At the turn of the 20th century, the Yucatecan capital, Mérida, ranked as Mexico’s richest city, thanks to the production of henequén, a rope fiber made from a type of agave plant. “La Ciudad Blanca,” as it’s nicknamed, still boasts the third-largest centro histórico in the Americas, after Havana and Mexico City, but it has nonetheless remained largely off the tourist radar. For years, the henequén barons’ mansions sat neglected, but that’s now changing, as creative types flood back into the revitalized old city.
“Mérida is so cool right now, because there’s a modern and ancient mix in almost everything, from designers to food,” says Eduardo Rukos, owner of the recently opened Yucatecan restaurant Piñuela. Here, pioneering chef Pedro Evia—who also founded the avant-garde tasting-menu spot K’u’uk Restaurante a couple of miles away—highlights local ingredients in dishes such as marquesitas (rolled and filled crepe-like wafers) and grilled octopus with xcatik chilis.
Piñuela, which is housed in the former Hotel Mérida, is one of many new businesses taking advantage of the city’s glorious turn-of-the-century mansions. The lively food market Casa Dominga Barrio Gourmet opened late last year in a crisp white 1906 French Neoclassical estate, a building that partner Daniel Trejo Contreras describes as “a destination in itself.” Five minutes away, the bright upmarket concept store Casa T’ho—where you can pick up your own henequén bag—occupies an early-19th-century mansion on the Paseo de Montejo, Mérida’s tree-lined answer to the Champs-Élysées. And the sunny Ya’ax Hotel Boutiquewas opened last year after being restored by local artisans using regional techniques and building materials such as chukum tree resin, a favorite of the Maya.
After enjoying an architectural amble around town, settle in on the patio at the brewpub Hermana República to taste craft beers and cochinita croquettes amid dangling strings of lights and crumbling walls lined with greenery. “Next to the beach, close to Mayan monuments, and rich in culture,” says the brewery’s managing director, Gabriel Méndez, “Mérida feels like paradise.”