Merida (Part 1) – The City and Hotel Julamis

Homeland Monument, Merida, Mexico

The start of our visit to Mérida was complicated, stressful and beyond inconvenient…but there’s a bit of that in every trip, right? It’s not at all necessary or even entertaining for me to share the details of this particular annoyance, but suffice it to say, we will never again hire a car from a smaller, lesser-known company that does not have a clear drop off place at the airport.

A small hiccup that was added to this arrival in Mérida, one of the most delightful places in México, was that Alex of Hotel Julamis didn’t have any record of our reservation. Being the planner that I am, I had booked the room well in advance in May for a December stay, and as organised as I (usually!) am, had failed to reconfirm closer to our arrival (lesson number two learned for the day). But nothing phases Alex, a man who has lived in countless countries, and has dealt with all kinds of outrageous ‘hiccups’ in his varied professions (his fascinating history was to be revealed in the chats over the breakfasts and happy hours of our stay). Our preferred room didn’t have anyone in it, so there was no problem, and as we sipped the generous tequila pour offered, we listened as Alex sorted via phone our car hire issues; so glad to be in his capable hands! His role as consummate host continued as he drove us to the bus station and helped us sort out our tickets for our trip to Cancun. Things were already looking up in this unfamiliar city that apparently has more millionaires than México City!

As for Hotel Julamis itself – what a relaxed, friendly place…and an absolute bargain. There is complimentary tequila every evening for happy hour, a chef’s breakfast (not at all daunted by our vegetarian status, but happy enough to give us a mockingly-hard time about it), and fantastic ‘Chef Alex’ life stories whenever we spend time chatting. We were in the Corazon room, which is the best room in the house. It has its own private terrace, but if we want to socialise we can go to the rooftop terrace where the bar and hot tub reside with great views of the city to satisfy the romantics as the sun slinks over the rooftops.

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The decision to select this hotel as our home in Mérida was led by reviews on TripAdvisor, and we were clearly swayed by the lavish, yet just, comments about Alex and his food. Our first breakfast began with homemade madeleines and croissants, still warm from the oven (made with New Zealand butter – only the best for Alex!). This was accompanied by one of the chef’s marmalades – pawpaw with ginger and chilli (I loved it and I don’t even particularly like pawpaw!). A fruit plate followed, but not just any fruit plate; the tower began with a slab of watermelon, then kiwi fruit, then a baby poached pear (special secret recipe but it involved middle eastern spices and red wine) with a dried date and 3 perfect blackberries. Such sweet yumminess! Our main for breakfast was a chaya tart (a Mayan green superfood, similar to spinach) topped with sautéed mushrooms and peppercorns. Beverages were Alex’s freshly squeezed watermelon juice and brewed coffee.

Exploring Mérida

After breakfast we met our guide from Lawson’s Yucatan Excursions who was to take care of us for the next couple of days. His name was Genner (pronounced ‘Henner’), and he had lived in this region all of his life. His friendly manner, excellent English and outstanding driving skills put us immediately at ease and added to our touring enjoyment over the coming days.

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An overview of this new and vibrant city was our main aim on our first morning, and Genner began with the Monumento a la Patria (Homeland Monument) on one of the busiest roundabouts in the city on the Paseo de Montejo. The work of sculptor Romulo Rozo, the intricate carvings on this edifice are a finely crafted celebration of Mexico’s history from the founding of Teotihuacan to Independence in the mid-twentieth century.

We followed the straight and architecturally blessed Paseo de Montejo – an elegant tree-lined boulevard in the most fashionable district of the city. Flanked by creamy pastel, French-inspired, Baroque and art nouveau 19th century mansions, this stretch once belonged to the wealthy plantation owners wanting to move out of the city centre. Now, these restored beauties house restaurants, boutique hotels, nightclubs, shops, offices and museums, with a few private mansions remaining.

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Heading to the centre of town we stopped at the Plaza Grande for a visit to the Museo Casa de Montejo, dating from 1549. It was apparently built to house soldiers, but soon was converted to a mansion that was home to the Montejo family until 1970. Today it contains four rooms as part of the museum, which shares the building with a bank and offices. The permanent exhibition displays renovated Victorian, neorococo and neorenaissance furnishings, including some stunning crystal chandeliers and beautiful paintings. A delightful visit.

We had Genner drop us at Oliva Enoteca for a late lunch and gave him the rest of the afternoon off. This restaurant was recommended by our host, Alex (any venue tip from a chef is bound to impress), as well as rating highly in a variety of review sites. We began with a glass of sparkling white – perfect in crispness and dryness. As usual, we shared a number of dishes, beginning with the fish of the day – a seabass served on potatoes, accompanied with spinach, simple and superb. We accompanied this dish with a variety of three salads, the favourite being the burrata with asparagus; the smokiness of the charred asparagus was complimented by the almonds toasted to perfection, and the buffalo mozzarella had that delicious culinary contradiction of firm on the outside, gooey on the inside. Even the soundtrack to our meal impressed – Bjork’s ‘Love Me, Love Me’ revamped in a jazzy, Diana Krall way. Bliss.

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While we love having the personal guide for convenience and high impact fact-learning on a number of things in a short period of time, we do enjoy wandering a new city on our own to get a feel for the place. So after our lunch of delectable indulgence, we went for a wander. Most of this time was spent enjoying the atmosphere in Santa Ana and Santa Lucia and their surrounds, being a few of the many soaking up the lovely day in a variety of relaxing activities.

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After some shopping at the Mayan artisan market (where I couldn’t resist some hand made silver jewellery), we sat on a bench in Santa Lucia for a rest, as children played and teenagers flitted past on bicycles. An old man with a slightly worn and blemished shirt sat next to us just as we were getting ready to leave. Unlike so many experiences in other cities, this man did not have an agenda, in fact, he didn’t even look at us. So I stood and greeted him in Spanish, which surprised him – not sure if it was because I attempted Spanish or that I was talking to him at all! We ended up chatting for a while, he was an ex-professor, and ex-sisal hat weaver, and knew where all the authentic places were to buy Mayan crafts (apparently where I got my trinket was good). He was a gentle, friendly, intelligent stranger who made us feel welcome in his beloved city. A lovely serendipitous moment that could’ve easily been missed.

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Recounting our day to Alex on the rooftop terrace of Hotel Julamis, as he plied us with two types of tequila, we realised were already smitten with this place. Mérida is a vibrant and colourful city, with great food, music, art and culture, but without the ‘busy-ness’ of the country’s capital. I can see why so many ex-pats choose to move to these warmer climes – the lifestyle, rich culture and value for real estate dollar make it very appealing. Being surprised by your host with a complimentary chilled bottle of champagne on your private terrace to accompany your watching of the sunset induces further intoxication of this Yucatan gem.

Read our full Merida story here:

Part 1 (current): The City and Hotel Julamis

Part 2: Uman, Hacienda Yaxopoil and Uxmal

Merida Accommodation: Hotel Julamis

Tour Company: Lawson’s Yucatan Excursions

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About bontaks

Nic is the the ‘Bon’ part of ‘Bontaks.’ Together we are Nic and John – two travel-addicted teachers who enjoy every opportunity to go places, meet people and experience life.

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