On arriving in the sleepy Mexican town of Mérida, one might wonder what all the recent fuss is about. The historical center, with its faded limestone mansions, narrow cobblestoned streets and monumental cathedral — one of the oldest in all of the Americas and built out of limestone rocks from ancient Mayan structures — is indeed picturesque. And the handful of modest-looking restaurants in town can certainly serve up a decent bowl of lime and tortilla soup. And if you’re in the market to unload some pesos on a colorful hammock or an embroidered blouse, a few mom-and-pop tourist shops can help you do just that. But in truth, there’s not much to shake a stick at here in this remote corner of the Yucatán.
And it’s precisely for this reason, the town’s languid, low-key atmosphere, as well as some nicely priced real estate, that a savvy group of early adopters — artists, architects and designers — has descended on this lost-glory town, snatching up old, dilapidated haciendas and refurbishing them into year-round retreats or Shangri-Las for rent. As once-laid-back Tulum has become headquarters for the vacationing fashion crowds, and San Miguel de Allende is overrun with American snowbirds, Mérida has quietly evolved into a sophisticated refuge for those who like to be far from the touristy crowds.
The food author Jeremiah Tower, 70, famous for helping to kick-start the California locavore restaurant scene at Chez Panisse and then at Stars in San Francisco, stumbled upon Mérida in 2004. He remembers driving past the town one day and feeling an indescribable urge to stop the car. A year later, he found himself stranded in resort-clogged Cozumel with all his worldly possessions underwater in a Katrina-soaked New Orleans, where he had recently moved. After several visits to Mérida, he claims he was enchanted, literally haunted by the city, “which is totally ridiculous, it’s not like we are talking about Venice,” he said, dragging a corn tortilla through a chili mole sauce at La Lupita inside the Santiago Market. “But there is something undefinable about Mérida,” Tower explained. “Perhaps it’s the spirituality of the Mayans and the city itself, which has nothing to do with attracting tourism.” He eventually moved here full time to write, scuba dive and rehabilitate colonial houses.
View the Interactive Feature on the NY TImes website