Story and photos by Dave O. Dodge, Jan. 29, 2015.
If you are a lover of House Hunters International, then you already know about the charm and elegance that’s made the historic city of Mérida so popular.
Though this city is the capital of the state of Yucatán, Mexico, it has often been overlooked by travelers in favor of its neighboring hot spot, Cancun. But, historic Mérida is the polar opposite of the all-inclusive “hotel zone” and tourist scene that sits just 190 miles to the east (on the Caribbean side of the peninsula).
Mérida, a Spanish colonial city that was founded in 1542, is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in all of North, South and Central America.
Located on the northwest part the state, about 25 miles inland from the calming waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this destination is on most travel connoisseurs’ top-10 list.
The entire city is like a symphony of sights and culture, each playing a part in a well-orchestrated performance with a cast of locals and foreigners that are gay, straight, young and old.
Seeing La Ciudad
Somewhere along the line Mérida acquired the nicknamed “The White City” (La Ciudad Blanca), which could be for the prominent use of the color on many of its historic buildings and homes or, more importantly, for being clean. In fact, Méridians pride themselves on the cleanliness of this city.
With just under a million residents, 60 percent of which are indigenous Mayans, Mérida is the largest city of the Yucatán Peninsula and is also is considered the country’s safest city. Because of its isolation from the rest of the country, though, the culture here is much different than most travelers’ idea of Mexico.
Visiting Mérida is like taking a step back in time, complete with a history lesson. Upon their arrival, the Spanish conquistadors were in search of gold and other natural resources, but found an entire civilization with its own language, temples, rituals and calendar.
Today, Mérida is all about, art, cuisine, tradition and acceptance, which makes it a perfect destination for the gays.
A History Lesson
The city’s key historic neighborhood, known as Centro, is the third-largest concentration of colonial architecture next to Mexico City and Havana. At the Zócalo (officially Plaza de la Independencia), visitors will find many points of interest within the perfectly square tree-lined park that serves as the cultural heart of this vibrant city.
Here you can indulge your senses as a constant stream of people passes you by. By day, the street vendors serve up favorite local flavors and by night the cafes and restaurants expand their market share by setting up tables in the streets (once closed) and offer el-fresco dining in the year-round tropical air. As the sun sets and the stars come out, the historic buildings on every corner in the Zocalo light up like a virtual architectural design show.
La Catedral de San Ildefonso is the most prominent structure and can be seen throughout this district. Built by the Spanish with stones taken from the ancient temples of T’ho (also the name of the city that once existed in the building’s current footprint), this place of Catholic worship is an example of Moorish and Renaissance styles that were popular back in Spain in the late 1500s. Visitors are welcome to bask in the massive columns, arch rooflines and ornate details – this building is a must-see.
The Natural Reaction
While the Mexican Mérida is often compared to its Spanish cousin (about 240 miles north of the Iberian Peninsula), the similarities are numbered. Beyond the city itself, Yucatán has many hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.
Here, the Mayan civilization, with countless archeological sites, can be a daunting task to understand – but it’s more than worth your time and effort. Catherwood Travels are based close to downtown and can help the Indiana Jones in you learn the secret rituals of the Mayans and help you understand what you are seeing. Never underestimate the power of a tour guide, because the good ones will seamlessly teach, inspire and have you longing for more.
And, because it’s impossible to not notice the natural beauty of the Yucatán surrounding you, make a point to soak up some sun. Just 20 minutes to the north, quiet beaches of Progreso greet the very relaxing waves of warm gulf waters. A 60-mile drive west will get you to the sleepy fishing village of Celestún, which is home to the largest breeding ground of the American Flamingo. During the winter months upwards of 35,000 flamingos, along with hundreds of other birds, make their home in the mangrove forests along this shallow estuary where natural fresh water springs feed into the salt water creating a diverse habitant.
Business and Pleasure
There is nothing the trendy, educated and fashionable LGBT community member would miss here. The American-inspired stores increasingly rival that of Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, just head to the mall at Plaza Altabrisa or the department store giant, Liverpool, for first-class retail therapy.
After just one visit, many LGBT travelers return home, to calculate how they can make this paradise a permanent home (and many have). The dollar continues to grow stronger, and it goes much further when you are restoring a that’s older than most structures back in the US. And, with a lower cost of living and a high lifestyle standard, retiring to the Yucatán is a very popular trend as well.
Mérida is an up and coming destination for the experienced traveler in search of the perfect blend of luxury, authenticity and culture. Mo matter what brings you to this region of Mexico – the Mayan Ruins, a cruise ship that docks for just a day or even a gay wedding – you’ll be glad your travels led you here.
Get a Room
Before I travel anywhere I like to check out my options for gay-owned and gay-friendly establishments, and Mérida currently has several options (and more coming soon). For details, visit purpleroofs.com and keep in mind that making mention of the site might give you a slight discount, too.
Casa Del Maya Bed & Breakfast (casadelmaya.com) is one of my favorites. The hosts are two charming American guys, Steve and Jordy, and they have been open for just over two years. Their beautifully restored colonial-style home has authentic touches that will inspire your inner Mayan.
Owners Ana and Mariana welcome the LGBT community into their home, Casa Ana (casaana.com), a bed & breakfast that offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of Mérida centro. With only five exquisitely decorated rooms, this is a quiet sanctuary that books up fast. Here, breakfast and dinner are served on the terrace throughout the week.
Ochenta y Dos (facebook.com/ochentaydos) is rumored to be opening this summer and will offer a boutique feel to a luxury urban bed & breakfast. This former city hacienda was built more than 100 years ago and was completely demolished and is being painstakingly rebuilt with smart-home technology. A different twist for the gay traveler.
Out and About
There is so much to do and to see in the city of Mérida and the surrounding countryside. There are deserted beaches less than 40 minutes away and Mayan ruins within the city limits. Still, organized tours and excursions are by far the most rewarding, because they take care of all the driving and the talking.
Dzibilchaltún, a 25-acre Mayan archeological site about 10 miles to the north, was once home to more than 40,000 Mayans. Today there are numerous structures to explore, and if you’re there on the equinox (March 21 or Sept. 21) the sun shines perfectly through the doorway of the Temple of the Seven Dolls – now that’s design. localgringo.com/mexico
Celestún is a tiny fishing village about 60 miles west of Mérida with a big attraction: During fall and winter months the American Flamingo migrates to the mangroves along the estuary where you can hire a boat to float along the watery ways. After a couple hours of bird watching, head to the beach for the best tasting shrimp served under a thatched roof. yucatantoday.com/en/topics/celestun
Cenotes are the result of the giant comet that killed the dinosaurs many moons ago, and these are giant sinkholes in the limestone bedrock that are filled with crystal clear water. There are hundreds of them around the Yucatán and for a small fee (or sometimes free) you can take a dip. yucatansecrets.com/cenotes
Finding the Gaybourhood
Billed as a “non-comprehensive guide to the lavender side of The White City,” gaymerida.com has everything – from drag queens to restaurants – you’ll need to know before you go. Heads up: some of the site’s under construction and looks to be expanding.
Considered the largest gay bar in the city, Blu Namu is a night club/drag show/disco/palace located in a very beautiful neighborhood. This bar attracts the young and fashionable until the wee hours of the morning, primarily because nothing, not even the go-go boys, gets going before 1 a.m.
Pride is part disco and part bar, with a dancer thrown in, at the edge of town. Because there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving here, a taxi is required.