For now, let’s put aside the standard vacation bookings to all-inclusive resorts in Cancun; let’s step away from the whale-watching excursions and seaside resorts that dot the coast in Cabo San Lucas; and let’s turn our backs on Mexico City’s colonial charm—at least for a short while—because it’s time to walk the Mayan Route, visit a working hacienda, swim in a sacred cenote (sinkholes once believed to be the entrances to the underworld), and be immersed in the culture and allure that is Merida, located in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
“Near Merida you have archaeological sites, colonial cities, convents, cenotes, ecological reserves, haciendas, and Mayan villages. It’s a trip into history and culture,” says Angelica Espinosa, sales director for Catherwood Travels based in Merida. “Mayan culture is alive here and there are even villages where only the Maya language is spoken.”
But it’s not only Merida’s history that takes center stage. Espinosa adds that, the city is boasting a new vibe thanks to its budding arts scene. “There are many contemporary artists who are moving to the city and opening studios, galleries or boutiques and it’s creating an incredible word of mouth.”
So what is the Yucatan experience in Merida all about? It could be a day or two strolling through Merida’s downtown district to visit museums, parks and churches; visiting art galleries and tasting the local cuisine; and taking in the sights and sounds of Paseo Montejo—a must-visit spot for sightseeing, shopping and dining. Then it’s off to the outskirts of the city to experience Mayan structures like Chichen Itza, whose pyramid is a New Seven Wonders of the World, and connecting with nature at ecological reserves.
With its multilayered vacation experience, it’s no wonder ASTA chose Merida as the location for its 2014 ASTA Destination Expo (March 27-30, 2014).
“I believe that having ASTA in Merida will help the local suppliers learn more about the needs of travel agents and will help travel agents add a great product to their portfolio,” says Santiago Gonzalez Abreu, promotion director, Yucatan Tourism Board. Abreu advises travel agents to attend the ASTA Destination Expo to learn more about the destination, make business connections with local tour operators “and envision Merida as a cultural and exotic destination. Travel agents will be able to sell the Merida experience alone or as a complement to a beach vacation.”
Culture mixed with a beachside getaway makes sense for North American clients who want the best of both Mexican worlds—Riviera Maya and Cancun are approximately 3.5 hours away. According to Espinosa, 60 to 65 percent of her clients are Mexicans, but she is “happy to say that the percentage of North American clients is growing.”
what to do
“In Merida, there is amazing shopping, from guayaberas to filigree silver, gold jewelry and hammocks. If you are a foodie, you will discover new flavors at the markets, food carts, and in traditional restaurants with our innovative chefs. If you are looking for natural wonders, there are two biosphere reserves full of flamingos, all kinds of birds and crocodiles,” says Abreu. “If you are looking for luxury and relaxation, the haciendas located near Merida offer amazing accommodations, superb food and fabulous spas. For travelers looking for culture, besides the archaeological sites, Merida offers cultural activities every day, amazing museums and several art and antique galleries, and Merida and the surrounding haciendas offer superb locations for destination weddings.”
A day or two could be spent discovering Merida’s historical appeal and architectural beauties like the town’s City Hall or Palacio Municipal with its decorated murals by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting scenes from Merida’s past. The San Ildefonso Cathedral, built between 1561 and 1598, was raised from the ground up using stones from ruined Mayan pyramids and temples. Claimed to be the oldest cathedral on the North American continent, inside resides the religious artifact, Christ of the Blisters, and a large wooden crucifix behind the main altar is said to represent the reconciliation of the Spaniards and Mayans.
Every Sunday in Merida the city’s central plaza comes alive with a street festival (Merida en Domingo). Vendors sell their arts & crafts; performers display traditional and contemporary musical and dance acts; and visitors and locals savor regional cuisine.
“I would dedicate a day to the history of the haciendas and leave a day in Merida to really experience the city,” says Espinosa. “Of course, Izamal, a colonial city all painted in yellow, has an incredible history. Rent a bike and explore this little town, with archaeological sites, artisan workshops, incredible gastronomy and a lot of authenticity.”
After time spent in Merida, Espinosa also recommends a tour of the Puuc Route, located approximately 49 miles south of Merida. Doable by car, bus or with a local travel agency, this route journeys from Mayan ruin to Mayan ruin—Kabah (Palace of Chaac Masks) with 250 stone masks of the god Chaac; Sayil (Place of the Ants), a city divided into three separate but equally unique parts; and Labna (Old or Abandoned House) known for its architectural wonder, The Arch.
A trip to Merida, however, would not be complete without visiting Chichen Itza, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 and features the impressive pyramid of Kukulkan and the jaw-dropping Great Ball Court. The site is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and visitors can find a cafeteria, library, and auditorium with audiovisual displays of Mayan culture; recommend clients stay for the light and sound show offered daily at 8 p.m.
Located to the southwest of Merida is Uxmal, which UNESCO declared a Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 1996. Uxmal was founded in A.D. 700 and was home to about 25,000 inhabitants. The most prominent structure in Uxmal is the imposing pyramid of the Soothsayer.
where to stay
“If you are looking for a traditional colonial town experience, Merida will surpass your expectations simply by staying at one of the stunning selection of boutique hotels,” says Abreu. “Each one of them has a different personality, but all of them deserve to be seen and experienced.”
We recommend Casa Lecanda, which was once a colonial home. With only seven rooms, this boutique property was restored in 2009 with stone and marble archways, clay floors, tropical gardens and a pool. Room categories are basic—Patio, Balcony and Garden suites—and offer walk-in rain showers, flat-screen TVs, iPod docking station and WiFi. Rates start at $390 pp.
Another Merida gem is Hotel Hacienda Merida, which was also converted from a 19th century home to a boutique hotel with unique furnishings, a pool, spa, and complimentary WiFi. Rates for standard rooms start at $129 per night. The Villa Merida is also a boutique property that effortlessly mixes the past with the present. Once a 19th century nobleman’s mansion, the villa features only eight suites. During high season, rates for the Garden Two Bedroom Suite are $529 per night and your clients have the option to rent the entire villa for $2,003 per night during low season.
The best time to visit Merida is late-October to April, especially November to February, says Espinosa. Aeromexico and Delta Air Lines provide nonstop flights from Miami, while United Airlines also flies direct from Houston. Domestic flights from Cancun to Merida are also available on MAYAir.
discovering merida’s archaeological wonders
“Merida has a wealth of historical sites from thousands of years ago representative of the splendor of the Mayan civilization. It is also surrounded by natural wonders, and the regional cuisine is one of the most elaborate and richly textured in the world,” says Federico Moreno-Nickerson, director, product development for the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Mexico, Classic Vacations.
Next year, Classic Vacations is offering an 8-day Yucatan Explorer Experience tour ($3,069 pp) introducing travelers to archaeological sites like Chichen Itza and Uxmal; and a tour of Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve with a boat ride to visit the pink flamingos; a walking tour of Merida and Campeche; visiting the Maya village of Labna and Ticul to meet Mayan natives; and experiencing the caves of Loltun with engravings that pre-date the Mayans and date back to over 4,000 years.
“The reason I like Merida so much is because you can use it as a spring board to other destinations in the Yucatan,” says Moreno-Nickerson. “Merida has very interesting sites and without minimizing the beauty of the destination, it’s not necessarily a place where you would spend an entire week, but it should be your home base.”
In the past, Classic Vacations has featured Merida in its tour offerings, but it was not until recently that the destination’s archaeological parks were added to itineraries. Moreno-Nickerson says an amazing site to behold is at Chichen Itza during the spring and fall equinox, when the sun creates a mystical display of shadow and light to create the form of a snake descending the pyramid of Kukulkan.
So who is visiting Merida? Moreno-Nickerson says multigenerational travel has “potential, and more and more U.S. travelers are looking for long-lasting experiences to learn about different cultures and see the world from a broader perspective.”
(800) 635-1333; classicvacations.com/travel-agent/login
tour operator intel
“We see Merida becoming a popular destination for those travelers who have had great Mexican vacations,” says Julie Ann Radon, product manager, Mexico, GOGO Worldwide Vacations. “This is a more authentic experience.” She adds that there are nonstop flights from Houston and Miami, there are air opportunities from both Mexico City and Cancun airports; their proximity making it a great option.
“Known as one of the safest cities in Mexico, Merida is a nice option for travelers looking to look outside the traditional Riviera Maya and Cancun vacations. Also making Merida attractive is the proximity to Chichen Itza and other archaeological sites,” she adds.
We asked Radon what characteristics about Merida make it a destination worth visiting in 2014, and she said besides news spreading about how fun and safe Merida is and “between cultural events like the International Maya Culture Festival, city attractions and popular attractions nearby, Merida will be a gem of a destination for travelers looking for a unique and authentic Mexican experience.”
(877) 901-4646; gogowwv.com
Monograms, part of the Globus family of brands, is offering a 5-day Mysteries of the Mayan World tour ($1,099 pp, land only). Along with visiting popular sites like Chichen Itza and Uxmal, travelers can take a Mayan cooking and language class, tour the Museum of Anthropology and History in Merida, displaying artifacts from the Maya civilization, and visit Kabah, known as the Place of Masks, for its spectacle of 250 stone masks of the god Chaac. The itinerary also incudes a full day of sightseeing in Merida complete with a guide.
Monograms has included Merida in its Mexico packages since 2012, and Steve Born, v.p. of marketing, Globus family of brands, says the destination has grown in popularity over the past two years. Currently, the operator does not overnight in Merida, but Born says they are “keeping an eye on hotel options that fit our Monograms standards for future consideration.”
Born also agrees that Merida is a must-visit for vacationers seeking a Mexican getaway away from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. “Merida is gaining in popularity for the same reason many of our Mexico and South America vacations are—that there’s a vast market of baby boomers looking to get off the beach and have a more experiential vacation. As a genuine Mexican colonial city, it provides an excellent mix of authentic culture and history—a nice contrast from the Cancun experience that most Americans think of when they hear of the Yucatan.
“The Merida and colonial Mexico experience is for both first-timers and repeat travelers to the region. As baby boomers look to get more out of their vacations than sitting on a beach, it’s an easy way to balance a Mexican vacation experience with a true taste of their culture.”
(866) 270-9841; agents.globusfamily.com