Having seen all that Palenque and the jungle had to offer in one day, we were ready to head towards Merida and witness first hand the highly esteemed Yucatan Peninsula and the capital of the state. Unfortunately this meant two long travel days in a row, so off we headed on our trusted ADO coach at 0800 in the morning. There we sat for the next nine hours of our day, making it an exhausting day full of travel. However, as the bus route follows the coastline of the western side of the peninsula, the sights were incredible to witness and we did get to see our first glimpse of the ocean in Central America. Driving through Campeche meant that we got to see the Gulf of Mexico as we drove right by the waterfront and we were so shocked by the intense blue of the sea and the clarity of the water – and I tend to imagine that as Australian’s we’re not that easy to please regarding beach quality! Travelling for nine hours on the bus meant that we didn’t really have much of the day left by the time we arrived in Merida, so it meant a quick check in, drop of luggage, brisk orientation walk and a bite to eat before calling it a day. As Merida is such a foodie capital of the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly regarding traditional Mexican food as they have an incredibly large indigenous Mayan population, so it would have been rude not to check out some of the local dishes whilst there. Opting for a small scale restaurant with economic prices, we ordered a queso fundido chorizo plate and some chicken tamales, with a complimentary side of tortillas. Queso fundido is like a cheese fondue dip made of melted Mexican cheese and this was quite nice, albeit a bit tough and stringy – I think the chorizo topping made the flavour. Tamales are corn dough pockets, cooked in maize/corn husks and filled with various toppings of your choice – in our case, chicken. They came with a nice tomato salsa, but unfortunately for us were still incredibly bland and dry. We’re not the biggest fans of tamales as it turns out, we find them quite boring to taste no matter how much sauce we put on top and Blake could just not wrap his tastebuds around the fact they put large chunks of chicken WITH BONES throughout the parcel. It wasn’t our best order of food ever, but when in Mexico right?
Being on the road for an indefinite amount of time means that you celebrate specific dates whilst overseas; birthdays, anniversaries, holidays – something that hadn’t really hit me just yet as this was my first major backpacking trip, but something that Blake was familiar with. And sure enough, our first holiday overseas had arrived already – Valentines Day. We’re not big fans of the holiday and find it incredibly commercial, so really it is just like any other day for us at home, maybe with the addition of a small gift, flowers or date out. Backpacking budgets don’t really accommodate for these luxuries, so we tried to find something nice to do that was relatively inexpensive and not so commercial.
However, Merida seemed to be the exact opposites to us and LOVED Valentines Day. The flowers on every street corner for sale, large teddy-bears in shop windows accompanied by assorted chocolates, huge balloons in the colour of red and the shape of a heart being carried by schoolkids holding hands with the other and local radio stations handing out roses and playing romantic music in the local park – everywhere you turned, Valentines Day was in your face. It was quite lovely to see, albeit a tad overwhelming, but the ultimate cliché were the horse drawn carriages lined around the main central park, parked all in a row under the trees and adorned with various red and pink shaded ribbons and bows, with locals shouting and spruiking ‘Hey! Go for a horse ride? Got good price for you… C’mon man, very romantic!’.
We did our classic walk around the Zocalo, underneath the beautiful trees and greenery, taking in the sights of the main cathedral and town hall. I know, Mexico is starting to sound super dull and repetitive, but trust us – each city was just as interesting as the last and a completely unique experience despite the common themes! Merida was once known as the ‘White City’ as most of the key historic buildings are a white colour, however this seems to have clearly changed over the years as an abundance of tourists flocked in, and the same colorations seen throughout other Mexican cities began to flow through the modern buildings.
Although it is the cultural capital of the Yucatan state, it was definitely more noticeably touristic as expected the further north-east we headed up the peninsula, but was not quite busy or large enough to be a tourist trap. We had witnessed a lot more cultural places throughout our time in Mexico, but on the contrary the dining and eating out options seemed to be much greater, plenty more tourist activities and tours on offer and accommodation had begun to become noticeably more expensive. We wandered the local markets instead, witnessing all the beautiful artisan crafts, fresh flowers, tonnes of produce and food stalls amongst the locals, taking in all the sights and smells of the square. We ended up picking up a freshly squeezed watermelon juice about the size of our heads for around $1USD and some fried pikelet type cajeta-filled (condensed goats milk caramel) snack and continued to wander aimlessly for a little bit.
The food offered in Merida is definitely mentioned in all the blogs and guidebooks, so we decided to scope out our best options for a great feed at a reasonable price. All signs pointed to ‘Wayan’e’, a local taco store that boasts authenticity and great prices. There was not a single negative review we could find and it seemed to be the all the rage, so much so that there are actually two locations within Merida itself and you are strongly advised not to arrive anytime after midday, ensuring that you do not miss out on what was offered that day. We arrived just around mid morning and were surprised to find that we were only one of two tables there in the entire place and were even greeted by an English speaking worker who offered to show us the food and what was left on offer. You approach these silver metal buffet style looking counters, similar to those from Chinese takeaway stores and in them were all varieties of fillings such as meats, vegetables, stirfrys and eggs available to purchase on your tacos or as a torta (sandwich). Each filling had a different price point and we were super excited to see the highly recommended twice-fried pork belly was still on offer the day and was in the window in abundance! We quickly made our order – a pork belly, pork belly with cheese, shredded beef and a chicken fajita tacos and sat awaiting our meal eagerly, mouths watering.
Before we knew it the steaming hot tacos were before us and we were surprised at how the service was incredibly quick and food really fresh. These were our most favourite tacos eaten in Mexico, and we had devoured quite a few on our trip. They were super cheap as everyone had mentioned and to top it off, they had personally printed Wayan’e mini chocolates as an after lunch treat for Valentine’s Day. We could not recommend this place any greater – read the blogs, know that they are telling the truth and this is not an overrated tourist trap and go and enjoy the best Mexican tacos you will probably have in your entire life, all less than $5USD.
One very overrated tourist trap we did experience though was the Merida Zoo. Thinking it would be a ‘cute and coupley’ Valentines activity, I ignored the negative reviews and saw that it was a free admission and that was enough to get me sold! I suggested the activity to Blake, who reluctantly agreed – possibly only as we had nothing else to do that day that didn’t require copious amounts of cash and off we headed to the park outside of the town that had the zoo inside. My gosh it was a decent hike and we finally arrived, sweaty hot and already a bit over walking.
As it was a zoo boasting free entry (literally no zoo we have ever been to has had free entry before), we weren’t entirely sure what to expect – perhaps some farm animals, local birds and wildlife and common Mexican creatures. To our shock and surprise, this zoo had literally an abundance of African animals sadly in the most smallest and poor conditions. There was a solo giraffe, held in a concrete pen with a few ostriches and a zebra or two with not much space to roam. A trio of hippo’s lay half submerged in their pools, unfortunately unable to fully submerge themselves on such a hot day, due to the level of water in their pools not being high enough. There were the most amount of jungle cats we had ever seen – lions, tigers, pumas, jaguars and more. Tigers were pacing, back and forth by the sides of their cages, clearly distressed and unhappy – growling and crying out. Lions were pacing too – but this time, probably because the back of their cages faced the monkeys, or the sides faced the pumas next door and all this extra stimulation was just aggravating for the animal. It was a pretty horrific sight, all these distressed animals shoved into too small cages and all showing signs of clear unhappiness. Not exactly a nice romantic Valentines activity we had expected, rather a sobering one and a reminder that animals truly don’t belong in zoos halfway across the world and would much prefer to be out living a normal natural life.
Dinner was a cheap cooked meal in the hostel, followed by a traditional flan dessert and boy, did this impress us! A flan is almost like a custard type dessert, usually almost a crème caramel sort of flavour and for $1USD a go, this was truly incredible and a great after dinner dessert. Merida hadn’t disappointed for its cuisine, but did fall a little short in activities to do that interested us. It was a beautiful city and a nice introduction to the Yucatan state, but was best left for us a quick stop on our way through to Chichen Itza and beyond.