1. Where to Stay
Relax in a hammock on the sunny veranda at La Hacienda Xcanatun, a renovated eighteenth-century hotel (from $210; two-night minimum). Breakfast in the sunny Casa de Piedra restaurant is included, and the spa specializes in Mayan-inspired treatments.
Rent a house in the city from Urbano Rentals, which offers properties renovated by an expat New York couple. Casa Santa Lucia is just two blocks from the handcrafts and local delicacies at Mérida en Domingo, and Casa Azul de Santiago has a rooftop terrace and backyard citrus-tree garden.
Ask for room three at Rosas & Xocolate, a new 19th-century mansion turned boutique hotel (from $234). It costs half as much as a suite, is closest to the pool, and features an open-air bathtub. On the rooftop bar, choose from 250 tequilas.
2. Where to Eat
Cool down with a La Montejo beer and fresh seafood at La Pigua, just renovated last spring. Conch, octopus, shrimp, and pargo are caught daily for seviche.
Try the tacos at Noche Mexicana (Paseo Montejo and Calle 47) on Saturday night, where you can eat among folk dancers accompanied by a mariachi band.
Troll the mercado stalls surrounding Santiago Square, where Yucatán specialties are made to order. La Reina de Itzalana is known for its sopa de lima—a lime soup—and El Buen Gusto serves hot tamales freshly baked in corn husks or steamed in banana leaves. Live swing and salsa bands play in the open square on Tuesday nights.
3. What to Do
Bike through downtown Mérida’s Centro Histórico on Sundays, when the roads are closed off to traffic. (Rent one at the Palacio Municipal on Calle 60; 10 pesos per hour.) Follow the three-mile bike path, called the Bici-Ruta, north from Parque de la Ermita (corner of Calle 66 and 77 Centro) to the tip of Paseo Montejo. Along the way, you’ll pass an outdoor food and craft market in the Plaza Grande, live marimba music in Hidalgo Park, a flea market in Santa Lucía Park, and an art show on the sidewalk of Paseo Montejo. Stuff your backpack with souvenirs, like Guayaberas, linen button-downs for men, and hipils, traditional embroidered dresses for women.
Swim in a trio of underground lagoons (called cenotes) in Cuzamá, a village of thatched-roof mud huts about 45 minutes away (book a ride at mayanecotours.com; 750 pesos). From there, a horse-drawn cart will ferry you the short distance between the three. The clear, blue Bolonchohol (“Nine Mouseholes”) is popular for swimming and snorkeling. At the second, Chacsinicche (“Tree of the Red Ants”), you can swan-dive into the pool from an overhead pier. And at the third, Chelentún, ("Stone of the Rainbow”), those who dare can swim all the way to the back of a dim, quiet cave with bats sleeping overhead.
Mingle with creative types at LA68, a local art house with a Carroll Gardens–in-the-tropics vibe. Browse colorful jewelry at the gift shop, pick up some homemade pizza and Leon Negra beer at the café, then lie back in a lawn chair to watch a film in the open-air courtyard. The cine-club screens contemporary documentaries every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night.
Sunbathe on the beach at Celestún, a small fishing town about two hours from Mérida. (Buses leave every hour from Calle 71 between 64 and 66; $6). Opt for the hour-long riverboat trip to see flocks of bright pink flamingos feeding along the mangrove banks and crocodiles in the shoreline swamps.
4. Insider’s Tip
If you’re unsure of your bus-navigation skills (or your Spanish), contact William Lawson, a Canadian expat who runs a personal driving service. Having lived in Mérida for over a decade, he’s an expert guide to Yucatán culture and destinations like the Mayan ruins, Celestún, and the surrounding colonial towns (as well as the newest restaurants—he also runs Mérida food blog Casual Restaurant Critic). Rates start at $50 and are tailored to your trip.
5. Oddball Day
Travel along the Ruta Puuc, an empty, 50-mile network of roads running south from Mérida to the Uxmal ruins (Yucatan-connection.com; from $140.) Start with some local history at Hacienda Yaxcopoil, a picturesque old plantation and a relic from the former boom of the henequen, a local agave plant. Continue to the renovated Hacienda Temozon hotel for a garden stroll or an outdoor massage beneath the palms. There, order an icy horchata, a sweet, cloudy white drink made of almonds, sesame seeds, and rice. Afterward, drive the rest of the way to Uxmal, a Mayan ruin set in a shady, lush jungle ($10). Finally, drive about fifteen minutes to the pretty colonial town of Maní, where you can end the day with an early dinner of supersize poc chuc, the local version of BBQ pork, at El Príncipe Tutul-Xiu (Calle 26 No. 210; 997/978-4257; closes at 7 p.m.).
Yucatanliving.com, produced by American expats, has good maps and a useful calendar of events.
Yucatantoday.com is written by Mexicans and offers info on arts, events, and local culture.
Los Dos Cooking School’s site, los-dos.com, is a great resource for local happenings in the food world.
MayaYucatan.com/en is a 360-degree tour of everything the Yucatán has to offer.