Husband's strip steak w/ grilled onions and rice was fine, FIL seemed to enjoy his pato en mole, but didn't rave. The happiest person at the table was the MIL, who thoroughly enjoyed her chile en nogada. I tried the sauce - it was tasty, but not the sort of thing my palate enjoys an entire entree of - just too much on the sweet side for me. I don't remember the exact tab, but do remember thinking it was a bit too much for the experience.
    IL's headed back to hotel, and us "youngsters" went looking for a nightcap. We found out lots of places are closed on Mondays and wound up at a place we had already ruled out for a meal - Panchos. This place is over-the-top in decor and waiters dressed up "El Mariachi-style." It smacks of Cancun, Acapulco-type tourist spots, but was fun for a drink at the bar. It was the only place we went to where I saw California wine on the menu. Canyon Ranch Sauvignon Blanc - $5.50/glass.
    Well, if anyone is still reading this, I'll continue on tomorrow. Yet to come - Merida's Walmart, quite an adventure w/ a cab driver, the pyramids of Uxmal, and my search for a dish Antonio @ Xni-Pec told me to look for - Braza de Reyna.

    Casa Del Balam

    Portico del Peregrino
    Calle 57, between 60 & 62

    Casa de Frida
    Calle 61, No. 526-A
    Last edited by LynnB on September 17th, 2007, 9:02 am, edited 3 times in total.
  • Post #2 - September 15th, 2007, 9:52 pm
    Post #2 - September 15th, 2007, 9:52 pm Post #2 - September 15th, 2007, 9:52 pm
    My wife and I stayed at Balam when we were in Merida as well. Definitely a worthwhile choice. We stayed at another decent place closer to the big mercado when we went through town on our way to Campeche. Not as nice a part of town, requiring a bit of a hike to the zocalo, but good for exploring the mercado.

    We didn't find many worthwhile restaurants near the zocalo. There was some decent street food on occasion, especially during events, but the best food we had in Merida was out on the outskirts at fancy places like Hacienda Teya or cheap little places along the roads that feed workers and locals, not tourists. (And by tourists, I'm mostly talking about Mexican tourists who are the primary tourists in Merida, I think. Tourists the world around have bad taste even in their own countries.)
  • Post #3 - September 15th, 2007, 11:37 pm
    Post #3 - September 15th, 2007, 11:37 pm Post #3 - September 15th, 2007, 11:37 pm
    Lynn, thanks for taking the time to report back. I've always found Merida to be an exciting destination.
  • Post #4 - September 16th, 2007, 1:59 pm
    Post #4 - September 16th, 2007, 1:59 pm Post #4 - September 16th, 2007, 1:59 pm
    After breakfast on Tuesday, we decided to go our separate ways for the morning. IL's wanted to go to a folk art museum and hit some book stores. Husband and I chose to go to the Paseo de Montejo, which is sort-of Merida's Rodeo Drive. Here is where you see the big houses w/ Mercedes parked in front, lots of offices, bank branches, cell phone stores, restaurants, the American Consulate building, etc... We took a cab and started on the southern end w/ the Anthropology Museum. The museum is relatively small, but has some nice pieces and was easy to navigate on our own. We then strolled north on the Paseo. In constrast to downtown, here the sidewalks are wide, tree-lined, and were hosting a sculpture exhibit of pieces from both Japanese and Mexican artists. Just of few blocks from the Museum and I was already wishing I had brought a bottle of water w/ me. A few more blocks and the big air-conditioned box that is Wal-Mart was looking good. For a variety of reasons, I choose not to shop at Wal-Mart here, but when you are really thirsty, desparate for some A/C and in need of some additional clean underwear (hadn't counted on the 3 showers a day,) Wal-Mart looks pretty good. Fresh underwear in hand, we cabbed it back to the hotel. When the IL's still hadn't returned by 1:30pm, we decided to look for lunch on our own. Largely for it's excellent people-watching local, the umbrella tables of the zocalo beckoned once again. This time we decided to try the spot across the plaza from Contreras. It has the horribly touristy name of Main Street Cafe and Restaurant. We had a very chatty and informative server who brought us a little salsa, some chips, and a small plate of surprisingly good guacamole w/ our Montejos. Before our trip, Antonio, of Xni-Pec, recommended that I seek out a dish called Braso de Reyena during our visit. Every place we went, I looked for it on the menu and inquired about it with the waitstaff. I got a variety of responses. All knew the dish, but no one seemed to know of a place that had it on their menu. One person said it was more of a breakfast dish, and another that it was only featured on menus during Lent. Anyway, Main Street didn't have it either, but they did have Papazules, which I had tried and enjoyed at Xni-Pec.
    Papazules at Main Street:
    Husband ordered a side of plantains and some Panuchos:
    Papazules were quite good, but I think Xni-Pec's sauces have more depth and complexity in flavor. Overall, our food and service here was a little better than what we received at Contreras.
    After lunch, we hooked up with the IL's back at the hotel. They had returned to Portico del Peregrino, as MIL wanted her own Conch Ceviche after trying mine on Sunday night. Hanging out by the pool, we discussed where to go for dinner. All of us love seafood and one restaurant was constantly brought up as the best for seafood by the locals we encountered - La Piqua, off the Pasejo de Montejo. It's a chain, with branches in Campeche and Mexico City, but we were assured it has the freshest seafood in town. Unfortuately, a call to the restaurant yielded the info that they are open for lunch only Sunday-Tuesday. A little more discussion, and we decided to opt for another seafood place that had been mentioned to us as very good - Muelle 8, also just off the Pasejo. Why we did not phone this place before going, I don't know. Melted vacation brains I guess. Our cab pulled up to a very dark and obviously closed restaurant. Here's where I made a move that was either going to be brilliant, or a really big mistake. I asked the cab driver for a restaurant recommendation. His confused and somewhat panicked look told me that it was probably going to be the later. After radioing in for advice that was being given to him in Spanish too rapid for me to keep up with, we were dropped off at a restaurant also not too far from the Pasejo, but about a 5 minute cab ride from Muelle 8. I never got it's name. We walked into a very bright, very empty, upscale-looking restaurant. Greetings were warm, we were sat and handed menus. My FIL asked to see a wine list. The server returned with a manager who started to tell us about a great bottle of Chilean wine he could offer us. OK... could we just see a list? "Let me tell you about a wonderful bottle I have from France...." FIL - "Could we just please see the list?" Manager says he needs to go check his cellar. At this point, we're all getting a very strange vibe from the situation and the menu prices were high. We make a group decision to get up and leave. This was distressing to the staff and fairly awkward for us, but a good time was not going to be had by us in this restaurant. So now we're on a dark side street across from the restaurant w/ no cabs going by. We're contemplating sending my husband up to the Pasejo to grab a cab when I notice a sign a couple doors down from the place we just left. It's a modern-looking sign, lit-up in orange - Nectar. I remembered reading something about it - ultra-modern, fusion cuisine, open kitchen - "let's go!" While there were only 2-3 other tables occupied while we dined, the atmosphere here was much more lively and upbeat than the place we left. The decor is modern-minimalist and the spotless open kitchen filled with young "hip" cooks. We ladies were brought over our own wooden purse stands for our bags and MIL's cane and then we were handed menus that were short, but filled with intriguing offerings. Unfortunately, the items chosen by myself and MIL, (seared ahi tuna and a seafood risotto,) were the two not available that night. The manager/owner came to the table to apologize for not telling us right away and shortly thereafter returned with an appetizer on-the-house. Long spears of fresh asparagus fried in a light sesame seed-studded batter, served vertically w/ aioli dip. It was a very promising beginning to our meal. Everyone loved their entree. Husband had a special that evening - Lamb Chops w/ bacon & goat cheese mashed potatoes and asparagus. FIL opted for the Seared Duck Breast w/ polenta and sauteed mushrooms. MIL and I both had the Jumbo Shrimp Curry w/ brown rice and lots of crisp vegetables and bean sprouts. All were presented beautifully. For dessert, we inquired about ice cream. We were told all they had was cinnamon or mamey. We placed an order for cinnamon to share. What actually came out from the kitchen was a lovely plate of 4 quenelles of different ice creams - vanilla, coconut, chocolate and mamey. Very refreshing. After polishing it off, everyone looks at me and says - "you didn't take any pictures!" Doh!! So, here's the aftermath:
    Then, things got a little weird again. I asked if a cab could be called for us. The manager/owner came back to the table and told us that his bookeeper lived close to our hotel and was about to leave - he'd be happy to drop us off. This didn't sit well w/ the MIL, but the rest of us felt OK w/ it and out-voted her. After settling the check, off we went w/ the bookeeper. He turned out to be a very nice guy and we arrived, safe and sound, at our hotel in about 10 minutes.
    Next report - a visit to Uxmal, a day of eating Chaya, and a return to the market - this time w/ pics.
  • Post #5 - September 16th, 2007, 2:51 pm
    Post #5 - September 16th, 2007, 2:51 pm Post #5 - September 16th, 2007, 2:51 pm
    LynnB wrote:Next report - a visit to Uxmal, a day of eating Chaya, and a return to the market - this time w/ pics.

    This is like a mini vacation, but doesn't cost any money. ;)
    Hold my beer . . .

    Low & Slow
  • Post #6 - September 16th, 2007, 6:07 pm
    Post #6 - September 16th, 2007, 6:07 pm Post #6 - September 16th, 2007, 6:07 pm
    This is like a mini vacation, but doesn't cost any money.

    G Wiv - I'll send you my bill in a PM. :lol:

    We had booked a tour of Uxmal and Kabah through our hotel for Wednesday. We got up early and decided to add some eggs to our fruit breakfast in anticipation of doing a lot of walking and climbing at the sites. I had seen a Rick Bayless program on the Yucatan not too long ago and remembered him doing a segment on "chaya," a local green. The Casa had a chaya omelet on the menu, so of course I had to try it.
    Chaya Omelet at Casa del Balam:
    It was very good, but I couldn't really discern what the chaya flavor was. It just reminded me of spinach - very mild. BTW, that's not the world's largest lime slice on my plate - it's a local sour orange slice.
    We were picked up at 9am by a van driven by Antonio Castillo. An Austrailan couple were already on board and we had one more gentleman from New Zealand to pick up. The Australians were in the midst of a 7 week vacation that had started in London and would finish up in Tahiti. After Merida they were on their way to Peru. They were lovely and more power to them, but I think I'd need a vacation after their vacation. Mr. New Zealand boarded the van with, hands-down, the WORST body odor I have ever smelled on a human being. Absolutely gag-inducing and we all spent the duration of the tour trying to deflect the odor w/ our air-conditioning vents and moving to stand upwind from him at the sites. We'll just refer to him as "Mr. Stinky" from here on so as not to give New Zealand a bad rap. Antonio was a fabulous and well-informed guide. He was born and raised in a village near Uxmal, had spent most of his career managing a hotel near the site. He seemed to be enjoying semi-retirement living in Merida and acting as tour guide to several sites in the area. (An aside - his son-in-law was recently elected Mayor of Merida.) We started with Uxmal. We chose this tour as less touristy than Chichen Itza and a bit smaller in scope. I'm sure it is not quite as awe-inspiring, but we were all quite impressed. Here's one shot from Uxmal and one from Kabah, which was about a 15 min. drive from Uxmal.
    Lunch at the Uxmal visitor center was included with the price of our tour. We were SO ready - a hot, thirsty and mosquito-bitten group. (If you go, spray up w/ some OFF first - wish we had.) We ordered some beverages (not included, nor was the tip,) and perused the menu. As my first chaya experience hadn't led me to understand Bayless's level of enthusiasm for the the leaf, I decided to try again and start w/ their Chaya Soup:

    OK, I still didn't get it. It was fine, and this time reminded me a little more of kale, but I still wasn't converted to chayaism. My entree was a plate of very "visitor-center-like" quesadillas. Despite the hours we had spent hiking in the hot sun, Mr. Stinky chose not to buy a beverage or contribute to the tip. He didn't even ask for water. If he hadn't been so ripe I would have refered to him as "Mr. Cheap." Anyway, as we were heading back to the van, I asked Antonio if he would consider guiding me through the Merida market and he was more than happy to oblige. We arranged to meet at 8:30am in our lobby the following morning.
    Back at the hotel, freshly showered, we met up to discuss dinner for the evening. Big shout-out to my MIL - she did an awesome job navigating the sites, although she did sit out part of Kabah. However, at this point, her energy reserves were depleted so they decided to just relax and grab a bite at the Casa's restaurant. Husband and I ventured out to a spot we had noticed while walking past the day before - Amaro's. It promotes itself as very vegetarian-friendly, but has a bit of everything. The restaurant is housed in the building where Andres Quintana Roo (a Mexican independence participant,) was born in 1787. There were tables on the patio, but it was looking like rain, so we sat at one that was covered at the edge of the patio. It wound up being a good choice as midway through our meal it started to pour. This was our most romantic meal - candle lit, a guitarist strumming "Girl From Iponema," a bottle of Chilean red.... Unfortunately, it was so romanticaly dark that none of my photos turned out. I tried papazules again. Here the "green" sauce was really thick, overly so, I thought. It also lacked "zing" so I asked for some hotter salsa than was on the table. This was a good call as what I received was the best salsa I had in Merida. It was simply very freshly squeezed lime juice, chopped green habaneros, salt and cilantro. It really brought the dish to life. Husband was ready for some not-so-Mexican food at this point and ordered their Mediterranean Shrimp Pasta, which was done well. Good, but not as good as Nectar's, coconut helado finished our meal.
    Thursday morning, Antonio met us in the lobby, as promised, and Husband and I headed off with him to the market. We had totally entered the wrong way earlier in the week. It was very helpful having Antonio to explain and give anecdotes about the market, it's products and people. I'll let the photos speak for themselves.
    That's me in the front of the shot with the lovely pool of sweat accumulating at the base of my shirt. (Have I mentioned the heat?) Antonio is in front of me in yellow and white stripes.
    Pataya, a local fruit from a cactus:

    Woman selling dulces, including candied yuca:
    Selling avocados and banana leaves:
    The woman above was a relative of the woman in the photo below, who was absolutely delightful. When Antonio told her we were from Chicago, her eyes lit up and she asked if we would take her with us when we went back. I don't think she was kidding. She had 10 children, 5 girls and 5 boys, and all of them are currently living in the States.
    Well, darn. I really thought I could do this in three posts. Looks like I'll need one more to finish the trip. Tomorrow's my last day of vacation, so I'll end the story then. Thanks, LTH for letting me re-live my trip!
    P.S. - if anyone ever wants to arrange for a tour w/ Antonio, please PM me and I will provide his e-mail address.
  • Post #7 - September 17th, 2007, 8:19 am
    Post #7 - September 17th, 2007, 8:19 am Post #7 - September 17th, 2007, 8:19 am
    Thanks for the great vicarious Tour!

    Even if you're not a beach person,
    it would be a shame to not at least
    do some snorkeling while there,
    or check out a cenote/sinkhole.
  • Post #8 - September 17th, 2007, 9:01 am
    Post #8 - September 17th, 2007, 9:01 am Post #8 - September 17th, 2007, 9:01 am
    As we were heading out of the market, I noticed the offerings of the woman below and asked Antonio to stop.
    One item in particular interested me. Could it be? Yes! Per Antonio, the elusive Braza de Reyna:
    It's basically a jumbo tamale w/ the ever-popular chaya and hard-cooked eggs in the middle. Did I try it? Well, let's just say I'm no Tony Bourdin. Already dealing w/ the heat and now the itchy mosquito bites, I decided to pass on adding gastro-intestinal issues to the list. I know, I'm a wimp.
    We returned Antonio to the hotel where he met up with the IL's and they all took off for a tour or Merida's oldest and newest cemetaries. My FIL likes to photograph Mexico's cemetaries. I'm looking forward to seeing some of those shots. We relaxed for a couple of hours and then all got back together for lunch. Amaro's was our destination once again, as we thought the IL's would enjoy seeing the space and our dinner experience had been so pleasant. The best dish ordered was my FIL's starter. He had wanted a cold soup and gazpacho was on the menu. As FIL has the gluten allergy, he inquired as to whether or not they thickened the soup w/ bread. Yes, but our waiter said there was a cold soup not on the menu that he could bring. It turned out to be a delicious and refreshing cucumber yogurt that he was generous enough to let us all try. I had tuna-stuffed avocados that were somewhat marred by under-ripe avocados. I wanted to save my appetite for dinner at La Pigua. Yes, they were open AND we had a reservation.
    La Pigua is off the Pasejo and we had an uneventful cab ride to our destination. The menu is all about seafood from very simple preparations to more complex. We started w/ two orders of the shrimp sauteed w/ garlic and butter. Delish! Grouper was the fish of the day and both IL's ordered it simply grilled. Husband had grouper as well, but ordered it w/ garlic and chiles:
    That fried leaf poking out from his rice? You guessed it - chaya! I took a bite and for the first time tasted a distinct flavor. I detected a bit of anise essence. Pretty tasty!
    I had the pulpo and it was very tender and garlicy. Everyone was happy w/ the food quality and service here.
    Wow, looking back on this post, I think I ate too much. Salads for the next month! Antonio came back on Friday to take us to the airport. He made us an offer we couldn't refuse (less expensive than the ride that brought us to the hotel.) This time, we had a ridiculous 5 hour layover in Mexico City. It was there that I had the worst plate of nachos EVER. A plate of chips with cold, watered down cheese whiz, a side of pathetic tomato salsa and packets of Taco Bell-style hot sauce. A trip back to the microwave yielded luke-warm nachos. And w/ airport pricing, I think I spent $8 on this.
    We very much enjoyed our trip. The city of Merida is really something to see and it's people were some of the warmest and most welcoming that I have ever had the pleasure of encountering. I'd like to go back, but there's just too much Mexico to explore. Maybe Oaxaca next?

    Calle 59, between 60&62
    No. 507

    La Piqua
    Calle 33
    No. 505-A