03 Feb Our Guide to Mérida, Mexico On A Budget
Mérida, Mexico is a vibrant travel destination in the Yucatan peninsula. The city has a rich cultural life, with frequent community events; dining and amenities for both budget and luxury travelers; and is conveniently located near ancient archeological sites, cenotes (underground rivers), and beaches.
We decided to stay in Mérida for three weeks at the start of the year, thanks to a recommendation from our well-traveled friends. We were impressed with the many cultural events, colorful exterior walls and secret interior courtyards, grand colonial buildings, affordable eateries, and proximity to Mayan ruins. Although it was “winter,” temperatures still reached the high 90’s on occasion, but most days were pleasantly warm – a welcome relief from the snowpocalypse taking place in our home state of Oregon!
Although this is by no means an exhaustive guide to Mérida, it covers pretty much everything we did during our stay. First, here’s our quick recap video, to give you a taste of what this city has to offer:
Things to do in Mérida on a budget
Free Weekly Events
(Shout out to Roaming Around the World for their informative guide to Mérida that tipped us off to all the free weekly events!)
Yucatecan Serenade in Parque Santa Lucia every Thursday night
Mérida has an amazing culture of free community events. Every week, year round, there is live music and dancing on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Friday nights there’s a demonstration of Pok Ta Pok, an ancient Mayan ball game, played in Plaza Grande.
Perhaps our favorite weekly event is Mérida en Domingo (Sunday) and Bici-Ruta, where certain streets are closed off to traffic and everyone comes out to bike, blade, skateboard, or watch others roll by. From the length of Paseo de Montejo, through Plaza Grande, and down south to Ermita de Santa Isabel, you can bike freely without worrying about cars. Bike rentals in Plaza Grande are 15 pesos per hour (just give an ID card until you return) and there are also plenty of rentals on Avenida Montejo.
You can ride right by Panificadora Montejo (mentioned below) or make a stop at Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon and people watch. This sorbet spot is 110 years old! Top flavors are mamey fruit, coconut, and guanabana (soursop) – 36 pesos each.
Tour of Plaza Grande
Another free activity for your first day or so in Merida is the tourism office’s tour of Plaza Grande. When we went in January, the group was huge. The tour is given in Spanish and English, though to be honest, it was easier to understand the Spanish version. You don’t walk very far at all but it gives a good sense of the city’s origins and the major monuments in the center of town.
For a glimpse into a fancy colonial home – the first in town, you can walk around Museo Casa Montejo on the main plaza. Part of the property is now a bank, since they couldn’t maintain the historic home otherwise. Just sign in right inside the prestigious entrance and walk through the rooms, which are free and open to the public.
Best Time to Visit Mérida
If you’re deciding when to come to Mérida, may we suggest January? Not only is the heat as low as it gets (but still hot!), it’s also time for the annual Mérida Fest. This three-week cultural celebration includes tons of free concerts, plays, circus acts, dance performances, lectures, and more. Unless it rains, the events are well attended, almost entirely by Mexicans. Check this Facebook page for upcoming events.
Walking is the best way to get around Mérida, at least in the center of town. Even in “winter,” it can get hot mid-day when there’s no longer shade. Finding your way is pretty easy as the streets that run North to South are even numbers and those that run East to West are odd numbers, with Plaza Grande between 60 and 62 (N/S), 61 and 63 (E/W).
We never had a need to ride the buses in Mérida, but they charge a flat 8 pesos per ride. Buses to nearby towns and attractions are available at a few different locations around town, with the higher-end ones being at the ADO stations.
Uber has recently come to Mérida and Cancun, and it’s often a cheaper option than taxis – plus you don’t have to figure out how to explain your destination to the driver. We used Uber a few times, especially to get to and from the terminal bus station on our way in and out of town. A ride across town was usually somewhere between $1 and $2.
Car Rental in Mérida
If you’re going further out of town, car rentals are pretty reasonable in Mérida. There are a number of name brand car rental franchises at Fiesta Americana, although my research tells me that they often have hidden fees and don’t have the best customer service.
We got high recommendations for Joaquin at La Curva Car Rental (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, 3 day rental minimum) and for UniRent. Both of these trusted local businesses include insurance in the quote and have excellent, English-speaking customer service.
Where to Eat in Mérida on a Budget
Our food strategy in Mexico was similar to what we did in Cuenca, Ecuador. We ate out for lunches, which usually totaled $6 or less for the both of us, and we made our own breakfasts and dinners. Some grocery stores in the centro, like Tienda Isstey, have primarily non-perishable goods and a very small refrigerated section for milk products. Súper Akí had a bit more of a produce selection. We also bought fruit and vegetables at the markets: Mercado Lucas De Galvéz is the largest, then Mercado Muncipal at Plaza Santiago, and there are a hand full of produce vendors at Mercado Santa Ana.
- Egg and pork sandwich (tostada) = 20 pesos, with a fried egg = 25
- Two carrots, one zucchini, one onion = 20 pesos
- 4 mandarin oranges = 5 pesos
- 2 plantains = 10 pesos
- Large papaya = 18+ pesos
Over three weeks, we spent about $270 US on food – averaging $12 per day, including groceries, dining out, and a spendy hotel meal in Cancun.
(At the time of this writing, 20 pesos equals roughly $1 US.)
Los Platos Rotos / Casa de Frida – These two are apparently sister restaurants – at least some of their branding is the same and they share the rotating “menu del dia” lunch concept. Los Platos Rotos is just north of Avenida Colon in a shopping plaza with some other nice cafes. This open-air restaurant has a wider selection to choose from each day, including five or six meat dishes and one or two vegetarian. The meal comes with chips and bean dip for the table, plus choice of soup, salad, or rice. Aguas de fruta/juice are extra, in large or small glasses. Complete meals are 60 pesos unless otherwise listed. You can also order guacamole and other sides.
The location on calle 61, closer to Plaza Grande, seems to be less popular, though it has an even better ambiance with bright pink walls and decor that highlights Frida Kahlo. Meals are 60 or 65 pesos, which includes chips and bean dip for table, choice of soup or rice, and a small agua de fruta of the day. Lunch choices are usually posted outside the entrance each day. They also serve a set breakfast (65 pesos) and have a dinner menu. The food at Casa Frida was consistently not quite as tasty as their sister restaurant, but it’s worth stopping in at least once for the atmosphere.
Mercado stalls – Plaza Santa Ana and Mercado Santiago – In plazas like Santa Ana and Santiago, you’ll find vendors selling typical dishes for very reasonable prices.
Be prepared for the waiters to compete for your business – some are pushier than others but there honestly doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between any of these food stands. The regional classics are panuchos and salbutes – a sort of crispier version of an open-faced taco. There are always one or two juice/smoothie bars which serve customers at any of the restaurants. Quality standards may not be as high as the spendier restaurants in town, so you may want to take that into account if you have a weak stomach. But locals and visitors alike eat here and they can get especially popular on Sundays when other restaurants tend not to be open.
La Negrita Cantina – This cantina is a century-old establishment with a lot of character. Wednesdays and Thursdays, they serve two margaritas for the price of one (50 pesos). Evening drinks come with botones (snacks) like chips and 3-4 little side dishes. Heavier food items are only available before 6pm, so if you go for dinner, you should definitely arrive early.
Live music starts around 5:30 or 6, and there’s always a fun but subdued ambiance among the crowds that fill tables in the three or four rooms plus the large open-air courtyard. Check their facebook page for daily updates.
Wayan’e – This taco shop has three locations, though the closest to centro is still bit of a walk on calle 59. It has a nice little courtyard setting and covered seating area. The menu is on the wall but for your first time, it’s best to go up to the counter to see what taco toppings are available at the moment. We enjoyed huevos con chaya, castacan (pork belly, their specialty), and pretty much everything else.
To me, the beans on top were tasty enough that it didn’t matter too much what was under it. Tacos are 10-15 pesos, and you can always ask for cheese to be added. Tortas (with bread and cheese) are typically 20-25.
Here are a few more recommendations that aren’t necessarily for a full meal. (Although ice cream for dinner… we won’t judge.)
Palo Gelato and Juice Bar – Just a couple blocks from La Negrita, you’ll get a fresh, modern vibe from this hip duo of shops. They serve hand-made gelato with local ingredients. Half are made with milk and half are sorbet-style, dairy-free. Flavors are primarily local but also include traditional gelato favorites like stracciatela. You can get it in a dish or a hand-made waffle cone – one scoop is 30 pesos. There’s also an option to get it with a shot of espresso on top! My favorite flavor from the dairy-free section was guanabana and Jedd’s was the creamy flan de caramel. Palo Gelato is open daily starting at noon.
The juice and smoothie bar next door opens at 9am and also serves some breakfast items like granola and waffles. Smoothies are 35 for 12 ounces and 50 pesos for 20 ounces.
Panificadora Montejo – While there are plenty of panaderias in town for your baked goods fix, this one facing the Monumento A La Patria was exceptional. I kept finding excuses to go back, even though it was out of the way. Perhaps most impressive is the selection – they even have a refrigerated section with custards and other desserts. As with most Mexican panaderias, when you go in, you should grab a tray and tongs to collect your selections. When you’re ready to check out, bring your tray to the ladies at the counter who write up your order and wrap it, then take the ticket to the cashier to pay. We recommend checking the refrigerated room for mil hojitas (flaky pastry dough, custard filling, and rich black and white icing on top). Other favorites are pan dulce, vanilla muffins, and their croissants (buttery, fluffy, and slightly sweet).
There are very few descriptions labeled in English, but you can’t really go wrong. The shop opens morning to evening and is always full of locals. I got the sense that many customers were on a quest to get specific things, favorites requested by their family members back home.
Casa Montejo – (If you notice a trend with the Montejo namesake, it belongs to the earliest Spanish family that used to rule in this area when the city first began.) We came across this little oasis because it was very close to our accommodations. Past the front counter, you’ll discover it opens into a couple rooms and nice, peaceful courtyard.
Wifi, set breakfast, baked goods, coffee, local Mexican hot chocolate, and frappes are available on week days. In the afternoons, students seem to flock here after school. We enjoyed a morning of work in the courtyard and were even greeted by the owner, who seems to enjoy making the rounds with all his customers. As is often the case, cafe drinks cost the same – if not more – than a street food lunch, but it’s a nice treat.
Marquesita carts – Here’s a special treat, sold from portable carts, almost anywhere that people gather. We saw them most often when the schools were letting out or in the plazas during evening events. It’s like mix between a cripsy crepe and a waffle cone, rolled up with your choice of filling. The traditional option is cheese and cajeta (a carmel-like sauce). Definitely worth a try – just watch out for all the filling to pool down at the bottom!
(Another hat tip to Roaming Around the World for their food tips!)
Day Trips from Mérida
Many travelers use Mérida as a base for day trips throughout the Yucatan region. Popular stops include the famous Chichen Itza ruins, and dozens of other pyramids and ruins that tend ot be lesser-known. Cenotes – underground rivers – and caves are plentiful as well. Progreso is the nearest beach town and Campeche is another UNESCO World Heritage town further down the coast.
Uxmal and Mayapan
Thanks to our host’s recommendation, we did our day trip to a couple ruins that are lesser known than Chichen Itza, but by many accounts, no less impressive.
Uxmal is about an hour drive from Merida on nice, smooth roads. We arrived shortly after the 8am opening and there was hardly anyone there. Entrance tickets are done in two payments – one national fee and one for the state (roughly $10 total per person). Guides are available for about 700 pesos, depending on your language. There are informational plaques in English but they mostly describe the buildings rather than the history behind them. (We got most of our information from Wikipedia.)
The drive from Uxmal to Mayapan is a little more than an hour. Google Maps wanted to take us on main roads, but we opted instead to take the slow, scenic route through some of the smaller towns in the area. It was really cool to see the tuk tuk-esque drivers and the old style huts with thatched roofs.
Mayapan is a newer archeological site than Uxmal. It’s where the Mayan capital moved after the fall of Chichen Itza, yet it has not been as well preserved. It does have a few pyramids, numerous other buildings, and man-made cenotes right in the center of it all! Entry is less than $2 per person and it rarely sees more than a few visitors at a time.
Where to Stay in Merida
If you’re a light sleeper, my advice would be to research the main bus routes and avoid those streets because those buses are loud! Staying within a few blocks of Plaza Grande, Plaza Santa Lucia, or Paseo de Montejo will ensure you’re close to the city’s weekly activities.
We loved our little Airbnb apartment, where we stayed the first week, which was relatively quiet and central. There’s also an upstairs unit with two bedrooms that we would definitely consider if traveling with friends.
For our second two weeks, we stayed for free at a small hotel B&B called Aries y Libra, in exchange for some online marketing and website help. Rooms are about $20 to $40 on Airbnb, and we were able to use the communal kitchen for our meals. It’s a pleasant place with a friendly hostess from Holland, though it is on one of those noisy bus routes we mentioned (the red room is loudest because it faces the street). Otherwise, we were happy to have the place to stay and to be able to help the owner update her web presence.
Sign up for a new Airbnb account with this link and for a limited time, you can get up to $40 off your first booking!
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