Every weekday morning my husband and I join the crowd at the Estadio Deportivo Salvador Alvarado—Mérida’s tidy, well-kept sports stadium. I’ve opted for Tae Bo classes and an impossibly high-energy Salsa Aerobics class on alternate days, hoping against hope that Memo, the Cuban instructor, doesn’t single me out. But he always does, with a look of bemused incredulity.
His exaggeratedly up-thrown hands make me laugh, and I lose count—not that I need help in that department. I’m always out of step and offbeat. But so is nearly everyone else. There is nothing to do but shake it off (literally) and soldier on.
This happy camaraderie is one of the things I love most about Mexico and Mérida in particular. The people here are quick with a wink and a smile of encouragement. Fast to lend a hand and gracious to the end.
And the end of the workout is definitely something I look forward to. That’s when I reward myself with a glass of sweet, freshly-squeezed orange juice—purchased for about 80 cents just outside the Estadio entrance.
By 9 a.m. I’m home behind the computer, checking emails and chatting with workmates overseas. Thanks to WiFi I can work anywhere in the house. Sometimes that’s at the office desk with windows and doors flung open to catch a breeze from the center courtyard; other times in the kitchen where I can keep an eye on a pot of frijoles or sopa de lima on the stove, bubbling with tasty ingredients suggested by Griselda, our housekeeper.
Today, I’ve chosen to set up camp on the terrace overlooking the pool and garden where I’ve spied some iridescent hummingbirds buzzing the lime tree.
After a morning of work, it’s time for a bite to eat. On days when nothing is simmering on the stove, a grocery-shopping trip is in order. Grabbing a few re-useable totes, it’s off to the mercado we go. But first, a stop at the económica on the corner. (No shopping on an empty stomach.)
An económica—just as it sounds—is an economical restaurant where you can get a couple of tacos or a sandwich for less than $1 or a full menú del día (meal of the day) for $2.50 to $4.
Yucatecan cuisine is very different from that dished up elsewhere in Mexico. Spanish influences are strong but so are those of the Maya. Northern Europeans have left their legacy, too, especially the Dutch: Holland was an active trading partner in the 19th century, when Mérida was the world’s leading producer of henequen, a fiber used for making rope.
Corn, chocolate, honey, venison, wild turkey, squash, cucumbers, chiles and tomatoes are typical Maya ingredients. Pork and Seville oranges, used to make the famous Yucatecan slow-roasted pork dish, cochinita pibil, come from Spain. The Dutch contributed Edam cheese, used for quesos rellenos, where the rind of the cheese is stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, raisins, olives, almonds and spices and fried together until nearly caramelized. All this is wrapped in cheesecloth and banana leaves, and steamed until the inside turns molten. Decadently divine.
A trip to the market, in the commercial center of the city, is an adventure in itself. Hundreds of people come here every day, and the chaos can be overwhelming as you weave in and out of tables piled high with wares and duck around hagglers and gawkers who’ve stopped to admire a plucky musician wailing away on a saxophone or belting out a song.
But it’s an adventure well worth the sanity test. For $4 to $5 you can fill your totes to the brim with enough fresh produce to last a week.
If our bags aren’t too heavy, we may head for the Plaza Grande, Mérida’s main central plaza. Here you can visit the Spanish cathedral built in the 16th century, the Casa de Montejo (a stately mansion converted to a bank) and the MACAY Museum of Contemporary Art.
Back home, a quick, refreshing dip in the pool helps beat the afternoon heat. If there’s one drawback to life in Mérida, it’s the heat and humidity of the summer months (May to September). Nearly all the expats who live here have swimming pools for that reason.
And some also have weekend homes on the nearby Costa Flamingo, a stretch of beach along the Gulf of Mexico just a 30-minute drive north from Mérida. Living here is that affordable. On a budget of $18,000 to $30,000 a year, it’s easy to live well.
Mérida Then and Now…
Mérida was called “exotic and cheap” when it was profiled in the first-ever issue of International Living in 1980. Thirty years later that’s still true. Mérida offers a low cost of living and real estate prices ranging from $30,000 for a small fixer-upper in the central historic district to less than $400,000 for a 6,000-square-foot colonial mansion with all the bells and whistles…and completely furnished.
What has changed, though, is that back in 1980, the most convenient route to Mérida from the U.S. was through a newly-built resort town called Cancún, four hours to the east. Today, with its own international airport, Mérida and its nearly 900,000 inhabitants are more easily accessible than ever.
If you go, consider renting a house to get a true feel for the city. You can find vacation rentals at Vrbo.com or longer-term rentals via AndreaYucatan.com. IL reader Barbara Bode rents an apartment in her house: Sojournersposada.com.
Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. To get full access to all past and future articles and to receive the magazine in the mail or online each month, you can subscribe here.